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Fateh al-Sham attacks Free Syrian Army in Idlib

  Heavy fighting erupted in northwestern Syria on Tuesday between a powerful jihadist organization and more moderate rebel groups, threatening to further weaken the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in its biggest territorial stronghold.

Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, some of whom have representatives attending peace talks in Kazakhstan, accused the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham of launching a surprise attack on their positions west of Aleppo.

Fateh al-Sham could not immediately be reached for comment. The group was previously known as the Nusra Front, a name it changed after announcing it was cutting ties with al Qaeda last year.
FSA officials said the attack targeted FSA groups in areas west of Aleppo and the adjacent province of Idlib, which is controlled by an array of rebel factions, including Fateh al-Sham. One FSA commander said that in response "a comprehensive war" was now underway against Fateh al-Sham.

Long-standing tensions between Fateh al-Sham and more moderate rebels, a number of them backed by Turkey and other states that have opposed Assad, have surfaced again since government forces helped by Russian air power and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias drove the rebels out of Aleppo last month.

Fateh al-Sham is not covered by a shaky truce between the government and rebels brokered by Russia and Turkey. The aim of the meeting in Astana, organized by Russia, Turkey and Iran, is to shore up the ceasefire that came into effect on Dec. 30.

The commander of Jaish al-Mujahideen, one of the FSA groups, told Reuters the "extremely fierce" Fateh al-Sham attack aimed to "eliminate the revolution and turn it black", a reference to the black flag flown by the jihadists in Syria.

He said the group had seized "some positions", though these were far from its headquarters. In a statement, Jaish al-Mujahideen called for other factions to "stand as if they are one man" against the group.

"It's an open war on the Nusra Front," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the conflict.


ISLAMIST GROUP SIDES WITH FSA


Fateh al-Sham has a history of crushing FSA groups in the conflict that began in 2011. One of the single biggest groups in the insurgency, Fateh al-Sham has been targeted in a spate of U.S. air strikes in the northwest since the new year.

One of those strikes killed dozens of its fighters at a training camp in Idlib last week. The Pentagon said that attack was carried out by a B-52 bomber and killed more than 100 al Qaeda fighters.

Tensions have also flared in recent days between Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, a large Islamist group widely believed to be backed by Turkey.

Ahrar al-Sham accused Fateh al-Sham on Tuesday of attacking other groups without justification. It said in a statement that it was deploying fighters as to prevent further fighting and setting up barricades to stop "Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or others" from going to attack Muslims".

An official in Jabha Shamiya, another FSA group, told Reuters the attack began overnight, describing it as a large assault in several areas. The official said it was the first time Fateh al-Sham had attacked the FSA groups in that area.

"What they are doing serves Iran and the regime - so there is no FSA left in the north - particularly with the factions' delegation now in Astana where the regime offered nothing with regards to the ceasefire," said the Jabha Shamiya official.

The FSA groups now needed to coordinate their efforts to repel the attack, he said.

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