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If Assad Retook Aleppo, How Would Islamic State Respond?


Syrian civil defense workers and pedestrians clear debris after a suspected Syrian government air strike in the Bab al-Nairab neighborhood in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 12.

Syrian civil defense workers and pedestrians clear debris after a suspected Syrian government air strike in the Bab al-Nairab neighborhood in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on November 12.

Amid reports that Syrian government forces are pressuring rebel groups in northern Aleppo, and could succeed in retaking the city, some journalists and Syria-watchers have warned that such a development would be a major setback for the Western-backed moderate opposition.

As the BBC’s Lyse Doucet noted on November 14, the moderate Syrian opposition has “long eyed Aleppo as a possible staging post for an advance further south.”

But what would the Syrian government’s capture of Aleppo city mean for the Islamic State (IS) group, which has strongholds in Aleppo Province, including in Manbij and Al-Bab?

Edward Dark, the pseudonym of a well-known commentator in government-held western Aleppo, speculated in a November 10 article in "Al Monitor" that the United States may be hoping (or working) for the Syrian government to take areas around Aleppo in order that Assad’s forces can directly contend with IS.

“The United States, which lacks any reliable ground allies inside Syria, might see the regime as the only force capable of holding IS back in the north. To that end, it has no problem in 'allowing' it to seize the areas of Aleppo city and its countryside still outside its control. This would put it face to face with IS,” wrote Dark.

Since mid-October, Assad’s forces have targeted rebel supply lines into eastern Aleppo in an attempt to cut them and besiege rebels inside the city. Loyalist forces have made gains to the northeast of the city in Handarat (the town whose capture by Assad, according to Dark, would spark a “spectacular collapse” of rebel forces).

In recent days, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters (including the Uzbek-led Russian-speaking group Seyfullakh Shishani’s Jamaat) have extended this battle by launching an offensive against the Shi'a towns of Nubl and Az-Zahra in Aleppo Province, both along a highway that leads to Turkey. The besieged villages have been used as a launching pad for the Syrian military to attack Aleppo.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is backing a UN plan to implement a “freeze” in fighting in Aleppo, intended to allow humanitarian aid into the city. (file photo)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is backing a UN plan to implement a “freeze” in fighting in Aleppo, intended to allow humanitarian aid into the city. (file photo)

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has called for the U.S.-led coalition to intervene in Aleppo, presented a far bleaker picture of what would happen if loyalist forces took over the city.

"The dictator [Assad] prefers to deliver Aleppo to terrorist atrocities, even if that means allowing Daesh (the Arabic acronym for IS) to flourish on Aleppo’s eastern edge. Aleppo’s residents will then pay for Daesh’s setback in Kobani. Abandoning Aleppo would condemn 300,000 men, women, and children to a terrible choice: the murderous siege of the regime's bombs or the barbarity of the Islamic State terrorists," Fabius wrote in an op-ed in "The Washington Post" on November 4.

While Assad continues to push against rebel forces in Aleppo, the Syrian president (and his Russian allies) are also backing a United Nations plan to implement a “freeze” in fighting in Aleppo, intended to allow humanitarian aid into the city.

However, that plan is looking increasingly unlikely, with front-line rebels (both mainstream and jihadist) rejecting the idea.

"If we agree a freeze on the front lines and the next day the regime crosses that red line, what happens next? We would have another Srebrenica,” Abu Abdo Salabman, a spokesman for the Jaish al-Mujahideen rebel faction told "The Daily Telegraph" on November 28.

In any case, neither Islamic State nor Jabhat al-Nusra would likely abide by any UN-brokered cease-fire between Assad and the rebels.

If Assad takes Aleppo (or if there is a “freeze”), will IS move on the city?

Kristen Gillespie, editor in chief of the nonprofit journalism organization Syria Direct, which has a network of reporters in the region, told RFE/RL that Islamic State does not seem to be interested in Aleppo city.

"If they haven't managed to conquer a midsized city such as Kobani, Aleppo is outside their capacity. Plus, the city offers no direct incentive -- the IS capital is already in Raqqa, with its 'second city' in Deir e-Zor,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie said that Aleppo city has long been a “quagmire.”

“[Islamic State] gravitates to places with smaller populations that are easier to intimidate and subdue to rule as they wish without the dangers of a large population they do not have the capacity to control,” she said.

According to Gillespie, Islamic State wants to capture supply roads and border points in Aleppo Province and consolidate their control in the north of the country.

“They are particularly interested in Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa border crossings with Turkey,” Gillespie said.

Islamic State are also seeking to control key oil and gas resources in Syria, which bring the extremist group the financial resources it requires to sustain itself, Gillespie added.

“They are expanding into Homs Province, as witnessed by the back-and-forth battles with the regime for control of the Shaar gas fields,” Gillespie added, referring to Islamic State’s attempts since the summer to control gas fields in the Jebel Shaar area east of Homs city.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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