ISTANBUL, Turkey — Syrian insurgents rushed reinforcements into combat on Tuesday against rival Islamic State militants who have seized crucial territory near the northern city of Aleppo in recent days, building on the momentum the group has achieved in other battlefield successes in Syria and Iraq.
Amid increased fears that Aleppo could be the next big prize to fall to the Islamic State in the latest twist to the four-year-old Syrian civil war, Syrian opposition leaders accused the government of essentially collaborating with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by bombing other rival insurgent groups, even though the government and Islamic State say they are enemies.
Khaled Khoja, the president of the main Syrian exile opposition group, accused the government of President Bashar al-Assad of deploying his warplanes “as an air force for ISIS.”
The new fighting, reported by non-Islamic State insurgents in Syria, came amid mounting frustration that the American-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State last year had not come to their aid with airstrikes.
Graphic | ISIS Advances Toward Aleppo Islamic State fighters came within several miles of a crucial supply route between Aleppo and Turkey.
It also provided the backdrop for a strategy meeting of anti-Islamic State countries in Paris that ended on an indecisive note. While saying more needed to be done, the members could agree only to continue with the current policy of training moderate rebel groups opposed to both the Assad government and the Islamic State.
The Twitter account of the long-closed United States Embassy in Syria made its strongest statement yet, supporting what President Assad’s adversaries have long contended: that the government and ISIS were collaborating against relatively moderate rebel groups.
“Reports indicate that the regime is making airstrikes in support of #ISIL’s advance on #Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population,” the embassy said in a series of Twitter posts, adding in another that government warplanes were “not only avoiding #ISIL lines, but, actively seeking to bolster their position.”
American officials and Syrian insurgents have yet to prove such a direct coordination.
Graphic | How ISIS Expands The Islamic State aims to build a broad colonial empire across many countries.
But insurgents said the episode provided by far the strongest indication of potential coordination.
“It was never this blatant,” said Abu Abdo Salabman, a spokesman for the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, a rebel group that had sent reinforcements to the battle. “The whole thing started with a combination of aerial and then long-range artillery fire from the regime on the rebels, then ISIL started their advancements. There is clear advanced coordination this time and not just a side trying to take advantage of the other.”
He added that government airstrikes were continuing on the non-Islamic State insurgents. “Until now they are being bombed by air and ISIS isn’t,” he said. He also said that his faction had provided coordinates of Islamic State positions to the United States, but that there was no sign the Americans would take action.
What is clear is that Mr. Assad and the Islamic State both reap benefits by eliminating or weakening other insurgent groups. Mr. Assad can claim he is the only alternative to the Islamic State, and the group can claim it carries the banner of Syrians and Iraqis oppressed by their governments.
Graphic | ISIS Finances Are Strong ISIS has more than enough in its coffers despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group.
The latest battles, in northern Aleppo Province, were part of a pattern in which Islamic State fighters have taken advantage of opportunities to attack rival insurgents when they were weak and under government bombardment.
While an Islamic State invasion of Aleppo would face formidable obstacles, it would be a huge advance for the group, building on the momentum it has enjoyed in the takeovers last month of the Syrian city of Palmyra and the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
Government airstrikes are said to have killed scores of people in recent days in towns east of Aleppo, where the Islamic State escalated a longstanding attempt to seize the area and sever the main supply route between Turkey and rival insurgents.
Islamic State fighters have reached to within several miles of the main highway from Aleppo to the Bab al-Salam border crossing into Turkey. If it succeeds in cutting off supplies to the rebel-held section of Aleppo city and the surrounding countryside, that could threaten the last major concentration of insurgents not affiliated with either the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Graphic | Syria After Four Years of Mayhem A look at the conflict that has dismembered Syria and inflamed the region with one of the world’s worst religious and sectarian wars.
Rebels said they believed the United States was reluctant to help them with airstrikes because they coordinate with Nusra fighters, who sent some reinforcements to help them in the area. But compared with Idlib Province, where Nusra plays a major role in an insurgent coalition that has made major gains recently, Nusra is not a big player on the front against the Islamic State near Aleppo.
Insurgents said they had been able to slow the Islamic State’s advance on Aleppo on Tuesday by diverting fighters from other fronts where they had been facing government troops.
Abu Yusuf, a spokesman for the Shamiyeh Front, one of the rebel groups fighting the Islamic State, said government airstrikes had intensified over the weekend on the villages of Marea and Tal Rifaat, which the Islamic State has long been trying to seize.
“Regime fighter jets bomb these villages at night and fire heavy machine guns on the rebel supplies routes at night, while ISIS shell the villages with artillery,” he said in an interview via Skype from Aleppo Province.
He said reports from the field suggested that the Islamic State had sent the weapons it seized from government storehouses in Palmyra — the first city it has taken from government troops.
Reporting was contributed by Maher Samaan and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, Karam Shoumali from Istanbul and Alissa J. Rubin from Paris.
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(via NY Times)