By Isabel Nassief
ISIS operations in Iraq are having an impact in Syria. Opposition groups are capitalizing on the redeployment of pro-regime and ISIS forces to make gains in Qalamoun and Damascus and to launch offensive operations in Aleppo. ISIS uses eastern Syria as a ‘deep-rear’ for the Iraq campaign as well as to support operations inside of Syria. Since ISIS’s seizure of Mosul, the Syrian regime has escalated attacks against ISIS strong-points in Eastern Syria.
Return of Shi’a Iraqi militia fighters from Syria to Iraq: As the Iraqi government and Shi’a militia groups attempt to mobilize and recruit fighters reports suggest that Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters, previously supporting the Syrian regime have begun to return to Iraq. The majority of these redeployments are likely occurring in Damascus, where Iraqi Shi’a militias have been heavily involved in fighting in Damascus’ southern suburbs near the Sayida Zeinab Shrine, and Aleppo province, where they have supported the regime’s offensive to besiege the rebel-held neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo city. A source close to Lebanese Hezbollah said the group has called for a general mobilization, announcing that 1,000 fighters are to be sent to Syria from Lebanon to defend the Sayida Zeinab Shrine in Damascus and replace Shi’a Iraqi militia troops, particularly from the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigade who are returning to Iraq. This movement of troops could create a deficit in the regime’s forces, exacerbating its manpower challenge. Early indications of this include rebel gains in Mleiha, in the Damascus suburbs, and Rankous in the Qalamoun region.
Escalation in Syrian regime strikes in Eastern Syria: An increase in regime air strikes on ISIS positions in eastern Syria indicates a shift in the Syrian regime’s strategy. Eastern Syria is an economy of force mission for the Syrian regime, whose strategy has prioritized the central corridor between Damascus and Aleppo over other parts of the country. Since ISIS began its attack on Mosul on June 8 there have been five confirmed Syrian regime airstrikes against ISIS positions in ar-Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour, and Hasaka provinces, including strikes against ISIS HQs in ar-Raqqa city.
Rebel operations: As ISIS continues operations in Iraq and the Syrian regime extends farther east and Iraqi Shia militias return to Iraq, opposition forces in Syria have an opportunity to capitalize on these changes. In Aleppo province, rebels launched attacks against ISIS strongholds in the eastern Aleppo countryside, seizing the towns of Tel Sha’ir, Tel Bital, Tel Jijan, al-Khalifatli, Hawzan from ISIS. Rebel groups in northern Aleppo also announced a new military operations room called “Echo of Shahba” against the regime strongholds of Nebul and Zahra. Early indications of rebel operations against the regime in Aleppo, Damascus, and Qalamoun as well as against ISIS in Aleppo suggest that rebel groups are capitalizing on both ISIS and the regime’s shifting priorities.