Gunfight shows demise of moderates on Syria’s southern front

The death of Qais Al Qatahneh, a Syrian rebel commander, at the hands of Qaisar Habib, an opposition media activist, is another blow to rebels backed by Gulf and Western countries.

Qais Al Qatahneh seen in a video grab from YouTube posted by the Omari brigades on March 19.
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AMMAN // The meeting was bad tempered from the start and quickly spiralled out of control.

First, the two opponents of president Bashar Al Assad shouted at each other, then the shoving began, before weapons were drawn and shots fired.

Qais Al Qatahneh, a leading rebel commander, and Qaisar Habib, an opposition media activist, men ostensibly united in their desire to defeat the Syrian regime on the country's crucial southern front, instead turned their guns on each other with fatal results.

Capt Al Qatahneh died from gunshot wounds on Thursday, while Mr Habib, hit by several bullets, remains seriously injured.

It was a small incident in a conflict that has killed more than 190,000 people but the fates of the two men involved highlights the complexities of Syria's four years of uprising-turned-rebellion, and the rivalries that have hamstrung a fractured opposition.

The killing of Capt Al Qatahneh, who headed the Omari brigades in Deraa, part of the powerful Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), is also another blow to the more moderate rebels backed by governments in the West and the Arabian Gulf. Their influence has been

by Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an even more radical group that has yet to gain serious direct influence in Deraa but which has taken over swathes of Syria and Iraq.

“Qatahneh is a symbol of the revolution,” said a moderate rebel commander in Deraa, the southern city where the uprising began in March 2011.

“If he was killed by the regime, we would have called it a slap in the face. But his death came as a shock to us. Nobody would have expected that Qatahneh would be killed at the hands of another member of the opposition.”

Capt Al Qatahneh, was among the first wave of

from the Assad regime in July 2011, four months after the peaceful uprising began.

He created a Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalion that included several other defectors and became an influential member of the SRF, a group set up in December under the FSA banner, as part of an effort to unite and better coordinate fractured, moderate rebel units.

The SRF played a prominent role in battles against the regime in Deraa, with the Omari brigades financed largely by Saudi Arabia, according to rebels and activists in southern Syria.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have

into the war effort aimed at toppling the Assad regime, significant amounts of which have been channelled into the southern front via Jordan.

Mr Habib, a name he took to disguise his real identity, is also symbolic of the frequently bewildering conflict.

He studied law at Aleppo university but never went into practice, instead taking up the challenge offered by the Arab Spring to pull down corrupt, autocratic regimes and replace them with something more accountable and representative of a new generation.

Instead of becoming a lawyer, he became a media activist — a local, grassroots journalist openly sympathetic with the rebel cause, reporting from rebel held territory — and was in regular contact with Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya satellite channels, according to opposition sources in Deraa.

In those reports and in comments posted to opposition Facebook pages, he was routinely critical of both the Syrian regime and rebels, including what he saw as military failures by opposition units, among them the Omari brigades.

That increasingly won him enemies within rebel factions, which, mirroring a regime that allows little freedom for the press, have grown ever more intolerant of media critics.

During Thursday's meeting, Capt Al Qatahneh had demanded Mr Habib, a member of the Shammar tribe, which has strong clan connections in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan, ask for approval before publishing news and threatened to “split him in half if he refused”, said an opposition activist.

However, in recent months, Mr Habib was also said by his detractors to have become closer to the more radical Islamic side of the rebellion, including Jabhat Al Nusra. His journalism increasingly represented and espoused an extreme outlook and had become dangerous, said another Deraa-based activist.

An Omari brigade fighter went further and said his unit believed Mr Habib to be a full member of Al Nusra and that, before the shooting incident, there had been calls to arrest him for involvement in Al Nusra operations.

The exact circumstances surrounding Thursday's shoot-out remain unclear, with activists and rebel fighters offering different explanations as to how it erupted.

What is not in dispute is the immediate outcome. Both men were shot and seriously wounded. Capt Al Qatahneh was whisked across the border to Jordan for medical treatment and died in hospital in Ramtha the same night. Mr Habib survived, but is in a critical condition with bullets in his abdomen and groin.

Tensions in Deraa have been high following the shootings, with new checkpoints set up by rebel units in parts of the province, including Tal Shehab, a district 12 kilometres north-west of Deraa city, to prevent clashes between members of the men's tribes and supporting rebel factions.

“People are on edge here and we are expecting these tensions to increase,” said a rebel commander who travels often between Jordan and Syria. Fearing reprisals, the Jordanian authorities established a security cordon around Ramtha hospital while Cpt Al Qatahneh was receiving treatment.

“We don't know the exact reasons for Qatahneh's death. There were several stories regarding a dispute…but we fear this will result in more infighting,” said Abu Qais Al Hourani, an activist with the Yarmouk Division, another rebel group that operates mainly in eastern Deraa province.

“Qatahneh's faction is well armed and he has relatives and officers in the SRF and because they are also Bedouins, they will not be quiet,” he said.

Extended family structures in Deraa remain strong, with cultural traditions of avenging the death of clan members if no satisfactory agreement can be reached to diffuse a situation.

The Omari brigades fighter said his faction had requested a local Islamic legal committee, which includes tribal elders and clerics, and which draws broad support among civilians and armed groups, to investigate the shooting and establish what punishment, if any, should be imposed.

“If the other side doesn't agree to take this to the Islamic committee then we will attack Habib's supporters,” the fighter said.

Even if the immediate standoff can be resolved, the shooting has placed further strain on already fraying rebel unity on the southern front.

In contrast to widespread rebel factionalism and infighting on the northern and eastern fronts, the southern region has provided a relatively well-coordinated and coherent opposition to Mr Al Assad's forces.

That unity has, however, been under serious strain from the growing power of Al Nusra, once a minor element in the south but now a powerful enough player that, in May, it detained a well connected FSA officer, Col Ahmed Nehmeh, saying it would put him on trial for treason against the rebel cause.

Col Nehmeh's fate remains unknown. His detention was widely seen as embarrassing for the western- and Gulf-backed rebel factions in the FSA and SRF, both allied to the detained officer but powerless to get him released.