AMMAN: Syrian rebels are fighting to hold their ground in the north Aleppo countryside on Tuesday after losing a large portion of their territory to a surprise Islamic State offensive that began on Friday.
Last Friday, Islamic State (IS) fighters attacked westward from their strongholds in northeast Aleppo province and took control of several villages in the pocket of territory held by Free Syrian Army [FSA] and Islamist brigades near the city of Azaz, just south of the Turkish border.
Driving westward, IS also cut off the northern portion of the rebel-held Azaz pocket from the town of Marea—a rebel stronghold approximately 20km north of Aleppo city—and the neighboring town of Sheikh Issa on Friday.
On Saturday, rebel factions in Sheikh Issa handed the town over to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic alliance led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) based in northwest Aleppo province. As a result, Marea is now an island of rebel territory, with the SDF to the west and IS to the north, east and south.
One fighter inside Marea says that the YPG, a key member of the SDF, has called on rebel factions to hand over the town.
“Rebels are being pressured by IS on one side and the SDF on the other,” he told Syria Direct on Tuesday, requesting anonymity. “The situation is very difficult.”
Residents of rebel-held north Aleppo flee to Kurdish-held territories on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Mustefa Ebdi.
Opposition fighters are now “attempting the break the encirclement of Marea” from the north, he said, requesting anonymity.
Enmity between Marea rebels and the SDF dates back to the latter’s formation in late 2015. This past February, IS and the SDF separately attacked rebel-held Marea from three directions after factions in the town refused an offer from the SDF—which had just pushed 15km eastwards out of Afrin canton to Tel Rifaat, immediately west of Marea—to hand it over without a fight, Syria Direct reported.
As in February, opposition fighters are refusing to turn over Marea, the same fighter said.
“The rebels won’t surrender Marea until their dying breath.”
As IS advances to the east, more than 100,000 people in what remains of the Azaz pocket—hemmed in to the north by a closed border with Turkey—have nowhere to run.
All roads to the west and south—Kurdish-held territories—were closed by the YPG on Sunday in retaliation for rebel bombings over the weekend of a Kurdish district of Aleppo, Sheikh Maqsoud.
The east is a battlefield, with IS territories beyond that. People attempting to flee into the Azaz pocket from IS territory or to simply move closer to Azaz city and farther from the fighting can no longer do so, after a ruling by the rebel Sharia Court on Sunday barred their entry out of fear of Islamic State sleeper cells.
“We call on all parties to the conflict to ensure the unhindered movement and protection of civilians trying to reach safety,” Yacoub El Hillo, the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, said in a statement on Monday.
In the same statement, Kevin Kennedy, the UN’s Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian Crisis reminded “all parties to the conflict” of their “obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law to protect civilians.”