Insurgent in-fighting — how far will the Jabhat al-Nusra offensive go?

Scott Lucas writes: Headlines from Syria continue to be seized by the insurgent in-fighting in Idlib Province in the northwest, with the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra taking the main positions of the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Harakat Hazm brigade, both of whom have received support from the US.

There were no further reports of Jabhat al-Nusra advances on Sunday, after the faction took the main bases of the SRF and Harakat al-Hazm on Friday and Saturday.

The in-fighting began last Monday, amid claims that the SRF was “sitting on its hands” as other insurgents — led by Jabhat al-Nusra — pursued an offensive against the regime in Idlib city. After SRF fighters defected to other brigades, the SRF leader Jamal Maarouf tried to recover their weapons with raids on houses and reportedly some shelling of villages.

Jabhat al-Nusra, joined by the faction Jund al-Aqsa — which is mainly made up of foreign fighters — hit back hard. In the process, they attacked checkpoints of Harakat Hazm which tried to block their reinforcements.

Jabhat al-Nusra declared a unilateral ceasefire on Saturday, but demanded that the SRF and Maarouf appear in a Sharia court which is dominated by the Islamist faction. There is no sign of Maarouf’s compliance.

Meanwhile, other groups in the insurgency, including the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, have called for a lasting cease-fire and a concentration on the fight against the Assad regime. They have also called for submission of disputes to a Sharia court — meaning an alternative Idlib court, not the one dominated by Jabhat al-Nusra.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s offensive was based in part on long-standing grievances with the SRF, which has been accused of war profiteering, corruption, and theft of supplies and weapons from other groups in the insurgency. This autumn, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front announced a drive against “corruption” in northwest Syria which led to some skirmishes with SRF members.

The offensive may also be a response to the US, which attacked Jabhat al-Nusra positions in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces last month, on the first day of its aerial intervention in Syria. More than 60 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and at least 14 civilians died in the missile strikes.

Leading activists said the US attacks bolstered support for Jabhat al-Nusra among Syrians. [Continue reading…]

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