Over 150 dead as ISIS hits Syria's govt-held areas

Syrian state television aired images of scattered vegetables and damaged cars on the streets of Sweida city, where four suicide bombers struck yesterday.
Syrian state television aired images of scattered vegetables and damaged cars on the streets of Sweida city, where four suicide bombers struck yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Strikes show militants still potent force despite losing large areas

BEIRUT • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group launched a series of coordinated attacks in government-held areas of southern Syria yesterday, killing more than 150 people.

The attacks, which included suicide bombings at a vegetable market and a public square in a provincial capital, along with raids on nearby villages, show that ISIS can still inflict great damage in Syria, despite having lost most of the territory it once controlled.

The high death toll undermines the Syrian government's narrative that the seven-year war is heading towards its conclusion, with the leadership working to restore stability.

About half of the dead were pro-government fighters, a conflict monitor said.

The attacks hit the city of Sweida, the capital of the province of the same name, along Syria's border with Jordan.

Most of the area's residents are members of the Druze sect, and the area has largely been spared the violence that has torn apart other areas of Syria during the war.

Four suicide bombers entered the city yesterday morning, Syrian state television said.

One, on a motorcycle, struck a vegetable market. Another detonated his explosives in a public square. Two others blew themselves up while being approached by security forces.

The broadcaster aired images of scattered vegetables and damaged cars on the streets, where work crews were cleaning the area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group in Britain that opposes the Syrian government, said 156 people including 62 civilians were killed. Most of them were killed in raids on villages in the north-east of Sweida, the monitor said. The others were killed in suicide attacks in the provincial capital, it said.

Also killed were 28 pro-government fighters and 16 militants, the observatory added.

Syrian state media put the death toll in the bombings at 38, blaming ISIS for the attacks.

Sweida governor Amer al-Eshi said the authorities arrested one of the attackers. "The city of Sweida is secure and calm now," he said.

The war in Syria began in 2011 with an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that turned into an armed rebellion.

The chaos provided an opening for extremist groups, particularly ISIS, which expanded rapidly in 2014 to create a caliphate that spanned large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, has since regained control of most of the country's centre and its most highly populated areas, although parts of the north and east remain out of its hands.

ISIS fighters have lost most of the territories they once controlled, but they still hold pockets in the desert along the border.

Analysts have warned that as the Islamists lose territory, they are likely to return to their roots as an underground insurgency, carrying out attacks like those yesterday.

The observatory said the extremists stormed the Sweida villages from an ISIS pocket north-east of the city.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2018, with the headline 'Over 150 dead as ISIS hits Syria's govt-held areas'. Print Edition | Subscribe