January 15, 2015
Jabhat a-Nusra’s assault on the regime-controlled Shiite towns of Nubul and Zahra north of Aleppo city last November broke a nearly two-year long spell during which the towns had been surrounded by rebel forces, but not actively involved in fighting.
Nusra was able to capture the southern entrance of Zahra with its initial thrust in late 2014 before regime reinforcements arrived and bolstered the towns’ defenses.
It is unclear why Nusra chose to begin its attack on the towns at that time, but potential reasons include the looming regime threat of cutting off rebel supplies into Aleppo city from the north and propaganda value of striking a Shiite area.
Last week, Nusra renewed its attack on the towns, reportedly taking the area south of Nubul.
Nusra’s escalated attack also coincided with a series of explosions of unknown origin in northern Aleppo targeting Nusra and Kurdish positions.
The twin towns offer both strategic and propaganda value for Jabhat a-Nusra, says a pro-opposition citizen journalist in Aleppo city, who goes by the pseudonym Ahmed al-Ahmed. While Zahra and Nubul remain in regime hands, “there is talk” that Nusra is preparing for the next stage of battle, Ahmed tells Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid.
Q: What is the importance of these two towns and what will happen if the rebels gain control?
There are a number of Iranian officers and fighters in the towns. In addition, the road to Azaz [an opposition-controlled city on Turkish border] passes through the towns. If the towns were to fall, it would open a direct path to Azaz without having to go through other smaller roads.
The other importance is that if the two towns were to be captured, the regime would not be able to advance to the north countryside of Aleppo because it has amassed its military forces to pass through the towns.
Caption: A car bomb at Nusra checkpoints in north Aleppo on Saturday. Photo courtesy of @syria7ra.
Q: What happened with the explosions in Aleppo on Saturday? How many were there and what did they target?
There were five explosions, the largest of which were three car bombs. Two exploded at a Nusra checkpoint near the entrance of the nearby village of Mesqan. The third exploded at a PYD checkpoint in the Kurdish city of Afrin. Two other explosions also targeted the al-Klasa police station in Bustan al-Qasr inside Aleppo city, an area manned by the pro-opposition police. The explosions left around 20 dead and dozens injured, including members of the Civil Defense.
Q: Was this a direct targeting of Nusra?
Yes, [I believe so] because five of their soldiers were killed in the explosions and they coincided with Nusra’s military attack on Nubul and Zahra.
Nusra accuses the Islamic State [of being behind the bombings].
Q: Has Jabhat a-Nusra won control of the towns of Nubul and Zahra? Where is the battle now?
Nusra has not been able to control the towns up until now.
Q: Where has either side advanced exactly? From which side is Nusra attacking the towns?
The attack came from several directions, the most prominent of them being Nusra’s flanking the east of the towns to try to gain control of the southern neighborhoods of Nubul, and then cutting the supply road between the two towns and separating them.
Nusra is also attacking from the southeast of Zahra in order to take the factories close to the entrance of Zahra from the southern side.
In the first stage [of the battle] Nusra controlled parts of the south of Nubul, and retreated. Nusra has suspended its operations there; the reasons why are not well-known. There is talk that it is waiting for the start of the next stage [of the battle].
Q: Who is participating with Nusra in the fight?
Fighters from Nubul and Zahra, and Jabhat a-Nusra and Jeish Mahajerin.
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