BEIRUT: Militants from the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS publicly executed and crucified eight rebels fighting both President Bashar Assad’s regime and the ultraconservative jihadists, as clashes between the two sides heated up around the country.
The outskirts of Damascus witnessed the latest flare-up between the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, currently spearheading a major offensive in Iraq, and Islamist rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“ISIS executed eight men in Deir Hafer in the east of Aleppo province” Saturday because they belonged to rebel groups that had fought against the jihadists as well as Assad’s forces, it said.
ISIS then “crucified them in the main square of the village, where their bodies will remain for three days,” the Britain-based anti-regime group of activists said.
Also in Aleppo province, a ninth man was crucified for eight hours as a form of punishment in Al-Bab town near the border with Turkey.
He survived the ordeal.
ISIS first emerged in Syria’s war in late spring last year and was initially welcomed by some Syrian rebels who believed its combat experience would help topple Assad.
But subsequent jihadist abuses quickly turned the insurgents, including Islamists, against ISIS. Rebels launched a major anti-ISIS offensive in January 2014, and have pushed them out of large swathes of Aleppo province and all of Idlib in the northwest.
The Observatory said that between ISIS and an array of rebel groups they had killed around 7,000 people since January.
However, ISIS remains firmly rooted in Raqqa, its northern Syrian headquarters, and wields significant power in Deir al-Zor in the east near the border with Iraq.
Activists say the group’s Iraq offensive and capture of heavy weapons – some of them U.S.-made – appears to have boosted its confidence in Syria.
East of Damascus, “fierce clashes broke out early Sunday between rebels from the Army of Islam and ISIS near the town of Hammourieh,” the Observatory said.
The Army of Islam is a major component of the Islamic Front, Syria’s largest rebel coalition which has been fighting ISIS for months, but such fighting in Damascus province is unprecedented.
Regime soldiers and warplanes backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah party also pounded rebel positions near the capital with rockets and surface-to-surface missiles, said the Local Coordination Committees activist network.
Islamist rebels Saturday launched a counteroffensive in the border town of Al-Bukamal in Deir al-Zor province, challenging the grip of ISIS militants.
Earlier this week ISIS fighters appeared to be consolidating their hold over Al-Bukamal when the local leader of the rival Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, pledged allegiance to them.
An Islamist website quoted Abu Youssef al-Masri, the local Nusra Front leader who gave an oath of allegiance to ISIS Tuesday, as saying a suicide bomber blew himself in Al-Bukamal Friday night, killing three of Masri’s men and wounding 20.
The Observatory reported heavy fighting over the weekend in the town between ISIS-aligned forces and rival Islamists, who include Nusra Front fighters from outside the town who had not sided with ISIS.
The Observatory’s director Rami Abdel-Rahman said local tribal figures were trying to broker a ceasefire across the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, including Al-Bukamal.
Al-Bukamal lies across the border from the Iraqi town of Al-Qaim, which was seized by ISIS fighters more than a week ago.
The military gains by ISIS fighters have highlighted the extent to which the conflict in Iraq is intertwined with the civil war in Syria, where more than 160,000 people have been killed in the last three years.
Regime warplanes carried out strikes against several ISIS targets in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa provinces over the weekend, but resulted in the deaths of three civilians, the Observatory said.
Several people were killed Saturday, including at least two children, when a car bomb exploded in the town of Douma, northeast of Damascus, the Observatory added.
Video uploaded on the Internet by activists showed the flaming wreckage of an overturned vehicle in front of the blackened pillars of a nearby building, which activists said was located in a market.