Top Nusra Front Commander Killed in Syria Blast

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Syrian fire fighters put out a blaze at the scene of a reported barrel bomb strike by the Syrian army on March 5, 2015 on the Qadi Askar rebel-held district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. AFP/Zein al-Rifai

Published Friday, March 6, 2015

Al-Qaeda's official Syrian wing, the al-Nusra Front, announced on Thursday the death of its top military commander, who insurgent sources said fell victim to a blast targeting a high-level militant meeting.

The news came as Aleppo was ravaged by heavy fighting while the Syrian opposition was seeking common ground for peace talks.

General Military Commander Abu Humam al-Shami, a veteran Islamist militant who had fought in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, was the senior-most member of the group to die in the Syrian war, an insurgent source said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "a number of al-Nusra Front leaders were killed" in the attack as they gathered for a meeting, but was unable to say if its chief, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, was among them.

"It's not clear if the attack was carried out by the coalition or the regime, and there is contradictory information over the fate of Abu Mohammed al-Jolani... amid reports that he was at the place of the attack," Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.

The Syrian state news agency SANA, quoting its correspondent, said Abu Humam and a number of other Nusra leaders had been killed in an army operation targeting the meeting held in the village of Hobait in a rural area of Idlib.

SANA also cited a military source saying the army had carried out "concentrated strikes" against Nusra and other Islamist groups in the Abu al-Dhuhur area, which lies to the northeast of Hobait.

Insurgent sources initially said a US-led coalition airstrike hit the meeting in the northwestern province of Idlib, but Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said he could not confirm the reports, and added that neither “the US or the coalition have conducted air strikes near that location in recent days.”

The sources said at least three other Nusra Front commanders were also killed in the blast, which they said hit the town of Salqin, near the border with Turkey.

Syrian insurgents have in the past killed member of rival militant groups by planting bombs at meetings. The blast comes at a time of flux for the Nusra Front, which is waging war on other insurgents and also looking for support from Gulf states, sources in Nusra have said.

"The Islamic Nation is bleeding because of the news of the martyrdom of Commander Abu Humam," Nusra Front said on Twitter.

"It's a major blow to Nusra. A very painful, very powerful hit," one insurgent source said, declining to be named as he was not allowed to speak to the media.

After Thursday's attack, the Nusra Front told its members not to provide information to the media, the insurgent sources said.

Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), other Islamist brigades, as well as rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army have taken part in the Syrian war, clashing across the country against the Syrian army and militias supporting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Nusra Front has also battled western-backed Syrian rebels this year, seizing their territory and forcing them to disarm so as to consolidate its power in northern Syria. The weakness of the non-jihadist Syrian opposition and the growing power of the Nusra Front and ISIS has complicated diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria.

Harakat Hazm, one of the last remnants of non-jihadist opposition to Assad in northern Syria, dissolved itself last week after weeks of fighting with the Nusra Front in the city of Aleppo.

Once Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo has been devastated by fighting that began in mid-2012, and the city is now split between loyalist forces and rebels.

Heavy fighting in Aleppo as opposition eyes ‘new strategy’ in peace talks

Heavy fighting shook Aleppo as the exiled opposition chief said for the first time that Assad's ouster need not be a precondition for peace talks.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said meanwhile that "military pressure" may be needed to oust Assad, as Moscow announced it would host a fresh round of peace talks next month.

Nusra fighters were involved in a spectacular assault Wednesday on an air force intelligence headquarters in Aleppo, Syria's second city where the Syrian army and insurgents were engaged in fierce clashes.

The attack, which began with a powerful explosives blast in a tunnel dug near the building, left at least 20 members of the army and 14 militants dead.

A Syrian military source told AFP the army had on Thursday launched an attack "against (insurgent) gunmen positions" in the area, "killing and wounding many of them."

The army also struck rebel-held territory in the east of the city, killing at least 22 in a single barrel bomb attack, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of pro-opposition sources inside Syria.

Aleppo has been hit by significant violence this week after the opposition rejected a UN plan for a temporary ceasefire in the divided and devastated city, once Syria's main commercial hub.

A UN delegation was in the city to push a plan for a temporary "freeze" of fighting in Aleppo — part of a range of efforts to resolve a conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead and more than half of the population displaced since March 2011 — which was rejected by the opposition on Sunday.

The UN Security Council is set to vote on Friday on a US-drafted resolution that threatens measures against the Syrian regime over its alleged use of chlorine bombs in attacks on villages between April and August last year.

The United States drafted the resolution, which "condemns in the strongest terms any use of any toxic chemical, such as chlorine, as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic."

Speaking to AFP in Paris, opposition National Coalition chief Khaled Khoja said a "new strategy" was needed and that while Assad's overthrow was still the final aim, it was not necessary for the start of a process to end Syria's conflict.

"We insist on the goal of toppling Assad and the security services... It is not necessary to have these conditions at the beginning of the process, but it is... necessary to end the process with a new regime and a new free Syria," he said.

Khoja also softened the coalition's previous refusal to work with Damascus-tolerated opposition groups, saying he wants "a common ground" with other dissidents and to "establish a new framework for the Syrian opposition."

The country's main domestic opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), said Khoja's comments marked a welcome change.

"Any statement calling for the unification of the opposition is certainly positive, but concrete actions and effective positions are more important," NCCDC spokesman Mounzer Khaddam said.

He also praised the coalition for being prepared to drop its pre-condition for Assad to step down, saying the issue had been raised in joint opposition talks in Paris two weeks ago.

"We tried in Paris to convince them that all preconditions in no way help in finding a political solution in Syria," Khaddam said.

Moscow meanwhile said it would host talks between representatives of Assad's regime and opposition figures in April, three months after a meeting between the parties ended without any concrete results.

In Saudi Arabia to meet with Gulf allies, Kerry upped pressure on Assad to negotiate, saying he had "lost any semblance of legitimacy" and raising the possibility of military pressure.

"Ultimately a combination of diplomacy and pressure will be needed to bring about a political transition. Military pressure particularly may be necessary given President Assad's reluctance to negotiate seriously," Kerry said in Riyadh.

The violence this week in Aleppo has dampened hopes of a ceasefire in the city, where UN envoy to the Syrian conflict Staffan de Mistura has been seeking a halt to fighting as a first step towards humanitarian aid deliveries in the area and a broader political deal.

Samir Nashar, a member of the National Coalition who is in contact with groups who attacked the regime building, said Wednesday's assault "sends a clear message to the regime and to de Mistura" that the rebels reject his initiative.

"De Mistura is at an impasse and is facing a dead end," Nashar told AFP. "De Mistura's initiative does not address even the minimum of rebel demands."

(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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