Extremist fighters of the Islamic State, already in control of a third of Iraqi territory, are on the attack in Syria, where they’ve seized more oil fields, facilitated the Assad regime’s advance in Aleppo and started a new offensive against Kurds, Syrian opposition figures say.
The Islamic State now controls more than 35 percent of Syrian territory, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based pro-rebel group, reported Friday. Its holdings include nearly all of Syria’s oil and gas fields.
The latest gain of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” was the seizure Thursday of the oil field in the desert at Palmyra, after the takeover of the country’s biggest oil fields, in Deir el Zour in eastern Syria, earlier in the week.
The Assad regime still controls the military airport and parts of Deir el Zour, but there are no signs that it’s challenging the Islamic State or vice versa, a kind of coexistence seen in many parts of northern and eastern Syria.
It’s in Aleppo that the regime owes a major debt to the Islamic State, according to senior aides in the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition. President Bashar Assad’s forces captured the industrial zone in the northeast of the city earlier this month by “carpet bombing” with air-to-ground missiles, bombs and artillery, according to Monzer Akbik, the senior aide to Ahmad Jarba, the outgoing president of the anti-government coalition.
The advance was facilitated by Islamic State forces, which allowed it to proceed unopposed. “No one fired a bullet at the advancing forces as they moved through villages” held by the group, said Hussam al Marie, a spokesman for Free Syrian Army rebel troops in northern Syria. “And the regime did not fire a bullet at IS.”
“We lost the industrial zone for a lack of weapons,” Marie said. “The FSA is fighting on two fronts, IS in the east and the regime in the north.”
Both fronts “are very active now, putting the rebels in a very difficult situation,” said Akbik.
Rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city as well as its economic center, fear the regime might encircle them and force a strategic defeat. “We should do everything possible to make sure Aleppo does not fall in the hands of the regime,” Akbik said. “But if we want to do that, we really need more weapons and anti-aircraft, anti-tank weapons. More firepower,” he said.
He noted approvingly that President Barack Obama, speaking at West Point’s graduation in May, promised to “ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition, who offer the best alternative to terrorists and dictators.” Obama said in so doing, the U.S. would also be “pushing back against the growing number of extremists who find safe haven” in the chaos of that war.
Obama effectively made the Syrian opposition a strategic partner, Akbik said. Nevertheless, the administration rejected the pleas of the opposition’s leadership for anti-aircraft weapons to stop the barrel-bombing of Aleppo and other cities. “Unfortunately, there is no good news,” Akbik told McClatchy.
He welcomed Obama’s subsequent call for $500 million in arms for the Syrian opposition, but he said the proposal didn’t seem “practical or effective.” He said the White House had no detailed plan for spending the money, leading to confusion in Washington about how it will take place.
“It is going to take a year before we will see any changes on the ground,” Akbik said. “We don’t have a year. We have days, or weeks.”
The other major front in northern Syria is around the predominantly Kurdish border town of Ain al Arab, or Kobane in Kurdish, where Islamic State forces are said to be attacking from three directions.
In an assault that started at the beginning of July and apparently is aimed at splitting the predominantly Kurdish Rojava region and seizing another border crossing with Turkey, the Islamic State has been deploying tanks, rockets, heavy machine guns and U.S.-supplied Humvees the group took from the Iraqi army when it overran Mosul and other cities in northern Iraq in early June.
The size of the Islamic State force isn’t certain. Free Syrian Army spokesman Marie said it was probably around 600 to 700. But Idriss Nassan, the deputy foreign affairs minister in the self-proclaimed Kurdish canton of Kobane, said the Islamic State had deployed some 2,000 fighters to the east of Kobane and hundreds more in the south and west.
He said the group had attacked and seized Kurdish villages in its path as well as kidnapped civilians - more than 130 children who were returning from final exams in Aleppo and 160 civilian workers who were traveling to Iraq.
The Kurdish official said that at least four of their fighters had died after the Islamic State deployed chemical weapons, and they’ve sent tissue samples to Turkish labs to be examined.
Nassan said the entire adult population of 500,000 in the region had been mobilized and everyone was armed or would be. In addition, he said hundreds of fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party _ the PKK in its Kurdish initials _ and other volunteers had crossed in from Turkey to support the fight. Turkey and the United States have designated the PKK as a terrorist group.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia, an offshoot of the Iraq-based Kurdish Democratic Party, controls the region but it’s also viewed by the United States as a terrorist organization, and by the rest of the Syrian opposition as an ally of the Assad regime.
McClatchy special correspondent Mousab AlHamadee contributed to this article.