BEIRUT: A week of clashes between Al-Qaeda militants and a number of rebel militias in several parts of the country has claimed the lives of 500 fighters and civilians, a monitoring group said Friday.
The ultra-extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) mounted attacks against a number of villages and towns in rural Aleppo and Idlib in the northwest, after the Al-Qaeda-inspired group was chased from its positions in the city of Aleppo earlier this week.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that clashes between rebel militias and ISIS militants took place near the towns of Al-Bab, Tal Rifaat, Bazaa, Qabbasin, Kfar Halab and Sheikh Ali, all in the province of Aleppo.
The Observatory said fighting was taking place on the outskirts of these areas, however, indicating that mainstream and Islamist rebels have regained their positions and are defending themselves against counterattacks by ISIS militants.
In the town of Anadan, the Observatory said that 20 fighters from the rebel battalions were killed, without indicating the casualty figure in the ranks of ISIS. Fighting also raged in rural areas of the province of Idlib.
The ISIS militants have largely fallen back to the province of Raqqa further east, and the Observatory said fierce fighting took place in the city and the border town of Tal Abyad.
ISIS militants managed to take control of two neighborhoods in Raqqa – the province was the first to fall to rebel groups last year, but was never under the sole control of ISIS.
The militant group shared power with other militias, which are now waging the offensive against it after the behavior of ISIS militants alienated large sections of the population in rebel-held areas by enforcing ultra-conservative Islamic rule.
Rebels in the city of Tabqa on the Euphrates posted a video which they claim shows a dismantled car bomb that was going to be used by ISIS fighters. The Observatory said ISIS has resorted to car bomb attacks periodically throughout the weeklong offensive against it.
However, even the slogan for the nationwide weekly protests reflected some of the tensions that have been generated by the campaign against ISIS. Some activists on social media circulated images proclaiming a “day of rage against Al-Qaeda and Assad,” but inside the country, protesters from north to south held banners reading “Assad’s gang is the first enemy.”
The slogan can be read as both supporting an offensive against ISIS, blamed for diverting the energy of the military insurrection against the regime – but it can also be interpreted as opposition to any type of infighting between the various rebels and jihadists who have flocked to Syria.
Videos were posted of demonstrations in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, rural Damascus and Deraa provinces, with the independence-era or “rebel” flag featuring prominently. In the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, people chanted “azadi, huriyeh,” the Kurdish and Arabic words for freedom, as well as “the people want the execution of ISIS.”
And rage is also being directed against the mainstream rebels themselves, as the fighting between rebel militias and government troops continued in half a dozen main fronts around the country.
A video posted on YouTube late Thursday, after government troops ambushed and killed 45 rebels near the city of Homs, purports to show fighters from accusing leading militias and political figures of sabotaging the fight against the regime.
They are enraged that their comrades were cut down in a bid to seize food supplies just outside Homs, to relieve civilian suffering in the city.
They claim that a monthslong campaign in Homs province entitled “Qadimoun” (We are coming) should be relabeled “Kaziboun” (They are lying).
The fighters say that they have been prevented from liberating the city of Homs and been deprived of much-needed ammunition and supplies.
One says that the campaign has seen them “liberate” Sunni villages outside Homs with no military value, while there are orders from politicians in the opposition-in-exile National Coalition to leave Alawite villages alone.
“The Tawhid [Brigade] freed 30 villages just to get [monetary] support and they went back to Aleppo” instead of launching an offensive on the besieged city of Homs, one fighter complains.
“If you don’t activate this front, we’ll do it ourselves,” another shouts.
Separately, the White House said that it was still reviewing how to resume shipments of nonlethal aid to moderate rebel groups after an incident last month where Islamist fighters seized supplies from a warehouse near the Turkish border.
“No decisions have been made yet regarding the resumption of nonlethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army, but we have resumed deliveries of nonlethal assistance into northern Syria to civilian actors,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.
“This has nothing to do with our support for the moderate military opposition, but rather the security of our assistance,” Carney said.
Demonstration in Bustan al-Qasr, Aleppo
Demonstration in Shaar, Aleppo
Demonstration in al-Bab, Aleppo
Demonstration in Binnish, Idlib
Demonstration in Arbin, near Damascus
Demonstration in Dael, Deraa
Homs rebel fighters angry at their leaders