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ISIS makes gains near Syrian city of Aleppo; US abandons rebel training program
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In this image posted on Thursday, October 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), shows ISIS militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria.  (ISIS militant website via AP)

In this image posted on Thursday, October 8, 2015, by the Rased News Network, a Facebook page affiliated with Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), shows ISIS militants preparing to fire a mortar to shell towards Syrian government forces positions at Tal Arn in Aleppo province, Syria. (ISIS militant website via AP)

Beirut and Ankara, Reuters/Asharq Al-Awsat—Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters have seized villages close to the northern city of Aleppo from rival insurgents, a monitoring group said on Friday, despite an intensifying Russian air-and-sea campaign that Moscow says has targeted the militant group.

News of the advance came as the United States announced it was largely abandoning its failed program to train moderate rebels fighting ISIS and would instead provide arms and equipment directly to rebel leaders and their units on the battlefield.

The Obama administration is grappling with a dramatic change in the four-year-old Syrian civil war brought about by Moscow’s intervention in support of President Bashar Al-Assad.

The Pentagon said on Friday it expected to hold new talks with Russia’s military on pilot safety in Syria’s war as soon as this weekend, as the former Cold War foes seek to avoid an accidental clash as they carry out rival bombing campaigns.

The Russian defense ministry said stepped-up airstrikes on rebel positions in Syria killed 300 anti-Assad rebels and that it hit 60 ISIS targets over the last day. There was no independent confirmation of the death toll.

About 200 insurgents were killed in an attack on the Liwa Al-Haqq group in Raqqa province while 100 died in Aleppo, the defense ministry said. Two ISIS commanders were among the dead in Russia’s most intense raids since it launched strikes in Syria 10 days ago. In previous updates Russia has reported hitting 10 targets daily.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the fighting, said there had been no significant advances by government forces backed by allied militia in areas where ground offensives were launched this week. “It’s back and forth,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Observatory.

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps said separately that one of its generals had been killed near Aleppo, once Syria’s most populous city. Iran, like Russia an Assad ally, says it has advisers in the country.

ISIS is now within 1.2 miles (2 km) of government-held territory on the northern edge of Aleppo, which has suffered widespread damage and disease during the civil war that erupted in the wake of protests against Assad.

Syria’s military, backed by Russia, Iran and allied militias, has launched a major attack in Syria’s west to recapture land lost to non-ISIS rebels near the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. That area is vital to Assad’s survival.

As the government operation in the west pushed ahead, ISIS said its fighters had captured five villages in its northern offensive and had killed more than 10 soldiers or militiamen.

The British-based Observatory said it was the biggest advance by ISIS since it launched an offensive against rival rebels in Aleppo near the Turkish border in late August.

“Daesh has exploited the Russian airstrikes and the preoccupation of the (rebel) Free Syrian Army in its battles in Hama, and advanced in Aleppo,” said one rebel commander with fighters in the region, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

Russian warplanes and warships have been bombarding targets across Syria in a campaign Moscow says is targeting IS fighters, who control large parts of eastern Syria and of Iraq.

But the campaign appears to have mainly struck other rebel groups, some of which had been battling to stop the ISIS advance across Aleppo province.

US and Russian warplanes are now flying missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, risking incidents between the two air forces and their fast jets.

Washington said it was pulling the plug on a short-lived USD 580 million program to train and equip units of fighters at sites outside of Syria, after its disastrous launch this year fanned criticism of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.

The Pentagon said it would shift its focus to providing weapons and other equipment to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a US vetting process to ensure they are not linked to militant Islamist groups.

Alongside the Russian air-and-sea campaign, regional officials have told Reuters that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria since late September to support the Syrian army and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Senior Iranian officials have been in Syria for several years as military advisers. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards said a senior general, Hossein Hamedani, was killed near Aleppo late on Thursday. Hamedani was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and was made deputy chief commander in 2005. Several senior Guard commanders have been killed in Syria.

Turkey said on Friday it was concerned about a possible fresh wave of Syrian migrants arriving at its border as a result of Russian air strikes. The conflict has killed 250,000 people and displaced millions, causing a refugee crisis in neighboring nations and in Europe.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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