DAMASCUS : Syrian rebels were laying siege Monday to ‘jihadists’ in their northern stronghold of Raqa, as they waged an all-out offensive aimed at crushing the Al-Qaeda affiliate they accuse of abuses.
Raqa is the latest front in a fight pitting a broad coalition of thousands of moderates and Islamists opposed to President Bashar al-Assad against the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
As the fighting raged, the National Coalition re-elected Ahmad Jarba to lead the exiled opposition bloc, less than three weeks before slated peace talks in Switzerland.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels attacking ISIL in Raqa also “released 50 Syrian prisoners” the extremists held in another building.
Raqa is the only provincial capital to have fallen out of regime hands since the conflict erupted when regime opponents took up arms following a bloody crackdown by Assad’s forces on democracy protests in March 2011.
But it soon fell into the grip of ISIL, which is said to be holding hundreds of prisoners in their now besieged Raqa headquarters, among them rival rebels, activists and journalists - including Westerners.
“The foreigners are being held in other buildings, outside Raqa city,” said the Observatory, a Britain-based group that tracks the conflict.
But Turkish photographer Bunyamin Aygun, kidnapped in December in Syria, was freed Sunday amid the fighting.
Monday’s offensive in Raqa came after three powerful rebel alliances on Friday launched what they called a second “revolution” against ISIS in the northern province of Aleppo and Idlib to its west.
On Sunday the fighting spread to the central province of Hama, as well as Raqa, and the Observatory says scores have been killed on both sides.
A key complaint against ISIL among rebels - including the massive Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Mujahedeen Army - is that its jihadists refuse to operate within the broader opposition dynamic.
Activists have also reported horrific abuses by ISIL even against Islamists, including widespread kidnapping, threats, torture, assassination and public executions.
The Observatory said “the main group laying siege to ISIL’s headquarters in Raqa is Al-Nusra Front,” which like ISIL is affiliated to Al-Qaeda but is seen as more moderate.
ISIL and Al-Nusra have fought each other in recent months, after ISIL announced it was Al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria. Al-Nusra had been operating in Syria for longer, and refused to work under ISIL’s command.
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri then ordered ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to work with Al-Nusra - and he refused. The two groups have since had, at best, tense relations, and at worst they have engaged in open fighting.
The fighting comes as ISIL took over Fallujah in neighbouring Iraq, in a fresh sign of the regionalisation of the Syrian conflict.
In a vote late Sunday in Istanbul, where the opposition holds its meetings, the National Coalition re-elected Jarba as its leader.
The Coalition said Jarba won 65 votes, beating his only rival Riad Hijab - the best-known defector from the Assad regime - by 13 votes.
Jarba, who is seen as close to key rebel backer Saudi Arabia, was first elected to head the Coalition in July, and will now lead the group for another six months.
His re-election comes at a sensitive time, less than three weeks before scheduled peace talks in Switzerland that would bring rebels and regime representatives to the table.
The Coalition will discuss on Monday whether to take part in the peace talks, though a key bloc - the Syrian National Council - has already announced it will boycott the so-called Geneva 2 process.
That has raised fears the Coalition may end up rejecting the talks altogether. According to SNC member and veteran dissident Samir Nashar, “Ahmad Jarba does not want to go to Geneva”.
Jarba’s re-election comes amid a deep crisis within the Coalition, which many opponents and rebels on the ground feel has failed to represent them.
On the ground, rebels and regime troops reached a truce in the destroyed district of Barzeh in northern Damascus, activists said.
One of them, Abu Ammar, told AFP that although the agreed clauses have not yet been implemented, “the intensity of the fighting has been reduced greatly in the past three days”.