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Week in Review: Raging Fight Against Al Qaida, As Diplomats Prepare for Peace Talks

Rebels groups that have banded together against Al Qaida, led by the Syrian Islamic Front, made “sweeping advances” this week.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Their gains were both symbolic and strategic; among other places, rebels said they largely ousted Al Qaida’s Islamic State of Iraq in Syria from Raqqa, what had effectively become its Syrian capital. Churches that had been forced to fly the flag of Al Qaida had now effectively been “liberated,” activists said.

The battlefield success raised the profile and legitimacy of the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, as a more effective counterpart of the Free Syrian Army. But it also came at the cost of hundreds of fighters, as Al Qaida pushed back against the rebel campaign and regime troops loyal to President Bashar al Assad made a push toward rebel-held areas of Aleppo.

“Regime forces have taken over the area of Naqarin and are advancing towards the industrial area of Aleppo city,” said the Aleppo Media Centre, as quoted by AFP.

“This advance is clearly a result of the rebels being busy fighting Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” activist Nazeer al-Khatib told the newswire.

Even with the regime pushing to take new ground, analysts say the Syrian Army itself is strained and buckling under the demands of the ongoing war; help from Hezbollah and Shiite militias from Iraq now constitutes the vital factor keeping Assad in power. One European diplomat told Syria Deeply that Hezbollah’s support amounted to 15,000 troops in active combat at any given time, holding up the regime in the field of combat. Attrition and strategic interest in preserving the capital has led the Syrian Army to conserve energy where it can, part of the rationale for a series of ceasefires between regime and rebel fighters in the towns around Damascus.

In preparation for peace talks in Switzerland, still set to take place on January 22, opposition groups including the Islamic Front and Syrian-based critics of Assad met in Cordoba, Spain and called for a timeframe to end the conflict. The U.S. and Russia hold their own talks on Syria on Monday, Reuters reports, citing Interfax news agency.

Diplomats tell Syria Deeply that those are the talks that really count, toward engineering a potential transition to a new political order. They say that if Russia can preserve its interests in Syria (a sphere of influence over its main Arab ally) and Iran can maintain the same (a physical link to Hezbollah, through a Syrian corridor) then they would be more ready to work toward an end to the bloodshed. The goal shared across all powers: a solution that aims to keep the Syrian state intact, preserving the institutions and more palatable members of the regime as a stabilizing force.

The first batch of Syria’s chemical weapons have been shipped to sea, a milestone toward destroying its arsenal. In a milestone of a grim nature and staggering scale, the UN says it helped 38,000 victims of sexual assault in Syria last year, citing cases of rape and the “honor killing” of women who’ve suffered form assault. One official called that tally “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Headlines from the Week:

Reuters Insight: War Turns Syria Into Major Amphetamines Producer, Consumer

Reuters: Friends of Syria Say Geneva Talks Only Option for Peace

NY Times: U.S. Says Iran Won’t Attend Peace Talks

BBCFears for Syria Refugee Child Workers

Al Jazeera: Dire Deprivation in Syria’s Yarmouk Camp

LA Times: Syria and The Perils of Proxy War

McClatchy: West May Not Be Winner in Syria Battle of ‘Good al-Qaida’ vs. ‘Bad al-Qaida’

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