x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Isil rebels withdraw from areas of northern Syria

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, once affiliated with Al Qaeda, retreated east towards the city of Raqqa ahead of a mediation deadline set by rival group Jabhat Al Nusra.

This undated image posted on a militant website on January 14, 2014 shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant marching in Raqqa, the city to which the group retreated on Friday. AP Photo
This undated image posted on a militant website on January 14, 2014 shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant marching in Raqqa, the city to which the group retreated on Friday. AP Photo

BEIRUT // The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began withdrawing from parts of northern Syria on Friday ahead of a deadline set by a rival group.

Isil, once affiliated with Al Qaeda, retreated east towards the city of Raqqa ahead of Saturday’s deadline set by Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al Nusra, to go before an Islamic court for mediation to end rebel infighting or face being forced from Syria altogether. Al Nusra issued the ultimatum on Tuesday.

“Isil has withdrawn from Azaz, its most important bastion in Aleppo province,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Isil is heading to areas that neighbour Raqqa province where it has its main stronghold in the city of Raqqa.”

Although Isil has links to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, recently disavowed its role in Syria.

Isil “is not a branch of Al Qaeda, has no links to it, and Al Qaeda is not responsible for its acts”, he said last month.

About 3,300 people have died in fighting between rebel factions, the Observatory said this week, which is undermining efforts to overthrow Syria’s president Bashar Al Assad.

In early January, a coalition of Islamist and moderate rebels — angered by Isil’s abuses of civilians and rival fighters — began attacking the group.

Al Nusra initially remained out of the fray but in recent weeks has begun actively fighting Isil.

Isil’s withdrawal was confirmed by the opposition Azaz Media Centre, claiming it as a victory for the more moderate, western-backed Free Syrian Army.

“God is great. The heros of the Free Syrian Army and the Northern Storm have liberated the town of Azaz from the dogs of Baghdadi,” the centre wrote on Facebook, referring to Isil leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

Footage from the town posted online showed a demonstration of residents chanting “the Free Syrian Army forever” after Isil’s withdrawal.

The Observatory, meanwhile, said a possible mass grave was found in Azaz, which Isil seized in September 2013.

Al Nusra had on Tuesday issued a threat against Isil after the death of a senior Islamist commander, Abu Khaled Al Suri, who had close ties to Al Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden.

Rival rebels accuse Isil of killing the commander and Al Nusra chief Abu Mohamed Al Golani warned on the group would be pushed out of Syria if it refused arbitration before an Islamic court.

Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said Isil appeared to have withdrawn from several locations without a fight.

“It looks like Isil has made the strategic decision to reinforce existing strongholds in eastern Aleppo, all of which lie on valuable routes towards the jewel in Isil’s crown, the city of Raqqa,” said Mr Lister.

“Removing these weak areas and reinforcing important and stronger ones seems like the only logical strategy left for Isil at this stage.”

He said a major offensive against Isil could seriously affect the opposition’s ability to hold territory against the regime, and that casualties in such an offensive would be high.

“As such, a compromise or a series of localised compromises could still be possible, but this would depend on Isil playing diplomacy, which isn’t necessarily a proven strength.”

* Agence France-Presse