In late August, as Turkish forces massed to strike into northern Syria to seize the strategic town of Jarabulus to block a drive by Syrian Kurds to establish an independent enclave on Turkey’s southern border, the commander of a rebel military council formed to resist the invaders was killed in mysterious circumstances.
The newly formed Jarabulus Military Council, dominated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that oppose the Turks and their militia allies, claimed that Abdel Sattar al- Jader was assassinated by Turkey’s powerful National Intelligence Organisation. The council said this was done to undermine Kurdish morale on the eve of the long-awaited Turkish cross-border offensive.
The Britain-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory, which monitors the war through a vast network of activists, said Jader was shot in the town of Al-Shuyoukh, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river across from Jarabulus.
The Turkish government has not commented, but the Yani Safak daily, which supports Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), asserted that Jader was killed by a local tribesman in a dispute. Hours before his death, Jader, a veteran rebel fighter and an ethnic Arab, had warned Ankara in a video statement “of the consequences of aggressive practices against Syrian territories and (people), especially in our region of Jarabulus”.
It remains to be seen to what extent the killing of Jader influenced the outcome of the battle for Jarabulus that began before dawn on August 24th with a massive Turkish artillery barrage but the assassination of key rebel leaders, often at critical junctures in the staggeringly complex Syrian war, has become an integral part of the conflict.
Many of these targeted killings, which have been concentrated in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, have been blamed on the Islamic State (ISIS). It is fighting just about everybody, particularly US-backed factions.
Security insiders, however, are convinced that many of the attacks have been manipulated by the Damascus regime. Its security apparatus has a long history of such Machiavellian machinations and plausibly deniable covert dealings with rebel groups supposedly fighting to topple the Assad dynasty.
Following the June 16th assassination of prominent independent journalist Khaled al-Essa in rebel-held eastern Aleppo, Syrian media activist Mujahid Abu al-Joud told Al-Monitor “some militant factions have been infiltrated by regime or ISIS sympathisers, which explains the assassination attempts targeting military leaders and media activists… Media activists have always been targeted by the regime.”
Lieutenant-General Ali Sabouh of the Syrian Army’s elite Republican Guard was killed August 13th in a roadside bomb ambush in southern Syria. The attack was claimed by the Army of Free Tribes, a Jordanian-supported group operating in the region.
It is not often that such a prominent military commander of the Damascus regime forces — and one no doubt surrounded by heavy security — has been assassinated in the Syrian war. However, the conflict has spawned a chain of assassinations in which the victims were primarily rebel leaders, in most cases picked off by ISIS, and to a lesser extent by al-Nusra Front, rebranded in July as the Conquest of Syria Front.
Some of these killings are likely to have been instigated by the regime’s pervasive intelligence apparatus, which, like its contemporaries in many Middle Eastern states, has for decades used a policy of assassination to advance political objectives.
Rebel warlords, particularly those who lead jihadist groups, are frequent targets of Syrian, US and Russian air strikes. The internecine killings are often the most significant because of the effect the operations have on the murky demi-monde of ever-shifting rebel alliances, a process that is just about the only constant in this chameleon conflict that no-one seems to be winning.
In retrospect, it is difficult to determine whether the assassination of some of the more important rebel leaders in these decapitation operations, sometimes initiated by outside powers to benefit their Syrian allies, has changed the course of the war to any appreciable extent but they have done nothing to bring an end to the bloodletting, in which as many as 400,000 people have died, any closer.
Zahran Alloush, leader of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant) Islamist rebel group, was killed in a December 25th, 2015, air strike in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. His assassination was intended to sabotage an effort by Saudi Arabia, a key supporter of rebel groups in Syria, to stitch together a unified rebel front scheduled to attend UN-sponsored peace talks that began in Geneva a month later.
But Alloush, who fought both Syrian President Bashar Assad and ISIS, was eliminated when the Americans were seeking to unify the Syrian opposition into a cohesive fighting force to go against ISIS, the destruction of which is US President Barack Obama’s primary objective in Syria, superseding getting rid of Assad.
The Syrian regime took responsibility for the air strike that killed Alloush, who headed a coalition with a combined force of about 45,000 fighters. His death was a major boost for Assad but the Syrian opposition saw the air strike as the work of Russia.
Moscow is one of the key backers of Assad’s embattled regime and, like Assad, opposes US-backed rebel efforts to get rid of the Syrian president and usher in a more democratic system in Syria.
Before he was killed along with five other Ahrar al-Sham commanders, Alloush, the son of a Saudi Salafist cleric, had attended a gathering of more than 100 rebel leaders in Riyadh that sought to hammer out a united rebel position at the Vienna talks.
“The Russian air strike that killed Alloush… and targeted one of the group’s secret headquarters, was not an isolated incident,” Haid Haid, a Syrian researcher with the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Beirut branch, said.
“It was part of a systematic effort to sabotage the Vienna talks… Driving a wedge between the political opposition and the strongest armed groups of Syria has become a priority for Russian since 116 diverse representatives reached an agreement (in Riyadh) to create a single negotiating body to represent them.”
Eleven days after the slaying of Alloush, one of the most controversial figures in the insurgency, Ahrar al-Sham’s commander in Homs province in central Syria, Abu Rateb al-Homsi, was shot to death by motorcycle-riding assassins in the north of the province.
The Russians were widely seen to be behind that killing too as part of a hidden agenda: the systematic elimination of key opposition figures to reshape the military and political situation in advance of the UN talks while Moscow, along with Assad’s other vital ally, Iran, professed that its September 2015 intervention in Syria was to fight Sunni terrorism.
Amid the blood feuds between rival rebel forces, ISIS seems to be particularly active in the assassination game, largely through its suicide bombers and its network of cells across Syria and beyond.
Arab Intelligence sources told The Arab Weekly that some of the ISIS veterans of this war of the shadows have gone on to establish sleeper cells in Western Europe that were involved in recent terror attacks in France and Belgium in which hundreds of people were killed.
Among those slain was Abu Khalid al-Suri, a battle-hardened veteran jihadist. Born in Aleppo in 1963 as Mohammed al-Bahaiya, he was killed on February 24th in his native city. He had been sent to Syria by al-Qaeda on a mission to end the rupture between al-Qaeda and ISIS. His orders were to then steer these groups towards bringing down the hated Assad regime and allow Pakistan-based al-Qaeda to establish its first stronghold in the Arab world, a highly symbolic step that would have been a setback for ISIS. It broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013.
This article by Ed Blanche originally appeared in The Arab Weekly