Top Qaeda leader, commanders reported killed in Syria
The military chief and several top commanders of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front have been reported killed in northwestern Syria, where the jihadist militia has made major gains in recent months.
Beirut: The military chief and several top commanders of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front have been reported killed in northwestern Syria, where the jihadist militia has made major gains in recent months.
The UN Security Council, meanwhile, adopted a US-drafted resolution condemning the use of chlorine in Syria and threatening measures if chemicals are used in attacks again.
Syrian state media, a monitoring group and a local activist all reported that Nusra`s Abu Hammam al-Shami had been killed, but provided contradictory information on the circumstances.
Official Nusra sources did not announce the death of the jihadist, a Syrian believed to have fought with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
"Shami... was killed with a number of other leaders during a special operation by the army" in Idlib province, Syrian state news agency SANA reported, without specifying a date.
Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, also said the commander had been killed but that the circumstances were unclear.
"Shami died of injuries on Thursday, but it is not clear when he sustained them," Abdel Rahman told AFP.
He said Shami may have been one of five Nusra leaders wounded in an air strike in Idlib province on February 27 by the US-led coalition attacking jihadists in Syria.
An official Nusra statement that day named two commanders killed in the strike but did not mention Shami.
Local Syrian activist Ibrahim al-Idlibi told AFP Shami had been killed in the February raid but that Nusra had not published his name due to the "sensitivity" of the information.
Reports of Shami`s death came as the Al-Qaeda affiliate consolidates gains in northern Syria.
Already the most powerful military force in Idlib province, Nusra handed a major defeat to one of its rivals -- the Western-backed Hazm movement -- at the weekend when it seized Hazm`s base in Aleppo province.
Nusra also claimed to have led a spectacular assault against a regime intelligence headquarters in Aleppo city on Wednesday, blowing up a tunnel near the building before storming the area.
Attacks on the group`s leadership are "an indication of the rising strength and influence of Nusra on the ground in Syria in recent months", said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre think tank."Because it operates in a decentralised manner, not top down, the loss of a leader is something that Nusra can recover from with minimal damage," she said.
Thomas Pierret, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, called Shami`s death a "severe blow" but said its impact should not be overstated.
"Organisations of this type are very well structured and prepared for the loss of important leaders," he said.
But Idlibi, the local activist, disagreed.
"It`s a definite hit to the morale of Nusra`s supporters," he said.
He said there were rumours of serious internal disputes within Nusra ranks regarding an apparent Qatar-led proposal for Nusra to split off from Al-Qaeda.
"They want to turn it into something like the Taliban -- into a political movement," he said.
Idlibi said Nusra political chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani favours such a split, while Shami was against it.
Nusra has emerged as the most powerful jihadist group in northwestern Syria and, as well as fighting President Bashar al-Assad`s regime, has clashed with moderate rebels and its jihadist rival the Islamic State group.
At the United Nations Friday, 14 of the 15 Security Council members -- including Damascus ally Russia -- adopted a US-drafted resolution condemning the use of chlorine in Syria.
It also threatened measures if chemicals are used in future attacks.
While the measure does not single out the Damascus regime over the use of chlorine, Western powers have made clear that the evidence points to attacks being carried out by Assad`s forces.
The resolution states that the Security Council "decides in the event of future non-compliance... to impose measures under chapter 7" of the UN charter, which provides for sanctions and possibly military force.
However, Russia`s envoy Vitaly Churkin said measures under chapter 7 could not be decided unless there is proof of chemical weapons used by either side in the conflict.
A January report by the OPCW chemical watchdog concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that chlorine gas had been used in attacks on three villages in Syria last year.
The Assad regime and the rebels have accused each other of using chemical agents, including chlorine, in the nearly four-year war that has killed more than 210,000 people.