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Syrian hard-line faction backs U.S.-Turkey plans for safe zone

BEIRUT — A hard-line Islamic faction in Syria expressed support Tuesday for a U.S.-Turkish plan to set up a safe zone free of the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

The statement suggested the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham was looking to become a key player on the ground that could work with the United States and Turkey to carve out such an IS-free zone.

The group said the safe zone would serve the interests of the Syrian people and be "vital" for the protection of civilians and return of refugees.

On Monday, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, said it is withdrawing from areas along the border with Turkey where it has been fighting IS militants. Turkey began carrying out airstrikes against IS targets in Syria two weeks ago.

On the safe zone plan, the U.S. has said that IS would be replaced by moderate rebel factions in the area on the border with Turkey. But the Obama administration has been struggling to find effective moderate partners to work with in Syria.

The group did not mention the United States in its statement and only spoke about Turkey's desire to set up an IS-free zone in northern Syria.

Late last month, the Nusra Front crushed the U.S.-backed faction known as Division 30 in northern Syria, and captured, killed or wounded many of its fighters.

Ahrar al-Sham is among the most powerful militant and rebel factions and is active in different parts of Syria. It has been fighting along with the Nusra Front and other factions against IS since early 2014.

Washington and Ankara are not likely to see a potential partner in Ahrar al-Sham, which together with the Nusra Front is part of the so-called Fatah Army that captured wide areas of the northwestern Idlib province since March.

But Ahrar al-Sham has been trying to improve its image recently and trying to potray itself as a moderate group. Its foreign affairs director, Labib Al Nahhas, wrote columns in the Washington Post and Britain's Telegraph recently to market the group as a main force fighting IS.

In its statement Tuesday, Ahrar al-Sham said safe zone should have been set up earlier, adding that its delay "was behind the death of tens of thousands of Syrians."

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