But as diplomats huddled in Switzerland, ISIS was reclaiming its territory in Raqqa and attempting to stop the Islamic Front takeover of Aleppo. We asked Noah Bonsey, senior Syria researcher at the International Crisis Group, to explain the current situation on the ground.
Syria Deeply: What is the current balance of power between ISIS and the IF?
Noah Bonsey: It helps to look at the whole northern Syrian scene at once, starting with the city of Aleppo as a reference point. Isis has been gaining strength and expanding its control east of the city, including the eastern Aleppo countryside and in Raqqa province. ISIS has taken complete control of the city of Raqqa and now are the unrivaled dominant force in the province.
But then west of Aleppo city we have seen the opposite. In Aleppo’s western countryside and in Idlib province, ISIS’s opponents — the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Jaish al-Mujahideen — have driven ISIS out of most of that area. We can expect ISIS to continue to mount attacks, including through suicide car bombs, but the rebels have established a clear upper hand to the west.
The key battleground is north of Aleppo, in the northern outskirts and in towns between Aleppo and the Turkish border. This area is crucial because of the rebel supply line from the Turkish border to Aleppo. ISIS’s opponents have reportedly surrounded the ISIS-held town of Azaz near the Turkish border and made gains further south in ISIS pockets just outside the city. But we can expect ISIS to fight fiercely for these areas, and the fact that they have consolidated their hold to the east will presumably allow them to send reinforcements.
SD: Why the disparity between Raqqa and Aleppo? Why was ISIS able to reassert control in one city and not the other?
NB: ISIS focused first on taking advantage of, and securing, its comparative advantages lying east of Aleppo. They draw strength from the east, where oil and gas facilities under their control provide useful income and where their arc of influence expands through Deir al-Zour and into Iraq, where their forces have grown stronger and bolder in recent months. West of Aleppo they are weaker: further removed from their resources and strategic depth. Also it appears that cooperation among ISIS’s opponents there has improved of late.
I think the area north of Aleppo will remain the center of clashes, and a tough fight. If present trends continue, it seems unlikely that either side will gain ground any time soon in the other’s area of strength—i.e. we can expect ISIS to remain dominant in Raqqa, and for its opponents to maintain the upper hand in Idlib.
SD: What do you expect to see in the next few weeks?
NB: I think the area north of Aleppo will remain the center of clashes, and a tough fight. If present trends continue, it seems unlikely that either side will gain ground any time soon in the other’s area of strength—i.e. we can expect ISIS to remain dominant in Raqqa, and for its opponents to maintain the upper hand in Idlib.