On Saturday, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra captured former Syrian air force Colonel Ahmed Nehmeh, the head of the Free Syrian Army’s Deraa Military Council, as he traveled through the southern province with his wife. The kidnapping came on the heels of public criticisms made by Nehmeh against the south’s extremist groups, namely al-Nusra, in which he said he did not want the country to be run by extremists who cut off heads.
Nehmeh is a divisive figure on the southern front. Vocal against extremists, he is widely suspected of being an informant working both for the FSA and for the U.S. and its allies.
The FSA and al-Nusra in Deraa are now negotiating for Nehmeh’s release; al-Nusra would like to try him for treason in one of its Sharia courts, while the FSA says it should be allowed to punish him itself. In the balance is the tenuous alliance between the two groups in the province, where they’ve been on good terms.
“What’s interesting about all this is that Nusra is still a developing thing, and we don’t know what kind of beast it will look like at the end of this conflict,” says Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies the dynamics of Syria’s southern region. “Seminal events like these shape both their militia and their relationships with other groups.”
Here, he weighs in on the reasons for Nehmeh’s kidnapping, and the potential that the fallout will, as Syria watchers have suggested, open a new front in Deraa.
Syria Deeply: Who is Nehmeh, and how could this one kidnapping be a trigger for such big change in the battle for Deraa?
Faysal Itani: He is a defector [from the Syrian army] and he’s seen as a go-between between FSA brigades in the south and the Jordanian, U.S. and Gulf intelligence. So he’s pretty close to the Americans and their allies. Lately, he’s been making noise about how the FSA is the future of Syria and speaking out against extremism, and, as far as Nusra sees it, saying all the wrong things.
They kidnapped him a few days ago and are threatening to try him for treason. If they do that, they’ll probably execute him. This has all kicked off an interesting dynamic between the FSA and Nusra, who have been on fairly amicable terms in the south until now. This guy is someone who’s been accused of facilitating the defeat of certain rebel groups against the regime, and for reasons to do with Gulf concerns about placating Nusra. Their perception is that he’s a double agent: that he’s working for the West, that he’s not trustworthy and that he has it in for Nusra.
This places Nusra in an awkward position. The FSA will insist that if anything, they should at least be the ones allowed to try him, and if Nusra goes ahead and kills him, it will put itself in a head-on confrontation with the FSA in the south. I don’t know whether they’ve overreached by kidnapping him, or if they have the patience and temperament to back down and strike a deal. But if they don’t we could see an unraveling of the alliance between the FSA and Nusra in the south.
Syria Deeply: Why did al-Nusra choose to take him at this point in time?
Itani: Nusra has never been on great terms with Nehmeh, because they say he’s been collaborating with foreign intelligence to disrupt Nusra’s efforts against the regime, and those accusations have been thrown around for a long time. Now, what in particular triggered this kidnapping at this time: I assume it’s the statement he made about extremism and fighting on behalf of the democrats. He’s threatening Nusra, but I don’t think it was because he intended [for the FSA] to attack them. I think he was trying to make the right noises to keep the foreign supporters of the FSA happy.
Syria Deeply: What are the current battlefield dynamics for Nusra and the FSA in Deraa? What do they each stand to lose in fighting each other?
Itani: Nusra’s posture in the south is not as good as it is in the north of the country. I think they’d be at a disadvantage against the FSA in the south. Likewise, it would disrupt some of the momentum the FSA has picked up over the last few weeks in Quineitra and Ghouta. And they desperately need to continue this progress. So neither party really has an interest in this escalating. On the balance, I think that while Nusra is at a disadvantage, it could be quite costly for the FSA brigades who used to confront it. And all of this would certainly make the regime happy.
Syria Deeply: How would a Nusra trial of Nehmeh work? What would be the fallout of such a trial for the FSA?
Itani: Nusra has its own sharia courts that they have set up and endorse: they’re a dime a dozen now in Syria. I imagine that’s where he’d be tried. The problem for the FSA now is that if they say something, they’re only confirming the fact that he’s their guy, and if they don’t, it’ll be seen as him having been abandoned.
We’ll see if they’re able to strike a deal with Nusra, or at least get them to hand him over for the FSA to try him themselves. He might get punished by the FSA to placate Nusra, but they wouldn’t murder him.
Again, it’s a very difficult position for the FSA to be in. If they’re seen as collaborating with Nusra, which in some cases in the south they have been, it puts them at odds with Western and Gulf governments.