BEIRUT — Syrian rebels said Saturday they fear being sucked into a “side war” with jihadists as claims about an overnight attack on a weapons depot at their Idlib headquarters threatened to push the opposition deeper into a spiral of infighting.
The friction between Western-backed Free Syrian Army factions and the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has reached a critical pitch since the assassination Thursday of an FSA rebel commander. FSA leaders have said they fear that hard-line jihadists are trying to hijack their revolution and are working to wrest control from moderate factions in rebel-held areas.
An altercation at the FSA’s headquarters in the northwestern province of Idlib early Saturday — reported by both activists and rebels — spurred fears that hostilities would escalate. Claims that Islamic State fighters were responsible for the attack, which took place while the FSA chief of staff, Gen. Salim Idriss, was traveling, could not be independently verified. One rebel battalion attributed it to “unidentified armed groups,” and activists said air raids took place in the area about the same time, casting some doubt on the claims that a rebel group had carried it out.
Analysts have cautioned that mainstream rebels might try to magnify the threat of radical Islamists seizing power for political gain as they push the United States and Europe to send arms. The FSA reiterated calls for weapons Saturday, declaring that the al-Qaeda-affiliated group has “a specific agenda.”
“They have a plan to kill the FSA leaders,” said Louay al-Mokdad, the FSA’s political and media coordinator. “We don’t want a side war. We don’t want any battle with them. But if they spill our people’s blood, which is what they are doing, we will have to fight.”
Mokdad declined to discuss the attack on the FSA headquarters, but a senior official in the rebel organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a decision had not been made to publicize the news, confirmed that it had taken place and blamed the Islamic State.
“The situation is going to get worse and worse,” the official said.
Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, the FSA’s commander in Aleppo, denied reports that rebels and Islamic State fighters had engaged in clashes Saturday near the Bustan al-Qasr checkpoint, the main crossing between government- and rebel-held areas of the town. The opposition’s Aleppo Media Centre also released a statement denying the report.
Hanging on in the face of an all-out government assault in the central city of Homs, rebels say they are now desperately trying to avoid having to fight on two fronts. The plight of the more moderate rebel factions will ramp up pressure on the United States to provide promised weapons, but it also will deepen concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is an offshoot of Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States designates a terrorist organization, and is linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group has provoked rebels and residents alike as it tightens its grip on northern Syria. The town of Manbij, in Aleppo province, held several demonstrations last week demanding the expulsion of the Islamic State, which rose to prominence after public-execution videos were posted online.
“They didn’t come to Syria to help the revolution. They stay in the liberated areas and try to take power,” Mokdad said.
Mohammed Faizou, a rebel with the Ansar al-Din Battalion in coastal Latakia province, said that while the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra “fights the regime and does not interfere with others,” the largely foreign Islamic State fighters “interfere with everything” and are preoccupied with imposing Islamic law.
Faizou said he was in a nearby village when Kamal Hamami, a member of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council, was killed Thursday. He said Hamami was shot after Islamic State fighters stopped him and told him he did not have authority to operate in the area.
The FSA is demanding that the Islamic State hand over Abu Ayman al-Baghdadi, the local leader of the group who they claim was responsible for the killing.
The Islamic State has not officially commented on the alleged assassination, but social media accounts affiliated with the group have acknowledged the killing. A Web site claiming to be an official site for the group launched Saturday, saying it would defend the Islamic State in the face of a “rabid campaign” by the media.
The Web site contained no mention of the Idlib attack. Zakwan Hadid, an activist with Shaam News Network based in the region, said senior rebels had told him that the clashes, which left 10 FSA fighters injured, had involved members of the Islamic State.
“We believe they were trying to steal the weapons,” he said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported clashes between the jihadist group and rebels in the area.
Rebel Battalion 313 released a statement saying it had been called into the headquarters. It said “unidentified armed groups” had fired bullets and shells at a weapons warehouse at the compound and cautioned against attributing blame.
Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.