BEIRUT: A series of recent setbacks for the Syrian regime on the battlefield – most spectacularly at the hands of ISIS – have sparked outrage in the ranks of loyalists.
Some of the most ardent supporters of the regime have been aghast at the news that hundreds of regime soldiers and paramilitaries were killed in battles with ISIS in three different provinces over the last 10 days: the Shaar gas field in rural Homs, the Division 17 military base outside the city of Raqqa, and the Regiment 121 post in rural Hassakeh.
The regime had been stepping up its aerial attacks on ISIS positions in Raqqa before the recent confrontations on the ground, but anti-regime activists who strongly object to the presence of ISIS in the Syrian uprising complained that the strikes did more damage to civilians than to the hard-line Al-Qaeda splinter group.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain, estimates that 1,100 regime troops and paramilitaries have been killed since President Bashar Assad’s inauguration speech on July 17, when he confidently declared “victory” against the terrorists he said were bent on toppling his regime.
In the wake of the speech, half a dozen battlefronts heated up around the country, with mainstream and Islamist rebels achieving small but significant victories in provinces such as Deraa and Hama, and with ISIS more noticeably in the central and northern areas.
For Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow with the CSIS think tank in Washington, the gains by ISIS against regime positions represents a process that is likely to continue.
“The story will play out over quite a bit of time, irrespective of immediate regime losses,” Nerguizian told The Daily Star. “ISIS is shifting some of its attention to Assad-controlled territory at a time when regime forces are prioritizing Aleppo, Iraqi fighters have returned home [to fight ISIS], and Hezbollah is focused on Qalamoun and pacifying the anti-Lebanon mountain chain,” he said.
It is of little comfort to loyalists, who complained that state media remained silent about what was taking place, as they anxiously sought news about the fate of hundreds of soldiers who went missing during the fighting in Raqqa. Social media platforms quickly circulated photos of ISIS’ grim retribution against military personnel in Raqqa, in the form of the severed heads of half a dozen soldiers, put on public display.
Pro-regime Facebook pages were also busy publishing lists of names of the soldiers and officers who fled the post and survived ambush by ISIS militants, finally making it to neighboring Hassakeh province.
Although the Shaar gas field area was retaken over the weekend, and dozens of ISIS militants reportedly killed, it did little to assuage the anger.
“There was only a few days between the disaster at Division 17 and the loss of the Shaar gas field, but it was enough to reveal the decrepit state of military, security and media leaders,” one supporter of the regime wrote, expressing the general mood.
“Where do the senior military leaders stand on what is happening?” she asked. “Division 17 was besieged for two years, and ISIS announced it would attack before the Eid al-Fitr [holiday]. Where was the support, and the planes? Or is your role limited only to stealing and looting?”
Joshua Landis, the Syria Comment blogger and the head of the Center for Middle East Studies at The University of Oklahoma, said the regime’s strategy of dealing with ISIS, which last month spearheaded a similar, sudden offensive in Iraq, appeared to be “backfiring.”
“The Assad regime has given ISIS a pass for many months, in part because Assad has hoped that ISIS’ growth would spook the West,” Landis told The Daily Star. “But this cynical strategy seems to be backfiring today. ISIS is spooking Syrians even more than it is Westerners, and with good reason. ISIS is slashing and burning its way through a number of regime strongholds, and Syrians fear that their government has underestimated ISIS,” Landis said.
According to an anti-regime media activist not aligned with the political opposition, the rage being expressed against the regime for its military performance has been unprecedented.
“It’s the first time that they have been cursing the president by name, and holding him responsible,” the activist, who requested anonymity, said. “They’ve never been in such a state before.”
Anti-regime activist groups, meanwhile, have relayed the news of the regime losses in Raqqa and Hassakeh, but in many cases the news was reported in matter-of-fact fashion, empty of any celebratory comments.