News / Middle East

    Contradictions in Syrian Conflict Seen in Battle for Aleppo Countryside

    FILE - A rebel fighter from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army takes part in a military training in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo, June 10, 2015.
    FILE - A rebel fighter from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army takes part in a military training in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo, June 10, 2015.

    A monthslong struggle for control of the northern Aleppo countryside between Syrian insurgent factions and Islamic State militants is at a stalemate, partly because Western and Gulf-backed rebel militias are being forced to reinforce south of Syria’s onetime commercial capital to combat Russian-backed Syrian army and Lebanese Shi'ite forces, admit insurgent commanders and fighters.

    The impasse risks forcing the hand of Kurdish-led forces east of the Euphrates, encouraging them to cross the river en masse and finish the job the Western and Gulf-backed Free Syrian Army seems incapable of completing – ridding the northern Aleppo countryside of IS.

    That would exacerbate disagreements within the U.S.-led international coalition. Turkey has threatened dire consequences, if the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces move further west.

    The emboldened Syrian army backed by fighters from the radical Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah have made some inroads albeit slowly south and east of Aleppo — and they have made advances in the coastal province of Latakia.

    “The Russian air campaign enabled additional battlefield gains by the Syrian regime from January 8 to January 14,” according to Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that monitors the military campaigns in the Levant.

    Regained control

    Over the weekend, regime forces regained control over the village of al-Ajozeyye in Aleppo’s eastern countryside.

    And army spokesmen also claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on what they termed “terrorists” in al-Mansoura village and Khirbet Hazmar west of Aleppo.

    The struggle in the northern Aleppo countryside adjacent to the border with Turkey is a key one and has become more complex with each passing month featuring on the ground regime forces, insurgents seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad, IS — and, in the air, Syrian, Russian and U.S.-led coalition warplanes.

    Rival ground forces sometimes are able to take advantage in skirmishes of airstrikes launched by their foes.

    FILE - In an image provided by the U.S. Air Force, an F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Aug. 12, 2015, to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.
    FILE - In an image provided by the U.S. Air Force, an F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, Aug. 12, 2015, to launch airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria.

    With a dizzying array of vying armed groups, jihadists and Syrian government-aligned forces battling each other in multiple micro-conflicts, friend can become foe, and foe can turn into a temporary ally with alarming speed — depending on where clashes are occurring.

    Dizzying array of armed groups

    Certainly in the battles and skirmishes around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and onetime commercial capital, the struggle is getting messier by the day. Rebel commanders loudly accuse Damascus and Moscow of helping the Islamic State terror group with airstrikes on anti-Assad rebels.

    They are slower to admit, though, that in parts of the eastern Aleppo countryside Russian airstrikes on IS inadvertently have helped the anti-Assad rebels.

    Both anti-Assad rebels and the government, when it serves tactical military purposes, take advantage of the terror group's presence on the battlefield, if only indirectly, in their battles against each other.

    In the northern Aleppo countryside, Islamic State fighters have been opportunistically leveraging Russia’s air campaign to press offensives on the rebel-held towns of Marea, Tal Rifat and Azaz.

    “After Russian airstrikes they mount attacks on us,” says Abdul Rahman, a commander with the Ahfad Omer battalion, part of the larger First Brigade, a U.S.-backed secular militia.

    FILE - A boy inspects damage inside his school, due to what activists said was an airstrike carried out the previous day by the Russian air force in Injara town, Aleppo countryside, Syria, Jan. 12, 2016.
    FILE - A boy inspects damage inside his school, due to what activists said was an airstrike carried out the previous day by the Russian air force in Injara town, Aleppo countryside, Syria, Jan. 12, 2016.

    But as the battles in the northern Aleppo countryside see-saw and stalemate — the control of villages can change hands day by day — the chances increase of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces being tempted to intervene.

    Dam seized

    In December the SDF seized the October Dam on the Euphrates River, giving them access to the Aleppo countryside.

    Some forces crossed west of the river — a red line for Ankara who fears the Kurds are intent on expanding their territory along the border to link up separated mainly Kurdish cantons.

    For face-saving purposes, the Turks accepted that the SDF fighters who actually crossed were Arabs and Turkmen and not Kurds, prompting some observers to argue that the Turkish authorities were now prepared to accept the inevitable.

    But Turkish officials have told VOA that is not so and that an en masse trespass by Kurdish fighters linked to Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) would invite Turkish retaliation.

    “Both Ankara and the Kurds rank each other far higher than Assad or the Islamic State on their respective lists of evils for urgent destruction,” argues Aron Lund, who writes the Syria in Crisis report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think tank.

    FILE - A man inspects a hole in the ground near damaged trucks at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in Karf Naseh town, Aleppo countryside, Syria, Dec. 26, 2015.
    FILE - A man inspects a hole in the ground near damaged trucks at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in Karf Naseh town, Aleppo countryside, Syria, Dec. 26, 2015.

    For the U.S., Syrian Kurdish fighters have  proven to be most effective allies against the Islamic State.

    At the moment Turkey may stay its hand as Ankara has realized belatedly “its need for Western support and the costs of playing spoiler,” according to Lund.

    But “these contradictions threaten to rip apart the United States’ Syrian alliance network, undermining its policy to pressure both Assad and the Islamic State,” he maintains.

    The contradictions were apparent Sunday night when Islamic factions favored by Gulf countries clashed with SDF forces around Malkiya village in Aleppo’s northern countryside, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in London that relies on information from a network of political activists.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Anonymous
    January 18, 2016 11:18 PM
    The gas attack on Syrians was a Turkish covert operation to trigger a US attack on the Syrian government, which failed.

    But Turkey's gas attack on Syrians triggered the civil war in Syria.
    Turkey also got caught on a video sending weapons to ISIS.

    So the main reason to oppose Assad doesn't exist anymore.
    Why is it again that the US is against Assad?

    There's no "good rebel" and "bad rebel", all of them are "bad rebels", why should the US support any of them? Assad is the only one who protects all of the minorities including Christians, Yezidis and many many others. Assad is also helping Kurds to defend themselves against ISIS.
    No one can replace Assad. Only extremists will fill his place, do we want this? Or it's Turkey who wants this.

    The monsters in the room are the Turks and Turkey.
    Turkey = ISIS

    Anti-Assad rebels, moderate rebels, Free Syrian Army, Turkmen Brigades, al Nusra Front.. ALL are AQ

    by: Thomas Hood from: USA
    January 18, 2016 3:57 PM
    This is a fantasy propaganda article. The only reason the Kurds are not now in Azaz is because they have been denied heavy weapons by the USA. Fearing Russian reprisal for the downing and murder of a Russian pilot, the Turks will do nothing in Syria except maybe shoot artillery across the border. In Turkey itself, they will continue to massacre and oppress Kurds, which the VOA will not cover.
    In Response

    by: Andrea from: Norway
    January 18, 2016 11:31 PM
    You are right. And it's simply amazing how the western media doesn't cover the massacre of the Kurds by the Turks that is going on right now, at this moment, and has been going on for several months.

    And also note how the western media is calling all those murderous extremists in Syria just "rebels".

    by: dutchnational
    January 18, 2016 6:41 AM
    The SDF is mainly kurdish and they advance on Manbij, slowly but surely.

    They are supported by both RuAF and USAF and are now some 6 to 8 kms from the city.

    The route Azaz Aleppo is either just partly taken by SDF or about to be taken. Arms supplies to islamists will be cut, only secular forces, part of FSA, will receive arms taken by SDF, for a price of course.

    The price will be part of the arms and additional, political, support for SDF and YPG.

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