Syria: Fatah al-Sham deepens the rift with opposition factions

Syria: Fatah al-Sham deepens the rift with opposition

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group has crushed a Free Syrian Army rebel faction in northwestern Syria, in a new attack against other rebel factions aiming at weakening the rebels and restoring the group’s influence ahead of expected international targeting of it. 

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is one of the largest rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, It was previously a branch for al-Qaeda in Syria under the name “Jabaht al-Nusra”  but has later changed its name and declared splitting from the terrorist organization. However, this didn’t change the international refusal of the group

However, this didn’t change the international refusal of the group, and it was excluded from all of the ceasefire agreements in the country.

The group was excluded also from the Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement that went into effect on 30 December, days after recapturing Aleppo by Assad regime and its backers.

In addition, the Syria peace talks in Astana ended with a statement that called to fight the group. The three guarantees of the talks – Russia, Turkey, and Iran – announced “their determination to fight jointly” against the Islamic State and against Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, formerly known as the Nusra Front, pledging to “separate” them from armed opposition groups.

Some analysts say that Fatah al-Sham has damaged the Syrian revolution instead of giving it more power. Fatah al-Sham has always had clashes with other rebel groups who don’t share its ideology, creating voids and disputes in the rebel-held areas.

In addition, the existence of Fatah al-Sham groups in some areas was the justification that Assad regime needed to bomb these areas intensively under the term of fighting terrorism while the world refused to help, fearing that their aid may end in the terrorists’ hands.

Fatah al-Sham attacks other rebels groups

The Jabhat Fateh al-Sham jihadist group, formerly known as the Nusra Front, launched an attack on a number of FSA groups in northwestern Syria on January 24, accusing them of conspiring against it at peace talks in Kazakhstan this week.

The fighting has engulfed the rebels’ last major territorial stronghold in northwestern Syria, prompting a major Islamist insurgent faction to warn on January 25 that it could allow President Bashar al-Assad and his allies to capture the area.

Officials with two FSA factions said Fateh al-Sham had overrun areas held by the Jaish al-Mujahideen group west of Aleppo. One of the officials said he expected other FSA factions to face the same fate unless they could get better organized to defend themselves – something they have so far failed to do.

Fateh al-Sham later on January 25 attacked the central Idlib prison on the outskirts of the city which has been controlled by another rebel group, partly in an attempt to free inmates there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.

Fateh al-Sham said in an online statement the Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham group had handed it control of the prison, and rebel fighters guarding it had been allowed to withdraw without being detained. Reuters could not independently verify the statement.

“Nusra wants to end the FSA,” said the FSA official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. If it succeeded, “the ones who attended Astana will be finished”, he added, referring to the talks in Kazakhstan.

Raed more: What is the goal of targeting Fatah al-Sham in Syria?

Targeting Fatah al-Sham in Syria

Fateh al-Sham said in a statement published on Tuesday it had been forced to act preemptively to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it. It said “conferences and negotiations” were “trying to divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation with the criminal regime (of Assad)”.

It also accused rebel factions that attended the Astana talks of agreeing to “isolate” and fight it and said its foes were giving away its positions to the U.S.-led coalition, which has been intensifying its attacks on the group lately.

At least 40 fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham have been killed in airstrikes in Aleppo province on January 20.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was unclear who carried out the raids in western Aleppo province since a US-led coalition, the Syrian regime, and Russia have all carried out strikes against Fateh al-Sham positions in recent weeks.

“Warplanes, which may have been Russian or coalition aircraft, struck a Fateh al-Sham camp in Sheikh Suleiman,” the Britain-based Observatory said.

“At least 10 senior commanders of the group have been killed among countless other fighters in Idlib province,” al-Jazeera reported.

“This raises the question of whether there is a change in policy, or if there’s more intelligence coming in from the ground pinpointing where these leaders are.”

According to the monitor, the group has sustained major losses in recent weeks with about 100 of its fighters killed since the start of 2017.

However, US military said later that it was behind this attack.

“The removal of this training camp disrupts training operations and discourages hardline Islamist and Syrian opposition groups from joining or cooperating with al-Qaida on the battlefield,” Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in the statement.

Davis said the Shaykh Sulayman training camp had been operational since 2013, adding that since the start of this year more than 150 Fatah al-Sham militants have been killed in U.S. air strikes.

Earlier in January, Airstrikes in northern Syria have killed at least 25 members of the group according to monitors.

The Observatory for Human Rights said it could not determine if the strikes, in the countryside of Idlib province, were carried out by the US-led coalition or Russia.

Among the dead were leading members of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which was holding a meeting there, the Observatory added, without identifying them. Many others were wounded, it said.

According to analysts, weakening Fatah al-Sham in northern Syria will prevent its intervention in the future agreements between the rebels and Assad regime. Such agreements are expected as results of the peace talks that were held Kazakhstan and Fatah al-Sham is thought to refuse these solutions and prevent other rebel groups from abiding it.

Ahrar al-Sham on the move

Ahrar al-Sham, a major Islamist faction that also fights in the Idlib area, issued a general call-up of fighters to “stop the fighting in any form”. Coming down on the side of the FSA groups, it accused Fateh al-Sham of rejecting mediation efforts that the FSA groups had accepted.

It said that any attack on its members of was tantamount to a “declaration of war”.

“If the fighting continues and if one party continues to do an injustice to another, then we will not allow this to pass, regardless of the cost, even if we become victims of this.”

In addition, Ahrar al-Sham said on Thursday six other rebel factions had joined its ranks in northwestern Syria in order to fend off a major assault by Fatah al-Sham.

Rebel factions Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Fastaqim, Jaish al-Islam’s Idlib branch, Jaish al-Mujahideen and al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s west Aleppo branch said in a statement they had joined Ahrar al-Sham.

The Ahrar al-Sham statement also mentioned a sixth group, the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, and said “other brigades” had joined.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Fateh al-Sham clashed with fighters from Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham on Thursday in the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib province.