BEIRUT: Syrian rebel militias battled two small armed groups suspected of links to ISIS in Qunaitra province near the border with Israel, with at least 38 people killed in days of clashes, a spokesman and activists said Wednesday.
The ISIS group is not known to have a significant presence in southern Syria, but Maj. Isam al-Rayyes, spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front, said a group known as Jihad Units ambushed some of his fighters in Qunaitra who were on their way to join an offensive against regime troops.
He said the Southern Front has long suspected the Jihad Units of being loyal to ISIS. After the ambush, the militants raised black flags similar to those carried by ISIS.
Six of the Southern Front fighters were killed in the ambush, Rayyes said. Soon after, another ambush resulted in the kidnapping of two fighters, he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 38 people, including at least nine from the Jihad Units and three Saudi nationals, have been killed in the fighting since Monday.
The rebels have vowed to clear the Jihad Units from the province, and Rayyes said his men are currently besieging about 200 Jihad Units fighters in a village south of Qunaitra.
The ISIS-affiliated group is also referred to by some as the Jihad Army.
Fighters from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, a hard-line Islamist rebel group, have also joined in the fight against the Jihad Units, Rayess said, although there is no coordination.
“We will not allow for the presence of ISIS in the southern front,” Rayyes said in a telephone interview. In an offensive last year, the rebels seized most of Qunaitra province, which is also considered a gateway to the capital. The confrontation also saw the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Islamist militias clash with the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which last year emerged as a small rebel militia that had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The Observatory said the clashes, which were spread over five villages and towns, killed a prominent Nusra military commander from the same hometown as Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front.
The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade sparked the confrontation by seizing a headquarters of the Nusra Front in the area, the Observatory said.
Rebel groups posted several items of video footage purporting to show the anti-ISIS forces using tanks in the battles.
Elsewhere, regime airstrikes killed at least 21 people, including six children, and wounded 50 on in the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.
Explosives-filled barrels and missiles were used in the wave of bombing. In Idlib, airstrikes killed 10 people, five of them children, said the Britain-based monitor, which relies on a network of sources on the ground for its reports.
A newly formed rebel alliance calling itself the Army of Conquest has seized key positions in Idlib province in recent weeks, including the provincial capital of the same name, the town of Jisr al-Shughur and a military headquarters.
Meanwhile, Syria’s defense minister Gen. Fahd Freij discussed anti-terror efforts with his Iranian counterpart, Gen. Hossein Dehqan, during a visit to Tehran.
In New York, Iran’s foreign minister said Arab and Western demands for the ouster of President Bashar Assad have fueled years of unnecessary bloodshed by blocking talks on a political settlement.
Mohammad Javad Zarif said outsiders deciding that Assad should not be part of any political process was a mistake.
“You cannot tell [Syrians] that this person should not be a part of your future, the other person should not be a part of your future,” he said. “This will prevent a negotiation from taking place.”