BEIRUT: Militants from the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS using weapons recently seized in Iraq have intensified an offensive against Kurdish areas in northern Syria as they fight to expand the territory under their control, activists said.
The clashes come after ISIS, which has changed its name to the Islamic State, declared a caliphate across areas they control in Syria and Iraq. Most of the land was seized in June during a push across Iraq. They captured large amounts of weapons left behind by Iraqi troops including U.S.-made armored personnel carriers, Humvees and artillery.
Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil said members of ISIS are trying to capture an area near the Turkish border that would link them with their positions in eastern Syria. The fighting is concentrated in the region of Ain al-Arab, or Kobani in Kurdish.
Mustafa Osso, a Turkey-based Kurdish activist, said the aim of the offensive is to take the entire Kobani area. Osso says those standing against ISIS are mostly members of the YPG or People’s Protection Units, the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
“We have called for support from Kurds around the world,” said Khalil, an official with the party.
ISIS captured three villages near Ain al-Arab and pressed forward toward the border town Wednesday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said 18 Kurdish fighters were killed Wednesday alone.
The clashes continued Thursday while elsewhere in Aleppo province, ISIS militants clashed with fighters from several Islamist militias and an allied Kurdish rebel group near the border town of Rai.
In neighboring Idlib province, Islamist rebel militias have been busy on two fronts – battling against regime troops, and against ISIS. The Observatory said 16 rebel fighters were killed in clashes with regime troops Wednesday near the Hamidieh and Wadi Deif military bases.
Separately, the head of the Suqour al-Sham militia, a member of the Islamic Front rebel alliance, issued a strong warning to the commanders of two smaller rebel groups in Idlib, whose members this week defected to ISIS, taking with them more than 100 vehicles.
Abu Issa al-Sheikh, the commander of Suqour al-Sham, instructed the two smaller groups to dissolve themselves and turn over their weapons to his militia or become the target of attacks.
The Daoud Brigade and the Sham Army militias were involved earlier this week in a murky incident in which rebels in a convoy of some 160 vehicles claimed they were headed to Aleppo to reinforce their rebel comrades – before heading instead to the city of Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold on the Euphrates River.
The death toll in Syria’s 3-year-old war has eclipsed 170,000 people, one-third of them civilians, the Observatory said Thursday.
“Ever since the first casualty of the Syrian revolution was registered on March 18, 2011, in Deraa province, the deaths of 171,509 people have been documented,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Among the dead were 56,495 civilians, including 9,092 children, according to the toll, which included casualties documented up to July 8 this year.
Another 65,803 were regime troops and pro-regime militiamen, while 46,301 were rebels seeking President Bashar Assad’s ouster and members of ISIS.
The rebel toll includes 15,422 non-Syrians who travelled to the war-torn country to join the ranks of jihadists or local Islamist opposition groups.
Among the ranks of loyalists killed were 39,036 regular troops, as well as 24,655 members of pro-regime militias, 509 fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and 1,603 other non-Syrians fighting on Assad’s side.
Meanwhile, the deaths of 2,910 unidentified victims were also documented, the Observatory said.
The Britain-based group said the actual number of those killed among fighters on both sides was likely to be much higher.
Another 20,000 people detained by the regime were completely unaccounted for, it said, as were some 7,000 regime troops held by rebel fighters.