Islamic State Extremist Group May Lose Dabiq, But Has It Gained A Hidden Ally?

October 11, 2016
Photo via the Local Coordination Committees of Syria

Live Updates: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Russia Launches Its Heaviest Airstrikes In Syria In Days

The Russian killing machine in Syria has been jumpstarted today after about half a week of lower activity. AFP reports that bodies of civilians — and children — have been photographed in Aleppo:

An AFP correspondent in Bustan al-Qasr saw a multi-storey residential building that had been destroyed, its facade sheared off.

White Helmets rescuers removed two lifeless toddlers from the building and wrapped them in sheets.

Footage by the Aleppo Media Centre activist group showed a toddler, blood smeared across her face, lying on a hospital bed.

An elderly man near her wailed in pain as a team of medics bent over him, calling out instructions to the nurses.

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Russia renews heavy bombing of Syria's Aleppo

Regime ally Russia carried out its heaviest strikes in days on Syria's Aleppo on Tuesday, as rebel fire killed at least five schoolchildren in the war-torn country's south. The raids in Aleppo killed 25 civilians, a monitor said, and caused massive damage in several residential areas of the

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Oct 11, 2016 23:55 (GMT)

The LCC reports that Russian airstrikes have hit Aleppo and areas in Idlib, while Syrian airstrikes have hit different targets. Russian airstrikes have also targeted Lattakia, Daraa, and Deir Ez-Zour:

LCC correspondent in Aleppo reported that 8 civilians were martyred and 20 wounded due to Russian airstrikes with thermobaric missiles on Bustan Qasr neighborhood. Other 14, including children, were martyred in Fardos neighborhood and 2 more in Qaterji neighborhood due to similar assaults.

Furthermore, 11 civilians were martyred due to a suicidal blast carried out by a member of Daesh who blew himself up in al-Mashi village in the suburbs of Manbej city in the eastern suburbs of Aleppo. The Russian airstrikes also killed 3 civilians in Souran town in the northern suburbs of Aleppo.


LCC reporter in Idlib said that Assad’s warplanes launched an airstrike on Khan Shieh in the southern suburbs, which led to the fall of a martyr. Similarly, Hubeit town was targeted.

He added that the Russian warplanes launched airstrikes on the outskirts of Jesr Shoghour city in the western suburbs while Assad’s forces, located at Jourine checkpoint in Hama Suburbs, targeted it with rockets and artillery.

In Latakia, Assad’s forces could impose control over all the locations to which the revolutionists advanced yesterday in “Ashour” Battle after it was ceased.

The Russian warplanes targeted the axes of Kabana, Khedr and Tardin in Kurds Mountain with several airstrikes, according to LCC reporter.

On the other hand, sporadic clashes broke out between the revolutionists and Assad’s forces at the front of Bilaliya in Marj area in the Eastern Ghouta in Damascus Suburbs. Moreover, Assad’s forces, located at Talaea Camp, targeted the eastern mountain in Zabadani area with heavy artillery.

In Homs, the Russian warplanes targeted Tal Thahab town in Holeh area in the northern suburbs and no casualties were reported.

In Deir Ezzor, the Russian warplanes launched airstrikes with rockets and cluster bombs on Jafra town, Huweijet Sakr neighborhood, the surroundings of Panorama and Janina town in the western suburbs.

UN cargo planes dropped food baskets on Assad-held areas in the city.

In Daraa to the south, 6 civilians, mostly children, were martyred and 24 wounded due to artillery shelling from an unknown source on a primary school in Sahari neighborhood in Daraa Mahatta, controlled by Assad’s forces, which in their turn targeted Ibtaa town in the western suburbs.

See our note on the casualty figures posted by the LCC

James Miller

Islamic State Is Rapidly Losing Ground Near Its Most Symbolically Important City

Dabiq is a small town, but Abu Hurayrah, a confederate of the Prophet Muhammad, made it famous when he predicted that it would be from this town in what is now northern Syria that the apocalypse would begin.

And the extremist group Islamic State, which named its primary propaganda magazine Dabiq, would like you to believe that this is about to happen. 

The reality is that a coalition of Syrian rebels and Turkish military forces, supported by U.S. special forces and air strikes, is closing in on the town, currently controlled by ISIS. Writing for RFE/RL, David Patrikarakos points out that the fall of the town is “inevitable,” but the fight may be bloody indeed:

Mostafa Sejari, from the FSA-linked Al-Mutasim Brigade, told the British newspaper the Daily Express: “We expect that the battle of Dabiq will be the fiercest ever. Daesh” — a derogatory term for IS — “has brought hundreds of fighters into the area, including their special forces, to confront us…. [It] has built its myth in Dabiq, exploiting the ignorance and lack of knowledge among people and taking advantage of history and religion to achieve its evil project. By controlling Dabiq, we break the myth of Daesh and open a road to reach Marea.”

