BEIRUT

Middle East

Battles rage to push ISIS out of north

This YouTube grab shows ISIS fighters heading to Saraqeb. (The Daily Star/YouTube grab)

BEIRUT: A car bomb blamed on the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) killed at least 26 people in a rebel-held city of northern Syria Wednesday, an opposition monitoring group said.

Hours earlier, a Belgian commander from the same group was reported killed, also in the north of the country, although ISIS supporters denied the death.

Rebel groups, including the Islamic Front alliance, have been trying to push out ISIS, a small but powerful affiliate of Al-Qaeda with a core of foreign fighters.

Hundreds of rebels have been killed in the clashes, which have taken place in around half a dozen provinces, mainly in the north.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of those killed in the car bomb in Jarablus were from rival rebel groups, though it counted at least three civilians. It said the death toll was likely to rise, as dozens more were severely wounded.

ISIS fighters have been losing territory in the area around Jarablus, in Aleppo province, though they have recaptured much of the northern province of Raqqa and other parts of Aleppo province.

Elsewhere in the rebel-held north, local activists said the Belgian commander of Al-Qaeda-linked forces in Syria was killed in the town of Saraqeb, in Idlib province.

ISIS supporters, however, denied reports that the local Saraqeb “emir,” known as Abu Baraa al-Jazairi, had been killed.

Activists said rival rebels ambushed a convoy of ISIS fighters and killed Jazairi, who is believed to be a Belgian citizen of Algerian origin.

Belgium’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of the reports of Jazairi’s death but could not confirm them.

Jazairi last week warned rebels to halt an anti-ISIS offensive they launched early January or face suicide attacks against their positions.

Since his Jan. 6 warning, Islamist and moderate rebel positions have been hit by jihadists’ suicide attacks – mostly car bombs – in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa provinces, which have killed dozens of opposition fighters.

The alleged Jazairi killing comes amid heavy fighting for ISIS-held Saraqeb, which straddles three highways that lead to the capital Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia, the coastal stronghold of President Bashar Assad.

“The Islamic Front is playing ‘all in’ at Saraqeb ... it is a strategic area they want, whatever it costs. They’ve been trying to control it for a week,” said a rebel source with ties to hard-line Islamist groups, who declined to be named.

Once a bastion of moderate activism against President Bashar Assad’s regime, Saraqeb was turned into a stronghold of ISIS in recent months.

A former ally of Syria’s rebels, ISIS has become hated for its quest for hegemony and its systematic abuses against rivals, activists and journalists, among them Westerners.

According to Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman, “hundreds of ISIS fighters are still in Saraqeb.”

More than 700 jihadist and rebel fighters have been killed in 12 days of combat pitting the two sides against each other.

On Tuesday night, ISIS “set free dozens of Islamist rebels” who had been captured in Raqqa during the recent battles in the province.

Earlier that day, rebels fighting the jihadists withdrew from the province.

On Wednesday, the air force carried out an air raid on Raqqa city, the only provincial capital to have fallen out of Assad’s control since the start of Syria’s revolt in March 2011.

The contradictions at play in the war were highlighted further east, in the city of Qamishli, where several thousand people attended the funeral of 39 Kurds killed in fighting with Islamist militias during a campaign that began in late December.

The Kurdish fighters were from the PYD, which is at odds with the main opposition-in-exile group, the National Coalition.

The fighters were killed in battles with ISIS and groups from the Islamic Front – the same sides that are locked in bloody clashes elsewhere in rebel-held areas.

Separately, the National Coalition accused the regime of using “poison gas” in an attack Monday on the Damascus suburb of Daraya.

In a statement, the coalition demanded that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons carry out an investigation.

The OPCW is currently overseeing the transport and destruction of Syria’s chemical stocks.

The coalition said the regime was seeking to pressure the opposition in the run-up to its vote on whether to attend the Geneva II peace talks next month. “It intensively used barrel bombs on the city of Aleppo, two weeks before the General Assembly of the Syrian coalition was due to vote on the participation in Geneva II,” the group said.

“In a similar vein, the Assad regime used poison gas against innocent civilians in the city of Daraya Monday, three days before the [General Assembly] of the Syrian Coalition is set to take the final decision on attending the peace conference in Geneva.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2014, on page 8.

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