Residents of a province in southwest Syria are criticising the government for failing to protect them from a coordinated attack by ISIS that killed more than 200 people on Wednesday.
The flash offensive by ISIS militants on Sweida's provincial capital and surrounding countryside is the largest to hit the province since the start of the Syrian war, according to the The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
For local residents, the attack is a stark reminder that the Syrian government is not capable of protecting the area’s large Druze community from the clutches of an embattled insurgent group that continues to control a small strip of territory in Sweida’s eastern countryside as well as pockets in the nearby province of Deraa.
In the town of Shahba, mourners prevented the governor of Sweida, Amer al-Ashi, and other officials from joining a funeral procession on Thursday, in a sign of growing contempt towards the government, according to Enab Baladi, an opposition-affiliated media outlet. Journalists and academics from Sweida also took to social media to criticise the government for not responding more forcefully to the militant incursion.
"The public perception on the street is that security agencies need to be held accountable for yesterday's attack. There needs to be an investigation into this security breach," Osama Abou Dakar, a local journalist told The National. "People have questions: how did ISIS infiltrate the countryside? How did they reach the [provincial] capital?"
For a district that has largely been spared the mass violence that destroyed other parts of the country, the ISIS attack on Wednesday came as a sudden shock to Sweida’s largely Druze population.
Three car bombings targeted a vegetable market, Nijmeh Square, and the Al Mashanaqah Roundabout in Sweida’s provincial capital at dawn. In the district’s eastern and northeastern countryside, ISIS militants stormed a string of towns of villages, where they raided homes and slaughtered dozens of residents.
Hassan Omar, a government health official in Sweida province, said on Thursday that a total of 216 people were killed and some 150 others were wounded. The SOHR put the death toll at 246, including 135 civilians and 111 local militia fighters who defended the area from ISIS militants. At least 18 others are believed to be held hostage by the group.
Ahed Mrad, a local journalist, said the Syrian army did not play an active role in protecting Sweida from the attack. Syrian state media said the Syrian air force pounded militant hideouts northeast of Sweida city during the attack. State news agency SANA said army units backed by local militias pushed militants back from frontlines in the countryside. But the bulk of the fighting force on the ground comprised of local militia fighters and area residents, Mr Mrad said.
The attack aimed to distract the Syrian army from military operations against ISIS-affiliated groups in Daraa, west of Sweida, which has been the cite of fierce clashes over the past two days, SANA said.
Wihaj Azzam, a local media activist, says he had to tally the names of those who we reportedly slaughtered in Sweida on Wednesday. “It felt like doing math: adding, dividing, and multiplying names like that,” he said. “It was a sad statistical exercise that reduced people to numbers.”
In one incident, an ISIS fighter shot a 12-year-old boy in front of his parents before killing them too, Mr Azzam said. He was also told that rescue workers found the corpse of a woman who had her arms wrapped around two dead children. “She was trying to shield them from the bullets,” he said. “But the rifles of terrorists don’t spare anyone.”
Thousands of local militia fighters, including members of the National Defense Forces and the Baath battalion, pushed ISIS militants back after hours of clashes in Sweida’s countryside. The SOHR on Thursday said that local militia forces have regained complete control of the area.
Mass funeral processions took place on Thursday. Syrian state television showed black-clad mourners surrounding coffins plastered with pictures of the dead. Other footage shared online showed crowds jeering at strung-up corpses reported to be of ISIS fighters.
Elsewhere in the country, Syrian troops and allied forces continued a week-long assault on an ISIS-affiliate in the Yarmouk Basin, in Deraa province, as part of a larger attack on rebel-held territory in the Syrian south. An intensified assault on militants over the past 48 hours has led to a “collapse” in militant ranks, according to the SOHR. The monitoring group claims that militants are now confined to only 10 towns and villages in the Yarmouk Basin.