Showdown begins between Syrian army, Islamic State

The first intense clashes between the Islamic State and the Syrian army have begun, opening a new phase of the war in Syria.

al-monitor A member loyal to the Islamic State (IS) waves an IS flag in Raqqa, June 29, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

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syrian regime, syrian military, syrian civil war, islamic state

Jul 25, 2014

The Syrian crisis is entering a new phase of intense battles between the Syrian army and the Islamic State (IS), following months of relative calm devoid of direct clashes between the two parties.

After about two weeks of skirmishes and limited engagements, IS launched a double offensive targeting Division 17 in Raqqa, and Regiment 121 (Melbiya Regiment) in Hasakah, in a move considered to be the largest military attack launched by IS since its establishment, leading to the most violent confrontations between it and the Syrian army since the crisis began.

This offensive came mere days after IS took control of the al-Shaer gas field in the Palmyra desert located in the Homs countryside, where dozens of Syrian army troops were killed. Despite the seriousness of that attack, it cannot compare to the July 24 double offensive, neither in scope nor repercussions, especially when taking into account the sectarian and ethnic diversity characteristic of Hasakah province.

The attack on Division 17

In the late hours of the night of July 23, IS launched its attack on Division 17 in Raqqa’s northern countryside, considered the last stronghold of the Syrian army in the region and the most heavily fortified after the Tabqa military airport.

As is customary, the attack began with a suicide car bomb driven by Saudi Abdul-Aziz al-Saudi (Khatab al-Najdi), who detonated a Kia automobile, the windows of which were adorned with the names of three female detainees in Saudi prisons, among them Hila al-Kasir, the suicide bomber’s niece.

Under the cover of heavy artillery and rocket shelling, the car sped toward the perimeter of Division 17’s base, where it detonated in a massive explosion that shook buildings in Raqqa city. The suicide bombing was expected to result in a breach through which 40 waiting attackers could infiltrate the base and clash with its garrison inside, causing confusion and impacting the morale of soldiers there. But the car exploded prematurely, having been hit by a shell fired by Syrian army defenders. As a result, a second Saudi suicide bomber, Abdullah Saleh al-Sadiri (nicknamed Abu Suhaib al-Jazrawi), again tried but also failed to reach his target adjacent to the Signal Battalion headquarters (one of the battalions that comprise Division 17), when the truck he was driving, filled with tons of explosives, exploded shy of its target.

According to available information, 600 IS militants and 40 infiltrator troops took part in the attack, where all types of medium and heavy weapons were used.

The attack came from three axes: The first followed a line adjacent to the military housing complex, the second targeted the division command and the third the Agrar Battalion. Violent clashes erupted between the two sides, as the division’s garrison, believed to number 300 Syrian soldiers, tried to repel the attack and prevent a breach of the perimeter wall, parts of which were destroyed in previous attacks last year. Syrian warplanes provided the garrison with air support by bombing the attackers and stopping their advance, while helicopter gunships targeted IS headquarters and sites inside Raqqa city.

Websites with ties to IS announced that two surface-to-surface rockets were detected: one near the Pharmacy Guild building, where it exploded in the air, and the other on the borders of Raqqa province, without giving an exact location.

The attacks' toll in dead and wounded remain unknown. Yet, the IS-affiliated Raqqa State Twitter account published photographs of six beheaded Syrian soldiers that its militants killed inside the base, while a source on the field confirmed that several IS militants had been killed, and whose identities and numbers remain unknown as a result of the total media blackout on the part of IS. This happened while clashes continued, ebbing and flowing from hour to hour.

Regiment 121 and the Baath Building

It's believed that the attack on Division 17 was to cover IS’ main objective to strike at Syrian army emplacements and prevent them from maintaining the military campaign that began a week prior in Hasakah’s southern and Deir Ez-Zor’s western countryside, both of which are controlled by IS.

On July 24, mere hours after the attack on Division 17 began in Raqqa, IS launched an attack against Regiment 121, known as the Melbiya Regiment, and the Panorama checkpoint in Hasakah’s countryside. Regiment 121 is considered one of the most important for the Syrian army in the region, and performs an important role of targeting the headquarters and emplacements of militants in Hasakah’s southern countryside, being deployed on high ground, which give it control by fire of large swaths of land.

A week ago, the Syrian army began a campaign targeting towns and villages controlled by IS, whether in Deir ez-Zor’s western countryside, such as the village of Ayash, which witnessed heavy clashes, or in Hasakah’s southern countryside, such as the Al Khair silos and the Karama village toward the city of al-Shaddadi, considered a main IS stronghold, all in an apparent attempt by the army to isolate the areas controlled by IS and prevent the latter from achieving a fait accompli on the ground, following its control of Deir ez-Zor in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

IS’ offensive thus came in the context of countering this military campaign, to end or disrupt it, particularly after it realized that the Syrian army was serious about relentlessly maintaining its pressure. According to a source close to IS, a large force took part in the attack on the regiment, with most of its members coming from al-Shaddadi. The source denied media reports that the so-called Baghdadi Brigade came from Iraq to lead the charge.

Violent clashes ensued between the attackers and regiment forces, while four infiltrators attacked the Baath Party building in Hasakah, where they killed Hana Attallah, a member of the party’s regional branch committee, after gaining entry disguised as members of the Civil Defense.

There were a number of conflicting reports concerning the Melbiya Regiment front. While IS-affiliated sources claimed that attackers managed to breach the base and engage its garrison at close range, Regimental Commander General Mozid Salama and 20 soldiers were killed, and a number of soldiers were pinned down at the edges of the base. A field source knowledgeable about the defense of the base told As-Safir, “There is no truth to claims about terrorists breaching the regiment’s headquarters. Army troops succeeded in repelling the attack and thwarting the attainment of its objectives.”

In addition, a military source said, “The army imposed its control over all hillsides surrounding the al-Shaer gas field,” which put the field within range of their weapons. He further indicated that “wholesale numbers of IS militants were withdrawing under heavy fire from the Syrian army," and that the "battle will be decided very shortly.”

In a statement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that clashes had taken place between IS and Syrian forces on the perimeter of Quayres military airport in Aleppo’s countryside, while Syrian aviation bombed the city of al-Bab, north of the airport.

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