BEIRUT -- The battle among extremist Syrian rebels appeared likely to intensify after two radical Islamist groups Tuesday threatened a third over the assassination earlier this week of a key al Qaida figure.
Al Qaida’s official affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and another large extremist rebel group, Ahrar al Sham, told the third group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, that it has five days to submit to arbitration by Islamic clerics or it will be attacked in response to Sunday’s suicide bombing assassination of Abu Khaled al Suri, a close associate of al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri and a key commander in Ahrar al Sham. The threat was made in an Internet posting by Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al Jolani.
The falling out among the radical opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad comes as moderate rebels also appear to be in turmoil, deeply divided over who should lead their armed wing. Last week, the Supreme Military Command ousted its U.S.-backed chief of staff, Gen. Salim Idriss, and replaced him with a less well known figure from the country’s south, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al Bashir. Days later, rebel commanders supporting Idriss said they would not answer to al Bashir.
ISIS has been battling with moderate rebels for the past two months over its strict interpretation of Islam after the other rebel groups wearied of ISIS’ encroaching control over northern and eastern Syria. But while Nusra and Ahrar al Sham have sometimes joined the battle against ISIS during that time, both groups had restrained their forces in hopes that al Suri and other al Qaida leaders could broker an agreement to bring ISIS back into the rebel fold.
Al Suri’s killing, however, ended such ideas of rapprochement and sent a clear signal that jihadis working with ISIS no longer cared about their relationship with even their closest ideological allies.
“ISIS doesn’t seem to care about public opinion in general or al Qaida opinion in particular,” said analyst Will McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington. McCants said the killing of al Suri showed that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was unbowed by his fellow extremists or Zawahiri, who denounced ISIS earlier this month.
“Baghdadi already gave the finger to Zawahiri, so he’s not going to lose sleep over killing Zawahiri’s henchman. A polarizing event like killing Suri is just what ISIS needs to force the global jihadi community to take sides, a process well underway over the last few months.”
Al Suri had condemned ISIS in a Jan. 16 Internet posting, where he argued that ISIS was not al Qaida’s representative in Syria and was not doing the work of founder Osama bin Laden, current leader Zawahiri, or ISIS founder Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was killed by an American missile in 2006.
“He was a target from the moment he criticized (ISIS),” said Abu Hussein, an Aleppo-based activist with close ties to both Ahrar al Sham and the Nusra Front. “He had been asked by Dr. (Zawahiri) to negotiate an end to the (unrest) between ISIS and the other factions. But they refused to listen. And now they have killed him.”
“Ahrar had done its best to stay out of the fighting as had Nusra,” Abu Hussein said of the clashes that began after ISIS killed another Ahrar al Sham interlocutor and began fighting with other rebel groups. “But now they have made a terrible mistake, for any true Muslim cannot imagine why they would kill such a man.”
“Now, many Muslims who did not want to see rebels fight each other will have no alibi when it comes to (ISIS),” he said. “They are not true Muslims and will have to leave Syria or face God’s law.”
Although Internet accounts associated with ISIS denied targeting al Suri, the group’s willingness to attack rival groups and commanders with such tactics – ISIS has used suicide bombings against fellow rebels more than two dozen times since fighting between rival rebel factions broke out in late December – as well as al Suri’s previous criticism of the group left little doubt about ISIS’ responsibility to most rebels and activists.
For its part, the official Twitter feed of the Ahrar al Sham leadership posted a photo of the dead al Suri and described ISIS as “Khawarji,” an Arabic pejorative used to describe radical Muslims incapable of working with the rest of Muslim society. The same term is often used by mainstream Muslims to describe al Qaida and its adherents.
Al Suri had a long history as a personal friend and courier to bin Laden and was said to have close relationships with both Zawahiri and Zarqawi, the Jordan-born founder of Al Qaida in Iraq, which changed its name to ISIS as it entered the Syrian civil war.
Al Suri was widely respected as a scholar in radical Islamic circles and was said by multiple observers of the group to be the architect of Ahrar al Sham’s decision to focus on toppling Syrian President Bashar Assad rather than ISIS’ goal of establishing an Islamic state.
“He is essentially a core al Qaida veteran who almost certainly . . . had extensive, close relations with (Osama) bin Laden,” said Charles Lister, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar. “The fact that he had such a high position in Ahrar al Sham, and confirmed it himself, his al Qaida history – it made elements in the U.S. administration potentially consider Ahrar al Sham as a terrorist organization.”
Al Suri was also named in American court documents indicting other al Qaida members as an official courier and representative of bin Laden.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero