Rania Abouzeid reports: The day started like a regular Sunday for Mohammad al-Daher, better known as Abu Azzam, the commander of the rebel Farouq Brigades in the vast swath of eastern Syria called the Jazira, a region that stretches from the Turkish border to the Iraqi frontier and encompasses the three provinces of Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir ez-Zor. He had a series of meetings in the morning in a number of locations in the bustling town of Tal Abyad on Syria’s border with Turkey as well as in the partially destroyed former police station that is the Farouq’s headquarters. And he was going to visit his mother.
By late afternoon, however, the burly 34-year-old Raqqa native would be lying in a hospital bed — wounded by members of the ultraconservative Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra (which the U.S considers a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda). Abu Azzam’s targeting has blown open a sharp rift and long-brewing conflict between the more secular nationwide Farouq brigades and the Jabhat. The two groups are among the most effective, best organized and most well-known of the many military outfits aligned against Syrian President Bashar Assad — and the fight between them is just beginning.
Farouq has the upper hand in Tal Abyad, which lies opposite the Turkish city of Akcakale. It snatched the border crossing from Assad’s forces on Sept. 19, much to the chagrin of a number of other rebel groups — both secular units under the loose banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as Islamist groups operating independently. It’s not the only border post controlled by the Farouq. The gateway to Idlib province, Bab al-Hawa, near the Turkish city of Reyhanli, is also in their hands. The Jabhat, on the other hand, were at the forefront of taking Raqqa city, farther to the south, the first provincial capital to fall to any rebel force.
By mid-afternoon, Abu Azzam stopped in to see his mother, Em Mohammad, in her modest first-floor apartment a short walk from the Farouq base. The young man stooped to kiss her right hand, he put his forehead to it before kissing her cheeks and embracing her warmly. “Finally, I see you!” she told him, gently scolding her son as he sat beside her. “You know the last time I saw him he was like this,” Em Mohammad said, picking up Abu Azzam’s two cell phones, holding one to each ear and pretending to issue orders into them, interspersing the talk of weapons and requests for battle updates with “Hi, mother, how are you, how is your health?” The half a dozen men in the room all laughed. “I’m sorry,” Abu Azzam told his mother, “but what can I do?”
Turkish coffee was served in delicate, thin-handled china cups. On this day Abu Azzam wasn’t in his unit’s military uniform. He was dressed in indigo jeans, a dark green crew-neck sweater, a black leather jacket and navy boat shoes. He has a Salafi-style black beard (without a mustache) that he frequently tugs at and a smile so broad and disarming that it seems like it takes up his whole face.
He reached for his pack of Winston Silver cigarettes before turning to his mother, a feisty, friendly woman in a long black dress and powder blue headscarf whom he bore a striking resemblance to. “Just so you don’t hear it elsewhere, they planted an [improvised explosive] device in my car yesterday,” he told her. Em Mohammad put her hand up to her mouth. She had lost Abu Hussein, the second of her three sons, on Feb. 20 in the battles for Raqqa province. He was also a member of the Farouq, a father of two little girls, and now her eldest son was telling her he had been targeted. “May God protect you,” she told him.
“Nobody dies before his time,” Abu Azzam said, repeating a common Arabic phrase. In a chilling premonition of what would happen just a few hours later, he said: “I know that I am going to be killed either by the regime or by the Jabhat. There is no difference, they are both dirty.” [Continue reading…]