Islamic State (IS) fighters launched a new assault on the northern Syrian city of Azaz this week, recapturing other towns in the area from various anti-Assad factions. With the group’s recent advance, IS could be only days away from gaining control over the main road leading from the Turkish border to the rest of Aleppo province.
Not only is Azaz a strategic border crossing between Syria and Turkey, but it is also a crucial supply line connecting Syrian opposition groups with weapons and aid from Turkey. Rebel commanders worry that if Azaz falls, so too does Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Rebels are calling for U.S. airstrikes to counter the Islamic State’s new offensive; but coalition airstrikes failed to stop IS from taking cities in western Iraq and central Syria over the past few weeks. With the recent seizure of Ramadi, IS has laid claim to further inventories of advanced weaponry and supplies left behind by the Iraqi army.
A woman in Azaz, Syria, looks at the rubble of a house destroyed by government shelling in 2012 (Photo: AP)
The rebels also claim that government airstrikes are ignoring Islamic State forces and actually bolstering the organization’s the position on the battlefield. Tangible evidence of this coordination has yet to surface, but both IS and the regime have much to gain from the weakening of other insurgent groups. Even the U.S. mission in Syria tweeted, “Reports indicate that the regime is making airstrikes in support of ISIL’s advance on Aleppo.”
Although Syrian rebels are appealing for help of the United States, their cries will likely go unanswered due to the presence of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra among their ranks. The presence of sworn enemies of the U.S. within the ranks Syrian rebel forces makes the use of airstrikes much more politically sensitive. In contrast, Kurdish ground troops worked in conjunction with U.S. airstrikes last year to repel an assault by the Islamic State on Kobani, 80 miles to the east.
Failure to stop the Islamic State’s advance to Azaz could also prove costly for Turkey. Thousands of malnourished and frantic refugees will have no choice but to flee the violence by attempting to cross the border with Syria’s northern neighbor.
Although members of the international anti-IS coalition are currently convening in Paris to discuss future action, the Islamic State continues to draw foreign fighters and make meaningful gains on the battlefield. While the U.S. military claims to have killed 10,000 IS fighters in airstrikes over the past nine months, such tactics have failed to deliver the meaningful change in momentum needed to stop the Islamic State.