Syrian Rebels Turn Their Guns on Each Other

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter filling in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. The news from the war in Syria has followed a grim and familiar pattern. More fighting and more deaths. But events in the past couple of days highlight a relatively new trend in Syria that we've discussed on this program. And that is different rebel groups turning their guns on each other. Correspondent Marine Olivesi is in Hatay, Turkey. Now Marine, you've been following reports of fighting in a Syrian town called Azaz near the border of Turkey. Fill us in on what's happening there.

Marine Olivesi: Yes, so Azaz is just three miles away from the Turkish border crossing. And it's strategic because it's on the main road leading to Aleppo and it's a lifeline for the opposition. The fighting there started yesterday after the Al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria, which is called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, accused one German doctor, was working at a local hospital, of being a spy, and they tried arrest him. After that, local FSA brigades fought back. The clash killed several opposition fighters but the numbers are still not clear. But by the end of the day, the Islamic State had secured the roads in and out of Azaz and the main FSA fighters were driven out of town. Today there are reports that one of the most powerful brigades in Aleppo, the Al-Tawhid Brigade, came to the area to try to broker a truce between both groups and get the Jihadists to leave Azaz. But we hear from local activists there that the Islamic State overnight has consolidated its hold on the city. They've spread through the town, they set up snipers on rooftops, and that Azaz is now firmly in the hands of the Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Schachter: Now you mentioned the FSA, the Free Syrian Army, and they are fighting Islamists or Jihadis. Explain to us, roughly speaking, who we're talking about when we say moderate rebels, FSA, and Jihadi rebel groups.

Olivesi: Yes well, the FSA is that loose coalition of brigades that are fighting the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. The West consider them as not quite secular, but mainstream. And against them are a couple of brigades including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that are affiliates of Al-Qaeda in Syria. And what happened yesterday is the most serious clash to date between that mainstream FSA and Al-Qaeda. But the relations between both groups, which were pretty good up until a couple of months ago, have greatly deteriorated this throughout this summer. Before the summer, the FSA brigades, even if they might not embrace the ideas of Al-Qaeda, thought they were in no position of fighting these groups, and they had the same enemy which was Bashar Al-Assad. But then over the summer it appeared that things were not as simple. The first salvo was fired when a top FSA commander was assassinated at an Al-Qaeda checkpoint back in July in Latakia Province. Then in August there was a car bomb targeting a local FSA brigade in another city in northern Syria, the city of Rakha. And now yesterday we had what seems to be a coordinated offensive to run over the strategic border town of Azaz. So the Islamic State has clearly stepped up its offensive throughout this summer. They've been trying gradually what they could get away with, and whether the FSA would put up a fight against them.

Schachter: It's not just the FSA who is going against the Jihadi groups. From what you've told us in your own reporting, you've talked with Syrian refugees who've found themselves suddenly living under the rule of Jihadi rebels. Tell us a little bit about what they have gone through.

Olivesi: Yes, I talked to many refugees who came from that town of Rakha that is, as of last month, totally under control of the Al-Qaeda affiliate. And they told me quite horrific stores. Stories of kidnappings, of daily intimidations, of fighters walking around the streets with TNT belts around their chests. And many told me that they consider that the Islamic State is actually worse than the regime. Something that most Syrians really despise is that most of these fighters are not Syrians. They're foreigners. They're Afghans, Saudis, Chechens, and unlike other Islamist groups, they're not really doing a lot of social work. They're not into opening schools or running bakeries. This specific Al-Qaeda group, the Islamic State doesn't seem too interested in that. Their goal is to take control of territory. Some of the civilians we talked to said that what they want is just to plant as many black flags as possible, open up Sharia courts where they can impose their strict version of Islamic law. They're not that interested in fighting against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. So that kind of attitude and strategy in northern Syria has earned them quite a few enemies. And some FSA leaders and activists have started speaking about the need of an Iraqi-style awakening movement, which was the name of a U.S. backed initiative in the Anbar Province to dislodge Al-Qaeda.