Middle East

Nusra Front and rivals clash in Deraa and Qalamoun

A rebel fighter aims his weapon near the frontline against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in al-Manshiyeh neighborhood in Deraa December 7, 2014. REUTERS/Wsam Almokdad

BEIRUT: Nusra Front militants clashed Friday with a leading militia from the Free Syrian Army in southern Deraa province, after attempts to separate the sides failed to prevent the fighting.

The Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has accused the Yarmouk Brigade of declaring allegiance to its bitter rival ISIS, a charge vehemently denied by the FSA group.

The clashes between the two sides were taking place in several parts of western Deraa province, according to local activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain.

A recently formed alliance of rebel groups in Deraa sent a force of “peacekeepers” to end the clashes, they said, but the effort has yet to bear fruit.

The Yarmouk Brigade has released several statements denying that it was allied with ISIS, and offered to send its top commanders to a neutral unit, to be turned over to a unified court body to settle the matter, provided that the Nusra Front do the same.

The Nusra Front has been fighting in alliance with a range of FSA and Islamist militias in the south, and the coalition of groups has seized territory in recent weeks from regime forces. Rebel groups are now surrounding the army’s 82nd brigade outside the town of Sheikh Miskeen, which was seized recently by the rebels.

The Yarmouk Brigade issued a call to residents of Deraa province to “pull your sons out of the Nusra Front,” which it blamed for delaying progress by rebel groups in their battles against regime forces.

The Nusra Front said that one of its leading figures, Abu Maria al-Qahtani, had been wounded in the fighting with the Yarmouk Brigade, but was expected to survive. Nusra has accused the Yarmouk brigade of detaining three of its members and a female civilian affiliated with the group over the last week, which led to the upswing in tension.

Meanwhile, in the Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon, local anti-regime activists denied that a prominent FSA commander had been executed by ISIS militants, in yet another spike in tension among insurgent groups.

They said Uraba Idris, a defected army officer who earlier fought regime forces in the city of Homs, was being held by ISIS, but had not been killed.

The Nusra Front and ISIS have been cooperating in battles against regime forces and Hezbollah in the Qalamoun region, but several reports have said ISIS is now demanding that all rebel groups in the region, including Nusra, pledge allegiance to the Al-Qaeda offshoot.

In the city of Aleppo, the Observatory said that pro-regime media was falsely reporting that government troops had made key gains north of the city. The fighting in the Handarat region has seen incremental gains by both regime forces and rebel groups in recent days, resulting in a stalemate as the regime seeks to cut off the main rebel supply line between Aleppo and Turkey, observers and local activists say.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 20, 2014, on page 8.




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