The Islamic State has issued a statement (seen above) claiming that is fighters have seized key several towns north of the city of Aleppo. In addition, the group’s propaganda arm has released a series of photos documenting its newly-gained territory. The photos can be seen below.
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization made few gains in the Aleppo province over the preceding months, as a complex multi-sided fight had prevented the “caliphate” from claiming any definitive victories. But Russia’s intervention has changed the balance of power, even if only temporarily.
It remains to be seen if the Islamic State’s surge in the province results in long-lasting territorial gains. However, the group is clearly taking advantage of the Russian-led bombing campaign in the short run. Russia has mainly focused on the insurgents opposed to both the Islamic State and the Assad regime.
“Greater than 90 percent of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against [the Islamic State] or al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said earlier this week. “They’ve been largely against opposition groups that want a better future for Syria and don’t want to see the Assad regime stay in power.”
On Oct. 7, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade named Suqour al Jabal uploaded a video to YouTube documenting the effects of Russia’s targeting. Suqour al Jabal has reportedly received assistance from the CIA, including American-made TOW missiles. But along with other FSA units it was targeted early on in Russia’s aerial assault. Russia and the Assad regime aren’t the only ones opposed to Suqour al Jabal. The Islamic State is as well.
“Russian jets are bombing the depots of Suqour al Jabal in Aleppo while DAESH [a derogatory acronym used to describe the Islamic State] simultaneously targets the headquarters with car bombs,” a man in the Suqour al Jabal video says, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. He points out that the group’s ammunition stores and multiple vehicles were destroyed by Russia’s bombs.
Suquor al Jabal’s commander, Hassan Haj Ali, also told Reuters that Russia’s bombs had destroyed its main weapons depots.
The fight for Aleppo province isn’t as simple as Russia and Assad versus American-backed rebels, however. Suqour al Jabal is one of more than two dozen rebel groups in the Fatah Halab (“Conquest of Aleppo”) alliance. The coalition excludes Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, but does include Ahrar al Sham, which is closely allied with Al Nusrah and has its own links to al Qaeda.
In early July, Al Nusrah Front formed its own coalition in the Aleppo province. The alliance was named “Ansar al Sharia” (Defenders or Partisans of Sharia law), a brand that has been adopted by other al Qaeda groups in Yemen and North Africa. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, allies form new coalition for battle in Aleppo.] Ansar al Sharia launched its own offensive in Aleppo in July, and had some early successes. It is not clear, however, how much ground Ansar al Sharia currently controls, especially after Russia’s intervention.
Both Fatah Halab and Ansar al Sharia have opposed the Islamic State’s expansion in Aleppo.
Further complicating matters, Kurdish forces are involved in the fight for Aleppo, repeatedly clashing with Al Nusrah and other insurgents. And Al Nusrah also recently engaged in skirmishes with at least one of Fatah Halab’s constituent organizations.
The Islamic State has repeatedly taken territory from other rebel groups. Indeed, the group’s push into Syria in 2013 was mainly at the expense of other forces fighting Assad’s regime. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Islamic State would seek to add ground to its “caliphate” now.
The photos below purportedly show areas north of the city of Aleppo that are currently under the Islamic State’s control. The photos also show an aircraft flying overhead and an image from the fighting.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.