Last updated: October 3, 2013 6:04 pm

Islamist rebels challenge al-Qaeda hardliners in Syria

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Islamist rebel groups in Syria have signed a joint statement asking al-Qaeda fighters in the north to pull back from their confrontation with another rebel faction, underscoring the gradual emergence of a new, Salafist-leaning middle ground within the disparate ranks of the armed opposition.

Six factions, including Ahrar al-Sham and the recently-formed Jaish al-Islam coalition, called on the hardline Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and the local Northern Storm Brigade to cease fighting in Azaz and settle their differences in an Islamic court.

Fighting between the two has flared since Isis moved into the town, which is close to the Turkish border, last month.

The statement, issued late on Wednesday but published on Thursday by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also asked Isis to “to withdraw their forces and equipment to their essential bases immediately”, according to a translation by Reuters.

“It was an appeal to stop the shedding of the blood and stop the conflict between both sides,” said Islam Alloush, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam.

“It was our duty as the biggest active brigades on the ground to interfere and issue such a statement.”

Abu Amer, a spokesman for Ahrar al-Sham, stressed that the statement was not hostile to Isis. “It was an appeal and not an order,” he said.

The statement comes shortly after a wider group of 11 rebel factions – including the more moderate but still al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra – collaborated in condemning the western-backed political opposition as unrepresentative.

According to Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS-Jane’s, groups who may be concerned by the aggressive and alienating behaviour of Isis, but who have distanced themselves from the leadership of the western-backed opposition, appear to be coalescing.

The group’s statement “symbolises what we’ve slowly seen developing in the last week or two”, Mr Lister said, namely “a very gradual alignment of all the main large Islamist groups in Syria”.

While pressure from external backers might be a factor in such groups’ subtle distancing of themselves from Isis, it may also be in recognition of “emerging civilian concerns on the ground”, he said.

Since its explosion on to the scene a few months ago, Isis has been accused of carrying out kidnappings and executions in rebel-held areas of northern Syria.

Analysts cautioned that it was still too early to talk about the contours of a lasting alliance, however. Coalitions and ad hoc groupings have come and gone throughout Syria’s armed rebellion, which is funded and armed through myriad different channels.

According to Mr Lister, Jabhat al-Nusra’s official media channels were at pains to point out that they had not entered in to an alliance with anyone after the statement condemning the coalition.

Also on Thursday, the UN said the specialists tasked with verifying Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons stocks and destroying the arsenal had made an “encouraging” start to their work.

According to a statement released on behalf of the UN Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, documents handed over by the Syrian government looked “promising”.

The statement added that “further analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, will be necessary and some more questions remain to be answered”.

Russia suggested last month that the Syrian government destroy its chemical weapons stocks after the US threatened punitive strikes in response to their alleged use in the rebellious Damascus suburbs.

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