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Amid fragile truce with Damascus, Syria opposition battles IS

Islamist factions and opposition forces are taking advantage of "downtime" during the regime/opposition cease-fire to take on other enemies in Syria, but all the fighting could undermine the fragile truce.

ISTANBUL — Battles have erupted again around the Syrian city of Aleppo, despite the cease-fire agreement implemented at the end of February. Under the agreement, opposition forces and the regime are not to engage each other unless a breach occurs, in which case the other party is allowed to respond.

Yet clashes between opposition forces — represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and some Islamic factions — and the Islamic State (IS) erupted in northern Aleppo province in early April. By April 7, opposition forces were able to gain control over the strategic town of al-Rai, which was the IS center of operations against areas controlled by the moderate opposition in northern Syria. IS, however, regained Rai control three days later. Attack-and-retreat engagements have resumed.

“Our battles with IS are not new; we have been fighting the group for two years now," Col. Mohammed Khalil, commander of military operations for al-Mutassim Brigade, told Al-Monitor by phone April 14. "However, when the terrorist threat was revealed to the world and the major powers acknowledged it, they started to cooperate with us to fight this pernicious terrorism, and this is why these battles are important."

"The international coalition provided information on aerial reconnaissance to opposition forces on the ground; it bombed locations in which rigged cars were being prepared and targeted the group’s headquarters. Many opposition factions such as al-Mutassim Brigade, al-Hamza Brigade, Brigade 51 and Sultan Murad Brigade also participated, in addition to smaller factions in the area, which are all part of the Syrian revolution.”

Khalil noted that opposition factions have gained strength. “We have acquired new experiences from our battles against IS over the past couple of years, which are different from those we fought against the regime. The military leaders and revolutionaries now have a greater discipline and are more courageous and experienced. We are driven by our faith in the need to root out terrorism," he said. "Our fight against IS will continue all around Syria, no matter where terrorism emerges, in order to achieve the revolution’s goals."

According to Khalil, the areas liberated from IS are the villages in northern and northeastern Aleppo province, from Azaz further east, but control over these areas keeps changing.

Fighting has not been against IS only. Fierce battles also broke out in southern Aleppo, with the Islamist factions Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham clashing with regime forces backed by foreign militias such as Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

These battles coincided with those against IS. Because the cease-fire agreement did not include Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch), that group was not obliged to stop fighting and was determined to control the strategic area of Khan Tuman, which the opposition had lost to regime forces in December.

The Islamic factions' most important victory came April 5 when they shot down a warplane that apparently belonged to the Syrian air force. The plane had carried out several airstrikes in northern Aleppo before crashing near a hill at Eis that had been dominated by the opposition. It was revealed later that Ahrar al-Sham had downed the plane using a ground-to-air missile. Media activists posted pictures online showing the Syrian pilot, who was captured alive.

Ahmad Primo, a journalist from Aleppo, told Al-Monitor via Skype April 14, “The battles in Aleppo’s southern countryside are of major importance, because [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad’s army and militias are trying to strengthen their presence [there]. The area is considered key to any future military action toward Aleppo’s western countryside, the last safe [area] that must be protected to ensure the safety of Aleppo’s other countrysides and [the] city, all the way to rural parts of Idlib and the Syrian-Turkish border.”

These battles, however, have become a threat to the truce, worrying United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura.

The FSA’s legal adviser, Osama Abu Zeid, who is also a member of the opposition’s delegation in Geneva, warned about this issue as he spoke to Al-Monitor by phone from Geneva on April 15. “The FSA has already agreed to the cessation of hostilities, which had a great impact on the humanitarian level and resulted in lifting the siege on some areas. We not only condemn the breach of the truce, but also the failure to abide by the key humanitarian conditions that are supposed to be the beginning of the political process," Abu Zeid said.

"We also condemn the repeated breaches by the regime, which reached the point of massacres, such as the attack on the school in eastern Ghouta a few days ago, in addition to the barrel bombs that the regime is still throwing on a daily basis. This is why it was our moral duty and our legal right to respond to the regime using the same means, and we will respond to any other attack within the same level without harming any civilians.”

Abu Zeid spoke about the current Geneva round of talks and his expectations, saying, “The regime is showing great intransigence in the political negotiations as it constantly avoids tackling its responsibilities, direct discussions and the Security Council resolutions. … It is also still carrying out military operations and escalations, which threatens the political process. This would bring us back to square one, renew violence and put pressure on the Syrian people and the peoples of the entire region."

He added, "This will also take its toll on the international community, which will have to bear moral and legal responsibilities, especially with new waves of migration, because refugees will flee violence again. This will undermine the European Union’s refugee agreements with Turkey.”

The latest round of the negotiations is still in its early stages; De Mistura seems to be optimistic even though the parties refuse direct negotiations. The opposition is calling on the regime and international supporters to immediately start discussing the political transition that would end Assad's rule, an outcome that the regime is trying to avoid as much as possible.

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