Key Takeaway: Salafi-jihadist organizations in Syria are growing more ambitious. Both ISIS and Hurras al-Din have recently carried out attacks in Turkish-controlled areas in which they had not previously been active. While these attacks were fairly ineffective, they demonstrate intent and capacity to expand operations. Meanwhile, ISIS carried out two ambushes of regime forces in Deir ez-Zour Province that resulted in dozens of casualties. ISIS and Hurras al-Din are well postured to exploit security gaps in both Turkish- and regime-controlled areas and will likely do so in the coming year.
Syria Situation Report
Key Takeaway: ISIS is reconstituting and expanding attack zones in northern and central Syria. ISIS militants may have carried out three explosive attacks in Turkish-controlled Aleppo Province and separately attacked a pro-regime outpost and oil facility in central Syria. The increasing severity and geographic area of ISIS attacks likely indicates the organization is successfully expanding its freedom of action in Syria. Continued releases of ISIS militants and family members by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will likely provide ISIS with veteran fighters and enable it to further expand its operations.
Key Takeaway: Competition between the Syrian regime and its backers is destabilizing southern Syria and enabling Russia to consolidate its influence. Regime forces and Iranian-backed militias are carrying out arrest campaigns and assassinations likely in response to repeated waves of anti-Assad and anti-Iran unrest in Daraa Province. Russia and its proxies are capitalizing on the unrest to position themselves as necessary mediators and security guarantors for the region.
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.
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.