Although the differences within the Army of Conquest have not ended yet, Jund al-Aqsa — which withdrew from the group — succeeded yesterday [Nov. 5] in completely gaining control over the strategic town of Murak in Hama’s northern countryside. At the same time, field information indicated that the factions following al-Qaeda ideology now represent the spearhead in fighting the Syrian army and confronting Syria's military campaign carried out under Russian cover.
Intermittent sources confirmed that Jund al-Aqsa — which is accused of including leaders and members with tendencies toward the Islamic State [IS] — exclusively executed the attack against Murak and prevented other factions from participating in it. In addition, when it invaded the town’s center, it made sure to raise its banner and not that of the Army of Conquest — to which it allegedly returned — indicating that the town is now under its control.
Saudi Sheikh Abdallah al-Mhisni, the Army of Conquest’s cleric, announced yesterday evening [Nov. 5] that Jund al-Aqsa had joined the Army of Conquest again after issues between it and other factions were resolved. Mhisni considered this to be great news and noted a connection between the reunion and the Murak invasion.
However, Jund al-Aqsa quickly issued a brief statement in which it denied these allegations, saying, “We are yet to announce accepting the agreement to join the Army of Conquest again,” which means the differences over certain conditions still exist, most importantly, those related to the stance against IS. This is while some factions, most notably Ahrar al-Sham, want Jund al Aqsa to issue a clear statement announcing its readiness to fight IS at any given moment or place, but the latter still refuses.
It was striking that Jund al-Aqsa issued the earlier statement in conjunction with its announcement of full control over Murak, which was seen as a show of power in facing the Army of Conquest’s factions that it is capable of operating on its own.
The attack on Murak began on Tuesday evening [Nov. 3] from several directions, especially from the western and southern parts of the town, where Jund al-Aqsa had already imposed its control about a couple of weeks ago, on Lahaya and Maarkaba. It also regained control over the village of Latmin, which was one of the first villages the Syrian army controlled at the beginning of its latest campaign on Hama’s northern countryside.
Up until yesterday morning [Nov. 5], the Syrian army was still in control of certain points within the town, such as the Murak Battalion, points 4 and 5, the Murak bridge, Al-Aboud checkpoint and Al-Halabi hill. However, it was forced to withdraw toward Soran as a result of the fierce attack, leaving the town it had dominated since September 2014.
This loss dealt a hard blow to the efforts made by the Syrian army, which had used Murak as a launch base with the aim of expanding its control over other areas, in order to reach its main goal, which is to open the Damascus-Aleppo international route that passes through Khan Shaykhoun. However, this objective now requires redoubling efforts. In addition, losing Murak means the loss of Hama’s first defense line, and battles are expected to be concentrated toward the second defense line, represented by Soran and Taybat al-Imam.
However, this would require Jund al-Aqsa to expand its control, especially toward the east, where the army is still in control of a significant area stretching from Ma’an to Sukayk. Also, this loss would affect the result expected from the Syrian army’s huge efforts in the southern countryside of Aleppo, namely the opening of an international Damascus-Aleppo road.
Despite the media campaign carried out by major countries against the Russian “Sukhoi storm” — amid accusations that it is focusing its raids on the “moderate” factions all the while avoiding the bombing of extremist Islamic factions — facts on the ground prove day after day that al-Qaeda factions as well as groups that support it ideologically are the active ones.
Jund al-Aqsa’s attack on Murak could serve as one good example, but it's not the only one.
It is well known that Jund al-Aqsa was established mid-2013 under the leadership of Abu Abdul Aziz al-Qatari. ... Also, most of the members of this faction are “foreign fighters” who particularly come from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
In the southern countryside of Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, is clearly leading the operations against the Syrian army in the region along with the Ahrar al-Sham movement, which has been unable to settle the dispute between its reformist stream and its al-Qaeda stream. This is especially true after the movement leadership backed down from isolating its military leader Gen. Abu Saleh Tahhan, deemed one of the most prominent al-Qaeda-supporting figures in the movement.
In the northern countryside of Homs, which had the lion's share in the campaign against the Russian raids, a decision issued by the “Islamic Court,” which is made of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, among other factions, revealed that IS still has a strong presence in the region. The court issued a decision in which it declared that the Bayada Martyrs Battalion, led by Abdel Basset al-Sarout, has indeed pledged allegiance to IS. This battalion is stationed in the vicinity of Al-Dar Al-Kabirah, Ezzeddine, Aydoun and Tel Rajoub.
Moreover, many of the factions that operate under the Free Syrian Army’s [FSA] banner in the region are accused of having ties with IS, especially Al-Iman Billah Battalion, which helped the so-called Rafed Taha, the IS emir in Talbiseh, escape from prison 10 days after his arrest by Jabhat al-Nusra in July. Also, IS is present in the southern countryside of Homs and the eastern countryside of Aleppo.
In the northern countryside of Latakia, after the progress made by the Syrian army on several axes — such as toward Salma or Jeb al-Ahmar — fighters from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) were sent to the region to counterattack the Syrian army.
As-Safir learned from several field sources that most of the TIP fighters were withdrawn from al-Ghab plain to reinforce the fronts spread in the northern countryside of Latakia, knowing that those had an active role in restoring Ghamam village hours after the Syrian army took control of it. Sources confirmed that Jabhat al-Nusra sent hundreds of fighters to al-Ghab plain to replace the TIP members.
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