Syrian rival forces race to retake territory from IS extremists

Displaced Syrian people wait on April 9, 2016 in the central Syrian city of Homs before boarding buses made available by the government to drive them back to their homes in the town of Palmyra. Syrian troops backed by Russian forces recaptured Palmyra on March 27, 2016, after a fierce offensive to rescue the city from jihadists who view the UNESCO-listed site's magnificent ruins as idolatrous. / AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA

Beirut / AFP

The IS group is under growing pressure on several fronts in Syria as rival forces battle to wrest territory from the extremists, who are excluded from a six-week-old ceasefire.
The scramble by the regime, anti-government rebels and Kurdish militia to recapture areas from IS has been given added urgency by the prospect of a possible federal system.
“The three sides are racing to grab as much of the pie as possible, not just at the expense of the IS group but also … from other key players,” said Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh.
The extremists have suffered a series of setbacks in Syria in recent weeks, losing the ancient city of Palmyra and the IS bastion of Al-Qaryatain, both in the central province of Homs, to Russian-backed government forces.
In the northern province of Aleppo, US- and Turkish-backed rebels have seized the town of Al-Rai, the extremist group’s main entry point from Turkey.
In the south, meanwhile, rival extremists from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and their rebel allies have captured three towns from IS.
And in the northeast, the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are pressing an advance towards the oil-rich province of DeirEzzor, which the regime also has its sights set on.
Sharing the pie
With a new round of peace talks due to get under way in Geneva on April 13, experts say the scramble for territory has taken on increasing importance.
When the regime recaptured Palmyra, “it understood the diplomatic advantage it would gain in negotiations” with the opposition, Pierret said. Rebels trying to advance along the Turkish border meanwhile have twin aims—pushing back IS and preventing Kurdish militias from expanding their territory, he said. “For the moment, the pie is big enough for everyone” fighting IS, Pierret added.
“The coming stages will be more complicated: to the east of Aleppo, there are areas that the regime, the Kurds and the rebels are interested in controlling.”
It is easy to see the allure of IS-held turf—which covers about 40 percent of Syria, and is rich in oil, gas and agricultural wealth.
But with every victory over IS, there is a growing risk of renewed confrontation between non-extremist rebels and the regime, who have observed a fragile ceasefire since February 27.
“I don’t think the Russians and the Americans will be able to stop their allies from fighting each other forever,” said RomainCaillet, a French expert on extremist movements.
The truce brokered by Washington and Moscow has brought a lull in clashes between the regime and non-extremist rebels.
In the unlikely event that the extremists’ enemies continue to refrain from fighting each other, the recapture of IS territory “will see the organisation return to totally clandestine activity”, Caillet said.

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