Syrian rebels seized a compound held by al-Qaida-linked militants Sunday as their one-time allies used car bombs against them, some of the most serious infighting between fighters battling against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
The rebel-on-rebel fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is the strongest pushback yet from Syrian rebels who have seen their uprising to topple Assad hijacked by al-Qaida forces seeking to impose Islamic rule in opposition-held portions of the country.
The clashes began Friday after residents accused the al-Qaida-linked fighters of killing a doctor in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. Fighting quickly spread to rebel-held areas of the northeast province of Idlib and the central province of Hama.
By Sunday, clashes also were reported in the town of Tabqa in the eastern province of Raqqa, where ISIL forces are most dominant, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebels seized the ISIL compound in the town of Manbij in the northern province of Aleppo, the Observatory reported. The group obtains its information from a network of activists on the ground.
The Observatory said ISIL fighters also used car bombs for the first time to defend its territory. Other activists reported ISIL had been pushed out of the town of Atmeh.
The Observatory’s reporting corresponded with updates from ISIL supporters who reported the fighting on Twitter, accusing their Syrian hosts of betrayal.
There has always been resentment against ISIL, whose fighters, a mix of foreigners and Syrians, fanned into Syria last year, taking advantage of the upheaval to assert power in areas seized by rebels.
It is seen as particularly brutal in Syria’s civil war for its abductions and killings of anti-Assad activists, journalists and civilians seen as critical to their rule.
The group emerged from the Sunni heartland of neighboring Iraq, wreaking havoc throughout Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
In Iraq, it has targeted Shiites with car bombs, sending the country to the brink of civil war. This week, they seized control of the key Sunni town of Fallujah. In Lebanon, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Thursday that targeted a Shiite-dominated Beirut neighborhood.
Some activists hailed the fight against ISIL as a second revolution, but it wasn’t clear if the fighting against the al-Qaida group could unite already chaotic rebel groups.
The groups battling ISIL come from a series of different brigade coalitions, some who are also rivals to each other.
The Western-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups in exile has welcomed the attacks on ISIL, as it sees the group as hijacking its efforts to overthrow Assad.
But the potential loss of rebel-held territory as infighting persists also threatens to weaken Syria’s already bruised opposition ahead of an international peace conference scheduled for this month to try hammer out the future of their country.
Syria’s pro-government al-Watan newspaper appeared to welcome the infighting, offering this as a headline to an editorial Sunday: “Terrorism eats its sons.”