APRIL 1, 2015
ISIS Seizes New Territory in Deadly Attacks in Syria
By ANNE BARNARD and HWAIDA SAAD
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Islamic State militants in Syria have seized new territory on multiple fronts in recent days, killing dozens of civilians in the central province of Hama, residents there said, and advancing on Wednesday into the chaotic Yarmouk district on the southern edge of Damascus.
The advances reasserted the extremist group's power just days after insurgent groups -- including its rival, the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda -- seized the northern city of Idlib,  the second provincial capital to fall completely out of government control in Syria's four-year conflict.
If it holds, the advance into Yarmouk, a refugee camp that before the war was a bustling district with one of the world's largest Palestinian communities, could mean a new round of misery for the 18,000 residents who remain, besieged by government forces, suffering from starvation and lack of medical care, and dominated by clashing Syrian insurgent and Palestinian armed groups.
The seizure would also leave the Islamic State in control of territory less than five miles from the center of Damascus, the closest the group has ventured in the capital and its suburbs, where other insurgent groups have deeper roots.
Insurgents in southern Syria also asserted themselves on Wednesday, seizing the main border crossing with Jordan, they said; Jordanian officials closed the post. By Wednesday night, Nusra fighters appeared to take credit for the victory, posting photos of themselves at the scene. It was a potential embarrassment for Jordan and the United States, as Syria's southern front is one of the few places where relatively moderate, nationalist insurgents retain some clout. They receive some Western aid, yet sometimes cooperate with Nusra, listed as a terrorist group.
Under pressure from Jordan, other insurgents reached an agreement with Nusra that it would stay out of the battle, or at least hide its participation, said Abu Mosaab, an antigovernment activist in the area who uses a nickname for safety. (Issam Rayyes, a spokesman for the other groups, gave a different version, saying that they had won the battle, mainly with artillery, only to have Nusra fighters elbow in -- and that Nusra would not be allowed a role in running the crossing.)
Several times, residents of the Salamiyeh area say, they have asked for reinforcements, only to have officials remind them that thousands of the area's young men have failed to report for military duty. Maher, a refugee from the area who gave only a first name for fear of reprisals, said that a delegation including his uncle had even met with President Bashar al-Assad, who told them, "You have 24,000 recruits who avoided the army; let them join."
Mr. Assad has said in recent interviews that he is fulfilling his responsibilities and protecting the Syrian people.
Islamic State fighters attacked the nearby village of Maboujeh on Tuesday, residents said. A journalist from the area, who asked not to be named out of fear for his safety, said that 48 bodies had been buried on Wednesday, and that residents were angry that the government had not sent "real army, tanks and heavy weapons" to back up lightly armed pro-government militias.
"ISIS was moving freely in the village, knocking on the doors, taking people randomly," said a resident of Maboujeh reached via Skype at his home on Tuesday, adding that government troops did not arrive until nine hours later. "I lived hours not knowing what to do, waiting for my turn to come."
Government forces lobbed shells from a neighboring village and sent a warplane to bomb the area, but the bombardments killed at least six civilians, and one woman, he said, lost a leg.
At the national hospital in Salamiyeh, he said, he saw 35 dead bodies, mostly women, children and elderly people, some shot, some stabbed.
"I couldn't distinguish between faces, fully covered with blood," he said. "Bodies were packed over each other."
"Why would the regime let something like this happen?" he asked, speculating that the government would use the attack as "a trump card" to "force men to join the army."
Some residents of the diverse area, home to many members of the Ismaili sect and other minority groups whom the Islamic State considers apostates, have said in interviews that they are considering heading home to protect their villages, rather than continuing to serve in the militias along the Homs-Aleppo highway, which has become even more crucial as a government supply route since Idlib fell last weekend.
The leader of Nusra posted an audio statement online Wednesday declaring that his group would not seek to monopolize power in Idlib. 
"We are not interested in ruling the city or monopolizing it without the others," the leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, said. He called for a consultative council to rule the city with representatives from all insurgent factions there. He also called for the establishment of an Islamic-law court "to solve the people's problems."
Since taking Idlib, Nusra and other hard-line groups such as Ahrar al-Sham have raised fears that they would impose authoritarian religious rule, as the Islamic State has done farther east, in Raqqa. Mr. Jolani's statement appeared to be aimed at reassuring Idlib residents, especially after two Christians were killed by foreign fighters.
Some anti-government Syrians say that Nusra is more helpful in the battle against the Assad government than the Islamic State fighters, but other residents are far from reassured. Nusra's leadership has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, and targets civilians with suicide bombs.
Regardless, no single faction is likely to be able to guarantee civilians' safety where multiple militant groups maintain influence.
Mr. Jolani said in his audio statement that authority in Idlib would be established "not in terrorizing the people but in protecting them."
He urged fighters to "serve the people, the displaced and the homeless, the injured, the widows and the orphans and the hungry."
At least 30,000 people have already fled the city, according to the United Nations.
Maher Samaan contributed reporting from Beirut, Rana Sweis from Amman, Jordan, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus.