The Islamic State has launched yet another new offensive in Syria, just weeks after its fighters captured the ancient city of Palmyra and the Iraqi city of Ramadi. The so-called “caliphate” is attempting to take more territory from anti-Assad rebels in the province of Aleppo, not far from the Turkish border.
The sudden, coordinated attacks have caused Syrian insurgency organizations to scramble to form a counteroffensive.
Most of the Islamic State’s territorial gains inside Syria have come at the expense of insurgents seeking to topple the Assad regime. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization has devoted more of its resources to fighting the rebels than it has to attacking Assad’s forces.
The Islamic State’s latest offensive has targeted fighters who belonged to the Levant Front, a coalition of several organizations in Aleppo. The Levant Front was formed in late 2014, but was reportedly dissolved in April. Still, the coalition’s members have fought on in some capacity. The Wall Street Journal cites the alliance’s spokesman as saying that the Islamic State has beheaded several people in the newly-captured villages.
One video released by Baghdadi’s followers shows them manning a checkpoint in the town of Sarwan shortly after overrunning it. At the end of the video, an Islamic State jihadist holds up the Levant Front’s flag, which is then burned. A screen shot from the video can be seen on the right.
Fighters who were part of the Levant Front reportedly had some success against the Islamic State in mid-May. Videos posted online purportedly show the coalition’s fighters taking turf from Baghdadi’s men at the time.
But the Levant Front and its former constituents were not able to withstand the Islamic State’s new push into several towns and villages in Aleppo. Therefore, other organizations have redeployed their forces to take on the “caliphate.” One of them is Jaysh al Islam (“Army of Islam”), which has a large paramilitary army.
For months, Jaysh al Islam’s Twitter feed has advertised its repeated clashes with the Islamic State. One video posted online earlier today shows a Jaysh al Islam convoy of men being sent to northern Aleppo as reinforcements. A screen shot of the convoy can be seen on the right.
A spokesman for the group tweeted that the Islamic State “should be ready to taste defeat in Aleppo as they did in Ghouta,” because Jaysh al Islam is prepared to “fend off” its “cowardly attacks on the north.” Earlier this year, Jaysh al Islam battled the Islamic State’s fighters in Ghouta, just outside of Damascus.
The Islamic State’s assault on towns in Aleppo drew a quick response from Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, a jihadist ideologue who backs al Qaeda. Maqdisi was asked if Muslims in neighboring towns should assist those on the front lines against the Islamic State. In a written reply posted online, Maqdisi argued that nearby residents would be wise to help repel the Islamic State now, as their towns and villages will likely be next. Sami al Uraydi, Al Nusrah Front’s chief sharia official, endorsed Maqdisi’s response on Twitter.
On one of its own official Twitter feeds, the Al Nusrah Front has also posted several images of its jihadists being dispatched to assist their “mujahideen” brothers. One image, included below, shows snipers and medical workers from the group being sent to the Aleppo countryside. In another photo, the al Qaeda fighters diagnose the situation using a map.
Ahrar al Sham, another al Qaeda-linked insurgency organization, has sent men to counter the Islamic State’s aggression as well. One video posted online shows an Ahrar al Sham commander preparing his men for battle.
The latest moves appear to be timed to break the momentum of the Islamic State’s rivals, including those groups belonging to Jaysh al Fateh, a jihadist-led coalition that took over much of Idlib beginning in March. Unconfirmed reports on social media suggest that the Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham and other members of Jaysh al Fateh were planning to open new fronts against the Assad regime in the coming days and weeks. If so, this wouldn’t be the first time that the Islamic State has disrupted the insurgency’s plans.
Images posted by the Al Nusrah Front showing its fighters being redeployed in the Aleppo province