As diplomatic efforts to end the war in Syria paused, fighting flared up between Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, the former Al Qaeda affiliate known as the Nusra Front, and more moderate, foreign-backed factions in areas west of Aleppo and the adjacent rebel-held province of Idlib.
The clashes between the two rebel groups are a sideshow to the main battle between rebels and the Syrian government, but they pose a threat to the coherence of any opposition to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the rebels largest territorial stronghold.
A rebel source said Fateh Al-Sham launched fierce new attacks on Friday.
“A short while ago there was tank bombardment of the base of the headquarters of our brothers in the Jaish al-Islam (faction) in Babsiqa,” said the source, who belongs to one of the groups involved in the fighting. “Activists are reporting casualties in a camp for women nearby from the tank and mortar bombardment.”
The clashes appeared to take place in two areas of Idlib — one west of Aleppo and close to the Turkish border, and the other south of Idlib city, close to the main motorway linking Aleppo to Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said each side was using “heavy weaponry”, and reported a number of civilian casualties.
In towns close to the fighting, several hundred people protested against Fateh Al-Sham for targeting rebel factions and demanded an end to the fighting to spare the lives of civilians. Fateh Al-Sham, which routed at least one Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel faction this week, is now fighting against a number of groups that have joined forces under the powerful Islamist Ahrar Al-Sham to fend off the assault.
Ahrar Al-Sham, which presents itself as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group, sided with the FSA groups and said Fateh Al-Sham had rejected mediation attempts. But Fateh Al Sham claims it was forced to act preemptively to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it.
Idlib and neighbouring Aleppo province are host to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced civilians who are threatened by government and rebel violence on a daily basis.
In the town of Atareb, in the Aleppo province, a few hundred protesters called on the rebel factions to unite against the Fatah Al-Sham front in a demonstration recorded by Thiqa News Agency, an activist media outlet.
Meeting in Moscow with minor Syrian opposition figures — all of them state-approved — the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the UN-hosted talks planned for February 8 had been “put back” until the end of that month.
But a spokeswoman for UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura said there was “no confirmation” the talks had been postponed.
Mr Lavrov’s remarks were made three days after talks between Damascus and rebel representatives wrapped up in the Kazakh capital Astana with no discernible progress.
UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura was scheduled to travel to New York on Monday for a meeting with the new secretary-general Antonio Guterres and to brief the security council in advance of the February 8 talks. UN spokesman Alessandra Vellucci said she could not confirm or any date change until Mr de Mistura returned, although he has referred to February 8 as the “target” for the next round of talks.
Representatives from the two sides had been expected to hold their first face-to-face talks in the Kazakh capital, but the rebels refused and mediators had to shuttle between them. Hopes for the next round are not high since the main rebel groups declined Mr Lavrov’s invitation to meet in Moscow.
However, in a move certain to rattle Turkey, representatives of Syria’s leading Kurdish party did attend the Moscow gathering on Friday. Turkey views the Democratic Union Party in Syria as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency within its own borders.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Kurdish participation in the Geneva process is “necessary.”
According to Kurdish adviser Nasser Haj Mansour, two Syrian Kurdish representatives at the Moscow gathering — Khaled Issa and Rody Othman — presented Lavrov on Friday with a plan for a federalised Syria, which would diminish Mr Assad’s authority over the country and bolster Kurdish gains in northern Syria.