Al-Qaeda-linked fighters ceded ground near the Turkish border to rival Islamist rebels on Sunday, Reuters reported activists as saying, in what seemed to be a tactical withdrawal to end clashes between Syrian and foreign-led opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Islamic State is pulling out without a fight. Its fighters are taking their weapons and heavy guns,” activist Firas Ahmad told Reuters.
He added that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters headed in the direction of Aleppo province, where Assad’s troops have stepped up pressure on rebel forces who captured the city 18 months ago.
Another activist, Abdallah al-Sheikh, said that some Syrian ISIL fighters had stayed in place but switched allegiance to the Nusra Front, whose commanders are mostly Syrian rather than foreign. Nusra coordinates with the Islamic Front, a coalition of Syrian Islamist brigades that includes Ahrar al-Sham.
Syrian opposition supporters and diplomats said that, despite days of skirmishing in the northwest between ISIL and other rebel factions, a broad alliance involving these groups seemed to be holding in the desert east of the country.
“There is certainly competition between ISIL and the other Islamist militants, but it does not appear there is full-scale confrontation,” a Middle Eastern diplomat said.
ISIL fighters ceded ground after rebel-on-rebel fighting raged in northern Syria
The fighting marked the strongest pushback yet from Syrian rebel groups claiming that their uprising against Assad has been hijacked by ISIL, which seeks to impose Islamic rule in opposition-held portions of the country.
While clashes were mainly concentrated in Aleppo and Idlib, fighting shifted to a new province on Sunday, this time to the town of Tabqa in Raqa on the northern border with Turkey, where ISIL is extremely powerful, Agence France-Presse reported.
ISIL jihadists killed at least 24 rival rebels in northern Syria, AFP reported on Sunday, citing insurgents and medics.
Near Tal Rifaat, a village in the northern province of Aleppo, at least 10 rebels were killed Saturday in an ISIL attack on their vehicles, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Also in the Aleppo town of Hreitan, five rebel fighters were killed Saturday in a car bomb attack by ISIL, the Britain-based Observatory said, citing rebel and medical sources on the ground.
Liwa al-Tawhid, a brigade in the massive Islamic Front rebel alliance, said on its Facebook page that its members were targeted in the car bomb attack.
In Idlib in the northwest of Syria, which has also seen major fighting between the rebels and ISIL, four rebels were killed in an ISIL ambush near Jabal al-Zawiya, while five others were executed by ISIL in the town of Harem.
Violence has raged between the two sides since rebels, including Islamists, attacked checkpoints and bases manned by ISIL, which is accused of abuses against other insurgents, activists and civilians in areas where they operate.
On Saturday, ISIL distributed an audio statement warning the rebels to stop pressuring the jihadists, or else they would withdraw from the frontlines in Aleppo city and let the Assad regime in.
ISIL pulling out from strategic areas
Reuters, meanwhile, reported that the rebels scored some successes against ISIL fighters.
It cited opposition activists saying that the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists pulled out from strategic areas of northern Syria near the Turkish border on Sunday after coming under heavy fire from other Islamist brigades.
Fighters from the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham militant group took over the ISIL positions in two towns, activists in northern Syria said.
“The Islamic State is pulling out without a fight. Its fighters are taking their weapons and heavy guns. They appear to be heading in the direction of Aleppo,” activist Firas Ahmad said.
But the pullout on Sunday, which included the ISIL stronghold of al-Dana in Idlib and the important supply line town of Atma involved no fighting, suggesting a possible deal to avoid larger confrontations that would sap the strength of the two sides and play into the hands of Assad, opposition sources and Middle East diplomats said.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press said that Syrian rebels on Sunday seized a compound held by ISIL.
ISIL has been said to seek hegemony by taking over key roads and checkpoints from the hands of its rivals, while some opponents of Assad have even accused it of serving the interests of his regime.
The Secretary General of the Free Syrian Army, Captain Ammar al-Wawi went further by saying that ISIL was “a group of gangsters following” President Assad’s regime, Iran and Iraq.
Captain Wawi told Al Arabiya News Channel that the sole aim of ISIL is to “hijack the Syrian revolution.”
ISIL has claimed responsibility for a suicide attack killing four people this week in a Hezbollah bastion in southern Beirut. The Lebanese Shiite movement is a key ally to President Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to support his regime.
In Iraq, ISIL took over the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, this week.
(With AFP, Associated Press and Reuters)