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Fissures grow among rebel ranks as hard-line Islamists expand Syrian war role

October 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the conflict in Syria.

The United Nations reported encouraging initial progress as international inspectors embarked on the second day of a mission to get rid of Syria’s chemical arsenal.

But, as Ray Suarez reports, the country’s war rages on.

RAY SUAREZ: Rebels from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army fought government forces on the outskirts of Damascus today. But, to the north, at the key town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, it was rebel-on-rebel. Fighters aligned with the Free Syrian Army battled to retake Azaz from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

That group, formerly al-Qaida in Iraq, seized the town last month. Overnight, six other factions, including Islamists, called for the al-Qaida group to withdraw. They said, “We consider them above spilling the blood of Muslims.”

It all highlighted growing fissures within rebel ranks as hard-line Islamists expand their role in the Syrian war.

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MAN: What do we know about the opposition?

RAY SUAREZ: Last month, at a U.S. Senate hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry was questioned on that very point about the radicals gaining sway.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite Kerry’s claim, the Western-backed umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, suffered a blow just three weeks later. On September 24, Al-Nusra and other radical factions signed a letter rejecting the council’s leadership.

ABDULAZIZ SALAMEH, Tawheed Brigade (through interpreter): The brigades and battalions call on all military and civilian forces to unite under a clear Islamic framework based on Sharia law, which should be the sole source of legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: The head of the Syrian National Council shot back last week at the United Nations.

AHMAD JARBA, Syrian National Council (through interpreter): In reality, when there was a disagreement, Al-Nusra didn’t recognize the coalition, and we don’t want recognition from them.

RAY SUAREZ: Now the Islamists are actively seeking to consolidate their hold in parts of northern and eastern Syria, where they’re strongest. There have been reports of jihadists instituting Sharia law and carrying out public executions.