BEIRUT – In a bid to protect their stronghold in the east of war-ravaged Syria, radical jihadists began withdrawing from northern parts of the country on Friday after a threat from rivals.
Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra has threatened the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant with all-out war if it does not submit by Saturday to mediation by an Islamic court over allegations ISIL assassinated an Islamist commander close to al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri.
Since January, ISIL has battled a coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels angered by its abuses of rival fighters and civilians, but al-Nusra had largely stayed out of the fray.
The prospect of the powerful al-Nusra joining with ISIL’s opponents appears to have prompted the group to withdraw to its stronghold in the eastern city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital lost by the regime in the 3-year civil war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIL had pulled back from positions in northern Aleppo province, including the key town of Azaz. In the wake of the withdrawal, the Observatory said a possible mass grave was found in the city.