Clashes between rival rebel factions have killed nearly 700 people over the past nine days in northern Syria, in the worst bout of infighting among the opponents of President Bashar al-Assad since the country's civil war began, activists have said.
The fighting, which pits the al-Qa'ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant against several Islamist and more moderate rebel brigades, has added yet another layer of complexity to Syria's nearly three-year conflict, while also overshadowing the broader battle against the government over the past week.
The UK's Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said yesterday that at least 697 people have been killed across seven provinces since the rebel infighting began on January 3. The toll includes 351 fighters from the Islamist and mainstream opposition brigades, 246 from the "Islamic State" and 100 civilians.
The "Islamic State" muscled its way into opposition-held territory in northern Syria last spring, co-opting some weaker rebel brigades and crushing others. Initially welcomed by some residents for bringing order, the extremist group over time alienated many other rebel factions and large chunks of the civilian population by using brutal tactics to implement its strict interpretation of Islamic law. It has also kidnapped and killed its opponents.
The rebel infighting comes less than two weeks ahead of a planned international conference in Switzerland that aims to broker a political solution to the Syrian civil war. But the prospects for success at the talks appear slim at best, and it remains unclear whether they will actually take place.
Mr Assad has said he will not hand over power, while the Western-backed opposition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, is in disarray and has not yet decided whether it will attend the gathering. Even if it does, it is in no position to wrest concessions from Mr Assad, whose forces have seized the momentum in recent months.
At the start of two days of meetings in Paris yesterday, top envoys from 11 countries that support the coalition were pressuring the group to attend the peace conference, saying the talks were the only way to end the carnage.
In Damascus, meanwhile, Mr Assad made a rare public appearance, attending prayers at the al-Hamad Mosque to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.