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Syrian Opposition Fractures Further; FSA at War With al Qaeda

Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they take up positions prior to an offensive against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor July 11, 2013.

Ostensible allies in the fight against the Assad regime, al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army are killing each other.

Reuters (“New Front Opens In Syria As Rebels Say Al Qaeda Attack Means War“):

The assassination of a top Free Syrian Army commander by militants linked to al Qaeda is tantamount to a declaration of war, FSA rebels on Friday, opening a new front between Western-backed forces and Islamists in Syria’s civil war.

The announcement is the latest sign of disarray in the armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has regained the upper hand more than two years into an insurgency that grew out of Arab Spring-inspired pro-democracy protests. It follows growing rivalries between the FSA and the Islamists, who have sometimes joined forces on the battlefield, and coincides with attempts by the Western and Arab-backed FSA to allay fears any U.S.-supplied arms might reach al Qaeda.

Members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a hardline Islamist group, killed Kamal Hamami of the FSA Supreme Military Council on Thursday. Also known by his nom de guerre, Abu Bassir al-Ladkani, he is one of its top 30 figures.

Rebel commanders pledged to retaliate. ”We are going to wipe the floor with them. We will not let them get away with it because they want to target us,” a senior rebel commander said on condition of anonymity.

He said the al Qaeda-linked militants had warned FSA rebels that there was “no place” for them where Hamami was killed in Latakia province, a northern rural region of Syria bordering Turkey where Islamist groups are powerful. Other opposition sources said the killing followed a dispute between Hamami’s forces and the Islamic State over control of a strategic checkpoint in Latakia and would lead to fighting.

The FSA has been trying to build a logistics network and reinforce its presence across Syria as the U.S. administration considers sending weapons to the group after concluding that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons against rebel fighters.

The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said the FSA and the Islamic State have had violent exchanges in several areas of Syria over the past few weeks, showing growing antagonism between Assad’s foes. ”Last Friday, the Islamic State killed an FSA rebel in Idlib province and cut his head off. There have been attacks in many provinces,” the Observatory’s leader Rami Abdelrahman said. Two of Hamami’s men were wounded in Thursday’s attack, he said by telephone.

Syria’s conflict turned violent in the face of a crackdown on protests. Civil war ensued with disparate rebel groups taking up arms and the Observatory says more than 100,000 people have been killed.

U.S. congressional committees are holding up plans to arm the rebels because of fears that such deliveries will not be decisive and the arms might end up in the hands of Islamist militants. Syria’s opposition bemoans the delay, and repeated on Thursday assurances that the arms will not go to Islamist militants.

As I’ve noted before, the fact that Assad is unquestionably the bad guy in this conflict doesn’t transform his opponents into good guys. Becoming de facto allies of al Qaeda in Syria while at war with them elsewhere in the region is, to say the least, something that should give us pause.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s not just that Assad’s opponents aren’t good guys. It’s that they’re possibly worse than Assad.

    And Assad is not going away or, at least, his regime isn’t. At worst the Alawites will withdraw to their strongholds along the coast and there will be ongoing civil war. As long as Russian and Iranian support continues that can go on practically indefinitely.

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  2. stonetools says:

    As I’ve noted before, the fact that Assad is unquestionably the bad guy in this conflict doesn’t transform his opponents into good guys. Becoming de facto allies of al Qaeda in Syria while at war with them elsewhere in the region is, to say the least, something that should give us pause.

    True. But that’s not what Obama is doing. What he is doing is to build up and arm the moderate elements in the Syrian opposition-essentially the moderates in the FSA.
    Now that strategy may not work. But that’s different from arming al-Qaeda. You should recognize that. Obama HAS learned the lessons of the CIA campaign in Afghanistan.
    As for disarray among revolutionaries, that happens. It also makes clear that the revolutionaries aren’t ALL Islamists. If they were, there would be not be division.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Quite right.

    @stonetools: This isn’t a criticism of Obama, per se; I’m pretty sure a President Romney or President McCain would be doing something along these lines, if not worse. But arming the side al Qaeda is fighting on and arming al Qaeda are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.

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  4. stonetools says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    As long as Russian and Iranian support continues that can go on practically indefinitely.

    Dan Drezner has argued that bleeding Iran is a viable realist strategy for the USA. It ain’t beanbag. But the more Iran is bogged down in Syria, the less they time and resources they have for stirring up mischief in eastern Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, for example.

    While I don’t think Obama has a bleeding Iran strategy in mind, keeping the opposition going in Syria achieves that much by default.

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  5. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    But arming the side al Qaeda is fighting on and arming al Qaeda are, for all practical purposes, the same thing.

    But the FSA and don’t think they are on the same side. Hence the fighting.
    THB, James, I think you are just seeing this through the prism of the 1980s CIA campaign, where the CIA really did just assume that we should rain arms on everyone who was against the “evil empire”.
    Obama’s plan is that there is a need to build up a moderate opposition that is separate from and even opposed to the jihadists. In away, it’s maybe a good thing that the FSA and the al Qaeda forces are fighting-it shows that there are indeed elements in the Syrian opposition who are non Islamist and even anti Islamist.
    Now you don’t like Obama’s strategy. You think it’s messy and could draw the USA into another Middle East war. But at least recognize that its not the CIA Afghan strategy.

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  6. bill says:

    and at the very least- American hating muslims killing each other is a good thing for us!

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  7. Dazedandconfused says:

    No proof, but it could be a scam. They heard we would jump in if chem was used, and bingo, there were all sorts of contrived chem incidents. We have been telling the FSA we will arm them if they fight the radicals…and low and behold, sure looks like they are going to fight those radicals all the sudden.

    The FSA has been reported to be so weak (outside of Turkey) that I wonder if they have actually done anything which would, in the eyes of “ISIL” (anybody heard of them before??) make them worthy of killing at a time such as this. Assad and Hezzi’s are kicking some serious butt.

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  8. 11B40 says:

    Greetings:

    You know, as I observe the media marvelment at all things Islamo=Arabic=Middle Eastern, it’s almost like Fouad Ajami never wrote that those are the lands of “I against my brother; my brother and I against our cousin; and my cousin, my brother, and I against the stranger.”

    Coming at this holiest time of the Islami year, namely Rama-lama-ding-dan, I can’t help but wonder if it happened before or after they broke their fast.

    Greater investments will be both required and little appreciated.

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  9. ethan says:

    Good Website. You should think more details on RSS Feeds as a traffic source. They bring me a nice little traffic

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