Daesh (ISIS) Sunday repelled an advance by U.S.-backed forces on one of its main bastions in northern Syria, seizing back territory it had previously lost, Syrian activists and the extremist group said.The group said its fighters infiltrated villages and mountains near the Daesh-held town of Manbij that were seized last month by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated group aided by U.S. special forces that also includes Arab fighters.
In a statement carried by the Daesh-run Aamaq news agency, the group said a fighter driving a car packed with explosives struck a gathering of Kurds amid clashes in the northwestern part of Manbij.
Manbij, lying on a key supply line from Turkey to the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, has been encircled by the SDF for weeks. Heavy clashes were taking place inside.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the Daesh counteroffensive. The Britain-based group, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, reported heavy clashes accompanied by U.S.-led airstrikes and a series of explosions that shook the town, which it attributed to Daesh suicide operations.
Elsewhere, Syria’s Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front has abducted the commander of another Western-backed group, the Jaish al-Tahrir brigade, along with several of his aides and scores of fighters in coordinated raids in northern Syria, Jaish al-Tahrir said Sunday.
Jaish al-Tahrir was set up in February as part of an effort to forge unity among moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army alliance at a time when a major Daesh advance threatened their main stronghold near the Turkish border.
The powerful Islamist Nusra Front is ideologically opposed to the more moderate FSA rebels and their Western supporters, but occasionally fights alongside them against Daesh.
Jaish al-Tahrir, which has 4,000 well-trained fighters, said their leader Mohammad al-Ghabi and a number of his aides were taken in a house raid in Kfr Nubl in Idlib province Saturday night. “They were injured and kidnapped and taken to an unknown location,” Jaish al-Tahrir said.
Nusra Front fighters stormed several locations in coordinated raids and set up checkpoints to arrest around 40 fighters, the group said.
The Nusra Front has previously targeted rebel groups supported by the West, leading to the dissolution of the Syria Revolutionaries Front and the Hazzm movement last year.
In March, the Al-Qaeda offshoot seized the bases and weapons of the 13th Division rebel group, one of the factions that has received foreign military aid, capturing U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.
Jaish al-Tahrir called on Syria’s main rebel groups to put pressure on Nusra to release their leader and prevent an escalation in tensions.
They also said they wanted a judicial court that would arbitrate their differences. Nusra has accused Jaish al-Tahrir leaders of participating in a U.S.-led program to train and equip Syrian insurgents to fight Daesh. Nusra regards the U.S. as an enemy. Jaish al-Tahrir called on restraint by its fighters on their main fronts in northern Syria near the Turkish border where they are battling Daesh militants and fighting the Syrian government army and allied Iranian-backed militias in Aleppo countryside and Latakia province.
In other developments, Syrian government forces were locked in fierce battles with rebels north of Aleppo Sunday in a bid to cut the last opposition route out of the city, the Observatory said.
Fresh clashes broke out overnight in Mallah, a section of farmland on the northern edge of the divided city of Aleppo, the Observatory reported.
President Bashar Assad’s forces have been attempting to seize Mallah for more than two years as it runs adjacent to the Castello Road – the last route rebels can use to access districts they control in the city.
“Regime forces were able to advance in the area, but the Castello Road is still open,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
“If they seize control of all of Mallah, they will be able to besiege the opposition neighborhoods of Aleppo city,” he added.
Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the government, quoted a field commander on Sunday morning saying the army had fully overrun Mallah but had not yet cut off the Castello Road.
“The army has two kilometers left to cut the militants’ only lifeline from the eastern neighborhoods to the outside world via the Castello Road,” the paper wrote.
Fighting has rocked Mallah since a government assault on the area began in late June, followed by a militant-led counterattack.
The situation has remained fluid, with each side advancing briefly before being rolled back.
Dozens of fighters on both sides of the front line – including from the Nusra Front – have been killed there over the past week, the Observatory said.
Meanwhile, fierce government bombardment of an opposition-controlled Syrian town has killed 43 people, among them children and medical staff, the Observatory said Sunday in a new toll.
Hours of airstrikes and shelling on Saturday struck Jayrud, 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, according to the Observatory.
Abdel-Rahman said two medics were among the dead, as well as women and children. One of those killed was Amjad al-Danaf, head of Jayrud’s medical center.
Activists mourned him online and said he was killed in an air raid as he was trying to treat residents wounded in the attacks.
The bombardment – the first on Jayrud in at least two years – began after Syria’s armed forces said Islamist militants killed a government pilot when he was forced to eject from his plane on Friday.
In a statement, the military had pledged that the attack on its pilot “will not go unpunished.”
Early Sunday, Abdel-Rahman said prominent figures in Jayrud had reached an agreement with government officials that rebel fighters would leave the town and hand over the pilot’s body in exchange for a halt to the shelling.
A Facebook page that is run by Jayrud activists that publishes news about the town said that rebels began withdrawing from their bases around the town overnight.
Anti-regime factions in Jayrud include the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), the hard-line Ahrar al-Sham, and the Nusra Front.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said its convoy came under fire while on its way back from a mission to deliver humanitarian aid to a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital, and that one of its staffers was “hit.”
In a statement issued Sunday, it said one of the cars in the convoy was shot at, adding that the car was clearly marked.
The convoy Saturday delivered aid to the besieged areas of Zamalka, Erbeen and west Harasta in the eastern suburb known as Eastern Ghouta