When ISIS ransacked Iraqi army bases during its June blitz through the country’s north and west, the radical jihadist group emerged with a number of possible next targets. With its new armour and materiel in tow, it could have tried to destabilize an ever-wary Jordanian monarchy or launched a major offensive on Baghdad.
Instead, the Islamic State is consolidating its gains, clearing out Kurdish militias that sit on the edge of the territories it controls and ejecting Assad’s army from parts of central and Eastern Syria.
Over 1,800 people were killed in the past ten days. But the war’s gaining intensity doesn’t owe to any immediate threat to the Assad regime’s existence, and it isn’t because of any endgame-type showdown between the government and its various armed opponents.
Syria is now effectively partitioned, with the war consisting of a network of hot conflicts within and between the various combatants’ spheres of control. And now, these region-by-region conflicts are so enflamed that even campaigns for individual sub-sections of the country can kill thousands of people within the space of a few days.
ISIS launched its latest offensive in order to connect its pockets of control in Syria’s vast central and eastern regions. Much of its offensive is focused around Deir Zur in Syria’s eastern desert, as well as the gas fields around the flashpoint city of Homs, along the border of Syria’s regime-controlled areas.
There have been reports of organised local resistance to ISIS in eastern Syria in recent days, but the majority of people killed during this latest spike in violence have been regime soldiers and militants allied with Assad — though the Kurdish PYD militia, which controls territory between ISIS-held Tel Abyad and Raqqa that protrudes into ISIS’s domain, claims to have killed nearly 700 Islamic State fighters in the past month as well.
So the violence is largely instigated by ISIS’s attempts to parlay its presence in eastern and central Syria — and its sudden glut of cash and weaponry — into real, territorial control.
Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Business Insider that this is the most logical objective for ISIS at the moment. The Syrian vacuum presents the newly-ascendant group with opportunities that few targets would offer.
“It’s a lot easier to take the territory in Syria,” said Zelin by email, noting that Baghdad’s majority Shi’ite population would prove unmanageable for the Sunni and rabidly sectarian ISIS, while the Jordanian state possesses some of the region’s most formidable intelligence and security capabilities.
ISIS has a good idea of what they’re up against in Syria — they have been fighting the Assad regime and Syria’s secular rebels for years. And they have a strategic need to consolidate their territorial gains as well as the means by which to do so.
“[ISIS] has a relatively good idea of where the holes are in their opponents and are taking advantage of it,” notes Zelin. “Essentially Syria is a lot less stable than Baghdad or Jordan. They thrive on the chaos.”
In an earlier phase of the Syria conflict, observers wondered if the possible overthrow of the Assad regime would usher in the radical Islamist takeover of a populous and centrally-located country. Now, both scenarios are unfolding simultaneously: a group too radical for Al Qaeda is violently carving out its domain. And Assad is still in power, ensconced in Syria’s urbanized and coastal west where his rule is secure.
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