Over the past week there has been heavy back and forth fighting between various Turkish-backed rebel groups and the Islamic State. The frontline between them is constantly in motion and the towns changed ownership several times. As a byproduct this fighting also produced 30.000 refugees, as several refugee camps were affected by the ongoing offensives.
It seems that for now, IS is on the offensive and rebel forces have a hard time holding them back. The major towns of Mare’ and Azaz are getting more and more pressured. IS is within 6,5 km of Azaz.
Today this fighting has gotten another dimension, as various rebel groups pushed west against the Afrin SDF. Reportedly, there have been clashes at Tel Rifaat, Ayn Daqnah and Kafr Kashir. Unconfirmed reports came in that the later two were captured by rebel groups as well as reports that rebels were repelled. For now we can’t say with certainty what the situation is. The fighting is currently still going on.
The strategic motivation behind this move is unclear and not officially stated, but we can assess the situation. Capturing these three towns would give Mare’ another supply line if the Mare’ – Azaz route gets cut by IS forces. This possibility is a very real threat as the rebel salient is increasingly thinned. On the other hand, the rebels now are in a two-front war. If their attack fails and SDF counter-attacks they may be squashed between the advancing forces of SDF and IS.
This decision also won’t make the USA very happy, as they back the SDF as well as the Northern Aleppo rebels. Recently in the fight against IS the US Air Force helped rebel groups with airstrikes. When the Afrin SDF in February attacked the rebels and took Tel Rifaat the offensive was mostly stopped because of US political concerns as they staunchly condemned Rebel – SDF fighting. In addition the USA aren’t content with the mixed success of rebel forces against IS. These clashes can lead to a political fallout between USA, Turkey and the local Rebel groups.