BEIRUT: Syrian rebel groups scrambled Friday to head off a potentially explosive round of clashes in northwest Idlib province between a leading, U.S.-backed militia and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Anti-regime activists in Idlib accused the Nusra Front of derailing the truce efforts underway by storming the village of Deir Sunbol, the headquarters of Jamal Maarouf, who heads the Syria Rebel Front.
The Syria Rebel Front, part of the umbrella Free Syrian Army, is one of a number of rebel militias that have received American weapons and training this year.
An anti-regime activist based in Idlib told The Daily Star the clashes, which broke out just before dawn, had ended by early morning, as fighters from at least a dozen other rebel groups fanned out in the province to enforce a tenuous calm.
Brandishing white flags and calling themselves “peacemaking brigades,” they demanded that each side pull back to separate, nearby villages, to end the standoff.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime monitoring group, said a number of fighters were killed in the clashes before the neutral rebel force deployed, while local reports on the fighting were also unable to give a precise casualty figure.
The activist said the next few days would determine whether any long-lasting truce could be put into effect.
“We’ll see if the arbitration efforts succeed, but the [truce] deployment was largely successful,” he said.
But the efforts were made even more difficult by Maarouf’s fiery public accusations against Nusra.
At the beginning of the year, Maarouf’s militia spearheaded a largely successful campaign to eject ISIS militants from northern Syria, although the Al-Qaeda splinter group later recovered positions in next-door Aleppo province.
In the video, Maarouf calls the head of the Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the equivalent of ISIS, and accuses the group of serving the interests of both Iran and the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Maarouf also challenges the Nusra Front to attack regime positions in several northern areas instead of fighting mainstream rebels in Idlib.
“We liberated [Idlib] from the regime, and from ISIS, and we will liberate it from you,” he says. “You’ve come here to do away with the Syrian revolution!”
During the course of the war, Nusra Front fighters have informally allied with many Syrian rebel groups, both mainstream and Islamist.
The standoff in Idlib was touched off earlier this week when a small unit reportedly defected from the Syria Rebel Front, which then tried to disarm the fighters, who were embraced by Nusra.
Nusra supporters, meanwhile, accused Maarouf of “deviating” from the objectives of the uprising and engaging in theft and extortion.
As the standoff developed during the week, it inspired Friday protests held under the slogan of “United we stand, divided we fall.” People in a number of Idlib towns and villages took part in the weekly event, demanding an end to the fighting.
Supporters of the opposition are sharply divided on the confrontation.
Some blame Maarouf for provoking the Nusra Front, which has spent a considerable amount of effort in fighting alongside rebel groups against the regime. Others blame the Nusra Front for taking up arms against a mainstream rebel group in an area that was largely seized from Assad’s forces early in the conflict.
A third segment, as represented by the Friday demonstrations, just wants the infighting to end. A video statement posted on YouTube by a member of Ahrar al-Sham, a leading, conservative Islamist militia, blamed both sides.
The statement, by a militia commander named Abu Bakr, argued that extremism wasn’t limited to ISIS, loathed by wide segments of Syrian society – he criticized the Nusra Front for waging war against FSA groups for not being sufficiently religious.
However, he added that FSA groups were also guilty of “corrupt” behavior – whether this involved extorting money from civilian populations, or “blasphemy,” meaning using language that is offensive to pious Muslims.
Both sides need to “purify” their ranks, the militia commander said.
The clashes also come against the backdrop of the international campaign, led by Washington, against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with American officials committed to training and equipping mainstream Syria rebels.
Some critics of U.S. involvement in Syria maintain that Syrian rebel groups are too fragmented to serve as strong allies in the fight, while many rebel groups and supporters of the opposition to Assad are angry that the coalition is focused only on ISIS and the Nusra Front, and not the Syrian regime.
The fortunes of Maarouf’s Syria Rebel Front, after its earlier successes against ISIS militants, will likely be watched closely by observers as it takes on the Nusra Front.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest responded to criticism that the Obama administration’s policy on Syria is flailing after a memo from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reportedly criticized U.S. strategy as fuzzy on the Assad regime.
Earnest said U.S. strategy against ISIS was working. He denied Washington was focused on weakening the Islamist militants at the expense of its parallel goal of pushing Assad out of power.
“The policy that we have for Assad is really clear: We believe that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead,” Earnest said in an interview on CNN.