By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, Sept 18 A rebel group affiliated with al
Qaeda overran a Syrian town near the border with Turkey on
Wednesday after fighting broke out with units of the Arab- and
Western-backed Free Syrian Army, opposition activists said.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
stormed the town of Azaz, 5 km (2 miles) from the Syrian-Turkish
border and killed at least five Free Syrian Army members, they
The fighting was the most severe since tensions mounted
earlier this year between the rebel factions fighting to
overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
It could pose a dilemma for the Turkish government, which
has been allowing militant Islamist fighters to cross into Syria
from its territory, but may not be keen to see a formidable al
Qaeda presence so close to its border.
Azaz is 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo, once Syria's
commercial and industrial hub. A frequent target for air raids
and missile strikes by Assad's forces, Azaz is also adjacent to
al-Salamah, a border crossing with Turkey.
Activist Abu Louay al-Halabi said the fighting broke out
after the Storm of the North Brigade, a Free Syrian Army unit,
resisted attempts by the Islamic State fighters to abduct a
German doctor working as a volunteer at a private hospital in
"By taking Azaz, the Islamic State is a step closer to
controlling the crossing. Its objective seems to be taking over
the whole countryside north of Aleppo," he said.
Opposition sources said two Free Syrian Army units, Liwa
al-Fath and Liwa al-Tawhid, based in Aleppo, had sent
reinforcements to the Salamah crossing to defend it against a
possible al Qaeda strike.
Among those killed in the attack on Azaz was Hazem al-Azizi,
an activist affiliated with the Storm of the North brigade.
Better known by his alias Omar Diab, Azizi worked as a
correspondent for the Shahba Press opposition media network,
fellow activists said.
REBEL GROUPS 'SUSPICIOUS OF EACH OTHER'
Activist Abdallah Tareq said the violence had undermined
efforts to capitalise on the relative weakness of Assad's forces
in the north of the country.
"Every rebel group is suspicious of each other and the
regime has been good at exploiting it. Not only we have been
seeing fighting between the Free Syrian army and al Qaeda, but
also among the Free Syrian Army itself and jihadists against
jihadists," he said.
To the east, opposition sources said the Islamic State on
Wednesday drove out the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade, an Islamist
rebel unit backed by Qatar, from the central areas of the city
of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates River, in fighting that killed
six guerrillas from the two sides.
The violence in Deir al-Zor, where Assad forces still
control the airport and several parts of the city, came after
the Islamist State routed fighters from Ahfad al-Rasul, which is
not linked to al Qaeda, from the provincial capital, Raqqa, a
Fawaz Tello, a veteran opposition activist, said the
strength of al Qaeda-linked brigades stemmed from the failure of
the Free Syrian Army to unite rebel units inside the country and
the reluctance of Western and Arab backers of the revolt to
provide Assad's more moderate foes with advanced weapons.
"The al Qaeda-linked groups seem to be fighting with
everyone wherever they go. But no one is going to seriously
challenge them as long as the Assad regime is in place and the
opposition's pleas for advanced weapons to bring him down goes
unanswered," Tello said.
"The solution to al Qaeda in Syria is to get rid of the
Assad regime and then build a national force to rout it from the