Al-Qaida Forces Turn on Each Other
Istanbul — The two Islamist fighting forces in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida on Tuesday appeared to be on the edge of an all-out conflict amid reports that dozens more captured soldiers and civilians have been executed at the hands of the more radical of them, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Abu Mohammad al-Julani, who heads the Syrian-based Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, charged that the rival group had pursued “misguided policies,” “had a significant role in instigating the conflict” and warned: “We will defend ourselves against any aggression directed against us, from whatever the source.”
The surprise offensive that Nusra and other Syria-based regime opponents began Friday against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has forced the Iraq-based group, consisting mainly of foreign volunteers, to abandon many of the bases and towns it occupied in the past six months in northern Syria.
Heavy fighting was reported Tuesday around at least three remaining locations occupied by ISIS -— Raqqa, the capital of the northeastern province; Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city; and Saraqeb, an important crossroads town in Idlib province, where ISIS was reported to be sending reinforcements.
Separately on Tuesday, Iraq’s defense ministry spokesman said a government airstrike killed 25 al-Qaida militants in a besieged province west of Baghdad, according to the Associated Press.
Tuesday’s strike comes amid fierce clashes between Iraqi special forces and insurgents in a battle for control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Sunni-dominated Anbar province.
Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said the Iraqi air force struck the operations center for the terror network in the provincial capital of Ramadi, killing the 25 suspects inside.
Meanwhile, reports of two new massacres at an ISIS base in Aleppo’s Kadi Askar neighborhood were likely to add to public fury at ISIS, which until last week dominated the main border crossings into Turkey.
In one case, a Syrian media activist was reported as witnessing the execution of 22 civilians, among them five media activists. Four belonged to Nusra and one was a Syrian working for a Saudi television channel, Shadha Alhuria.
The second massacre, reputedly of dozens of fighters, was discovered at the same base, reportedly by a Nusra fighter who was on a visit, according to leading media activists in Aleppo.
Western reporters have been threatened by ISIS with indefinite detention if they try to cover rebel-held territory, so there was no outside confirmation of the allegations.
Ahmad al-Ukda, a member of the Union of Syrian Journalists in Aleppo, told McClatchy that a media activist had personally witnessed the execution of the 22 civilians, some of whom were citizen journalists. Other colleagues said the media activist had been covering the fighting from the side of the anti-ISIS rebel forces besieging the ISIS position.
The second reported massacre occurred at the same location.
Ghassan Yassin, a journalist and activist in Aleppo, said a fighter with Nusra saw the corpses of the dead soldiers while on a visit to the Kadi Askar base. The soldier had received permission from ISIS to visit his brother, who was supposed to have been detained by ISIS, and was astonished to find him dead among at least 20 corpses - some of them Nusra fighters.
The soldier declined to be interviewed by McClatchy via Skype.
ISIS, whose main tactic is the use of suicide bombers, now is using that strategy to break into the garrisons of other resistance groups and to attack civilians.
One attack was made against a base of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in Darkoush, a town northwest of Idlib, and there were reports of a second attack against the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham.
In an audio tape Tuesday, al-Julani said the disagreements with ISIS “have accumulated over time without any means of resolution.”
He cited the case of Nusra’s top commander in Raqqa province, Abu Saad al-Hadrami, whom he said ISIS had kidnapped, and whose fate today “is between missing and killed.”
He called for a cease-fire with ISIS, in order to strengthen the battle against the Assad regime, and he urged ISIS to resolve its differences with the other groups through recourse to religious courts. But he said for Nusra, the ISIS behavior so far amounted to sedition.