Islamic State fighters have seized villages close to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo from rival insurgents, a monitoring group said on Friday, despite a Russian air-and-sea campaign that Moscow says has targeted the militant group.
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps said separately one of its generals had been killed late on Thursday near Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city. Iran, like Russia an ally of President Bashar al-Assad, says it has advisers in the country.
Islamic State is now within 2 km (1 mile) of government-held territory on the northern edge of Aleppo which has suffered widespread damage and disease during the four-year civil war that erupted in the wake of protests against Assad.
Syria’s military, backed by Russia, Iran and militias, has launched a major attack in Syria’s west to recapture land lost to non-IS rebels close to the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an area vital to Assad’s survival.
As the operation in the west pushed ahead, Islamic State said its fighters had captured five villages in its northern offensive and killed «more than 10 apostates», a term it uses to describe Syrian soldiers and their militia allies.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was the biggest advance by Islamic State since it launched an offensive against rival rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside near the Turkish border in late August.
«Daesh has exploited the Russian air strikes and the preoccupation of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its battles in Hama, and advanced in Aleppo,» said one rebel commander with fighters in the region, using an Arabic name for IS.
Russian warplanes and warships have been bombarding targets across Syria for 10 days in a campaign which Moscow says is targeting Islamic State fighters who control large parts of eastern Syria, as well as swathes of neighboring Iraq.
But the campaign appears to have mainly struck other rebel groups, some of which had been battling to stop the Islamic State advance across Aleppo province.
One of those groups, Liwa Suqour al-Jabal, said Russian strikes destroyed their main weapons depot this week. Liwa Suqour al-Jabal is one of a number of rebel groups that has received military support from the United States and Assad’s Gulf Arab enemies.
Russian and U.S. warplanes are now flying missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two risking incidents between the two air forces and their fast jets.