Major Islamist rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham has announced that several small Islamist factions in the Idlib Province have joined them as part of a new alliance aimed at fending off an offensive by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front. The move follows Nusra virtually wiping out the Jaish al-Mujahideen, one of the factions which joined the Ahrar al-Sham coalition.
Though Ahrar al-Sham has presented itself as a “moderate Islamist” faction for years, and one with some international recognition, the leadership has been relatively open about being ideologically aligned with al-Qaeda. They were never a formal al-Qaeda affiliate, however, unlike the Nusra Front, which until a few months ago was an affiliate, “rebranding” at the behest of the al-Qaeda parent group as a way to gain more allies.
Nusra’s exclusion from the ongoing ceasefire and peace talks set the stage for a big blow-up, with Nusra officials accusing the rebels who were participating in the peace talks of being part of a “conspiracy” against them, and insisting they decided to attack first.
At the same time, Ahrar al-Sham said they were trying to get Nusra Front forces to agree to mediation to stop the fighting, saying Nusra rejected the mediation and that they viewed that rejection as a “declaration of war.”
Nusra is the largest faction in the Idlib Province, but myriad evacuations have put a lot of other rebel groups into the area too, potentially setting the stage for a major battle over the area, one of the few non-ISIS areas in Syria still under rebel control.
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