Six armed opposition factions in Syria have announced that they are joining the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the country’s largest rebel groups.
Their decision came after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, attacked their positions in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. The six factions include Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Kataib Thawar al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Tajamo Fastaqim Kama Umirat, along with Jaish al-Islam’s Idlib branch and al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s west Aleppo branch.
Ahrar al-Sham issued a statement on Thursday welcoming the factions and warning that any attack on them would be considered “a declaration of war”.
Tensions between Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), escalated on Tuesday evening after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham attacked factional headquarters across the two provinces.
A commander of one FSA faction, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham continued to attack the six armed groups, even after the announcement. According to him, sporadic clashes occurred between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham throughout the day.
He also said that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham had attacked FSA positions in Idlib province and captured a number of its fighters, but cited no casualties in the clashes.
He denied media reports that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham had wiped out a number of FSA factions, but confirmed that the group had captured the headquarters of Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jaish al-Islam and al-Jabha al-Shamiya.
The commander told Al Jazeera that the situation remained tense in Idlib province and that Ahrar al-Sham and a number of senior religious figures were involved in negotiations to restore calm.
In an earlier statement, Ahrar al-Sham had said that it was sending its forces to prevent Jabhat Fateh al-Sham attacking or committing injustices against other factions.
Ahrar al-Sham was among the seven armed groups that Russia declared as “moderate opposition”, which were part of the ceasefire announced on December 30, 2016. However, Ahrar al-Sham opted not to participate in the recent Astana talks, while the FSA, Jaish al-Islam and other armed opposition groups sent a delegation.
“Nusra is trying to present it as though the FSA factions want to surrender, to have the Assad regime stay in power and reach a settlement with Russia. By attacking them, it supposedly is preventing such a settlement from taking place,” Hamza al-Mustafa, a researcher at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, told Al Jazeera.
Mustafa said that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s attacks on the FSA and other armed opposition groups were prompted by the group’s desire to prevent a military union between the FSA, Ahrar al-Sham and various other rebel factions. The current standoff has its roots in a long-term rivalry between the two groups, and in the refusal of Ahrar al-Sham to join Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in establishing an Islamic emirate, Mustafa said.
The FSA commander interviewed by Al Jazeera said that his faction was attacked previously by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in 2015, before the group changed its name and severed ties with al-Qaeda. He said that he believes the group is attacking the FSA in an effort to establish an Islamic emirate.
Both Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham have suffered from internal divisions as a result of the current standoff, Mustafa noted.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham leader Abu Mariya al-Qahtani’s condemnation of the clashes – along with the refusal of some of his fighters to carry out orders to attack the FSA, and the defection of others to Ahrar al-Sham – has pressured Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to temporarily halt its attacks, he added.