November 4, 2014
By Dan Wilkofsky and Osama Abu Zeid
AMMAN: Jabhat a-Nusra appears to have won the battle for south Idlib province in a major setback for the US-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) after Nusra captured the group’s headquarters of Jabal a-Zawiya and its surrounding villages.
“We no longer see any SRF fighters at all” in the area, Mohammed Ibrahim, a media activist east of Maarat a-Nauman, told Syria Direct Tuesday.
Jabhat a-Nusra completed its takeover of Jabal a-Zawiya Saturday by seizing the hometown village of SRF leader Jamal Maruf. Photos circulated on social media Sunday reportedly showing combatants raising the Islamic State flag inside Maruf’s house.
Nusra’s victory over the SRF comes after a week-long siege of Jabal a-Zawiya that witnessed a rapid series of Nusra gains, including the capture of seven SRF villages October 27. The next day, Nusra invaded and took large sections of the nearby SRF-controlled city of Maarat a-Nauman.
The SRF pulled out of Jabal a-Zawiya over the weekend. Maruf called the move “necessary to prevent civilian bloodshed” in a video widely circulated on social media, while insisting that the battle is not over.
“God willing, we will liberate Jabal a-Zawiya [from Nusra forces] village by village.”
In the meantime, Jabhat a-Nusra has set about fortifying its positions and imposing new rules on the inhabitants of Jabal a-Zawiya.
“The first thing they thing did was build a checkpoint and begin forcing women to wear the hijab,” said Ibrahim.
Inside Jamal Maruf’s house in Deir Sunbul. Photo courtesy of Syrian Reporter.
The week-long hostilities between the SRF and Nusra began on October 26 when the two sides engaged in a firefight in the Nusra-controlled town of al-Bara under unclear circumstances.
The SRF claimed it entered al-Bara in order to detain SRF-affiliated individuals wanted by the local sharia court on charges of “looting and assaults on civilians,” according to its October 26 statement.
Nusra denied those claims the same day, saying the SRF started the war by “storming the village of [al-Bara], raining down a barrage of mortars” and then advancing on a neighboring town, at which point Nusra intervened to stop further bloodshed.
One pro-opposition journalist had another version of events: The SRF entered al-Bara to detain and confiscate weapons from former fighters who had defected and joined Nusra, Sham News Network correspondent Hani Halal told Syria Direct, a claim echoed by Mohammed Ibrahim.
Whatever caused the outbreak of violence between Nusra and SRF in al-Bara, and subsequently across the southern Idlib countryside, tensions between the two rebel groups have been brewing for months. In July, for reasons still unclear, Nusra attacked SRF fighters near the Idlib villages of Darkush, A-Zanbaka and Shughur, killing at least 100 fighters, reported pro-opposition Smart News.
“Not the time”
Last week, a group of Idlib-based religious students and scholars launched the “Don’t Fight” campaign demanding an immediate ceasefire between the SRF and Nusra and the mutual release of prisoners. Media activists launched the “Not the Time” campaign the same week, stressing that fighting the regime, not each other, should be the priority.
On Friday, 15 rebel brigades sent representatives to mediate between Nusra and the SRF in Jabal a-Zawiya, to no avail.
American-led coalition strikes on Nusra seem only to have intensified the Al-Qaida affiliate’s hostility towards the US-backed SRF, as well as increase Nusra’s appeal among local rebels.
Dozens of fighters from the SRF and another US-backed rebel outfit Harakat Hazm have defected and joined the ranks of Nusra and allied group Jund al-Aqsa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday.
“Most of the SRF fighters pledged allegiance to Nusra after they took the SRF headquarters—including a battalion from Harakat Hazm,” said Mohammed Ibrahim.
The rivalry between the SRF and Nusra, culminating in last week’s battles, appears to be rooted in continued US military aid to the SRF and affiliated moderate rebel groups, Charles Lister wrote in a Huffington Post article published on October 7.
“The very apparent Western-led bolstering of moderate rebels on the condition that they cease all relations with jihadist groups is a clear threat to Nusra’s long-term viability in Syria.”
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