US-led raids hit IS battling rebels, Qaeda in Syria

Syrian pro-government fighters flash the victory sign at a hilltop in the Qalamoun region on the outskirts of Damascus, on June 6, 2015 (AFP Photo/)

Syrian pro-government fighters flash the victory sign at a hilltop in the Qalamoun region on the outskirts of Damascus, on June 6, 2015 (AFP Photo/)

US-led aircraft bombed Islamic State group fighters as they battled rival Syrian rebels, including Al-Qaeda loyalists, for the first time overnight, a monitoring group said on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor described the raids in northern Syria’s Aleppo as an intervention on the side of the rival rebels, even though they include forces that have previously been targeted by US-led strikes.

“The coalition carried out at least four strikes overnight targeting IS positions in the town of Suran,” the Britain-based group said.

“It’s the first time that the international coalition has supported non-Kurdish opposition forces fighting the Islamic State,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

He said at least eight IS fighters were killed in the strikes and another 20 were injured.

IS seized control of Suran a week ago, and has since been fighting an alliance of Islamist rebels including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front and the Ahrar al-Sham movement in the surrounding area.

Both Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have been targeted in US-led raids, including as recently as May 20, when a strike in Aleppo province killed 15 Al-Nusra fighters.

Like IS, Al-Nusra is blacklisted as a “terrorist organisation” by Washington.

IS has been seeking to expand its territory by seizing the Aleppo province towns of Marea and Azaz, which lie on key supply routes for the rival rebels.

Online, IS supporters accused Al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham of collaborating with the US-led coalition, denouncing them as “America’s spies” and collaborators with the “crusader coalition.”

Despite sharing a jihadist ideology, Al-Nusra and IS are fierce rivals, with IS seeking to expand its self-declared “caliphate” in territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.

Al-Nusra pledges allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, but has for now confined its ambitions to Syria and has allied with conservative Islamist groups fighting the regime and IS.

The US-led coalition began its air campaign in Syria last September but the majority of its strikes have been confined to areas where IS has undisputed control or is battling Kurdish forces.

Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government demonstrations but descended into a war after a regime crackdown.

It has evolved into a complex battle with multiple fronts, and involving the regime, rebels, jihadists and Kurdish forces.

– IS pushed back in Hasakeh –

On Sunday in northeastern Syria, the Observatory and Syrian state media said government troops had pushed IS fighters back from Hasakeh city after fierce fighting.

IS began an assault on city, which is capital of the province of the same name, on May 30, that has left 119 dead, among them 71 regime forces and 48 IS fighters, 11 of them suicide bombers.

By Thursday IS had advanced to the city’s southern entrance.

“IS, which has been at the southern entrance of the city since Thursday, was forced to pull back two kilometres after fierce combat with regime forces,” the Britain-based monitor said.

Syria’s official SANA news agency also reported the fighting, saying the army had retaken several positions captured by IS in recent days, including an electricity station and a prison being used as a military base.

The Observatory said fighting was now continuing in the area near the prison.

Control of Hasakeh city is shared between government forces and Kurdish fighters, who did not initially enter into combat against IS.

But the Observatory said Kurdish forces began fighting IS on the outskirts of the areas under their control in the west of the city on Saturday night.

Syria’s Kurds have walked a careful line in the country’s conflict, declining to join the uprising directly, but also not fighting alongside the regime.

In Hasakeh, they share control of the city’s security with regime forces, but the arrangement has been tense at times with skirmishes breaking out occasionally.

Also on Sunday, the Observatory reported that 17 people were killed in three barrel bomb attacks launched by regime forces in the north of the central province of Homs.

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