Fighting in Aleppo widens cracks in splintering opposition as military gains are reversed
Martin Chulov, Beirut
The Observer, Sunday 14 July 2013
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/ju ... hes-aleppo
Months of uneasy calm between jihadists and the mainstream Syrian opposition spilled into fierce fighting in Aleppo on Saturday, days after a senior Free Syria army commander was assassinated by a jihadi group.
The fighting was in Bustan al-Qasr in the south-east of the divided city, near a main checkpoint between the regime-held west and the opposition-held east. The east has been under the nominal control of units associated with the FSA for much of the past year. However, jihadists who have also been trying to assert themselves and this week took over the checkpoint, stopping people and supplies from crossing.
The battle underscored the fast-splintering nature of the Syrian opposition, which made sweeping military gains across much of northern Syria last year, but has been unable to advance from its key strongholds in Aleppo and elsewhere since January.
Using a mix of charity and conciliation, the jihadists had initially won the trust of reluctant communities in Aleppo and the countryside between Syria's second city and the Turkish border. However, their more strident posture in recent weeks is now earning them enemies among their hosts.
The anger is centred towards foreign jihadists who, while still a minority among the myriad groups, are often aggressively operating outside the control structures of the Syrian extremists and the FSA. Foreign fighters are believed to have led the attack on the Aleppo checkpoint and killed the senior commander, Kamal Hamami, in the Jebel al-Krud country side north of Latakia on Thursday.
Jabhat al-Nusra, the main jihadist group, and the FSA had until recently worked alongside each other during major operations in the north. While relations between them have not yet broken down, the rise in prominence of fringe organisations is eroding discipline across opposition ranks.
The infighting comes as the regime, heavily backed by Hezbollah forces from Lebanon and a large contingent of Shia foreign fighters, many from Iraq, continue to slowly advance into rebel-held areas of Homs, Syria's third city 150 miles to the south of Aleppo, which has been under intensive air and ground attack for much of the past week.
Opposition groups posted a video online on Saturday, which purports to show Syrian air force jets attacking a crusader castle, Krak de Chevaliers, near the city. Some opposition strongholds in Homs, which is now a divided city, have been bombed more heavily than at any time since February last year, activists say. Syrian military formations to the south and east suggest a ground invasion may follow the bombardment. The battle comes one month after Hezbollah and Syrian forces took the town of Qusair, 30 kilometres to te south it what was seen as the first leg of a summer offensive.