Battlefield In Northern Syria Evolves As Rebels Fight Rebels

Al-Qaida-linked militants from the group known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were on the run, pushed out of many of their strongholds by an alliance of rebels opposed to al-Qaida. But now, ISIS has regained control of the only provincial capital held by the rebels.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The warring parties in Syria are one week away from a peace conference. Rebels have been fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Rebels have also been fighting rebels. Syria's political opposition is fractured over attending the peace conference at all, raising the prospect that Assad may come out on top.

NPR's Deborah Amos is following the run-up to these peace talks. She's on the line from Beirut. Hi, Deborah.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And people have assumed that developments on the battlefield, of course, will influence the peace talks. If we looked at a map of Syria marking what territory the opposition holds, how's it look different than a few months ago?

AMOS: You know, this has been a stalemate for some time now, which is why there is a movement for a diplomatic solution. Nobody is winning on the ground. There has been an interesting development in terms of rebels fighting rebels. What you had is a revolt that began more than a week ago, when you have homegrown Syrian rebels turn on ISIS, and that is an al-Qaida affiliated group with foreign fighters. But lately, ISIS has regrouped. They've taken back territory, the provincial capital of Raqqa, and some of the border crossings with Turkey.

What's important to note here, Steve, is that these homegrown rebels have unified against al-Qaida, and al-Qaida has lost territory. I talked to an activist earlier today, and he said we are going to beat them. ISIS is well-organized, well-armed, he said, but we outnumber them 10 to 1.

INSKEEP: Well, if the rebels are fighting each other, do they have any energy left to fight the government of Bashar al-Assad?

AMOS: The regime has taken some advantage of this fight within the rebel ranks, and has taken back a few villages outside of Aleppo, the most populous city in the country. But we are still at a stalemate.

INSKEEP: OK. So how, if it at all, does that stalemate influence the talks once they finally begin?

AMOS: You know, the rebels on the ground call the shots inside Syria. It's not the political opposition outside. And that's why there are low expectations for Geneva. The political opposition can't deliver on any agreements. And at the moment, most of the rebels fighting want to continue that fight - and, in fact, so does the regime. There is still alarming violence.

We've had a little break. Just a few days ago, after a meeting in Paris, we heard Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterparts talk about confidence-building measures, some maybe local ceasefires between the regime and the rebels, some kind of deal on humanitarian aid. Now, as the more moderate rebels unify in the North, and as civilians demand more movement on humanitarian aid - there have been starvation cases in Syria, there may be room for some of these kind of deals.

INSKEEP: OK. So you're saying that neither side is really acting like it's ready to stop fighting, in a grand sense, but there may be some opportunities for some smaller agreements.

AMOS: Indeed. And if this conference opens, it will open with very low expectations, because most of the diplomatic firepower has been spent on just getting everybody there. These talks are supposed to produce a transitional government by mutual consent of the opposition and the regime. That, at this point, is a very tall order. The Syrian opposition is a shaky coalition. They're divided over attending the conference. What they're afraid of is being drawn into a long process that keeps Assad in power.

The Syrian regime comes to the table in a much stronger position. They're backed by Russia and Iran. Both those countries have contributed arms and advisers to the fight against the opposition. Both the Russians and the U.S. back this diplomatic track, and they do have some objectives, and they are: to end the violence in Syria, preserve the unity of the Syrian state - so you don't have chaos - and eliminate radical Islamist groups. But there's no clear plan on how you do that, and that will be a long process.

INSKEEP: One final question, very briefly, Deborah Amos: You said that the rebels fighting on the ground are somewhat different than the opposition in suits who will attend the peace conference. Do the guys at the peace conference even have the authority to make peace if it were available?

AMOS: That is a tough call. The rebels control the ground. Most of them do not agree with a political opposition going to Geneva, and they've been very strident in saying that. And that puts enormous pressure on the political opposition. They have to deliver in Geneva, otherwise, they lose all credibility.

INSKEEP: NPR's Deborah Amos is in Beirut. Deborah, thanks, as always.

AMOS: Thank you.

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