BEIRUT: Militants from ISIS have expelled the Nusra Front and allied groups from rebel-held neighborhoods in the city of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates River in the latest territorial gain by the Al-Qaeda splinter group in its multi-front war against rebel groups.
The development is being described as the fall of Syria’s second provincial capital to ISIS, after the city of Raqqa further upstream on the Euphrates last year – but regime forces continue to hold several neighborhoods in the city of Deir al-Zor.
Nonetheless, the entry of ISIS fighters into another major city is a symbolic victory, coming amid the reported killing of the Nusra Front’s commander for the city and flight of fighters from both the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, considered a leading Islamist militia in the country.
Details about the spark for the sudden entry remained murky – pro-ISIS accounts said that Safwan al-Hanat, Nusra’s commander for the city who was widely known as “Abu Hatem,” tried to flee via the Siyasiya bridge to the nearby village of Hatleh.
They claimed Abu Hatem was disguised as a wheelchair-ridden woman and when his ruse was detected by ISIS fighters, who have been besieging Deir al-Zor for weeks, he was summarily executed with a bullet to the head.
Another, anti-ISIS version was that Abu Hatem was the victim, not the practitioner of a ruse – this account claimed that he was “betrayed” after he attended a meeting with ISIS to discuss the possibility of a truce. ISIS had earlier given Deir al-Zor rebel groups a one-week ultimatum to “repent” and turn in their weapons, with the deadline due to expire Friday.
Photos quickly circulated on social media, purporting to show the dead man, lying on the ground with large wads of dollar bills placed on his chest and torso, while a wheelchair is visible next to him.
Local anti-regime activists from the Deir al-Zor Coordination Committee said that after the take-over, ISIS militants closed the Siyasiya bridge and fanned out in the city, firing their weapons into the air in celebration. The activists said the atmosphere during the day was generally calm, with no reports of arrests or summary executions.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime group, said ISIS did arrest an unspecified number of Nusra Front members who “took refuge in a home” during the take-over.
The Observatory said that ISIS now controls 95 percent of Deir al-Zor province, and an estimated 35 percent of Syria – however, much of this territory is sparsely populated steppe means the statistics should be viewed with a dose of skepticism.
However, if the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS manages to consolidate its hold over Deir al-Zor, it will only ease its movement of fighters and equipment along the Euphrates in either direction.
While government troops maintain a presence in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa and aircraft reportedly target ISIS locations in several parts of the country, little damage is done, say anti-regime activists.
The Observatory said that regime forces fired on the ISIS convoy as it entered Deir al-Zor after its sudden gain, and as a reaction to the development, set about “reinforcing checkpoints and barricades.”
The Observatory added that civilian demonstrations against the presence of ISIS continued to take place in villages in rural Deir al-Zor.
Also Monday, ISIS pressed ahead with its campaign against the Kurdish YPG militia. One of its militants carried out a suicide truck bomb attack against a training camp near the city of Ras al-Ain in Hassakeh province, killing and wounding 10 people, the Observatory said.