PHOTO: Roman ruins in Palmyra in central Syria, March 2014



Interview: Trying to Cover — and Understand — the Islamic State

Important battles are developing between the Islamic State and regime forces near the historic city of Palmyra in central Syria.

Palmyra, with its Roman ruins, was seized by the Islamic State in May after a rapid offensive in eastern Homs Province. However, in the last two weeks Assad forces have taken territory to the north and south of the city in the hope of surrounding it and launching a decisive counter-attack. Pro-Assad outlets claim that regime units as close as 5 km (3 miles) from Palmyra.

See Syria Daily, July 9: Assad’s Military Claims Advance on Palmyra

At the same time, the Islamic State is seeking another significant advance further to the west, about 48 km (30 miles) from Palmyra. They are attacking the Tiyas (T4) airbase and oil pumping station.

The airbase, Syria’s biggest with 58 hardened shelters and two hangars, hosts a large portion of the regime air force including Su-24 and Su-22 strike aircraft.

This week the Islamic State captured the village of Althias, about 10 km (6 miles) from the airport after a seven-hour battle. A Syrian “military source” at T4 denied that the airbase has targeted with car bombs and said it is “totally safe”: “[The] breach [at Althias] never affected the traffic movement at the airport and does not pose any threat to the airport.”

However, the Islamic State has moved Grad rocket launchers into Althias and targeted T4, and a “field source” confirmed that the militants are attacking the airbase perimeter.

Former US Ambassador to Syria: “Yes, Talk to Ahrar al-Sham”

The former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has called on Washington to hold discussions with the leading rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham.

Critics of Ahrar al-Sham have labelled it “extremist” and “jihadist”, claiming it is close to Al Qa’eda. However, the faction — which is the largest member of coalitions in both northern and southern Syria — has denied that it is terrorist and a threat to the US. Last weekend, the group’s foreign policy spokesman wrote in The Washington Post:

We have been falsely accused of having organizational links to al-Qaeda and of espousing al-Qaeda’s ideology.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We believe that Syria needs a national unifying project that cannot be controlled or delivered by a single party or group and should not be bound to a single ideology. We believe in striking a balance that respects the legitimate aspirations of the majority as well as protects minority communities and enables them to play a real and positive role in Syria’s future. We believe in a moderate future for Syria that preserves the state and institutes reforms that benefit all Syrians.

See Syria Op-Ed: The Deadly Consequences of Mis-Labeling Rebels

Writing with analyst Ali El Yassir, Ford sets out Ahrar al-Sham’s importance and concludes:

Talking is most certainly not giving military aid or arming. Our refusal even to talk with groups like Ahrar further reduces the little influence Americans still have in Syria.

As the Assad regime steadily weakens, the administration keeps trying to lead the opposition from behind, hoping for an opposition white knight to appear. Instead, because Islamist groups like Ahrar strongly influence decisions about the fate of Syria, Washington will be left behind.

Rebels Announce Rocketing of Regime Enclaves in Idlib Province, in Retaliation for Zabadani Offensive

Rebels have announced that they will carry out rocket attacks on two regime enclaves in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, retaliating for a Hezbollah-regime offensive on the town of Zabadani in Damascus Province.

The Jaish al-Fatah coalition issued the statement on Wednesday.

The fortified enclaves of Fu’ah and Kafraya, north of Idlib city, have escaped capture as rebels have taken 95% of Idlib Province.

Hezbollah and Assad troops launched an assault on Zabadani, 31 km (about 19 miles) northwest of Damascus, two weeks ago. There are conflicting reports of the progress of the offensive, which is accompanied by daily aerial bombardment.

See Syria Daily, July 10: Rebels in Zabadani — “We Will Not Kneel to the Regime”