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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 
government forces.

   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 
months.

   "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 
forces.

   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 
fighting.

   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 
resistance."  


(KA)


 
 
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