ISIS attack in Sweida a bloody reminder that Syria’s horrors are not over
TUNIS - Islamic State militants killed nearly 250 residents in the southern Syrian province of Sweida in a sustained 12-hour attack.
Witnesses said the attack began about 4am on July 25. Approaching from the north and north-east, Islamic State (ISIS) fighters entered small towns and villages, knocking on doors and often calling villagers by name before killing the inhabitants. ISIS snipers shot escaping villagers.
Three suicide bombers set off explosives in the centre of the town of Sweida and a fourth detonated a bomb after being cornered by residents and local militiamen.
Karam Monther, among those who fought the attackers, told the Guardian that in the town of Rami he saw the bodies of dead fighters and the remains of ISIS militants who had detonated suicide belts.
Monther said a woman had stumbled from her house, saying: “They slaughtered them.” Once inside, she pointed to the bathroom.
“I felt in my heart that a crime had happened there,” Monther told the Guardian. “I opened the door slowly and I saw a mother holding her children but it appeared she hadn’t been able to protect them from Daesh’s [ISIS’s] gunshots.”
“I will never forget this scene all my life. No words can describe it. I knelt and wept in grief,” he said
The predominantly Druze province of Sweida seemed to have escaped the worst of Syria’s civil war. However, as the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad consolidate their grip on south-western Syria, the conflict appears to have reached Sweida.
Why ISIS attacked the province is unclear. Speculation suggested the group was attempting to divert the attention of government forces from ISIS positions elsewhere or perhaps it was naked opportunism.
“I’d say this is a desperate ISIS tactic, not (emblematic of) a real strategy,” David Pollock, a Kaufman fellow at the Washington Institute, said in e-mailed comments.
“They have several hundred fighters in at least two main pockets in that area but that’s all. They may have been trying to force some locals into cooperating with them but turned to revenge when they found few takers.”
“There’s also some suspicion among informed Syrian observers that regime forces may have quietly opened the door to ISIS this time,” Pollock said.
Tension has been brewing between Damascus and Sweida for some time, with many local men refusing national conscription, preferring to remain in Sweida and defend it against potential attack. Opposition figures claim such attacks are exploited by the regime, justifying its control over relatively independent territories such as Sweida.
“One of the primary objectives of ISIS is sowing havoc and creating instability in any possible way,” senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation Colin Clarke said. “This is intended to prove to the population that the Assad regime is incapable, or worse, unwilling to protect them and thus aimed to decrease the legitimacy of the ruling government.”
Damascus’s policy of relocating rebel defenders of any position has also come under scrutiny. For the most part, in a bid to avoid costly final confrontations, remaining rebel fighters have been relocated to Idlib in northern Syria.
However, for ISIS fighters, principally the defenders of Yarmouk Refugee camp in southern Damascus, the government’s and their ally Russia’s offer of relocation meant leaving for the Badiya, 10-40km outside Sweida and the apparent staging area for the July 25 attack.
“Since then there have been civil society activists asking, ‘Why did you bring ISIS east of Sweida?’” an unidentified activist told the Guardian.
The savagery of the Sweida attack is a painful reminder of the horrors that ISIS, which some claimed was vanquished, can cause.
“ISIS’s endgame is to rest, recuperate and rearm until it is able to marshal the strength to once again overtly govern swaths of territory in Syria.” Clarke said, “If it can do this, it can resuscitate some of its funding streams and begin planning a more muscular presence in the country, with the ultimate goal, however unrealistic, of restoring its caliphate.”