Southern Syria rebels set collision course with al-Qaeda

Pro-Western rebels in Syria have spoken out against al Qaeda

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Western-backed fighters in southwestern Syria, the one part of the country where they are strong, have spoken out this week against al Qaeda, a sign of friction that could lead to new fighting among opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.

Four years into a civil war, most of Syria’s territory is held either by the government of President Bashar al-Assad or by two main militant groups: Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) mainly in the east, and al Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front, in the northwest.

Western and Arab countries oppose both Assad and the militants. Washington, which is leading an international campaign of air strikes against ISIS, says its strategy is to support what it describes as “moderate” rebels.

Although such Western-backed fighters control comparatively little territory, an alliance known as the Southern Front has an important foothold near the borders with Jordan and Israel. It has seized a border crossing and a government-held town in recent weeks after weathering a government offensive.

Nusra, which has crushed pro-Western rebels in the north, is also active in the south and has sometimes joined Southern Front groups in battle against government forces, a relationship that has often appeared ambiguous.

But this week, Southern Front groups issued a strong statement condemning Nusra’s ideology and rejecting any cooperation with it.

“We must announce our clear position: neither the Nusra Front or anything else with this ideology represents us,” said Bashar al-Zoubi, head of a rebel group called the Yarmouk Army, who sent the statement to Reuters.

“We can't go from the rule of Assad to Zawahiri and Nusra,” said Zoubi referring to the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. He said the statement was being issued to clarify the group’s position, and denied it was an attempt to win more foreign aid.

Aboul Majd al-Zoubi, head of a Southern Front-linked Syrian Media Organisation, said the aim is to isolate Nusra.

“The door is open for Nusra Front fighters to defect and to join the factions of the Southern Front," he said. “We do not call for confrontation, but the Southern Front is stronger.”

The statement appears to have been prompted by incidents including an attempt by Nusra to arrest a Southern Front commander, and tension between the sides at the Nasib crossing with Jordan. The crossing was seized from the government on April 1, with both the Southern Front and Nusra claiming to have played the decisive role in taking it.

The Southern Front groups are stronger than the jihadists in the area, according to several assessments including one provided by a U.S. intelligence official.

But the Nusra Front still has a potent presence, and ISIS may also be eyeing expansion there. Its fighters staged an assault on an air base in Sweida province in recent days, part of a pattern of attacks beyond its eastern strongholds, which was repelled by the Syrian army.

Bashar al Zoubi said that attack was an attempt by ISIS to announce its arrival in the area, and that more international support for the Southern Front was needed to help stave off the jihadist threat.

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