IT TOOK four months, but last week men from a militant group in Syria’s north-western Idleb province avenged the killing of their leader last year. On January 9th Thaer al-Waqqas, the local commander of the northern Farouq brigade, was killed in Sarmada, his hometown. Locals say he was shot by a Tunisian fighter. Mr Waqqas was involved in the killing in September of Firas al-Absi, aka Abu Mohammed, a Saudi-born Syrian jihadi who had teamed up with foreign fighter friends from Libya to Afghanistan.
Rebels in Sarmada say further clashes between the two groups are unlikely; the blood debt has now been paid. They are conscious of the bad press such rivalries incur. But as the battle to oust Bashar Assad approaches its two-year anniversary, the assassination highlights a number of worsening problems for his opponents.
First the number of fighting groups has soared. Rebels cooperate well militarily but have failed to organise themselves into a unified structure. The latest attempt, the Supreme Rebel Council created in Turkey last year as a budding military wing for the National Opposition Coalition, has done little.
The brigades have always competed for their members’ loyalty and for turf; now they must also jockey for the support of Syrian civilians who are beginning to differentiate more strongly between the various groups. As humanitarian needs grow, Jabhat al-Nusra, the most pious fighting group, has made inroads with constituencies in Aleppo and Idleb by providing bread and refraining from looting. “Many people don’t like their religious views but we know where we stand with them, they have a brand,” says Alaa al-Deen, a journalist from Idleb.
The assassination of Mr Waqqas also highlights Syria’s increasing lawlessness. Civilians are fed up with it. Local rebel councils and courts have struggled to impose their authority. In some places, they vie for power. In others locals say they were bossed around under Mr Assad and will not tolerate the same now. People do not trust each other, wary of the regime’s still-active network of informers. Crime, including theft and kidnapping for ransom, is on the rise.
The “chaos” [fawda], as many Syrians describe life, is nowhere more obvious than Sarmada and the nearby villages and towns. The black market is flourishing. Smuggling is rampant. To make matters worse, everyone is armed. “As many civilians as fighters buy guns from me because everyone is worried,” says one arms trader who refuses to give his name. … – JA