A key commander of the U.S.-supported Syrian rebel forces was assassinated in a car bomb attack in southern Turkey Wednesday, a sign that the war raging next door is spilling across the border again.
The target of the attack was Col. Jemil Radoon, a defected Syrian Army officer who lives in the ancient city of Antakya. Turkish officials said he had just turned on the ignition of his black Hyundai hatchback when a bomb exploded. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Turkish government officials blamed the Assad regime in Syria and said it was part of a campaign to assassinate rebel officers. Other defected officers are also targeted, a security official said, citing field intelligence.
The murder of Radoon came less than two weeks after another rebel commander, Col. Abdullah Rifai, was assassinated in front of the house in Arsal, Lebanon, where is family live.
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Radoon was one of the dozen or so Syrian commanders to receive funds, guidance and weapons including TOW anti-tank missiles from U.S. and other “friends of Syria” donors of as part of a covert U.S. aid program. Radoon, who operated out of his apartment in Antakya, was the overall commander of Sukhur al Ghab was based in Antakya but oversaw operations, which he said involved 2,400 fighters in different parts of Syria.
Their principal area of operation is in the strategic Ghab valley in Hama province, which abuts Latakia province, the heartland of President Bashar al Assad’s Alawite minority. The regime recently started an offensive to reclaim the valley from the rebel forces.
The governor of Hatay province, Ercan Topaca, told Turkish reporters that Radoon had been the target of a bomb planted on his vehicle in nearby Reyhanli in April, but that bomb had been defused. It was not clear if he additional precautions following that incident.
The Turkish security official, who was unauthorized to speak on the record, said security is now being stepped up for other rebel officers, who now be targeted.
Radoon, a bear of a man who dressed in casual army fatigues, was a blunt spoken critic U.S. strategy in Syria. In September 2014 when the U.S. started bombing Islamic State radicals in Syria, Radoon said his forces were ready to join the battle but the U.S.-directed “Military Operations Center” dispensing covert aid were not providing enough in the face of IS’s advance.
“I’ve gotten a little ammunition, but I don’t have enough to continue our presence at the front line,” he told McClatchy at the time. He said the problem with the MOC, as it is known, is that it “walks like a turtle, and things on the ground move go like a rabbit.”
When President Obama last year derided Syrian rebel forces as comprised of tradesmen, professionals and farmers, he responded that more than half of his forces were defected government troops, and three quarters had high school or college degrees. Among the 2,400 are 16 doctors, three pharmacists and an unknown number of farmers. They were led by 38 defected officers, he said.
And he criticized the U.S. decision to target Jabhat al Nusra, the Al Qaida affiliate fighting the Assad regime alongside moderate-government forces, saying that it had given Nusra new popularity among Syrians in rebel-held areas, and also spurred the better-armed Nusra to attack moderate forces and seize the territory they controlled.
The U.S. bombing was “the main reason behind the backlash,” he told McClatchy. And the U.S. bombing seemed to be undertaken in ignorance of the political climate among Syrian civilians. “We should not ignore that Nusra has a good reputation of fighting the regime,” he said.
The last major bombing in Turkey in May 2013, when two car bombs went off in the nearby city of Reyhanli, killing more than 40 people and leveling several buildings in the town center. Turkish officials say that the Syrian intelligence officers crossed into Turkey to organize the assault.
Turkish security officials were was able to foil several attempts to kill defected officers by moving them out of refugee camps into a protected camp for military officers, also in southern Turkey, officials said. But they said there were too many potential Syrian targets in Turkey, which now hosts more than 2 million Syrian refugees, to provide extensive protection.
Special correspondent Zakaria Zakaria contributed from Istanbul.