BEIRUT — Al Qaeda militants battled fighters linked to the Western-backed opposition along with Kurdish gunmen in Syrian towns along the Turkish border on Friday, in clashes that killed at least 19 people, activists said.
The violence is part of an outburst of infighting among the myriad rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad for control over prized border areas. Islamist extremist fighters and more mainstream rebels are increasingly turning their guns on each other in what has effectively become a war within a war in northern and eastern Syria, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.
Turkey has been a staunch supporter of the rebels seeking to topple Assad and has allowed the flow of weapons, men, and supplies through border crossings into Syria.
In an interview with Turkey’s private Halk TV, Assad said Turkey will pay a ‘‘high price’’ for allowing foreign fighters to enter Syria from its territory. ‘‘You cannot hide terrorists in your pocket. They are like a scorpion, which will eventually sting you,’’ Assad added.
The interview, broadcast late Thursday, was the latest given by the Syrian president to foreign media as part of a charm offensive in the wake of the Russian-brokered deal that averted the threat of a US airstrike over a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds.
Assad said it was still too early to say whether he’ll run for reelection next year, but suggested he would refrain from seeking a third term — if he feels that is what most Syrians want him to do. He said ‘‘the picture will be clearer’’ in the next four to five months because Syria is going though ‘‘rapid’’ changes on the ground.
Assad has been president since 2000. He took over after the death of his father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, who ruled for three decades.
Syria’s opposition wants Assad to step down and hand over power to a transitional government until new elections are held.
A spokeswoman for the US State Department called it ‘‘really unfathomable’’ that Assad would even contemplate running again.
‘‘If he really were to follow the wishes of the Syrian people, he would go,’’ Marie Harf said.
Infighting between rebels and the increasingly domineering role played by foreign fighters in the civil war have played into the government’s line that it is fighting extremists, not a popular uprising.
Activists said heavy fighting continued Friday in the town of Azaz near the Turkish border between Al Qaeda militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and fighters linked to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army group.
The Islamic State of Iraq fighters also battled Kurdish forces around the town of Ras al-Ain in Syria’s Kurdish-dominated north, said a Kurdish activist, Bassam al-Ahmed, in the nearby town of Hassakeh.
In Damascus, a team of international weapons experts in Syria was out in the field on its fourth day of work in the country. Their mission — endorsed by a UN resolution last week — is to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and to destroy Assad’s entire stockpile by mid-2014.