BEIRUT: The growing power of the ultra-hard-line group ISIS means the Syrian army is now having to confront a group it has until now been reluctant to attack for political reasons.
The emergence of the Al-Qaeda offshoot, which now calls itself the Islamic State, has so far allowed President Bashar Assad to present himself to the world as a bulwark against Sunni Islamist radicals.
The group’s tendency to fight more moderate rebel forces also helped to divide the opposition, making it easier for Assad’s forces to recapture territory lost in earlier periods of the war.
As a result, some analysts suspect army commanders pursued a twin-track strategy – they have sought to reduce ISIS’ threat to the state, while ensuring it remains strong enough to continue feuding with other rebels.
Now that ISIS fighters have gained momentum in Syria, boosted by equipment seized in a rapid offensive in Iraq, the army may need to become more confrontational with the group if it wants to avoid losing territory to it.
In the short term, Damascus has not been too worried about ISIS, said a former Syrian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“In the long-term though, it must be a matter of great concern because it makes it all the more difficult should ISIS establish itself semi-permanently, especially with its control of resources like oil.”
“There is a conflict of interests here between what is short-term and practical, and a long-term consideration,” the former diplomat said.
Last week, ISIS killed 270 soldiers, guards and staff when it captured a gas field in central Syria, in the deadliest clash yet between the group and government forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group based in Britain.
Syrian soldiers have also fought ISIS outside an army airport in Deir al-Zor since last Friday, part of a major escalation of hostilities between the two sides.
Its capture would deny the Syrian army of its launch pad for air strikes on the east of the country.
If the Syrian government wants to take back control of territory in the north and east of the country, it will have to confront ISIS, observers say.
Made up of a few thousand fighters of various nationalities, ISIS lacks the firepower of the Syrian army. But it has been among the strongest of the armed groups, despite having little presence in Syria until two years ago.
Its fighters have also used non-military methods to make gains, such as encouraging ad hoc alliances, exploiting local grievances and buying off opposition fighters.
Anti-Assad activists and Western officials say the government has allowed ISIS forces to flourish while attacking less extreme rebels.
Assad has used the group’s rise to back his argument that Syria faces a militant Islamist threat, diplomats say.
“The government wants [ISIS] to be strong enough for its propaganda purposes and is therefore hesitant to attack it,” one Western diplomat said, adding that any government offensives were launched because Assad needed to be seen as acting against the group.
Although government forces have avoided attacking the group’s convoys and confronting it on the ground unless it is necessary, that does not mean it has been ignored as an enemy, the Observatory’s director Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
“Since June 10 until now, there have been air strikes on (ISIS) areas every day,” he said, adding that before then it was once every four to five days.
“When it becomes stronger, it is a danger for the Syrian regime. Where it is a little bit weaker and fights with other rebel fighters, it is good for the Syrian regime to have a rest and control the area,” he said.
He said potential flashpoints between the army and ISIS include Deir al-Zor province, areas around Raqqa city in central Syria, Aleppo in the northwest and eastern parts of the Hama province.
Some insist Assad sees ISIS purely as a foe.
Salem Zahran, a Lebanese analyst who is sympathetic to Assad and meets Syrian officials regularly, says Damascus views ISIS as a threat like all Syria’s other armed groups.
“The Syrian leadership ... does not differentiate (ISIS) from the rest of the factions, and there is a danger from any faction that takes up arms,” he said.
The group is seen by Damascus as a danger on the ground even if it has helped to serve political objectives, said Jihad Makdissi, a former Syrian Foreign Ministry official who left the country and is now an independent political figure who backs the Geneva peace process for Syria.
“They see it absolutely as a threat to the country from a security and military standpoint and they are already fighting them in many places according to the government’s priorities.”
But from a political perspective, ISIS has served the Syrian government’s objectives by demoralizing and demonizing the opposition, he added.