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Syria conflict: President Assad finally turns on Isis as government steps up campaign against militant strongholds

While Damascus has until now turned a blind eye to the extremists’ expansion in Syria, their successes in the north and east threaten government troops, who are attacking them from the air

As the US military strikes Isis in Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have significantly stepped up their own campaign against militant strongholds in Syria, carrying out dozens of air strikes against the Islamist group’s headquarters in the past two days.

While the government in Damascus has long turned a blind eye to Isis’s expansion in Syria – in some cases even facilitating its offensive against mainstream rebels – the group’s rapid march on towns and villages in northern and eastern Syria is now threatening to overturn recent gains by government forces.

While militants from Isis, which calls itself Islamic State, have so far concentrated their attacks against the Western-backed fighters seeking to topple Assad, they have in the past month carried out a major onslaught against Syrian army facilities in north-eastern Syria, capturing and slaughtering hundreds of Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen in the process.

On Monday, Isis fighters were closing in on the last government-held army base in the north-eastern Raqqa province, the Tabqa air base, prompting at least 16 Syrian government air strikes in the area in an attempt to halt their advance.

In the northern city of Aleppo, there is a sense of impending defeat among mainstream rebels  who were systematically routed by Islamic militants last week in towns and villages only a few miles north of the city. An Isis takeover of rebel-held parts of Aleppo also would be disastrous for Syrian government troops who have been gaining ground in the city in past months.

“I think they [the Syrian government] are finally realising that their Machiavellian strategy of working with the Isis group against the moderates did not work so well, and so they have started to fight it,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But in hitting hard against Isis, Assad has another motive. His aerial bombardment of militant strongholds in Syria in a way mirrors the US military’s air strikes against extremists across the border in Iraq.

The aftermath of an air strike by government forces on Raqqa (Reuters)

Analysts say Assad’s strikes aim at sending a message that he is on the same side as the Americans, reinforcing the Syrian government’s longstanding claim that it is a partner in the fight against terrorism and a counterbalance to extremists. That comes after the US itself nearly bombed Syria after it blamed Assad’s forces for a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus last August.

“Assad would surely love to regain international acceptance via a ‘war on terror’ and maybe that is his long-term plan, in so far as he has one,” the Syria analyst Aron Lund said.

Even while going against Isis in Iraq, American officials have shown little appetite for striking at the same militants in Syria.

Asked about Syrian government air strikes targeting the militants, the State Department’s deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf rejected the notion that Washington and Damascus are “on the same page” in their fight against Isis as a common enemy.

“While we may be looking at some of the same targets, I think the fact… that the Assad regime has allowed Isis to flourish and grow in the way it has is really one of the main reasons they have grown so strong,” she said.

Most of all, however, Assad can simply no longer afford to ignore the growing threat of Isis now that it has started attacking his own forces.

Since July, following its blitz in Iraq and after it declared a caliphate straddling the Iraq-Syria border, Isis fighters have gone after isolated government bases in northern and eastern Syria, killing and decapitating army commanders and pro-government militiamen.

The attacks started with an onslaught on the al-Shaer gas field in Homs province in which more than 270 Syrian soldiers, security guards and workers were killed. Last month, jihadists overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in Raqqa province, killing at least 85 soldiers. Two weeks later, Isis fighters seized the nearby Brigade 93 base after days of heavy fighting.

Isis fighters and supporters during a parade in Raqqa in June (AP)

They now are closing in on Tabqa air base. Activists reported intense clashes between government troops and Isis fighters on Monday on the edge of the villages of Ajil and Khazna near Tabqa. The Raqqa Media Centre, an activist collective, said Isis captured four villages near the air base, including Ajil.

“They will stop at nothing. If things continue the same way it’s only a matter of time before the Isis seizes Aleppo,” said Abu Thabet, an Aleppo rebel commander. He said the jihadists were now looking to take the rebel stronghold of Marea, to be followed by the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey, which would be a major prize and source of money.

Oubai Shahbandar, a Washington-based senior strategist for the Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition group, called Assad’s air strikes against Isis superficial, saying the Western-backed rebels were the only force truly confronting the jihadists. He also shrugged off any suggestion that Assad and the West share a common enemy in Isis.

“The choice for the West is clear,” he said. “Assad turned Syria into a springboard for terror, while the opposition leads the anti-Isis resistance.”