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Middle east

Rebels clash with al Qaeda-linked group in Syria

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-01-04

An alliance of Syrian rebels have launched a “revolution” against an Islamist extremist group linked to al Qaeda, highlighting deepening divisions within the country’s armed opposition against President Bashar al-Assad.

Northern Syria has been gripped by fighting over the past two days between members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a powerful al Qaeda affiliate, and a newly formed alliance of different Syrian rebel groups. The rebels have named themselves the Army of Mujahideen, and oppose what they see as the ISIL’s attempt to take over their struggle, which began nearly three years ago, to overthrow Assad’s government.

"The revolution has returned to its true path, and the rays of the sun have started to shine on Syria," Ibrahim al-Idelbi, an activist from northwest Syria with close ties to the rebels, wrote on his Facebook page.

"January 3, 2014: The revolution against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant begins," Ammar, from the port city of Latakia, also wrote on Facebook.

'People have had enough'

Activists and rebels have long accused ISIL of imposing a reign of terror on areas under its control, including public executions as well as the kidnapping, torture and assassination of rival rebels and civilians.

Aron Lund, an expert on Syria's insurgency, said that the ISIL, which sees itself as a nascent Islamic state governed by a harsh interpretation of sharia law, has alienated other rebel groups, including less radical Islamists.

"We see what the other groups say – that they've given ISIL one chance after another, but that they keep burning their bridges," said Lund, editor of the Syria in Crisis website of the Carnegie Endowment.

The recently formed Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, two broad alliances that bring together tens of thousands of opposition fighters, both condemned ISIL on Friday.

"We call on ISIL to withdraw immediately from Atareb (in northern Syria)... and remind them that those who freed Atareb (from Assad's regime) are those you are fighting today," said the Islamic Front, Syria's largest rebel alliance.

Angry demonstrators also took to the streets of the country’s largest city, Aleppo, on Friday to protest against the ISIL, chanting, "Free Syrian Army forever! Crush ISIL and Assad!"

The main opposition Syrian National Coalition on Saturday backed the fight against the ISIL’s "authoritarian repression" and "al Qaeda extremism".

Meanwhile, ISIL supporters have accused the other rebels of betrayal, with one supporter calling the activists "mercenaries" on Twitter. Another wrote, "To those of you who stay silent in the face of injustices against ISIL, you're next."

'Syria and extremism don't mix'

Salman Shaikh, a scholar at the Brookings Doha Centre, said the recent fighting made it clear that "Syria and extremism don't mix" but that rebels opposed to both ISIL and Assad will need more international support to prevail.

To date, the West has done little to arm the rebels for fear that weapons may end up in the hands of extremists.

"Many Syrians have given up on the outside world, and have felt the need, despite the risks, to recover their own revolution, alone," Shaikh said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Date created : 2014-01-04

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