Turkey-backed rebels poured fighters onto the front line in northeastern Syria, joining forces with a rival armed group to beat back government troops from a town they had recaptured earlier this month.
Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) seized the town of Kfar Nabuda in Idlib province on Tuesday with the help of the National Liberation Front (NLF), a conglomeration of rebel groups supported by Ankara. The town had been retaken by the Syrian government in its recent assault.
More than 80 combatants were killed in the battle for the town, according to the UK-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Mostafa Maarati – spokesman of the Al-Ezzah Army, which took part in the Kfar Nabuda operation and is part of the NLF – said it assisted HTS to protect rebel-held territory from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a “common enemy”.
“The liberation operation had been planned in a mutual operation room that includes all the groups on the ground,” Maarati told Al Jazeera. “They coordinated the use of anti-armour missiles and other weapons.”
NLF has clashed with HTS, formerly the al-Qaeda wing in Syria, over ideological differences and also over territorial control. HTS took over numerous NLF-run towns and villages, but united with its adversary to oppose Assad’s army.
“Our goal is not only Kfar Nabuda, we will keep moving until we topple the tyrant Bashar Assad and liberate all our land,” said Maarati.
A senior commander with a moderate rebel group in the NLF, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, said despite their differences rebel groups are coordinating in a “battle for survival”.
“We cannot say they merged, but the people of the liberated north were attacked, their homes were destroyed, and their towns were occupied, so all of them had to defend their land together,” he said.
Adnan, a resident of Kfar Nabuda whose real name was not used for security reasons, has been hiding in a nearby town since the government began shelling and ground operations in late April. He gave an account of the plight of people as the attack unfolded and power changed hands.
“At 11pm on Monday, April 29, the army of the regime started to bomb unarmed civilians who were sleeping,” he said. “Kfar Nabuda’s people fled without carrying any of their belongings. They were just trying to escape death.
“On Tuesday evening, a large-scale military action of all factions of the Syrian revolution began. They managed to liberate Kfar Nabuda completely.”
He said the rebels captured or destroyed a number of military vehicles and seized ammunition depots and medium and heavy weapons.
About 200,000 civilians have fled their homes since the Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, began its latest offensive.