BEIRUT: Members of two separate Al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups in Syria clashed in the country’s northeast Sunday, opposition activists said, while a tenuous cease-fire between Al-Qaeda-linked fighters and Western-backed rebels with the Free Syrian Army further west appeared to unravel.
Divisions between opposition factions are multiplying in Syria’s north, further complicating an already chaotic battle ground and distracting from what rebel leaders say should be their first priority: fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Competition for territory, resources and influence, as well as ideological differences are contributing to the divisions, which FSA leaders say have reached a critical point.
In Hasakeh, in the country’s northeast, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Iraqi Al-Qaeda branch that has expanded into Syria, attacked the Nusra Front, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, seizing their headquarters in Shehadi.
“ISIS fighters Saturday attacked the Nusra Front regional headquarters in Shehadi, taking control of the headquarters and seizing weapons and oil production equipment,” the Britain-based Observatory said.
The Observatory said the Nusra front had relatively few fighters at the headquarters because they were currently battling Kurdish forces elsewhere in the region.
The Nusra Front has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, but its leader rejected an ISIS merger bid.
The two groups have fought alongside each other, however, and it was unclear whether the clashes were caused by a local dispute or a sign of broader tensions.
The clashes in Hasakeh followed days of heavy fighting between ISIS fighters and members of more moderate, Western-backed brigades belonging to the Free Syrian Army in Azaz, a strategic border city on the Turkish border in Aleppo province.
That battle between ISIS and members of the Northern Storm brigade erupted last week, reportedly when ISIS laid siege to a field hospital, demanding Northern Storm hand over a German-Syrian doctor they claimed was taking photographs of injured ISIS fighters.
It was the latest in a series of skirmishes between ISIS and FSA forces in the northern provinces. ISIS has killed several senior FSA commanders and there are increasing complaints about the Islamists’ heavy-handed justice and human rights abuses in their pursuit of an Islamic state.
The two groups brokered a cease-fire Friday to put an end to the fighting in Azaz, but Sunday Northern Storm issued a statement saying the agreement was void after ISIS had failed to hand over prisoners, including the German doctor and a Syrian media activist, within a 48-hour deadline.
“On Sept. 19, 2013, we presented the agreement concluded with the ISIS and article one stipulating a cease-fire and the commitment not to violate it has been implemented,” the statement said.
“Article two, stipulating the release of all the detainees, including journalist Mohammad Noura of Azaz Media Center, has not been completely implemented, whereas only nine prisoners whose names were published in an earlier statement have been released.”
“Therefore, after the deadline has exceeded more than 48 hours, ISIS is considered to have violated the agreement and not committed itself to it.”
A Turkish-based activist from Aleppo, Mohammad Aleppo, told The Daily Star that while Azaz was relatively calm Sunday, there were signs ISIS was moving to extend its control to new areas, west of Azaz in Batabo and Hazano.He said under the agreement, ISIS had agreed to leave the city, which had not been done, while detained activists and the German doctor had not been released.
“They should have left the city. It should have been by yesterday. They didn’t,” he added.
And in further signs that divisions between the rebel factions are hardening, FSA sources told The Daily Star that preparations were underway to stave off further attacks by their rivals.
A senior FSA military source said FSA battalions had received intelligence ISIS was preparing “something major” in the next two weeks and that there were signs it was drawing on resources and manpower from the Iraqi border.
Relations between the Western-backed FSA and hard-line Islamist groups have been souring for months, but came to a head over the latest clashes in Azaz.
The main opposition political group, the Syrian National Coalition, aligned with the Free Syrian Army, issued a statement Friday distancing itself from the Islamist groups and accusing them of working against the principles of the Syrian revolution.
“ISIS no longer fights the Assad regime. Rather, it is strengthening its positions in liberated areas at the expense of the safety of civilians,” the statement said.
“ISIS is inflicting on the people the same suppression of the Baath party and the Assad regime.”
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, Louay Moqdad, told The Daily Star ISIS was not wanted by the Syrian people and was working against their cause.
“We want our people to choose their president and choose their future, not have it imposed from anyone outside,” he said.
“They have their own agenda, they lied to us saying that they were coming to help us fight Assad, when they just want to build an Islamic state.
“We don’t want to start another fight, but we must protect our people,” he said.
The FSA has been starved of weapons from their Western backers who fear they could land in the hands of Al-Qaeda. Moqdad said the recent skirmishes could lend weight to their argument for more resources.
“We are fighting on two fronts now. So there is the proof [the West needs] that we are not cooperating with Al-Qaeda,” he said.
With Al-Qaeda’s main Syria operative on the Turkish border, the Turks also sought to distance themselves from any support for the hard-line rebels.
Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul said his country would not “tolerate” Al-Qaeda-type groups emerging in the Syrian conflict.
“We will not allow any formation beyond our borders that would threaten Turkey and the entire region,” Gul was quoted as saying by the Milliyet newspaper Sunday. “We can never tolerate this.”
The president said the threats of radicalism and terrorism emerging from Syria’s civil war were “Turkey’s most important issues” which were often discussed with the military.