Offensives Launched in Iraq and Syria
By: Analysis | Stratfor.comMay 31, 2016

Editor's Note: What is perhaps the most volatile conflict today can be found in the territories of Iraq and Syria that are controlled by the Islamic State. These areas are fundamentally linked: Sunni tribal structures, rebel operations, Kurdish interests, external influences and the suzerainty of the Islamic State bind them together as a single, coherent theater. And the political advances in that theater are just as relevant to our analysis as the military advances. The following piece provides updates to this crisis in real time.

May 27: Offensives Launched in Iraq and Syria

The massive operation to retake the western Iraqi city of Fallujah from Islamic State forces continues. On May 27, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced that Iraqi security forces have initiated the operation's second stage. In a statement, the spokesman for Iraq's Joint Military Command said that the second stage would focus on minimizing casualties among Fallujah's residents and that militias would be deployed alongside Iraqi troops.

Shiite militias, with support from Iran, have been vying for greater participation in the fight agains the Islamic State. Washington and other international actors are trying to avoid the outbreak of sectarian clashes during the push for Fallujah — a looming concern across Iraq. The representative of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic state has said 4,000 Sunni fighters will participate in the fight but maintains that it neither works with nor supports Iraq's Shiite militias. These Shiite forces, however, are already involved in fighting regardless of the U.S. preference. In the operation's first stage, which began on May 22, Sunni and Shiite militias participated separately in clearing villages around the city. Because the second phase will entail fighting in tight, urban areas, Sunni and Shiite militias will be brought into closer proximity. This makes the risk of violence between the nominally aligned sectarian militias much higher, laying the groundwork for future skirmishes.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has launched an offensive against rebel forces in northern Syria, cutting off access to the towns of Azaz and Mare. The offensive's success has revealed just how ineffective rebel groups backed by Turkey and the United States have become. So far, the rebels have gained little ground in their efforts to drive Islamic State forces out of northern Aleppo province. As the rebels founder, the United States has few alternatives to fall back on in the fight against the Islamic State. As a result, the Syrian Democratic Forces may opt to stage their own campaign. Reports suggest that the group is already preparing for a potential offensive by reinforcing its positions near Manbij.

May 20: Loyalist Forces in Syria Regroup After Losses

Weeks into a revitalized plan to take back Aleppo province and its eponymous capital, it is clear that the efforts of Syrian government loyalists are not succeeding. With the reactivation of militant group Jaish al-Fatah and the subsequent rebel victory at Khan Touman, the rebels have won important ground while embarrassing the Iranian forces who directed the defense of the area and inflicting significant casualties on the loyalists. Subsequent counterattacks in the region compounded loyalist losses and yielded little gain in return. North of Aleppo, loyalist forces, predominantly composed of Palestinian factions, failed in repeated assaults on the Handarat area, which overlooks a crucial rebel supply line into the city.

The lack of progress in Aleppo has divided Syrian government supporters. For instance, the largely Iranian-backed initiative diverges from Russia's desire to move forward with negotiations to end the conflict. Russia recently ramped up airstrikes in and around Aleppo after complaints from Iranian officers that Russia abandoned them during the Khan Touman battles. Adverse weather conditions could explain the scarcity of Russian airstrikes during that campaign. At the time, however, Moscow was also focused on the cease-fire initiative.

In addition, Stratfor sources, along with local reports from the loyalist side, have suggested that Hezbollah might be drawing down from the province. Even if the reports are accurate, Hezbollah is unlikely to completely withdraw from the Syrian conflict. The group continues to proclaim its commitment to fighting what it refers to as the takfiri (apostate) threat. Furthermore, evidence from the battlefield confirms that a considerable Hezbollah presence remains around Damascus, Homs and Daraa.

Instead, the loyalist side as a whole appears to be shifting both its forces and its focus. Although it is too early to say whether the loyalists have decided to give up on Aleppo for the moment, it is certain that they face increasing pressure elsewhere. For instance, recent loyalist advances in the Eastern Ghouta region, though notable, were largely possible only because of disastrous infighting among local rebels in the wake of the December 2015 death of Army of Islam commander Zahran Alloush.

