While much of the global attention on the jihadist terror group Islamic State has focused on its genocidal attacks in Iraq, the group’s Syria wing has begun to advance through towns in Aleppo province, Syria, trapping more moderate anti-Assad rebels between the Syrian military and the barbaric war tactics of the Islamic State.
A report from Stratfor Global Intelligence notes that Islamic State jihadists have captured the towns of Turkmanbareh and Akhtarin, formerly under rebel control. Their advances follow the capture of rebel towns Masoudiyeh, Dabiq, and Ghouz, all in Aleppo province. These advances threaten the city of Aleppo itself.
“It appears that the Islamic State has shifted its axis of advance to the region to the west, striking rebel-held areas north of Aleppo,” Stratfor notes. “With the seizure of this territory, the Islamic State is now in a position to seriously threaten rebel supply lines running from Turkey to Aleppo, especially if militants seize towns such as Marea and Azaz.”
The threat of cutting Aleppo off from Turkey is an especially dangerous one for the population of the city. As the Los Angeles Times’ Raja Abdulrahim explains, anti-Assad rebels not affiliated with the Islamic State have become increasingly concerned that their efforts against Assad will lead only to the expansion of the Islamic State. Without connections to the outside world, particularly Turkey, the rebel groups will find it exceedingly difficult to continue fighting. “If we don’t get more military aid soon, it is impossible for us to hold them off,” said Badee Muhammed, an Islamic Front commander.
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, suffered some of the most sustained gunfire from the Syrian military in 2012, as the civil war expanded and rebel groups took control of large swaths of the country from President Bashar al-Assad. The greater province has seen immense violence at the hands of the Islamic State, as well, which functioned for years in Syria as one of many anti-Assad groups and, as such, received the benefits of allying with groups intent on overthrowing the violent regime.
The towns in Aleppo that have a significant Islamic State presence have been the targets of extreme violence. In June, Islamic State jihadists crucified nine men in the town of Deir Hafer. The men were identified as anti-Assad rebels, ostensibly on the same side of the Syrian Civil War as the Islamic State, but insufficiently extreme or fundamentalist in their Islamist ideology for the tastes of the terrorist group.
In the next month, the Syrian air force began striking back in the region, shelling areas known to contain Islamic State jihadists.
Stratfor points out that the new front opened by the Islamic State, trapping rebels in between its efforts and those of the Syrian military, have triggered problematic rifts among rebel groups. “Infighting has already accelerated as the rebel commanders trade accusations over the setbacks,” they note. “This has resulted in the disbandment of the joint command center set up by the rebels to better coordinate a response to the multiple threats they are facing in and around the city.”