03:02 - Source: CNN
Al Qaeda affiliate gains ground in Syria

Story highlights

U.S.-backed Syrian rebels have been ousted from their strongholds, monitors say

Reports say moderates, pressured by family, have defected to al-Nusra

There are concerns that al-Nusra might target a key crossing at the Turkish border

Like ISIS, al-Nusra Front is trying to establish an Islamic state, though primarily in Syria

CNN —  

Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra has taken over key districts of Idlib suburbs in northwestern Syria, ousting U.S.-backed Syrian rebels from their strongholds and raising fears of their wider ascendance in northern Syria, monitors and activists say.

The Islamist militant group, also known as al-Nusra Front, pushed the Syrian Revolutionary Front and the Hazm Movement out of the Idlib suburbs of Jabal al-Zawia and Jisr Alshugur, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group.

One observer suggested the al-Nusra moves had taken about 70% of the territory once held by moderates. But these moderates held little sway within military circles of the rebel movement, and they had influence mostly because of their links to the U.S.

Like ISIS, al-Nusra Front is trying to establish an Islamic state, though primarily in Syria. It has emerged as one of the most effective groups fighting the Syrian regime, drawing on foreign fighters with combat experience in Iraq and elsewhere. The group has claimed hundreds of attacks in several cities, including suicide bombings, and is responsible for the deaths of “numerous innocent Syrians,” the U.S. State Department said.

Islamist rivals in Syria find a common enemy in ‘crusaders’ coalition

One focal point of the al-Nusra offensive was Syrian Revolutionary Front leader Jamaal Marouf, long seen as a moderate benefiting from U.S. assistance. He appeared in an online video saying that he had decided to withdraw from Jabal al-Zawia, his hometown, to stop further loss of life and that al-Nusra had killed more Syrians than the regime. However, there were reports the two sides were considering talks and a Sharia court may be used to arbitrate if Marouf personally appeared.

There were also reports of defections from moderates to al-Nusra. One activist said many fighters were pressured by their families to defect as al-Nusra was popular in their hometowns.

There are concerns that al-Nusra was moving to homogenize its control of the Idlib area, where it has long been dominant, and might target a key border crossing. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that al-Nusra fighters have mobilized in the town of Sarmada, near the Turkish-Syrian border crossing of Bab Al Hawa, leading to fears they may seek to take over that key border post.

CNN’s Holly Yan contributed to this report.