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Syria Roots Out Islamic State From Border Region With Israel
Syrian soldiers raise the national flag in the town of Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights. (Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images)

Syria Roots Out Islamic State From Border Region With Israel

For the first time in seven years, Assad forces regain the southwest corner of the country bordering the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights after a bloody six-week offensive

The Syrian regime for the first time in seven years regained control of the Golan Heights frontier opposite the Israeli border, after ousting an Islamic State-affiliated group from its remaining strongholds in the region on Monday, according to the Syrian regime and local websites.

Forces under the regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air power, retook the Yarmouk Basin from the ISIS- affiliated Jaysh Khalid bin Walid group after a bloody six-week campaign.

The area first fell into the hands of rebel groups after a popular uprising broke out against the Assad regime in 2011. But then ISIS-linked groups seized the area from the opposition fighters. In mid-July the Syrian regime defeated the rebels near the Golan Heights, and then turned its attention toward the ISIS-linked fighters in this latest major offensive.

Syrian State media SANA reported that the “operation was carried out with combat units and special tactics [so] that the terrorist organization lost the ability to maneuver,” adding that its suicide bombers tried to target Syrian soldiers, but were stopped with “heavy losses to equipment and personnel.”

Sensing that their remaining strongholds were in jeopardy, ISIS fighters resorted to a familiar tactic: they murdered and kidnapped members of a minority group in the area to pressure the regime to halt its attack. The terrorist group is reportedly holding over 20 Druze women—their ages ranging from 18 to 60—and 16 young boys and girls from the minority group.

They seized the captives last week while massacring about 255 Druze civilians in Suwayda and its surrounding villages, a region that is predominantly Druze. ISIS members then escaped the regime’s onslaught, taking the hostages with them.

A few of the Druze women taken captive have reportedly been killed near the village of Shabki, a focus of the regime’s offensive last week.

The Sunni Muslim extremists of ISIS view the Druze—followers of an esoteric offshoot of Islam—as apostates. The terrorist group displayed a similar tactic in 2014 when it massacred and enslaved members of the Yazidi ethnic group in the Sinjar Mountains of northern Iraq. Yazidism is monotheistic faith that combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Over the weekend, the ISIS-linked group released a video of a female hostage who said she was being held along with other women from Suwayda. She said she would be released if the government would halt its offensive. She also called on the Syrian regime to release ISIS detainees. If the regime will not comply with these requests, she said, the hostages will face execution.

Owen Holdaway, a freelance journalist based in Syria, told The Media Line that ISIS still controls parts of the desert in the Deir Ez Zor Province in eastern Syria running along the border with Iraq’s Anbar Province. “But it is unlikely that ISIS took the Druze hostages there,” Holdaway said.

He explained that Islamic State’s remaining leaders are thought to be in that area, particularly around the town of Hajin, which has been in the crosshairs of both Syrian forces and Iraqi airstrikes.

Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and cofounder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) explained to The Media Line that ISIS still has a presence in the villages and the desert areas of central Syria.

“They are not completely gone from those remote Sunni areas. It is likely the Druze hostages would have been taken there. Islamic State is still active in Iraq and has money, networks, weaponry, and the ability to hold captives.”

He added that even though ISIS is no longer a quasi-state, this does not mean the group is incapable of acting as a loose network, with the possibility of taking hostages and causing great damage through terrorist attacks.

Turning to the implications for Israel, Spyer said that “in and of itself the presence of the Assad regime in the Golan Heights region is not a disaster from the State of Israel’s point of view.

“Israel was able to deter the regime in the past and can presumably do so again. But the issue is that this is quite a different arrangement of forces because the Assad regime is very weak now. It has depended on the support, most importantly, of Iranian-associated forces on the ground in order to secure its victory.

“Evidence suggests,” Spyer concluded, “that Iranian-associated forces have already come close to the border. Israel hopes that Russia will agree to keep them back, but many analysts—myself included—are very skeptical about that.

“The issue to be decided is: To what extent will the Iranian-backed forces manage to arrange themselves close to the border and how will Israel respond? That is the central implication of the return of the regime and its allies to the border area.”

Colonel (ret.) Gabi Siboni, director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line that “the Iranians will likely try to embed its proxy forces, namely its Shiite militias, along the border with Israel.”

Siboni added that “Israel is trying to coordinate its activities with Russian forces supporting the Assad regime, but will act independently if need be to determine its interests in Syria.”

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