BEIRUT: Syrian opposition rebels clashed Friday with Al-Qaeda-inspired jihadists throughout areas of northern Syria in the first major push-back against the extremists who have been roundly condemned for human rights violations and treachery against the rebel cause.
The clashes coincided with nationwide Friday protests that were held to mark the death of a rebel commander-physician who was reportedly tortured and murdered earlier this week by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
ISIS fighters found themselves under attack in more than half a dozen locations in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, facing off against at least two alliances of fighters from the Free Syrian Army.
The fighting began Thursday evening in the town of Atareb in rural Aleppo, which had seen tension build after ISIS was widely blamed for two recent incidents of killing or kidnapping mainstream rebel commanders.
Pro-opposition media said the fighters in the town staved off an attack by ISIS fighters, finally cornering them Friday and capturing a Tunisian “emir” or local leader of the Al-Qaeda militants.
Activists posted a video purporting to show fighters escorting the man in a small street after his detention. Passers-by are heard shouting against ISIS and denouncing its members as “those who claim to be Muslims,” as well as “infidels.”
There were conflicting reports as to whether the man, Abu Saber al-Tunisi, was summarily executed by the rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 42 ISIS fighters were wounded in the fighting in Atareb, while an opposition media activist was killed covering the clashes.
The ISIS fighters, many of whom are non-Syrians, have generated wide-scale resentment against their behavior, particularly their abduction and killing of civilian activists and rebel fighters who are considered to be insufficiently religious.
Meanwhile, civilian-led rallies during which protesters hailed the FSA and denounced both the regime and ISIS were staged in several neighborhoods of the city of Aleppo, as well as rural Idlib province.
Opposition media said rebel fighters in Aleppo took prisoner several dozen ISIS militants and captured some of the buildings they took as headquarters. The rebels also advised residents to remain in the homes as the confrontation continued.
There were multiple but unconfirmed reports of rebel fighters arresting ISIS militants in various towns and villages in Aleppo and Idlib provinces as part of the campaign.
In the village of Kfar Takharim in Idlib, activists said, members of ISIS fired on a demonstration staged to protest the group’s actions. There were no reports of casualties.
The Observatory said that ISIS fighters also clashed with rebel units in the Idlib village of Maaret Misrin, and that the rebel Islamic Front had sent reinforcements to the town of Azaz in rural Aleppo, which is in the hands of ISIS.
The Islamic Front is an alliance of seven of Syria’s largest Islamist militias, and has tried to steer clear of the infighting. At least one of its members, the Islam Army, was reportedly engaged in fighting ISIS militants at an FSA facility it was guarding in rural Aleppo. Both the Islamic Front and the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate with a mainly Syrian membership, have stayed out of the confrontation.
Taking up the push-back against the ISIS hard-liners are two rebel alliances. One, the Syrian Rebel Front based in Idlib, was announced last month, while the second, the Mujahedeen Army active in Aleppo, was unveiled Thursday.
The Mujahedeen Army, an alliance of seven Islamist groups largely loyal to the FSA, gave ISIS militants a 24-hour ultimatum to leave the group.
In the Idlib village of Kafranbel, fighters from the Syrian Rebel Front surrounded an ISIS-held facility, an activist told The Daily Star. A similar 24-hour ultimatum to surrender was issued, the activist said.
The tension also spread to the coastal province of Latakia, where ISIS militants stormed at least one rebel field hospital and took a medical team hostage. ISIS fighters either surrounded or stormed several field hospitals in Idlib, in a bid to capture wounded rebels from the groups fighting them.
ISIS militants also seized a checkpoint in rural Hama from regime forces, killing and disfiguring the bodies of the soldiers, according to opposition sources.
The FSA also claimed a victory in the village of Jassem in Deraa, where its fighters stormed a hospital that had been used as a regime headquarters following days of fierce fighting.
Elsewhere, fighting between regime forces and rebels of various factions raged in Aleppo and areas around Damascus. Regime aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the resort town of Zabadani near the border with Lebanon, although no casualty figures were available.
Separately, explosions hit two large gas pipelines on the road between Homs and Tartous, and south of Damascus, plunging coastal and southern provinces into darkness. Syria’s oil minister, Suleiman al-Abbas, blamed “terrorists” for the incidents, according to state news agency SANA.
Kfar Takharim demonstration against ISIS
Aleppo demonstration against ISIS
ISIS emir arrested in Atareb