BEIRUT — A group of powerful rebel brigades in northern Syria is struggling to defuse an armed standoff pitting insurgents against an al-Qaida affiliate for control of a strategic town near the Turkish border. The conflict over the town, Azaz, has shuttered a Turkish border crossing long used to supply the rebel movement and heightened tensions between rebels who seek the ouster of President Bashar Assad and extremists who want to erase Syria’s borders and found a transnational Islamic state.
The al-Qaida group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, routed local rebels to take control of Azaz two weeks ago and has since set up checkpoints around the town and taken over the bases of other rebel groups. Rebels who oppose the ISIS jihadists have collected their forces at the Bab al-Salameh border crossing a few miles away and are preparing to protect it should the jihadists advance. Turkey has kept the crossing closed since Sept. 19 because of security concerns, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said.
Seeking to end the crisis, a group of six powerful rebel brigades released a statement late Wednesday calling for an immediate cease-fire. In a jab at the strict ideology of the ISIS jihadists, the statement told them not “to shed the blood of Muslims and be hasty in calling them heretics and apostates.” It also called on both sides to submit themselves to the Sharia Commission, a rebel-run court in the northern city of Aleppo, within 48 hours to resolve the problem. It was unclear if the ISIS fighters would heed the call.