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Central Asian fighters in Syria join al-Nusra Front

Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar joins al-Nusra Front in Syria, in what could potentially tip the balance in the battle between al-Nusra and IS in Aleppo
File photo shows al-Nusra Front fighters in Syria

A group of mainly Central Asian fighters in Syria on Wednesday declared allegiance to al-Qaeda's offshoot in the country to battle the Syrian government, its ally Russia and the US-led coalition.

Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar - which includes Chechens, Uzbeks and Tajiks - first appeared in Syria in 2012 and has around 1,500 members in the northern province of Aleppo.

"Those who follow the course of events in Syria noticed the ferocity of the war against our brothers ... and the alignment of the infidels, the Nusayris, the rawafed, the Russians and the Crusaders," said a statement posted online.

Nusayri is a derogatory term for Alawite, the offshoot of Shia Islam to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs, while the rawafed is a pejorative term for Shia Muslims.

A coalition led by the United States has for the past year been carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, as well as al-Qaeda's affiliate in the country, al-Nusra Front.

"This situation unites us ... and from there, we the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar declare our allegiance to al-Nusra Front," said the statement.

Al-Nusra Front is one of the most powerful rebel groups involved in the Syrian conflict. 

Together with other rebel groups, al-Nusra controls the northwestern province of Idlib and is also fighting in several other regions in northern and central Syria.

IS split with al-Nusra and the rest of al-Qaeda in February of 2014. The two groups are currently fighting each other for control over parts of Aleppo, where the new supporters of al-Nusra could make a significant difference.

Abu Ibrahim al-Khorassani, the head of Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar, recently replaced Salahuddin Shishani, a Chechen who was dismissed for refusing to fight the rival IS.

Around 30 percent of al-Nusra's members are foreign fighters, and a significant number of IS fighters are foreign as well.

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 as a popular revolt seeking democratic change, but later evolved into a full-blown civil war drawing fighters from al-Nusra and IS.