Meanwhile, battles are heating up in once-quiet sectors such as Daraa and Quneitra, even as loyalist forces contend with rebel forces in Hama province and Islamic State forces in Homs province. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has not only carried out a series of powerful attacks in Homs province, overrunning numerous loyalist positions, but it has also renewed its efforts against the Deir el-Zour garrison, which grows more and more precarious as the loyalists lose ground.

As a result, the loyalists are distracted in the fight for Aleppo, a campaign that demands considerable attention and resources. Operations in the region's difficult terrain rely on a single supply line. Since elite units such as the Tiger Forces, the Desert Hawks and the Republican Guard are tied up with other battles, Hezbollah is likely being called in to reinforce other areas under threat. But Hezbollah has its own troubles at home in Lebanon and has traditionally preferred to operate closer to its country of origin. The group's leading role in the western Qalamoun operations on the Lebanon-Syria border illustrates this preference.

For now, the Iranians are the force to watch. Official statements from Tehran affirm the country's steadfast commitment to the war in Syria. Recent developments, including reported sightings of newly arrived reinforcements, may even indicate that the Iranians are preparing for punishing operations against Jaish al-Fatah. At the same time, other reports in local media suggest that high casualties and recent losses have disheartened the Iranians. Though the Iranians are unlikely to entirely abandon their military operations in Syria, a change of strategy and command elements is not beyond reason. Unverified reports from Stratfor sources indicate that Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani may be replaced by his deputy as head of Iranian oversight in Syria and Iraq and moved to focus on Lebanon instead.

May 2: Renewed Hope for a Diplomatic Solution in Syria

Diplomacy has done little to bring the Syrian civil war closer to its end, but it might yet be instrumental in restoring the country's failed cease-fire. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva on May 2 to try to salvage the United States' faltering diplomatic strategy in Syria. His arrival comes a day after Russia signaled its willingness to extend a recently declared cease-fire in Latakia and Damascus to Aleppo as well — a sign that Washington's heightened engagement with Moscow finally might be paying off. That said, considerable obstacles remain to re-establishing a meaningful nationwide truce. And if the various actors participating in the Syrian civil war refuse to stop fighting one another, it could give the Islamic State the respite it needs to regain momentum.

The newest cease-fire effort, itself a tacit acknowledgment that the previous cessation of hostilities has collapsed, is unlikely to have much more success than its predecessor. Temporary cease-fires have already been violated in Damascus and Latakia, the former by loyalist forces and the latter by rebels. More importantly, much of the current conflict is centered on Aleppo, where, despite international efforts, no cease-fire has been declared.

Nevertheless, there is reason to think that the latest mediation efforts could prove fruitful. Though Iran and the Syrian government appear determined to secure a win in Aleppo, Russia may be more inclined to work toward a truce. Moscow understands that its Syrian allies are a long way from a full military victory, and unlike Tehran, it seems far less willing to fully invest itself in a lengthy war for the Syrian government. Russia would also like to at least leave the door open for accommodation with the West in the hope of eventually getting sanctions on Russia removed. If Russian-backed loyalists start any more battles that undermine Syria's nascent peace talks and push more refugees into Europe, Moscow will not gain much goodwill in the United States or Europe.

Still, there are limits to Russia's influence in Damascus. With Iran heavily reinforcing the loyalists in Aleppo, the Syrian government may feel less inclined to heed Moscow's pleas for restraint. Russia also understands that it can better control the loyalists' decisions on the battlefield if it is a participant in the Aleppo conflict, making it unlikely to withdraw completely from the fighting in that area, even if Moscow is not keen on the idea of further military escalation. Indeed, Russian artillery batteries have been deployed to Aleppo province, and Russian airstrike sorties there are becoming more frequent.

Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups embedded within the rebel forces in Aleppo will also continue to undermine efforts to reach a comprehensive cease-fire in Syria. As was made clear during the rebel offensive south of Aleppo city last month, Jabhat al-Nusra acts as a spoiler in peace talks and cease-fires by coercing more moderate rebel factions into attacking loyalist positions and by urging violent reprisals to loyalist cease-fire violations.

Both sides — or at least, their backers — have an incentive to stop fighting each other, though. During the recent cessation of hostilities, loyalists and rebels alike were able to divert more of their resources to combating their common enemy: the Islamic State. As a result, the Islamic State lost significant ground in Homs, Hama and Aleppo provinces. But as the rebels and loyalists turn their attention back toward each other, they risk giving the Islamic State a much-needed reprieve. So while the United States works to re-establish a cease-fire in Syria, it can also be expected to bolster the Syrian Democratic Forces as they try to maintain pressure on the Islamic State with renewed offensives against the extremist group.