Still, Patrikarakos is not sanguine about the outcome of the battle — ISIS continues to put up a tough fight for the town, the local populace may be slaughtered, and ISIS’s propaganda has turned more apocalyptic, focusing less on the physical state (Dawla) and more on the resistance movement. 

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Apocalypse Or Bust: The Battle For Dabiq

The norther Syrian town of Dabiq is central to the highly sophisticated propaganda operation of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). The group's official magazine even carries its name. At Dabiq, IS claims, the ultimate battle between Christians and Muslims will be fought.

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Oct 11, 2016 22:44 (GMT)

Turkey, however, does not seem deterred, and is quickly making advances near the town: 

Russia has no part in this particular fight — they clearly have been in contact with the Erdogan government, and have allowed Turkey to operate in this area without interference (nor are they assisting, likely by request). 

This makes the Turkish-led fight against ISIS the war within the war — separate from but parallel to the fight against the Assad regime. Even though Turkey supports effort to win that fight, you’d never know it from the realities on the ground where Turkey is advancing against ISIS and anti-Assad groups they have traditionally supported are struggling just a few kilometers south. 

And as many analysts have pointed out, the advance of Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria seem to be Ankara’s main motivation. 

James Miller
41 People Reportedly Killed Across Syria On Monday; Ahrar Al-Sham’s Leadership Targeted By Car Bomb

The Local Coordination Committees reports that they have confirmed 41 deaths on Monday, October 10, across Syria, including those of five children:

18 martyrs were reported in #Aleppo , most of them passed away in the airstrikes on #Kafarnoran , #Zirba , and #Shaar neighborhood. 9 in #Idlib , most of them passed away in a car bomb blast in #Saraqeb city at Ahrar Sham checkpoint. 3 in #Homs . 3 in #Damascus_and_its_Suburbs . 2 in #Daraa . 1 in #Hama . 2 in #Latakia . 3 in #Deir_Ezzour .

Focusing on Aleppo, the Shaar neighborhood is in eastern Aleppo city, an area where civilians have been hammered by Russian and Syrian airstrikes for weeks. Zirba, more often transliterated as Az-Zerbah, is southwest of Aleppo city, on the key road where various anti-Assad rebel groups are in a heated battle against the pro-Assad coalition to control Aleppo city. 

Kafarnoran, or Kafr Noran, however, is far from the fighting — and far from territory controlled by the extremist group Islamic State. We have marked the location on today’s map of the situation made by LiveUAMap

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2016-10-11 14:07:48

But the most significant news, in terms of the future of this conflict, may be the car bombing in Saraqeb against the leadership of Ahrar Al-Sham. As Aron Lund explained in early September, the leadership of the group has repeatedly been targeted, presumably by more radical Islamist groups:

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Syria's Ahrar al-Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing

On Tuesday, September 9, an explosion ripped through a building in Idlib in northwest Syria, killing dozens of people. While speculation persists about the source of the explosion, its results are now clear: the blast wiped out most of the senior leadership of the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement.

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Oct 11, 2016 18:11 (GMT)

In recent days this infighting has escalated. Last week, a bomb blast ripped through a border checkpoint in northern Syria, killing another key Ahrar al-Sham leader: 

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Western-Backed Rebels Killed By Islamic State Terrorist Attack And Russian Air Campaign

Western-backed rebels suffer setbacks from both Islamic State terrorists and Russian airstrikes.

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Oct 11, 2016 18:20 (GMT)

But Islamic State took credit for that attack, whereas most of Ahrar al-Sham’s public battles have been with another group Jund al-Aqsa. Here is why that matters.

Ahrar al-Sham is part of an alliance, Jaish al-Fateh, which contains the newly-rebranded but Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra. Jund al-Aqsa was originally in this alliance, but withdrew primarily because their ideology is far more extreme than Ahrar al-Sham’s. Now, Jund al-Aqsa has declared allegiance to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, but there are concerns that its real allegiance is to Islamic State. 

Amid infighting, Jund al Aqsa swears allegiance to al Qaeda's rebranded branch | The Long War Journal

Jund al Aqsa, an al Qaeda front group, has pledged allegiance to Jabhat Fath al Sham (JFS, or the "Conquest of the Levant Front"), al Qaeda's rebranded branch in Syria. The move comes after tensions between Jund al Aqsa and other groups fighting Bashar al Assad's regime boiled over in recent weeks.

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Oct 11, 2016 18:23 (GMT)

As Islamic State is on the decline, and has been fundamentally (and militarily) opposed by the rebel groups fighting in northern Syria, it is concerning that a potential ISIS Trojan horse may be assassinating the leadership of what may be the most moderate Salafist group operating in the country.

James Miller