Islamic State Offensive In Syria Pushes Rebels And Refugees Into Tough Spot — U.S. Troops Photographed With Kurdish Fighters

A rapid Islamic State offensive on the border of Turkey and Syria has, according to Vice News, caused up to 45,000 people to flee their homes between May 24 and 27. The largest Islamic State offensive in up to two years, it forces those fleeing to join as many as 120,000 other displaced Syrians in the region.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that the goal of the offensive was to attack the supply lines of rebels in the area receiving weapons from Turkey. The Islamic State, also called ISIS, and more pejoratively, Daesh, has been fighting rebels associated with the Free Syrian Army for several months in areas north of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

Fighting has spread to within three miles of the town of Azaz, near the Turkish border where arms are known to have traded hands between Turkey and Syrian rebels. As the Turkish border remains closed, the International Rescue Committee, an NGO in the town, has blocked all other roads around Azaz, trapping people within. Up to 30 rebel fighters have been killed in the assault by Islamic State militants along with nine civilians.

A refugee camp set up in the Syrian town of Azaz. [Photo by Manu Babo/AP Images]
According to NPR, the aid group Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières/MSF) has begun to evacuate a hospital just outside of Azaz. MSF’s operations manager for the Middle East, Pablo Marco, commented,

“We are terribly concerned about the fate of our hospital and our patients, and about the estimated 100,000 people trapped between the Turkish border and active front lines… For some months, the front line has been around seven kilometers away from the hospital. Now it is only three kilometers from Al Salamah town. There is nowhere for people to flee to as the fighting gets closer.”

The offensive comes after Kurdish-led assaults in northeastern Syria push to threaten Daesh’s de-facto capital of Raqqa.

Male and female Kurdish fighters of the autonomous YPG and YPJ, allied with the United States as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga, have made significant gains against the fundamentalist forces over the last year and a half. Up to 1,000 Syrians have fled Aleppo for the safety of YPG-held areas.

Ironically, rebels in Azaz have also used weapons from Turkey against the Kurdish forces. While Ankara supports the insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it also views the 250 mile stretch of autonomous Kurdish regions on the Syrian-Turkish border as a security threat, making it a curious situation for both the United States and Turkey, who are allies.

The situation in Syria has grown muddy in large part to the various factions struggling for control. Recently, as Vice News reports, U.S. forces have been photographed on the ground training with Kurdish forces.

As photos of the troops, which may be part of the 250 pledged by the Pentagon, surfaced, Turkish officials were in an uproar over U.S. troops bearing Kurdish YPG insignias on their uniforms.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ for the all-female units) are closely related to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which Turkey has labeled as a terrorist group that it has been fighting since 1978.

Originally branded as part of global communist revolution seeking an independent Kurdish state, the PKK, under leader Abdullah Oçalan, has since shifted to a type of anarchist-inspired radical democracy in autonomous regions on the border of Syria and Turkey.

These Kurdish militias, which mostly comprise the Syrian Democratic Forces, are being aided by the U.S. in the battle against the Islamic State in the provinces of Hasaka and Raqqa, the latter of the two serving as the headquarters of the Islamic State.

While the known U.S. role had been limited to airstrikes, this marks the first time that U.S. troops have been photographed providing assistance on the ground.

It is believed that the Americans are joining a Kurdish-led offensive into Raqqa, though there’s no information on when it would begin.

[Photo by Mano Brabo/AP Images]