Some 150 Syrian rebels supported by Turkey arrived in the Idlib Province on Thursday to back up Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham in its ongoing battle with the official Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, rebel sources told Reuters.
Tension gave way to open clashes between the two jihadist factions in late June after the al-Qaeda affiliate stormed into rival territory and began arresting militants and non-combatants, accusing them of collaborating with the Turkish Euphrates Shield operation, which sought to use Syrian rebels to secure parts of the Turko-Syrian border.
While Euphrates Shield was officially concluded in May, the Turks and their proxy fighters still have a military presence in Northern Syria, even skirmishing with American-backed Kurds as recently as this week.
The al-Qaeda affiliate’s current form, now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was established less than a year ago out of several different rebel groups and has quickly become one of the largest, most powerful rebel factions operating in Syria (see the author’s translation of an Arabic language State Department memo on HTS published in March).
On paper, HTS is ironically headed up by Ahrar al-Sham’s former leader, Abu Jabr Sheikh, however the real power is thought to be in the hands of HTS military chief Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, the leader of al-Nusra before it merged with other factions and changed its name, and a man who has had a $10 million State Department bounty on his head since May.
Ahrar al-Sham, aside from Abu Jabr’s defection, has fought alongside the al-Qaeda affiliate and even the Islamic State on and off since its inception in 2011, but in 2016 disagreements began to arise within the group over participation in the Turkish Euphrates Shield operation, according to Stanford University’s Mapping Militant Organizations project. Though the group’s religious leadership issued a fatwa (religious decree) permitting members to take part in the operation, the dispute led the group to splinter.
At the same time, some members of Ahrar al-Sham’s Shura Council disagreed over whether or not to outright merge with Fatah al-Sham—the second incarnation of al-Nusra, which underwent a few name changes before landing on the HTS moniker—further highlighting the fragmented loyalties of the organization.
Internal disputes not withstanding, some fighters from Ahrar did ultimately end up fighting under the Euphrates Shield banner, helping to prompt the latest round of clashes between the rebel group and HTS.
While at least one source disputes the veracity of the claim, rebel sources insist 150 Turkish-backed fighters entered Syria through the northwestern border crossing at Bab al-Hawa with the intent of backing Ahrar al-Sham against the al-Qaeda militants.
The Syrian civil war is indeed a confusing mess to untangle, but perhaps this is the best reason for the United States, which currently occupies the country illegally, to stay out of the conflagration altogether.
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