- Video: Rebels Seize Wayward Airdrop to Trapped Syrian Troops in Jisr al-Shughour
- 1 Killed, 3 Injured as Shells Hit Near Russian Embassy in Damascus
- Palestinian Artist-Activist Faces Deportation by Jordan to Syria — “He Will Be Killed”
- Rebel Leader Alloush Continues Meetings in Turkey, Gives 1st Interview to Western Media
- Kurdish Forces Take Mount Abdulaziz in Eastern Syria from Islamic State
- Reports: US Bombs Near Protest Center of Kafranbel, At Least 4 Killed
UPDATE 1900 GMT: Sources confirm claims on Twitter that the Islamic State has entered the regime-controlled Sheikh Najjar industrial zone east of Aleppo.
The militants passed a regime checkpoint to take positions in Zone 3 (see map).
The Islamic State made a brief incursion into the zone earlier this week.
Reports are circulating on Twitter that the regime, concentrating on rebels, left routes lightly defended against a possible Islamic State attack:
— Not a spy (@finriswolf) May 21, 2015
— Not a spy (@finriswolf) May 21, 2015
Regime forces took Sheikh Najjar from rebels in July 2014.
UPDATE 0945 GMT: Alison Meuse of US National Public Radio, citing a source in Palmyra, writes of death and threats from the Islamic State after its capture of Palmyra:
#palmyra source:people woke up to find decapitated bodies in streets. ISIS used mosque speakers to demand turn in soldiers or face same fate
— Alison Meuse (@AliTahmizian) May 21, 2015
Refuting the claims of State media that all civilians were evacuated by a retreating Syrian military, the source says “only high- ranking officers and collaborators” left and that “hundreds of soldiers [were] left behind”.
Meuse also cites an eyewitness who says some inmates of Palmyra’s military prison, notorious for abuse and killing of detainees, were probably taken away by six buses after a visit by Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi two days ago. Local sources speculate those removed include Lebanese men held since the 1980s.
Reports and images are circulating of the Islamic State’s killing of civilians, notably men from the al-Sheitat tribe.
Al-Sheitat tribesmen were slain in a mass killing by the militants in Deir ez Zor Province in eastern Syria in August 2014.
After a week-long offensive, the Islamic State took the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, as Syrian defense forces crumbled in a 24-hour period.
The militants’ victory was confirmed when orders were given for Syrian troops, including the 18th Tank Battalion and National Defense Forces militia, to withdraw. Some forces are believed to have retreated west to the Tiyas (T4) airbase, which has most of the Syrian air force’s advanced fighter-bombers.
The loss of Palmyra follows the regime’s defeat by rebels on Monday at its last military camp south of Idlib city in northwest Syria. Since March 28, President Assad’s forces have been pushed out of almost all of Idlib Province, including the city of Jisr al-Shughour on the highway from Aleppo to the Mediterranean, and much of the south along the Jordanian border. As the Islamic State threatens to move farther across Homs Province, rebels could advance in Hama and Aleppo Provinces, threatening the regime in some of Syria’s largest cities.
The Islamic State’s initial attack on Palmyra was on May 13, after the militants moved across eastern Homs Province by taking gas fields and the desert town of Sukhna and cutting the highway to Deir Ez Zor Province in eastern Syria. The fighters briefly hold northern and eastern sections of Palmyra last weekend.
However, as late as Monday, the Syrian military claimed it had defeated the offensive, not only pushing the Islamic State out of Palmyra but inflicting heavy losses and forcing the militants to flee back to the east.
That assurance quickly disappeared when the Islamic State, which never retreated beyond the outskirts of the ancient city, attacked again on Tuesday. It recaptured the northern and eastern sections and was in the center of Palmyra on Wednesday afternoon.
— The 47th (@THE_47th) May 20, 2015
The final collapse of Syrian forces occurred so quickly that Assad supporters on social media were claiming successful resistance even as the troops were withdrawing:
Stop the bs. #Palmyra has not fallen. Stop the rumors.
— Leith Al-Qandeel (@leithfadel) May 20, 2015
Much of the international attention this morning will be on the Islamic State in one of the prominent cities of the Roman Empire, with its grand, well-preserved ruins and archaeological treasures. Syria’s top official for antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, called on not only the Syrian Army but also the opposition and international community to save the historic site: “The fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved. This is the entire world’s battle.”
However, it is the strategic significance that is likely to occupy the Assad regime. Having declared at the start of this year that he was on the way to victory, President Assad now faces both the rebels and Islamic State moving quickly across Syria and approaching his most important cities and bases. Only in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border, where Hezbollah forces are taking hilltops and mountains, and in the stronghold of Latakia Province on the Mediterranean can the regime find any consolation.
For more information on the military positions in Palmyra and the strategic significance, see the Oryx blog.
Video: Rebels Seize Wayward Airdrop to Trapped Syrian Troops in Jisr al-Shughour
Journalist Hadi al-Abdallah with rebels who have seized a wayward airdrop, with water, tins of food, and cigarettes, for trapped Syrian troops in the National Hospital in Jisr al-Shughour.
More than 200 Syrian soldiers have been surrounded in the hospital since rebels captured Jisr al-Shughour, in Idlib Province near the Turkish border, on April 26. President Assad has staked the regime’s reputation on their rescue, but so far Syrian forces have made little progress and are still about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from the city.
