BEIRUT

Middle East

Regime advances near Aleppo, ISIS tightens grip on Raqqa

Syrian army soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad pose for a photograph with their weapons in the Aleppo town of Naqaren, after claiming to have regained control of the town, January 14, 2014. (REUTERS/George Ourfalian)

BEIRUT: The Syrian government has retaken territory around the northern city of Aleppo, the military said Tuesday, after two weeks of clashes between rebels and jihadists that have weakened the insurgency against President Bashar Assad.

An army statement said government forces had pushed out from their base at Aleppo’s international airport, southeast of the city, and were moving toward an industrial complex used as a rebel base and the Al-Bab road, urgently needed by insurgents to supply the half of Aleppo under their control.

It said that government forces, along with militias loyal to Assad, were in “complete control” of the Naqqarin, Zarzour, Taaneh and Subeihieh areas along the eastern side of Aleppo, which was the country’s commercial hub and most populous city before the conflict erupted in 2011.

Fighting between the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and rival Islamists and more moderate rebels has killed nearly 1,000 people over two weeks and shaken ISIS, a militant faction led by foreign jihadists.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamist militias were regrouping around Naqqarin in a bid to retake the area from regime troops.

The Observatory said that heavy clashes were underway in the town of Jarablus in Aleppo province, pitting ISIS militants against several Islamist and non-Islamist militias.

The monitoring group added that ISIS fighters secured complete control of the northern city of Raqqa on the Euphrates, after fierce fighting over the last two days.

ISIS regrouped and began taking strongholds in Raqqa Sunday from remnants of the Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda affiliate that is much more Syrian in makeup, and the Islamic Front. ISIS also took control of the town of Al-Bab, east of Aleppo, from other rebels Monday, according to the Observatory.

The Observatory, which tracks Syria’s war using sources from both sides, said 13 fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham militia, one of the seven members of the Islamic Front, were killed by an ISIS car bomb in the western province of Idlib Monday just before midnight.

The death toll was expected to rise, the Observatory said, because the blast targeting a rebel checkpoint near Ram Hamdan, northeast of Idlib, left 10 other fighters seriously wounded.

In a sign of the fierceness of the clashes and struggle for territory between ISIS and the rebel groups, the Observatory said Monday’s nationwide death toll stood at 227 people, which included around 200 fighters – from the regime, ISIS militants and rebel groups.

Pro-opposition sources have blamed the fighting between ISIS and rebel groups for the regime’s advances in Aleppo and Raqqa.

They said that in recent days, Ahrar al-Sham had surrendered its positions near the army’s Base 17 south of Raqqa to ISIS fighters, who were then responsible for allowing regime troops to advance and secure territory at the long-besieged facility.

But the Observatory said that the Islamic Front had distanced itself from reports that it had issued another ultimatum to ISIS to surrender its positions. Members of the Islamic Front, such as Ahrar al-Sham and the Tawhid Brigade, have suffered dozens of casualties in the fighting, which broke out on Jan. 3. The Observatory and activists on the ground have said that ISIS militants have made regular use of car bomb attacks against their rivals from the Islamic Front.

The infighting among rebels has taken place in at least six provinces since it began – Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, Hama, Homs and Deir al-Zor.

It has also seen the Nusra Front’s commander for Raqqa, Abu Saad al-Hadrami, kidnapped and murdered by ISIS militants.

Opposition sources said that ISIS announced Hadrami’s death in a statement late Sunday, accusing him of apostasy.

The sources said that Hadrami had been a member of ISIS but decided to leave the group, along with several dozen others, and join the Nusra Front. The leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, last year tasked the Nusra Front with responsibility for Syria and ordered ISIS to return its focus to Iraq, where it was originally established.

Elsewhere, fierce fighting between rebel groups and regime troops was reported in Deraa province, the suburbs of Damascus and the Qalamoun region north of the capital.

Activists also accused the regime of using toxic gas Monday in a strike on the Damascus suburb of Daraya, leading to cases of asphyxiation.

The Observatory said Daraya, Arbin and Zabadani, all in the province of Rural Damascus, were targeted by helicopters dropping barrel bombs Tuesday. No casualty figures were available, while the village of Inkhil in Deraa province was also targeted by a barrel bomb, which killed one man and wounded an unspecified number of people.

Several hundred people have been killed in Aleppo province in recent weeks by the crude barrel bombs, which have sparked international condemnation.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2014, on page 8.

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Summary

ISIS also took control of the town of Al-Bab, east of Aleppo, from other rebels Monday, according to the Observatory.

The Observatory, which tracks Syria's war using sources from both sides, said 13 fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham militia, one of the seven members of the Islamic Front, were killed by an ISIS car bomb in the western province of Idlib Monday just before midnight.

In a sign of the fierceness of the clashes and struggle for territory between ISIS and the rebel groups, the Observatory said Monday's nationwide death toll stood at 227 people, which included around 200 fighters – from the regime, ISIS militants and rebel groups.

Pro-opposition sources have blamed the fighting between ISIS and rebel groups for the regime's advances in Aleppo and Raqqa.

They said that in recent days, Ahrar al-Sham had surrendered its positions near the army's Base 17 south of Raqqa to ISIS fighters, who were then responsible for allowing regime troops to advance and secure territory at the long-besieged facility.


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