Under pressure in Iraq, ISIL fighters and weapons flood into southern Syria
Irbid, Jordan // ISIL personnel and weaponry have flooded into southern Syria, and have been heading towards Damascus, as the group redeploys forces that have been fighting for control of Mosul in northern Iraq.
A steady stream of ISIL fighters and weapons, including missiles and artillery, have been trickling from western Iraq and eastern Syria — ISIL strongholds — since December.
But in the face of a sustained military campaign to unseat it from Mosul and north-eastern Syria, ISIL has accelerated the move, according to Syrian rebel commanders monitoring the situation.
“ISIL has concluded there is no hope of winning the battle for Mosul, and so priority has been given to the battle for Syria,” said an independent military advisor in Jordan who tracks the group.
As its territory in Iraq shrinks, ISIL has expanded into areas of Syria in which its presence had been lighter. Many of its heavily-armed fighters have attempted to infiltrate into the Ghouta area, to the south and east of Damascus.
It has also set-up a weapons storage facility in Tal Asfer, on the eastern edge of Sweida, a city dominated by members of Syria’s minority Druze community. Sweida remains under the control of forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad.
And it has reinforced positions in Bir Qassab, a strategically important village to the north-east of Damascus.
Foreign fighters with the group have also bolstered positions it holds in Deir Ezzor, Homs and Palmyra. ISIL seized Palmyra in May 2015, was pushed out by a joint Russian-Syrian military campaign, but retook control of the ancient city in December when Syria government forces withdrew.
Convoys of ISIL fighters and weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, medium range artillery and small arms and ammunition, appear to be moving through the Syrian Badia.
The Badia is a large, sparsely populated desert steppe that links north-eastern and southern Syria with Western Iraq. The steppe also reaches into north-eastern Jordan.
Much of the Badia appears to be under de facto ISIL control, to the alarm of the Jordanian government and the Military Operations Command centre, or MOC, in Amman. The MOC is staffed by a group of international army and intelligence officers which have been supporting moderate rebels opposed to Mr Al Assad and, increasingly, helping direct a fight against ISIL in the south.
“The Badia is a fertile area for ISIL. If they can control it, it will be hard to get them out of there,” said a senior rebel involved in operations in southern Syria.
The exact number of ISIL fighters in the area is unknown, but more than 2,000 were in the swathe of territory around Bir Qassab at the end of 2016, according to one rebel intelligence estimate. That number was confirmed by the Jordanian military adviser.
In the last two months, that number has swollen, they said.
The growing strength of ISIL in the area prompted an attack by the Royal Jordanian Air Force on February 3, when jets struck a site on the outskirts of Damascus, used to prepare car and truck bombs.
Two days after the raid, the Jordanian military said it had destroyed barracks, ammunition warehouses, vehicles and several ISIL fighters.
Although Jordanian forces have not confirmed the precise location of the targets, rebels familiar with the attack say the air strikes were in the Badia, to the east of Bir Qassab, and in the eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held zone on the eastern edge of Damascus.
It is thought to be the first time Jordanian forces have flown so close to Damascus since becoming embroiled in the conflict against ISIL, as Syria’s bloody civil war has spilled out of control. Previous Jordanian sorties have been in the more remote eastern desert region near the Iraqi border.
“What made the Jordanians anxious is that the ISIL military convoys have been withdrawing from Mosul unlike before where we used to see them leaving in a groups of 50 or 60 fighters,” the Syrian rebel commander said.
ISIL already has forces deep inside southern Syria, in the form of the ISIL-affiliated Khaled Bin Waleed army, which is dug into the Yarmouk River basin, near the border with Israel and Jordan.
Moderate rebels, backed by the MOC, have been besieging the Khaled Bin Waleed forces, but have been unable to strike a decisive blow against them.
On Sunday night , the Khaled Bin Waleed army launched a series of lightning raids against villages held by moderate rebels, including the strategically important Tal Jama’a. Moderate factions have since pushed back but fighting is ongoing – a sign of how strong ISIL remains in the area.
According to a Syrian opposition activist in the area, ISIL fighters have been able to move in and out of the so-called siege zone by paying bribes to moderate rebel forces.
“The siege has been tightened but ISIL fighters and commanders were able to break it,” the opposition activist said. Earlier this month an ISIL commander, known as Abu Abdullah Kinnawi, passed from northern Syria, through the rebel siege, and into the area controlled by the Khaled Bin Waleed army, rebel sources said.
A rebel military source confirmed there was collaboration between some of the MOC-backed rebel groups and the Khalid Bin Waleed army, saying rogue elements among the more moderate factions were giving “logistical” support to ISIL.
Even rebel groups more sincerely committed to the fight against the Khalid Bin Waleed army say it has proven to be more resilient than they expected, citing a wave of assassinations against rebel fighters, carried out in January by ISIL cells.
*Phil Sands reported from Boston, US, and is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at New America
Updated: February 21, 2017 04:00 AM