BEIRUT — Al Qaeda-linked gunmen killed a rebel commander in Syria aligned with the Western-backed militias fighting against President Bashar Assad’s regime, the highest-profile casualty of growing tensions between moderate and jihadi fighters among rebel forces.
Observers worried Friday that the commander’s death will increase distrust and suspicion between forces already at odds over territory and leadership as the nearly three-year civil war continues in Syria.
Loay Al-Mokdad, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, said members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — a group reportedly made up of Al Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria — were behind the killing of Kamal Hamami. Hamami, known as Abu Basir, served in the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, a group headed by a secular-minded moderate that has the support of Western powers.
Hamami’s killing marks the first time a commander from the Supreme Military Council has been killed by rebel jihadists. His death underlines a deepening power struggle between moderate and extremist groups fighting in the civil war.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said gunmen shot Hamami dead late Thursday after militants tried to remove a checkpoint he set up in the Jabal al-Turkoman mountain in the coastal province of Latakia. The observatory said two of his men were seriously wounded in the shooting.
Activists monitoring the war previously reported occasional clashes between rebel groups and Islamic militants active in rebel-held areas, especially in the north where the opposition has control of a large part of the region. There also has been infighting among Kurdish and Arab groups over control of territory captured from the government along the border with Turkey in the past year. That fighting subsided after a cease-fire agreement early this year.
‘‘It’s hard to tell where things are going to. It could really go either way,’’ said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. ‘‘I personally don’t think it’s in either of the sides’ long-term interest to spark an escalation.’’
More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule that escalated into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown.