BEIRUT: Clashes pitting rebels against jihadists have killed nearly 700 people over the past nine days in northern Syria, activists said, as an Al-Qaeda-linked group recaptured much of its stronghold in the city of Raqqa.
The fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and several Islamist and more moderate Islamic rebel brigades has broken out in cities, towns and villages of at least four opposition-held provinces in the north.
The activists said that fighters from ISIS battled remnants of rival Islamist units including the Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda affiliate, in several neighborhoods of Raqqa, they said.
ISIS recaptured the town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey over the weekend, they said.
Abu Khaled al-Walid, an activist speaking from the border area, said many fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful Islamist groups, chose not to confront ISIS because the combatants were locals with little enmity for each other.
“Many did not see a point in fighting their own relatives. ISIS is now in control of 95 percent of Raqqa and its rural environs. Tal Abyad is also back with it,” he said.
Raqqa, on the Euphrates River 385 km northeast of Damascus, is the only provincial capital to have fallen to President Bashar Assad’s opponents since the revolt broke out in March 2011.
ISIS pulled out of Raqqa and other towns in northern Syria this month after an Islamist rebel alliance attacked its strongholds, taking advantage of growing popular resentment of the group’s foreign commanders and their drive to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law.
But it has regrouped in the last few days, using snipers, truck-mounted commando units and suicide bombers.
Opposition sources said the expertise of its foreign commanders, including a senior figure known as Omar al-Shishani, has been crucial to its advance.
In the province of Aleppo west of Raqqa, activists said ISIS had regained several rural towns, including Hreitan and Basraton, where ISIS killed a senior commander in the Nour al-Din Zanki brigades, a key unit in the newly-formed Mujahedeen Army, which has been fighting ISIS in Aleppo.
Fighting also raged Sunday between Free Syrian Army units around the town of Renayan near Aleppo and in Urum to the east, as the rebel-jihadist clashes left the city vulnerable to advances by Assad’s forces, the sources said.
Activists with the Violations and Documentation Center, who’s own chief, Razan Zeitouneh, has been kidnapped by suspected Islamists rebels, said another mass grave containing 13 people was uncovered in Sheikh Najjar area of Aleppo.
They said 13 bodies had been pulled out from a wood factory in the neighborhood controlled by ISIS. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said Sunday that at least 697 people have been killed since the clashes began on Jan. 3. The toll includes 351 fighters from the Islamist and mainstream opposition brigades, 246 from ISIS and 100 civilians.
While the rebel infighting has grabbed the spotlight, the fight against the government has raged on across the country.
In the central city of Homs, government shelling killed more than 20 people Saturday in the rebel-held Al-Waer neighborhood, the Observatory said. It warned that the death toll could rise because dozens of people were critically wounded in the bombardment.
The Local Coordination Committees also reported shelling in Al-Waer. Rebels also have targeted loyalist areas with indiscriminate mortar fire.