The killing of Kamal Hamami, a member of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), is said to have been carried out by a particularly nasty spin-off from al-Qa’ida called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The circumstances of Mr Hamami’s death remain unclear, but in Syria’s war all politics are local. The roots of the incident should be sought on the blood-soaked ground in Latakia, rather than in differing interpretations of the Koran.
This has been the case in most previous clashes between mainstream and jihadist rebels.
The first significant confrontation took place in 2012, when the Farouq Battalions – now a main recipient of foreign aid through the SMC – cracked down on a fringe Islamist faction that had set up camp on the Turkish border. Their political differences were real, but it was probably no coincidence that the battle ended with Farouq in sole control of a strategic and money-making border crossing. Yet propagandists on both sides did their best to interpret the affair as an ideological vendetta.
Since Mr Hamami’s death, some SMC representatives have spoken of vengeance, or even of a war with al-Qa’ida. One says that the Islamic State has sworn – in a phone call to him – to murder all SMC-affiliated rebels. But so far the Islamic State has said nothing remotely similar in public.
One should never underestimate the fundamentalists’ proclivity for terrible tactical decisions, but that kind of self-destructive extremism would be unprecedented even for al-Qa’ida. The Syrian opposition has always a hard time dealing with these radicals. On the one hand, the jihadists are fine warriors. On the other, they are just as effective at scaring off international supporters.
A lot of the friction among Syria’s rebels seems to be the result of Western pressure on the leadership of the SMC to act against al-Qa’ida-linked factions. Most field commanders are probably content that Syria’s al-Qa’ida movement recently split into two rival wings – Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State – and want to leave it at that. Even if some may see this as the perfect moment to pounce on the divided jihadists, it’s difficult to imagine SMC factions on the ground doing anything at all in unison.
But it is possible that the West wants a bit of blood to be shed, just to see which side everyone’s on. Barack Obama’s decision to supply the SMC with weapons is being held up in Congress over concerns that US arms could slip into the hands of extremists. Perhaps the SMC think that picking a fight with the Islamic State now, over what could otherwise be a containable local conflict, will help shake those obstacles loose.