The gunning down by jihadists of a top Syrian rebel commander near the Turkish border on Wednesday morning risks triggering internecine warfare between rebel brigades competing for power and war spoils in northern Syria.
The slaying of Thaer al-Waqqas, the northern commander of one of Syria’s largest rebel groups, who was targeted by several gunmen in the rebel-held town of Sermin—a few miles from Turkey—underscores worsening divisions between rebel groups, say European diplomats. In particular, the assassination highlights a growing rivalry between brigades formed by jihadists and those manned by more secular Syrian Army defectors or fighters aligned with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
The diplomats worry that a cycle of tit-for-tat killings may now be triggered, which could hamper a 22-month long uprising that’s still struggling to dislodge Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Rebel sources tell The Daily Beast that the shooting was carried out by members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist group labeled a terrorist outfit by the Obama administration last month because of its links with al Qaeda, and that it was in revenge for the slaying four months ago of jihadist leader Firas al-Absi. In the Wednesday shooting, gunmen arrived at a food supply depot in a white car and immediately blazed away at Waqqas, who died on the scene.
Rebel sources expect retaliation for this latest killing and say infighting is likely to focus on the border crossing between Syria and Turkey at Bab al-Hawa, a strategic asset coveted by al-Nusra.
Jihadist fighters currently don’t control the crossing, but their military strength and popularity has grown in recent months in the nearby towns and villages, and they claim the more secular brigades controlling the border post are corrupt and enriching themselves with smuggling enterprises, including the transportation of cars stolen in Turkey and sold in Syria.
Locals complain that unlike al-Nusra, the more secular and Islamist groups that align with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are becoming increasingly corrupt. It is a complaint that al-Nusra has fueled, organizing anti-FSA protests in towns in northern Syria. The jihadist group is careful also to distribute war spoils among civilians in rebel enclaves.
“If you manage the crossing, you can expand your influence by manipulating supplies and weapons trucked in from Turkey,” says a European diplomat, who declined to be named, as he’s not authorized to speak with the media.
Earlier this week, the London-based Quilliam Foundation, a counterterrorism policy institute, dubbed al-Nusra now “the principal force against Assad.” Led by al Qaeda veterans from neighboring Iraq, al-Nusra can now rely on 5,000 fighters, the Quilliam Foundation calculates.
Al-Nusra has recently been pressing other jihadist units to come under its command, and its strength has grown in recent months following operational accomplishments against Assad forces.
This week, the group was in the vanguard of the capturing of the Taftanaz air base near Idlib, a rebel operation that U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland described as “a significant blow to the Assad regime’s ability to resupply its forces in the north.” She made no mention in her press briefing of the fact that al-Nusra had been primarily responsible for the seizure of the base.
Immediately after capturing the base, al-Nusra fighters plundered it, commandeering ammunition and weapons and setting about stripping damaged tanks of spare parts.
And al-Nusra fighters were at the forefront of the overrunning last month of a sprawling Army barracks and infantry training school five kilometers north of Aleppo.
Even so, some rebel commanders aligned with the FSA believe more of Assad’s bases by now would have been captured in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo if there’d been greater cohesion among the rebels.
The burgeoning strength of al-Nusra and its growing popularity in the rebel enclaves tucked under the border with Turkey are adding to Western alarm about the direction of the long-running civil war that’s claimed more than 60,000 lives. The U.S. State Department estimates that the jihadist group has carried out more than 600 military operations since it was formed a year ago and, according to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, al-Nusra has carried out 30 successful bombing attacks against mainly government military targets, often using suicide bombers.
According to the Quilliam Foundation, al-Nusra has been able to draw on an infrastructure built up in Syria by al Qaeda after the U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq, including stored weapons and safe houses. And while FSA units are short of weapons and ammunition, jihadist brigades such as al-Nusra have benefited from funding and supplies provided by ideological sympathizers in the Gulf.
Following the killing of Waqqas, opposition activist Fawaz al-Tello warned that inter-rebel infighting and revenge killings would likely increase unless the political leadership of the new opposition coalition formed late last year at the insistence of the United States managed to contain any fallout from the slaying.
He says the coalition needs to form unified military commands. But al-Nusra has refused to join the new coalition, as have other jihadist groups and some of the larger Islamist brigades. Coalition leaders maintain that they have scant leverage with the standouts as long as the West is reluctant to arm the rebellion—a reluctance that’s mounting with the rise of al-Nusra.