BEIRUT: A huge explosion in a town in northwest Syria Tuesday evening wiped out the senior leadership of the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia, killing its leader Hassan Abboud and more than two dozen figures from the Salafist-jihadist group.
An official from Ahrar al-Sham told Al-Jazeera TV the cause of the blast remained unclear while an anti-regime media activist group based in Idlib claimed that a bomb planted inside the building where the high-level meeting was taking place razed the structure, killing everyone inside.
A statement from Ahrar al-Sham said the blast in the town of Ram Hamdan killed Abboud, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah al-Hamwi, along with 11 other top leaders, including military and religious figures.
“They were martyred ... in an explosion inside their meeting headquarters,” said a statement on the Twitter feed of the Islamic Front, the rebel coalition to which it belonged. The Front blamed a car bomb for the blast.
The Idlib News Network activist group said that over 40 people were killed in the explosion, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime group of activists, said “dozens” of Ahrar al-Sham members were killed.
Syrian state media and followers of the Al-Qaeda breakaway group ISIS were quick to announce Abboud’s killing.
Abboud was a former inmate in Seidnaya prison who was released under an amnesty by Syrian President Bashar Assad in the summer of 2011. Aron Lund, a researcher who follows the myriad of groups fighting in Syria’s war, called the killing a “crushing blow at a crucial moment” for Ahrar al-Sham.
Lund commented on Twitter that recently the group had “started to moderate their public image and strike more alliances into the [rebel] FSA-end of the rebel spectrum, to counter” ISIS and secure funding.
In a series of recent statements on Twitter, Abboud himself spoke critically of the notion that his conservative militia should necessarily be linked to the more hard-line Nusra Front and ISIS.
He was responding to criticism by hard-line Islamist figures of Ahrar al-Sham’s decisions to cooperate with other, non-Salafist-jihadists rebel groups in the Syrian war. No claim of responsibility was made for the blast.
An anti-regime, Syrian observer of the Syrian conflict told The Daily Star that Abboud and his militia had “many enemies,” ranging from the Syrian regime to the Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, as well as ISIS.
The observer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said that while it was too early to draw conclusions as to who was responsible for the assassination, Ahrar al-Sham had recently found itself in an increasingly untenable position, with international anger against the more notorious Nusra and ISIS on the rise.
He said that Ahrar al-Sham was in the process of staking out a less hard-line position by emphasizing that its political and military objectives would remain limited to Syria, in effect acknowledging the 20th century “Sykes-Picot” borders of Iraq and Syria, which are rejected by groups such as Nusra and ISIS.
While both Al-Qaeda affiliates have been described as the best-organized and funded militias operating in the Syrian war, the observer said that Ahrar al-Sham was in some ways as disciplined, if not more so, than its rivals. – with agencies