Simmering hostility between Syria’s mainstream rebels and jihadists has erupted into naked violence, with a Free Syrian Army commander in the coastal province of Latakia being shot dead by an al-Qaeda front group.
Kamal Hamami — better known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Bassir al-Jeblawi — was killed on Thursday by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the main jihadist groups operating in Syria and a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq, witnesses and a monitoring group said.
The killing follows months of tension between the mainstream, Arab and Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, most of whose fighters are non-Syrian.
Abu Ahmad, a rebel allied to Abu Bassir said via Facebook he witnessed what he said was a cold-blooded shooting at an ISIS checkpoint when the rebel chief was on his way to visit fighters at the front.
“They told us we weren’t allowed to cross, that they had orders from their emir, Abu Ayman,” who heads ISIS in Latakia, Abu Ahmad said.
“Abu Bassir told them: ‘Did you come to our country to help us or to be a burden?’ Abu Ayman then arrived at the scene. He said he would kill Abu Bassir, who replied: ‘You have nothing to do with Islam.’ Abu Ayman then killed him,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights gave a different version of events, saying Abu Bassir was killed when ISIS fighters tried to destroy a FSA checkpoint in the province’s Jabal al-Turkman region.
“FSA rebels fired into the air and subsequently, an ISIS fighter shot Abu Bassir dead and wounded two other fighters from his battalion,” the Observatory said.
FSA political and media coordinator Louay Muqdad said those behind the killing must “urgently” be handed over to the rebels for trial.
Experts link rising tensions to Western promises of aid to Syrian so long as they guarantee weapons will not fall into extremists’ hands.
“A lot of these groups, they have to show a hardline against al-Qaeda because that is what their funders expect from them,” Middle East specialist Aron Lund told reporters. “If they want money from US they have to push out al-Qaeda.”
French President Francois Hollande, whose country has been at the forefront of efforts to isolate the al-Assad regime, last month urged the FSA to push groups like al-Nusra out of the zones they control.
Journalists who met Abu Bassir earlier this year said the commander, in his 30s, hailed from a wealthy family from the city of Latakia, but chose to join the rebellion in the province’s mountains.
“They [jihadists] have left their homes, their countries to come fight our war, but this is our country and we don’t want outsiders to come and rule over it. They must realize that they have to leave once the war ends,” Abu Bassir said in May.
Highly organized and respected by his Ezz Bin Abdel Salam battalion, Abu Bassir “was a moderate and believed in the idea of a democratic state,” one of his friends told reporters via the Internet.
“During the liberation of the Christian village of Burj al-Kassab, a jihadist destroyed a cross. A fight broke out between Abu Bassir and the jihadists over this incident,” he added.
Residents in Latakia Province “are very angry” over the assassination, the friend said, adding that “the regime has tried for two years to kill Abu Bassir, and now these people come and kill him.”