With the rebel forces struggling to fend off Assad’s troops in the central city of Homs, infighting among their disparate factions could play to the government’s advantage. Jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — an offshoot of the main Islamist opposition group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra — are fewer in number than more moderate forces, but they are considered some of the best-equipped and most effective fighters on the battlefield.
Moderate rebels say they have been left behind militarily as radical Islamist groups receive arms and financial support from elsewhere, while weapons pledged to the moderates by the United States have yet to arrive. Although Jabhat al-Nusra is seen as “more adept at coordinating its efforts on the battlefield with other groups,” a U.S. official in Washington said, “whether the groups will be able to set their differences aside and cooperate against Assad is really an open question.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on a still-fluid situation.
“The Islamic State phoned me saying that they killed Abu Bassir and that they will kill all of the Supreme Military Council,” a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, Qassem Saadeddine, told the Reuters news agency, referring to the FSA executive body.
“We are going to wipe the floor with them,” a rebel commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Reuters.
The details of Thursday’s killing were unclear, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Hamami, one of 30 military leaders on the Supreme Military Council, was shot after an attack on one of the checkpoints he had set up in a mountainous area outside the city of Latakia. Saadeddine said he had been discussing battle plans with members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Despite growing frictions, moderate factions and jihadist groups do still coordinate on the ground, said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. He said that is unlikely to change, although the FSA may use the assassination for political gain.
“Moderate forces could use this as a way to prove to the West that they are willing to break relations with jihadis in order to get more Western assistance,” he said. “The reality is very different for the commanders on the ground.”