After suddenly withdrawing from large areas of eastern, rural Aleppo, including the thermal station in al-Safira, the Islamic State is now back as a major player capable of changing the conflict’s dynamics in Aleppo.
In a joint operation, the Islamic State, Jund al-Aqsa, and the Caucasian Emirate took over and blocked Khanaser road, the main route through which the Syrian regime’s forces and their allies in the city of Aleppo secure their supplies. The first attack was carried out by Jund al-Aqsa and the Caucasian Emirate, and targeted the western side of Kanaser road. Following the first attack, the Islamic State’s fighters carried out a second, fierce attack that targeted the eastern side of the road.
These developments led to big changes in the balance of power in Syria— on one hand, the regime forces, which had broken the siege of Nubbul and al-Zahra a few weeks ago, are now besieged by the Islamic State and its allies. On the other hand, after fearing that they might go under siege, the battalions of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, are now in a stronger position. If the regime forces, backed by the Syrian Democratic Forces, had taken over Castello road, the main road through which the opposition secured their supplies, they would not be in this position of strength. These changes on the ground coincided with an important diplomatic move in the West, led by the Russians and Americans. Both sides have agreed, through their foreign ministers, on a ceasefire in Syria that begins at midday local time on Saturday, February 26. Although the agreement was promising, and was welcomed by many of the conflicting parties, a closer look at the agreement’s conditions and at the events on the ground, shows that the agreement has not come up with a long-term solution for the daily struggles of Syrian people.
In its current form, the agreement does not outline a comprehensive ceasefire on Syrian territory, but a limited “cessation of hostilities,” which is, as it seems, an eloquent and a polite expression that implicitly allows Russian aircraft and navy missiles to continue targeting Syrian people. The alleged ceasefire excludes the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other parties classified as terrorist groups by the United Nations Security Council.
Although all Syrians agree that the Islamic State and, to a lesser extent, Jabhat al-Nusra, do not serve the Syrian national project, and that they should be eliminated, the addition of “other parties classified as terrorist groups by the United Nations Security Council” to the wording of the agreement, makes it vague, and opens the door for variable interpretations.
On the one hand, besides the Syrian regime and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, Russia classifies all armed groups as terrorist groups. Washington, on the other hand, uses similar generalizations, and perceives many of the Free Syrian Army’s allies as terrorist groups that threaten the United States’ security, including Jund al-Aqsa, the Caucasian Emirate, Jaysh Muhammad, and the Ansar al-Sunna.
Many complex alliances connect these groups to Free Syrian Army forces, like divisions 13 and 16, and the moderate Islamic brigades, like Ahrar al-Sham, Istaqim, Nour al-Din al-Zanki, and the Sultan Murad Brigade. In light of these complex alliances, the continuation of military campaigns against “terrorist groups” means that it will include all areas of Syrian territory, except for those under the control of the Syrian regime, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (in the Kurdish areas).
Whether the truce is implemented permanently, or only for an experimental two-week period, the first goal will be breaking the siege imposed on the regime forces in Khanaser. That area will probably witness the fiercest “hostile activities,” and the pretext of the Russians and the Americans targeting the Islamic State and Jund al-Aqsa will open the doors of hell on people in Aleppo.
This very complicated situation with overlapping powers and control in northern Syria, will have a serious impact on the upcoming battles for Aleppo, the most important battle these days. Over the long-term, it will contribute to shaping the geopolitical map in the country, and the various possible scenarios. Taking into consideration the Kurdish aspiration to form a Kurdish canton located between al-Qamishli and Afreen, the recent Kurdish militias’ advances in northern Syria might now lead to dividing the country.