700 reported executed by ISIS after clan refuses to surrender. Rebels demand US airstrikes. Another town falls to the regime.
While the Syrian government has a clear upper-hand in the west against the rebellion, the eastern part of the country is under increasingly clear control of the so-called Islamic State group.
In a particularly horrific episode, human rights groups have reported that ISIS forces recently conducted a retaliatory mass execution of many hundreds of innocent people. Apparently, the Sheitat clan entered negotiations with ISIS, but the talks failed because the clan leadership refused to pledge allegiance and surrender to ISIS (as most of the eastern clans have done). So, ISIS rounded up 700 men, women, and children — mostly civilians — and executed them.
In a press conference today, the “moderate” rebels angrily demanded that the US conduct airstrikes in Syria against ISIS, saying it was a double standard, but I’m not sure they see that the diplomatic and strategic risks are much lower for striking ISIS inside Iraq (whose government more or less supports the current US intervention) than for striking ISIS inside Syria (whose government opposes the US and is strongly backed by Russia, which is currently at dangerous loggerheads with the US over the crisis in Ukraine). [Edit: The rebel coalition leadership is claiming the US told them to make the public request at a press conference, to drum up international support for US airstrikes in Syria, but I’m finding that hard to believe.] The US can’t be everyone’s air force, but at least they can count on the Iraqi Kurds and trust them. In contrast, many of the Syrian rebel groups remain a big question mark. That makes it a tough sell to step up direct assistance to help them, which entails wider involvement in the civil war.
Moreover, if the United States strikes ISIS inside Syria at the request of other rebels, it would be harder to draw a logically consistent line against similar strikes on other targets — including the government. And last August and September, the American public and many members of Congress made very clear they were not interested in going to war with the Syrian regime.
Circling back to the western front for a moment, it should be noted that the Syrian regime and their Hezbollah allies and advisers are continuing to make very strong progress against the rebels, whose territory has shrunk dramatically. Another key rebel-held town near the capital, Damascus, fell this past week, after extensive fighting. This rebel defeat threatens their local supply lines and will likely prompt a wider withdrawal.
The news from the past eight months of the Syrian Civil War on the western front has kind of been like watching the Battle of Stalingrad, if the Wehrmacht had won instead of the Soviet resistance winning: Region by region, city by city, block by block, building by building, the Syrian Army keeps slowly hammering away at the rebel holdout positions via heavy artillery, aircraft, tanks, and infantry.
The government, as a precarious sectarian minority waging a war against an ethno-religious majority, doesn’t have much real interest in either a negotiated peace or in the preservation of cities and towns it captures. At this point, it seems likely they’re going for total victory in the west at all costs, including the complete destruction of any resisting population centers. Every eliminated community means less of a threat to their control in the future and less territory for ISIS to capture if it makes a serious, consolidated drive toward the coast.
US/Western support for the rebels — some of whom have already started to defect to ISIS for protection — can only prolong the misery, without achieving victory.