BEIRUT: Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized a string of villages in northern Syria Wednesday in fighting that left 52 people dead, an anti-regime monitoring group said.
The jihadists captured eight villages between second city Aleppo and the Turkish border, buoyed by their successes in neighboring Iraq, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They killed at least 40 fighters of rival rebel groups and captured at least 50 more for the loss of 12 of their own men, the group said.
ISIS already controls almost all of the Euphrates valley provinces of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor and has been making gains further west at the expense of rival rebel groups which it has been fighting since December.
The rival rebels, many of them from more moderate Islamist groups, have been weakened by the defection late last month of Al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front, which had made common cause in the battle against ISIS.
The Observatory said the ISIS capture of the villages was a strategic prize, because it would open the way for the group to attack the towns of Mareh and Azaz.
Mareh is a stronghold of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist groups that is among those fighting against ISIS.
Azaz sits next to the border crossing with Turkey, which would be a valuable asset to ISIS as it seeks to expand its self-declared “caliphate” in the territory it holds in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
ISIS initially fought alongside Syria’s opposition, including more moderate rebels and Nusra fighters.
But its abuses against civilians and rival fighters, as well as its bid to dominate control of captured territory, sparked a backlash.
The group was pushed out of much of the territory it held in Aleppo province by the coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels that turned against it in January.
But it has been able to recapture some of that lost ground assisted by the decision of the Islamist Dawud Brigade to pledge allegiance to it.
In Aleppo city government helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the Sakhour, Maadi, Farliq and Qadi Askar neighborhoods, the Observatory said.