BEIRUT: The Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has seized a notorious rebel Free Syrian Army commander in the southern province of Deraa, days after he announced the formation of the latest FSA group dedicated to battling extremists.
The incident came as the Nusra signaled it would abide by the latest directive from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri to halt its campaign against ISIS, an Al-Qaeda splinter group, although a recent wave of clashes has displaced tens of thousands of people in the east of the country.
“Nusra Front last night arrested the head of the Military Council of Deraa, Capt. Ahmad Naameh, along with five other commanders of opposition factions,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime group.
Activists also reported his capture, which took place amid significant rebel advances in the province, where Nusra Front has a limited presence.
Naameh had traveled from Jordan to Deraa last week to help unite rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s regime, excluding those of the jihadist Nusra.
In a video recorded this week, distributed by the Observatory, Naameh said: “Who is going to rule Syria? Not the extremists ... who behead people ... No, it will be the Free Syrian Army, which is well organized, and which believes in democracy, democratic rule, and the civil state.”
The Observatory’s Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP he was likely to have been detained because of the statement, while Nusra accused him of delivering the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh in Deraa to regime forces.
Some activists in Deraa have also blamed him for allegedly engineering the kidnapping of rival rebel fighters in collusion with the regime, as well as mismanaging funds allocated for fighters and military equipment. Naameh has been based in northern Jordan for long periods of the war, due to local hostility directed at him.
Some two months ago, rebels fighting to topple Assad announced the establishment of the so-called Southern Front, which includes some 30,000 fighters from more than 55 mainstream opposition groups operating from the Jordanian border to the outskirts of Damascus and the Golan Heights.
The new alliance is in part aimed at alleviating Western concerns that providing greater aid to the fractious rebels would bolster Al-Qaeda groups and see heavy weapons fall into the hands of extremists.
Meanwhile, the Nusra Front Sunday set down its conditions to stop battling ISIS, after several months of intense, bloody battles against each other, particularly in northern and northeastern Syria.
“We will follow the orders of ... Ayman al-Zawahri ... to stop any attack on our part against ISIS, while continuing to respond whenever they attack Muslims and all that is sacred to them,” Nusra said in a statement.
“As soon as ISIS announces the end of its attacks on Muslims, we will spontaneously stop firing,” said the jihadist group, adding it had only fought ISIS in areas “where it was on the attack.”
While many rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad initially welcomed the Nusra Front and later ISIS in the Syrian war, widespread opposition to ISIS later emerged over its quest for dominance in opposition-held areas.
Mainstream and Islamist rebel groups launched a massive offensive against ISIS on Jan. 3, and the Nusra Front joined the fight against the group later on.
As far back as last June, Zawahri weighed in on ISIS’ involvement in Syria, designating Nusra as responsible for operations there and ordering ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to restrict the group’s activities to its home base in Iraq.
In the runup to Nusra’s pledge to step back in its campaign against ISIS, clashes between the two sides have forced more than 60,000 people to flee their homes, emptied villages and killed scores of fighters, the Observatory said.
The Observatory said the Nusra Front had taken over control of the town of Abriha in Deir al-Zor province from ISIS, as at least 62 fighters had been killed in around four days of clashes in the area.
The fighting has emptied Abriha and the towns of Busaira and Zir, whose populations total over 60,000, the Observatory said.
The Observatory, which monitors violence in Syria through a network of sources, said Islamist fighters had burned houses and a young girl had been killed by mortar fire during the fighting.
Al-Qaeda’s Zawahri has called ISIS’ entry into Syria’s civil war a “political disaster” for Islamist militants there and urged the group to redouble its efforts in Iraq instead.