Aqil Hussein

Is ISIS withdrawing from the Aleppo countryside?

ISIS could be about to pull out of areas surrounding Aleppo and retreat to Raqqa

Syrian rebels prepare missiles for launch near the Abu Baker brigade in Albab, 30 kilometers from the northeastern Syrian city of Aleppo, on 16 January 2013 (AFP/Edouard Elias)

Fierce clashes raged north of Aleppo between rebels and the Islamic State (ISIS) over the weekend. Meanwhile, in areas of the Aleppo countryside under its control, the group carried out military maneuvers regarded by some as “redeployment.”


Various rebel factions launched a surprise assault against ISIS positions in villages on the Marea-Azaz front north of Aleppo, achieving a small advance during the first hours of fighting. The most notable action took place in the towns of Arshaf, Hawar al-Nahr, and on the outskirts of Dabik, another small town. The assault was accompanied by a curfew, which the factions announced on Saturday evening.


This surprise attack by the rebels comes after successive reports claiming that ISIS is redeploying in areas under its control, to the north and east of Aleppo. Witnesses have said that the group moved equipment and furniture to Raqqa from the sharia school in Turkmen Bareh, a town it controls to the north of the city; this has been interpreted by some as preparation for withdrawal from north Aleppo countryside.


However, according to the director of Shahba Press — a pro-opposition news agency based in Marea — ISIS has been spreading rumors about its imminent withdrawal from the northern countryside, while on the ground, that is the last thing the group is likely to do.


In an interview with Al-Modon, Ma’moun Abu Omar said Shaba Press had received information suggesting that members of the group were supporting their military positions in the area and digging tunnels, especially in the town of Tel Malid. This, he said, confirms that ISIS is not thinking of withdrawing from areas north of Aleppo; on the contrary, recent days have seen an escalation by the group, which on Friday tried to infiltrate the Umm al-Qura mosque near Marea.


Nevertheless, according to several sources, it seems that ISIS, which is sustaining heavy losses on the Kobani front, is suffering from internal and military problems that have clearly affected its strength. This really could push the group to withdraw from some of the areas it controls in the eastern Aleppo countryside, or to at least redeploy its forces in the area as it did at the beginning of last year, when it withdrew from vast areas of the countryside after rebels succeeded in expelling it from the city.


Ammar Nassar, a member of the Al-Bab Media Center, confirmed that there has been noticeable movement by the group in eastern Aleppo countryside’s Al-Bab and the area around the town. This clearly shows that ISIS is making new arrangements for Al-Bab, and that the possibility it will withdraw from eastern Aleppo Countryside is not so far removed, he said. Like many of the other activists he worked with, Nassar was forced to leave Al-Bab over a year ago when it was captured by ISIS.


Nassar told Al-Modon that the group had forced many of its non-combatant members to join the fighting while it made desperate attempts to recruit local residents as new fighters. This move, he explained, was necessary to make up for the shortage in its ranks left by losses it sustained in the battle for Kobani. In repeated calls, pro-ISIS preachers have implored people praying at mosques in Al-Bab to join the group’s fighters, he added.


Nassar’s statements correspond with information Al-Modon received — but has not yet been able to verify — suggesting that ISIS members dismantled the automated bakery in the town of Manbij, as well as factories and service centers in the town of Jarablous. Equipment from these locations was allegedly then taken from the two towns, both of which are situated close to Al-Bab, and transferred to Raqqa Governorate.


This information does not seem unrealistic, especially with the swift advance armed factions are achieving against ISIS on the Kobani front — the group’s forces in the countryside areas around the city have recently retreated a long way.


Leadership of the factions fighting the group expect to take control of the town of Jarablous within a few days, where they have achieved a substantial advance on the western front. Only one kilometer now separates those forces from the town of Al-Shuyukh, where information suggests that ISIS members have rigged the strategic Al-Shuyukh bridge with explosives.


Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander Captain Kahled Qarja, whose forces are fighting in Kobani, confirmed that advances are being made on all fronts in the surrounding countryside. He said that his forces were advancing towards the town of Sarrin in the south and Tel Abyad in the east. He explained that ISIS is retreating on a large scale because of “extensive coordination and cooperation between factions.” Factions fighting ISIS are also benefitting from airstrikes the international coalition is launching against the group, Qarja said, adding that ISIS has been throwing young and inexperienced fighters into battles in Kobani.


In his interview with Al-Modon, Qarja stressed that the fight against ISIS forces will continue until all of east Aleppo countryside is liberated. Battles, he said, would extend eastwards towards Raqqa, the group’s main stronghold, in preparation for its expulsion from all areas of Syria under its control.


This article was originally published by Al-Modon and has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope.

Syrian rebels prepare missiles for launch near the Abu Baker brigade in Albab, 30 kilometres from the northeastern Syrian city of Aleppo, on January 16, 2013. (AFP/Edouard Elias)

FSA commander Captain Kahled Qarja explained that ISIS is retreating on a large scale because of ‘extensive coordination and cooperation between factions.’”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    There are so many rebel groups opposed to ISIS that one wonders what would be the aftermath of the defeat of ISIS. I doubt that their hatred of Assad would nudge all these factions into unity. They haven't so far united, which means that a "victory" over ISIS will embolden the factions into retaining their little turfs, with a possible internecine bloodbath. The bigger question, though, is will the international coalition continue its post-ISIS cleanup to include a cleanup of the Assad regime? Some have argued that the US will essentially do so, effectively reversing its policy because it is a lot easier to make a slight shift in targets than to mount a whole new campaign from scratch. Whether Assad is telling the truth when he says that the coalition is coordinating with him is one question, but by raising the Islamic threat so high to dupe the West into siding with him, Assad might have in fact invited the fox into his hen house and awakened among coalition members the now attainable target of evicting him. Still, the Syrian rebels remain so fractious that it is difficult to foresee a united substitute in Damascus. I think Syria, in a post-Assad phase, will look more like Libya in a post-Qaddafi phase for some time to come.

    February 10, 2015