ISTANBUL — Fighters from the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s official affiliate in Syria, on Tuesday seized three strategic towns on the border with Turkey in a major blow to U.S.-backed moderate rebels.
Nusra’s seizure of Izmarin, Salkin and Harem in Syria’s Idlib province came only four days after the group seized Darkoush, another border town, from the Syrian Revolutionary Front, a moderate group that is part of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
The move appears to be part of an effort by Nusra to add new area to what it has called its emirate in northern Syria _ a designation the al Qaida-affiliate made in response to the declaration last month of an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria by its arch-rival, the Islamic State. Since the Islamic State’s designation of its caliphate, Nusra has lost territory to the Islamic State. Many of Nusra’s best known commanders also have defected to the Islamic State.
Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said he believed the capture of the four towns was Nusra’s effort to build a geographically contiguous area that would be declared its Islamic state.
“It’s clear from the clashes in the area, there is a project,” Abdurrahman told the Associated Press. “They are seizing towns and areas to be connected geographically.’’
Anti-government activists in the towns said FSA fighters surrendered without a fight, with some abandoning their weapons and fleeing into Turkey. In Harem, Nusra forces captured 20 FSA fighters, but let them return to their homes after confiscating their weapons.
The Syrian Revolutionary Front acknowledged Nusra’s capture of the town in a statement in which it accused the al Qaida group of killing people and looting property. The statement also accused Nusra of withdrawing from key positions in Aleppo, where rebels are facing a determined offensive by Syrian government forces.
The statement accused Nusra of undertaking “a war for the sake of splitting Syria into caliphates, emirates and states hostile to one another” but did not promise an immediate effort to retake the towns.
“Our patience is not out of weakness,” the statement said.
Earlier, Nusra said revolutionary front fighters had “erected checkpoints on public roads and took taxes from people and abused them.’’ It said its capture of the towns was part of a campaign to end “sins” that were taking hold in the area, “such as drinking alcohol,” and it warned against groups serving American interests.
Mahmud al Akal, one of the leaders in the revolutionary front, reached by phone, told McClatchy that the group’s leaders had ordered its units to withdraw because they were not equipped to fight the heavily armed Nusra Front.
“Nusra wants to come to border areas to establish its emirate in a haven away from the reach of the regime,’’ he said.
Akal said he expected Nusra to try to capture other border areas, cutting moderate FSA rebels from their supply lines to Turkey, and opening the way for an Islamist takeover of Syria’s north.
The battle with Nusra comes at a particularly difficult time for the FSA, which is also facing a push from forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the area surrounding Aleppo, the former Syrian commercial center where government and rebel forces have battled for two years. Government forces are pressing to relieve rebel-besieged Wadi al Daif, the largest military base in northern Syria.
The Nusra advance also is a reminder of the complexity of the Syrian battlefield: moderate rebel forces are battling both Nusra and the Islamic State as well as the government, Nusra and the Islamic State are fighting one another, and government forces are fighting some of the bloodiest battles in the three-year-old conflict against the Islamic State. Last week, Islamic State forces seized key natural gas fields in Homs province and now control about 35 percent of Syrian territory.
Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al Jolani declared an Islamic emirate in rebel-held portions of Aleppo on July 11. The declaration came after the June 29 declaration of the establishment of an Islamic caliphate by the Islamic State, which named its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the caliph, or leader, of all Muslims. The rivalry between the two groups, both of which once were mainstays of the anti-Assad rebel movement, has since eclipsed efforts to push Assad from power.
Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent.