ISIS has apparently captured Soran Azaz, in the northern part of Aleppo Province, from a rebel coalition called the Levant Front or Jabhat al-Shamiyah. This puts them in a position to threaten the city of Azaz, only a few miles away, which (if they succeed) would cut one of the main supply lines from Turkey to the rebel forces holding part of Aleppo (and to the rebel Army of Conquest that now controls all of Idlib Province to the west, some of whose component forces also have branches fighting in the Levant Front because the Syrian rebellion is still a chaotic mess). According to the NYT, which was getting its information from the Aleppo-based rebels, ISIS’s move on Soran Azaz has frustrated their plans to launch an offensive against the government troops that still control major parts of Aleppo but whose own ability to resupply has been severely impacted by the rebel successes in Idlib. Now those rebel fighters have to move north to keep ISIS from making any further gains and ideally drive it back out of Soran Azaz.
ISIS has controlled Azaz before, having seized control of it from a rebel brigade called Northern Storm in September 2013 and used its position there to, you guessed it, cut its rebel competitors off from their Turkish supply lines. It retreated from the city in February 2014, when clashes between ISIS and other rebel groups in the north caused the ISIS forces in Azaz to be cut off and threatened by a resurgent Northern Storm, along with Jabhat al-Nusra. Now ISIS is back, and with Assad’s forces in a weaker position overall than they’ve been maybe at any time since the civil war began (or at least since , this looks uncomfortably like the beginning of a new phase in the war, wherein ISIS and the non-ISIS rebels (let’s just call them “the rebels” for simplicity’s sake) duke it out to see which of them gets to be the group that finally finishes Assad off.
Ironically, this is a fight the US wants; Washington would love to see the rebels settle ISIS’s hash before turning their full attention to Assad. The problem is, it’s coming too soon, given that the Obama administration’s long-anticipated and poorly-conceived plan to train and outfit a rebel army to fight ISIS is only just now starting down the road to the day when it will ultimately fizzle out and/or blow back on America in some major way. On the other hand, if you believe Michael Weiss’s story that the few rebels America has started training are already talking about quitting so they can go fight Assad instead of ISIS, then maybe ISIS is doing America a favor by making itself a more immediate threat to the rebels than Assad is.
Meanwhile, and I hate to be Debbie Downer but somebody has to, if ISIS’s move into Aleppo really does start a new phase of the war, then that is just about the worst possible thing that could happen to the Syrian people, the folks who are doing much more of the suffering any dying in this war than any of the belligerents. If both ISIS and the rebels take their eyes off of Assad at this point, it potentially allows Assad to rest, reinforce, and resupply his beleaguered government forces while standing back and, why not, lobbing a few dozen or hundred more barrel bombs at those civilians for some laughs. Some kind of knock-down, drag-out between the rebels and ISIS was inevitable (hell, eventually the organizationally chaotic rebel forces are going to have to sort things out amongst themselves, and that’s bound to be violent as well), but if they have it while Assad can still reconstitute his forces and inflict more punishment on civilians, that would make it even more troubling.