BEIRUT — Syrian President Bashar Assad is taking advantage of the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State group to pursue a withering air and ground campaign against more mainstream rebels elsewhere in the country, trying to recapture areas considered more crucial to the survival of his government.
As U.S. and allied jets swoop freely over towns and cities under control of extremists in northern Syria, the Syrian army has scaled back its air activity over areas of IS control, doing as little as possible there to avoid confrontation. Instead, Assad’s troops are now focusing their energies on the country’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
“Whereas previously the Syrian regime had some interest or some level of obligation to take direct action against ISIS, to the extent that the American military is now doing this, the Syrians don’t have to do it,” said Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
While few people think the American and Syrian militaries are actively cooperating or coordinating their operations, there appears to be a tacit alliance, ensuring at the very least that Syrian military operations would not come into conflict or friction with any American or allied aircraft.
The overall strategic picture of the war has hardly changed since the coalition strikes began in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Syrian rebels have intensified their operations in some areas, particularly south of Damascus, making noteworthy advances in Daraa and Quneitra provinces. But at least for now, Assad is successfully hanging on to areas where it counts for his survival, and rebels fighting to topple him are increasingly demoralized and mistrustful of U.S. pledges of support.
The U.S. on Monday airdropped weapons and other assistance over the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani — something it hasn’t done for other Syrian rebels, some of whom are fighting Assad and IS at the same time.
Activists say the Syrian military has meanwhile escalated its attacks against more mainstream rebels — a mix of moderate and more Islamic factions.
On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented more than 200 government airstrikes — including deadly barrel bombings — in the past 36 hours, most of them targeting rebel-held areas of Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and southern Syria.
“Every day there is a massacre in eastern Ghouta,” said activist Hassan Taqieldeen, referring to the sprawling eastern suburb of Damascus that includes Douma. “The regime carries out at least 20 air raids on any given day,” said Taqieldeen, who is based in the town of Douma.
Harmer said there is no doubt the Syrian government is trying to exploit the international focus on the Islamic State group to energize its fight elsewhere.
“If ever there was a time when the Syrian regime had everything lined up for them to do so, this is it,” he said. “It is in a very favorable position and it’s got the opportunity to execute major offensives around Damascus and Aleppo. I just don’t think they have the resources to do it successfully.”
On the ground, the army has made some progress, but its successes have been incremental and are subject to the constant ebb and flow of battle lines.
Last month, with all eyes on Kobani, Syrian government troops victoriously entered the northeastern Damascus suburb of Adra, days after they captured the nearby Adra industrial zone. Troops also broke into part of the capital’s district of Jobar on the edge of the city after pummeling it to bits, but the rebels are so entrenched there that entire neighborhoods are connected by underground tunnels reaching into the heart of the capital.
Earlier this month, government forces advanced in northern Aleppo province, laying claim to a cluster of villages, including the strategic region of Handarat. The capture tightens government control of areas linking the contested city of Aleppo with other parts of the province.
“The Assad regime has intensified its campaign of airstrikes on mostly residential areas across Syria, and particularly in Aleppo,” said Hadi Bahra, head of the Western-backed main Syrian opposition group in exile.
In a statement Tuesday, he said more than 300,000 people in rebel-controlled areas in Aleppo could be subjected to a “protracted starvation campaign” by Assad’s forces, a tactic the Syrian government has previously used to force rebels to surrender in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs. More than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Assad and turned into civil war after a brutal military crackdown.
U.S. officials dismiss the premise that the American-led military campaign may be helping Assad. They insist that while Assad has lost legitimacy in Syria and should go, the administration’s first priority is to go after what poses a threat to Americans.
“Our present military action in Syria is focused on threats presented by ISIL and other extremists,” Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, told The Associated Press.
Last month, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said attacking Assad’s regime “is not the focus of our international coalition and not the focus of our efforts.”
Such statements are bound to be gratifying to Assad, who has long contended that he is fighting terrorists and extremists in Syria.
In an interview with the AP on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York last month, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem insisted Syria was pleased with the U.S. targeting of IS militants in his country, even suggesting the air campaign should be widened to include all extremists.
Taqieldeen, the activist, said he couldn’t understand the international fixation on Kobani when there are millions of other Syrians threatened with death from the skies every day.
“The joke around here is that we should change the town’s name from Douma to Doumani. Maybe if it rhymes with Kobani it will resonate with the Americans and they will notice us, too,” Taqieldeen said.