BEIRUT – Syria's fronts are on fire despite a cease-fire reached in December between rebels and the government.
Though the two sides sat face-to-face in the Kazakh capital of Astana a month later, the government has pressed offensives against rebels around the capital, Damascus, and recently escalated its air campaigns in Homs and Idlib.
The war's January toll — some 2,000 dead, about a third of them civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group — is the lowest it has been in four years. But that may be because the government wrapped up operations for Aleppo, the country's largest city, last year.
Rebels, for their part, struck at government positions in central Hama province, though they have been mostly occupied by infighting in Idlib that calls into question the direction of their insurrection.
In the midst of all this, the Islamic State group has renewed its crusade for the remote eastern city of Deir el-Zour, while holding onto the culturally cherished site of Palmyra. At the same time, Turkish troops and the rival Syrian military are both closing in on the IS-held town of al-Bab, as U.S.-backed Kurdish forces bear down on the extremist's capital, Raqqa.
Though small and out of the way, al-Bab is shaping up to be the weather vane for the rest of the conflict as the U.N. plans to convene Syria peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 20.
The government and rebels have converged on the town with clashes breaking out between the two sides for the first time on Thursday. Separately, a Russian airstrike killed three Turkish troops in what Russia said was an accident. It is now up to Turkey, Russia, and Iran to demonstrate whether they can mediate a stable outcome for the town, or whether the front will dissolve into open warfare. Turkey is backing the rebels and has deployed several thousand troops to fight the Islamic State in al-Bab, while Russia and Iran support the government's side.
Here's a look at the fighting around Syria:
Despite a rebel ultimatum delivered in Astana against further aggression around the capital, Syrian government forces along with Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group pressed on with an offensive against rebels holding Damascus's primary source of water, and defeated them one week later. About 2,000 rebels, opposition activists and their families chose exile from the Barada valley rather than remaining under government authority.
This has become the hallmark of the government's strategy — to squeeze its opponents through siege then offer them exile. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes from bombardment across the country, with thousands more fleeing to northwestern Idlib province instead of returning to government rule. Opponents call the strategy "forced displacement."
Government forces have also intensified their assault on the eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus. The region, home to some 400,000 people, has hardly seen a day without fighting since the rebels expelled the government in 2012. The government justifies its attacks, saying those areas include fighters from the al-Qaida branch in Syria, although the rebels deny that.
Rebel factions are fighting back with tank, artillery, and other heavy weapons fire.
This province in northwestern Syria is now almost entirely under rebel control and has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of people displaced by fighting there and elsewhere.
But it is hardly safe. Multinational aircraft are constantly raiding the province, striking al-Qaida-linked rebels as well as civilian positions. U.S. coalition aircraft are believed to have killed more than 100 al-Qaida-linked fighters on the last day of Barack Obama's presidency, according to the Pentagon, while government or Russian aircraft are believed to be behind a string of raids on the provincial capital, also called Idlib, that killed at least 26 civilians and more than a dozen militants earlier this week, according to the Observatory.
Rebels, meanwhile, are fighting one another in the province as they divide into competing camps over whether to engage in the diplomatic processes in Geneva and Kazakhstan. On the one side are groups aligned with the al-Qaida-linked affiliate, Fatah al-Sham, while on the other are an array of Western- and Turkish-backed rebels, led by the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.
Pro-government forces have intensified their bombardment of al-Waer, the only enclave for the opposition in the country's third-largest city, Homs. Nine people were killed in shelling and airstrikes on Wednesday, according to local activists. Osama Abu Zeid, a resident, said he believes the government is trying to force the neighborhood to surrender and activists like him into exile.
Rebels, meanwhile, are raiding towns and villages loyal to the government in neighboring Hama province.
ISLAMIC STATE TERRITORY
The Islamic State group seized Palmyra and its ancient ruins on Dec. 11 and has maintained its grip on it ever since. It has gone so far as to threaten the government's position at the strategic T4 air base in central Syria, but the military has so far stood up to the test. The group has seized and destroyed several natural gas fields and facilities, with consequences for the national economy for years to come.
The extremists also stepped up their campaign for Deir el-Zour, which has been under siege since 2015, and for a nervous two weeks in January, forced the U.N. food agency to abandon its air drops out of safety fears. The U.N. estimates more than 90,000 civilians are trapped inside. Government troops and loyal militias are fighting back.
With the U.N. planning to convene peace talks in Geneva on Feb. 20, hopes for success hinge on the intentions of the three powers closest to the conflict — Turkey, Russia, and Iran — who together pledged to guarantee the tenuous cease-fire.
And nowhere will their intentions crystallize more clearly than in al-Bab, where each side has a stake — Turkey fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, and Russia and Iran backing the Syrian government and allied Shiite militias.
The outcome in al-Bab — whether it is ultimately taken by the government or the rebels, and whether the front between the two sides stabilizes or dissolves into all- out warfare — will set the direction of future talks and any settlement.