ISIS holds out after week of Syria air strikes

2014-09-30 17:44
(File, AP)

(File, AP)

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Beirut - The Islamic State group is holding out in Syria after a week of being pounded by US-led air strikes, benefiting from its tactical flexibility, experts say.

Have the strikes halted IS progress?

While it is still too early to assess the full impact of the strikes that began on 23 September, experts say ISIS fighters have abandoned some of their most prominent positions.

They are now less visible, said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.

"Before there were jihadist patrols through the towns they controlled, but today they have disappeared."

At least in part this is because "the jihadists have blended in with the population", he added.

At the same time, he said they had placed military equipment in civilian areas in the east of the country, angering locals.

Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh, said such redeployments were not a major problem for ISIS.

"We're not talking about a regular army, but rather a relatively flexible organisation that is not dependent on fixed infrastructure," he said.

The strikes have so far killed around 200 jihadists, according to the Observatory, but have failed to stall ISIS progress towards Ain al-Arab, a strategic Kurdish town on the Syria-Turkey border.

The group has taken five more villages around the town since the strikes began and, on Monday, advanced to within five kilometres of it for the first time.

The coalition has bombed areas around the town, known as Kobane to the Kurds, but the raids do not appear to have halted the ISIS advance.

The group also continues to advance close to the Iraqi border, seizing territory in the eastern province of Hasakeh, according to the Observatory.

Is IS winning more support?

While Syria's opposition National Coalition welcomed the strikes, experts say the raids have also bolstered support for ISIS in some quarters.

"The fact that it's America that is carrying out strikes has pushed Syrian Islamists who detest ISIS to oppose the strikes and use the same terminology about a "crusader campaign against Islam", Abdel Rahman said.

His group says more than 70 jihadists have joined ISIS since the strikes began.

While the United States leads the coalition, warplanes from Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also participating in the raids.

ISIS has faced a widespread backlash from a range of opposition groups since the beginning of the year, including al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

But Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there was a limited "closing ranks" among jihadists.

"The conflict between ISIS and al-Qaeda's... [Al-Nusra Front] franchise in Syria is really deep, but you do see some jihadi preachers and online propagandists that seem reluctant to criticise ISIS too harshly at a time when they're in direct confrontation with the US."

The strikes have also been criticised by opposition members for failing to target President Bashar al-Assad's regime and for killing at least 22 civilians and hitting infrastructure, including a flour mill.

Some members of the opposition have also been angered by the targeting of Al-Nusra because it has fought alongside other rebels in battles against both Assad and ISIS.

Have the raids hurt IS funding?

A number of coalition raids have targeted makeshift refineries in eastern Syria that experts and the US military say net ISIS around $2m a day.

But some experts say the majority of the oil sold by ISIS is unrefined crude, extracted from several dozen wells that have not been targeted.

"These strikes will not affect its finances in a decisive fashion," said Romain Caillet, an expert on jihadist movements.

The US-led coalition has also hit the entrance of the Conoco gas fields, which are key to electricity supply in Deir Ezzor and several other provinces, but is not a major source of revenue for the group, Caillet added.

Other sources of revenue include taxation and ransom from kidnappings, but it remains to be seen whether the strikes have disrupted the jihadists' ability to collect those funds.

By targeting refineries along with a mill and grain silos, the coalition could be hoping to squeeze local supporters of ISIS, hoping they "will rise up against it," Caillet said.

Read more on:    isis  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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