Syrian rebels launch offensive against al Qaeda
Syrian rebel factions battled fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) across north-west Syria in the heaviest clashes between President Bashar al-Assad's opponents in nearly three years of conflict, activists said.
The apparently coordinated strikes against the ISIL come after months of increasing resentment of the powerful al Qaeda-linked group, whose radical foreign jihadis and have alienated many ordinary Syrians in rebel-held territory.
Activists said dozens of fighters were killed in the clashes between rival rebel groups which have raged since Friday in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, close to the border with Turkey.
Rebel infighting has strengthened Assad's hand ahead of planned peace talks in Geneva on Jan. 22. The president, backed by Shi'ite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, has pushed back rebels around Damascus and in central Syria, and faces little pressure to make concessions.
One group of fighters battling ISIL was the newly formed Mujahideen Army, an alliance of eight brigades who accused the al Qaeda affiliate of hijacking their struggle to topple Assad.
They said ISIL fighters were "undermining stability and security in liberated areas" through theft, kidnapping and trying to impose their own brand of Islam, and vowed to fight them until ISIL was disbanded or driven out of Syria.
In response, ISIL pledged to fight back. "The blood of our brothers will not be shed in vain," it said in a statement.
Fighters from the Islamic Front, made up of several Islamist brigades which in the past were close to ISIL, were engaged in heavy clashes with the group in northern Aleppo province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory, a monitoring group based in Britain, said at least 60 people had been killed in fighting which it described as a major challenge to ISIL's authority.
The Observatory and other activists also cited unconfirmed reports that Islamic State fighters in the village of Harem, about two km (one mile) from the Turkish border, killed 30 prisoners after they were surrounded by rebel fighters.
The ISIL and another al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, together with Islamist fighters from the Islamic Front, have eclipsed the Free Syrian Army which Western powers had hoped would grow into a moderate force capable of overthrowing Assad.
That impotence was highlighted in November when the FSA's military command lost control of a military base and main weapons depot near the Turkish border to the Islamic Front.
Assad's main political opponents in exile, the National Coalition, sought to portray today's clashes as a counter assault by the FSA against ISIL's "authoritarian oppression"
"The Syrian people clearly have rejected al Qaeda's attempts to establish a presence in the liberated territories," coalition member Monzer Akbik said. "The solution to fighting extremism in Syria is to strengthen the Free Syrian Army at this critical juncture".