Members of an al-Qaeda breakaway group withdrew on Friday from parts of the northern province of Aleppo ahead of a deadline yesterday, issued by another rebel group that could spark more infighting, opposition activists said.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant evacuated from several towns north of Aleppo, including Azaz near the Turkish border, Aleppo-based activists who go by the names of Ibrahim Saeed and Abu Raed said. Rival fighters moved in shortly afterward, the activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The pullout came three days after the leader of a powerful al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria gave the Islamic State a five-day ultimatum to accept mediation by leading clerics to end infighting or be “expelled” from the region.
The ultimatum, announced in an audio recording by the leader of the Nusra Front, aims to end two months of deadly violence between the Islamic State and other Islamic factions that activists say has killed more than 3,000 people. The infighting is said to be undermining the opposition fighters’ wider struggle against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
There has been no official reaction from the Islamic State so far, but they most likely will reject the ultimatum, possibly leading to more deadly battles in the coming days.
Saeed said Islamic State fighters appear to be withdrawing toward their stronghold in the northeastern city of Raqqa, the first provincial capital in Syria to fall to the rebels. The Islamic State’s shadowy leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once called it the group’s capital.
Saeed added that Islamic State fighters torched a power station in the town of Tal Rifaat and dismantled al-Faisal Mills, one of the largest flour mills in Aleppo Province, before they left.
“I expect battles in the near future,” Saeed said.
He said rebels who entered the abandoned territory questioned former Islamic State members who defected for fears of them being in “sleeper cells.”
“Northern parts of Aleppo are free of the Islamic State,” said Abu Raed, who added that they blew up some helicopters in the army air base of Mannagh that rebels captured last year.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed members of the Northern Storm Brigade, which was crushed by the Islamic State last year, taking over posts evacuated by the group.
“The Northern Storm returned to Azaz and, God willing, we will step on the head of the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi,” a gunman driving by said.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other reporting of the events.
Syria’s uprising, which began with largely peace protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones. Islamic extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels, have played an increasingly prominent role among fighters.