The al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Sham Front has unified ranks with jihadists in volatile northern Syria, a monitoring group reported Saturday, a move likely to stoke infighting among rival insurgents in the area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added that Fatah al-Sham has merged with four factions including the powerful Noureddine al-Zinki movement and set up a coalition called the Levant Liberation Body.
The new alliance is led by Abu Jaber Hashem, an ex-commander of the Ahrar al-Sham, a conservative Islamist movement, which has been locked in fight against Fatah al-Sham in the north-western province of Idlib and adjacent province of Aleppo.
“This new entity will place pressure on other armed factions and push them to choose between either joining this entity led by Fatah al-Sham or becoming neutral in the fighting,” Mohammed al-Shami, a commander in the rebel Free Syrian Army, told dpa.
The alliance comes two days after Ahrar al-Sham merged with six rebel factions in response to a wide-scale attack mounted by Fatah al-Sham.
Clashes began as Fatah al-Sham launched an attack Tuesday on posts of Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib and Aleppo, after the al-Qeada-linked group accused rebel factions, which took part in talks held in the Kazakh capital of Astana earlier this week, of conspiring against them.
Fatah al-Sham has also accused some rival insurgents of supplying information to the United States to strike their posts in Idlib.
The militant group has lost several senior leaders in stepped-up US drone strikes in Syria over recent weeks.
Fatah al-Sham and the Daesh extremist militia are excluded from an ongoing shaky ceasefire in Syria.
The truce, brokered by Russia and Turkey, went into effect at the end of December.
Despite the ceasefire, government forces and rebels fought for weeks in an area where the main source of water supplies to the capital Damascus is located.
On Saturday, regime forces and repair workers arrived at the springs in the Wadi Barada near Damascus under a deal with local rebels, the Observatory said.
Repair teams have begun examining the Ein al-Fijeh spring and water pumping station, and the capital’s supply may be reconnected within days, the watchdog added.
An estimated 5.5 million people in the Damascus region have suffered severe water shortages since the facilities were damaged in late December, several days into a government offensive on the rebel-held area north-west of the capital.
The warring parties blamed each other for the damage.
Repair crews began work on the spring in mid-January under an agreement between local rebels and the government, but were pulled out again a day later after a government-appointed mediator was shot dead under disputed circumstances.
The fighting in the Barada river valley around the spring was a source of contention at the two-day talks held in Astana between government and rebel negotiators.
Rebels insisted the fighting was a breach of the Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire, while the government side said its operations in the area were aimed at rebels and would continue.
The Astana talks saw both sides affirm their commitment to the truce.
The sponsors said they would set up a trilateral implementation mechanism for the ceasefire, although they gave no details as to how it would work.