Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq backed by U.S. airstrikes have advanced against weakening Islamic State defenders in a string of towns but the progress was offset by rebel losses in Syria.
In northeastern Syria, various groups backed by the U.S. and linked under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces were also making progress but Aleppo in the northwest was in danger of falling to Syrian government forces, Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Friday.
In a video briefing from CentCom's Tampa headquarters to the Pentagon, Ryder said the advance by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad backed by a heavy Russian air assault on Aleppo city and province had sent thousands of refugees fleeing toward the Turkish border.
Ryder said CentCom was aware of reports that the remaining Aleppo residents faced starvation but there were no immediate plans for U.S. relief airdrops to the city -- "Not at this time, that I'm aware," he said.
In the tangled sectarian and political rifts of Syria, Ryder said that Aleppo essentially was not an immediate concern for the U.S. military, since the opposition group defenders were battling the Assad regime and not ISIS.
Ryder denied reports that Aleppo had already fallen. "From where we sit, it's just not accurate," Ryder said. The regime and the rebels had held static positions splitting the city for months. The rebels in Aleppo were still holding out but the situation was "very fluid," Ryder said.
The regime forces attacking in and around Aleppo were aided by Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency said Revolutionary Guard Corps Brig. Gen. Mohsen Ghajarian and six Iranian volunteers had been killed in fighting in Aleppo province.
With Russian support, the government forces have gone on the offensive north and south of Damascus for the first time in several months in attacks that scuttled the United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva this week.
The UN said that an estimated 20,000 refugees from Aleppo province were being held up at the border while the Turkish government decides on whether to let them cross.
In Iraq, Ryder said that Sunni tribal fighters who had been held out of previous offensives were now increasingly involved in actions against ISIS defenders. ISIS was "weakening operationally and tactically," Ryder said, as "several layers of pressure are being applied to them."
On Feb. 1, tribal fighters in Nineweh province northeast of Baiji, backed by coalition airstrikes, liberated two villages, Ryder said. From Jan. 25-30 south of Kirkuk, elite Iraqi Counter-Terror Service troops joined with Turkomen tribal fighters to take three villages, Ryder said.
Further north, "we're seeing local tribal resistance fighters combining with KSF (Kurdish Security Forces)" in actions against ISIS, Ryder said.
Eighteen months of U.S. and coalition airstrikes and increasing offensives by the Iraqi Security Forces have winnowed ISIS ranks, according to a new intelligence estimate disclosed Thursday by the White House.
The new intelligence "means they continue to be a substantial threat, but the potential numbers have declined," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. "ISIS has sustained significant casualties," Earnest said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
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