December 15, 21014
By Osama Abu Zeid and Brent Eng
AMMAN: An Islamist rebel group in northern Homs province lost a majority of its fighters after declaring allegiance to the Islamic State over the weekend.
“The number of fighters in the battalion [Assoud al-Islam] shrunk after [its leader] Rafid Taha declared allegiance [to IS],” Mahmoud Taha, a media spokesperson for the Assoud al-Islam and cousin of Rafid Taha, told Syria Direct Monday.
Assoud al-Islam’s declaration of allegiance marks the first IS activity in Homs province since the militant Islamist group’s meteoric rise to prominence in the latter half of this year.
Taha declined to comment when asked why Assoud al-Islam decided to join IS.
The group had numbered around 500 soldiers, most of whom come from the northern Homs town of Telbisa, where the battalion’s base is located.
An Assoud al-Islam fighter celebrates in Hama province. Photo courtesy of Assoud al-Islam.
Four hundred of those fighters have already left the battalion since it signaled its intent to join IS, said Taha, who refused to elaborate on why the fighters abandoned the battalion.
Prior to its declaration of allegiance to IS, Assoud al-Islam was part of Feilaq a-Sham, a coalition of 19 mid-sized moderate Islamist rebel groups that was formed in March 2014 to counteract the formation of the more conservative Islamic Front.
But Assoud al-Islam broke off from Feilaq a-Sham on Saturday and kidnapped the leader of another moderate rebel coalition, Feilaq al-Homs, before releasing him the next day reportedly in exchange for 10 Kalshnikovs, according to a pro-opposition social media page.
Feilaq a-Homs is a Homs-based opposition militia comprised of former Free Syrian Army fighters who retreated from Old Homs after the UN-brokered a truce ending the regime’s siege on the city earlier this year.
The regime now controls Homs city, but the rebels have successfully maintained a strong presence north of the provincial capital.
A source in Feilaq a-Sham’s command center told Syria Direct Sunday that Assoud al-Islam had not responded to their attempts at contact.
“Rafid Taha has refused to talk to us for the past three days,” said contact, who asked to remain anonymous.
“The leadership of Feilaq is trying to convince Rafid to give up his decision to join [IS] and we will do so until he issues a statement confirming he is permanently separated from us.”
Earlier this year, IS said that it considered northern Homs as part of its caliphate.