ISIS Increases Control in Buffer Zone on Turkish Border

ISIS Increase Control
An Islamic State flag flies over the custom office of Syria's Jarablus border gate as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in Gaziantep province, Turkey August 1. The terror group has captured five more villages in northern Aleppo, which has been described as a 'major turning point' by analysts. Murad Sezer/Reuters

ISIS militants captured five villages early on Thursday morning in the northern Syrian region which has previously been proposed as an 'ISIS-free buffer zone' by both the U.S. and Turkey. London-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), revealed that five villages in northern Aleppo Province, including Sandaf, al-Dahla, Kharjala, Harbal and al-Kherba, were overrun by the radical Islamists, as the group continues to increase its territorial hold in the area after the announcement of the planned buffer zone.

Last month, Washington and Ankara agreed a plan to create an 'Islamic State-free' safe haven along the shared Turkish-Syrian border because of the terror group's increasing influence in the border regions, with thousands of jihadists crossing the porous border since the group's rise last year.

Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the UK-based observatory, confirmed to Newsweek that the villages were captured by ISIS from both the Islamic Front, a moderate Syrian rebel group, and other Syrian rebels. "The [Al-Qaeda-linked] Nusra Front left these two villages (Kharjala and al-Dahla) on the Turkish border a few weeks ago and gave them to the Islamic Front," he said when asked who had previously controlled the villages. "These [five villages] were also taken from other rebels groups."

The number of casualties caused by the clashes between ISIS and the Syrian rebels remained unclear as the monitoring group's network of activists did not have specific details about the battles in the villages, Rahman added.

Earlier this month, the Nusra Front announced that it would leave the border regions to other Syrian rebels. The jihadist group also released a statement which condemned the decision to create an ISIS-free zone on the Turkish border as it only aimed to help "Turkey's national security" and not the fight to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Facing this current scene, our only option was to withdraw and leave our frontline positions in the northern Aleppo countryside for any fighting faction in these areas to take over," the Nusra Front said.

Benjamin Decker, intelligence analyst at the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk consultancy the Levantine Group, says that the withdrawal of the Nusra Front from the area and ISIS's territorial grab have left the establishment of any buffer zone like this a more difficult proposition.

"This is going to put the anti-ISIS coalition on a literal collision course with ISIS in the area," he says. "This is a major turning point, to test the strategy of the U.S.-led coalition."

"With ISIS coming in [to the planned buffer zone], obviously it is going to take more time to figure out how to get them out, whether through airstrikes or artillery fire," Decker adds. "Either way, anything that the coalition does to force ISIS withdrawal is going to increase the probability that ISIS will attempt to carry out asymmetric mass casualty attacks in that area."

The group, which launched a failed offensive on the Syrian border city of Kobani last year, has also been suspected by the Turkish government of carrying out a suicide bomb attack in the Turkish border town of Suruc last month, which killed 32 people.

In an interview with Reuters on Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlt avuolu said that both Turkey and the U.S. would soon conduct "comprehensive" air operations against ISIS militants in northern Syria in a move towards creating the zone.