Islamic State video draws attention to Syrian victims

Islamic State fighter waves flag at the base of Division 17 in Raqqa province, Syria Image copyright Other
Image caption The soldiers who have been identified so far were from a Syrian military base captured by IS in July

As Western governments attempt to uncover the identity of the jihadists in the latest Islamic State (IS) video showing the mass killing of Syrian soldiers, information is also now beginning to come out about some of the victims - and their stories.

The sequence in which the 18 soldiers are beheaded simultaneously, shortly after the severed head of the US aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig is displayed, is both the most shocking and the slickest footage that IS has so far produced.

Just before the kneeling men are pushed face down and their throats cut, the camera lingers on some of their faces. They are strangely calm and thoughtful rather than fearful.

It was surely not the jihadists' aim, but this humanises and individualises the men as more than just further evidence of horror in Syria. It also allowed their families to identify them.

Most were young men, like Wissam Masaaf, a Christian, or Sharaf Iskander, a lieutenant from a military family. His brother - also a soldier - had already been killed on another front in the war.

The oldest and most senior of the men has been identified as Col Aktham Khatib.

He was from Qardaha in the province of Latakia. It is the birthplace of President Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez, who ruled Syria for three decades, and the heartland of the family's power.

Public brutality

It is more evidence of the toll the conflict has increasingly taken on the group that is most loyal to the president - the minority Alawite sect to which he belongs.

Anger within the sect at the price they are having to pay to help keep the president in power is becoming a little more noticeable, with several small protests. But there is no sign so far of a major shift in support.

The killing of Col Khatib also undermines an IS claim that senior officers left their posts and abandoned their soldiers to their fate as the last army bases around the jihadists' stronghold of Raqqa were overrun in July and August.

The soldiers who have been identified so far were from one of those bases - Division 17.

The severed heads of other captured soldiers from those battles had already been displayed on railings in the centre of Raqqa in another of the gruesome displays of public brutality by IS.

It was unclear then if they had been killed before they were beheaded.

This video - with its slow and stop motion, elaborate soundtrack and almost story-boarded professionalism - would seem to suggest otherwise.

As the media focuses on the beheadings of US and British citizens by IS and the dramatic impact they have had on international efforts to tackle the threat, Syrian and Iraqi victims of IS have received less attention.

Activists in Syria have estimated that some 1,500 Syrian civilians and soldiers have died outside direct combat at the hands of IS and other jihadists since the end of June.

The terrifying sequence in the IS video may be used by Assad supporters as proof of the justness of their cause, ignoring the many atrocities that forces loyal to the president have themselves committed.

But it does reinforce the point that the primary victims of IS are Syrians and Iraqis, not Westerners.