BEIRUT — The Syrian army ambushed a group of al Qaida-linked fighters Wednesday east of Damascus, killing more than 60 and handing the group a setback after a string of victories this week.
Syrian state television and opponents of President Bashar Assad confirmed the ambush, which decimated a unit of about 70 members of the Nusra Front, a rebel group that’s sworn allegiance to al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri and that the United States declared an international terrorist organization last year.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based organization that tracks violence in Syria, said the ambush occurred as the Nusra fighters were moving into place to attack Syrian army positions in the town of Adra, about 20 miles east of Damascus. At least 62 Nusra fighters were killed when the army units – backed by heavy weapons – opened fire, the human rights observatory reported. It said eight fighters remained missing, though other pro-rebel activists suggested that only three rebels survived the encounter.
Pro-regime media outlets widely reported the one-sided battle. Video from the scene showed many dead bodies in uniform, and state television reported that identification cards recovered from the dead showed that many hailed from other Arab countries, including Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia.
Mohammed Saeed, an anti-Assad activist based near Damascus, told the Associated Press that 65 rebels had been walking along what they thought was a secure, hidden road.
“The regime forces riddled them with heavy machine-gun fire,” Saeed said, speaking via Skype, the AP reported. “It seems that the regime discovered the secret road that the rebels were using.”
A statement from the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency said that “all members of the group were killed and their weapons and ammunition were seized, which included Israeli-made rifles and machine guns, BKC machine guns and RPG launchers.”
The Syrian regime often has claimed that a combination of Israeli, American and Saudi Arabian interests back the rebels. Although many fighters from Arab countries have joined the rebels under the banner of al Qaida-linked groups, and the American government has promised to begin aiding some rebel units with weapons, there’s been little evidence of Israeli involvement in the conflict, beyond several airstrikes targeting the regime’s allies in the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
The ambush came after a week that saw al Qaida-linked rebels at the lead of several significant victories, including overrunning a long-besieged military air base in the northern part of the country, as well as an offensive targeting villages in the western coastal province of Latakia, where support for Assad is strong.
The presence of foreign fighters in Nusra Front units had been common earlier in the year, but an April split between the group and its close ideological allies in the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, another al Qaida group, had been thought to have divided the groups into a primarily Syrian Nusra Front and primarily foreign Islamic State.
If the regime claims of foreigners among the dead in Wednesday’s ambush bear out, it would highlight the often-nebulous and mixed nature of both groups, which remain very tightly aligned even amid some disagreement over organizational structure.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero