Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—In another sign of the growing Islamist infighting in Syria, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pulled out of the town of Azaz, close to the Turkish border, on Friday after the Al-Nusra Front, a rival group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, gave them a deadline to leave.
The withdrawal came three days after the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, issued a five-day ultimatum for ISIS to either leave the town or bring their differences to an Islamic Shari’a law court.
Both ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front have publicly declared their affiliation to the Al-Qaeda organization, but Al-Qaeda’s general command announced that it was cutting ties to ISIS in early February in an apparent attempt to reassert authority over fragmented Islamist fighters in Syria. The two militant groups have been involved in a series of inter-rebel skirmishes in Syria in recent months.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, pro-opposition activist Munzer Sallal said that the decision to withdraw came as Islamist militants were gathering at a nearby infantry school in preparation for entering Azaz, a town that has been under ISIS control since September.
“There are around 1,500 fighters belonging to the Islamic Front, Jaish Al-Mujahideen, and Liwa Al-Tawheed in addition to 200 Al-Nusra Front fighters,” the activist said.
ISIS forces abandoned their positions in the strategic town and at a major border crossing with Turkey, withdrawing eastward to the towns of Jarablus and Manbej as well as to Raqqa province, the group’s stronghold, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Al-Nusra Front fighters are coordinating with fighters affiliated to the Islamic Front coalition against ISIS, indicating that Syria’s more moderate Islamist rebels have united against ISIS.
The death of top Al-Qaeda leader Abu Khalid Al-Suri last week seems to have served as a catalyst for the latest inter-Islamist violence in Syria.
Al-Nusra Front accused ISIS of assassinating Suri, who was described by Al-Nusra Front commander Mohammed Al-Golani as “a friend of both Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.”
As a part of its implementation of a strict interpretation of Islam, ISIS-linked fighters were reported to have ordered the amputation of the arm of a young man who was charged with theft.
Despite its withdrawal from Azaz, ISIS was also reported to have gained control of the Halak district of Aleppo, marking its return to the city after it was expelled by Al-Nusra Front, the Beirut-based As-Safir newspaper reported.