ISTANBUL – Moderate and Islamist rebel groups Sunday pressed their drive to oust radical Islamists from northern Syria, but faced fierce resistance in three towns, anti-government activists said.
In a surprise offensive that began Friday, remnants of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and fighters from another rebel faction, the Islamic Front, this weekend cleared more than a dozen bases held by the al-Qaida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
But the rebels were unable to oust ISIL from its main headquarters at Ad Dana, near the Turkish border, and the towns of Kfar Zeta in Hama province and Saraqeb in Idlib province. Meanwhile, ISIL reportedly had dispatched reinforcements from its stronghold in Raqqa province to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said about 60 fighters were killed in clashes between the non-regime groups, nine of them from ISIL.
Although fighting continues, the intra-rebel conflict ended a four-month-long ISIL offensive. Claiming it was seeking to build a caliphate, the Iraq-based ISIL seized more than 20 locations controlled by the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and kidnapped its military commanders and prominent leaders of more moderate Islamist groups. Its relations with the general public also soured, as ISIL, which consists mostly of non-Syrian volunteers, set up a reign of religious tyranny wherever it got a foothold.
The offensive against ISIL coincided with moves by the Iraqi branch of ISIL in recent days to seize two major cities inside Iraq: Fallujah, which remained in ISIL hands on Sunday, and Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, where fighting was ongoing.
In Syria, ISIL remained in control of Raqqa, the only provincial capital to have fallen to anti-government forces in the nearly three-year-long civil war, and continued to be a major presence in Aleppo, which pro- and anti-government forces have been contesting for 17 months.
But its influence over the rest of northern Syria appeared to have shrunk dramatically, with the biggest losses along the Turkish border.
Syria’s much-maligned opposition coalition, which calls for a democracy, rule of law and a secular state but which has been largely eclipsed by both ISIL and the Islamic Front in recent months, seemed buoyed by the sudden change of fortune. The Syrian Opposition Coalition issued a statement accusing ISIL of “opposing the revolution” and commending the FSA for launching a number of operations “to deter the alien group.”
“Clashes with ISIL are inevitable if the Syrian people are going to achieve the goals of the revolution,” it said.