BEIRUT — Al Qaida-linked militants, forced last week from many of their strongholds in northern and eastern Syria, have launched a fierce counterattack, retaking control of the capital of Raqqa province, seizing another city that's a key border crossing with Turkey and executing hundreds of prisoners, witnesses and activists reported Monday.
The resurgence of fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al Qaida affiliate whose tough interpretations of Islamic law had earned it the enmity of fellow rebels, suggested that last week's predictions that moderate factions were retaking control of the rebellion against President Bashar Assad were premature.
Reports from Syrian activists and accounts from a Western military attache based in neighboring Lebanon said the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria had launched its offensive Sunday morning and quickly regained control of Raqqa city, the only provincial capital not in government hands. It immediately began executing prisoners from rival rebel groups, including its onetime ally, the Nusra Front, which is also affiliated with al Qaida.
ISIS fighters swept into the border city of Tal Abyad on Monday, expelling fighters associated with another rebel coalition, the Islamic Front. According to accounts from activists, the ISIS fighters executed prisoners from the Islamic Front's Ahrar al Sham fighting unit, then burned the homes of Islamic Front members.
Abdulrahman Matar, a journalist from Raqaa who's based in Istanbul, told McClatchy that rebels from the Islamic Front and Nusra had fled the provincial capital in advance of the ISIS offensive but that at least 100 failed to escape. Those militants were publicly executed, he said. They included Nusra's local commander, Abu Saad al Hadrami, Matar said.
After ISIS executed the captives, it blew up Nusra's main base in the city.
The brutal tactics were unsurprising. ISIS's bloody response to alleged transgressions of Islamic law, including beheadings for infractions ranging from smoking to supposed questioning of Islam, were a key reason for the revolt against it, which began last week after ISIS tortured and executed a doctor who worked with the Islamic Front.
ISIS had been forced quickly from areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces and pushed back from its dominant positions in Raqqa province. But despite optimistic claims last week that it would be forced to retreat and its fighters would join other groups, the group showed no indications that it would surrender.
A Western military attache based in Beirut, who cannot be quoted by name for diplomatic reasons, said his government had confirmed that a large group of ISIS reinforcements had been summoned to Raqqa from the desert along the Iraq-Syria border on Sunday. The border area remains under ISIS control despite campaigns by Syrian rebels on one side and the Iraqi government on the other.
"They're well equipped with these Toyota pickup trucks you always see in their videos," said the attache, whose government closely monitors Syria. "That makes them fast and able to regroup. After they were beaten out of Idlib and Raqaa, it didn't take long to counterattack."
The attache said he thought the group would hold on to Raqqa but would have difficulty retaking its outposts in the city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the scene of fighting for nearly 17 months. "Speed won't help them much in Aleppo," the attache said, because of the difficulty of street fighting in an urban area.
The attache said "rumors of revenge massacres are everywhere. If one-third of what I am told ends up confirmed, then it is a very disturbing situation in places like Raqaa and Tal Abyad."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors violence in Syria from Great Britain, said ISIS had deployed suicide bombers against its rebel rivals at least 16 times in the last 10 days – more than the 13 the group had carried out during the entire previous year.
"The number of attacks they've done against rebels makes me wonder about the link between ISIS and the regime," said one secular activist, who still travels to Syria and didn't want to be named criticizing ISIS. "There's always been a rumor they worked together but never any evidence. But the car bombs, and that it seems like the regime only begins shelling an area after ISIS is replaced, makes me ask if it's true."
Aymenn al Tamimi, who studies militant Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq for the Middle East Forum, a research center, said a counterattack by ISIS in Raqqa was inevitable. He said the group's rapid losses last week and its quick recovery of Raqqa this week were to be expected.
"After all, the group was too thinly spread out to hold positions in a number of localities in the event of a multi-pronged attack," he said. "Thus it is understandable that they have focused tenaciously on keeping hold of what they have left, and Raqaa province is key to that."
Tamimi said he thought it unlikely that the group would seek to reassert itself in Aleppo, however, noting that its departure from the city had largely been an orderly retreat, negotiated by the Nusra Front, which is known in Arabic as Jabhat al Nusra.
"I don't think they will storm into Aleppo for the near future; for now it seems they have relied on Jabhat al Nusra as a mediator and third party to hand over existing structures," he said.
But Tamimi said that may not mean ISIS doesn't intend to reclaim its Aleppo positions eventually.
"Give ISIS time to try to consolidate in Raqaa first," he said. After that it will be evident "if there is a future plan to storm Aleppo."
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