Syrian Rebels Roil in Fight With Islamic Extremist Group

Fighting in the northern town of Azaz could split opposition apart.

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Al-Qaida-linked gunmen in northern Syria captured a town near the Turkish border on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, following heavy clashes with Western-backed rebels in the area.

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Mainstream rebel fighters in Syria reached a truce late Thursday with an Islamic extremist element with known ties to al-Qaida after two days of fighting along the country's northern border, forcing Turkey to close one of its crossings and creating significant anxiety for an opposition that is trying to present itself as a unified front.

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Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, captured the town of Azaz in northern Syria where the recent fighting took place. They have taken over many government buildings in Azaz to use as strongholds, making it difficult for opposition forces to reclaim the territory without causing significant collateral damage, reports the Syrian Support Group. There are roughly 3,000 ISIS fighters in the country, it says.

"The general opinion is that ISIS will have to retreat from Azaz because they are far outnumbered by [Free Syrian Army] units there," says SSG, which raises funds for the opposition under a rare license from the U.S. Treasury Department. "Because of this new front that has opened between moderates and extremists, the FSA has an overwhelming sensation of 'united we stand, divided we fall.'"

Other factions of the FSA are banding together to fight against ISIS, says SSG, for fear that further fighting would dissolve the cohesion among the moderate opposition groups.

 

The composition of the rebel fighters in Syria is one of the central tenets of the ongoing debate in the U.S. over whether it should involve itself further in nation, well into its third year of civil war.

Elements from the al-Nusrah Front, a known al-Qaida group, have raised eyebrows among lawmakers. Proponents of military strikes there, including Secretary of State John Kerry, affirm that these elements only make up 25 percent of the opposition at most, and that the U.S. could select the "vetted, moderate" rebel fighters to support directly.

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This week's fighting around Azaz has prompted a severe backlash from the Syrian National Coalition, which represents the opposition movement.

These al-Qaida-linked groups "counter the principals that the Syrian revolution is trying to achieve" in its fight against the Bashar Assad regime, it says.

The Tawheed brigade, a mainstream opposition fighting group, is spearheading negotiations with ISIS, and will attempt to forge an agreement for at least a partial ISIS withdrawal Friday morning.

This latest fighting comes the week before the annual U.N. General Assembly where Kerry will push for Security Council support of a U.S.-Russian plan to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles.

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