Syrian forces, Islamic militants encircling key rebel city of Aleppo
Syrian rebels could suffer their biggest setback of the war as government troops and Islamic militants are encircling the key northwestern city of Aleppo.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the fall of the city could also be a recruiting boon to the Islamic State, the militant group formerly known as ISIS, with members of the Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) joining with the militants.
Rebel commanders in Aleppo told the Journal that they are stocking up on food and other supplies to prevent the type of starvation-inducing siege that forced them to surrender the city of Homs earlier this year, and warn that losing Aleppo could be the death blow to the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that began in 2011.
"We're about to lose Aleppo and no one cares," Hussam Almarie, a FSA spokesman, told The Wall Street Journal. "We won't be able to recover the revolution if this happens. And we'll lose the moderates in Syria."
Abu Thabet, whose moderate Aleppo Swords brigade is affiliated with the FSA, told The Associated Press Wednesday that the FSA is encircled in Aleppo province by Syrian government forces on one side and the Islamic State group on the other side.
On Wednesday, Syrian opposition activists told the Associated Press that Islamic State fighters captured the towns of Akhtarin and Turkmanbareh in the Aleppo countryside near the border with Turkey, dislodging other rebels in the process.
The militants also took a string of nearby villages over which they had been fighting, including Masoudiyeh, Dabiq and Ghouz.
The capture of Akhtarin has strategic significance as the town is "the gate to the northern countryside of Aleppo," said a local rebel commander who uses the nom de guerre Abu Thabet.
It seems the Islamic State's ultimate goal, he said, was to reach Marea, a town a few kilometers (miles) to the west that is considered a stronghold of the Islamic Front as well as Azaz, a town located next to the Bab al-Salama border crossing with Syria.
The Islamic Front is a powerful alliance of rebel groups battling against the Islamic State group.
"They launched an all-out offensive for Akhtarin on Tuesday and the clashes lasted all night," Thabet said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 31 rebels and eight Islamic State group fighters were killed in the clashes. The Observatory relies on a network of activists inside Syria for its information.
To date, the Assad regime has been content with allowing the Islamic State to weaken the FSA, though Syrian forces did engage militants in large-scale clashes in June. Western officials tell the Journal that the regime may wait until Aleppo falls before turning its full attention to the militants, who have carved out a self-styled caliphate across vast swaths of eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq.
Aleppo was Syria's biggest city prior to the start of the anti-Assad uprising, with a population of three million. The months of fighting have taken their toll, and reduced the population to an estimated 300,000.
The rebels tell The Journal that they have received increased supplies of ammunition, food, and weapons from their various foreign supporters, including the United States. However, they also say the increase isn't enough to change the situation on the ground. In addition, officials working with the Military Operations Command say that the U.S. has pressed Qatar to rein in some of its support for non-Islamic State militants fighting in Aleppo alongside the FSA.
Syria's conflict began as a popular uprising against Assad's rule, but turned into an insurgency after government forces violently cracked down on demonstrators. It has since deteriorated into a civil war with sectarian overtones and increasingly powerful Islamic militant groups. Over 170,000 people have been killed in Syria in over three years of fighting, activists say.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.