April 22: Additional Weapons Spell Trouble on the Syrian Battlefield

Syria

Numerous sightings of weaponry that until recently was rarely seen among Syria's rebels suggest that someone has begun funneling them a new batch of air defense equipment. The use of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), specifically of the Chinese-made FN-6 variety, had previously been documented on the Syrian battlefield. In fact, shipments of the FN-6 were known to have been made to the rebels in early 2013. However, as the United States has sought to coordinate its efforts in Syria with the rebels' regional backers, it has been successful in persuading its allies to halt the supply and distribution of MANPADS in favor of less problematic systems instead. It is unclear whether the newest batch of MANPADS was sent with Washington's approval or in spite of its opposition. But either way, it portends greater flows of weaponry into Syria as cease-fires collapse and peace talks stall.

In the wrong hands, the easily portable MANPADS could be used to attack civilian airliners or allied aircraft. This, coupled with the rise of the Islamic State and other jihadist factions in Syria, has long convinced the United States that the supply of MANPADS to the Syrian battlefield is too dangerous as a strategy. Once Washington agreed to set up a CIA-led support program for the rebels, it gained enough leverage with its regional allies to stem the flow of MANPADS.

But coordination between the United States and its allies has not been seamless. The rebels' biggest regional backers — the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Turkey — have not been pleased with the United States' hesitant response to Russia's intervention in the Syrian conflict. The rebels' supporters have urged the United States to reconsider its ban on MANPADS to bolster rebel defenses against the loyalist forces' improved air support. However, Washington has not budged on the issue, though it has pledged to enhance its program to supply and equip rebel troops, in the event that diplomatic measures fail.

In truth, MANPADS would do little to counter Russian air power because they lack the range to effectively target Moscow's fixed-wing aircraft. That said, the weapons systems would be more useful against the lower-flying aircraft of the Syrian air force. Some evidence suggests that rebel MANPADS have brought down two Syrian warplanes within the past month. Moreover, the Russians are beginning to rely more heavily on attack helicopters, which, with their lower flight ceilings, are inherently more vulnerable to MANPADS than the Su-24 and Su-34 bombers.

It is possible that Washington, under mounting pressure from its allies as negotiations yield few results, has altered its strategy and tacitly agreed to the shipment. However, it is far more likely that the MANPADS delivery occurred without U.S. approval. If so, the incident would strongly suggest that coordination among the rebels' backers is weakening. That could spur Washington to move forward with its much-touted "Plan B" of providing more help to the rebels in order to regain its clout within the coalition. That would include the delivery of longer-range indirect fire systems, especially rocket artillery, to counter loyalist artillery. It would also feature the provision of some anti-aircraft weaponry, likely of a bulkier and more traceable size than the low-profile MANPADS. Details aside, the introduction of more weapons on both sides of the conflict bodes ill for Syria, as military mobilization replaces the negotiations that have failed to deliver peace.

March 28: The Problem With Losing Palmyra

Syria

In yet another defeat for the Islamic State, loyalist forces captured Palmyra over the weekend after a monthslong offensive operation. Following other recent defeats by Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria and by Iraqi security forces in Iraq, the loss shows just how much the Islamic State's strategic position has deteriorated, even as it remains a dangerous and powerful group.

The loyalists' recapture of Palmyra is a significant victory for Damascus for a number of reasons. Palmyra's historical significance draws considerable international media attention, magnifying the importance of its recapture. On a tactical level, the operation greatly reduced the Islamic State's ability to threaten key government supply lines, especially along the M5 highway and the road to Aleppo. Furthermore, Palmyra's strategic location at an important crossroads will enable the Syrian government to pursue further offensive operations eastward deep into Islamic State territory. In particular, the loyalist forces can be expected to push hard to relieve the besieged 104th Republican Brigade at Deir el-Zour.

