by Marlin Dick, The Daily Star
22 May 2015 BEIRUT (TSR-The Daily Star): ISIS militants dramatically expanded their control over eastern Syria Thursday, seizing the regime’s last remaining border crossing with Iraq one day after they took control of the central city of Palmyra, a world heritage site.
Pro-ISIS media outlets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the jihadis took over the Tanf border crossing after regime troops withdrew from the area.
ISIS jihadis are also in control of the Iraqi side of the border crossing, which is called Al-Walid. Tanf is 240 kms slightly southeast of Tadmur.
ISIS controls a second border crossing with Iraq further north, while the main Kurdish militia controls the third.
The Observatory said that ISIS now controls half of Syrian territory, although much of it is sparsely populated area in the eastern half of the country.
It marked the first time during the Syrian war that ISIS seized a major city from regime forces – previous victories took place at remote military bases in Syria’s east.
ISIS also summarily executed at least 16 people in the modern city of Tadmur, northeast of the sprawling ruins of Palmyra, the Observatory said, as the group searched for remnants of the regime forces that melted away in the face of a 10-day campaign by the jihadis.
The Observatory said that during its push toward Palmyra in the eastern part of Homs province that began on May 13, at least 241 regime forces and 150 members of ISIS have been killed.
Anti-regime activists in Tadmur said ISIS fighters decapitated two pro-regime paramilitaries – one of them was caught while wearing women’s clothing in a bid to evade the jihadis, while the other was the head of the “Popular Committees” militia in the town.
A pro-ISIS media outlet released a three-minute video showing the jihadis driving around parts of Tadmur and finally meeting in the street with dozens of locals. At the end of the video, the corpses of two regime fighters are seen, lying in the street.
The anti-regime activists also denied reports that the notorious Tadmur prison was seized by ISIS and its occupants released. They said that in the week leading up to ISIS’ seizure of the area, the regime transferred the prisoners from one of Syria’s most infamous prisons to other locations.
Photographs circulating of joyous detainees following their release were those of individuals who were held at a local police station, and had only been in detention for a short period of time, the activists said.
They added that ISIS had enforced a curfew in Tadmur as its members continued to search for pro-regime elements.
President Bashar Assad’d regime said its troops “evacuated civilians” from Tadmur as part of its withdrawal, while the U.N.Human Rights office in Geneva said roughly a third of the 200,000 residents of Tadmur and surrounding areas might have escaped the jihadis in recent days.
ISIS has also been on the rampage in other parts of Syria’s east. The Observatory and several groups of anti-regime activists said the jihadis had summarily executed around two dozen people in Hassakeh and Deir al-Zor provinces in the last two days.
One victim of the group was executed in Deir al-Zor with an RPG fired at him while tied to a post. A YouTube video of the incident shows an Albanian national briefly question the man, who confesses to having fought against ISIS.
The ISIS members say that because he fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the jihadis, he would be executed in the same fashion.
Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports said that Fadi Saqr, the head of the National Defense paramilitary group, had been detained by the authorities for allegedly supplying ISIS militants in the Damascus suburbs with weapons and ammunition.
World leaders and U.N. officials voiced alarm at the developments.
French President Francois Hollande said the world must respond to the seizure of Palmyra amid fears that ISIS would destroy the city’s world renowned ancient monuments.
“We have to act because there is a threat against these monuments which are part of humankind’s inheritance and at the same time we must act against ISIS,” Hollande said in Riga, Latvia.
The White House called the seizure of Palmyra a “setback” for U.S.-led coalition forces in their fight against ISIS. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama disagreed with Republicans calling for U.S. troops on the ground to fight ISIS.