Hundreds of Turkey-backed rebels leave Manbij frontlines to fight Al Qaeda in Aleppo

Two of the country's largest opposition groups are going head-to-head over territory

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels stand on the back of a truck at Manbij countryside, Syria December 29, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
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Hundreds of Turkey-backed rebel fighters have been moved from frontlines near the flashpoint Kurdish-held city of Manbij towards the countryside of Aleppo, where battles with Al Qaeda-linked fighters have killed more than 30 people since Tuesday.

The Syrian National Army, an Ankara-backed rebel alliance, which is planning an assault on Kurdish groups in Manbij, sent reinforcements to the western countryside of Aleppo on Tuesday to assist rebels there in the fight against the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham alliance, SNA spokesman Youssef Hammoud told The National.

The SNA started gathering north of the city of Manbij earlier this month before what it said was a planned assault that aims to clear the area of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which is viewed by Turkey as a terrorist group.

"It is our duty to send fighters to western Aleppo," Mr Hammoud said, stressing that thousands of fighters are still positioned near Manbij and stand prepared to launch an assault.  "The deployment won't affect the battle on Manbij and east of the Euphrates River," he said.

Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, Syria’s strongest and largest militant group, is battling the National Liberation Front, a Turkish-backed rebel coalition, in the western countryside of Aleppo province, activist groups say.

At least 14 Hayat Tahrir Al Sham militants and 12 National Liberation Front rebel fighters have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Five civilians, including two children, also died in the fighting.

Ten National Liberation Front fighters were taken captive.

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is trying to capture Darat Izza, a rebel-held town 30 kilometres north-west of Aleppo, starting clashes with National Liberation Front affiliates, including the powerful Noureddine Al Zenki rebel group, a Zenki spokesman told The National.

Government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said Hayat Tahrir Al Sham fighters are now in full control of the strategic town and had also captured the villages of Kafrantin, Fadra, Houta and Mkalbis.

Mohammad Adib said the battles were taking place on the edges of Darat Izza and that militants had captured posts on the town’s outskirts.

Mr Adib said the rebels faced a “very difficult confrontation”.

“Hayat Tahrir Al Sham is waging a fierce and bloody confrontation and it is not distinguishing between fighters and civilians,” he said. “The aim is to expand Hayat Tahrir's control over rebel-held areas in the north,” he explained.

Later on Wednesday a video posted on social media networks purported to show a senior Hayat Tahrir Al Sham leader walking inside the town. The National could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage.

The Zenki spokesman said Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and allied militants were also gathering near the town of Khan Al Asal, 12km south-west of Aleppo city, before a possible operation to capture the area.


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Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and allied militants dominate more than half of Idlib province, while the National Liberation Front holds most of the rest.

The two have regularly clashed over control of territory.

In October they struck a ceasefire and prisoner exchange agreement in an attempt to end the fighting.

The latest round of clashes started after Hayat Tahrir Al Sham on Monday accused Noureddine Al Zenki of killing five of its fighters.

The violence in the western countryside of Aleppo is not far from a demilitarised zone established by Turkey and Russia in the province of Idlib to prevent a Syrian government assault on the last major rebel stronghold in the country.

Rebels and government forces sporadically exchange artillery fire in the area, undermining the deal.