The Isis militant group is threatening the capture of its third major town in as many weeks, cementing its resurgence after months when it appeared to be on the back foot.
On Sunday, fighters for the so-called “Islamic State” made significant advances in the northeast of Syria’s Aleppo province for the first time since it lost the battle for Kobani to the Kurdish YPG at the end of January.
According to local monitors, Isis captured the small town of Soran Azaz and two nearby villages after driving back an alliance that included factions of the Free Syrian Army and the Aleppo branch of the Islamic Front.
Isis’s victories over the weekend, coming so soon after the collapses of the western Iraqi city of Ramadi and the central Syrian city of Palmyra, gave them access to a key road that leads north to the Bab al-Salam crossing with Turkey’s Kilis province, a major route for the passage of aid and goods.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Isis’s next step appeared to be the city of Azaz, 10 km (6 miles) further northeast and the gateway to the border crossing itself.
Commanders with the Levant Front alliance, which is battling both Isis and the Syrian government in northern Aleppo province, told Reuters the losses had disrupted plans for a major push by Western-backed rebels into the city of Aleppo itself.
“The main supply line between Turkey and Aleppo will be severely affected,” Abu Bakr, an alliance field commander, told the news agency.
While US-led coalition air strikes could not prevent Ramadi from falling into Isis hands, in northern Aleppo air support helped hold Kobani as the world watched on.
Air strikes have not been launched further into Aleppo, however – something which rebels have said needs to change.
“[Isis] are heading to the Turkish border...If this happens I don't know who will be able to explain why the coalition is not bombing (them),” said Abo Abdo Salabman, a member of a rebel brigade which is not part of Levant Front but is fighting in the area.
“It's one thing that they don't bomb the regime because of some international circumstances they need to take into account. However, failure to bomb ISIS on that particular front is not going to go down well with the rebels,” he said, warning that people were more likely to join hardline groups as a result.
The loss of Azaz to Isis would be devastating for the thousands of refugees who have flooded the city after fleeing violence across northern Syria.
The city has also been a major arms route and commercial thoroughfare for hundreds of trucks carrying Turkish goods to rebel-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
“A small advance by Daesh (Isis) would get them to Azaz,” said another rebel from a faction within the Levant Front.
Additional reporting by agencies
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