A Syrian town on the border with Turkey has been captured from the Free Syrian Army — not by forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but by Islamist rebels backed by al-Qaeda. The violent takeover of the town has laid bare the deep rifts that plague the movement to oust Assad.
According to reports from the BBC, the fighting in Azaz, a town just south of the Turkish border and north of Aleppo, broke out after a wounded fighter from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was filmed at a field clinic by a group of German doctors or someone connected to their work for a production to be used in fundraising back home. The fighter demanded the film be handed over, accusing the man filming him of being a journalist — a dangerous charge in Syria, where Islamist rebels often deem Western journalists to be spies, according to the BBC.
The fighter called for help and a confrontation ensued between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army fighters guarding the clinic. Skirmishes between the two rebel factions have reportedly not been uncommon, and the argument over the film erupted into a full-scale battle for control of a key strategic outpost. Details on the number of casualties are scant but the Associated Press says hundreds have been killed on both sides in what it calls “a war within a war in northern and eastern parts of Syria.”
An eyewitness inside Azaz told the BBC that no one can be seen smoking in the streets — an indication that ISIS is enforcing Islamic law, which bans the use of tobacco.
In response to ISIS taking control of the town, Turkey shut down the border crossing, which had been a lifeline for rebel-held areas through which passed vital humanitarian aid, building materials and food, Reuters reports. Ankara is alarmed at the existence of an extremist Islamist redoubt on its border — never before has an affiliate of al-Qaeda been perched so close to NATO territory.
The sense that there is a growing civil war within the Syrian civil war further complicates an already fraught conflict. Over the long term, the deepening divisions among rebel factions in Syria could serve to help the FSA in its quest for military aid from the West, which is wary of potentially arming anti-Western Islamists. In the short term, though, it plays into Assad’s hands. As the BBC’s Paul Wood writes from near the Turkish border: “If the rebels are fighting each other, they are not fighting the regime.”
(For more on the battle between rebel factions, see the story in this week’s issue of TIME International by Aryn Baker and Jay Newton-Small, available to subscribers here.)