BEIRUT: The jihadist Islamic State of Greater Syria (ISIS) began withdrawing from parts of northern Syrian in a bid to protect their strongholds ahead of a looming showdown with Al-Qaeda rivals from Nusra Front.
Nusra Front has threatened ISIS with all-out war if it does not submit to a Saturday deadline for mediation by an Islamic court over allegations it assassinated an Islamist commander with close Al-Qaeda links.
Since January, ISIS has been battling a coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels angered over its abuses of rival fighters and civilians, but Nusra had largely stayed out of the fray.
The prospect of the powerful Nusra joining forces with ISIS’s opponents appears to have prompted the group to pull back to its stronghold in the eastern city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital lost by the regime in the three-year civil war.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said ISIS had withdrawn from a string of positions in northern Aleppo province, including the key town of Azaz.
“ISIS has withdrawn from Azaz, its most important bastion in Aleppo province, as well as the Minnigh military airport, the Mayer region and the villages of Deir Jamal and Kafin,” the Britain-based Observatory said.
“Aleppo region is their weakest link, so they fear being attacked there” by Nusra and other rebels after the deadline expires, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
“ISIS is heading to areas that neighbor Raqqa province, where it has its main stronghold in the city of Raqqa,” he said.
ISIS fighters had regrouped in particular in Jarablus and Manbij, on the far eastern border of Aleppo province and close to Raqqa.
In the wake of the withdrawal from Azaz, which ISIS seized in September, the Observatory said a possible mass grave was found in the city.
The withdrawal was confirmed by the opposition Azaz Media Centre, which claimed it as a victory for rival rebel fighters.
“God is greatest. The heroes of the Free Syrian Army and the Northern Storm [Brigade] have liberated the town of Azaz from the dogs of Baghdadi,” the center wrote on its Facebook page, referring to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Video footage posted online showed a demonstration of residents chanting “the Free Syrian Army forever” after ISIS’s withdrawal.
Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said ISIS appeared to have withdrawn from several locations without a fight.
“It looks like ISIS has made the strategic decision to reinforce existing strongholds in eastern Aleppo, all of which lie on valuable routes toward the jewel in ISIS’s crown, the city of Raqqa,” he said.
“Removing these weak areas and reinforcing important and stronger ones seems like the only logical strategy left for ISIS at this stage.”
Nusra Tuesday issued a threat against ISIS after the death of a senior Islamist commander, Abu Khaled al-Suri, who had close ties to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden.
Rebels accuse ISIS of killing the commander, and Nusra chief Abu Mohammad al-Golani warned the group would be pushed out of Syria if it refused arbitration before an Islamic court.
Lister said a major offensive against ISIS could seriously affect the opposition’s ability to hold territory against the regime and that casualties in such an offensive would be high.
“As such, a compromise or a series of localized compromises could still be possible, but this would depend on ISIS playing diplomacy, which isn’t necessarily a proven strength.”
Both Nusra and ISIS have roots in Al-Qaeda’s onetime Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.
But the two have never merged, with Golani rejecting a union proposed by ISIS, and Al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri urging ISIS to return to Iraq after its fighters moved into Syria.