Abu Mohamad al-Golani, head of the Nusra Front, even suggested he
was willing to change the name of his group if the others, including
the powerful Ahrar al-Sham organization, agreed to the deal, the
But he made clear that Nusra would not cut its ties with al Qaeda,
and its allegiance would remain to Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over
as leader after U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Much was riding on the outcome of the meeting, which the sources
said took place about 10 days ago.
Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are the most powerful groups in northern
Syria: when they briefly teamed up with other Islamists last year in
an alliance called the Fatah Army, the rebels scored one of their
biggest victories by seizing the city of Idlib.
Some rebels believed a merger would create a stronger rival to
Islamic State and might attract much-needed military support and
recognition from regional and international powers.
But the leaders left without an agreement, and the sources said the
atmosphere was tense, with Nusra blaming Ahrar al-Sham for the
A few days later, members of the two groups clashed in the towns of
Salqin and Harem in Idlib province, near the border with Turkey.
Several fighters were killed on both sides, but other insurgent
groups brokered a quick ceasefire.
Jihadi sources, including some from Ahrar al-Sham, say it is only a
matter of time before another battle between the two erupts. They
say the rift between them is getting deeper, although mediation
continues. One restraining factor has been an imminent assault by
the Syrian army and its allied forces in northwestern Syria.
"The situation is charged, the failure of initiatives could cause an
explosion," said a jihadi in Idlib who is close to the two groups.
"What happened just avoided all-out conflict, all-out battle. But it
will be hard to tell what will happen in the future."
Outright war between Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham would still further
complicate the five-year Syrian conflict, in which rebel groups are
mushrooming under different slogans and sometimes fighting each
A delegation from Syria's main opposition group, the Saudi-backed
Higher Negotiation Committee (HNC), arrived in Geneva on Saturday to
join United Nations-mediated peace talks, demanding President Bashar
al-Assad's government be made to comply with a U.N. resolution on
humanitarian aid and human rights.
Nusra and Islamic State - designated as terrorists by the U.N. -
have been excluded from the Geneva talks, the first attempt in two
years to end a war that has killed a quarter of a million people.
Ahrar al-Sham, which presents itself as a Syrian nationalist force
in contrast to al Qaeda's global jihadist ideology, recently joined
the HNC but Russia opposes its participation in the talks.
LACK OF TRUST
Distrust between Nusra and Ahrar is mutual. Nusra accuses its
Islamist rival of being a front for Turkey, addressing not the
"interests of Muslims" but the agenda of Ankara in order to be part
of a future political deal to rule Syria.
Ahrar and other groups are pushing Nusra to cut its ties with al
Qaeda as a step towards becoming more fully engaged in the struggle
[to top of second column]
"The problem is with the Qaeda link and its ideological
implications. Nusra insists on its agenda, it doesn't want to
maneuver at all," said a frustrated Ahrar commander, accusing it of
"damaging the revolution".
In the first few weeks after last year's capture of Idlib, the two
groups divided responsibilities and territory without problems. But
gradually divisions began to surface, as Ahrar and other insurgents
became wary of Nusra and accused it of trying to seize power and
"Nusra cannot work with others, they have a dominating project, they
do not accept the others," said a fighter from Ahrar al-Sham in
Idlib via the Internet.
Some insurgents are suspicious of Nusra's long-term agenda in the
region and globally, distrusting its declaration that it has no
ambitions outside Lebanon and Syria.
"This declared goal is an interim one. After it wins and establishes
itself in Syria, they will move to the next step, which objects to
the goal of the revolution," said an Islamist rebel who is allied
with Ahrar al-Sham.
"They will join the global jihad and this is against our revolution.
Our revolution is limited to Syria."
On the ground, Nusra imposes strict Islamic rules in villages and
towns where it shares power. It has banned women from wearing
make-up, showing their hair or wearing tight clothes like jeans, and
applied a policy of segregation between the sexes. All these moves
have served to assert its dominance, while provoking other groups.
"There is no group on the ground that actually objects to having an
Islamic government but the implementation and methods are
different," said another Islamist fighter from a group that is
allied with Ahrar.
Highlighting the dilemma facing Syrian rebels, a local commander of
an Islamist brigade that works closely with Ahrar al-Sham said: "It
will be difficult for Nusra to disengage from Qaeda and it will be
difficult for us to work with them. The situation is really
difficult. Things are complicated and interlocked all together."
Asked how long the groups could avoid hostilities, an Ahrar al-Sham
military commander said: "We can avoid fighting with Nusra for now.
For how long? That is a difficult question. Only God knows."
(Writing by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and David
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