September 6, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Syria Sinks Further into the Abyss

• Recent talks between the U.S. and Russia have again failed to lead to a cessation of hostilities in Syria, though further talks are planned. 

• On September 5, the Islamic State claimed credit for several bombings in Syria that killed at least 40 people.

• Turkey announced that the Turkish-Syrian border region is now free of the Islamic State, though the group undoubtedly maintains elements on both sides of the border.

• The long-term prospects for Syria surviving the conflict in its current form are dimming as the fighting and regional machinations show no signs of slowing.


As the world has witnessed throughout the Syrian civil war, no matter how dire the situation seems, it can always get worse. The last two weeks have brought the most recent examples of turning points that yield no progress, with fighting intensifying as all sides push to turn tactical momentum into strategic gains. Syria is now so fragmented that significant gains or losses in one part of the country do not translate into broader trends, as the actors, local dynamics, and regional machinations are vastly different from province to province. 

During a face-to-face meeting at the G-20 summit in China, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to solidify long-running talks about broader coordination between the two countries in Syria, as well as a cessation of hostilities that would pave the way towards a negotiated resolution to the war. Russia views the talks and prospective agreement as a counterterrorism template in which the two countries target extremist elements in the rebel opposition—though Russia has labeled almost all rebels terrorists. The U.S. wants the talks to curtail the suffering in places such as Aleppo, and to halt the fighting while negotiations take place. Talks will resume between Moscow and Washington, though it is unclear if the fundamental differences between the two sides can be bridged. 

Meanwhile, the late-August push by Turkish military units into Syria has continued. According to Turkish officials, the dramatic escalation of Turkish involvement in the civil war was designed to rid the border area of the twin terror threats posed by the so-called Islamic State and the U.S.-supported Kurdish rebel units that have been fighting the Islamic State. On September 5, Turkey declared the border area was rid of the Islamic State. While the Turkish statement was referring to the Islamic State's territorial holdings, the group maintains significant numbers on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border, and will continue to have a presence for the foreseeable future.

For its part, the Islamic State claimed credit for a series of bombings on September 5 that killed more than 40 people. The attacks were in the heart of the Assad regime’s support base in Tartus, Homs, and Damascus, as well as Hasakah, which is predominantly Kurdish. The group had previously targeted Tartus in May, and the Alawite-majority area was again the target of a synchronized, ‘double-tap’ style attack that killed 30 people. The attack involved a car bombing that was followed by a suicide bombing targeting emergency responders—a hallmark of the Islamic State. Along with the Assad regime, which has relentlessly targeted hospitals and emergency services throughout the conflict, the Islamic State routinely targets the very people trying to keep Syrians alive. 

The fractured Syrian battlefield is a reflection of the fractured nature of its combatants. Despite taking heavy losses, the Islamic State remains one of the the strongest terror groups in history; it will maintain the ability to inflict persistent and serious damage in Syria, as well as Iraq, for years after losing control. The Syrian Kurds have tried to carve out a de facto autonomous region along Syria’s northern border; they have succeeded just enough to bring about Turkish involvement. While the U.S. and Russia continue to hold talks, the nature of the conflict resists grand gestures and broad solutions. All the while, the fighting in Syria continues, and the unprecedented civilian suffering intensifies.


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