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Islamist factions in Syria join forces with al Qaeda affiliate

Several Islamist factions in Syria have announced the formation of a new rebel group. The move comes amid infighting between hard-line and moderate rebels.

Rebel forces announced on Saturday the formation of Tahrir al-Sham ("Liberation of the Levant Committee") amid ongoing fighting in northwestern Syria.

"In view of the plots shaking the Syrian revolution...we announce the dissolution of all groups mentioned below and their total merger into a new entity named 'Tahrir al-Sham,'" they said in a statement, according to AFP news agency.

The new organization is an alliance between four rebel factions and the former al-Nusra Front, a hardline militant group affiliated with al Qaeda. The announcement of its formation comes just days after other rebel factions said they were joining the group Ahrar al-Sham.

Besides al-Nusra, the signatories were Nureddin al-Zinki, Liwa al-Haq, the Ansar al-Din Front and Jaish al-Sunna.

Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have often fought together against their shared enemy, government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in the northern province of Idlib. However, the groups have split in recent days after al-Nusra launched attacks on several factions of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Syrien Islamistische Kämpfer der Al-Nusra Front (Getty Images/AFP/O.H. Kadour)

A coalition of Islamist forces seen in Idlib

Fighting between rebel groups

The militant group said the actions taken against FSA were in response to "conferences and negotiations...trying to divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation with the criminal regime [of Assad]," referring to the peace conference held in Kazakhstan. Al-Nusra had not been invited to the talks.

Earlier, al-Nusra had been planning to merge with Ahrar al-Sham. But following the attacks on FSA, Ahrar al-Sham's leader, Abu Ammar al-Omar, delivered a stark warning to al-Nusra.

"If the fighting continues and if one party continues to do an injustice to another, then we will not allow this to pass, regardless of the cost, even if we become victims of this," al-Omar said.

The divide is reflective of the ideological split between jihadists and those members of the Syrian opposition supported by foreign governments.

More than 300,000 people have died in the conflict, which began after the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.

blc/sms  (AFP, Reuters)

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