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AFP

Al-Qaeda unit in Syria
border town joins ISIS

BEIRUT - The local unit of Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch in the tinderbox town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border pledged loyalty Wednesday to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a monitor said.

 

The merger is significant as it opens the way for ISIS to take control of both sides of the frontier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

 

ISIS seized Abu Qaim on the Iraqi side earlier this week, with Albu Kamal opposite it in Syria.

 

ISIS, which aspires to create an Islamic state that straddles Iraq and Syria, has spearheaded a lightning jihadist offensive that has captured swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad this month.

 

After months of clashes between ISISand the Al-Nusra Front in several parts of Syria, Nusra's Albu Kamal branch "pledged loyalty to ISIL," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

 

He said the move comes amid ISIS advances in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, where Albu Kamal is located.

 

An ISIS jihadist confirmed the reports on Twitter, posting a photo showing an Egyptian Al-Nusra Front commander shaking hands with an ISIS leader of Chechen origin.

 

Although both ISIS and Al-Nusra are rooted in Al-Qaeda, they have been rivals for much of the time since ISIS became involved in Syria's civil war in spring 2013.

 

"They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists. This move will create tension now with other rebel groups, including Islamists, in the area," said Abdel Rahman.

 

An opposition activist in Albu Kamal told AFP via the Internet that "there is a lot of tension, and the situation is only going to get worse."

 

Using a pseudonym for security reasons, Hadi Salameh also said the merger would "cause a big problem with the local tribes, who will not welcome this change."

 

Another activist said the move comes days after local rebel brigades who had been working with Al-Nusra signed a declaration demanding that it take a clear stance against ISIS.

 

"The loyalty oath (to ISIS) comes after tension between Al-Nusra and the local rebels," said Abdel Salam al-Hussein.

 

He also said hundreds of thousands of people, including displaced families from neighboring Iraq as well as flashpoint areas in Syria, are living in Albu Kamal, and that it would be a "catastrophe" if fighting broke out in the town.

 

Hussein said: "ISIS fighters are now positioned at the entrance of Albu Kamal, on the Iraqi side."

 

Meanwhile, Deir Ezzor province's rebel spokesperson Omar Abu Leyla warned that "Albu Kamal is a red line." If ISIS fighters cross over from Iraq, he said the opposition "Free Syrian Army will fight them."

 

Rebels fighting ISIS and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad distributed amateur video footage of a rebel parade in Albu Kamal, which Abu Leyla described as a warning to the jihadists positioned just across the border.

 

Abu Leyla complained that "the FSA has received no external support at all, even though we are fighting ISIS."

 

Separately Wednesday, the Syrian air force raided ISIS-controlled Raqa in the north of the country and Muhassen in the east.

 

In Raqa, "12 civilians, including a woman and a child, were killed in the air strikes. Not one strike directly hit an ISIS position."

 

The Assad regime has rarely targeted ISIL-held areas, except in recent days after the group and other Sunni militants launched an offensive in Iraq, wresting control of Mosul and other parts of Iraq.

 

A Syrian government newspaper reiterated frequent regime claims that the United States and Israel are behind the rising violence, and that they are vying to "divide Syria along sectarian and religious lines."

They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists. This move will create tension now with other rebel groups, including Islamists, in the area.