AFP – The commander of Syria’s largest rebel coalition has been killed in an airstrike near Aleppo, in what analysts say is the biggest blow to the alliance since its formation.
The strike on a meeting of leaders of the Army of Conquest came after a major defeat for the rebels, which saw them once again besieged inside Aleppo after a pro-government advance this week.
Former Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, renamed Fateh Al-Sham Front when it broke ties in July, announced on Twitter “the martyrdom” of commander Abu Omar Saraqeb in an airstrike.
The Fateh Al-Sham is a leading member of the Army of Conquest alliance, which groups its fighters with those of radical factions like Ahrar Al-Sham.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said unidentified aircraft hit the Army of Conquest meeting on Thursday night, killing Saraqeb and another rebel commander named as Abu Muslim Al-Shami.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was not immediately clear whether the strike was carried out by the US-led coalition, the Syrian regime, or its Russian ally — all of whom are conducting bombing raids in northern Syria.
“This is undoubtedly the biggest blow ever inflicted on Fateh Al-Sham and the Army of Conquest in Syria,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
According to the Observatory, Saraqeb was a leading member of Al-Qaeda in Iraq — a precursor to the Daesh group — in its fight against the US-led occupation after 2003.
He went on to become a key commander of Al-Nusra Front in Syria.
Abu Omar reportedly also founded Al-Nusra Front’s Lebanon branch which has claimed responsibility for several bombings in Syria’s western neighbor.
He operates under different noms de guerre, making it difficult to know his nationality.
He led a major offensive by the Army of Conquest in spring last year which saw it seize control of nearly all of the northwestern province of Idlib.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute think-tank, said Saraqeb had helped found the Army of Conquest last year and once served as the “emir” of Idlib province.
Amid Syria’s fractious rebel movement, he was an “advocate of military unity” as well as “an ideological hard-liner who held strong views on how society should be controlled,” Lister said.