March 1, 2018 / 7:21 PM / 5 months ago

Syria's ex-Qaeda vies with rivals over control of northwest Syria

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian jihadist rebels took back some ground on Thursday from rival insurgent groups near Syria’s border with Turkey after losing control of several towns to them in recent days, rebels and residents said.

The rebel-held area in northwestern Syria is their biggest remaining stronghold, and since last year it has been in the grip of Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance spearheaded by a former affiliate of al Qaeda.

Last month two of its rivals joined forces in a new alliance of rebel groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and in the past 10 days they have pushed Tahrir al-Sham from several towns and villages.

Their attack on Tahrir al-Sham came against the backdrop of big street protests in some of the towns it controls in the area against the local civilian administration.

However, in fighting on Wednesday and Thursday, it regained some territory and strengthened its position along the border with Turkey - an important strategic possession - the rebels and residents said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gained momentum in the war since Russia joined on his side in 2015, and has seized advantage of rebel in-fighting at points in the conflict for military advantage.

Increased conflict in the rebel-held northwest, an area that includes Idlib province and parts of Aleppo province, risks worsening the already dire situation of a million displaced people from other parts of Syria who have fled there.

Turkey also closely watches developments in northwest Syria, where it has established several observation posts in recent months as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran to reduce warfare.

The new alliance fighting against Tahrir al-Sham is called Jabhat Tahrir Soria - the Liberation of Syria Front - and was formed by two powerful groups called Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki.

STREET PROTESTS

The clashes across several towns in both Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the last 10 days have killed and wounded scores of people, according to rebels from both sides.

The fighting was close to camps where tens of thousands of civilians have taken shelter from recent heavy bombardment by the Syrian government and Russia’s air force.

More than two million people live in Idlib province, about half of them displaced people including rebel fighters and their families, according to the United Nations.

In recent days Tahrir al-Sham pulled back many of its fighters to a string of positions along the Turkish border, witnesses said.

“They have moved to the area around the crossing, where they are reinforcing their presence,” said Bassam Haji Mustafa, a senior official in the new alliance, Jabhat Tahrir Soria.

They also launched counter-attacks to regain the village of Kafr Lusein, near the border, and to push back into other towns including Maraat Misreen.

Street protests against the civilian administrations linked to Tahrir al-Sham complained about financial levies imposed on local people, which range from the licensing of pharmacies to issuing number plates for vehicles.

“Let them first repel the regime and its militias from the doorsteps of Idlib before trying to burden already suffering people,” said Abdullah Sheikh, a trader in Atma town.

In two other towns, Khan Sheikhoun and Saraqeb, local dignitaries have forced Tahrir al-Sham and other rebel groups to sign neutrality pacts to spare their towns from the in-fighting.

But the fear of an all-out war among rebel factions long divided by both ideology and local power struggles has kept other insurgent groups on the sidelines, containing the violence.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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