One day after U.S. warplanes struck bases belonging to the Nusra Front in northern Syria, the al Qaida-affiliated group on Friday pressed forward with its campaign against U.S.-backed rebels, storming four rebel-held villages and seizing a town where they ordered rebel fighters to disband and hand over their weapons.
The four villages – Sfuhun, Fatira, Hazareen and Ma’r Zeta – are in the mountainous Jabal al Zawyah region of Idlib province. The captured town is Minnig, in Aleppo province.
Facing destruction by Nusra, rebel commanders say they are now withdrawing forces from frontline positions where they’d faced troops loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad.
Nusra’s continuing advance appeared to be the result not only of the demoralization of rebel forces, which have been receiving ever-diminishing assistance through a U.S.-backed covert program, but of growing support among local residents. Unlike the Islamic State, whose fighters are mostly from abroad, the vast majority of Nusra fighters are Syrians.
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Rebel commanders, who have been critical of previous U.S. attacks on Nusra, said the United States has added to the confusion over Nusra by claiming that Thursday’s strikes were not intended to support the rebels or to attack Nusra itself, but were aimed at what U.S. officials call the “Khorasan group,” which the U.S. says is an al Qaida unit sent to Syria to plot attacks on the West and that has embedded with Nusra.
That adds to the impression that the Obama administration is prepared to see the collapse of so-called moderate Syrian rebels, they complain.
Gen. Hasan Hammadi, leader of Legion Five, the biggest umbrella group for secular rebel fighters in Idlib province, described the situation as grim. He said many fighters are reluctant to take on Nusra and added that many rebels were unaware of its al Qaida affiliations – though the group has been on the U.S. list of terrorist organization since December 2012 and has made no secret that it is the official al Qaida affiliate in Syria.
“Unfortunately we failed to raise awareness of the group in the past. We failed in exposing the truth of Jabhat al Nusra,” he told McClatchy, referring to Nusra by its Arabic name.
Hammadi said the moderate rebels would continue to resist Nusra advances.
“Two of our groups are fighting against Nusra at this moment in the south of Idlib. We need ammunition, but we are able to reach our fighters despite all the checkpoints erected by Nusra,” Hammadi said. He was referring to Jbala and Ma’art Mater, where Legion Five is trying to hold off Jund al Aqsa, another group affiliated with al Qaida.
Towns and villages once held by the U.S.-backed secular rebels have fallen in rapid succession to Nusra in the past seven days. In Jarjanaz, a town of 17,000 east of Idlib city known for the large number of local fighters who died defending the rebel cause, Nusra took over all rebel bases in midweek to become the dominant force in the city.
Sheikh Hasan al Dughem, a respected religious scholar from the city, described the developments as an “earthquake.”
The situation was hardly better in rebel-dominated Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. The Aleppo Media Center, an anti-regime news agency, reported that Nusra forces had bested fighters from the Fursan al Shamal Brigade in Minnig, a town of 5,000 in the northern countryside.
The media center reported that Nusra demanded that the brigade hand over a tank, claiming it had belonged originally to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, another secular rebel group Nusra defeated last weekend. Rather than surrender the tank, the Fursan al Shamal fighters set it on fire. Then their commander, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Udai, announced that the brigade would withdraw and abandon its weapons. He called Nusra a “new Islamic State” and accused it of attacking his forces because they had been fighting the Islamic State in that region.
Adding to the tension, a group of Nusra fighters in the city of Mari’e, north of Aleppo, reportedly opened fire on the car of Tamer Mustafa, a leader in the Dawn of Freedom Brigades, one of the most renowned rebel groups in the north of Syria. Mustafa won the nickname “ISIS conqueror” for leading battles against the Islamic State in January, when rebels ousted the group from most of northern Syria.
Gen. Hammadi said the situation has put the secular rebel groups in the position of having to stop fighting Assad forces, which have encircled them on the south, to fend of Nusra advances to their north.
“We are minimizing the number of our fighters on the front lines against the regime,” he said. “Now, we are defending ourselves.”
Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman reported from Istanbul.