BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian jihadists seen as close to Islamic State battled a rival hardline Islamist faction on Monday in northwestern Syria, a war monitor and an official with another insurgent group said.
Jund al-Aqsa and Tahrir al-Sham clashed around Kafr Zeita in the countryside north of Hama, and near Tamaniaa, Khan Sheikhoun and Tal Aaas in southern Idlib Province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor.
An official with a rebel group that fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was not involved in Monday’s confrontations, confirmed the fighting.
A statement released by Tahrir al-Sham said Jund al-Aqsa was responsible for the violence, accusing it of coordinating with Islamic State and of having attacked Tahrir al-Sham with suicide blasts and a car bomb.
The main conflict in Syria’s civil war pits President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias, against an array of rebel groups aiming to oust him, including some that have been backed by the United States, Turkey and Gulf monarchies.
Since the army recaptured Aleppo in December, some of the many armed groups in the northwest have consolidated into factions that are now fighting each other for control of territory and resources.
Tahrir al-Sham was formed in January from a merger of Syria’s former branch of al Qaeda, previously known as the Nusra Front and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, along with several other Islamist groups
Jund al-Aqsa and Fateh al-Sham fell out last year despite having previously aligned with each other, and insurgent sources and the Observatory say Jund al-Aqsa’s ideology is closer to that of Islamic State group, al Qaeda’s main jihadist rival.
Both Tahrir al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa are also fighting against an alliance of another Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham, and rebel factions fighting under the FSA banner. Jihadist groups attacked the FSA for sending delegates to peace talks in Kazakhstan last month.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Dominic Evans)