BEIRUT — Syria’s main Western-backed opposition group on Friday slammed al-Qaeda-linked gunmen and their expanding influence in the country, saying the jihadis’ push to establish an Islamic state undermines the rebels’ struggle for a free Syria.
The statement from Syrian National Coalition comes as a truce was reached late Thursday after two days of vicious infighting in which the extremists seized control of the northern town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, from mainstream opposition fighters. The fighting prompted Turkey to close a major nearby crossing point.
The SNC said the actions of the al-Qaeda-linked fighters “counter the principals that the Syrian revolution is trying to achieve” in its battle against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Syrians are “moderate and respect religious and political pluralism while rejecting blind extremism,” the SNC said.
The statement also warned that the Islamic fighters are “strengthening their positions” in opposition-controlled areas after they stopped fighting regime forces on several front lines.
It added that such presence “is dangerous to civilians and brings back the history of oppression by the Baath party, Assad’s military and the shabiha,” a pro-government militia. The Baath party has ruled Syria since a 1963 coup.
Late Thursday, fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda offshoot, and the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group backed by the West, agreed on an immediate cease fire in Azaz, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The two sides also agreed to free fighters captured by each side, the Observatory said.
The deal, mediated by the rebel Tawheed brigade, calls for setting up a checkpoint between the two sides. They also agreed to take disagreements before an Islamic council that would soon be established to resolve disputes.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army against government forces. But the two factions have turned their guns on each other and turf wars and retaliatory killings have evolved into ferocious battles in what has effectively become a war within a war in northern and eastern Syria, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.
The fighting in Azaz and the prospect of al-Qaeda militants so near the frontier prompted Turkey to close the nearby border crossing of Bab al-Salameh, according to a Foreign Ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The rebel infighting — now engulfing many parts of northern Syria — threatened to further split opposition forces outgunned by Assad’s troops and strengthen his hand as he engages with world powers on relinquishing his chemical weapons.
The violence in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people, according to activists and the UN, and has forced 7 million to flee their homes. Five million Syrians have been displaced inside the country and more than 2 million have sought refuge in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, according to the UN.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.