Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have intensified their attacks on more moderate rebels battling his government while avoiding strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), the New York Times reports, suggesting that the Syrian regime has a plan to benefit from anticipated U.S. strikes narrowly targeting ISIL in Syria.
New regime airstrikes on Wednesday killed about 50 people in the rebel-held village of Talbiseh in central Syria, including several fighters and a woman and her five children. The moderate "Faith in God Brigade" is based in the village.
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Assad’s new campaign to destroy the rebels—while leaving ISIL alone—appears to be timed with President Barack Obama’s threat to order airstrikes in Syria against the extremist group:
Insurgents of all stripes, except for the Islamic State group, say the Syrian government appears to be stepping up its attacks on them ahead of the threatened American air campaign. Pro-government and antigovernment analysts say Mr. Assad has an interest in eliminating the more moderate rebels, to make sure his forces are the only ones left to benefit on the ground from any weakening of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Mr. Assad has maintained from the start of the conflict that he and his allies are the only force in Syria capable of battling the extremists effectively. But Islamic State activists in Homs said on Wednesday that there had been no recent government airstrikes against the group, adding to opposition suspicions that Mr. Assad prefers to focus on attacking his other opponents while letting the Islamic State’s unchecked brutality argue the case to Syria and the world that his rule is the best alternative.
The Faith in God Brigade in Talbiseh is probably one of the most moderate forces left on the battlefield. Many others have been radicalized by years of inconclusive violence and the influence of foreign fighters and deep-pocketed Islamist donors. For several months recently, parts of the brigade operated under Harakat al-Hazm, an insurgent umbrella group that has received American-made TOW missiles and other aid that the United States has tried to keep out of the hands of more extreme groups.
The Washington Free Beacon previously reported that Assad helped facilitate the rise of ISIL. His intelligence agency assisted al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) militants—the precursor group to ISIL—with travel across the Syrian border into Iraq to fight U.S. forces, and he freed several high-level terrorists detainees in May 2011 that would later lead jihadist groups such as ISIL.