Three-sided war helps Syrian army regain ground

The war that erupted in northern Syria between ISIS, armed opposition factions and the Syrian army has helped the latter regain some lost ground.

al-monitor A soldier loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad inspects an explosive device that was planted in what Assad's forces said was a safe house used by the Free Syrian Army, after claiming to have regained control of the town of Naqarin, Aleppo, Jan. 14, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/George Ourfalian.

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syrian regime, syrian conflict, jihadists in syria, islamists, army, aleppo clashes, aleppo

Jan 15, 2014

The Syrian army announced its control of several towns and “important” locations east of the city of Aleppo. That came as a new step in the army’s plan to surround the gunmen inside their neighborhoods and separate the northern Aleppo countryside from its east, and cut all supply routes to the trapped gunmen.

Meanwhile, the battles between the armed factions have intensified. The scene in north Syria looks like a three-sided war between armed opposition factions, including “Islamic” and “jihadist” factions, on one side, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on another side and the Syrian army, the biggest beneficiary of this war, on a third side.

The general command of the Syrian army and the armed forces said in a statement that the army, in collaboration with National Defense, has, after successful military operations, taken full control of Naqarin, al-Zarzour, al-Taana, al-Sbayhiyya and Peak 53 in the east Aleppo countryside.

The statement said, “This new accomplishment by our armed forces enhances the security of the area surrounding Aleppo International Airport and paves the way for the elimination of mercenary terrorists in the east and north Aleppo countryside, and for taking control over the industrial city and the roads leading from the area of al-Bab to the city of Aleppo.” A military source on the ground revealed to As-Safir that such a move would loosen the blockade around Aleppo central prison, which has been under siege for more than nine months, and is just a few kilometers from these areas.

The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “We are now at the gates of the industrial city. We are now preparing for a new military operation to control it. That means breaking the siege around the central prison, which is only about three kilometers from the industrial city. … Controlling the industrial city will allow its facilities to re-open for work. And that would drive the economic cycle in Aleppo and secure jobs for a large number of citizens, which would induce those who are carrying weapons for financial reasons to leave their weapons and go to work.”

In addition to the advance toward Aleppo central prison and the eastern Aleppo neighborhoods, the source said the military’s control of Naqarin allows the army to advance toward the northeast countryside and the countryside east of Aleppo, where the road to al-Bab and its villages is open. It’s the same situation for Manbej, northeast Aleppo, and Deir Hafer in the east on Aleppo-Raqqa highway.

At the time when some opposition parties in Aleppo are trading accusations about “abandoning the battle fronts … and being busy with infighting, which led to the fall of these areas in the army’s hands,” the military source confirmed that what is happening on the ground is happening in accordance with the plan set earlier, but that the infighting has “facilitated the army’s task, which is now advancing faster than before.”

An opposition source told As-Safir last November that the plan that the army is believed to be following in Aleppo and is being talked about in opposition circles refers to “the possibility that the regime may follow the same plan carried out in Homs and Damascus. The [plan] involved cutting the main supply routes to the areas controlled by the opposition and surrounding them in scattered areas, which will weaken them. That will be followed by the [army] slowly penetrating them without any losses.”

At the time, there was talk that “the regime will cut the supplies coming from the rural north by having its forces advance from the Albullarmon side, as it will try to advance toward the industrial city. That means surrounding the neighborhoods in the northeast section of Aleppo and isolating them from the northern countryside, which is the primary supply line for the opposition gunmen from Turkey; and on the other hand isolating them from the eastern regions stretching to the southern countryside of Idlib.”

The source said opposition groups held several meetings to avoid this “scenario,” and agreed that several steps must be taken, including “moving into attack mode, igniting other areas to distract the regime from applying its plan, and finding an internal agreement between opposing factions to secure the internal front.” But what seemed to have happened on the ground is completely the opposite, after fighting broke out between the opposing factions and ISIS.

In parallel with the army’s progress and control over many areas east of Aleppo, ISIS succeeded in retaking the initiative and moving from defense, in front of the armed factions fighting it, and controlling the strategic city of al-Bab and its surrounding villages northeast of Aleppo. ISIS also tightened its grip on the villages and towns it already controls north and south of Aleppo. (ISIS has almost complete control on Azaz, Haritan, Ratyan, Der Jamal, Kfar Hamra, Zeitan, Hardatnein, Orom, Maaristi, Mayer, Meng, Maranan, al-Bab, Bazzaa, Kabbasin, Tadef, Mariameen and Deir Hafer).

A jihadist source told As-Safir that ISIS is preparing to attack several villages in the countryside north of Aleppo that are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Liwa’ al-Tawhid and the Salafist jihadist Ahrar al-Sham. Most prominent among those villages are Mareh, Tal Rifaat and Bayanoun, the source said, pointing out that ISIS is planning suicide attacks followed by an armed attack. The source said, “The organization at this time is working to secure the areas it controls in order to secure the internal front, before taking any further steps.”

On the other side, the factions fighting ISIS moved into defense mode in the areas they control. They had expelled ISIS from most opposition-controlled Aleppo neighborhoods, where those factions are working on securing the “home front” by raiding homes and premises believed to be pro-ISIS, amid accusations between ISIS and the factions fighting it about mutual executions in the field.

One of the worst violations by ISIS was when it executed a number of Ahrar al-Sham jihadists in al-Bab and then gunmen from Ahfad al-Rasoul, which is affiliated with Jabhat Thuwwar Souria. Ahfad al-Rasoul had kidnapped the mother and sister of an ISIS jihadist in the Indharat area of Aleppo, raped them, then released the mother and kept the 17-year-old sister. That is according websites that support the factions fighting ISIS and which criticized this act.

In terms of the internal situation in Aleppo, little has changed in the last few days, with the exception of one Free Syrian Army unit controlling two buildings in Saif al-Dawla. Opposition gunmen regained control of the two buildings after minor battles. Meanwhile, the Syrian army made slow progress in the neighborhood of Beni Zeid near the area of Alleramoun, which will allow the army to control Albullarmon. That will get the army closer to controlling the strategic Jandoul roundabout. That will allow the army to secure the northern front of Aleppo and cut off supplies to the gunmen.

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