Islamic State takes Akhtarin

The Islamic State has launched operation “Invasion of the Revenge for the Chaste,” and is now closer to taking the Azaz border crossing with Turkey.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters stand at a base formerly used by fighters from the Islamic State in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, March 11, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Hamid Khatib.

Topics covered

syria, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, aleppo

Aug 14, 2014

The Islamic State (IS) has returned to the northern countryside of Aleppo, where other Islamic factions started a war against IS about eight months ago.

In a move that recalled the beginning of these events, IS dubbed its battle the “Invasion of the Revenge for the Chaste,” in reference to the accusations made by IS in the past toward other factions of abducting and raping female “muhajirat” [immigrants] and mujahedeen’s wives. The most prominent of those abducted is the wife of Haji Bakr (who was killed in Tal Rifaat) along with two of his sons.

Yesterday morning [Aug. 13], IS took control of Akhtarin, which is considered the gateway to the northern Aleppo countryside. This move has opened the Islamic State's way to the border towns of Marea, al-Rahi, Dodian and Azaz, where there’s a border crossing with Turkey. Azaz was the last area from where IS withdrew when the jihadist “war of elimination” started. The organization withdrew from there to absorb the attack by the other factions. But later, it caught its breath and retook control of most of the areas, especially in the eastern region.

In addition to Akhtarin, IS took control of a number of surrounding villages, such as al-Masoudiya, Turkman Bareh, Dawabeq and al-Azizia. But IS didn’t stop there. It arrived yesterday afternoon to Dabiq, which holds special importance for IS. According to religious mythology, Dabiq is the location of end-of-times battles between good and evil. IS also took Arshaf, Ihtaimalat and al-Hamidiyya. IS is now 6 kilometers (4 miles) away from Marea, the stronghold of Liwa al-Tawhid and the birthplace of its former leader Abdul Qader Saleh, who was killed last year.

IS taking control of these towns and villages in the northern Aleppo countryside was no surprise, because most of these areas were experiencing ongoing clashes over the past months, including a car bomb sent by IS on June 6 to blow up a checkpoint for the Islamic Front in the village of Thilthana in the Akhtarin countryside. On July 11, IS took control of the town of Ghanto, south of Akhtarin.

However, the Islamic State's tactics surprised the leaders of the factions that controlled the region. Various means were used to give the impression that hordes of fighters near the town of al-Bab, which is under IS control, aimed to strengthen IS forces besieging the Qwaris Military Airbase. But in fact, the real aim was to launch the “battle to liberate the northern Aleppo countryside.”

The battle began at dawn yesterday [Aug. 13], when IS fighters attacked several axes. The organization’s army that conducted the attack is called Jaish Jalout [the army of Goliath], and is led by Hassan Abboud, the commander of Liwa Daoud, who recently pledged allegiance to IS.

While the main force in town headed directly to Akhtarin, other groups were encircling the towns surrounding them from the east and south. Akhtarin is considered the Islamic Front’s most important stronghold in north Aleppo. A large number of Islamic Front fighters are in Akhtarin, especially Jaish al-Islam and the Suqour al-Sham Brigade, in addition to a number of Jabhat al-Akrad [the Kurdish Front Brigade] fighters, who were deployed near the area as a sort of an initial defense line to protect the city of Afrin, which is predominantly Kurdish. At the beginning of August, Jabhat al-Akrad announced that it took control of three villages in the region.

With the start of the attack, the two parties violently clashed using medium and heavy weapons. IS used US tanks and armored vehicles captured from Mosul. These captured weapons have become an essential part of IS attacks.

The clashes left dozens dead and wounded, mostly from the Islamic Front and Amjad al-Sham Brigades. The number of dead was estimated at 40 and included the Islamic Front’s commander in Akhtarin, Mohammed Abu Mahdi Assi, who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Also killed was the Sharia official for Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Abu Abdel Samih. IS casualties included field commander Abu Bara al-Maghribi. IS sources said that more than a hundred Islamic Front fighters have been captured.

Residents of the targeted villages started fleeing in large numbers since the night hours. They are still fleeing as a result of the continuing clashes. Activists from the region said that hundreds of families have left their homes and went out into the surrounding forests in search of security and safety.

Later, IS started shelling Marea with heavy artillery and mortar fire. There were reports that many inhabitants were fleeing town.

Because of the shock of defeat, Islamic Front factions started accusing each other of treason and cowardice. It should be noted that, in mid-July, nearby Marea has witnessed clashes between the Islamic Front and Qabdat al-Shamal Brigade, which broke away from Liwa al-Tawhid. This illustrates the level of fragmentation in the Islamic Front and that may be one of the reasons behind its defeat.

Regarding Jabhat al-Nusra, information indicates that it was not present in Akhtarin because it withdrew from there less than two months ago. But there were accusations that Jabhat al-Nusra’s checkpoint in Tukman Bareh allowed IS fighters to reach Akhtarin. Media sources asserted that many Jabhat al-Nusra cells have secretly stayed in town and then pledged allegiance to IS and joined it in the fighting. Yesterday, Jabhat al-Akrad issued a statement accusing unnamed factions of colluding with IS by “opening passages for it to encircle Akhtarin and Turkman Bareh.”

IS taking control of Akhtarin and its environs has opened the way for the organization to advance toward Azaz, which witnessed the first real war between IS and Asifat al-Shamal Brigade in September. But IS advancing toward the border will not pass without regional and international complications, especially since the Turkish army had already bombed IS sites in the previous months, both in Azaz and in al-Rahi, towns that are adjacent to the border. Will Ankara ignore the Islamic State's progress this time? Or will it become more involved in the Syrian quagmire?

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Abdallah Suleiman Ali