Isis fighters have captured much of eastern Syria in the past few days while international attention has been focused on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Using tanks and artillery seized in Iraq, it has taken almost all of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province and is battling to crush the resistance of the Syrian Kurds.
Isis is establishing dominance over the opposition to Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, as other rebel groups flee or pledge allegiance to the caliphate declared by the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after the capture of Mosul on 10 June. On Monday, the jihadists took over the rebel held half of Deir Ezzor on the Euphrates river, raising their black flag over the city and executing the rebel commander from Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa’ida affiliate that was previously in control.
The recent Isis advances in Syria, following victories in Iraq last month, are altering the balance of power in the whole region. The opposition military forces not aligned with the Syrian government or Isis are being squeezed out of existence, making obsolete the US, British, Saudi and Turkish policy of backing groups hostile to both Assad and Isis.
Isis is seeking to capture the Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani, or Ayn al-Arab, where some 500,000 Kurds are concentrated, many of them refugees from other parts of northern Syria. “Isis have about 5,000 fighters which have been attacking us for the past 13 days using tanks and rockets and American Humvees captured in Iraq,” Idris Naasan, a political activist in Kobani, told The Independent by telephone. “The fighting is very heavy and we have lost three villages we are trying to regain.”
He said the normal population of Kobani region was 200,000 but this number is swollen by refugees from the border area and from Aleppo. Causing particular concern is the fate of 400 Kurdish hostages taken by Isis, including 133 schoolchildren aged between 13 and 14. Mr Idris said negotiations with Isis to exchange them for Isis prisoners “took place three days ago but fell through because Isis tried to take more hostages”.
Maria Calivis, the Unicef regional director for Middle East and Northern Africa, said in a statement at the start of the month that all of the children, with the exception of four who escaped, were still captive. “It has been over four weeks since the children were abducted as they returned to their home town of Ayn al-Arab [Kobani], after taking their junior high school final exams in Aleppo,” she said.