Mil­i­tants ap­pear to ad­vance in north Syria

Is­lamic State fighters seem close to seiz­ing the strate­gic town of Azaz, near the bor­der with Turkey.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Pa­trick J. McDon­nell and Nabih Bu­los pa­trick.mcdon­nell @la­ Twit­ter: @mcd­neville Bu­los is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

BEIRUT — Is­lamic State mil­i­tants were re­ported Sun­day to be closing in on a strate­gic bor­der town in north­west­ern Syria’s Aleppo prov­ince near the Turk­ish fron­tier af­ter rout­ing ri­val rebel groups in fierce clashes.

The attack ap­peared to sig­nal an­other new ter­ri­to­rial gain for the break­away Al Qaeda fac­tion, which has re­cently seized the cen­tral Syr­ian city of Palmyra and the west­ern Iraqi city of Ra­madi.

The con­quests have high­lighted the mil­i­tant group’s con­tin­ued po­tency de­spite fight­ing pro-gov­ern­ment forces in both Syria and Iraq and en­dur­ing months of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Pro-op­po­si­tion ac­tivists hos­tile to Is­lamic State said Sun­day that the mil­i­tants in their lat­est thrust had over­run the vil­lage of So­ran, east of the Syr­ian bor­der town of Azaz, and nearby ar­eas.

Is­lamic State forces were widely ex­pected to as­sault Azaz, which has been in the hands of in­sur­gents hos­tile to Is­lamic State for more than a year.

The town is a strate­gic prize be­cause of its prox­im­ity to the gi­ant Bab al Salam bor­der cross­ing into Turkey, a ma­jor tran­sit point for goods and sup­plies en­ter­ing north­ern Syria. Turkey, which shares a more than 500-mile bor­der with Syria, is a vi­tal lo­gis­tics and re­sup­ply hub for a broad range of armed Syr­ian op­po­si­tion groups.

Since Syria’s conf lict be­gan in 2011, var­i­ous rebel fac­tions have vied for con­trol of bor­der posts. Dom­i­nat­ing a fron­tier zone can be a strate­gic and fi­nan­cial wind­fall. Fac­tions in con­trol of bor­der posts are po­si­tioned both to sup­ply their forces ex­pe­di­tiously and to col­lect fees from truck­ers and oth­ers en­ter­ing Syria.

Fierce re­sis­tance from Kur­dish-led forces aided by U.S. bomb­ing at­tacks early this year helped thwart Is­lamic State’s bid to seize the Syr­ian bor­der town of Kobani, about 90 miles north­east of Azaz. Kur­dish and al­lied forces also are re­ported to be fight­ing to evict Is­lamic State from the cru­cial Tal Abyad bor­der cross­ing, about 40 miles southeast of Kobani.

On Sun­day, the Is­lamic State ad­vance to­ward Azaz trig­gered wide­spread alarm among ri­val rebel fac­tions in so­cial me­dia post­ings.

The Aleppo Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies Union, a pro-op­po­si­tion body hos­tile to Is­lamic State, is­sued a state­ment call­ing on all its al­lies to con­front the mil­i­tant group af­ter “its vi­cious attack.”

The rebels ar­rayed against Is­lamic State in north­west­ern Syria in­clude both hard-core Is­lamist and some West­ern-backed fac­tions. Prom­i­nent among them are hard-line Al Qaeda-linked groups such as Al Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham — both ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive Sunni Mus­lim groups that are fierce ri­vals of Is­lamic State.

Many pre­dicted that the Is­lamic State thrust would prob­a­bly push back op­po­si­tion plans for a re­newed of­fen­sive against gov­ern­men­theld ar­eas in the city of Aleppo, which has long been di­vided be­tween op­po­si­tion and loy­al­ist forces. Var­i­ous in­sur­gent fac­tions op­posed to Is­lamic State had been herald­ing an im­pend­ing as­sault on Aleppo.

“All the prepa­ra­tion work for the lib­er­a­tion of Aleppo has now been sab­o­taged by the attack,” an Ahrar al Sham spokesman who goes by the nick­name Abu Yusuf Muha­jer said via Skype from Turkey.

In its lat­est ad­vance, Is­lamic State ap­pears to be seek­ing to re­cap­ture ter­ri­tory that it lost early last year, when it was ex­pelled from Azaz and much of Aleppo prov­ince in fight­ing. But Is­lamic State has main­tained a foothold in the prov­ince.

Syr­ian state-run me­dia said Sun­day that rebel shelling had killed 12 civil­ians in gov­ern­ment-held ar­eas of the city of Aleppo, the lat­est such at­tacks. The op­po­si­tion has said that scores of civil­ians have per­ished in gov­ern­ment bomb­ing of rebel-con­trolled ar­eas of Aleppo.

Else­where in Syria, state me­dia and other re­ports in­di­cated that at least 25 peo­ple, in­clud­ing chil­dren, were killed when a fuel tank ex­ploded at a clinic in the pre­dom­i­nantly Kur­dish north­east­ern city of Qamishli, which has largely been spared the vi­o­lence seen else­where in the coun­try. Re­ports in­di­cated that the blast oc­curred when chil­dren were at the site re­ceiv­ing po­lio vac­ci­na­tions. The cause of the ex­plo­sion was not im­me­di­ately clear.

The more than four-year Syr­ian conf lict has claimed more than 200,000 lives, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, and left much of the coun­try de­stroyed or in the hands of armed Is­lamist fac­tions. All ef­forts for a diplo­matic so­lu­tion to end the war have so far failed.

Delil Souleiman AFP/Getty Images

A CLINIC is in ru­ins af­ter a fuel tank ex­ploded in the north­east­ern Syr­ian city of Qamishli. The re­sult­ing fire killed about 25 in the pri­mar­ily Kur­dish city.

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