A year of heartbreak in Syria

A year of heartbreak in Syria
Continued bloodshed made 2014 a disastrous year for revolutionaries, not just with the loss of the symbolic city of Homs to the regime, but also the rise of a new foe, the IS group.
5 min read
30 December, 2014
Syrian civilians suffered from regime barrel bombs, food shortages and extremists' brutality [AFP]

Syria saw another year of seismic change in 2014, the most notable event being the Islamic State group's announcement in June of the "establishment" of a caliphate headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The Islamic State group [IS, formerly known as ISIS] took control of the eastern part of the country, while Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, stamped their authority over most of the Idlib countryside.

These events marked a significant setback for the Syrian revolution, as did the retreat of their forces from Homs' old city. The Assad regime also advanced in areas of Homs, Hama and the outskirts of Damascus.

In September, a massive suicide bombing killed the leader of the Islamic Ahrar al-Sham group, Hassan Abboud, along with a number of other leading figures in the Islamist-Salafi group.

With a backdrop of these events, the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council was set up.

Crowned as 'caliph' 

The declaration of the Islamic State group's "caliphate" on 29 June came during a time of mixed fortunes for the extremist group. Earlier in the year, IS took control of Raqqa province, despite rabid resistance from the al-Nusra Front and Islamic Front. Meanwhile, al-Nusra and Islamic Front successfully expelled the Islamic State group from the countryside around Idlib and Latakia, as well as Aleppo.

It appeared that the retreat of Baghdadi's outfit from Aleppo was a "tactical withdrawal" so they could concentrate their fighters on the northern city's neighbouring towns of al-Bab, Jarabulus and Raqqa, which has become the Islamic State's stronghold.  

While the IS group captured land around Dier al-Zour, in Syria's eastern desert, there was a wave of resignations among leaders of the opposition and heads of Free Syrian Army brigades. A mixture of the sense of defeat and a belief that their supposed international supporters had failed to support them in their fight for freedom and dignity was reported to be behind the despondency felt by the opposition leadership.

In the east, Baghdadi's militants tightened their hold over Deir al-Zour and took over al-Muhasan and the country's oil fields. With these sweeping successes, 27 members of the al-Nusra Front, most of them leaders or foreign fighters, swapped sides and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in al-Bukamal.

This paved the way for the militants to declare their "caliphate" with Baghdadi as "caliph", borders for the new "state" drawn up, and a name change from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, to simply "the Islamic State".

A year of expansion

A few days after the declaration of the caliphate, IS' expansionist ambitions became clear in Deir al-Zour, Raqqa, Hasaka and north of Aleppo - but the group shifted tactics, beginning to use negotiations in some villages instead of force. The allegiance with the factions in western Deir al-Zour allowed IS to quickly take over the area. At that time there were no clashes with the Assad regime. 

It was only at the end of July that violent clashes broke out between the IS group and regime forces, when the extremist group seized the 17th Division base from the Syrian Army.

Amid the bloodshed, the militants seized caches of weapons and ammunition, which they used on their assaults on other regime seats of power in eastern Syria, such as the Brigade 93 base and Tabqa military airfield on 24 August. The capture of this made Raqqa the first Syrian province to fall completely under the IS group's control.

Just when it appeared that the IS group would continue their eastern assault on Deir al-Zour, the extremists changed strategy and headed towards Kobane, a Kurdish town north east of Aleppo. During the attack on the town the first signs of international intervention in Syria started to loom on the horizon.

     It is the Syrian regime that has benefited the most from the rise of extremist groups in 2014.

The coalition's campaign began with a strategy to "disarm and dismantle" the IS group in Syria and Iraq, as well as al-Nusra Front fighters and other groups with links to al-Qaeda.

Then US-led force then launched dozens of airstrikes against the IS group and the al-Nusra Front in Dier al-Zour, and in the area around Aleppo and Idlib. On the ground, the IS group have battled with the Kurdish People's Protection Units and factions from the Free Syrian Army.

When the IS group expelled the al-Qaeda fighters from the eastern parts of Syria, most fled to Daraa province in the south of the country. In the last few months of 2014, the Nusra Front appeared to have changed their strategy, starting a fierce battle outside Idlib against the Syria Revolutionaries Front led by Jamal Marouf.

The extremists forced Marouf's rebel group out of Zawiya Mountain and most of the southern countryside, and used its momentum to seize regime camps in Wadi al-Daif and al-Hamidiya, the largest regime strongholds in Idlib, in December.

Reverses for the revolution

Among the loss of land to the extremist groups, the retreat from Homs was one of the most regrettable moments of 2014 for the Syrian opposition groups, as the city was the symbolic capital of the revolution.

As part of an unprecedented UN-brokered agreement between the regime and the opposition, the revolutionaries agreed to the retreat in exchange for allowing an aid convoy into the towns of Nubbul and al-Zahraa, north of Aleppo.

Opposition forces then announced a new bid to unite the disparate opposition factions under one umbrella - but this did not reassure the revolutionaries. The first step was the formation of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, which is made up of around 100 of the largest opposition military factions.

It is the Syrian regime that has benefited the most from the rise of extremist groups in 2014. Their forces have regained control of the majority of Homs city, Hama's north countryside and many villages and towns in rural Damascus, most importantly al-Maliha.

It also set out to secure the outskirts of the capital through a series of truces, which expanded to include most of the southern districts of Damascus, including Yarmouk, al-Qadam and al-Asali. The regime has reportedly carried out dozens of massacres, the most horrific of which was an airstrike in Raqqa that was understood to have killed around 160 civilians.

What can be concluded is that 2014 was a disastrous year for many in Syria - not least the country's civilians.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.