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Al-Qaida fighters pushed from much of northern Syria, but fight goes on

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, 7:30 p.m.

Moderate and Islamist rebel groups on Sunday pressed their drive to oust radical Islamists from northern Syria, but they met fierce resistance in three towns, anti-government activists said.

In a surprise offensive that began Friday, remnants of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and fighters from another rebel faction, the Islamic Front, this weekend cleared more than a dozen bases held by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

But the rebels were unable to oust ISIS from its main headquarters at Ad Dana, near the Turkish border, and the towns of Kfar Zeta in Hama province and Saraqeb in Idlib province. ISIS reportedly had dispatched reinforcements from its stronghold in Raqqa province to Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.

Although fighting continues, the intra-rebel conflict ended a four-month ISIS offensive. Claiming it was seeking to build a caliphate, the Iraq-based ISIS seized more than 20 locations controlled by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and kidnapped its military commanders and prominent leaders of more moderate Islamist groups. Its relations with the public soured, as ISIS, which consists mostly of non-Syrian volunteers, set up a reign of religious tyranny wherever it got a foothold.

Syria's much-maligned opposition coalition, which calls for a democracy, rule of law and a secular state but which has been largely eclipsed by both ISIS and the Islamic Front in recent months, seemed buoyed by the sudden change of fortune.

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