Calls to end fighting as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham takes on former allies in northwest Syria

AMMAN: A commander with the prominent Islamist faction Ahrar a-Sham called for its forces to mobilize on Wednesday to stop a second day of inter-rebel violence in Idlib and Aleppo provinces “by any means necessary.”

Abu Ammar al-Omar, general commander of Ahrar a-Sham, one of the largest rebel factions in Syria, announced a general mobilization of his forces on Wednesday to “stop the infighting by all means necessary, even force,” in an audio message circulated online.

Wednesday’s fighting was a continuation of clashes that began on Monday evening, when Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), previously known as Jabhat a-Nusra, attacked headquarters and positions belonging to Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction Jaish al-Mujahideen in the opposition-held west Aleppo countryside and neighboring Idlib province.

Jaish al-Mujahideen claimed there was “no explanation” for the JFS attack in an official statement issued on Tuesday, and called for the support of rebel groups to fend off the attack.

In the following hours, FSA factions Suqour a-Sham and al-Jabha a-Shamiya—the latter being a coalition of which Jaish al-Mujahideen is a member—entered the fray. Other FSA groups and Islamist brigades such as Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman also reportedly clashed with JFS on Tuesday.

“The battle has begun,” Abu Issa a-Sheikh, the commander of Suqour a-Sham, said in a voice recording posted online on Tuesday, to “cleanse this holy earth . . . from the filth of these criminals,” referring to JFS. He identified his own brigade as well as Ahrar a-Sham, Failaq a-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, Fastaqim Kama Umirt and “all FSA factions” in Idlib as involved in the fighting.

On Tuesday, Suqour a-Sham captured eight villages south of Idlib city from JFS, a source on the ground told Syria Direct.

The same day, in the opposition-held west Aleppo countryside, JFS seized headquarters and storehouses from al-Jabha a-Shamiya and arrested a number of fighters, a rebel spokesman told Syria Direct.

“Our guys called us shortly before they were taken,” he said, requesting anonymity, “asking whether they should abandon their positions and throw down their weapons.”

 Protesters in the west Aleppo countryside town of Atareb call for an end to rebel infighting on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Thiqa Agency.

Rebel spokesman and opposition activists told Syria Direct that clashes continued on Wednesday, at a slower pace than the day before, at positions scattered through opposition-held Idlib province and the adjacent west Aleppo countryside.

“Clashes are ongoing in Jabal a-Zawiya,” roughly 20km south of Idlib city, a spokesman with Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction al-Jabha a-Shamiya told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Nusra attacked our headquarters for weapons, ammunition and supplies, and it is trying to gain more.”

JFS battled Jaish al-Islam at the latter’s positions near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey in the north Idlib countryside on Wednesday, a citizen journalist in the area told Syria Direct.

JFS rebranded itself last year, changing its name and renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda. Despite being the most powerful player in northwest Idlib province, JFS has been under increased pressure in recent weeks amidst an intensified bombing campaign led by the United States. US military officials claim that strikes by manned and unmanned military aircraft have killed “more than 150 Al-Qaeda terrorists” since January 1.

A three-week-old nationwide ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia does not include JFS.

A statement issued online by JFS on Tuesday “about recent events” did not refer to Jaish al-Mujahideen by name, but did accuse opposition groups that attended this week’s talks in Astana, Kazakhstan of conspiring against the group.

“We had to thwart the conspiracies before they occurred,” JFS said in its statement.

Syrian factions Jaish al-Mujahideen, Suqour a-Sham and Jaish al-Islam sent representatives to the talks.

A subsequent message from JFS, sent on Wednesday via the secure instant messaging app Telegram, reasserted that the group’s fight is with Jaish al-Mujahideen alone. JFS also accused Suqour a-Sham and Jaish al-Islam of unprovoked attacks on its positions.

The JFS attack has drawn widespread condemnation from opposition jurists. A statement posted online by four independent religious clerics on Tuesday, including the prominent Saudi Salafi cleric Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al-Muhaysini, called on JFS to “withdraw the convoys” and bring any quarrel with Jaish al-Mujahideen to a religious court.

Ahrar a-Sham issued a similar call in its own statement on Tuesday, adding that it had “spread checkpoints and forces to prevent the convoys of JFS or others from attacking Muslims.”

In a defensive move, Jaish al-Mujahideen merged earlier this week with the larger, more powerful Ahrar a-Sham faction following the JFS attack. Jaish al-Mujahideen commander Muhammad Jumaa Bakour confirmed the merger to pro-opposition news site Enab Baladi on Tuesday, without providing further details. Ahrar has not confirmed the merger.

“JFS is at a crossroads,” Labib al-Nahhas, Ahrar a-Sham’s Chief of Foreign Political Relations tweeted on Tuesday. “Either join the revolution once and for all, or be the new DAESH,” he said, using a derogatory Arabic term for IS.

‘Afraid of what is coming’

While this is not the first instance of internal rebel fighting in Idlib, this week’s battles come on the heels of a fight between Ahrar a-Sham and hardline Islamist brigade Jund al-Aqsa last week.

The infighting has sapped public support for the groups involved, civilians in Idlib told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“People are grumbling, angry about what is happening,” Ayman, a civilian from Saraqeb, in Idlib province, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Infighting makes the factions lose popular support because people feel they are fighting for themselves, not for the people.”

Dozens of civilians demonstrated on Monday and Tuesday in the Idlib town of Maarat a-Numan and the west Aleppo town of Atareb—where Jaish al-Mujahideen is based—and called for an end to the clashes.

At least six civilians have been killed in the past two days as a result of the infighting. Five members of a single family were killed by a JFS mortar in the west Aleppo countryside on Tuesday, while a woman and two children were killed by stray bullets in an Idlib village while fleeing the fighting, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

“Civilians are being killed for nothing,” Hussam Nabhan, the pseudonym of a member of the Civil Defense in the Jabal a-Zawiya area 20km south of Idlib city told Syria Direct on Wednesday. Jabal a-Zawiya saw some of the most intense fighting in recent days.

“Everyone is afraid of what is coming, that it could get worse.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.