BEIRUT: Russia warned Monday that Islamist violence could spread from Syria to parts of the former Soviet bloc, as tensions remained high between Al-Qaeda linked groups and more moderate rebels along the northern border with Turkey. Russia, which is fighting its own Islamist insurgency at home and is one of the regime’s key backers, has said the West is not paying enough attention to where its financial and military assistance to the Syrian opposition is ending up.
Putin told leaders of the six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization that militants fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad could eventually expand attacks beyond Syria and the Middle East.
“The militant groups [in Syria] did not come out of nowhere, and they will not vanish into thin air,” Putin said.
CSTO member Tajikistan shares a long border with Afghanistan. The security alliance also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Belarus.
Russian officials have expressed concern that Russian-born militants fighting in Syria could eventually return to Russia’s North Caucasus region and join an insurgency that claims lives almost daily.
Putin’s comments were echoed Monday by one of the opposition’s main supporters, Turkey.
President Abdullah Gul, speaking from New York, told Turkish media that “We aren’t managing to prevent terrorist infiltrations despite all precautions taken and the deployment of cannons and tanks” along the country’s shared border with Syria.
“Radical groups are a big worry when it comes to our security,” the Hurriyet daily quoted him as saying.
Last week, Turkey temporarily shut part of its border after fighting between Syrian rebels and an Al-Qaeda front group in the northern town of Azaz.
A cease-fire brokered between the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and the Northern Storm brigade in Azaz appeared to be holding Monday, a day after the latter accused the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group of violating the terms of agreement, and not handing over all prisoners.
“So far the cease-fire has not been violated, except for some rare cases not worth mentioning,” said a spokesperson from the Azaz Media Center Monday.
He said ISIS had still only released nine detainees, thus not respecting the second article of the cease-fire.
But ISIS Monday released its own letter, detailing why it had begun fighting Northern Storm last week, and claiming it had released all 30 detainees.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, from the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, denied this claim, and said only nine had been released.
Earlier reports indicated the fighting erupted when ISIS demanded Northern Storm hand over a German-Syrian doctor they claimed was taking photographs of their members and equipment.
In Monday’s letter, ISIS refers to the German “spy,” presumably the doctor, who, it said, took photos of the “ISIS headquarters, their houses and their women.”
The letter also highlights a meeting between U.S. Senator John McCain and Northern Storm members in the border area in late May as a cause for last week’s fighting.
“They received Senator John McCain ... and they agreed with him to fight the Islamists,” the letter reads.
The hawkish Republican has been fiercely critical of the Obama administration’s policy on Syria, and has been calling for increased support to the rebels and airstrikes against the regime.
The letter also says one of the Northern Storm members ISIS detained revealed the group works with Blackwater, an American security firm, which ISIS accused of being “anti-Islamic.”
Arms and equipment have been flowing to the rebels across the Turkish border for months now.
Blackwater, which is now called Academi, has been involved in several scandals in the Middle East, including the alleged shooting dead of 17 civilians in Iraq in 2007.
ISIS also accused Northern Storm of “harassing women” and of stealing.
Abdel-Rahman said that apart from a few skirmishes, fighting between ISIS and other rebel factions was minimal Monday.
Late Sunday, one of ISIS’ top commanders in Syria was killed by Western-backed rebels.
The group said its commander in Idlib province, Abu Abdullah al-Libi, had been ambushed by members of the Free Syrian Army near a border crossing with Turkey.
They said the attackers sprayed the car with bullets Sunday, killing Libi. The name is a nom de guerre.
In Deir al-Zor Monday, to the east of the country, Syrian regime warplanes targeted ISIS sites, he said, killing an ISIS fighter and wounding five.
He also said that tens of Americans are fighting alongside ISIS across Syria.