Beirut // Al Qaeda militants swept through a rebel-held town in northern Syria in a display of dominance on Sunday, arresting US-backed fighters and looting weapons stores belonging to the Free Syrian Army.
It comes amid reports by a monitoring group that the top ISIL commander Omar Al Shishani has been “clinically dead” for several days.
Militants belonging to the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra along with allied extremists have been moving to exert their authority over rebel-held areas in Idlib province since a partial ceasefire took effect two weeks ago. The group has also extinguished patriotic demonstrations and sidelined nationalist militias.
On Sunday, the FSA’s 13th division said on Twitter that Nusra fighters were going door to door in the town of Maarat Numan and arresting its cadres after Al Qaeda, alongside fighters from the Jund Al-Aqsa faction, seized the their posts the night before.
Seven of the division’s fighters died in the clashes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said Nusra seized anti-tank missiles, armoured vehicles, a tank, and other arms from the division, which has received weapons, training, and money from the US government. It said Nusra and Jund Al Aqsa detained 40 fighters from the division.
Maarat Numan had a prewar population approaching 60,000 and saw some of the liveliest demonstrations calling for president Bashar Assad’s fall in rebel-held areas over the last two weeks as the partial ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia brought relative peace to many beleaguered areas.
But the extremists have repeatedly tried to suppress the demonstrations in Idlib province, where they maintain a strong presence. The challenges have threatened to fracture the array of forces allied to prevent Syrian government forces from retaking north Syria.
Al Nusra and Jund Al Aqsa suppressed a demonstration in Idlib city last week, arresting several demonstrators and allegedly replacing the tricoloured flag of the Syrian uprising with the black flag of Al Qaeda movement, according to opposition accounts. Another hardline group, Ahrar Al Sham, sided publicly with the demonstrators in a carefully worded statement that did not name any responsible parties.
Nusra supporters stormed another demonstration in Maarat Numan on Friday, but were drowned out by the protesters. Division 13, which maintained a presence in the town, reportedly tried to push Nusra out on Saturday. By Sunday morning, it was clear that Nusra had overpowered their rivals instead.
Al Nusra arrested US-supplied fighters belonging to FSA’s 30th division last summer and seized their weapons in a major embarrassment to the US government’s train-and-equip programme which was meant to support carefully vetted “moderate” rebels.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that ISIL commander Shishani “is not able to breathe on his own and is using machines” after a US air strike in northern Syria.
“He has been clinically dead for several days,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the observatory.
Mr Abdel Rahman said the notorious red-bearded commander, known as Omar the Chechen, was in a hospital in the northern province of Raqqa, ISIL’s bastion in Syria.
A US official said on March 9 that Shishani “likely died” in a barrage of US-led air strikes on March 4 in northeastern Syria.
The official branded Shishani “the ISIL equivalent of the secretary of defence”.
While Shishani’s exact rank is unclear, Richard Barrett of the US-based Soufan Group has described him as ISIL’s “most senior military commander”, adding that he has been in charge of key battles.
Shishani is not, however, a member of ISIL’s political leadership, a structure that is even murkier than its military command.
The lack of a US presence on the ground makes it difficult to assess the success of operations targeting militants in Syria, and Shishani’s death has been falsely reported several times.
* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse