ISTANBUL: Al Qaeda-backed militants on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) stormed the base of the most prominent civilian commander in the US-backed Syrian rebel force, forcing him and his fighters to flee into hiding in the Jebal al Zawiya mountains of northern Syria.
Jamal Maarouf, a contractor in private life, became internationally known for leading the successful offensive in January that forced the Islamic State (IS) from most of two northern provinces. His ouster from his own village was an enormous setback for him, the rebel forces and his international backers.
Even more ominous was that that IS, now far stronger and claiming to run a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, reportedly joined the Nusra Front in the attack on the village of Deir Sinbul.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based opposition monitoring group, said IS fighters had arrived from the east of Syria to join the Al-Qaeda affiliate in the fight against Maarouf’s Revolutionaries of Syria Front.
And Mahmoud al Ugal, a commander in Marouf’s force, said the militant fighters had deployed at least 20 heavy machine guns. He said the Nusra fighters used tanks, mortars and Chechen snipers in the battle for Deir Sinbul, Maarouf’s home town.
Ugal said the fighters had traveled by convoy across the Syrian desert, an assertion that coincided with information McClatchy obtained from another Syrian rebel commander early in the week as the convoy was reportedly setting out. McClatchy contacted both the US Central Command and Pentagon officials for comment on the report, but neither could confirm it.
If IS fighters did join Nusra in the attack, it will have major repercussions for the war in Syria, for the two groups have been divided since April 2013, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Iraq-based leader, announced the creation of Islamic State. Nusra had supported the rebel war against Assad until very recently and also was at war with Islamic State.
Islamic State’s fighters are mostly foreign volunteers, while Nusra’s forces consist largely of Syrian fighters.
Question on US role
The latest developments also raise the question whether the US, which daily bombards jihadist positions in a small Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria, was monitoring the other fronts in the Syrian war where IS is active.
Saturday’s fighting also confirmed that rebel forces, led by commanders such as Maarouf, who have been vetted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), now are fighting a three-front war against the regime, the Islamic State and Nusra, with only limited US support.
Rebel leaders earlier this week pleaded in vain for US help. “The war is widening now, and we are defending our existence,” Gen. Muhammad Hallak of the Syrian Revolutionary Front said on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila). He warned that if the US-led coalition of western and Arab countries “lets us down, then we will withdraw our forces from the front with the Islamic State and the regime, and work only to save ourselves.” Hallak, like Maarouf, has been vetted by the CIA and receives covert US military aid.
The battle over Jebel al-Zawiya, the first major stronghold controlled by the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime, began just a week ago. By Saturday, Nusra had already captured a dozen rebel-controlled villages before reaching Deir Sinbul. In a statement on Twitter, Nusra accused Maarouf of “corruption” and “straying from the path of the revolution.”