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Jihadist infighting kills nearly 70 in North Syria

RAQA: Smoke rises near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20 km away from Raqa, as members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters, advance during their offensive towards the Islamic State (IS) group’s Syrian stronghold as part of the third phase to retake the city and its surroundings. — AFP

BEIRUT: Nearly 70 fighters from two formerly allied jihadist groups have been killed during infighting over the past 24 hours in northern Syria, a monitor said yesterday. The clashes between former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham and the hardline jihadist Jund Al-Aqsa faction erupted on Monday morning, after tensions over influence in the northwestern province of Idlib. The fighting reflects the growing strained relations between different factions in Idlib province that once fought alongside either other against President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes erupted after Jund Al-Aqsa carried out a suicide bomb attack against a Fateh Al-Sham headquarters in Idlib, killing nine people. The toll has now risen to 69 dead from both sides in heavy clashes as well as executions, with the fighting spreading to the neighboring province of Hama. “There are battles between warlords, it’s a war for influence,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman. Jund al-Aqsa is reviled by most rebels in the region, and is designed 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. In January, Fateh Al-Sham also battled other rebel groups in Idlib during 10 days of clashes that killed dozens of fighters. 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. More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests. The war has become a complex multi-front conflict, drawing in jihadist groups and international armies.

Al-Bab under control
Meanwhile, Turkey said yesterday that the one time jihadist bastion of Al-Bab in northern Syria was “largely” under the control of Ankara-backed Syrian rebels after months of clashes with jihadists. “Al-Bab has largely been taken under control finally,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told his ruling Justice and Development Party lawmakers in Ankara, without giving further details. Since December, Turkish forces supporting opposition fighters have fought jihadists from the Islamic State group (IS) to take control of Al-Bab.

Turkey launched an ambitious operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield” in Syria last August to rid its border of IS elements and halt the advance of the Kurdish militia. Yildirim said Ankara’s aim was to “prevent terrorist organizations opening corridors” where they could reach Turkey. “From the start, our efforts have not been for nothing, we have reached our aim.” After a lightning advance retaking several towns close to its border, the operation faced the biggest challenge in the campaign so far with dozens of Turkish soldiers killed in the space of a few weeks.

But at the weekend, Ankara-backed fighters entered the town centre and the official news agency said by Monday, they had recaptured 40 percent of the town. Hurriyet daily reported that rebels and President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces created a security corridor to avoid clashes in the battle to capture the flashpoint town. Assad’s forces have pushed towards the town from the south, leaving IS fighters completely encircled. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday the targets after Al-Bab would be Manbij-a former bastion of IS that is now under the control of US-backed, Kurdish-led militia-and the de-facto jihadist capital of Raqa, if “we take a joint step with (US-led) coalition forces”.- Agencies

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