After five days of insurgent in-fighting, the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra has defeated the Syrian Revolutionary Front, pushing it out of its main positions in Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra, joined by factions such as Jund al-Aqsa advanced through the Jabal al-Zawiya region, and the SRF and its leader Jamal Maarouf withdrew from its headquarters in the village of Deir Sonbol.
Jabhat al-Nusra then announced a new ceasefire with the SRF, calling on it to appear before a Sharia court — led by the Saudi cleric Shaykh Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini and dominated by the Islamist faction — to resolve disputes. It also said prisoners on both sides should be exchanged.
The clashes, which began on Monday between the SRF and elements of Jabhat al-Nusra in towns in Idlib Province, have been reduced by some analysts to a battle between the Islamist faction and the “moderate” insurgency:
Very significant losses for US-backed FSA in #Idlib – reports that Jabhat al-Nusra now controls all of Jebel al-Zawiyah, inc. Deir Sunbul.
— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) November 1, 2014
McClatchy News Service goes even farther:
Al Qaida-backed militants Saturday stormed the base of the most prominent civilian commander in the U.S.-backed Syrian rebel force, forcing him and his fighters to flee into hiding in the Jebal al Zawiya mountains of northern Syria.
The reality is far more complex than the implied evil v. US-supported good. Tensions had been raised when the insurgency — with Jabhat al-Nusra in the lead — was pursuing a major offensive against the regime in Idlib city, and SRF was accused of “sitting on its hands”.
Some SRF fighters defected to other brigades. Maarouf then reportedly tried to get their weapons back with force, raiding homes and shelling in some villages.
Jabhat al-Nusra appears to have taken the opportunity presented by the clashes to deal decisively with the SRF, which has had tense relations with the Islamists and with other insurgent groups.
Maarouf and the SRF — though loosely connected with the Free Syrian Army — have long been accused of corruption, war profiteering, and theft from other insurgent factions. Anger was also stoked on Monday as the SRF was said to have “sat on its hands” while others fought the regime near and in Idlib.
Other groups in the insurgency called on both sides to cease fire and to accept the authority of a Sharia court in Idlib Province.
In its ceasefire announcement on Saturday, Jabhat al-Nusra demanded that Maarouf appear before its preferred court and implied that the SRF’s crimes would be exposed: “We defend the people’s lives, money and wives from aggressors…as the facts are going to be unveiled”,
A Jabhat al-Nusra fighter said on Saturday that SRF members had defected from Maarouf’s leadership: “They left him because they knew he was wrong and delusional. He left his fighters in the battle and pulled out.”
Jabhat al-Nusra also said it was boosted by defections from the Harakat Hazm brigade, which has received US heavy weapons including anti-tank missiles.
Jabhat al-Nusra attacked positions of Harakat Hazm, reportedly detaining one of its commanders, when the brigade tried to stop the Islamist faction from sending reinforcements to the fight with the SRF.
Maarouf — who had earlier denounced Jabhat al-Nusra as deviant, under Iranian control, and the same as the enemy Islamic State and/or the Assad regime — posted a video declaring his group would return to their bases: “I [want to] clarify why we pulled out of the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya. [It is] so that we preserve civilian blood because this group does not hesitate to kill civilians.”
Video: Fighting and Devastation in Area of Jobar and Zamalka in Northeast Damascus
Footage of the devastating and ongoing battles in insurgent-held Jobar and Zamalka in northeast Damascus:
The Syrian military has tried for months to follow up aerial bombardment with a ground assault to push the insurgents out of the districts.
Video: Aftermath of Regime Missile Strike on al-Waer in Homs
Claimed footage of the aftermath of a regime missile strike on the al-Waer section of Homs:
The Syrian military has been bombarding al-Waer, a crowded area which includes tens of thousands of displaced Syrians, in an effort to remove insurgents. The opposition fighters have resisted the regime after evacuating their other positions in Homs this spring.