BEIRUT: Government forces struck ISIS positions in and around the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa, residents said Monday, part of a growing campaign against hard-line militants – but one attack destroyed the city’s water plant, cutting supplies to homes and businesses.
Residents said there had been some 16 air raids on Raqqa and in nearby areas, including close to the Tabqa military base to the west of the city, a government-controlled airport that is surrounded by militants.
“The bombardment increases then falls off, but when they are not bombing Tabqa airport they are bombing the surrounding towns or bombing Raqqa. The sound of aircraft is constant,” a Raqqa resident said, asking to remain anonymous to protect his identity.
Locals in Raqqa say civilian casualties have been kept to a minimum because many residents have fled to nearby villages and rural areas, while those remaining spend their days in shelters.
The headquarters of ISIS in Syria are situated in what used to be Raqqa’s municipality buildings in densely populated civilian areas.
“It is these buildings that are now targeted in the air raids,” said an opposition activist living in the city, who opposes both ISIS and the government. He said that the air force was now using Russian-made Sukhoi bombers, which carry bigger munitions than MiG fighter jets.
A stepped-up campaign of airstrikes on Raqqa province Sunday killed 31 ISIS fighters and eight civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime monitoring group.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has long painted the uprising in Syria as a foreign-backed Islamist conspiracy and his enemies say he has allowed ISIS to grow to promote that idea. Damascus has not commented on why it was now focusing on ISIS fighters rather than other rebel groups.
Until this summer, Assad’s forces held off from targeting the Al-Qaeda offshoot, allowing the group to thrive, while weakening less hardline opposition groups that are backed by the West. But the government has stepped up air raids against ISIS-held areas in several provinces in the north and east in recent weeks, while anti-regime activists say that many of the casualties in the strikes are civilians.
The Observatory said government forces and ISIS fighters clashed in two villages in Raqqa province Monday, al-Ajil and al-Khazaneh near the Tabqa airport.
It said both sides suffered an unspecified number of casualties in the fighting.
In northern Aleppo province, meanwhile, another ISIS stronghold, eight civilians were killed by two airstrikes on the town of Mambij. The strikes wounded dozens of people, the Observatory said, and left at least 10 people in critical condition. Other airstrikes pounded the city of al-Bab, killing three ISIS militants and a number of civilians, the Observatory said.
In Deir al-Zor province to the east, ISIS militants continued to inflict summary punishments on locals and declared a set of strict guidelines for social behavior in areas under its control.
An anti-regime activist from Deir al-Zor told The Daily Star that a dentist from the city of Mayadin was summarily executed for allegedly working with the regime. The Observatory said the woman had been detained 10 days earlier along with four colleagues, whose whereabouts remained unknown.
ISIS also informed shopkeepers in the city that they must close their establishments during prayer time and told residents they must abandon all forms of smoking. A third order, distributed throughout the city, ordered women to adopt ultra-conservative religious clothing.
In Hama province, and on a separate military front, the Observatory said Islamist rebel groups had downed a warplane near the military airport adjacent to the provincial capital, and that its pilot was killed. They also targeted the facility with mortar fire, the Observatory added.
Other, pro-opposition news outlets said that the plane might have crashed due to mechanical failure.
Rebels have seized several villages in rural Hama in recent weeks, and have vowed to target the city’s military airport.
Also in Hama province, the town of Morek, located on the highway leading to Aleppo, saw fierce fighting. The Observatory said a rebel and an army colonel were killed in the clashes, while pro-opposition news outlets said that the regime side had suffered dozens of casualties in fighting over recent days.
In the mountainous Qalamoun region, on the border with Lebanon, clashes pitting army troops, paramilitaries and Hezbollah fighters against rebel groups raged throughout the days killed at least seven rebels and a number of pro-regime fighters, local anti-regime activists said.
Pro-regime sources, meanwhile, said the rebels lost around 25 fighters.