Islamic State takes over Marea

In this article from As-Safir, Abdallah Suleiman Ali details the workings of the fighting and battles that led to the Islamic State’s takeover of the Syrian town of Marea.

al-monitor Rebel fighters take positions at the front line during what they said were clashes with Islamic State militants in the town of Marea in Aleppo's countryside, Oct. 3, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Rami Zayat.

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syrian civil war, is

Jun 1, 2015

The Syrian arena began to respond to the repercussions of the two catastrophes it witnessed during the past few weeks, which were represented by Jahbat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, and its allies’ victory in the province of Idlib, and Islamic State (IS) control of the cities of Palmyra and al-Sukhnah as well as some energy fields. Some expected repercussions of these developments began to emerge, most notably the return of the heated conflict between Islamic factions, in the context of their renewed rivalry for influence and interests.

The speed at which the Syrian arena responded to these rapid developments, stress a matter of utmost importance, which is the extent of the extreme sensitivity incorporated by the complex equation of power on the ground, in which each party is linked to some regional or international supporter. This suggests that the war among [Islamic] emirates in Syria has moved a step forward, after each party established its own emirate and the objective became establishing the regional and international project, according to whose agenda some of these “emirates” operate.

One can only understand IS’ attack yesterday morning on Aleppo’s northern countryside in this general framework. Through this attack, the group not only seeks to stretch and expand over an additional area of land, but its primary objective is to strike a fatal blow to the emirate in the north of Idlib, which now represents an existential threat to the group, especially if the ones who established it succeed in advancing in Aleppo and threaten IS strongholds in the eastern countryside.

It is no secret that IS believes that the Army of Conquest (Jaish al-Fatah), which is considered by Jabhat al-Nusra as its main base, is nothing but an army whose goal is to fight IS instead of the international coalition or certain regional countries. In this context, it is noted that the main objective behind training the “moderates” in Turkey is to fight IS. What strengthened this was that Jabhat al-Nusra had launched an attack, about two weeks ago, against some IS strongholds and was able to advance in the area south of the Shahba dam, which includes the villages of Suruj, Husajek and al-Hasiah. This is why IS believes that it was the Awakenings that launched the attack against it, following foreign orders.

If we are to assemble these pieces of information — in addition to the proposed regional projects to be implemented in the Syrian arena, most notably the buffer zone, which, according to available data, seems to be supported by the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari axis that showed its full support to the Army of Conquest in order to advance in Idlib — we would realize how complex the Syrian arena is and the significant number of possibilities this complexity could result in.

This image could become more ambiguous in light of these rational questions: Why didn’t the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari axis succeed in forming the Army of Conquest in Aleppo like it did in Idlib, especially since the participating factions follow the same leadership? Why was the Army of Conquest operations room formed without Jabhat al-Nusra’s participation, although the latter spearheaded the attack in Idlib? Does this mean that Aleppo is not included in the rapprochement between the countries of the [formerly mentioned] axis, or does it mean that the major states, such as Washington, refuse to do so because it sees this as a way to avoid the buffer zone that it still refuses to support, or are the ancient differences between Aleppo’s factions impeding finding a solution and preventing their reunification as they did in Idlib?

IS began its offensive against Aleppo’s northern countryside several days ago. However, the attack’s pace escalated yesterday morning. IS members were able to advance on the ground by taking over the town of Soran, whose location is important for being close to the town of Azaz, bordering Turkey, which is considered one of the group’s main goals. They also took over the villages of Umm Hawsh and Hasiah, blocking the supply line toward the infantry school where the factions’ leaderships are stationed. They controlled the villages of al-Ball, al-Qarmmal, al-Tuqli, Umm al-Qura and Tlalin. This tightened the grip on the town of Marea, which is an important stronghold of the armed factions. It is of great importance because controlling it paves the way toward Aleppo, only 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) away, as well as the towns of Nebel and al-Zahra that have been besieged for about three years. The control over Marea puts the Kurdish-dominated city of Afrin in great danger.

There is no doubt that the attacks on Marea and Azaz — which were simultaneous to the progress achieved by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Hasakah and the area around Tell Abyad in Raqqa’s countryside — indicate how complex and tangled the Syrian arena is. One of IS’ goals might be to threaten the Kurds in their stronghold in Afrin, in response to their progress in Hasakah. The attack on Azaz might also be in response to the fact that the joint operations room (which includes the YPG, Raqqa rebel brigades and other factions) threatened to attack Tell Abyad. Thus, The Tell Abyad crossing on the border with Turkey might be of no use in the event the joint operations room takes over the Bab al-Salamah crossing near Azaz. In addition, Marea has a special symbolism for IS since it is the town in which Haji Bakr was killed at the beginning of clashes between IS and the factions last year, which gives the battle an aspect of revenge.

On the ground, media sources reported that the attack on the town of Soran, which lies seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the border town of Azaz, included a car bombing, followed by heavy shelling with artillery shells and mortars, after which IS militants, who attacked the town from several axes, managed to take control over it following violent clashes that lasted for several hours.

In August, IS militants took over the towns of Dabiq, Akhtarin and Ehtemalat near Soran. Following the fall of Soran, the morale of the factions’ militants in neighboring villages was deeply affected, which led to the fall of these villages to IS, with little fighting. Activists in the regions and faction leaders there, from Al-Fatah Brigades, in particular, called for sending reinforcement to Aleppo’s northern countryside, for there is a threat that it will completely fall [under IS control.] Meanwhile, [a union of Aleppo] rebels noted that certain factions have a neutral stance against IS.

After taking control over its neighboring villages, IS targeted Marea with artillery shells and tanks, setting several buildings on fire and resulting in a number of casualties. It also created a state of confusion in the ranks of militants and civilians amid rumors spread by activists close to the Sham front, claiming that should IS members take over the town, they would commit massacres against the families of the armed factions’ leaders.

In an attempt to put an end to the collapse of the armed faction members, Sham front spokesperson announced that an expanded meeting, including a number of major factional leaders, will be held soon to study the situation and also announced the formation of an operations room in order to confront what is happening.

It was noted that IS’ attack against Aleppo’s northern countryside coincided with broad accusations of the Syrian army committing a massacre in the city of al-Bab, controlled by the takfiri group, since it was targeted by several airstrikes. Certain activists from Aleppo reported that dozens of IS militants as well as civilians were killed and injured. However, these accusations soon disappeared and were suddenly replaced by talks about the Syrian army helping IS attack Marea. This was explicitly denied by the opposition-affiliated “Marea News Network.”

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