After the Islamic State's November attack on Paris, carried out by European fighters returning from the Syrian battlefield, international efforts to close the terrorist group's last route to and from Turkey have taken on a new urgency.
US officials have been publicly leaning on Turkey to immediately close its border with the Islamic State (IS) in Syria's northern Aleppo province and deploy thousands of troops on the frontier. The Turkish government has proposed instead that Turkey and the US-led coalition first back Syrian rebels who can drive IS out of the area and create a rebel-controlled "safe zone."
Amid this public back-and-forth, Turkey's plan is already underway — and, according to rebels interviewed by VICE News, it is making some progress. The question is whether it can work fast enough to stop the two-way flow of would-be IS recruits heading to Syria and battle-hardened jihadists returning from Syria to terrorize Europe.
IS has controlled the eastern half of Syria's Aleppo province since early 2014. To the west of this territory is a narrow strip of rebel control that runs north from Aleppo city past the town of Mare' to the border town of A'zaz and the Bab al-Salameh crossing with Turkey. This route is a vital supply line for Aleppo's rebel-held areas, and IS has been fighting hard to take it.
IS launched a major offensive on rebel positions north of Aleppo in August. Yet in spite of the concerted assault by the terrorist group's forces, which even used mustard gas artillery shells, local rebels were able to stop IS outside Mare' and have since mostly managed to hold the line. Now rebels have begun to rack up small victories, capturing a series of towns along the Turkish border. And they are progressively pushing east towards the section of border that is the Islamic State's last outlet to smuggle goods and fighters in and out of its self-styled "caliphate."
These rebels belong to an assortment of factions, many of which coordinate their actions through a joint body known as the "Mare' Operations Room." Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra is no longer present in the area; it withdrew in August after declaring cooperation with Turkey and the coalition against IS religiously impermissible.
Rebels have made the most headway right along the Turkish frontier, which has allowed them to secure the crucial border crossing and supply line. Rebels say this is not a deliberate border-first strategy; previously, they had tried unsuccessfully to take IS-held towns far south of it. Instead, they say they are taking advantage of how IS has done less to reinforce these border towns, and how they can use the border to protect their flank as they advance on the group.
Rebels say they even cooperate with Turkey, to an extent. "There's often coordination, especially if [rebels are] working along the border or close to it," said Muhammad Talal Bazerbashi, commander of the Jeish al-Sham brigade, which fields units across Syria's northwest and is fighting on the north Aleppo front. "The Turkish government coordinates with patriotic revolutionaries. We cooperate to prevent Daesh members from crossing from Syria into Turkey and from Turkey into Syria, and the Turkish government works hard to prevent new fighters from entering Syria to join Daesh," he said, using the common Arabic acronym for IS. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Rebels also receive some support from the international coalition. Over the week from December 5 to December 11, for example, a third of coalition airstrikes in Syria targeted IS positions in the Mare' area.
At least one local brigade has even been trained and equipped by the US. Some members of Liwa al-Mu'tasem have participated in the US Department of Defense's overt rebel training effort, according to brigade spokesman Nasser Bilal, and have been putting their training and US-issued weaponry to use against IS. Department of Defense spokesman Maj. Roger Cabiness declined to name any groups or trainees who participated in the train-and-equip program, but said that the coalition had been working closely with "New Syrian Forces" around Mare' who had been trained as part of the program.
Yet rebels attempting to focus on IS have been forced to fend off assaults from all sides. These include attacks from a new enemy: Russia, which they say is terrorizing civilians in rebel-held areas and effectively providing air support for an IS advance by bombing rebel positions in north Aleppo. After Turkey downed a Russian warplane last month, Bazerbashi said, "Russian jets retaliated barbarically against innocent civilians… (and) have supported Daesh by bombing the revolutionaries and clearing the way for Daesh and the Kurdish militias that are trying to partition Syrian territory and destabilize Syria's Turkish neighbor."
Rebels say they've also had to stave off attacks by the Kurdish YPG and its Arab allies from their rear, regime attempts to advance on Aleppo city, and an Iranian-led, Russian-backed offensive to the city's south.
"We [in Aleppo] are fighting now on extremely long fronts against the world's most dangerous terrorist organization and its most criminal dictator, to say nothing of these Iranian occupiers and the Russian bear," said Ward Furati, a political officer in Tajammu' Fastaqim Kama Umirt, another Aleppo brigade.
The way Aleppo's many fronts have stretched already loosely coordinated rebels may have convinced US officials that Turkey has to move first to close the border from its side. "There's no local, capable, motivated force that is prepared to clear [north and east Aleppo] at this time," a Pentagon official told the Wall Street Journal in November.
A State Department spokesperson declined to discuss the specifics of ongoing discussions with Turkey over how best to combat IS.
Rebels point to their recent gains and insist they are the ones best positioned to retake their homes from IS. "Our fighters are determined to move forward and expel Daesh, not just because they're from the northern and eastern countryside, but also because Daesh is an extremist organization that occupied these villages and needs to be eliminated," said Col. Ahmed Uthman, military commander of Firqat al-Sultan Murad, a key member of the Mare' Operations Room. "Our fighters' morale is high."
"The revolutionaries are the only ones who can put an end to this cancerous entity [IS]," said Furati. "We're simple people. We fight for our principles, and nothing else. And our principles won't let us reach a truce or ally with this criminal organization."
Follow Sam Heller on Twitter: @AbuJamajem
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