Members of one of the largest groups fighting to topple the government of President Bashar Assad two weeks ago killed the leader of an extremist band thought responsible for the kidnapping in July of two European journalists, according to rebels encamped in this town near the border with Turkey.
Members of the Farouq Battalion are hesitant to discuss the death of Abu Muhammad al Shami al Absi – “They have threatened us,” one Farouq fighter said – and the exact circumstances of his demise are unclear.
But Absi’s death appears to be the first indication of how deep the rivalries have become among rebel groups that must compete for both resources and influence with one another.
The existence of Absi’s group became public in late July when two photographers, one Dutch and one British, were freed by other rebels after spending a week as hostages. During their time as prisoners, the journalists said, members of Absi’s group threatened them with death and told them that the group intended to impose an Islamist government in Syria after Assad’s fall. Among the group’s members, the journalists said, were several apparently of Pakistani descent who spoke English with British accents, as well as members of other nationalities.
The kidnappings and the subsequent accounts from the journalists confirmed fears voiced by the United States and other would-be supporters that extremist elements were working to gain influence over the armed anti-Assad opposition.
Rebels here acknowledge Farouq’s involvement in Absi’s death, though they tell different versions of how it happened. Some describe his death as an assassination, the result of a dispute that had developed between Absi and another individual. Others said his death came as the result of a military operation mounted by Farouq and other nearby groups that had left Absi and four others dead. None said the death was in response to Western concerns.
All, however, welcomed his killing, saying they do not share Absi’s ideology and had found his group difficult to work with.
“Jihadis don’t share in fighting against the regime, because they say we are kafirs, and they won’t fight with kafirs,” said one Farouq member based here who asked to be identified only by his nom de guerre, Abu Azzam. “Jihadis” is an Arabic word for warriors that is used in reference to Islamist fighters. “Kafir” means unbeliever.
Absi’s group is known as the Mujahedin Shura Council. It participated in June in the takeover of Bab al Howa, the Syrian side of a border crossing with Turkey, and held onto the crossing until Farouq, which now largely controls it, kicked it out about two weeks ago.
“There were about 100 of them,” said Abu Azzam. After the confrontation, Absi’s group left, but it did not go very far.
“Now they are in Tal Aqbreen, the next village,” he said. “They are trying to come back and make a problem for crossing, but we will stop them again. They thought the crossing belonged to them.”
The presence of religious extremists in Syria has prompted some financial backers of the rebels to support groups that do not espouse religious ideology as a counterweight to those that do.
Farouq, whose members say they draw support from individual donors across the Middle East, is considered moderately Islamist, but some members have expressed concern over what they see as a drift toward more extreme tendencies. Syrians themselves debate the group’s leanings, sometimes referring to them as Salafis, followers of a conservative strain of Islam whose members generally support the use of Islamic law in everyday governance. Though there are Salafis among Farouq’s members, its leaders and foot soldiers generally scoff at the notion they have any aims past toppling Assad’s government.
Nonetheless, some fighters believe they’ve received support specifically because they are not Islamists.
“They are supporting me because I’m secular,” Ahmed Barazy, who leads about 500 men near Qalat al Mudiq, said of his backers. “They are supporting secular groups in order to prevent sectarian war and foreign agendas.” He noted that another group, Ahrar al Sham, whose members describe themselves as Salafis, has grown quickly in Qalat al Mudiq, a city of about 30,000, and is receiving support from Islamic organizations outside Syria.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has also funneled support to a range of groups, according to rebel leaders in Syria, including the Tawhid Battalion, which is doing much of the fighting in Aleppo, the country’s largest city.
Rumors of turf battles have surfaced before, especially as rebel groups have competed for resources and backers have competed for influence. In recent months, reports of non-Syrian Muslims fighting in the county have proliferated, the most prominent being the presence of Libyans, one of whom commands his own brigade in northern Syria.
“We cannot deny they are there, but they can be controlled for now,” said Abu Shaham, a Syrian who provides support for three battalions near the city of Hama.
Abu Malik, Farouq’s commander here, said he could not imagine working with extremists.
“We have an open mind, but they have a closed mind,” he said. “We want to establish a good relationship with everyone, but they don’t.”