BEIRUT — Al-Qaida-linked fighters captured at least three villages from Western-backed rebels in northwestern Syria on Friday as the militants continued their push to assert control over an area once held by more moderate groups.
The Nusra Front's recent advances have exposed the weakness of more moderate factions, which the U.S. hopes to forge into an effective fighting force against President Bashar Assad's troops.
Underscoring their strength, the al-Qaida militants seized the three villages just a day after U.S. airstrikes hit one of their major weapons storage compounds in northwestern Idlib province.
In the past week, the al-Qaida affiliate has been overrunning strongholds in Idlib once held by two prominent rebel factions armed and trained by the United States, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm.
The Nusra fighters on Friday seized at least three more villages in Idlib — Safuhan, Fatira and Hazareen — and were pushing to take others, according to a local activist who goes by his first name, Alaa al-Deen. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground in Syria, also reported the same advances by the Nusra Front.
The capture of the villages may allow the Nusra Front fighters to advance onto the last Idlib strongholds held by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. It would also pave the way for them to seize more rebel-held areas in the central Syrian province of Hama, said Alaa al-Deen, who did not provide his family name fearing he'd be identified by the militants.
He told The Assocaited Press over Skype that Nusra's advances were a sinister development and could spell "the end of the Free Syrian Army," the Western-backed moderate rebels fighting to topple Assad.
The Nusra Front is a bitter and bloody rival of the Islamic State group, which has captured large swaths of Syria and northwestern Iraq, despite their shared extremist ideology.
On Thursday, American aircraft bombed a Nusra Front compound in Idlib, close to the Turkish border. A senior U.S. official said one of the targets was a French militant and bomb-maker, David Drugeon, who was killed in the strike.
While the Syria Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm have both received U.S. support, it never reached the levels that either group deemed necessary to make significant advances against Assad's forces in Syria's 3½-year-old civil war. At the same time, the link to the Americans also earned them enmity of radical groups.
Also Friday, Syrian troops battled rebels near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and the Lebanon border in clashes that killed and wounded dozens, activists and state media said.
Syria's state news agency SANA said government forces killed "a number of terrorists" in the southwestern village of Beit Jin near Mount Hermon in the Golan. Assad's government refers to opposition fighters and members of jihadi groups as terrorists.
The Britain-based Observatory said the fighting, which began on Thursday, killed 26 pro-government forces and 14 rebels and jihadi fighters. The clashes lasted into early Friday, it said.
The area near Mount Hermon along the disputed borders between the three countries has seen weeks of heavy clashes as rebels and the Nusra Front jointly fought Assad's forces.
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said Lebanese troops prevented the Syrian government forces from bringing in 11 wounded people from the Beit Jin area.
Nusra Front fighters and some rebel factions have captured wide areas on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, including the town of Quneitra and its crossing point. Israel captured the strategic plateau in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
More than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It turned into civil war after a military crackdown.