Key Takeaway: The United States and Russia are exerting pressure to limit Iran’s military and diplomatic leverage in Syria. The United States conducted several airstrikes targeting Iranian proxies in Albu Kamal, Deir ez-Zour Province, on February 25, 2021, in response to a series of proxy rocket attacks in Iraq in mid-February. Meanwhile, Russia began several new diplomatic initiatives on the behalf of the Assad regime that could diminish Iran’s potential economic and political leverage in Syria. Russia facilitated a deal to renew oil trade between the Assad regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), possibly reducing the Assad regime’s reliance on Iranian oil. Russia additionally brokered a prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria in which Israel also agreed to finance the purchase of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine for the Syrian government. Russia led trilateral talks with Turkey and Qatar that could be aimed at cutting Iran out of the peace process.
Syria Situation Report
Key Takeaway: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is struggling to manage a deteriorating security situation in opposition-held Idlib Province as provocative attacks by more extreme al Qaeda affiliates threaten the March 5, 2020, Idlib ceasefire. HTS aligned itself more closely with Turkey in May 2020 in a bid to preserve the ceasefire, angering hardline Salafi-jihadist groups. Newly formed and reactivated fighter cells linked to Hurras al-Din and other al Qaeda affiliates are attacking Turkish and Russian forces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has assassinated hardliners and arrested senior Hurras al-Din members in a likely attempt to forestall further attacks. These HTS ‘security operations’ could lead to direct conflict between HTS and Hurras al-Din or other al Qaeda-linked groups, as occurred in July 2020. Russian and regime forces demonstrated their displeasure at the mounting attacks by carrying out rare strikes on al Qaeda affiliates in Idlib Province. Attacks on Russian forces could create the pretext for a renewed regime offensive on Idlib, while an HTS failure to contain hardliners may push Turkey to negotiate away a portion of the province.
By Isabel Ivanescu
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.
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.