Monday, June 6, 2016

Al Nusrah Front and allies launch new offensive in Syria’s Aleppo province

Once again, just as Bashir Assad of Syria thinks he is making some real progress, the likes of Al Nusrah rear their head.

The story comes from The Long War Journal.

Al Nusrah Front and allies launch new offensive in Syria’s Aleppo province

The Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”) coalition, which was cofounded by Al Nusrah Front and its closest allies, has launched a new offensive in the southern part of Syria’s Aleppo province. The assault began sometime during the past two days when two suicide bombers detonated a large amount of explosives on positions controlled by Bashar al Assad’s regime and its Iranian-backed paramilitary allies.

Al Nusrah, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has already released several videos of the fighting. A few of the videos were recorded using small drones, which captured the dramatic scenes from overhead. Al Nusrah claims that two of its “martyrs” killed more than 100 Shiite fighters in twin bombings. (Screen shots from the videos, along with other propaganda from the battle, can be seen below.)

Jaysh al Fateh seeks to expand its grip on the territory surrounding the town of Khan Tuman, which is located south of the city of Aleppo.

The jihadist coalition seized Khan Tuman last month. Al Nusrah and other member groups in Jaysh al Fateh say their fighters have targeted the neighboring towns and villages, including Humayrah, Khalsah, Qal’ajiyah, and Qarassi, all of which are south of Khan Tuman. In addition, jihadi accounts on social media report heavy fighting in Maratah, which is to Khan Tuman’s east. The jihadists have specifically targeted fuel and weapons storage locations.

These locales can all be seen on the map reproduced above, which was first posted on Ajnad al Sham’s official Twitter feed. Ajnad al Sham is one of several groups that have joined Al Nusrah in the Jaysh al Fateh alliance.

The green area is controlled by Jaysh al Fateh, with a pinpoint on Khan Tuman. The area in purple is now contested, with Khalsah being the southernmost point identified on the map. The area in red is controlled by the Syrian regime and its allies from Iranian-backed militias and other paramilitary forces.

Jaysh al Fateh’s member organizations claim to have “liberated” several of these locations during the early fighting. Although such announced gains wouldn’t be surprising, their claims cannot be independently verified. There is also an ebb and flow to the fighting, with their enemies trying to regain the initiative.

Ahrar al Sham, which models itself after the Taliban and has its own links to al Qaeda, has posted a series of images from the new offensive as well. Pictures posted by Ahrar al Sham purportedly show the bodies of men who belonged to “sectarian militias,” meaning Iran’s and Assad’s proxies. Ahrar’s partner, Ajnad al Sham, and Al Nusrah have tweeted similar photos.

Ahrar al Sham claims to have taken over Maratah. Photos and a video depict Ahrar’s men in control of the village, as well as the “spoils” they have captured.

Jaysh al Fateh has executed a series of maneuvers in Aleppo province since late last year as part of its attempt to stymie the Assad regime, Iran and Russia. In November 2015, the jihadist alliance overran several towns and villages as part of a counteroffensive designed to stop the Syrian government’s advances.

Then, in early April, Al Nusrah captured al-‘Iss hill and the small village that sits at its base. Although not a heavily populated area, al-‘Iss is considered a strategically important crossroads inside Aleppo province.

And in May, Jaysh al Fateh captured Khan Tuman, which set the stage for the latest push south and east into the province.

Jaysh al Fateh’s assault comes at a time when its positions in the neighboring Idlib province are under heavy bombardment. The alliance overran the city of Idlib and the rest of the province early last year. But in recent weeks, Assad and Russia have stepped up their bombing campaign in Idlib.

Just as the coalition began its new push in Aleppo province, Jaysh al Fateh’s military leadership released a statement saying that they had withdrawn from Idlib city. Jaysh al Fateh claims that Bashar al Assad’s and Russia’s warplanes are now hitting civilian targets inside Idlib. The move is likely designed to relieve some of the pressure on the coalition, which has been under constant aerial assault since late last month.

It appears that Sheikh Abdullah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a senior al Qaeda-linked cleric, was behind Jaysh al Fateh’s purported military withdrawal from Idlib city. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Muhaysini advocated for the move beforehand. Muhaysini also praised Jaysh al Fateh’s supposed decision to evacuate its military arm after the fact as well.

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