Two Syrian rebel groups – one seeking an elected civil government, the other favoring the establishment of a religious state – are battling each other in the city of Tal Abyad, on the border with Turkey, in a sign of the tensions that are likely to rule this country if the government of President Bashar Assad falls.
Four people were killed Sunday in fighting here between the Farouq Battalions, which favors elections, and Jabhat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which the United States has declared an al Qaida-affiliated terrorist group. Since then, Farouq has been massing men here in an example of the growing friction that’s emerged in recent months as Nusra has captured strategic infrastructure across Syria’s north and east, including oil and gas installations, grain silos and a hydroelectric dam.
Raqqa province, where Tal Abyad is, and Hasaka province, to the east, are poverty-stricken but vital to Syria’s agriculture. Hasaka and Deir el Zour province to the south are the center of the country’s oil industry.
“They want to control the border crossing here,” said Abu Mansour, a member of Farouq in Tal Abyad. Like other rebels, he uses a nom de guerre to hide his identity from the government.
The rivalry between the groups is a reminder of how divided Syria’s rebel factions are and how inaccurate it is to refer to the anti-Assad forces as if they were a single group, with a single goal. Indeed, while news stories for months often referred to rebels as the Free Syrian Army, that term is more an idea than an organization. Instead, the rebel movement comprises dozens of groups whose ideologies have only one common goal: the toppling of the Assad regime.
Farouq, which has battalions across Syria and espouses a moderate interpretation of Islam, controls border crossings with Turkey at Tal Abyad and Bab al Hawa, in northwestern Syria. Nusra has attempted to seize control of both crossing points since Farouq took them from pro-Assad forces last September.
The rivalry between the groups has become increasingly apparent as Nusra raises the volume of its calls for Islamic law. Recently, it suggested it might declare Raqqa, the largest city under rebel control, the center of an Islamic emirate. Last November, the group clashed with members of Kurdish militias after it seized the border crossing at Ras al Ayn.
Sunday’s fighting badly wounded Mohammad al Daher, a popular Farouq leader known as Abu Azzam who’d also fought Nusra-affiliated militants at Bab al Hawa last year. He was taken to Turkey for treatment, and friends said he remained in intensive care Tuesday.
In candid moments, members of Nusra don’t deny their links to al Qaida in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq, the al Qaida-linked group that battled U.S. troops there and continues to carry out attacks. All three groups call for establishing Islamic states in the areas in which they operate, in Syria and Iraq, and view non-Sunni Muslims as apostates who’ve rejected Islamic teachings. That includes Alawites, the sect to which Assad and about 10 percent of Syrians belong, as well as Shiite Muslims, who make up the majority of Iraqis and have dominated the government there since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
Nusra has taken tough action against those who oppose its fundamentalist beliefs. In the city of Shadadeh, in southern Hasaka province, members of a moderate rebel group said Nusra members had dispersed a demonstration against them earlier this month by firing heavy machine guns in the air. A similar event occurred in the city of Mayadeen, in Deir el Zour province, after locals demonstrated against Nusra’s establishment of an Islamic court there.
“They call us kufar,” or non-Muslims, said Abu Mohammed, who leads a rebel brigade in Shadadeh. “We will have no choice but to be like the Sahwa,” he said, referring to the tribal movement in Iraq that began in 2006 to kick al Qaida in Iraq followers from that country’s western province of Anbar, which borders Hasaka and Deir el Zour. The Sahwa movement was crucial to American pacification efforts.
Members of other rebel groups increasingly liken Nusra to the Syrian government in its intolerance of any opposition, and they fear its spies. Nusra has detained secular activists who’ve spoken against it.
Abu Mansour said that for now, Nusra had withdrawn from Tal Abyad. But he expected more fighting.
“It seems we cannot deal with them peacefully,” he said. “So it seems inevitable we will fight them, whether it is before the regime falls or after.”