Backlash against extremists growing among Syria rebels

Civilians and Free Syrian Army fighters protested Friday against President Bashar Assad.
Hosam Katan/Reuters
Civilians and Free Syrian Army fighters protested Friday against President Bashar Assad.

BEIRUT — With nearly 500 people reported killed in a week of rebel infighting, many Syrians barricaded themselves in their homes Friday, while others emerged from mosques angrily accusing an Al Qaeda-linked group of hijacking their revolution.

The rebel-on-rebel clashes have overshadowed the battle against President Bashar Assad and underscore the perils for civilians caught in the crossfire of two parallel wars.

The violence, which pits fighters from Islamist groups and mainstream factions against the feared Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, have spread across four provinces in opposition-held parts of northern Syria.


The infighting is helping Assad, whose forces have clawed back some of the ground lost to rebels in recent months as they bombard the north and other opposition regions with warplanes, heavy artillery, and crude explosives-filled barrels dropped over neighborhoods.

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‘‘The revolution has been derailed,’’ said Abdullah Hasan, a self-described secular activist in the northern town of Maskaneh, where fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked group swept in last month. ‘‘None of the groups fighting in Syria represent me now,’’ he said, adding that he was hopeful the infighting would help purge extremists from the ranks of the rebels.

The latest bout of violence broke out a week ago across northern Syria and is the most serious among opponents of Assad since the civil war began.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday that at least 482 people have been killed in infighting since Jan. 3. It said 157 were from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, 240 from more moderate factions, and 85 were civilians.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and another Al Qaeda-linked group — Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front — initially joined forces with moderate rebels fighting to oust Assad in a conflict that began in March 2011 as a popular uprising but became a civil war.


The extremists proved well-organized and efficient fighters, giving the ragtag rebels a boost. But the Iraqi-based Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which includes many foreign fighters, has alienated many Syrians over the past several months by using brutal tactics to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law.