BEIRUT (WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS) – The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unleashed suicide blasts and gunfire on Wednesday (July 25) in a rare onslaught on a southern Syrian city, officials and a monitor said, killing more than 200 people and underscoring the militant group’s ability to strike despite losing most of its territory.
The assault in Sweida, near the border with Jordan, stunned a city that has escaped the worst effects of Syria’s civil war and violence by extremist factions.
The bloodshed began at dawn, as a short-lived ground offensive in surrounding villages was followed by waves of bombing.
In Sweida city, three ISIS militants detonated suicide vests while explosions rang out from clashes in the eastern countryside of Sweida province, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Later in the day, a fourth suicide bomber sprayed the streets of Sweida city with bullets before detonating his load.
At least 215 people were killed and 180 wounded, the head of the local health authority told pro-government media.
The Observatory put the death toll at 221, including 127 civilians. Photographs suggested at least one Islamic State militant was later hanged from a bridge in Sweida city.
The coordinated attacks were the deadliest to hit government territory in many months.
Although the group has largely been defeated across Syria and Iraq, it still holds pockets of territory. In Sweida province, these sit on the eastern and western fringes, and the ISIS has been gaining ground in recent days as rebel forces lay down their weapons under a surrender deal with the government.
The Observatory said the militants seized hostages from the villages they had attacked. It said the dead included at least 41 civilians.
Sweida Governor Amer al-Eshi said authorities also arrested another attacker. “The city of Sweida is secure and calm now,”he told state-run Ikhbariyah TV.
ISIS was driven from nearly all the territory it once held in Syria last year in separate offensives by the Russian-backed army and a US-backed militia alliance.
Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has gone on to crush the last remaining rebel enclaves near the cities of Damascus and Homs and swept rebels from the southwest.
After losing its strongholds in eastern Syria last year, ISIS launched insurgency operations from pockets of territory in desert areas.
The Observatory said government forces battled militants who stormed the villages from an ISIS pocket north-east of the city.
Government troops and allied forces hold all of Sweida province except for that enclave.
The air force pounded militant hideouts northeast of the city after soldiers thwarted an attempt by ISIS fighters to infiltrate Douma, Tima and al-Matouna villages, state media said.
The army and villagers regained control of a hill and broke a brief siege of another nearby village after clashes, Ikhbariyah said.
With the help of Russian air power, the Syrian army has been hitting Islamic State in a separate pocket further west, near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Yarmouk Basin in south-west Syria remains in jihadist hands, after an army offensive defeated rebel factions in other parts of the south-west. The operation has focused on Deraa and Quneitra provinces.