Rebel sources say al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters have split from northern military coalition amid reports of disputes over application of Islamic law
The al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, has broken from the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition controlling parts of northern Syria, rebel sources claimed on Thursday.
An audio recording released by a senior commander in Ahrar al-Sham - another member of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition - said that al-Nusra, known in Arabic as Jabhat al-Nusra, had suspended their membership of the coalition, following a similar move by another al-Qaeda-inspired group, Jund al-Aqsa, which left last week.
Abu Hazifa Ahrar, a spokesperson for Ahrar al-Sham, quoted leader Abu Hamza al-Hamawi as saying: "The extremists from al-Nusra Front have decided to suspend their work with Jaish al-Fatah in an act of solidarity with Jund al-Aqsa's decision to leave."
Hamawi also reportedly stressed that Ahrar al-Sham would nevertheless pledge to continue fighting as part of Jaish al-Fatah particularly in a battle for Hama province to the south. "They are determined to enter the battle, even if they are the only ones remaining in Jaish al-Fatah."
"Working together is better than working alone, and Jaish al-Fatah is the best example of that," he added.
Jund al-Aqsa reportedly left the coalition due to disagreements with Ahrar al-Sham over the application of Islamic law in areas under their control.
There are still believed to be around six other coalition members left following the split, but rebel alliances often shift according to location.
However, others have disputed the split, pointing to the lack of an official announcement from Nusra.
"They haven’t left Jaish al-Fateh, though there have been some problems," wrote analyst Charles Lister on Twitter. "Discussions are continuing for now, so far as I know."
"The disagreements mean cooperation in Hama has declined, but not 'formally' stopped."
If true, the news is likely to prove a relief for supporters of the Syrian opposition who had been uncomfortable that one of the opposition's most successful coalitions had included an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Jaish al-Fatah took control of Idlib province in May, leaving the group with a major strategic position in regards to Hama and Latakia, the heartland of Syria's Alawite community from which President Bashar al-Assad hails.
Al-Nusra have been one of the most formidable forces fighting both the government as well as the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, but foreign backers and other opposition fighters have expressed concerns over their harsh tactics and links with the al-Qaeda brand.
The Southern Front, a major rebel group in the southern provinces - mainly around Deraa and Sweida - have publicly stated their refusal to work with al-Nusra, due to its al-Qaeda links.
“We are not working with them, and they are not allowed to work with us,” said Major Essam al-Rayes, a spokesperson for the group, speaking to MEE.
Former CIA director General David Petreaus, in early September, argued that it could be necessary to "peel off" fighters from al-Nusra to become more moderate allies.
Others within Syria have argued that a break between al-Nusra and al-Qaeda could help turn them into a more palatable force.
"Jabhat al-Nusra's disengagement from al-Qaeda would be good for the revolution, but Jabhat al-Nusra will always be in dire need of al-Qaeda's name to keep its foreign fighters away from IS," said one Syrian opposition activist, quoted by the Brookings Institution analyst Charles Lister.
"Most Jabhat al-Nusra foreign fighters will never accept to fight and die for what looks like an Islamic national project," he added, referring to the aims of Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in Jaish al-Fatah.
Former CIA director General David Petreaus, in early September, argued that it could be necessary to "peel off" fighters from Al-Nusra to become more moderate allies.
Others within Syria have argued that a break between Al-Nusra and al-Qaeda would help turn them into a more palatable force.
"Jabhat al-Nusra's disengagement from al Qaeda would be good for the revolution, but Jabhat al-Nusra will always be in dire need of al Qaeda's name to keep its foreign fighters away from IS," said one Syrian opposition activist, quoted by the Brookings analyst Charles Lister. "Most Jabhat al-Nusra foreign fighters will never accept to fight and die for what looks like an Islamic national project."