The killing of a top Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander over the weekend by al-Qaida linked jihadists underscores the declining fortunes of the Western-backed faction.
Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executed FSA Secretary General Ammar al-Wawi after he entered Syria from Turkey. Al-Wawi had been an intelligence officer with the Syrian army and an important liaison between the FSA and the Western press.
Al-Wawi's execution follows the seizure of warehouses containing non-lethal aid from the West by forces loyal to the newly-formed Islamic Front last week. The Front is a coalition of seven Islamist militias, many of which have al-Qaida ties. Its fighters also seized the headquarters of FSA Chief of Staff Salim Idris in northern Syria. Idris fled to Qatar as a result.
The seizure led the United States and the United Kingdom to cutoff the non-lethal aid it had promised to the FSA.
At least two of the Islamic Front's leaders were members of the FSA's military council while simultaneously fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's other al-Qaida linked faction. The rise of the jihadists has already prompted some FSA commanders to defect and join them.
Saddam al-Jamal, the FSA's top commander for the eastern region of Syria, announced his defection to the ISIL on Dec. 1. Jihadists previously tried assassinating him in late September. He charged in his defection video that the FSA was controlled by foreign intelligence agencies such as those of the Saudis, Qataris, French, Americans and British.
These developments have taken a toll on Idris's credibility with the Syrian National Council, which nominally oversees the FSA.
"Salim Idris has failed to make an institution," Asa'ad Mustafa, the SNC's defense minister told The Telegraph. "I don't think everything can continue in the same way."
Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL have been gaining strength as a direct result of this and other defections from the FSA, which renamed itself the Syrian Rebel Front (SRF) last week.
A September study by IHS Jane's found that nearly half of the 100,000 rebel fighters seeking to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad were either jihadists or hardline Islamists who have a similar worldview. An estimated 10,000 fighters belong to Jabhat al-Nusra, and another30-35,000 fighters belonged to hardline Islamist factions.
By contrast the Western-backed Free Syrian Army has an estimated 45,000 fighters under its command.
These events could have an effect on the planned Geneva II peace talks that are scheduled for next month because the jihadists have rejected peace talks and the FSA cum SRF's credibility has been severely damaged.