Al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, which has long been viewed by that country’s rebels as an ally in the battle to topple President Bashar Assad, has turned on them in recent days, forcing the beleaguered rebels into a three-front war that they say they are sure to lose unless the United States changes policy and sends them more weapons.
Commanders warned Wednesday that assaults this week by Nusra could cause the collapse of rebel front lines, which already were under stress from fighting the Islamic State and the Assad government.
“We are defending our existence,” said Gen. Muhammad Hallak of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, one of the rebel groups. Without more assistance from the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State, “we will withdraw our forces from the front with the Islamic State and the regime and work only to save ourselves.”
Syria’s anti-Assad rebels have been staunch defenders of Nusra, which the United States declared a terrorist organization in late 2012, much to the dismay of the rebel leadership. In September, rebel leaders denounced the U.S. decision to launch airstrikes on eight Nusra encampments as part of the first attacks on the Islamic State inside Syria.
While acknowledging Nusra’s al Qaida ties, rebel leaders have said that unlike the Islamic State, Nusra appears dedicated to the downfall of Assad. Previously, the groups have coordinated militarily with Nusra.
That appears to have changed in recent days, however. Rebel commanders said that for the past two months, Nusra has been moving forces into towns and cities held by more moderate rebels in western Syria. On Monday, Nusra fighters attacked seven villages in Jabal al Zawiya that were held by rebel forces in addition to launching a major assault on Almastuma, a regime base at the entrance to the city of Idlib.
Nusra also has attacked the U.S.-backed Hazm Movement in Aleppo this week, and it has launched assaults on major rebel-held cities such as Ma’arat al Numan.
“The (Nusra) operation in Idlib was a fake,” Hallak said, referring to the Monday attack on Almastuma, “and then they turned on the Syrian Revolutionary Front.” The revolutionary front, which last January spearheaded a highly successful assault against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, is among a dozen rebel groups receiving U.S. aid through a covert CIA program.
Nusra on Wednesday issued a statement saying it was fighting a “war against corruption and the corrupt” and said other Islamist groups were with it.
A second rebel commander warned that his forces may have to abandon the fight against the Islamic State north of Aleppo in the current adverse circumstances.
“We are the only group that has kept our fighters in full force on the front lines with the regime in the north of Hama,” said Capt. Mamoun Swaid, a military leader in the Haq front, which also receives U.S. support. “But the regime is already benefiting from Nusra’s war against the Free Syrian Army.”
Fierce government bombing raids Wednesday killed and wounded “many of our fighters.”
A third CIA-vetted commander said that the U.S.-led coalition had cut the flow of arms and ammunition to a trickle and painted a dire image of the outcome should this not change.
“We will fight with everything we have in our hands,” said this commander, who asked not to be identified by name to protect his relationship with the U.S.-led weapons suppliers. “If at the end we fail, we will leave the country to Jabhat al Nusra, to the Islamic State and to the regime. . . . If we don’t have weapons and ammunition, how can we fight?”
The fighting between Nusra and the rebel groups was a reminder that Syria remains a complex battlefield where at least two wars are being fought – the U.S.-led one against the Islamic State and the one to topple Assad.
At least 25 civilians died Wednesday and 20 were wounded, some seriously, when regime helicopters dropped two improvised explosive devices filled with shrapnel over a tent camp for the internally displaced in Abdin, a rural area south of Idlib, in northern Syria, the Smart News opposition network reported Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a small contingent of Syrian rebels was reported to have arrived in Kobani on Wednesday to join the battle against the Islamic State there. The precise number of rebel fighters was unknown. A rebel who claimed to command the group, Abdul Jabbar al Akidi, told the Cumhuriyet newspaper in Turkey that 200 fighters had arrived from Aleppo and Idlib province to help the Kurdish defenders of Kobani fend off the Islamic State.
The new arrivals drove into Kobani from Turkey and appear to be backed by the Turkish government.
Another 150 fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga militia, equipped with artillery and heavy machine guns, were reported to have arrived near the Syrian border after traveling through Turkey. They were expected to cross into Kobani late Wednesday and early Thursday.