BEIRUT // Dozens of extremists have been killed in clashes between two militant factions in northwestern Syria, raising fears of more deadly violence ahead of peace talks this month brokered by the United Nations.
The fighting between the Al Qaeda-led coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee and the extremist Jund Al Aqsa group left nearly 70 fighters dead in some of the fiercest clashes between insurgents in years. The fighting centred on areas where the central province of Hama meets the northwestern province of Idlib.
A Syrian rebel commander speaking from Turkey said Jund Al Aqsa has recently proven itself to be a branch of ISIL, which is the arch-rival of Al Qaeda’s Fatah Al-Sham Front. The commander said Jund Al Aqsa fighters stormed several areas controlled by the Levant Liberation Committee and killed some of its members.
“There is no solution but to uproot Jund Al Aqsa,” the commander said. Idlib province is held almost entirely by opposition factions, and was captured by an alliance of fighters dubbed the Army of Conquest, led by Fateh Al-Sham.
Jund Al Aqsa is reviled by most rebels in the region, and is designated a “terrorist group” by Washington. Despite that, in October Fateh Al-Sham announced it had taken Jund Al Aqsa under its wing, although clashes between the two groups erupted shortly afterwards.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war, reported that the Levant Liberation Committee has captured six villages from Jund al-Aqsa so far, and lost 39 soldiers. Jund Al Aqsa lost 30 soldiers, including four suicide bombers who blew up the vehicles they were driving. .
Abdul-Rahim Attoun, a senior Al Qaeda religious official in Syria, said Jund Al Aqsa was blocking roads used by the Levant Liberation Committee to attack government forces.
A Jund Al Aqsa commander who goes by the name of Karmo said the fighting started because the Levant Liberation Committee attacked Jund Al Aqsa’s positions.
The fighting reflects the growing strained relations between different factions in Idlib province that once fought alongside each other against president Bashar Al Assad’s army.
Some reports on Tuesday said Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and president Assad’s forces have created a security corridor to avoid clashes in the battle to capture the flashpoint town of Al Bab from ISTLhadists. If confirmed, it would mark a rare case of contact in the conflict between the Damascus regime and the rebels seeking to oust it
The two-day conference in Astana, Kazakhstan, beginning on Wednesday is aimed at strengthening a December 30 ceasefire. The government has long referred to all those fighting against it, including mainstream rebels, as “terrorists.”
But an editorial in the government-supporting Al-Baath daily said “without fighting terrorism and defeating terrorists, any solution will not be fruitful.”
Fatah Al-Sham Front and ISIL are excluded from the truce.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister in charge of Arab countries, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, said a ceasefire and reconciliation in Syria are on the agenda in the Astana talks.
“Consolidation of the ceasefire, inspecting cases of violation and finalisation of regulations for monitoring of the ceasefire will be carried out in the talks,” said Mr Ansari upon arrival in Astana. “Political issues related to the trend of reconciliation in Syria are on the agenda in Astana.”
In Damascus, the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Syria appealed to all parties to reach an agreement for immediate access to the besieged villages of Zabadani, Madaya, Foua and Kfarya, with a combined population of 60,000, which have received no aid since November 28.
Syrian rebels have been laying siege to Foua and Kfaraya in the northwestern province for years while government forces have besieged the mountain resorts of Zabadani and Madaya near the border with Lebanon.
* Associated Press