The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the recognized armed opposition group against the Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has ceased its resistance in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, withdrawing its 14,000 militia from the city, a ranking Turkish security source told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 17.
“Its leader Jamal Marouf has fled to Turkey,” confirmed the source, who asked not to be named. “He is currently being hosted and protected by the Turkish state.”
The source did not give an exact date of the escape but said it was within the last two weeks, that is, the first half of November. The source declined to give Marouf’s whereabouts in Turkey.
As a result, the FSA has lost control over the Bab al-Hawa border gate (opposite from Turkey’s Cilvegözü in Reyhanlı), which is now being held by a weak coalition of smaller groups led by Ahrar al-Sham.
The source said some of the weaponry delivered to the FSA by the U.S.-led coalition in its fight against both Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria might have fallen into the hands of Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra, the Syria branch of al-Qaeda.
A weakening Western-supported opposition in Syria could not only put Aleppo in jeopardy, but also weaken the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, which might affect the positions of other important players in the region, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel.
Is the fall of Aleppo near?
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan warned the international community on Nov. 6 that the fall of Aleppo, which is just 60 kilometers from Turkey, could expose Turkey to another wave of refugees.
Already hosting more than 1.5 million refugees from Syria, Turkish authorities worry that if Aleppo falls into the hands of ISIL or is subjected to a massive attack, a refugee flood of the same size could take place in a week’s time.
On the other hand, Turkey and the U.S. agreed during talks in Ankara on Nov. 12 for Turkish security forces to give military training to around 2,000 members of the FSA in a military facility near Kırşehir in Central Anatolia.
Now it could be understood in retrospect that Erdoğan was giving the heads up based on intelligence reports from the field.
Al-Nusra and ISIL alignment?
The news about the FSA evacuation came as claims in the Western media intensified about a rapprochement between al-Nusra and ISIL, which is denied by Turkish government sources.
One source talking on the condition of anonymity gave details about talks between al-Nusra and ISIL last week – information that was not possible to corroborate based on another source. According to field reports in Ankara, Abu Mohammad al-Gulani of al-Nusra has asked the leader of another Jihadist group (Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar – Army of Emigrants and Supporters) in Syria, Salahaddin al-Shishani (The Chechen), to intermediate for a cease-fire between his organization and ISIL.
The idea was that each of them fight against their “own enemy,” not each other. The contact was established in Raqqa, the ISIL stronghold in Syria (on Nov. 13, according to Turkish sources) and was rejected by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on the basis that they “had nothing to discuss with munafiqs [hypocrites of Islam].”
That might mean more bad news since it may lead to a dissolution in the ranks of both al-Nusra and other smaller groups that have been fighting in the Syrian civil war since 2011 and a growth for ISIL.
A recent statement on Nov. 10 by the outlawed Egyptian group of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Quds, or Jerusalem) to join ISIL and rename themselves as the Sinai Province (wilayat) of the Islamic State could be regarded as a signal that its influence is growing. In a recent attack, Ansar killed 33 Egyptian security personnel on Oct. 24 near İsmailia in the Sinai Peninsula.