Standing on a hill overlooking a massive expanse of desert in central Syria, local commander Almunqez al Salamuni delivered his verdict on what drives ISIS militants.
“You feel that the fighters of ISIS are brainwashed. They are coming to die. They are fearless. They fight until the end,” al Salamuni said.
As we talked, warplanes that he said were from the Syrian air force circled overhead. They dropped bombs on villages he claimed were under ISIS control, some less than a mile from where we were standing.
“Getting rid of ISIS is only a question of time. Because the Syrian army has decided to defeat them totally in this area,” said al Salamuni.
We’re in the Salamiyah area of central Syria with the permission of the Assad government, which granted the visas that allowed us to enter the country.
Syrian army shifts focus
In the past, the US criticized the Syrian government and its backers — namely Russia, Iran and the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah — for evading confrontations with ISIS. Instead of targeting the extremist group, US officials argued, the army was going after moderate rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But recent months have seen a major escalation of hostilities between pro-Assad forces and ISIS, with the Syrian military making a major push to oust the group from the ISIS stronghold of Deir Ezzor.
Deir Ezzor is a strategic town in the southeastern Syrian desert, widely expected to become ISIS’ final battlefront after the group’s imminent defeat by US-backed forces in Raqqa.
The Syrian military’s shift of focus has come partly as a result of a ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria, brokered by the US and Russia. This has freed up resources in a military that, two years ago, was stretched thin as it battled various anti-government groups across the country.
Another factor is a seemingly tacit understanding between the US and Russia — Assad’s most powerful backer — that defeating ISIS in its self-proclaimed caliphate is now a strategic priority.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister and former permanent envoy to the United Nations Faisal Mekdad confirmed that Damascus was training its sights on the extremist group.
“We have to define our priorities,” Mekdad said in an interview with CNN.
“And right now our priorities are liberating the Syrian desert on the way to Deir Ezzor,” he added.
New ISIS fronts
Not far from Deir Ezzor, Assad’s army is trying to hold off ISIS on another front, this one lying uncomfortably close to one of the regime’s major arteries.
The Salamiyah area, near the Homs-Raqqa highway, has turned into an ISIS hotbed in recent weeks. Many ISIS fighters getting squeezed out of Raqqa have taken root in the vicinity, launching sporadic attacks on the major highway.
Salamiyah is now a major battleground.
“With America and the SDF driving ISIS out of Raqqa, all of these fighters are coming down here to Salamiyah,” a regional Syrian military commander, who asked not to be named, told me.
The Syrian military has been sending reinforcements to this area to thwart ISIS incursions and push the terror group back.
Syrian forces that took us to the front line said ISIS is also changing its tactics, deploying smaller and often very young groups of fighters to attack and sometimes perpetrate massacres in villages surrounding Salamiyah.
“Even when they are surrounded, they never give up,” commander Almunqez al Salamuni said.
“They want to hold the territory they move into. It is very hard to get them out of places they invade,” he added.
ISIS rapid attacks
One such incident happened on May 18 of this year when ISIS fighters launched a pre-dawn raid on a village called Aqareb, entering homes and killing dozens of civilians.
Syrian forces dispatched reinforcements, using tanks and artillery to drive the militants out, but the carnage was substantial: more than 50 civilians killed, many of them women and children.
The Syrian military took us to an almost completely demolished house in Aqareb and introduced us to nine-year-old Mudar, the only villager who survived the ISIS invasion.
“They came in and shot my mother, my brother and my two sisters. I played dead, they stepped on me, but I did not move,” Mudar said.
The fighters then went on to the roof of the building to set up battle positions, Mudar explained.
The Syrian military deployed tanks and dozens of troops to kill the militants. The episode fueled hatred among the soldiers who vowed to destroy the group in this area.
But that fight could take a long time. While the Syrian military has been making rapid gains against ISIS near Deir Ezzor, recently taking back the important village of al-Sukhna, out here in Salamiyah they have seen more of a seesaw battle.
Syrian government forces are weary of ISIS’ rapid attack tactics. Meanwhile, ISIS fighters have tried to take more villages around the area and are determined to disrupt the Syrian government’s only major land route to Aleppo, and its supply line for many of its forces in the east of the country.
But the Syrian army soldiers there say they’re determined to see off the militants. “I am ready to fight day and night against ISIS,” said Jamal Kabalan, a fighter with a pro-government military force.
“We have decided already that ISIS will not get out of this area.”