Hardline Salafist brigade reportedly executes up to 160 rebel fighters as infighting rocks northwestern Syria

AMMAN: A hardline Islamist group allegedly tied to the Islamic State executed up to 160 Free Syrian Army (FSA) prisoners amidst ongoing infighting in northwest Syria, multiple rebel military sources directly affected by the executions confirmed to Syria Direct on Thursday.

Jund al-Aqsa, the independent Salafist brigade at the center of an ongoing round of jihadist infighting in Idlib and Hama provinces, reportedly carried out summary executions of scores of prisoners belonging to rival rebel brigades earlier this week.

The killings reportedly took place on Tuesday near the Idlib town of Khan Sheikhoun, the center of recent infighting between the hardline faction and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a rebel coalition that includes former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham.

While preparing to withdraw from their positions north of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, Jund fighters killed scores of prisoners, most of them recently captured FSA fighters, rebels told Syria Direct.

“Jund al-Aqsa couldn’t take all of the prisoners with them as they were withdrawing from their position, so they executed these men,” a military source affected by the executions told Syria Direct on Thursday on the condition of anonymity.

 Former captive recounts detainment and escape from Jund al-Aqsa. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Mohammad.

“This is the same thing that Daesh did when they executed captives the day that they were leaving the city of Saraqeb [in Idlib province].”

Among the reported dead include up to 80 fighters from Jaish a-Nasr, an FSA rebel group previously backed by the United States. Jaish a-Nasr also once fought alongside Jund al-Aqsa against the regime in the north Hama countryside as recently as October 2016.

“Yes, we fought with Jund al-Aqsa a few months ago, but they don’t keep their promises,” Mohammad Rashid, the spokesman for Jaish a-Nasr, told Syria Direct on Thursday. “They backstabbed us and our fighters.”

Jaish a-Nasr's relationship with Jund al-Aqsa unraveled in recent months after fighting broke out between the latter and several northern Syrian FSA brigades.

Last week, Jund al-Aqsa captured scores of Jaish a-Nasr prisoners after raiding one of the latter’s forward operating headquarters in the north Hama city of Kafr Zeita.

According to two reported survivors of the killings, Jaish a-Nasr prisoners and others were being held near Khan Sheikhoun this past Tuesday when they were taken outside in groups of six or seven. Gunfire rang out, and they did not return.

The accounts, in videos posted online on Wednesday, come from two Jaish a-Nasr members who claim to have played dead and fled the scene.

“This location was far away from our central headquarters, and as such, there was nothing that we could do to rescue them in time,” Jaish spokesman Rashid told Syria Direct. “We’re in negotiations as we speak to get the bodies back and anyone else who may still be held captive.”

  Fighters from the Jund al-Aqsa Islamist Brigade drive toward northwest Hama on August 31, 2016. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

It is not clear whether Jund al-Aqsa is still holding any live prisoners, the Jaish a-Nasr spokesman added.

Jund al-Aqsa has not publicly commented on the reported executions or ongoing infighting.

‘Apostates’

This week’s reported mass executions come amidst infighting in Idlib and Hama provinces that have pitted two hardline Salafist groups against each other. On Monday, the rival jihadist factions launched a series of suicide attacks, car bombs and targeted arrests against each other, Syria Direct reported.

The week of infighting in northwestern Syria exploded after Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham accused Jund al-Aqsa representatives of “coordinating and engaging with the Baghdadi khawarij (Kharijites),” the former said in a statement on Monday, referring to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

The term “Kharijites,” or “those who went outside [Islam],” refers to a seventh-century school of Islam noted for rebelling against Muslim leaders and for its unorthodox practice of takfir, or excommunication. In its statement, HTS leadership drew a direct connection between Jund al-Aqsa and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State, which is similarly criticized for engaging in takfir.

Multiple sources told Syria Direct on Thursday that they believe the executions could be because Jund al-Aqsa considers FSA groups as kuffar, or non-believers.

“They call us apostates,” the anonymous FSA military source told Syria Direct. “This makes us a legitimate target in their eyes.”

Negotiations between local rebel authorities to put an end to the infighting are reportedly ongoing, pro-opposition media reported this week. At the center of the negotiations is an alleged proposal to relocate Jund al-Aqsa to Raqqa province, territory largely controlled by the Islamic State.

“Jund al-Aqsa can bring their small weapons, and they’ll have safe passage to Raqqa,” the FSA source said. “But as of right now, Jund al-Aqsa hasn’t agreed.”

 

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.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.

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.