ISIS Attacks in Assad's Stronghold Serve as Warning to Putin

Islamic State attacks killed at least 150 people in a series of suicide bombings in Latakia, and the choice of target and the timing were not a coincidence.

Soldiers and civilians inspect the damage after explosions hit the city of Tartous, Syria, May 23, 2016.
SANA via Reuters

The death toll in the series of coordinated attacks by ISIS in Syria’s Latakia region is growing, with the latest reports by press time indicating that at least 150 people had been killed and scores wounded.

Residents of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities who have suffered and continue to suffer from mass terror attacks may not be impressed by those numbers, but in Syria yesterday’s attacks were exceptional, not just because of the casualty toll, but because of their locations. Latakia province in general, and the cities of Tartous and Jableh in particular, are under control of the Syrian regime and until now had enjoyed relative quiet.

In the eyes of Tartous and Jableh residents, the immediate culprits are the thousands of Syrian refugees who fled to Latakia and are now suspected of being an ISIS fifth column. In the areas where the attacks occurred, there were even reports of revenge attacks on refugees, causing the province’s leadership to ask citizens to act with restraint and not to harm refugees.

A map showing Syria's coastal Alawite enclave.
Haaretz

It still isn’t clear who actually committed the suicide attacks and planted the car bombs, but the haste with which ISIS claimed responsibility supports the assessment that ISIS is changing its strategy, and that alongside its efforts to bolster its lines of defense in the areas it controls, it is seeking to warn the Assad regime and its Russian partners against attacking it.

The choice of targets is no coincidence. Latakia is not just a predominantly Alawite province and as such a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad – it also hosts Russian bases and Russian soldiers are regular “visitors” in Tartous. These attacks come only a day or two after American announcements of its intent to conquer the city of Raqqa, which is considered the organization’s capital, and that the Syrian government had started military preparations for advancing on the city. Raqqa is a strategic target that houses ISIS’ command headquarters, as well as the headquarters of the various militias that work with ISIS and from which ISIS controls the Iraqi front.

Its conquest, when that occurs, will be different from the retaking of Palmyra in Syria or Ramadi in Iraq; it will force ISIS to make a strategic decision on whether to turn Libya into its main base, or return to the modus operandi of Al-Qaida. Al-Qaida does not seek to control large swaths of territory; rather it focuses its efforts on terror attacks against regimes, primarily in Arab countries, and even when it seized cities like Fallujah in Iraq or territory in southern Yemen, they were used as launching pads for attacks beyond those regions.

People inspect the damage after explosions hit the Syrian city of Tartous, Syria, May 23, 2016.
SANA / Reuters

ISIS chose to conquer territory to form the nucleus of a state from which it would seek new conquests. The territorial spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which surprised he world with its speed and power, at first enjoyed the absence of an international response, mainly because the primary goal of the West at the time was to overthrow the Assad regime and block Iran and Russia from any diplomatic achievements. Many months went by until the United States changed its strategy and started to bomb the organization’s bases, recruiting France and Britain to help, and eventually lining up alongside Russia.

Against this Western and Russian strategy, which caused the withdrawal of ISIS forces from many areas of Iraq and Syria, the group launched a series of terror attacks aimed at clarifying that even if the Arab armies in cooperation with international forces managed to eat into their areas of control, they would face a tough battle against cells and activists who are able to export terror to Europe as well.

Thus, in March alone the group carried out 44 attacks in Iraq and 23 in Syria. Those assaults were carried out mostly by local operatives, with only a few foreigners from some half a dozen countries involved. This course of action makes the war on ISIS much more complicated; it cannot make do with territorial conquests but requires a dispersal of the forces of the Syrian and Iraqi regimes in a fashion liable to undermine the mobilization against ISIS in Raqqa and in Mosul in Iraq, which is to be targeted by the end of the year.