The loyalist victory was not easy, however, and it highlights Damascus' continued reliance on external support. As part of the operation, the Syrian army assembled a number of its more elite units, including the Tiger Forces and Desert Hawks. Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps directed foreign Shiite militias, including Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani units, to aid Syrian forces. Finally, the Russians provided close air support with attack aircraft and helicopter gunships, as well as support from special operations forces deployed alongside loyalist forces. Even with overwhelming air, artillery, armor and numerical superiority, the loyalist forces suffered considerable casualties against a determined Islamic State defense at Palmyra, losing dozens in ambushes.

Despite continual cease-fire violations, the effort has a clear impact on the Syrian conflict. With major offensive operations largely halted on a number of fronts between the rebels and the government, both Damascus and the rebellion have finally shifted the bulk of their attention toward pushing back the Islamic State, which is not party to the cease-fire. This is evident in the Palmyra operation but can also be seen in Daraa in southern Syria, where the rebels have been able to pull a number of their forces from the frontline with loyalist forces to face a growing threat from the Islamic State-affiliated Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and the allied Harakat al-Muthanna group. The Islamic State has taken note, accusing loyalist and rebel forces of having colluded in an unholy alliance against it. Though this is objectively not the case, the Islamic State is right to fear the cease-fire effort. As long as the lull in fighting between the rebels and the government persists, the Islamic State will continue to suffer from their redirected efforts.

March 24: The Operation to Retake Mosul Begins

Iraq

A long-awaited operation to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State is finally underway. However, it is unlikely that the city will fall anytime soon. On March 24, an Iraqi military representative announced that Iraqi troops and militias had retaken several villages on the outskirts of Makhmour, a town just east of Mosul. The spokesman hailed the move as the first step in the broader effort to free Mosul, which has been under Islamic State control since June 2014.

But the road to Mosul will be long and difficult. Only 2,000 fighters were involved in the Makhmour offensive, nowhere near the force needed to retake Mosul. A battle plan recently released by U.S. Central Command called for an Iraqi breaching force of 20,000 to 25,000 troops, backed by Kurdish peshmerga forces, but Stratfor estimates around 40,000 troops would actually be needed. The Iraqi government has made considerable gains against the Islamic State north of Baghdad, in Samarra and throughout Anbar province. But to take Mosul, Baghdad would still need to sever the group's supply lines and isolate the city. U.S. Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the U.S.-led operation against the Islamic State, said that Iraqi generals do not think they will be able to recapture Mosul until the end of this year or early 2017.

Meanwhile, in spite of its losses, the Islamic State retains significant offensive capabilities and it will not give up Mosul without a fight. As Iraq's second-largest city and the greatest bastion of Iraq's Sunni Arab population, Mosul has become an important symbol in the battle between Iraqi and Islamic State forces. It is also a key logistics hub as well as a strategic source of manpower and finances that the jihadist group would be loath to lose.

Still, Iraqi troops will not have to take Mosul on their own. As in the Makhmour offensive, the United States and its coalition partners will provide air support to government forces, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters will join them on the ground. Turkish assistance, especially in the form of backing Sunni militias, may also be forthcoming at some point. When Islamic State militants attacked the Bashiqa air base in northern Iraq on March 22, Ankara pointed to the assault as an example of how Turkish trainers and troops could help Iraqi forces fend off the group's advances. Though Baghdad has complained about Turkey's previous attempts to send troops to northern Iraq, it may reconsider if the base is attacked again, with greater success.

March 16: The Push for Diplomacy in Syria Intensifies

Syria

The focus in the conflict in Syria is shifting from reaction to Russia's withdrawal of forces and toward diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the crisis. Thus, this round of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition parties is more urgent than ever. The talks are expected to move beyond preliminaries to more substantive issues during the remaining sessions in this phase of negotiations, scheduled to last through March 24.

Peace plans shared by loyalists and rebels with U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura were not made public, but both sides are expected to reject a federalist solution to the crisis, a proposal put forth by Kurdish groups. A Kurdish vision for a future Syria includes not only a region in the north that would include representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds, but also a federalist model for all of Syria, Nawaf Khalil of the Democratic Union Party said. Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, who leads the government team of negotiators at the Geneva talks, dismissed that possibility. He said the negotiations in Switzerland are meant to discuss the unity of Syria and how to preserve its territorial integrity, adding that any plan to create divisions among the Syrians would fail. A Turkish Foreign Ministry official flatly rejected the idea of a political solution in Syria that did not include national unity.

