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Al Nusrah Front battles Western-backed rebels outside Aleppo

The Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, has fought against Harakat Hazm (the Hazm Movement) outside of Aleppo in recent days. Hazm is one of the few rebel groups to receive limited American aid in the Syrian war.

Leaders of the Hazm Movement have praised Al Nusrah in the past. And the two organizations have fought side-by-side at times, drawing into question Hazm's reliability as a Western partner. Hazm has also partnered with other al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups.

But Al Nusrah is repeating the tactics it has employed in the recent past by attempting to take ground from Hazm. Late last year, Al Nusrah turned on the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front (SRF), another Western-backed rebel group that has repeatedly fought alongside al Qaeda in Syria. Just as Al Nusrah took towns and villages from the SRF in Idlib, it is now seizing Hazm positions outside of Aleppo. And the fighting between Al Nusrah and the Hazm Movement is reportedly spreading elsewhere.

When Al Nusrah launched its offensive against the SRF in late October 2014, one of the organization's propaganda arms on Twitter released videos and statements accusing the SRF of committing various crimes against Syrian civilians. Al Nusrah also justified its attacks by claiming that its fighters had been unjustly imprisoned by the SRF.

Al Nusrah's propaganda, which is intended to portray its offensive as just, repeats these same themes with respect to Hazm.

Al Qaeda's Syrian branch has released a 3 minute, 27 second video accusing Hazm of shelling civilians and torturing prisoners. The video introduces several witnesses, who discuss their alleged mistreatment by Hazm. Images of the purported damage done by Hazm's shelling are also shown. While it may be true that Hazm abused the prisoners, Al Nusrah is not known for treating its captives gently.

Several screen shots from the Al Nusrah Front video are shown below.

In a separate statement released via Twitter on Jan. 30, the Al Nusrah Front says it has reclaimed the Sheikh Salman Camp from the Hazm Movement. Al Nusrah claims that Hazm seized the camp three months ago and has held several Al Nusrah fighters captive there. Al Nusrah argues that, along with other factions, it participated in "liberating" the camp two years ago. Al Nusrah alleges that the Hazm Movement shelled civilian areas in the surrounding villages as it battled for control of the camp.

The Hazm Movement has used its social media pages to respond. On Jan. 29, the group released a statement on its Facebook page saying that it would withdraw "from all the positions" its fighters were defending on the fronts surrounding Aleppo. Hazm appealed to other rebel groups to intervene, and enforce an agreement that prevents rebel infighting in and around Aleppo. Hazm also accused Al Nusrah of being "takfiri," and of following an "extremist ideology."

The Islamic Front, an alliance of several rebel groups, has attempted to act as an intermediary between Al Nusrah and the Hazm movement. A statement released on the Islamic Front's official Twitter feed on Jan. 29 is signed by two groups, Ahrar al Sham and Suqur al Sham.

The organizations say they are saddened by the news of the infighting between their Muslim "brothers," and recommend that the conflict be settled in an independent sharia court. The statement implicitly takes Al Nusrah's side in the fight, however. "We are prepared to reclaim the rights claimed by our brothers in Al Nusrah Front against Harakat Hazm," the Islamic Front statement reads. The representatives from Ahrar al Sham and Suqur al Sham say they "trust" the Hazm Movement will not refrain from "settling any wrongs done by them."

Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked organization, is the most powerful organization in the Islamic Front, holding key leadership positions in the coalition.

In another statement, dated Jan. 30, the Hazm Movement says that it has "confidence" in the Islamic Front to end the dispute. But Hazm also says that the Islamic Front should deal first with the "attacker," meaning the Al Nusrah Front, and not the defender.

As the infighting has raged on, the Levantine Front, another rebel coalition that operates outside of Aleppo, has released its own statement saying the Hazm Movement has joined the alliance. Hazm's move is likely intended to provide it with cover in the face of the jihadists' advances.

The Al Nusrah Front's strategy for northern Syria was made clear late last year, when its forces moved against the SRF, consolidating its hold on positions throughout Idlib in the process.

The Hazm Movement now finds itself in the same crosshairs.

[Source: By Thomas Joscelyn, The Long War Journal, NJ, 31Jan15]

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