By Laura King and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times
AMMAN, Jordan — Al-Qaida-linked fighters have overrun key northern bastions of U.S.-backed Syrian rebels, dealing a heavy blow to American hopes that moderate Syrian factions would provide significant aid in the battle against the militants of the Islamic State.
The onslaught by the Nusra Front in the northern province of Idlib routed the U.S.-equipped fighters, the group boasted in a statement Sunday that largely corroborated activists in the area Monday.
Internecine fighting among rebel factions had been going on for months in Idlib, but over the weekend the Nusra Front seized major positions of the U.S.-supported Syrian Revolutionaries Front, and members of another Western-backed faction, Haraket Hazm, then fled or surrendered, activists reported.
Dozens defected to the Nusra Front, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog group. An undetermined amount of U.S.-provided weaponry also fell into the attackers’ hands, with Nusra Front supporters taking to social media to gloat.
Working with moderate Syrian rebels is a linchpin of the Western strategy against the Islamic State, with the U.S. and its allies staging airstrikes but not providing ground troops. The Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Haraket Hazm had been the first to receive heavy weaponry from the United States, such as TOW antitank missiles.
Israfil Yilmaz, the nom de guerre of a fighter claiming to be in Idlib, said on Twitter that tanks, antitank missiles and “much more equipment” had been seized from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front as the Nusra fighters advanced.
The Islamic State juggernaut has been concentrated in northern and eastern Syria, and large swaths of western Iraq. In Iraq’s Anbar province, Islamic State extremists have been reported by tribal figures to have executed several hundred members of the Ablu Nimr, a tribe that had tried to hold them off.
The Islamic State has also been besieging the northern Syrian town of Kobani for six weeks. Defenders, bolstered by a contingent of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers who arrived last week, have managed to hold them off, with the help of American airstrikes. But the Islamic State has bragged in propaganda videos that the town is about to fall.
The Islamic State, which has declared a “caliphate” in the territory it holds, enforces its rule with a reign of terror that has included beheadings, crucifixions and sexual slavery.
The Nusra Front, which is loyal to al-Qaida, is not as extremist as the Islamic State, but it has been designated a terrorist group by the United States, and has been targeted by U.S.-led airstrikes.
Rival groups have accused the Nusra Front of trying to carve out a “caliphate” of its own, at the expense of the fight to topple President Bashar Assad.
Jamal Maarouf, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front’s top commander, railed against the group in a video posted on YouTube. “We are defending Syria … you who have distorted Islam, you who have distorted religion, why do you fight us?” he shouts.
The Nusra Front said it was willing to observe a cease-fire, but demanded that Maarouf appear before an Islamic court.
AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri
Want more world and political news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!