BEIRUT — On Syria’s front lines, al-Qaida fighters and more mainstream Syrian rebels have turned against each other in a power struggle that has undermined the effort to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
After violent clashes and the assassination of two rival commanders, one of whom was beheaded, more moderate factions are publicly accusing the extremists of trying to seize control of the rebellion.
The rivalries — along with the efforts by extremist foreign fighters to impose their strict interpretation of Islam in areas they control — are chipping away at the movement’s popularity in Syria at a time when the regime is making significant advances on the ground.
“The rebels’ focus has shifted from toppling the regime to governing and power struggles,” said a 29-year-old woman from the contested city of Homs. “I feel that the lack of true leadership is and has always been their biggest problem.” She spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from the fighters and the regime.
The infighting, which exploded into the open in the country’s rebel-held north in recent days, is contributing to a sense across many parts of Syria that the revolution has faltered. It threatens to fracture an opposition movement that has been plagued by divisions from the start.
The moderates once valued the expertise and resources that their uneasy allies brought to the battlefield, but now question whether such military assets are worth the trouble — not to mention the added difficulty in persuading the West to arm them.
“We don’t want foreign fighters. We have enough men and we want them out of Syria,” said Brig. Gen. Salim Idris, head of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for dozens of brigades.
In strikingly blunt comments in an interview with Al-Arabiya on Monday, Idris, a secular-minded army defector who has the backing of foreign powers, accused members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant of being regime agents and “criminals.”