Nusra reportedly attacks newly pledged SDF forces in Aleppo

AMMAN: Instead of battling the Islamic State, the recently announced Aleppo branch of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces alliance appears to be bogged down in low-level, localized fighting with Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham.

Just over a week ago, 15 Arab and Kurdish factions in Aleppo and Idlib provinces aligned themselves with the YPG-led SDF to fight “terrorism represented by the Islamic State, its sister [organizations] and the criminal Baathist regime.”

Instead, Jaish al-Thuwar, the largest Sunni Arab faction participating in the Aleppo SDF, has become embroiled in a series of provocations involving non-SDF rebels such as Jabhat a-Nusra in northern Aleppo.

Jaish al-Thuwar says that its forces were “subjected to a terrorist attack by Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham” on Monday, leading to hours of fighting in a village under their control near the town of Azaz, 6km south of the Turkish border, that produced casualties on both sides.

The Jaish al-Thuwar, a Sunni Arab coalition of FSA affiliates, did not elaborate on exactly how the alleged attack began, but at least one non-SDF rebel commander has cast doubt on the coalition’s narrative of the attack.

There was no Nusra assault, Capt. Abu al-Baraa, a commander with the rival Marea operations room, told pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl on Tuesday. Al-Baraa’s forces are stationed near Azaz where the alleged attack took place. Jabhat a-Nusra is not part of the Marea operations room, a united front consisting of a mix of mostly-FSA rebel brigades in north Aleppo.

Al-Baraa alleged that Jaish al-Thuwar fighters had fired on fighters from al-Jabha al-Shamiya, a large rebel faction with a presence in northern Aleppo, al-Baraa said, thereby sparking clashes near Azaz on Monday.

Kurdish media sources reported Tuesday that Jaish al-Thuwar been attacked by Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham on Monday leading to several hours of fighting, without providing further details.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm the sequence of events near Azaz.

Jaish al-Thuwar took the opportunity to use the alleged attack Monday to justify a lack of movement toward its supposed battle against the Islamic State.

“We in the leadership of Jaish al-Thuwar condemn those terrorist attacks as we prepare to begin operations against the terrorist organization IS in the northern Aleppo countryside,” an announcement posted on the group’s official website read on Monday.

The SDF, of which Jaish al-Thuwar is a prominent member, “was aiming to launch a large battle against the Islamic State in the Aleppo countryside,” Khaled al-Zino, a Jaish al-Thuwar spokesman told Syria Direct Wednesday.

“If not for the presence of Jabhat a-Nusra in the Aleppo countryside, we would be trying to liberate [territories there] from IS.”

The YPG, the dominant faction of the SDF, has not officially commented on the Jaish al-Thuwar skirmishes in north Aleppo. Local Kurdish media are quoting sources “close” to the YPG acknowledging the tensions, but little more besides that.

Nusra strikes back

While the motives behind the reported fighting between Jaish al-Thuwar and Jabhat a-Nusra earlier this week remain unclear, several journalists based in Aleppo and adjacent Idlib province told Syria Direct that the alignment of Jaish al-Thuwar with the SDF could put them on a collision course with Jabhat a-Nusra.

“If FSA factions in Aleppo city and its countryside work with the SDF, then Nusra will attack them,” said Aleppo-based journalist Mustafa Sultan.

The Jaish al-Thuwar spokesman went even farther, linking Monday’s incident with joining the SDF.

“Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham have accused us of apostasy,” al-Zino said, “the same claim they make against all the SDF factions.”

The Al-Qaeda affiliate also launched attacks Tuesday against YPG/YPJ forces in a Yezidi Kurdish village in the northern Aleppo countryside and the provincial capital Aleppo’s YPG-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood.

“Attacks with heavy weaponry” that originated from a nearby village controlled by Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham fighters struck Basufan, 18km due south of Afrin city, the capital of the Kurdish-controlled territories in the northwestern corner of Aleppo province. “YPG repelled the attacks by a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham mercenaries,” a local news site reported late Tuesday.

Coinciding with operations near Afrin, Nusra forces shelled YPG-held Sheikh Maqsoud on the northern edge of Aleppo city and attempted to storm the neighborhood, Kurdish ARA News reported Tuesday.

“The operation led to the death of at least nine civilians” and damaged buildings, an unnamed source with the YPG told ARA News. While YPG forces kept Nusra from entering, the group “imposed a blockade on the neighborhood, cutting off the Shuqayf and Castello roads,” vital lifelines for the neighborhood.

Jabhat a-Nusra has not yet commented on operations against the YPG or Jaish al-Thuwar in northern Aleppo.

As Nusra has sporadically clashed with both Jaish al-Thuwar in northern Aleppo and the YPG in Afrin and Aleppo city in recent months, it is not immediately clear whether this week’s fighting is directly related to the formation of the SDF in Aleppo and Idlib last week.

However, Jaish al-Thuwar, the YPG and other groups overtly aligned with the SDF, while their effectiveness has yet to be tested, could be seen as a greater threat in light of their new allegiances to a coalition whose forces in al-Hasakah have received US-led coalition air support and weapons shipments.

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Mohammed Ghazi

Mohammed was born in Daraa and studied aircraft engineering at Aleppo university. He worked as mechanic for almost six years and also in sound engineering. He travelled to Jordan in 2013 and worked in photography production field.

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.