Syria: Al-Qaida and IS increasingly lose territory to Assad

With the exception of Idlib, Syria's government has recovered control of most major cities from rebels and terror organizations. Are the "Islamic State" and al-Qaida being beaten out of Syria?

With Syria's civil war now in its eighth year, the "Islamic State" (IS) and al-Qaida — two of the most prominent terror organizations active in the fighting — are on the decline. DW takes a closer look at their roles in the conflict. 

In which regions of Syria are IS and al-Qaida still active, and how strong are they? 

IS drew international attention when it swept across Iraq and Syria in 2014, making Raqqa, Syria, its capital and taking control of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. In Syria, IS now only really controls some area near Iraq's border, as well as some parts of the countryside. The organization does not currently have a central headquarters. In October, the US military estimated that the group still had about 6,500 members.

Al-Qaida operates most prominently as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafist group that is concentrated near and in the major Syrian city of Idlib. It is also present in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, where currently the government is engaged in a mass bombing campaign.  Earlier in the war, the group fought alongside the Nusra Front, but the factions split in 2016. Tahrir al-Sham has between 7,000 and 11,000 domestic fighters and several thousand foreign recruits, UN experts told The Associated Press in February.

What is known about the leaders and command structures of the two groups?

With no remaining headquarters in Iraq or Syria, IS's command structure is dwindling. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi remains the leader despite multiple reports of his death.

Tahrir al-Sham is led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani. Its headquarters are in the Northwestern city of Idlib.

How did these two groups affect the Assad government's war strategy?

The Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad is fighting both of these groups, with the support of its main ally, Russia. In the fall of 2015, Russian planes began airstrikes to assist Syria's army and help retake major Syrian cities from IS, such as Deir el-Zour, which was recaptured in November.

Now live
01:41 mins.
Web-videos | 16.03.2017

Aleppo: Getting better, but a long way to normal

Until the creation of Tahrir al-Sham in January 2017, al-Qaida's main organization in Syria was the Nusra Front. In order to snuff out the Nusra Front and other groups in the city of Homs, the government bombed parts of the city and laid siege to others, cutting food and supplies. The siege lasted from May 2011 to May 2014. In Aleppo, Syria's largest city, the government used the same strategy of laying siege to parts of the city and using aerial bombardments. The battle for the government to take back Aleppo from al-Nusra and other groups lasted from 2012 to 2016.

How have the groups affected Turkey's war strategy in Syria?

In January, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched Turkey's Operation Olive Branch with the stated intent of clearing out the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and People's Protection Units (YPG) — both of which have been called terror organizations by his government — from the Syrian border city of Afrin. Turkey's military has also professed that it is clearing IS out from the area. "The Turkish claims that they are rooting out IS there are pure propaganda," Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told DW.

In October, Turkey also launched a a military operation into Idlib, where forces clashed with Tahrir al-Sham. By November the group had made a truce with Turkey's government as to avoid a war with the country.

Now live
12:00 mins.
World Stories | 17.03.2018

World Stories - Eastern Ghouta - Life in Hell

As these two groups are being defeated in Syria, could members of the groups escape to Iraq or other neighboring countries? 

Iraq has fully defeated IS in most areas, and neither that group nor an al-Qaida affiliate would have as easy a time setting up a stronghold there now. However, both groups have affiliates across the globe. With the decline of IS, al-Qaida has become resurgent, with thousands of fighters in not only Syria, but in Somalia, Libya, Yemen and Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia. Although IS is being eliminated in Syria and Iraq, members in Europe could still carry out terrorist attacks in the organization's name in retaliation for the military losses. Al-Qaida could also carry out attacks in Europe. It claimed the 2015 attack on the headquarters og Charlie Hebdo magazine in France.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is on the brink of defeat after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.