Beirut and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Reports on Sunday said the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) regained control of most of its strongholds in the town of Raqqa, northeast Syria, dealing a severe blow to Syrian opposition groups who have been battling to expel it.
Activists said ISIS has been fighting Islamist groups opposed to it, including the Al-Nusra Front—which is also affiliated to Al-Qaeda—in a number of areas in Raqqa.
Abu Khalid Al-Walid, a Syrian activist, said many fighters from Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the strongest armed Islamist groups, chose not to confront ISIS because the fighters on both sides were from the same area and they held no animosity towards each other.
Walid told Reuters that “many of the fighters did not see any meaning in fighting their relatives and ISIS controls more than 95 percent of Raqqa and its suburbs, and Tall Al-Abiad is under their control again.”
ISIS withdrew from Raqqa and other towns in northeast Syria earlier this month after a coalition of opposition Islamist groups attacked its strongholds, exploiting public anger at the foreign fighters in the group’s ranks and their campaign to impose their radical ideology on the territory under its control.
However, activists in the Aleppo governorate said ISIS had managed to regain control of a number of suburban towns and villages there, including Huraytan and Basratoun. ISIS fighters are also reported to have killed a senior commander within the Noureddine Zaki Brigades, a prominent unit in the recently-formed Jaish Al-Mujahideen group, which has fought against ISIS in Aleppo.
During the past week, ISIS fighters have carried out 16 suicide missions, mostly using car bombs, killing dozens of fighters and civilians, according to reports by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR).
These attacks are part of ongoing battles between various armed opposition groups and ISIS which began on January 3.
SOHR said on Sunday that around 700 fighters had been killed in nine days of fighting between ISIS and armed opposition groups. The organization said 351 opposition fighters were killed, among them 35 who were executed by jihadists, as well as 246 ISIS fighters, including 56 who were executed by opposition groups in Idlib.
The fighting also led to the deaths of 100 civilians, including 21 who were executed by ISIS at its headquarters in Aleppo.
The head of SOHR, Rami Abdelrahman, said he expected the death toll to exceed 1,000, adding that “the battles were very fierce and both sides were secretive about the total human losses.”
ISIS said the battles were aimed at “eliminating” it to pave the way for the Geneva II conference, which is due to be held this month to discuss the Syrian crisis.