BEIRUT: Radical jihadists begin withdrawing from parts of northern Syria Friday after a threat from rivals, in a bid to protect their stronghold in the east of the war-ravaged country.
Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front has threatened the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria with all-out war if it does not submit by Saturday to mediation by an Islamic court over allegations ISIS assassinated an Islamist commander with close Al-Qaeda links.
Since January, ISIS has been battling a coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels angered over its abuses of rival fighters and civilians, but Al-Nusra had largely stayed out of the fray.
The prospect of the powerful Al-Nusra joining forces with ISIS's opponents appears to have prompted the group to pull back to its stronghold in the eastern city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital lost by the regime in the three-year civil war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS had withdrawn from a string of positions in northern Aleppo province, including the key town of Aazaz.
"ISIS has withdrawn from Aazaz, its most important bastion in Aleppo province, as well as the Minnigh military airport, the Mayer region and the villages of Deir Jamal and Kafin," the Britain-based Observatory said.
"Aleppo region is their weakest link, so they fear being attacked there" by Al-Nusra and other rebels after the deadline expires, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
"ISIS is heading to areas that neighbour Raqqa province where it has its main stronghold in the city of Raqqa," he said.
ISIS fighters had regrouped in particular in Jarabulus and Manbij, on the far eastern border of Aleppo province and close to Raqqa.
In the wake of the withdrawal from Aazaz, which ISIS seized in September, the Observatory said a possible mass grave was found in the city.
The withdrawal was confirmed by the opposition Aazaz Media Centre, which claimed it as a victory for rival rebel fighters.
"God is greatest. The heros of the Free Syrian Army and the Northern Storm (Brigade) have liberated the town of Aazaz from the dogs of Baghdadi," the centre wrote on its Facebook page, referring to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Video footage posted online showed a demonstration of local residents chanting "the Free Syrian Army forever" after ISIS's withdrawal.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said ISIS appeared to have withdrawn from several locations without a fight.
"It looks like ISIS has made the strategic decision to reinforce existing strongholds in eastern Aleppo, all of which lie on valuable routes towards the jewel in ISIS's crown, the city of Raqqa," he said.
"Removing these weak areas and reinforcing important and stronger ones seems like the only logical strategy left for ISIS at this stage."
On Tuesday, Al-Nusra issued a threat against ISIS after the death of a senior Islamist commander, Abu Khaled al-Suri, who had close ties to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden.
Rebels accuse ISIS of killing the commander, and Al-Nusra chief Abu Mohamed al-Jolani warned the group would be pushed out of Syria if it refused arbitration before an Islamic court.
Lister said a major offensive against ISIS could seriously affect the opposition's ability to hold territory against the regime, and that casualties in such an offensive would be high.
"As such, a compromise or a series of localised compromises could still be possible, but this would depend on ISIS playing diplomacy, which isn't necessarily a proven strength."
Both Al-Nusra and ISIS have roots in Al-Qaeda's onetime Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.
But the two have never merged, with Jolani rejecting a union proposed by ISIS, and Al-Qaeda's Zawahiri urging ISIS to return to Iraq after its fighters moved into Syria.
Elsewhere in Syria, state news agency SANA said the army had killed 20 rebels in an ambush near Damascus, two days after state media reported the deaths of 175 rebels in a similar ambush nearby.
And the army said three rockets fired from inside neighbouring Syria struck eastern Lebanon, causing no injuries.