On Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), captured the village of Sheikh Issa west of Maraa reportedly by reaching an agreement with Syrian rebels to hand over the symbolic town. So far, no hand-over has taken place.
Maraa was one of first towns in northern Syria to rise up in an armed revolt against the regime. Also, the former leader of Liwa al-Tawheed, Abdul Qader Saleh, who was killed in 2013, was from Maraa. Taking the town would be a significant blow to the armed uprising against the Syrian regime in Aleppo.
“It would mean a historic epicenter of the rebellion has fallen,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at US-based think tank the Middle East Forum.
It is most likely that the rebels will not be able to resist the SDF forces and only have a choice either between the Syrian regime or the Kurdish-led SDF forces.
“The question is not if they accept it or not [the conditions of the SDF], but the question is if they can defend it,” said Abu Saeed al-Halabi, a fighter with the Jabhat al-Nusra Front.
“The problem with the FSA in northern Aleppo is that they don’t understand the realities of the conflict. They have put all their faith on Turkey, and therefore they lost their true and loyal partners (like Nusra),” he said.
Al-Halabi says that al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, has warned the rebels of the YPG and Turkey.
In an audio recording of a conversation between rebel groups was leaked on YouTube, rebels allegedly discuss the conditions of surrendering Maraa to the YPG-dominated SDF.
According to Atlantic Council analyst Faysal Itani, the SDF promised the Syrian rebels in Maraa good treatment and cooperation.
“[They] highlighted that it's either the YPG or the regime, because the international community wants to give the entire region to the regime,” he told NOW.
“Their entire position is collapsing. There is no point in taking a stand in Maraa only to get sandwiched between the Islamic State (ISIS), YPG, and regime,” he added. “They [Kurds] calculate that at least some insurgent groups would rather take their chances with the Kurds over the regime."
Tariq Abu Zaid, the spokesperson of the Jaish al-Thuwar (Army of Revolutionaries) told NOW they have no interest in fighting the FSA.
"We want to enter Maraa to fight Daesh (ISIS) and ensure our back is protected. We agreed with the factions of Maraa to enter without fighting and we are waiting for the implementation of the agreement,” he said.
“Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra Front are the ones who are impeding any agreement, and of course the role of Turkey is negative and it is encouraging factions to fight us,” he added."
Galip Dalay, a senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at Al Jazeera Center for Studies, confirmed that Turkey will do it’s best to stifle possible agreements between rebels and the Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey sees as a proxy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“It will continue to intensify the artillery shelling and also try to facilitate the Syrian opposition to put up a stiff resistance there. But a ground incursion is unlikely,” Galip told Now. “These means are unlikely to deliver the desired results.”
According to Aydın Selcen, a former Turkish diplomat, Turkey has limited options to prevent the YPG advances apart from increasing support for Turkmen militias, artillery strikes and trying to gain more support from the West.
It would be impossible for Turkey to create a safe zone against ISIS, the YPG and the Syrian regime because the Turkish air force cannot fly over Syria since the downing of the Russian jet last November. This has given the Kurds their own Russian safe zone.
According to the pro-government columnist, Abdülkadir Selvi, Turkey's new Azaz plan is based on Turkish troops going in up to 10 kilometers and establishing a “safe zone” within Syrian borders.
"Troops are going to go in 10 kilometers from our border and keep the asylum seekers who come here in the safe zone to be established. This requires support from the US, because the safe zone to be established by Turkish troops entering from the ground and going in 10 kilometers needs to be under the US's umbrella," he wrote in an article for Yeni Safak.
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they would back a Turkish no-fly zone in northern Syria.
“[Turkey] tried to convince Germany that this move will be in line with what is demanded from Turkey by the EU to stem the influx of refugees, and reached out to Saudi Arabia by inviting their fighter jets to Incirlik as part of the anti-ISIS coalition,” said former Turkish diplomat Selcen.
Abu Zaid threatened that they would attack the FSA factions that uphold their relations with jihadist groups.
"All factions of the Free Army that have dissociated themselves from al-Qaeda ideologically and organizationally are invited to join the SDF. Every region from which threats are made against us, we will enter, whether Azaz or other areas."
The SDF says their project of establishing a federal democratic Syria will ultimately not only replace jihadist groups, but the Assad regime as well.
But most analysts suggest that the YPG is planning to control the 98 kilometer non-Kurdish zone along the Maraa-Jarabulus line, in order to create a federal Kurdish region, and to fight ISIS in these areas with Russian and American air support.
“The PYD [the political arm of the YPG], in turn, is expected to incorporate these areas into its political project and will move to establish local councils inside these areas,” said Aaron Stein, Turkey analyst at the Atlantic Council.
“The PYD, however, insist on providing security in areas under its control, and thus, the YPG and Jaish al-Thuwar will act as local security forces,” he added.
The YPG is planning an offensive to capture Shaddadi, with US support, to cut the last logistical lines between Syria and Iraq and to take control over the border strip of northern Aleppo with Russian support.
According to the Nicholas A. Heras, a Washington-based analyst at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the United States is shaping the battlefield to control the Maraa line and want CIA-backed groups to merge within the SDF and to limit the Islamist influence of Ahrar-al-Sham.
Turkey has backed Islamist rebels over secular rebels, and backed—against the wishes of the US— the appointment of Sheikh Abu Jabber, former leader of Ahrar, as the head of the operations room against ISIS, Assad, and the Kurds.
“The US always preferred the SDF model over Turkey's preferred model. There is going to be a lot of US pressure on Turkey now to encourage TOW-backed groups in the Aleppo countryside to merge with the SDF,” he said.
“This is a non-standard for US, which wants to marginalize, not expand, the importance of Ahrar al-Sham,” he added.
So far, Maraa remains under the control of the heavily armed Ahrar al-Sham operation room and Turkish backed militias, which will most likely lead to more tensions.
“The mujahedeen are still in control of Maraa, despite the pressure from the [Russian] aircrafts and their allied militias,” wrote Ahrar al-Sham member Abu al-Yazeed Taftanaz on Twitter last Tuesday. “The news that it [Maraa] was surrendered without a fight is untrue.”