BEIRUT: Syrian rebel leader Jamal Maarouf has issued a second declaration of war against ISIS militants, as western powers led by the United States are expected this week to unveil their plans to defeat the Al-Qaeda splinter group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria.
Maarouf delivered a short address to hundreds of militiamen assembled in rural Idlib Sunday, vowing to pursue hostilities against both the regime and ISIS in Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces.
“This meeting is to confirm to everyone that the FSA is still in good shape ... we will fight the two states – the tyrannical state of Bashar Assad, and the tyrannical state of Baghdadi,” Maarouf said, the latter referring to the leader of ISIS.
Maarouf heads the Syria Rebel Front, one of several groups from the rebel Free Syrian Army that is receiving American weapons and training.
The Front has a presence in northern provinces such as Idlib and Aleppo, as well as in the south, where its fighters recently took part in seizing territory in Qunaitra province as part of a multigroup offensive against regime forces.
Maarouf is also known for declaring a similar offensive against ISIS at the beginning of the year; that campaign was successful in pushing ISIS fighters out of Idlib and Aleppo provinces. But after months of battles and violence that saw nearly all rebel groups join the anti-ISIS campaign, the Al-Qaeda extremists eventually regrouped in eastern Syria and then re-entered rural parts of Aleppo province, where they are now battling an array of militias.
An anti-regime activist based in Aleppo told The Daily Star that Maarouf’s fighters have begun to arrive in Aleppo province in small numbers, with more men, along with tanks, said to be on the way.
“If a large amount of heavy weaponry arrives, it will make a big difference in the battle,” the activist said. “Maarouf has the trust of regional powers, because of his earlier stances against ISIS.”
ISIS fighters have been threatening to make gains for weeks in rural Aleppo as they confront the Kurdish YPG militia, independent Kurdish fighters loosely aligned with the FSA, and other, local groups.
Buoyed by victories against Syrian regime troops and their June offensive in Iraq, ISIS has relied on massive seizures of weaponry – some American-made – to make gains in Aleppo and the east. But the battles in Aleppo have ground to a stalemate in recent weeks, according to observers.
A group of FSA-affiliated units declared Sunday the formation of the “Fifth Corps,” comprising five relatively large militias active in the north as well as the area around Damascus.
They singled out toppling the regime as their overriding goal, and pledged to adopt the Independence flag – commonly referred to as the “rebel” flag – as their sole symbol.
Some pro-opposition media have dubbed the two developments as the “rebirth” of the mainstream FSA, which also counts the Hazm Movement among the ranks of groups that have received American training and TOW anti-tank weapons.
An anti-regime observer, who requested anonymity, said that as U.S. President Barack Obama prepares this week to unveil his country’s strategy to defeat ISIS, the declarations on the ground should not necessarily be interpreted as being connected to the wishes of foreign backers.
“The rebels feel that they need to act decisively and muster their forces,” the observer said. “While they await what the U.S. is going to do in Syria, the U.S. bombing of ISIS in Iraq has already begun. There is a fear that ISIS could be pushed back into Syria because of this campaign, and that the rebels need to be ready for such a development.”
He added that the fortunes of non-Islamist rebel groups, if anything, could be on the upswing due to the rising popular and international anger against groups such as ISIS and Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.