The regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad seemed to be further losing its grip in Syria on Friday, as his army was driven out of a key stronghold near the coast, hours after losing its last outpost on the Iraq border to Islamic State, on the other side of the country.
This new strategic loss for Assad, along with his recent losses to IS at the ancient city of Palmyra, and the last Syria-Iraqi border crossing, is another sign of his regime’s disintegration.
In Idlib in the northwest of the country, jihadis from the al-Nusra Front, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, succeeded in increasing their control of province after two weeks of fighting, breaking the siege of a major government hospital in Jisr ash-Shugur, from which Syrian soldiers were seen fleeing. Jisr ash-Shugur is considered one of the Syrian regime’s strategic strongholds due to its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, where most of the Alawite community, of which Assad is a member, live.
An opposition website claimed that the rebels managed to take a great number of soldiers and officers prisoner during their escape from the hospital.
Syrian TV reported on the breaking of the rebel siege, but they painted a different picture saying: “Our heroes managed to leave the hospital”.
In another major setback to the Assad regime, local sources said that Islamic State fighters took over the Syrian-Iraqi border crossing “Al Waleed”, which was the last one in the hands of the Assad regime, after Islamist forces had already chased the Syrian army from two other border crossings.
On Thursday, IS fighters scored a significant achievement upon declaring their control of the Syrian city of Palmyra, famous for its 2,000-year-old spectacular structures, located 210 kilometers from Damascus.
Simultaneously in Iraq, the Islamist organization managed to extend its conquest of the strategic Iraqi regional capital city Ramadi, in fighting to the east of the city against the Iraqi army.
This double achievement of the Islamists, who are planning the establishment of extremist caliphates in the areas under their control, increases the pressure on the Syrian and Iraqi armies, but also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of the American strategy which hasn’t succeeded in weakening IS by air attacks.
On another front, in North Africa, IS’ branch in Lybia succeeded in strengthening its control of Sirt, birthplace of the former ruler of the country, Muammar Gaddafi.
The White House did not ignore the fact that the capture of Palmyra is proof that the international coalition’s strategy, headed by the United States, is a failure. However, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, emphasized that US President Barack Obama is opposed to Republican demands to send ground troops to fight ISIS.
The Obama administration publicly continues to express trust in Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but in private conversations American sources doubt the latter’s ability to bridge the gaps between the country’s different factions. “He’s too weak”, Washington claims.
The Islamic State capture of the ancient Syrian city is the first time that the group has succeeded in directly gaining control of a city that was previously in the hands of the Syrian army. United Nations officials estimate that at least a third of the city’s inhabitants, which numbers 200,000, have fled their homes in the last couple of days with the increase in fighting. Testimony that UN officials received revealed that Syrian army soldiers even prevented civilians from fleeing.
Although the Americans aren’t changing their strategy against IS, on Thursday they have, for the first time, taken responsibility for an attack on civilians during the international coalition’s bombing in Syria.
The Pentagon stated that after a four-year investigation, it seems that two children were killed in an air attack on the night of November 5, in the city of Harem in Syria. According to the Americans, the target of the attack were militants of the Hurasan cell of Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
American defense officials are investigating another three cases of civilian casualties, two in Iraq and one in Syria. The difficulty of taking responsibility for these cases stems from the fact that coalition forces do not have troops on the ground that could help investigate claims.
Fifth Israeli killed fighting for IS
On Thursday evening, a family from Taibe announced that it received a message from IS regarding the death of their son, Yunis Madani Azam, 27, while fighting in the ranks of the terrorist group in Palmyra.
According to the message, the youth was wounded in an exchange of fire, and later on died of his wounds. His family recounted how Yunis traveled to Turkey five months ago, from where he snuck into Syria and joined the ranks of IS. A mourning tent was set up in his house in Taibe.
His father Abd al-Kader Azam said: “On Thursday evening we received a phone call announcing that my son had been seriously wounded and had died shortly afterwards from his wounds.”
A friend of Yunis’ said: “I spoke to him only a couple of days ago. He told me, 'We are engaged in a very difficult war. I hope it will go well.'" He continued: “It’s a shame he joined ISIS. He was a wonderful person, who lacked nothing. I still haven’t been able to digest the fact that he decided to go to Syria.
Yunis was married with two children. Before joining IS he was working in Israel as a general contractor.
To date, five Israeli Arab citizens who joined IS have been killed. Hussein Miswara, 20, of Taibe; Ahmad Habshi, 23, from Iksal; Othman Abd al-Qian, 30, from the south; and a youth from Nazareth whose identity has yet to be disclosed.