— 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.

Activists say the Syrian military has 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.

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.”


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