September 19, 2013

Al-Qaida militants capture town in northern Syria

By 
Bassem Mroue and 
Zeina Karam / The Associated Press

BEIRUT — Al-Qaida militants seized a town near the Turkish border Thursday after expelling Western-backed rebels from the area, demonstrating the growing power of jihadis as they seek to expand their influence across opposition-held Syrian territory.

click image to enlarge

This citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows damaged buildings due to heavy fighting between government forces and Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, Syria, on Thursday.

The Associated Press / Aleppo Media Center

The infighting – now engulfing many parts of northern Syria – threatened to further split opposition forces outgunned by President Bashar Assad's troops and strengthen his hand as he engages with world powers on relinquishing his chemical weapons.

Opposition forces who had been hoping that U.S.-led military strikes would help tip the balance in the civil war are growing increasingly desperate after the Obama administration shelved those plans in favor of a diplomatic solution.

Many rebels blame jihadis in their ranks for the West's reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria or give them the advanced weapons they need. There is also growing concern that the dominant role the extremists are playing is discrediting the rebellion.

Yet the jihadis, including members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida offshoot, have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, fighting alongside the Western-backed Free Syrian Army to capture military facilities, strategic installations and key neighborhoods in cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

But the two sides have turned their guns on each other. Turf wars and retaliatory killings have evolved into ferocious battles in what has effectively become a war within a war in northern and eastern Syria, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.

"The moderates realized that they're losing a lot of territory to the Islamists and jihadi fighters, and so they're more desperate," said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The battles for control of Azaz, a town only few kilometers from the Turkish border, represents some of the worst infighting in recent months.

Members of ISIL overran the town Wednesday evening, killing several fighters from the Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group, before forcing them to pull out.

Amateur video showed dozens of gunmen with heavy machine guns on pickup trucks gathering at the border with Turkey with reinforcements. The Associated Press was able to verify the footage based on interviews and other reporting on the events depicted.

A relatively moderate Islamist group with influence in the region, the al-Tawheed brigade, was mediating Thursday to get the al-Qaida-linked militants to leave Azaz, but fighting was continuing.

The prospect of al-Qaida militants so near the frontier is worrisome for the Turkish government, which closed the nearby border crossing of Bab al-Salameh, according to a Foreign Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

The Azaz fighting highlights the turmoil in the rebel ranks. Al-Qaida militants and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra have proven remarkably adept on the ground but have increasingly tried to wrest control from more moderate rebels.

Charles Lister, an analyst with HIS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in Britain, said al-Qaida-linked fighters make up between 10,000 and 12,000 of the insurgency's estimated 100,000-member force but wield far more influence because of their better discipline and battle experience.

"They (ISIL) capture d from the regime much of the territory that is now under opposition control, and for that reason they will not be excluded from the revolutionary structure even if they have to fight other rebels," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center.

"They feel that that the FSA has turned on them because the American pressure to deal with extremists," he said.

FSA spokesman Loay al-Mikdad said the rebels were acting in self-defense and questioned the purpose of the ISIL storming an area that had been among the first to be "liberated" in Syria.

(Continued on page 2)

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