As the talks progressed in Geneva, fighting in Syria raged on. Russian bombing sorties supported Syrian loyalist advances against Islamic State forces on the outskirts of Palmyra even as two groups of Russian aircraft departed the country. There were also reports of intensifying skirmishes between the Kurdish People's Protection Units and the pro-government National Defense Forces militia in al-Hasaka province in the country's northeast.

Russia's continuing involvement in combat operations came amid widespread praise for its March 14 announcement that its forces would withdraw. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin the week of March 21 to discuss the Syria crisis. Kerry expressed hope that the Russian withdrawal, combined with the Geneva talks, would present the opportunity for a successful negotiated settlement to the five-year-old conflict. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby echoed that sentiment.

While the international reaction to the Russian troop drawdown has been strong, the drawdown itself was not a surprise. Putin had made clear that Russia's involvement in the Syria crisis would last three to four months and informed allies of its decision ahead of time. The Russian move was discussed as early as January, said one anonymous Jordanian official. Iran, a Russian ally in Syria, said it was also aware of the plans well in advance.

March 7: Internal Strife Plagues the Islamic State

Syria

In one of the largest and most notable defections yet, nearly 100 men left the Islamic State for the Islamist Faylaq al-Sham rebel group in northern Aleppo. The defectors claimed they had been mistreated at the hands of the Islamic State, including being repeatedly accused of treason and threatened with execution.

The defections come as the Islamic State strains under increased pressure from its opponents. Taking advantage of the cease-fire, loyalist forces supported by Russia and Iran have launched two significant offensives, one aimed at the city of al-Qaryatayn and the other at the ancient city of Palmyra. At the same time, the Syrian Democratic Forces are pursuing their offensive against the Islamic State in northern Syria, advancing into Deir el-Zour for the first time and making inroads closer to Raqqa, the extremist group's self-declared capital. In Iraq, meanwhile, Iraqi security forces are expanding operations in Anbar province, having seized Ramadi and preparing for an eventual offensive to reclaim Mosul. Finally, a new front against the Islamic State is opening up in the desert of southern Syria as the New Syrian Army, backed by the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council, prepares to launch operations from its staging bases in Jordan to drive the Islamic State from Deir el-Zour.

But perhaps most damaging to the Islamic State is the dissent rising within the group itself. Beyond the defections, recent reports tell of active mutiny and revolt, including in the capital of Raqqa. Though not unheard of, reports of such incidents are emerging more frequently, diverting much of the Islamic State's security forces at a time when the group desperately needs fighters at the front lines.

Nonetheless, the Islamic State is far from defeated, and the group continues to stage successful local counterattacks and devastating terrorist operations in both Syria and Iraq. However, the consistent pressure has so diminished the Islamic State's capabilities that it is no longer clear whether the group will be able to capture significant territory in a strategic offensive. As the group's enemies redirect their attention from one another to their common foe, the Islamic State is finally losing a weapon it has used to great advantage in the past. In the weeks ahead, we can expect the Islamic State to increasingly rely on guerrilla and terrorist tactics, including assassinations and improvised explosive devices, to compensate for its growing internal weakness.

March 1: Momentum Builds Against the Islamic State

Iraq

The Iraqi and U.S. governments are again talking more seriously about ramping up military efforts against the Islamic State and about preparing for a campaign to retake Mosul. From the U.S. camp, Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed on Feb. 29 that the "expeditionary targeting force" created to battle the Islamic State would act as an integral part of accelerating the campaign in Iraq. The expeditionary force, comprising about 200 people, has reportedly been setting up safe houses, establishing informant networks and coordinating operations with Iraqi and peshmerga units. It has also collected intelligence on at least six locations for potential anti-Islamic State raids.

The effort coincides with the Iraqi military's attempts to retake Mosul, purportedly within the next few weeks rather than months. According to U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Iraqi leaders have already provided their plans for attacking Mosul to the top U.S. commander for Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland. There has also already been a highly publicized uptick in the deployment of Iraqi security forces in the areas surrounding Mosul, particularly in Makhmour.

