US-backed rebels in Syria say they have captured Iranian nationals and are holding them. The Iranian government says they are pilgrims in Syria for religious purposes. , a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
September 6, 2012
Assassination Highlights Rifts Facing Syria Rebels
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
New York Times
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The assassination of a Syrian rebel fighter linked to Al Qaeda called new attention on Thursday to the ideological differences among the Islamists fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad and threatened to set off new strife among the rebels.
The mystery surrounding the fighter’s death has opened a new window among the rebels, loosely allied as the Free Syrian Army, at a time when uncertainty about the opposition’s unity and character — in particular, the potential inclination toward intolerant or sectarian Islamist politics — has deterred the West from more muscular support for the cause of Mr. Assad’s ouster.
The fighter, Abu Mohamed al-Shami Abu al-Absi, led a brigade known as Jubhat al-Nusra, which calls itself a Qaeda affiliate. His body was found Wednesday in an area known as Sarmada on the Turkish border, several rebel fighters said in interviews over the Internet. All said he had disappeared three days earlier and was evidently kidnapped and assassinated.
His killing aroused calls for revenge from his family as well as the group of Islamist brigades operating in the area, known as the Islamic Shura Council, in which he also played a leading role. Some quickly pointed the finger at a major fighting group based in Homs, Al Farouq Brigade, which is considered Islamist but is opposed to Mr. Absi’s hard-line ideology. Brigades often collaborate on specific actions or fights, but each typically reports to its own leader.
“There has been tension between Al Farouq fighters and the rebels from the Shura Council,” said the commander of another brigade in the area, speaking on the condition of anonymity for his safety. “Now his tribe and the Shura Council want to take revenge against the Farouq brigade,” he continued, lamenting the growing complexity of the rebel forces. “Every day we have new Islamic movements.”
Leaders of the Farouq Brigade said their fighters were not involved in the killing. One of the largest rebel brigades, it is led by Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, a relative of Mr. Assad’s former defense minister, Mustafa Tlass, whose family members were early defectors.
A commander who gave his name as Abu Hashem sought to blame Assad loyalists. “It is the regime,” he said. “They are trying to sow sectarian discord.”
His brigade has also sought to publicize its opposition to any collaboration with Al Qaeda or flirtation with its intolerant ideology.
In late June, the Farouq Brigade disseminated a video online in which several commanders said that there were Qaeda fighters in Syria and that there would be no room for them. Each commander stood surrounded by fighters holding rifles, and the video had its own English-language translation. At the end, a young man delivered an appeal in fluent English for the Western powers to intervene in the war to topple Mr. Assad.
Leaders of the brigade have sometimes described their struggle in Islamic terms, suggesting a divine calling to overthrow a secular dictator. But Abu Hashem said its fighters included Christians and Ismailis, a dissenting Muslim sect that many Sunni Islamists consider heretical, analogous to Alawites like Mr. Assad.
“We want democracy and freedom,” he said. “It is the people’s revolution; it is not an Islamic revolution. We have doctors and engineers among us, and we are seeking a secular democratic country.”
A spokesman for a third Islamist brigade operating in the area around Idlib, who gave his name as Noaman, said that anger over Mr. Absi’s death had led to quarrels and strife among the rebels on Thursday but not shooting. “The Shura Council is trying to open an investigation to see what happened,” he said. “This guy has many enemies, from both the regime and the opposition.”
An activist on the Turkish-Syrian border who gave his name as Abu Zaki said that Mr. Absi had played a major role in fighting at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and other recent rebel actions.
“The regime wanted to punish him, so that is why they got rid of him,” he said. “We’re living with daily threats; my life is in danger, the regime wants to kill us all.”