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Syrian deaths rise past 2,000

Al-Qaida cells combine forces in escalated raids

– More than 2,000 Syrians – almost half of them pro-government forces – have been killed in just over two weeks of fighting in Syria, marking one of the worst death tolls in the country’s three-year civil war, opposition activists said Monday.

The reports reflect a recent surge in deadly attacks by the al-Qaida-breakaway Islamic State group targeting President Bashar Assad’s forces, signaling shifting priorities as Sunni militants seek to consolidate their hold on territory and resources in northern Syria.

Assad’s forces have gained momentum in the fighting with rebels seeking to topple him from power. Infighting also has hurt the rebel cause, with Islamic extremists battling more moderate fighters who have been greatly weakened by lack of weapons and clashes with the militants.

But a series of recent setbacks for the Syrian government at the hands of the Islamic State group threatens to overturn government successes, pitting the Syrian army against a formidable force that now controls large chunks of territory in the country’s north and neighboring Iraq.

“Now that they’ve mopped up rebel resistance to them in the east, the Islamic State (group) can turn to the regime,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on militant factions in Syria and Iraq. “It may have been a benefit (to the Islamic State) to deal with rebels first, but the assault against the regime was inevitable.”

The recent attacks came after Assad was re-elected last month to a third, seven-year term in a vote that was confined to government-controlled areas and dismissed by the opposition and its Western allies. In his inauguration speech on July 16, he confidently declared victory and praised his supporters for “defeating the dirty war.”

Since then, fighters from the Islamic State group have launched attacks against army positions in three different provinces in northern and central Syria. In the past week alone, the militants captured a government-controlled gas field and two major army bases in three different provinces.

More than 300 soldiers, guards and workers at the Shaer field were reported killed by Islamic State militants in a three-day offensive to capture the field. The army recaptured Shaer this past weekend.

Militants last week also overran the sprawling Division 17 military base in the northern Raqqa province, killing at least 85 soldiers inside.

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