Islamic State advances against jihadist foes in Aleppo

Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies. Map created by Patrick Megahan and Bill Roggio for The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.

The Islamic State took control of five towns and villages in northern Aleppo province in Syria after heavy fighting against the Al Nusrah Front for the people of the Levant and other “Islamist battalions.”

Islamic State fighters seized Turkman Bareh, Akhtarin, Dabiq, al Masoudia, and al Ghouz, five towns and villages just west of the town of Marea, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported today on its Facebook page.

The towns and villages fell to the Islamic State “after violent clashes with Islamic battalions in the area,” the Observatory noted. “Jabhat al Nusrah [Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria] and many Islamic battalions have pulled back from the area.” The Observatory often uses the term “Islamic battalions” to describe the Islamic Front, an alliance of jihadist groups that fights alongside the Al Nusrah Front.

“The clashes led to death of many fighters from both sides in addition to capturing many Islamic fighters” by the Islamic State. Fighting is said to be continuing in the village of Arshaf. An Islamist unit known as the Dawoud brigade, “which pledged allegiance to [the Islamic State] was involved directly in the clashes,” and fought alongside the Islamic State, the Observatory reported.

The Islamic State’s gains directly threaten the hold of Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front on northern Aleppo, a major stronghold for the two groups. According to the Observatory, “Akhtarin is a strategic town because it opens the way for ISIS[ the Islamic State] into Marea town, which is the most important town of the Islamic battalions and Azaz city.”

Azaz was controlled by the Islamic State until the group withdrew from the city in February. The Islamic State withdrew from Azaz, the border crossing to the north, Minnigh airbase, and several villages in Aleppo to reinforce Raqqah, the group’s de facto capital in Syria, after fighting against the Al Nusrah Front and its allies heated up.

Islamic State gains on all fronts in Syria and Iraq

Today’s victory in Aleppo is the latest in a string of successes by the jihadist group on both sides of the border between Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State quickly regrouped from initial losses in Syria after its dispute with Al Nusrah and other Syrian jihadist and rebel groups devolved into open warfare at the beginning of the year.

In January, the Islamic State went on the offensive in Anbar province in western Iraq, and took control of Fallujah with the help of local allies. The Islamic State is now in control of most of Anbar’s cities and towns.

The Islamic State also took control of areas in northern Babil province, which is just south of Baghdad, in March. In June, the Islamic State and its allies in Iraq launched a massive offensive that led to the fall of much of Ninewa province, including Mosul, the provincial capital and Iraq’s second-largest city, as well as Salahaddin and Diyala provinces. Iraqi forces were either defeated in open battle or fled the field, leaving behind large quantities of weapons, including armored vehicles and artillery, and ammunition. Iraqi forces halted the Islamic State’s southward advance at Samarra, but have been unable to regain lost ground.

At the same time the Islamic State advanced in northern Iraq, the group took control of most of Deir al Zour province in Syria. The Islamic State defeated the Al Nusrah Front and its allies in the city of Deir al Zour, in the border town of Albu Kamal, and in a series of cities and towns in between along the Euphrates River. While tribal resistance to the Islamic State has appeared in Deir al Zour, the Islamic State has responded by beheading and crucifying its enemies as part of an intimidation campaign to break the will of resistance forces and warn others not to oppose it. The Islamic State also consolidated gains in Hasakah and advanced into Homs province.

Just last week, the Islamic State advanced further into Ninewa and ejected Kurdish forces from the city of Sinjar, the Mosul Dam, and a series of towns and villages north and east of Mosul. The jihadist group’s threat to ethnic Yazidis who fled Sinjar as well as its advance on Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, forced the US to intervene with airstrikes.

In a recent press briefing, Lieutenant General Bill Mayville, the Director of Operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the Islamic State as a capable and dangerous force that has the ability to advance on several fronts in both Iraq and Syria.

“They’re very well-organized. They are very well-equipped. They coordinate their operations. And they have thus far shown the ability to attack on multiple axes. This is not insignificant,” Mayville said.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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