BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Islamic State registered significant gains on Friday in the area of northwestern Syria that Russian warplanes have been bombing, taking six villages near Aleppo and threatening to cut off an important route north to the Turkish border. Late in the day, there were reports that rebels had reasserted control in one village.
The Kremlin has said its military had entered Syria to fight the Islamic State, but the Russian forces have concentrated much of their firepower on insurgent groups aligned against President Bashar al-Assad, including the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and relatively secular groups like the Free Syrian Army. Rival insurgents say that the Islamic State, also called ISIS or Daesh, is taking advantage.
“Daesh has exploited the Russian airstrikes and the preoccupation of the Free Syrian Army in its battles in Hama, and advanced in Aleppo,” one rebel commander told Reuters.
The Islamic State advance is threatening a strategic area north of Aleppo on the way to crossing points into Turkey that was to be part of a proposed ISIS-free buffer zone under a plan the United States announced over the summer with Turkey. That plan now seems to have stalled.
A prominent Iranian general was killed in Syria on Thursday night, Iranian officials and state news media reported Friday, illustrating the level of Iran’s direct involvement on the government side in the Syrian civil war.
The general, Hussein Hamedani, a senior figure in the Revolutionary Guards, was killed in Aleppo Province, where he was advising the Syrian military, the reports said. The Iranian state news outlet Press TV, citing a statement by the Revolutionary Guards, reported that the general had been killed by Islamic State fighters, but did not say how.
General Hamedani was a top commander during the Iran-Iraq war and led the crackdown against antigovernment protests that erupted after the disputed election of 2009.
Iran has been providing an economic lifeline and intensive military assistance to the Assad government, whose forces have been locked in a protracted civil war in which more than 250,000 people have died and millions more have been driven from their homes or fled the country.
Iranian advisers have helped train tens of thousands of fighters in a new pro-government militia called the National Defense Forces; provided strategic, tactical and political advice; and taken important roles in key negotiations, including a deal last year to evacuate rebels from the besieged Old City section of Homs. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia closely allied with Iran, has also fought pivotal battles on the side of the government.
Another Revolutionary Guards officer, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, was killed in Syria in January.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group with extensive contacts in Syria, said General Hamedani was killed Thursday near the Kweiris military airport east of Aleppo. Aircraft based there are often used to bomb Al Bab, a city held by Islamic State militants.
The battle lines in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, are complicated, with control contested among government forces and rival insurgent groups. On the city’s outskirts, Islamic State fighters are battling the government, and others where they are fighting other rebel groups.
Despite airstrikes against the Islamic State by the American-led coalition and the Russians, its fighters have been gaining ground from rival insurgents northeast of Aleppo. They advanced Friday in a blaze of car bombs, antigovernment activists said.
One of the bombs killed Saleh Mahmoud Leyla, a Syrian journalist working for Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu, according to the agency. Mr. Leyla, who had also been an antigovernment activist, frequently covered news developments in insurgent-held areas of Syria. Dozens of Syrian journalists have lost their lives in the conflict.
Jalal Zein al-Din, the pen name of a Syrian journalist working in an ISIS-held area of Aleppo Province, said the advance was aided by the United States’ insistence on removing the Nusra Front from the area and leaving only groups the West was willing to deal with. He said the Free Syrian Army could not hold off the Islamic State by itself.
Some antigovernment activists have accused Mr. Assad’s ally, Russia, of strengthening the Islamic State by mounting airstrikes in recent days against an anti-ISIS rebel group called Suqour al-Jabal, or Falcons of the Mountain. Mr. Assad and the Russians call all of the government’s opponents terrorists.
As the Russians continue their airstrikes, the Pentagon is seeking to establish guidelines so that Russian and American pilots can avoid each other in the skies over Syria. The Pentagon has received a formal response to its safety proposals from Russia’s Defense Ministry, Peter Cook, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said Friday. Talks are likely to continue over the weekend, officials said.
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If the drive by the Islamic State succeeds, said Sajid, an antigovernment activist in the area of the fighting, “the revolution will be extinguished in northern Aleppo Province.”
Sajid, who would not give his full name, for security reasons, said that the day before, American warplanes had flown “over our areas without bombing.”
“This is ridiculous!” he said. “Four coalition planes, flying but doing nothing, and Daesh was advancing. They are making fun of us.”
They'll go after ISIS more once they stop the "rebels" who pose the immediate risk to Assad as the rebels occupy the area around Damascus.
Why would Russia target areas that don't pose an immediate risk? I'ts the rebels that are at the doorstep, so that's the #1 priority of Russia.