ISIS is continuing to reconstitute in Syria amidst increased unrest and popular opposition to local security forces. Suspected ISIS gunmen demonstrated the group’s increased capabilities by carrying out a campaign of assassinations targeting pro-regime operatives in Daraa Province. ISIS will likely continue to rapidly reconstitute in southern Syria if fighting between pro-regime forces and armed local populations persists. Separately, ISIS is expanding its influence in eastern Syria following increased pressure on the Syrian Democratic Forces from local Arab tribes and pro-regime actors. ISIS will seek to foment additional unrest in order to further increase its freedom of action in southern and central Syria.
Syria Situation Report
The pro-regime coalition is increasing pressure on the US presence in northeast Syria through kinetic activity targeting US forces. A Russian military police (MP) vehicle collided with a US military vehicle in northern Hasakah Province on August 25. Russia seeks to disrupt the US ground supply lines in northern Hasakah that connect US forces in Iraq and Syria. Pro-regime militias conducted two rocket and mortar attacks near a US base in eastern Deir e-Zor on August 18 and 29. The pro-regime coalition seeks to exploit security tensions in Deir e-Zor to undermine the US and its local partner’s presence along the Euphrates River.
The US partner force in northeast Syria is facing major challenges to its efforts to stabilize formerly ISIS-held areas of Deir e-Zor Province. The largest tribal confederation in Deir e-Zor issued the US-led Anti-ISIS Coalition a one-month ultimatum, which expires on September 11, to give tribes the authority to govern Deir e-Zor in the wake of an assassination of a high profile tribal elder in early August. Both the Syrian Regime and ISIS are seeking to exploit tribal grievances with the SDF to expand their presence in Deir e-Zor. The regime is encouraging the formation of tribal forces that will threaten the security of US personnel operating in the area.
The COVID-19 outbreak in regime-held Syria is likely spreading at a significant rate and increasing internal economic and social pressures on the Assad regime. A regime official estimated there are over 112,000 cases in Greater Damascus alone. The regime is likely incapable of preventing the spread. The outbreaks in regime areas will likely spread to anti-Assad controlled areas in the northwest and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-held areas in the northeast, further threatening stability in those regions.
Russia and Turkey briefly escalated against one another following an attack on a Russo-Turkish joint patrol in Idlib. A suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) struck a Russo-Turkish joint patrol along the M4 Highway, causing several injuries on July 14. Russia appears to have held Turkey accountable for failing to prevent the attack and conducted airstrikes targeting the Turkish and opposition-controlled city of al-Bab in northern Aleppo on July 15. Turkey was likely responsible for a suicide drone attack that struck Kurdish-led Asayish Internal Security Forces and Russian Military Police (MPs) in northern Hasakah Province the following day. Russia and Turkey did not kinetically escalate further, but future attacks on joint patrols may prompt a larger Russian escalation against Turkish forces and allies.
Recent infighting among opposition groups in Greater Idlib may complicate the possibility of cooperation against Assad in the future. Al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) clashed with the Stand Firm Operations Room, a Hurras al-Din (HaD)-led organization of al Qaeda affiliates for several days. While the two parties agreed to a ceasefire on June 26, sporadic fighting and inflammatory actions have continued and the situation may again escalate, threatening the ability of opposition forces to hold out against future regime advances and jeopardizing the internal stability of greater Idlib.
Internal fighting between al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Greater Idlib Province may escalate as the newly formed “Stand Firm Operations Room” challenges fellow al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) for control in Idlib. The “Stand Firm Operations Room” was created by five al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, some of which are led by HTS defectors. HTS and the “Stand Firm Operations Room” clashed after the latter established several checkpoints in HTS-dominated northern Idlib Province. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups may continue to fight for control of Idlib and may risk their previous unity in the fight against the Assad regime.
Pro-regime forces are preparing to restart their offensive in Greater Idlib Province. Russia resumed airstrikes in southern Idlib on June 2 for the first time since the March 5 ceasefire; the airstrikes are a key indicator that pro-regime forces are preparing to renew their offensive in Idlib. Turkey is responding to the recent pro-regime build-up in southern Idlib by expanding its own presence and increasing its air defense capabilities in southern Idlib in a likely attempt to deter the pro-regime campaign. Turkey previously deployed forces and air defense systems into Greater Idlib Province between February and March 2020.
Multiple ISIS attacks in southern and eastern Syria as well as a possible assassination in Idlib Province demonstrate the group’s continued reach across Syria as it reconstitutes across both Syria and Iraq. The attacks occurred in late May and marked the culmination of ISIS’s 2020 Ramadan campaign. A possible US drone struck a reported ISIS commander in the Turkish-occupied Afrin area of Aleppo Province, indicating the group may retain a presence in that area.
Key Takeaway: The situation in southern Syria will continue to destabilize as insurgent activity increases and the Assad regime remains unwilling to commit the resources necessary to avert growing unrest. Security in southern Syria’s strategic and restive Daraa Province collapsed rapidly as pro-regime forces deployed to the south to conduct a security operation against anti-Assad actors targeting pro-regime positions. However, a Russian delegation intervened to negotiate with local Daraa leaders, thus circumventing the pro-regime operation. The outcome of the negotiations is unclear, but civilians will likely continue protesting against increased regime presence in the area.