Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL) seized two key towns and several villages in Syria’s Aleppo province on Wednesday after routing rival fighters, opposition groups and activists said.
The capture is the latest victory for the ISIS fighters, who now call themselves the Islamic State and have declared a caliphate across eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq, with their leader as caliph.
Activists said ISIS captured the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh after fierce clashes with opposition rebels who are fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The militants also took over a string of nearby villages, including Masoudiyeh, Dabiq and Ghouz.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 31 rebels and eight ISIS fighters were killed in the clashes. The Observatory relies on a network of activists inside Syria for its information.
The capture of Akhtarin has strategic significance as the town is "the gate to the northern countryside of Aleppo", said a local rebel commander who uses the nom de guerre of Abu Thabet.
It seems that ISIS's ultimate goal, he said, was to reach Marea, a town a few kilometres to the west that is considered a stronghold of the rival jihadist Islamic Front, a powerful alliance of Islamist rebels. He said the ISIS is also looking to seize Azaz, a town located next to the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Turkey.
"They launched an all-out offensive for Akhtarin on Tuesday and the clashes lasted all night," said Abu Thabet, whose moderate Aleppo Swords brigade is affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella group.
He said the mainstream rebels, including the Free Syrian Army, were surrounded – encircled in Aleppo province by Syrian government forces on the one side and ISIS on the other.
ISIS – which began as an al Qaeda branch but later broke away from the international terrorist group – now controls huge swaths of eastern and northern Syria and are fighting against rival rebel groups, Kurdish militias and the Free Syrian Army for more territory.
In neighbouring Iraq, they are batting Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters as well as Iraqi government troops.
The takeover of Akhtarin and surrounding Syrian villages was also reported on social media by jihadists affiliated with ISIS.
Syria’s civil conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising against Assad’s rule, but turned into a wider insurgency after government forces violently cracked down on demonstrators. It has since deteriorated into a civil war with sectarian overtones and involving increasingly powerful Islamist militant groups.
More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria in the three years of fighting, activists say.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2014-08-13