Syrian residents flee homes following clashes between opposition fighters and forces loyal to President Assad in Adra area, east of Damascus yesterday.
Damascus: The most serious clashes yet between the Syrian opposition and a prominent Al Qaeda group erupted in the north of the country yesterday as a tribal revolt against the same organisation continued to rage in Iraq’s Anbar province.
Opposition groups near Aleppo attacked militants from the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (Isis) in Al Atareb and Andana, strongholds of the fundamentalist Sunni organisation.
Battles also erupted in the Salahedin district of Aleppo, where both groups had reluctantly co-existed during recent months as Isis had imposed its hardline influence on parts of the city. Several hundred miles east, Isis remains in control of parts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, having raided mosques, sacked police stations and freed prisoners in moves reminiscent of the darkest days of Iraq’s insurgency, in which much of Anbar had been lost to Al Qaeda.
Isis is the latest incarnation of the same group that held sway in Anbar before the Awakening Movement of tribal militias ousted it. The Awakening was led at the time by powerful local sheikhs and backed by the occupying US military and was credited with freeing both cities from the grip of the jihadists.
But over the past year, security there and elsewhere in Iraq has gradually ebbed as the war in Syria has intensified. In the past week, revitalised Isis insurgents stormed into both cities soon after the Iraqi military withdrew from a violent stand-off with local tribes.
The same group has been at the vanguard of an increasing radicalisation of the anti-Assad opposition in the north. Its members cross freely between Anbar and the eastern deserts as insurgencies in each area steadily seep in to each other.
Tribal figures in Anbar said they were continuing to mount attacks on Isis and were determined to block the Islamists’ efforts to re-establish a foothold there.
“Never will we allow them to return to our towns,” said a senior sheikh from the outskirts of Ramadi. “We don’t trust the Shia regime of Al Maliki and we don’t trust Al Qaeda. We will fight for our future. No one else has our benefit at heart.”
The US military had placed great significance on Ramadi and Fallujah, having fought two major battles against insurgents in Fallujah in 2004 and having suffered more than one-third of its casualties during the eight-year war in the restive province.
With the US having left three years ago, the government of the Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, recently travelled to the US to seek renewed intelligence help to get on top of the insurgency.