Syrian jihadist fighters on Friday surrounded rival Islamist insurgents near a Syria-Turkey border crossing in the northwest after several days of intense clashes, a resident and a rebel source said.
The fighting between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance led by al Qaeda’s former Syria branch, and the more moderate Islamist Ahrar al-Sham plus mainstream rebel factions broke out in insurgent stronghold Idlib province earlier this week.
Tahrir al-Sham has advanced in some areas including towards the Bab al-Hawa crossing, an important supply route for Turkish-backed rebels fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner.
A resident of Atmeh, a town north of the crossing, who is in touch with local officials and rebels said Bab al-Hawa had effectively been encircled from the Syrian side.
Tahrir al-Sham “has taken control of the hills around Bab al-Hawa,” bringing them to within 1 km (mile) of the crossing, he said. “Just the crossing remains” under the control of Ahrar al-Sham, he said.
A source in Ahrar al-Sham also said Tahrir al-Sham had surrounded the crossing, but vowed not to give it up.
War monitors reported that Tahrir al-Sham attacked military positions of Ahrar al-Sham on Tuesday, in the heaviest fighting between the two sides which have long vied for control in Idlib.
In clashes early this year, several more hardline Islamist groups joined Tahrir al-Sham, which is headed by al Qaeda’s former Syria branch, previously known as the Nusra Front.
Ahrar al-Sham sided with FSA groups fighting against the Tahrir al-Sham alliance.
Mediation efforts by one rebel group to end the fighting have had no success, according to a rebel statement released on Friday.
Some groups announced they were withdrawing from Tahrir al-Sham over differences in strategy.
Rebels say the infighting takes the focus away from the battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and weakens insurgents.
Joint military efforts by rebel groups in Syria’s civil war have often been marred by infighting.
Idlib province is dominated mainly by Islamist groups although the moderate Western-vetted FSA groups have a presence there.
The province, which borders Turkey, has long witnessed infighting between the main jihadist groups vying for power.