Syria Strikes Militants 08/19 07:27
BEIRUT (AP) -- As the U.S. military strikes the Islamic State group in Iraq,
Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces have significantly stepped up their own
campaign against militant strongholds in Syria, carrying out dozens of
airstrikes against the group's headquarters in the past two days.
While the government in Damascus has long turned a blind eye to the Islamic
State's expansion in Syria --- in some cases even facilitating its offensive
against mainstream rebels --- the group's rapid march on towns and villages in
northern and eastern Syria is now threatening to overturn recent gains by
While Islamic State militants have so far concentrated their attacks against
the Western-backed fighters seeking to topple Assad, they have in the past
month carried out a major onslaught against Syrian army facilities in
northeastern Syria, capturing and slaughtering hundreds of Syrian soldiers and
pro-government militiamen in the process.
On Monday, Islamic State fighters were closing in on the last
government-held army base in the northeastern Raqqa province, the Tabqa air
base, prompting at least 16 Syrian government airstrikes in the area in an
attempt to halt their advance.
In the northern city of Aleppo, there is a sense of impending defeat among
mainstream rebels as Islamic militants systematically routed them last week in
towns and villages only a few kilometers (miles) north of the city. An Islamic
State takeover of rebel-held parts of Aleppo also would be disastrous for
Syrian government troops who have been gaining ground in the city in past
"I think they (Syrian government) are finally realizing that their
Machiavellian strategy of working with the Islamic State group against the
moderates did not work so well, and so they have started to fight it," said
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But in hitting hard against the Islamic State group, Assad has another
motive. His aerial bombardment of militant strongholds in Syria in a way
mirrors that of the U.S. military's airstrikes against extremists across the
border in Iraq.
Analysts say Assad's strikes aim at sending a message that he is on the same
side as the Americans, reinforcing the Syrian government's longstanding claim
that it is a partner in the fight against terrorism and a counterbalance to
extremists. That comes after the U.S. itself nearly bombed Syria after it
blamed Assad's forces for a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near
Damascus last August.
"Assad would surely love to regain international acceptance via a 'war on
terror' and maybe that is his long-term plan, in so far as he has one," Syria
analyst Aron Lund said.
Even while going against the Islamic State in Iraq, U.S. officials have
shown little appetite for striking at the same militants in Syria.
Asked about Syrian government airstrikes targeting the militants, State
Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf rejected the notion that Washington
and Damascus are "on the same page" in their fight against the Islamic State as
a common enemy.
"While we may be looking at some of the same targets, I think the fact ...
that the Assad regime has allowed ISIS to flourish and grow in the way it has
is really one of the main reasons they have grown so strong," she said, using
one of the acronyms for the Islamic State.
Most of all, however, Assad can simply no longer afford to ignore the
growing threat of the Islamic State now that it has started attacking his own
Since July, following their blitz in Iraq and after they declared a
self-styled caliphate straddling the Iraq-Syria border, Islamic State fighters
have methodically gone after isolated government bases in northern and eastern
Syria, killing and decapitating army commanders and pro-government militiamen.
The attacks started with a devastating onslaught on the al-Shaer gas field
in Homs province in which more than 270 Syrian soldiers, security guards and
workers were killed. Last month, the jihadis overran the sprawling Division 17
military base in Raqqa province, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later,
Islamic State fighters seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy
They now are closing in on Tabqa air base. Activists on Monday reported
intense clashes between government troops and Islamic State fighters on the
edge of the villages of Ajil and Khazna near Tabqa. The Raqqa Media Center, an
activist collective, said the Islamic State captured four villages near the air
base, including Ajil.
"They will stop at nothing. If things continue the same way it's only a
matter of time before the Islamic State seizes Aleppo," said Abu Thabet, an
Aleppo rebel commander. He said the jihadis were now looking to take the rebel
stronghold of Marea, to be followed by the Bab al-Salama border crossing with
Turkey, which would be a major prize and source of money.
Oubai Shahbandar, a Washington-based senior strategist for the
Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition group, called Assad's
airstrikes against the Islamic States superficial, saying the Western-backed
rebels were the only force truly confronting the jihadis.
He also shrugged off any suggestion that Assad and the West share a common
enemy in the Islamic State group.
"The choice for the West is clear," he said. "Assad turned Syria into a
springboard for terror, while the opposition leads the anti-Islamic State