A Potential Ground Component for the ISIS-Free Zone

The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) attack on Marea on August 11 closely resembled their offensive in northern Aleppo two months prior. In both instances, ISIS launched attacks against the Levant Front (or Jabhat al-Shamiyya), in close proximity to the Turkish border and within ten miles of a Turkey-Aleppo supply route critical to rebel forces. The area now bears increased significance, however, since Turkey and the United States announced the creation of an “ISIL-Free Zone” in that same swath of land. While the United States worked through its theoretical definition of the zone earlier this month, the ISIS incursion on Marea forced them to take unprecedented action.

The Levant Front, first established in December 2014 as a joint command, consists of a range of Islamist rebel groups based in Aleppo. As the largest merger since the outset of the Syrian war, the Levant Front brought together the Islamic Front—including Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest Islamist rebel fighting forces in the Syrian conflict—and other rebel groups hosting a spectrum of beliefs and external funders. Some rebels had ties to the covert US Military Operations Center (MOC) charged with training and equipping vetted Syrian rebels. While the Levant Front has not published a political doctrine, it did adopt the Syrian independence flag, a symbol also used by non-Islamist opposition groups but shunned by the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front.

The Levant Front dissolved on March 1, 2015 after clashes between the US-backed Hazm Movement (Harakat al-Hazm) and the Nusra Front. The Levant Front had initially tried to mediate the dispute between the two groups, but eventually stood on the sidelines as the Nusra Front eliminated Hazm and took its weapons. Fractures within the Levant Front over area management and financial difficulties quickly surfaced. The group announced its dissolution in mid-March while insisting that the factions would still cooperate militarily. After a three-month hiatus, the group reinstated on June 18, this time under the leadership of Muhammad Ali al-Harkush, an Ahrar al-Sham military commander.

On May 31, ISIS launched another offensive into northern Aleppo. Its seizure of Soran Azaz from the then-loosely affiliated Levant Front brought it within ten miles of the supply line. Rebel leader Abu Mohammed explained the consequence of losing this link: “Automatically, the Islamic State would gain control of Aleppo city.”

The May 31 ISIS advance drew international attention due to a semblance of cooperation between ISIS and the Assad regime. At a time when the rebels were preparing for their Aleppo offensive—an attack to take the city from both ISIS and regime forces—ISIS attacked northern Aleppo province by ground and the Syrian regime dropped barrel bombs on nearby rebel-held towns. The US Embassy in Syria and opposition supporters echoed suspicions of Assad-ISIS collusion. Rebels also questioned why the US-led coalition was not striking ISIS despite having provided the coalition with coordinates of militant positions. Barrel bombs continued, coalition air strikes did not come, and within weeks, the Nusra Front shifted forces and reinforced the villages under ISIS attack.

In early August, some rebel groups spoke out in support of—and others in opposition to—the creation of a joint US-Turkish ISIS free zone. The Levant Front and Ahrar al-Sham endorsed the zone, the Levant Front even issuing a fatwa that permitted cooperation with the international coalition. The Nusra Front, however, condemned it. On August 9, the Nusra Front announced its withdrawal from the northern Aleppo battle front in ideological rejection of the international coalition and handed over villages and fighting positions under its control to the Levant Front. Within forty-eight hours, ISIS attacked.

ISIS seized a small village and attacked the town of Marea with four car bombs. While ISIS had staged repeated attacks in northern Aleppo since December 2014, a rebel commander on the ground described it as “the most fierce attack” in several months. The outcome of the clashes this time, however, was different. Within days, the Levant Front repelled the attack, recaptured two villages from ISIS, and seized a gas factory near the Turkish border that ISIS used as a base.

Although Al Jazeera described the rebel victory as “[b]acked by US-led coalition strikes targeting ISIL positions,” there is no confirmation of direct coordination between the coalition and the rebel forces on ground during these operations. According to Department of Defense press statements, the coalition conducted twenty-two air strikes from August 6 to 17 “near Aleppo” (as compared to one air strike in the twelve-day period following the May 31 attack). On August 13, air strikes struck an ISIS staging facility and destroyed four fighting positions, two trench lines, and a bunker in the area. While the Department of Defense does not specify the geographic objective of these air strikes, the targeted “staging facility” could have been the gas factory, likely surrounded by defensive obstacles including fighting positions, trenches, and bunkers. But whether the air strikes targeted the same facility that the Levant Front captured or another ISIS-held facility in Aleppo province, the increased pressure from the coalition undoubtedly decreased ISIS’s tactical advantage during this latest offensive.

As the State Department argued over the semantics of an ISIS-free zone in early August, the US-led coalition conducted an unprecedented number of air strikes “near Aleppo.” Meanwhile, the Levant Front, an organization that has announced public support for the zone and permits cooperation with the coalition, successfully repelled an ISIS threat to its critical supply line and dealt a significant blow to the jihadists. Despite US reluctance to provide air cover to militant Islamist groups, the Levant Front may be the best hope for a ground force component to the US and Turkish air operations in the ISIS-free zone.

Andrea Taylor is the Assistant Director for Syria research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Abigail Kukura is a research intern Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.