Oblate Program at Belmont Abbey, NC

The Islamic State’s Control Now Extends Over Half of Syria

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Map_Isis_April_2015-webBeirut — The Islamic State is taking advantage of “weakening” Syrian government forces and the international coalition sorties that are focused on striking the areas in Iraq where they are most concentrated in order to double its expansion in Syria. After gaining control of the city of Palmyra in central Syria the Islamic State’s influence now spreads to approximately half of the unpopulated geographical areas of Syria.

The area that the Islamic State now controls has expanded to over 95 thousand square kilometers of the entirety of Syria. In other words, this is equivalent to half of the country where most of the oil, gas and water wells are located. The Director of The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami ‘Abd-al-Rahman mentioned in an interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat, that “Bashar al-Assad’s regime retains control of 23 percent of the coastal, central and capital areas of Syria.” He indicated that the Kurds control approximately five percent of the northeastern portion of Syria north of Aleppo. Meanwhile, opposition fighters and Islamic factions control the remainder on the outskirts of Damascus, southern portions of the country and some in the north.

The Islamic State can now be found in close to thirty percent of the al-Hasakah Province (in the northeast) and in the al-Raqqah Province (in the north), with the exception of some of the villages that are allied with Kurdish fighters. They can be found throughout the entire area of the Dayr al-Zawr Province (in the east), with the exception of half of the cities and other locations that the Regime controls. They also control the northeastern portion of the Aleppo Province (in the north), with the exception of the Kurdish town of ‘Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) and its environs. Furthermore, they are heavily concentrated in the eastern sections of the Aleppo Province from Palmyra to the Iraqi border, and in the eastern sections of the Hamah Province.

They did not possess the ability to extend their control and influence like this in the past; however, a number of factors combined at the same time, that they were able to take advantage of in order to double the areas of its control in Syria. The director of “The Near East and Gulf Institute for Military Analysis” Doctor Riad Kahwaji mentioned in a comment to al-Sharq al-Awsat that the ability of the Islamic State to expand can be attributed to three reasons. He said that the Islamic State chose Palmyra “because of its weak position which allows it to take advantage of the situation to further weaken and exhaust the Regime. It found a weakened area within the city after watching the Regime’s forces being deployed.” He further indicated that the Islamic State “chose the weakest front, because they were aware of the opposition’s strength in the north. They understood that an attack in that direction could not be fruitful.”

The Islamic State controls “the vast majority of the oil and gas fields in Syria.” The Sha’ir gas field remains in control of the Regime’s forces in the eastern portion of the Aleppo Province. The Ramalan oil fields are currently being controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection units in the al-Hasakah Province.

Kahwaji confirmed that the Islamic State’s “strategic objectives, is to seize control of the gas fields and to control a city (i.e. Palmyra) that is highly symbolic with regards to its cultural and humanitarian value. Besides these objectives it will also benefit from the international coalition focusing its attacks in Iraq, which had restricted the Islamic State’s movements in Syria in the past.”

Kahwaji also explained that the air strikes by the Arab coalition had been focused primarily in Syria, but “the number of attacks was reduced after ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ in Yemen was launched.” He pointed out that a breach had been formed when they focused their air strikes on “the Kurdish regions without also hitting the other areas as well.

Furthermore, the international coalition appeared indifferent to the growth of the Islamic State in the non-Kurdish regions due to the fact that it was content with equipping the Syrian opposition forces for a while.” What this means, according to Kahwaji, is that “the coalition had limited results when dealing with the Islamic State inside Syria, which is exactly why the Islamic State has been able to retain its role as an important player in Syria.”

In reality, the Islamic State has invested heavily in expanding its control in Syria, which, according to Kahwaji, has been a “real boon to the organization by destroying the morale within the ranks of those who support the Syrian regime. This has inevitably led to a large number of those supporters to become deserters; especially from within the Alawite sect. This has forced the regime to rely upon foreign or external powers to protect it.” At the same time, this is an indication that the regime is currently “exhausted,” and “along with its geographical losses it has lost its economic ability to secure military supplies, as is reflected in its declining abilities.”

Kahwaji went on to further emphasize that the Islamic State is taking advantage of the symbolic nature of the city about which he was speaking (i.e. Palmyra). ‘Abd-al-Rahman stated for al-Sharq al-Awsat that the Islamic State “has been planning for a while to take control of Palmyra in order to use it as a defense against coalition and regime air strikes. The Islamic State perceives that the two sides will not bomb archaeological sites. Thus, this archaeological city has created a protective barrier for the Islamic State’s fighters.” However, this is secondary to the strategic importance of the area. It continues to expand its control of the gas fields, so much so that the sphere of its control extends throughout Iraq and into Syria to the extent that it has become “one continuous geographical entity.” ‘Abd-al-Rahman went on to further indicate that the government forces “are now only in possession of two locations between Palmyra and the Iraqi border, al-Hijanah and the al-Sha’ir Gas Field. Meanwhile, in the areas south of Palmyra they only hold the military airfields.”

The control that the Islamic State has gained over the country opens the way before the extremist organization to the Syrian Desert, extending from the Aleppo Province, where Palmyra is located, to the Iraqi border to the east. It also enables them to extend south towards the outskirts of Damascus, and west towards the populated regions in Aleppo, over which the Syria Regime regained control a year ago.

Translated by Donald Puhlman.

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