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US-backed opposition group falls apart in Syria

One of the first US-supplied and trained Syrian opposition group has fallen apart in the face of stronger groups
Syrian opposition fighters wait to hit an Assad forces' building with a tank in Aleppo on 17 February (AA)

One of the first armed opposition groups in Syria to be funded and trained by the US has announced its disbandment, following clashes over the weekend with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front.

Harakat Hazm, which was created over a year ago, lost their base in Aleppo after fierce fighting with the Nusra Front group, which killed 50 of their fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Thirty Nusra Front fighters were also killed in the fighting that took place in the village of Atareb near the Turkish border, and ended with the Nusra Front overtaking Regiment Base 46, which Harakat Hazm had made their headquarters.

In a statement circulated on social media, Harakar Hazm announced its break up “in an effort to halt the bloodshed" after the shootout. Different reports have stated that the group’s members broke away to either join the Shamiah Front, which is a coalition of opposition groups formed at the end of last year, or the Ibn Taymiyyah Battalion, which claims affiliation to the Free Syrian Army, but associates with groups which tend to interpret Sharia law literally.

Last week, fighting broke out as Nusra announced an open war against Harakat Hazm, after accusing the group of kidnapping and killing several of its fighters, including a top military commander.

Tensions between the two groups had been on the rise in the last few months, after Harakat Hazm sided with another opposition group called the Syria Rebel Front in Idlib. The Nusra Front overran the two groups and pushed them out of Idlib, which lies 59 kilometres west of Aleppo. Nusra claimed that it was forced to act after Harakat Hazm detained two of its fighters, in addition to capturing weapons from the group.

Nusra has also been able to draw support from local fighters as a result of the perception that it will be one of the few groups strong enough to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces if and when the US-led coalition defeats the Islamic State group.

Harakat Hazm once claimed to have 5,000 fighters within its ranks, and received training and anti-tank TOW missiles from the US, according to the Washington Post. The US plan has since altered from supplying and training what they defined as "moderate" opposition groups in order to bolster them against the Assad government, to strengthening these groups in their fight against the Islamic State.

The disbandment of Harakat Hazm coincides with the launch this past weekend of a new US programme that will see Syrian rebel fighters trained in Turkey, in conjunction with the Turkish government.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters last month that the US will provide basic military training and equipment to Syrian rebel fighters to assist them in containing the Islamic State group. One thousand US troops are due to be deployed to Turkey, and the Pentagon has reportedly vetted 1,200 fighters from different Syrian opposition groups to be part of the training programme.

Leaders of groups that had previously received US support to battle the Assad government forces have criticised the shift in strategy and have also decried a lack of consistent backing. Khalid Saleh, the spokesman for Harakat Hazm, previously cited insufficient resources from the US as a blow to the survival of "moderate" opposition groups.

“If we see our support continue at the same levels we’ve had in the past, in the next three to six months we will see the moderate rebels disappear,” he said.

Jaysh al-Mujahideen, another US-backed opposition group, also referred to the lack of US support.

“We’re on the borderline between staying alive and dying, and our immunity is low,” said Abu Mohammed, the spokesman of the group. “If we are hit by a strong disease, we might not be able to survive.”

Meanwhile, rebel groups in Aleppo have refused UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura’s proposal to freeze fighting between government and opposition forces in Aleppo.

“We refuse to meet with Mr Staffan de Mistura if it is not on the basis of a comprehensive solution to Syria’s drama through the exit of Bashar al-Assad and his chief of staff, and the prosecution of war criminals,” said the Aleppo revolutionary commission, a political and military group set up on Saturday in the Turkish border town of Kilis.