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ISIS Claims Responsibility For Bombings In 2 Syrian Coastal Cities

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Returning now to Syria, where a coordinated set of suicide attacks on bus stations and also a hospital reportedly killed more than 80 people on Monday. This assault was carried out in government-controlled cities like Tartus and Jableh. Those cities are not far from where Russia has military facilities. Russia has, of course, been supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Now, a news agency associated with the Islamic State said ISIS fighters have carried out these attacks. And for more, we turn to Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal. He's in Beirut. Sam, good morning.

SAM DAGHER: Good morning to you.

GREENE: So in the context of this whole bloody civil war, I mean, did something stand out here with these attacks?

DAGHER: Absolutely. I mean, this is the first time we have this type of attack, particularly in Tartus and Jableh. I mean, these areas are highly secure by Syria's standards. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has gone out of its way to secure these areas.

When I was there in 2014, I mean, you have to go through multiple checkpoints to get to these cities. And then you're subjected to IED checks. You are quizzed about the purpose of your visit. So these are very - again, by Syria's standards - very secure cities.

And also, it's important point to remember that these cities host a large number of internally displaced Syrians. I mean, Tartus Province has about half a million internally displaced persons in their original population of a million.

GREENE: And these are people who have been allowed into governmental-controlled areas? They've been displaced and have been allowed to resettle there?

DAGHER: Exactly. But again, I mean, the government keeps a very, very close watch on these people. And they're put in certain places. I mean, I remember in Latakia City itself, there's a sports stadium that was converted into some sort of a shelter for internally displaced persons, primarily from Aleppo. So - but they do keep a close watch on them.

GREENE: So Sam, if ISIS is going into these places controlled by the government, places that the government has set aside for internally displaced people, I mean, is this a sign that ISIS is making progress and destabilizing the Assad government?

DAGHER: I think the attacks raise a number of questions because these areas represent the heartland of the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad. And Islamic State was actually - had a very small footprint in the area in 2014. But after it split from al-Qaida, it was pretty much pushed to the eastern half of Syria along the border with Iraq.

So these attacks raise the question of whether Islamic State is able to make some sort of a comeback' in these Western areas which are now largely the domain of al-Nusra Front, which is the main branch of al-Qaida in Syria.

GREENE: And, I mean, you've President Assad, you know, who's been working with the Russian military. It's been inside Syria helping. Will this bolster his argument that this is more of a fight against terrorist groups and less a sort of civil war that involves people within Syria to get rid of him?

DAGHER: Sure. I mean, we're seeing that already this morning. I mean, foreign ministry in Syria put out a statement saying, you know, these attacks were carried out by terrorist groups - I mean, without naming Islamic State is a mistake because they refer to all rebels as terrorists. And they also blamed countries like Turkey and Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These are, you know, predominately Sunni states that back the rebels. So yeah, you know, already they're making that argument.

GREENE: We've been speaking with Sam Dagher of The Wall Street Journal, who has been monitoring the situation in Syria from Beirut. Sam, thanks as always.

DAGHER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.