North Syria rebels join forces against al-Qaeda offshoot
Six rebel groups have announced they were joining the powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction after Jabhet Fateh al-Sham [JFS], al-Qaeda's former Syria affiliate, attacked their bases in Idlib province.
The new merger includes Jaish al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham, the Fastaqeem Union, al-Jabhat al-Shamiye, Thuwar al-Sham, and Jaish al-Mujahideen, according to a joint statement released early on Thursday.
JFS said on Wednesday it had allowed Suqour al-Sham to withdraw from the central prison west of Idlib without capturing any of its fighters in return for handing over the prison administration Jaish al-Fateh, a multi-faction group operating in Idlib.
Meanwhile, Ahrah al-Sham, a conservative Sunni Islamist group, condemned the recent attacks by JFS as "an assault against the revolution", warning the extremists that they would face "a full declaration of war" unless they stop.
JFS had launched the attack against the Free Syrian Army [FSA] groups earlier this week, accusing them of conspiring against it at peace talks in Kazakhstan.
"JFS fighters first surrounded our bases and prevented our men from leaving to get food or ammunition," Jaish al-Mujahideen commander, Amin Malhis, told The New Arab on Tuesday.
The commander said the two groups had also clashed around the town of al-Dana in Idlib province.
"Over the past three years of fighting the regime, we have lost more than 300 martyrs and now JFS is attacking us," Malhis added.
Rockets fired during the fighting killed five members of a family, most of them women and children, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Despite formally renouncing its affiliation with al-Qaeda in 2016, JFS - previously known as the al-Nusra Front - is listed internationally as a "terrorist" group, including by rebel-backer Turkey, a Turkish foreign ministry source reiterated to Reuters on Thursday.
But it has also been a key partner at times for rebel groups in Syria, and it leads a powerful alliance that controls all of Syria's Idlib province.
Despite the ties, tensions have occasionally flared between the extremist group and other rebel forces, which accuse Fateh al-Sham of seeking hegemony.
JFS has been hit in recent weeks by a series of deadly air raids, most believed to have been carried out by the US-led coalition fighting extremists.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said the group appeared to believe that local rebels were providing coordinates for the air raids.
The latest rebel infighting comes as Syria's government and rebel groups concluded fresh peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, building on a ceasefire in force since December 30.JFS was excluded from the ceasefire and has rejected the negotiating process, creating fresh tensions with opposition groups.
Syria's civil war has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since it started in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Agencies contributed to this report.