IS Tightens Grip on Road to Aleppo

IS Tightens Grip on Road to AleppoIS Tightens Grip on Road to Aleppo

The self-styled Islamic State fighters were reported to have tightened their grip on a Syrian government supply route to Aleppo on Tuesday, as the army battled to retake the road as part of its campaign to seize the city.

A US-Russian plan for a “cessation of hostilities” between the government and rebels is due to take effect on Saturday. The plan announced by the United States and Russia on Monday is the result of intensive diplomacy to end the five-year-long war, Reuters reported.

But rebels say the exclusion of IS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front will give the government a pretext to keep attacking them because its fighters are widely spread in opposition-held areas.

The Syrian government, backed by Russian airstrikes since September, said it would coordinate with Russia to define which groups and areas would be included in what it called a “halt to combat operations”. Damascus also warned that continued foreign support for the rebels could wreck the agreement.

The Russian intervention has turned the momentum President Bashar al-Assad’s way in a conflict that has splintered Syria and mostly reduced his control to the big cities of the west and the coast.

Damascus is making significant advances, including near the city of Aleppo split between rebel- and government-control.

The IS assault targeted a desert road the government was forced to use to reach Aleppo because insurgents still control the main highway further west.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports the war using a network of sources on the ground, said IS fighters had seized the village of Khanaser on the road, which remained closed for a second day. A Syrian military source told Reuters army operations were continuing to repel the attack.

IS, which controls swathes of eastern and central Syria, differs from rebels fighting Assad in western Syria because its priority is expanding its so-called “caliphate”.

The group has escalated attacks on government targets in recent days. On Sunday, it staged some of the deadliest suicide bomb attacks of the war, killing around 150 people in government-controlled Damascus and Homs.

A US-Russian statement said the two countries and others would work together to delineate the territory held by IS, Nusra Front and other militant groups excluded from the truce.

In Geneva, UN spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said: “This is a cessation of hostilities that we hope will take force very quickly and hope provide breathing space for intra-Syrian talks to resume.”

Fawzi said there were plans for additional aid deliveries to opposition-held areas blockaded by government forces near Damascus, including the Eastern Ghouta.

Damascus stressed the importance of sealing the borders and halting foreign support for armed groups and “preventing these organizations from strengthening their capabilities or changing their positions, in order to avoid what may lead to wrecking this agreement”.

The Syrian military reserved the right to “respond to any breach by these groups against Syrian citizens or against its armed forces”, a government statement added.