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Jihadists try to mount rally in eastern Syria to retake territory

Free Syrian Army fighters erect the Syrian opposition flag atop a former base used by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), after it was captured by rival rebel forces in Manbij town in Aleppo January 8, 2014. (REUTERS/Nashwan Marzouk)

DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Jihadists battling rebels in Syria fought Thursday to recover lost territory nearly a week after a new front opened in the conflict gripping the country.

The fighting came one day after the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was expelled from the city of Aleppo by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, a massive car bomb blast in the province of Hama killed at least 18 civilians and a regime ambush in Homs killed at least 45 rebel fighters, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The violence comes nearly one week after rebels launched an all-out attack on ISIS, which became hated because of its systematic abuses and its bid to dominate areas that had fallen out of regime control.

Opposition sources said that rebels seized the Aleppo province town of Dana, an ISIS stronghold, after two days of clashes, and freed dozens of female detainees held by the militant group.

ISIS used car bombs in its last-ditch defense of Al-Bab, also in Aleppo province, where it has been forced out of several villages and towns.

The attacks came late Wednesday against rival rebel checkpoints, the Observatory said.

“At least nine people were killed in a car bomb attack by ISIS on a rebel checkpoint ... in the town of Al-Bab” in Aleppo province, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

He said similar attacks took place in Hreitan and Jarablous in Aleppo province, and in Mayadin in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor.

The attacks came after rebels overran ISIS’s Aleppo headquarters Wednesday, as claims emerged that it had massacred prisoners there.

In Raqqa city, fighting raged near the governorate building, which ISIS has for several months used as its headquarters.

While the rebels in Raqqa city appeared to be advancing, ISIS was fighting back in the countryside, especially in the border town of Tal Abyad, from which it was expelled earlier this week.

ISIS is believed to be holding hundreds of activists, rival rebels and foreigners including journalists at several bases in Raqqa province.

Activists say Raqqa has become “a city of ghosts,” with bodies in the streets and people afraid to leave their houses because of the violence.

In the province of Hassakeh, ISIS militants signed a truce with their rivals in the Islamic Front and several independent Islamist rebel units.

The Observatory said the agreement stipulated the establishment of a single military command center and legal authority for the area, which ISIS would have to answer to – they have repeatedly rejected such calls in the past.

In the city of Homs, government forces killed at least 45 rebels as they sought to break a regime siege on the city.

The Observatory said the rebels, from different brigades, were killed late Wednesday and early Thursday as they attempted to end an army siege that has lasted more than a year.

In Aleppo, government warplanes carried out an airstrike on the rebel-held district of Sheikh Maqsoud.

In Hama province, at least 18 people, among them women and children, were killed in the car bombing in the village of Kafat, the Observatory said.

Much of the province, including Kafat, is still under regime control, and state television reported the “terrorist” blast, saying 16 people were dead and dozens more wounded. A brutal aerial offensive against Aleppo that started on Dec. 15 has killed hundreds of people, mostly civilians.

The violence comes less than two weeks before the Geneva II peace conference, which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani predicted would fail if his country did not attend.

The remarks came ahead of a meeting Monday at which Russia and the U.S. are to discuss Tehran’s possible involvement in the talks in Montreux, Switzerland on Jan. 22.

“Any trans-regional meeting that is not attended by influential players will be unable to solve the Syria crisis,” Rouhani told Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone, the ISNA news agency reported.

“Thus, the Geneva II conference has already failed without it even being started,” Rouhani added, calling the Russian- U.S. initiated forum “a negotiation show.”

According to ISNA, Putin reiterated Moscow’s support and expressed hope “to convince our allies ... that Iran, as a key actor, must be present at the talks.”

Putin rejected any “preconditions” for Iran’s participation, referring to demands that Tehran endorse a June 2012 accord calling for a transitional government to replace the Assad regime.

The fractious opposition National Coalition has postponed a final decision on whether to attend the talks, but members said they face international pressure to participate.

“The entire revolutionary movement in Syria is against Geneva,” coalition member Samir Nashar told AFP.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 10, 2014, on page 1.

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Summary

Jihadists battling rebels in Syria fought Thursday to recover lost territory nearly a week after a new front opened in the conflict gripping the country.

The fighting came one day after the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was expelled from the city of Aleppo by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, a massive car bomb blast in the province of Hama killed at least 18 civilians and a regime ambush in Homs killed at least 45 rebel fighters, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

ISIS used car bombs in its last-ditch defense of Al-Bab, also in Aleppo province, where it has been forced out of several villages and towns.

While the rebels in Raqqa city appeared to be advancing, ISIS was fighting back in the countryside, especially in the border town of Tal Abyad, from which it was expelled earlier this week.

In the city of Homs, government forces killed at least 45 rebels as they sought to break a regime siege on the city.


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