Syrian rebel infighting spreads to stronghold in east


BEIRUT -- Fighting between rival opposition groups in northern Syria has spread to a rebel stronghold in the eastern part of the country, according to activists in the area.

Activists reported fighting had begun in Raqqah, which in March of last year became the first city to fall completely to the rebels. It is one of the main headquarters for the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

The group had been increasing its dominance in Raqqah, where residents chafed under its harsh ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law. It also imprisoned journalists and activists opposed to its rule, subjecting them to frequent beatings and electric shocks, according to a report by Amnesty International last month.


Abu Bakr, a media activist for the Shaam News Network in Raqqah, said via Skype that the fighting pitted Islamist groups including Ahrar Al-Sham, the Islamic Front and the Nusrah Front against ISIS. He reported fierce fighting near the main governorate building.

Activists had also posted YouTube videos showing a jubilant crowd of men who purportedly had just been released from what were described as ISIS prisons in the town. According to Abu Bakr, the prisoners were freed by the Nusrah Front, another Al Qaeda affiliate and former ally of ISIS, whose role in the current hostilities has vacillated between mediation and fighting against ISIS.

Fighting has also reached the town of Jarablus, an important rebel supply corridor a mile and a half from the Turkish-Syrian border, where ISIS headquarters had been overrun by the Islamic Front, an Islamist coalition that has recently come to dominate the increasingly complicated opposition landscape.

A defiant message on a Facebook page of the local ISIS leader in Jarablus insisted that the group was holding fast, and that claims to the contrary came from “enemies of Allah [who] are fighting us via the media.”

What began as a bid to curb the dominance of the ISIS in the contested northern regions of the country has been transformed into a wide-scale purge of its presence on all the fighting fronts, with the group withdrawing from most of its headquarters.

It also marks the resurgence of the previously moribund Free Syrian Army, or FSA, the Western-backed rebel faction that has been plagued by disarray in the three years of civil war between the government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and armed opposition groups.


Bulos is a special correspondent.