Syrian extremists linked to a former al Qaeda affiliate consolidated their grip over large parts of the northwestern province of Idlib on Sunday after their main rival evacuated a major border crossing with Turkey, opposition forces and residents said.
Witnesses said the departing militants, of the Ahrar al Sham group, had moved a large convoy of heavy equipment and tanks and hundreds of its fighters away from the Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey and had headed to areas it controls further south in Idlib province and in the neighbouring province of Hama.
Their pullout was stipulated under terms of a ceasefire deal reached on Friday following three days of heavy fighting that had pitted Ahrar al Sham, a powerful opposition group with a foothold across Syria, against Hayat Tahrir al Sham, an alliance led by al Qaeda’s former Syria branch.
The al Qaeda-linked militants surrounded the other opposition forces near the Syria-Turkey border crossing after rapid advances in a strategic stretch of territory along the border with Turkey and after pushing ouut their rivals from main towns and villages in the province.
The fighting between the two largest opposition groups that left scores of dead and injured was by far the heaviest inter-opposition fighting since the start of the conflict.
President Bashar al Assad’s armed opponents have long been bitterly divided by regional rivalries, over their ties to foreign states and ideological battles over whether to pursue Syrian national or Sunni extremists goals.
Tensions have been building between Idlib province’s two biggest insurgent factions mainly over ideological differences between religious extremist militant and more nationalist-leaning armed factions.
They have also vied for dominance in the only Syrian province that is entirely under opposition control.
The pullout of Ahrar from the border crossing of Bab al Hawa, which it had controlled for over three years and which was a major source of revenue, is a big blow for the group.
The ceasefire deal stipulated it would be run by a civil administration in a power-sharing agreement.
Ahrar has also been hit by the defection of hundreds of its fighters to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Several other units have handed over ammunition and weapons depots to the extremists and decided to disband.
Opposition fighting has weakened the Syrian opposition since the start of the uprising against Assad in 2011. Their turf wars have helped Assad and his allies recover significant ground in the north and around the capital Damascus.