On 25 February, meticulously executed suicide attacks on two security installations in Syria's government-held city of Homs killed 50 people and injured 24. Three days later, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), claimed credit and used the incident to announce the beginning of a series of similar attacks.
The use of suicide attackers has always been one of the group’s strongest weapons but the strategic use of this tactic has changed as the Syrian conflict has evolved. The first publically acknowledged attack took place in December 2011, with two seemingly coordinated bombings in the Syrian capital of Damascus where at least 44 people were killed. The two offensives, similar to the latest attacks, targeted two highly secured security branches. Suicide operations, which continued to occasionally focus on assassinations, started to be used later on a larger scale as a military tactic.
The increased militarization of the Syrian uprising – and the evolution of military operations from hit-and-run guerrilla tactics to traditional warfare for control of territory – gave such attacks a new purpose. The group started using suicide assaults at the beginning of its offensives to breach enemies’ defensive lines and spread panic and chaos among their fighters. JFS quickly gained, as a result, a high profile among rebels for its important military contributions against the Syrian regime.
The decreased level of military confrontations with the Syrian regime has now made such attacks popular again. The fall of Aleppo in December 2016 resulted in a loss of rebel-held strategic territories and all but eliminated the possibility of defeating the regime militarily. Turkey has also been using its influence to pressure rebel groups to de-escalate the fight against the regime and has imposed stricter measures on external support channelled to its proxies in Syria. These factors, coupled with the recently increased surge in the US-led attacks against JFS, made launching large-scale offensives against the regime risky and unpredictable.
Such an offensive would likely be carried out without the support of many rebel groups. It would also exhaust the limited resources that JFS has and damage its community support. Locals have been publically criticizing the group for its recent attacks on other rebel factions in northern Syria who were accused of conspiring against JFS. Any attack against the regime would trigger intensive attacks against civilians in rebel-held areas and make locals more hostile towards the group, especially if the attack is unsuccessful.
JFS seems to have chosen a safer bet by using suicide operations to build legitimacy and gain more support. Restoring such tactics are a way to mitigate the impact the pressure caused by territorial loss. The group, nonetheless, seems to have evolved its traditional suicide attacks into behind-the-lines insurgent attacks. In such cases, the attackers attempt to cause the maximum damage possible before they detonate their explosives. The group’s statement explained the high level of training the suicide attackers went through to master the new tactic, which will be duplicated again.
The small resources need for such offensives allows the group to sustain itself for a long time on war spoils and its existing stockpiles. And the group has been investing for years in recruiting and training children. The young age of the bombers – all of whom were children when the uprising started six years ago in Syria – clearly indicates that a new generation of young fighters is ready to carry out such missions.
The method and nature of the recent attacks show that Syrian regime forces are spread thin and that they lack the capacity to secure their territories. The paramilitaries, locals and foreign, which spearheaded the regime offensives are not qualified to prevent such attacks, and can be easy to bribe.
There is no military answer to such a strategy, especially in a failed state which is controlled by an unpopular and brutal regime. The danger posed by JFS can only be fully counteracted by finding a just and widely accepted political solution to the conflict in Syria.
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