To the east, rebels give a tour inside the regime’s military camp at Mastoumeh, south of Idlib city, which was captured on Tuesday. They show up hundreds of empty artillery shells — the position was one of the main sites for attacks on rebel-held villages and towns throughout the province.
1 Killed, 3 Injured as Shells Hit Near Russian Embassy in Damascus
One person has been killed and three injured by shells that landed near the Russian embassy in Damascus.
The Embassy’s press secretary said the victims were Syrian military servicemen at a checkpoint about 300 meters from the embassy building.
State news agency SANA said the victims were civilians.
On Tuesday, one shell hit an administrative building and another struck near the Embassy’s main entrance. No one was injured.
Palestinian Artist-Activist Faces Deportation by Jordan to Syria — “He Will Be Killed”
Concern is growing that a Palestinian-Syrian artist and activist, Wael al-Sahlee, may be deported to Syria from Jordan.
Sahlee fled Syria for Jordan in late 2012 after he was threatened by the Assad regime. In late April, his case received publicity when — banned from working Jordan and trying to reach Europe — he and his 9-year-old son were sent back to Dubai airport, where they lived for two weeks.
They were eventually readmitted by Jordan on a temporary basis, but now Sahlee has been taken to the Syrian border and awaits deportation.
“For sure if the regime catch him he will be dead,” said his brother Thaer, a refugee in Europe. “Wael was wanted by the regime, and he escaped. If he returns back to Syria, he will be killed. It’s no secret.”
Rebel Leader Alloush Continues Meetings in Turkey, Gives 1st Interview to Western Media
Jaish al-Fatah leader Zahran Alloush is continuing his meetings in Turkey, as the rebel coalition tries to develop coordination and to build international support.
— Sami (@Paradoxy13) May 21, 2015
In addition to meeting former and current leaders of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Alloush has been in discussions with other heads of rebel forces. He first made his way across Syria and into Turkey a month ago.
In his first interview with Western media, Alloush stepped back from previous statements promoting an “Islamic State” and threatening the Alawite community, of which the Assad family are members.
Alloush told McClatchy News Service, “We want to establish a state in which our rights are fulfilled….After that, the people should choose the sort of state they want.” Condemning “sectarian discrimination” against the Sunni Muslim majority, Alloush said he favors a “technocratic, professional government”.
Asked about his previous statements about Alawites, Alloush said they came out of anger over the regime’s attacks on and blockade of East Ghouta, near Damascus, where Jaish al-Fatah is based:
We are under siege. We all suffer psychological stress. When I was in prison and the jailer would come and torture prisoners, after he would leave prisoners would quarrel and beat each other.
Alloush also explained rebel disillusionment with the US Government, even as he revealed contacts with Washington: “Frankly speaking, the current administration is a hindrance to the Syrian people. It prevents it from getting its freedom.”
He confirmed reports since the end of 2013 of US meetings, including the Obama Administration’s special envoy Daniel Rubinstein, with the Islamic Front rebel coalition.
We have been in contact with them many times, but we have reached the conclusion that the current administration doesn’t care about the Syrian people. They see atrocities happening in Syria and do nothing. They don’t allow us to defend ourselves.
Alloush cited Washington’s blocking of a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons from Libya. He denounced a message from the US Government in February that asked Jaish al-Fatah to halt rocket attacks on Syrian military targets in Damascus, retaliating for regime bombing that killed hundreds of civilians near the capital.
“We had no choice,” Alloush said. “We are not bombing civilians. We are focusing on the bases that bomb us.”
Kurdish Forces Take Mount Abdulaziz in Eastern Syria from Islamic State
Kurdish forces have completed the capture of Mount Abdulaziz, pushing back the Islamic State in Hasakah Province in eastern Syria.
— Cahida Dêrsim (@dilkocer) May 20, 2015
Mount Abdulaziz is a ridge in southwest Hasakah Province, about 35 km (22 miles) from Hasakah city.
Kurdish forces have been putting increased pressure on the Islamic State in eastern Syria, advancing along the Euphrates River and areas to the west. A commander of the Kurdish militia YPG, Zagros Cudi, tells Syria Direct:
Our main goal is to cut the Abu Khashab road that connects both Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa with the Abdul Aziz mountain range. When that occurs, it will cut the Islamic State’s main artery that was supplying the group with weapons and ammunition….
We will not stop at the Jabal Abdul Aziz region. We will continue moving, continue pursuing the Islamic State.
Cudi also has a message for President Assad: “As for the Syrian regime — what regime are you talking about? The regime no longer exists. We don’t acknowledge anything called the Syrian regime.”
Reports: US Bombs Near Protest Center of Kafranbel, At Least 4 Killed
Activists and the Syrian opposition are continuing to discuss Wednesday’s claimed US airstrikes near Kafranbel, a center of protest since the uprising began in 2011, in Idlib Province in northwest.
At least four people were killed by the attack, which apparently targeted a headquarters of the Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra. Some pro-opposition outlets are claiming dozens of dead and wounded.
The US has periodically attacked Jabhat al-Nusra positions since the first day of its airstrikes in September 2014, which have mostly been aimed at the Islamic State.
— Mark (@markito0171) May 20, 2015
Claimed footage of scene:
Kafranbel is noted for its posters and banners during Friday protests, some of which take on an ironic tone in light of Wednesday’s news: