Capture of ISIS affiliated group's final redoubt brings Assad closer to victory
TUNIS - Israel and Jordan fired separately upon fighters from an ISIS affiliated group flushed from their stronghold in the Golan Heights as government forces sought to consolidate Damascus’s grip upon south-west Syria.
Southern jihadist group the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army affiliated with the Islamic State in May 2016 and have been combating both government forces and other rebel factions from the small strip of territory it held near the Golan Heights since. That stronghold finally succumbed to the government’s advance on July 31, with fighters either retreating to the Israeli or Jordanian borders, or surrendering the same day.
“The group's territory was an isolated enclave surrounded by Israel and Jordan,” Syria analyst Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi told The Arab Weekly in emailed comments. “There was nowhere else they could go inside of Syria unless they agreed to a deal with the Syrian government to be transported to the desert areas towards the east in which IS is active.”
According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, many of those who surrendered are currently being held for eventual exchange with civilians abducted during the group’s bloody raid on Sweida last week. Others were tried – some with their families – and executed the same day, the British-based conflict monitor allege.
Approaching the Jordanian border, Khaled ibn al-Walid Army militants came under a sustained 24-hour attack by the Jordanian military between Tuesday and Wednesday, with an unspecified number of fighters killed.
“We applied rules of engagement and members of the Daesh (Islamic State) gang were forced to retreat inside Syria,” an army source told Jordanian state news agency Petra. On Wednesday night, fighters of the ISIS-affiliated group approaching the Israeli border came under aerial assault as the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) carried out strikes along the Golan, killing seven insurgents it believed were preparing to attack an Israeli target.
Signalling a break with past Israeli attitudes to the Assad regime’s advance, which have largely centred upon the presence of Damascus’s forces being used as a trojan horse for Iranian militias, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters. “From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule.”
Questioned whether Israel could afford to be less wary of the Golan becoming a possible flashpoint, Lieberman responded, “I believe so. I think this is also in Assad’s interest.”
The retaking of the last ground of the ISIS-affiliated group marks the final stage in the regime’s six week offensive to reclaim Syria’s south.
Current events on the ground now seem long distance from the early months of last year, when regime forces were estimated to hold just 17% of Syria’s overall territory, with the Islamic State’s sprawling caliphate straddling its border with Iraq.
Since then, a series of bold advances by the government and its Russian and Iran-aligned allies, allied to a rapid offensive by the US-backed Kurds, have wrested much of Syria from rebel and jihadist hands.
"Our date with victory is near," Assad wrote in an open letter to the rank and file.
"They (the rebels) were ultimately forced to leave -- humiliated, rolled back, their tails between their legs - after you gave them a taste of bitter defeat."
Nevertheless, despite the regime’s gains in the south, the remnants of the Islamic State remain throughout the country.
“IS will still exist as an insurgent force partly because it's difficult to secure the vast desert areas,” wrote Al-Tamimi. “Look how IS has turned up in the (Sweida's) desert areas.”