Since October this year, heavy clashes have broken out between the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) & Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the one side and Islamist rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamic Front & Jabhat al-Nusra on the other hand. 2 days ago, ISIS fighters seized upon the confusion and captured the villages Kafrah, Ash Shaykh Rih, al-Ball and Jarez. However, rebels managed to recapture the latter yesterday leaving ISIS some 10 kilometers East of Azaz.
Tensions between Kurdish militias and Islamists have grown in recent years but this battle represents the first large-scale skirmishes witnessed between the parties in the province of Aleppo. 4-5 days ago, the opposition managed to advance West and recaptured the villages of Ibana, al-Kisha’ar, Malikia, Shawarghet Elarz and Tatumrash from the YPG during an offensive launched from Azaz and Menagh Airbase.
This loss of land is largely explained by YPG fighters from Afrin gaining little to no experience since they captured the region in 2012 due to a frontline stalemate. However, they have called upon reinforcements from Ayn al-Arab (Kobane) and Hasakah to launch a counteroffensive enabling them to take the strategic border town of Azaz. These reinforcements are yet to arrive as they must endure a risky journey across hostile Turkish lands.
Meanwhile, the Russian Airforce keeps pounding Islamist fighters of both the Islamic State and opposition, thereby siding with Kurdish forces. The YPG has stated ambitions of connecting Afrin with Kobane to the East. However, to do so they must first capture a huge area stretching across Azaz and Jarabulus.
As rebels see their forces engaged on a wide range of frontlines, most recently in Northern Aleppo, they find themselves in danger of conceding both the strategic town of Azaz along with the narrow strip of land that splits the Shi’ite towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa with the government-held land in Aleppo. Arguably, Azaz remains the most important rebel-held border crossing with Turkey and thus must be defended at all costs.