Syrian rebel fighters loyal to al-Qaeda ceded ground near the Turkish border to rival rebel groups, activists have said, in what seemed to be a tactical withdrawal to end clashes between those opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian opposition activists said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), allied to al-Qaeda and featuring foreign fighters among its commanders, had pulled back on Sunday from strongpoints including al-Dana and Atma in Idlib province and that fighters from the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham moved in.
Meanwhile, other fighters opposed to the rule of Bashar al-Assad have seized a compound garrisoned by an al-Qaeda-linked rebel faction, in some of the most serious in-fighting to date within the vast array of rebel groups trying to topple the government, activists said.
The clashes between a loose alliance of opposition brigades and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have spread across northern Syria since they began late last week.
The rebel-on-rebel violence marks the strongest pushback yet by moderate and ultra-conservative anti-Assad fighters against more hardline armed groups linked to al-Qaeda, who have sought to impose a strict interpretation of Islam on opposition-held areas of the country.
ISIL, which has many foreign fighters in its ranks, has clashed repeatedly with more moderate rebel groups since it aggressively pushed into Syria from neighbouring Iraq last spring.
The in-fighting has left scores dead on both sides, and has undermined the overall rebel movement’s efforts to oust Assad.
The latest clashes broke out on Friday after residents accused ISIL members of killing a doctor in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo.
The Islamic Front, a newly-created umbrella group of powerful, mostly conservative fighters, issued a statement ordering ISIL to hand over the doctor’s killers so they can stand trial.
On Sunday, the violence widened again, with at least one clash outside Aleppo pitting ISIL fighters against another al-Qaeda-linked group, the Nusra Front, said Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Some of the heaviest fighting on Sunday took place in the town of Manbij in Aleppo province, where rebels seized an ISIL compound, activists said.
The Observatory said ISIL fighters used car bombs, a tactic usually reserved for attacking government forces, for the first time to defend its territory.
Popular resentment of ISIL has been brewing in northern Syria for months.
Also on Sunday, a monitoring group said forces loyla to ISIL had killed at least 24 rival rebels in northern Syria.
As Syria’s civil war gets ever more complex amid a broad regional confrontation between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the United States raised the prospect of Iran playing some role in this month’s Syrian peace talks in Geneva.