The 13th Division claims that Al Nusrah attacked its fighters, including the TOW specialist pictured on the left. Source: 13th Division’s Twitter feed.
Al Nusrah Front and the 13th Division, a Syrian rebel group that has received US-made anti-tank TOW missiles, clashed in the past two days. The two sides have fought in Maarat al Numan, a town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, as well as in the surrounding area.
The Idlib province fell to the Jaysh al Fateh rebel coalition last year. Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda’s international organization, is a cofounder of the alliance. The 13th Division has long coexisted with Jaysh al Fateh and has also fought alongside the jihadists against their common enemies.
But that all changed in the past 48 hours.
Both the 13th Division and Al Nusrah have released statements via social media blaming each other for the conflict.
In a series of tweets on its official account, the 13th Division accused the al Qaeda branch of raiding its headquarters in Idlib and seizing its weapons. One sarcastic tweet reads: “We congratulate [Abu Muhammad al] Julani on this conquest!” Julani is Al Nusrah’s emir, or overall leader.
The firefight with Al Nusrah can be heard in another tweet posted by the 13th Division.
In its own version of events, Al Nusrah claims it doesn’t know what precipitated the 13th Division’s “strange aggression at this sensitive moment in this revolution.” The 13th Division’s fighters raided the homes of some Al Nusrah members in Maarat al Numan, according to the jihadists’ brief account.
“We call on all the wise ones to intervene and rectify the situation to avoid spilling blood, and to redirect the mujahideen’s rifles toward the Nusayri [a derogatory word used by Sunni jihadists to describe Alawites], Rejectionist [Shiites] and Russian alliance that surrounds the Levant and its people,” Al Nusrah’s statement reads.
Jund al Aqsa, another al Qaeda-linked jihadist group, also participated in the operations against the 13th Division, according to independent accounts.
The 13th Division is led by Ahmad al Saoud, a former officer in Bashar al Assad’s military. Saoud, who is from Maarat al Numan, told Al Jazeera in 2014 that his group had approximately 1,800 men who were “ready to fight anywhere, at any time.” In addition to Assad’s regime, the 13th Division has also fought the Islamic State, Al Nusrah’s jihadist rival in Syria.
According to Al Jazeera, the group has received funds from Saudi Arabia. Multiple videos posted online show Saoud’s men firing US-made TOW missiles. The New York Times reported in October that the “weapons are delivered to the field by American allies, but the United States approves their destination.” The CIA reportedly works with liaison intelligence services and governments to deliver the weapons.
“We get what we ask for in a very short time,” Saoud told the Times.
Previous raids against Western-backed rebels
Al Nusrah Front has consistently resisted the West’s uneven attempts to build a reliable opposition force to fight Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.
In late 2014, Al Nusrah pushed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), which had reportedly received some support from the West, out of its strongholds in the Idlib province.
After being vanquished, SRF head Jamaal Maarouf accused Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, of being a “Kharijite” (or extremist). This was an about-face in the relationship, as the SRF and Al Nusrah had previously fought side-by-side. Maarouf also publicly lamented the limited support he had received from the West.
In early 2015, Al Nusrah also took the fight to Harakat Hazm (the Hazm Movement) outside of Aleppo. Despite receiving Western support, including US weaponry, Hazm was allied with the jihadists in the past and its leaders had praised Al Nusrah. Regardless, it was eventually forced to disband under Al Nusrah’s relentless pressure. Hazm’s remaining members were folded into other rebel groups.
It is suspected that TOW missiles fell into al Qaeda’s hands as a result of the battle with Hazm. The weapons were used during the jihadists’ successful assault on Idlib in March, as well as during other key confrontations with the Assad regime.
Rebels belonging to Division 30, a group supported by the US, suffered losses immediately upon entering the Syrian fray in July 2015. More than 50 members of Division 30 were sent from Turkey into Syria, but Al Nusrah quickly thwarted their plans even though the US-backed rebels intended to fight the Islamic State, Al Nusrah’s bitter rival. A number of Division 30 fighters were captured or killed within days of embarking on their mission.
Al Nusrah released a statement at the time saying that Division 30 is part of an American scheme that is opposed to the interests of the Syrian people. Al Qaeda’s branch accused the group of trying to form “the nucleus” of a “national army” and blasted the attempt to bolster the “moderate opposition.” [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria says it captured US-backed rebels.]
Al Nusrah also attacked Division 30’s headquarters in Azaz, a city north of Aleppo. The US responded with airstrikes, killing a number of jihadists, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to stop Al Nusrah’s advances.
Then, in September 2015, fighters belonging to the “New Syrian Forces” handed over American-supplied vehicles and ammunition to Al Nusrah in return for safe passage in Syria. The New Syrian Forces were supplied under the Pentagon’s $500 million train and equip program, which was subsequently halted. [See LWJ report, US-backed rebels handed over equipment to al Qaeda in Syria.]