According to an Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker, retaking Mosul would require 40,000 troops, mostly from the Iraqi army, the Popular Mobilization Forces and Shiite militias. The peshmerga would play a limited role, especially considering Iraqi Kurdistan's budgetary problems. For its part, the Iraqi government allocated part of the 2016 budget to train 20,000 tribal forces, most of which are thought to be Shiite because of the Shiite-dominated government's concerns over arming Sunni forces. The exact breakdown of the forces is important: Sunnis dominate Mosul, and there is a general distrust of Shiite and Kurdish forces in the city. For the operation to succeed, the campaign would have to be led by Iraqi government forces with significant Sunni militia support.

Even with a desirable demographic breakdown, pushing into Mosul will not be easy. Government-backed forces would have to contain and clear out the Hawija pocket to protect their supply lines. Then the tens of thousands of personnel involved would need to be positioned to isolate Mosul. Only then, after a time pounding fortified positions with artillery, would the forces attempt a concerted push into the city. Though it is conceivable that such a complicated operation could begin this year, it would be very unlikely to end before the start of 2017. Manpower will also be a key issue. Iraqi special operations forces, known as the Golden Brigades, are still largely committed to the fights in Anbar and Baghdad. In fact, this may be an additional reason for the Iraqi government to promote its plans in Mosul. Officials may hope that by drawing Islamic State forces from Anbar and Baghdad to Mosul, they can concentrate their efforts against the group.

Feb. 29: In Syria, a Cease-Fire in Name Only

With multiple incidents of artillery shelling, airstrikes and exchanges of gunfire, the cease-fire in Syria is one in name only. The truce got off to a promising start Feb. 27, when violence dramatically fell in areas not held by the Islamic State. The group, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and other militant groups, was not included in the cessation of hostilities. The Russians did not fly bombing sorties that day in an effort to bolster the cease-fire, or at least give the appearance of doing so. But the next day, exchanges of fire and even continued ground operations by loyalist and rebel forces began to climb.

A full collapse of the cease-fire would be detrimental to both the United States and Russia. Washington's primary goal is to defeat the Islamic State, and Syria's unabated civil war is impeding that effort. Moscow understands that a full military victory for its ally, Syrian President Bashar al Assad, is a tall order that would require far more resources than it has committed thus far. So while Russia will tactically use the cease-fire to try to defeat the rebels piecemeal, it also wants to leverage the truce to advance talks with the West over its Syrian interests and broader disputes, including the conflict in Ukraine. The cease-fire's collapse, which would halt the negotiation process, is not in Russia's interest.

However, there is only so much that Russia and the United States can do to ensure the cease-fire's viability. Extremist groups will continue to actively undermine it through ground operations close to other rebel groups. Moreover, the Syrian government is not a Russian puppet state, and many generals and leaders may seek to continue reaping the rewards of their current military advantage. In addition, many rebel groups are undisciplined and are only tangentially linked to the High Negotiations Committee supposedly representing them. Escalating violence is a real risk, particularly in Syria's chaotic landscape. Finally, there is no effective enforcement mechanism that fully dissuades parties from violating the cease-fire.

Already, al Assad loyalists have exchanged artillery fire with rebels near Damascus, including in eastern Ghouta. Early on Feb. 29, Homs was also the site of heavy shelling, which included the use of thermobaric explosives. Airstrikes conducted on rebel positions in Hama, Aleppo, Latakia and Idlib hit several Free Syrian Army units. Rebels also shelled government-controlled areas of Aleppo with indigenously developed "Hell Cannons." Exchanges of fire also occurred in the south, with heavy shelling in Daraa. 

Given the exemption of groups considered terrorists by the United Nations from the cease-fire, continued fighting was expected. However, fighting is also taking place between loyalists and rebel units. In fact, loyalist ground offensives on Feb. 28 in Latakia and Homs predominantly targeted areas held by the Free Syrian Army. Units of that rebel group continued to work closely with Jabhat al-Nusra across the north, making it difficult to distinguish between groups subject to and exempt from the cease-fire.

Still, the cease-fire continues to play an important role in reducing the intensity of the fighting on the ground. The question is how long the cease-fire can be considered viable if violations continue. Curtailing the fighting and delivering humanitarian aid were only two motives behind the cease-fire. Its main objective is to create a lull in the fighting to facilitate negotiations on bringing about an effective end to the civil war. However, violations are rapidly closing that window of opportunity.

This article originally appeared on Stratfor.com
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