The Syrian opposition yesterday called for the United States to extend airstrikes against the Islamic State and target the militants in Syria. Today, their calls were answered by an unlikely ally, as Syrian government airplanes meted out the heaviest day of air attacks on Islamic State-held areas in Syria since the extremist group entered the country more than a year ago.
The opposition hoped strikes would aid the beleaguered Free Syrian Army forces who are trying to hold back the Islamic State as they sweep across northern Syria in an offensive ominously named "Operation Revenge for the Women's Purity." The name stems from the alleged rape of Islamic State women during the January "fitna" battles — suggesting the rapid movement across the north may not simply be a land grab, but also revenge in what is shaping up to be a decisive few days for the Syrian rebels.
When making their call for airstrikes, the rebels would not have expected the Syrian government, which has historically not targeted Islamic State positions, to attack so forcefully. More than 30 strikes hit targets in Raqqa today, with dozens of others pounding newly taken territory in Dabiq, Aktarin, and elsewhere in a drastic change of strategy.
Unlike their Kurdish counterparts in Iraq, the Syrian rebels are poorly equipped to fight the extremist Islamist group, having been caught in a long-running carrot-dangling exercise regarding armament from the International Community that has yet to materialize. The rebels are unprepared for the Islamic State's most recent advances, which began a few days ago. A resident of Mara, a town in the Aleppo countryside with IS massing on the outskirts, spoke on the condition of anonymity and said that there was no noticeable defense being mounted in the village.
Children play in a newly formed bomb crater filled with water to cool down in the summer heat. The Assad regime has stepped up its bombing campaign on both rebel and IS positions. Photo by Frederick Paxton.
US State Department officials have been briefed on the fact that the Syrian rebels are not equipped to fight the militants, according to a well-placed opposition source. The source told VICE News: "The Military Operations Center has not resupplied the desperate FSA fighters protecting Marea." The result is that the opposition cannot maintain control of the town if the Islamic State fighters advance. Another local source confirmed the lack of arms and said: "If [the rebels] don't have weapons now, it's too late."
As the world's attention is focused on advances by the Islamic State in Iraq, Syrian brigades and civilians are confused as to why an IS advance in Iraq brought US airstrikes while they aren't being supported in their battle against the very same group. "ISIS will take all Aleppo, and all the world wait for our heads," said the Mara resident. The willingness to arm Kurdish forces is seen as a double standard by many Syrians.
Asked about the recent call for help, the US State Department referred Vice News to comments made last week by spokesperson Marie Harf, who said US officials "don't believe there's a military solution." Harf added: "We are increasing our support to the moderate opposition, as we've said."
On August 13, the Islamic State swept into an ill-prepared Aktarin, a town north of Aleppo. The defenses of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, supported by the Kurdish force Jabhat al-Akrad (EK), were unable to hold them and suffered losses of 160 men, according to a local activist. The militants moved through the surrounding villages and took Dabiq, a city historically relevant for its role in a previous caliphate.
An Islamic Front fighter walked between frontline positions in Aleppo. The IF are struggling to prevent the Islamic State's advances in the province. Photo by Frederick Paxton.
From here they have gathered on the outskirts of Mara and to the northwest of Azaz. "It seems clear now that IS is seeking to capture the symbolically valuable town of Marea and then Azaz and in so doing effectively cut off the opposition's continued ability to benefit from the use of the Bab al-Salamah crossing with Turkey," said Charles Lister, visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. IS controlled Azaz until March of this year when they made a tactical retreat.
When the Islamic State first entered northern Syria in 2013, they were able to integrate themselves into the communities in the Syrian countryside, ingratiating themselves with social programs and offers of assisting in the fight against the Assad regime. When their brutal practices became too much for Syrian civilians and their presence became an obvious deterrent for international support, the rebels turned on them.
IS made the strategic retreat from much of the Aleppo countryside after rebels began fighting them in January, allowing the militants to avoid major losses. They retrenched in the east of the country, using Raqqa as their base and the rear operating base for the recent push across Iraq. The city has now become the capital of their newly declared "caliphate." With their territories in Iraq now solidified and US airstrikes now being undertaken in the country, they are using the same base to push back across the north of Syria.
Islamic Front fighters have been fighting the Islamic State in and around Aleppo since January. Photo by Frederick Paxton.
The Islamic State have been brutal in their response to local rebels "subordination" and have reportedly slaughtered hundreds of members of a tribe in Deir Ezzour in recent days. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "the Islamic State executed more than 700 people, the majority of them are civilians, in the Badeyat al-Sheitaat and the towns of Ghranij, Abo Hamam and Al Keshkeyyi while the destiny of other hundreds from the people of the tribe of al-Sheitaat are still unknown so far." This claim is backed up by extensive evidence on IS social media channels, where the executions have been well documented in their full brutality.
Lister says more of this kind of brutality can be expected as IS move forward: "IS seeks to exact revenge against opposition rebels, not only for forcing them out earlier this year but also in regard to the IS allegation that their wives were raped during that anti-ISIS offensive. Whether such allegations have any substance to them or not, the offensive has been named as Operation Revenge for the Women's Purity and we can likely expect some particularly brutal vengeance to be meted out, should the advance continue."
Rumours of Abu Waheeb, the highly ranked leader of the Islamic State in Anbar, being present on the Aleppo province front lines, if true, means the group are serious in their intentions. Lister agrees: "Looking further ahead, I would expect IS forces also to seek to move along through Hraytan and Anadan and towards the Idlib towns of Darat Izza and Al-Dana, from where they could also challenge the value of Bab al-Hawa."
Strategically, President Bashar al-Assad would have had more to gain by allowing the Islamic State to continue this sweep across the north uninhibited, wiping out rebel forces before beginning to attack them by air and other means. However, with Islamic State forces close to taking the regime airfield in Tabbqa, near Raqqa, they may have decided to act before their presence in the north was wiped out altogether. These strikes, while forceful, are not decisive, and are certainly not made in coordination with their foes in the rebels groups, so a targeted airstrike and ground operation, like that being enacted by the US and Peshmerga forces in Iraq, won't be forthcoming. That means, at least for now, the Islamic State looks likely to continue their push across Syria.
Follow Emma Beals on Twitter: @ejbeals