‘Not just talk’: New north Aleppo rebel alliance breaks Islamic State blockade

On May 28, the Islamic State (IS) launched a synchronized wave of surprise attacks across the north Aleppo countryside, capturing five towns and surrounding the city of Marea on three fronts. Rival Kurdish forces held the west.

Less than one week later, June 3, the international coalition reportedly airdropped munitions to the encircled rebels in Marea.

Though better armed, Marea’s handful of rebel groups were still unable to repel IS’s recent advances.

On Tuesday, in a bid to foster better coordination and lift the IS blockade, a coalition of eight rebel factions in Marea announced the formation of a new alliance—1,500 fighters strong.

The next day, after four hours of intense fighting, the newly-formed coalition broke the IS encirclement of Marea and marched on to retake three towns from IS control.

“With our unified military strength, we will continue to advance on IS,” Abu al-Abbas, commander of the Marea-based Mutassim Brigade, tells Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal.

“Given the success thus far of this alliance, spirits are high among rebel forces,” adds Mahmoud Khalo Abu Hamza, commander of the Marea-based Ahfad Salahaddin Brigade.

Abu al-Abbas is the commander of the Mutassim Brigade, operating in the Aleppo countryside city of Marea:

Q: Describe the leadership structure of this new alliance. How are you able to effectively balance power among the eight rebel groups?

I personally oversee this new alliance; however, I work closely with the Mutassim and Ahfad Salahaddin Brigades in terms of coordinating military strategy and tactics on the frontlines.

This alliance is not just talk; there are real and tangible goals. This new coalition enabled the rebels to lift the blockade on Marea, and with our unified military strength, we will continue to advance on IS.

Q: On Tuesday, several armed factions announced the formation of a new alliance, including the Mutassim Brigade. Who joined this coalition, and what are its top priorities?

This new coalition comprises nearly 1,500 fighters from across eight different rebel groups. Through this alliance, we strive to strengthen the rebel fight against IS, unify our messaging and better support the city of Marea.

 The new north Aleppo rebel alliance broke the IS siege of Marea on Wednesday morning. Photo courtesy of Umayya Press

Q: Rebel groups took control of a number of towns around Marea on Wednesday. What role did the new alliance play in these military advances?

Yes, on Wednesday morning, we retook a number of towns along the only access road into Marea and Azaz. These towns include Kaljabrin, Kafr Kalbin and Sandaf from the Islamic State. There is still fighting taking place in Janhat and Jazir.

The formation of this new alliance was the reason for our advance; after four hours we were finally able to break through the IS front lines and wrest control of these towns. We lost seven men in this difficult bout of fighting.

With these advances, we were able to break the IS blockade of Marea. We are currently marching east in an attempt to liberate the remaining areas from IS control.

Q: As this new alliance continues to fight IS, are you in short supply of any military equipment?

We are definitely in urgent need of weapons and ammunition, especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry.

Q: Did anything else—aside from the formation of this new alliance—contribute to Wednesday’s successful advance against IS?

Without a doubt, the formation of this alliance played a major role, as we are now 1,500 fighters strong and unified under one single leadership. However, it is also clear that IS is currently in a state of disarray and confusion, which we were able to exploit in Wednesday’s ground advances.

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Mahmoud Khalo Abu Hamza is the commander of the Ahfad Salahaddin Brigade, operating in the Aleppo countryside city of Marea:

Q: How do the armed groups, including the Ahfad Salahaddin Brigade, communicate and coordinate under the parameters of this new rebel alliance?

The Mutassim Brigade did not absorb the Ahfad Salahaddin Brigade; rather, we work side-by-side towards a single, unified objective. Together, we successfully drove back IS attempts to capture Marea, and on Wednesday, we broke the IS blockade and liberated several towns around the city.

Q: Now that you have broken the IS siege of Marea, what comes next?

We will continue advancing in order to wrest IS control from the towns of Janhat, Jazir, Yahmol and eventually Tilalin. We are also currently in communication with the Syrian Democratic Forces with regard to marching on Jarabulus. Marea will only be safe from a future blockade if we are able to liberate these towns and effectively establish a buffer.

Given the success thus far of this alliance, spirits are high among rebel forces.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.