This weekend the Syrian government reportedly bombed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets in Raqqa, the group's eastern stronghold and the base of operations for its summer offensives on Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan.
But ISIS has proven to be a powerful and capable opponent. The group has cut through Deir Ezzor province and began to make headway on the outskirts of Aleppo, just as Assad forces have neared the apex of their own siege of the city. As transit hub and center for supply lines from Turkey, Aleppo would be a resource boon for either side that wins it, while providing a springboard from which to launch a military campaign for control of the Syria's north.
We asked Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Abu Dhabi research center the Delma Institute and a columnist at the National, and Joshua Landis, editor of Syria Comment and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, to explain which side has an advantage, and where the first major battle could take place.
Syria Deeply: Who would have the advantage in a battle between the two: ISIS or the regime?
Hassan Hassan: ISIS is a formidable force now, after their Mosul offensive. The regime is capable of taking them on in some areas, but it will be extremely difficult in others. ISIS fighters are preparing for the scenario of a regime attack in areas under their control. The problem with the Syrian regime, as was the case with the Iraqi army, is that they don't have the military capacity to conduct surgical attacks against ISIS bases.
In the past, there was a de facto agreement between the regime and ISIS not to fight each other – but now it seems that the marriage has ended and they are fighting each other in some areas. What the regime needs to successfully battle ISIS are U.S. weapons that can do proper surveillance and conduct surgical attacks against their bases. When there's an offensive against them from the regime or outside, ISIS will shift their tactics and strategy to hide themselves within the communities under their control. So it will be extremely difficult for the regime to target them in areas like Raqqa. Now it's easy in areas like Aleppo because they're out in the open, everyone knows where they are. But they can shift gears.
Throughout Syria, both the regime and rebel forces will find it extremely hard to fight back against ISIS, mainly because they are well trained, have a stronger willpower to fight, have the morale and are advancing steadily. Unlike the rebels, they seem to have a very clear strategy.
Syria Deeply: Where might the first battle between ISIS and the regime likely to take place?
Hassan: It would probably be in Aleppo. That's because with the way ISIS is advancing in rural eastern Aleppo province, it and the regime will very soon be neighbors in some areas. ISIS is advancing on Azaz and other strategic towns near the Turkish border. The regime currently controls the industrial areas of Aleppo, towards the northeast. ISIS will soon be in its backyard.