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Suicide Attacks Hit 2 Syrian Cities in Assad Stronghold, Killing Scores

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Two teams of suicide attackers waged coordinated assaults on Monday deep inside Syrian government territory, killing scores of people and piercing a sanctuary for supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.

Merely pulling off the bombings was a logistical feat that calls into question the effectiveness of Syria’s defenses. To reach the areas attacked, the jihadists would have had to move large quantities of explosives and a group of militants across more than 30 miles of government-controlled territory without being detected, suggesting a major security breach. Another possibility was that the militants had organized the attacks and built their bombs locally — an even scarier prospect for residents of the area.

The attacks shattered the relative calm in two cities, Jableh and Tartus, both on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, a region where support for Mr. Assad remains strong and where militant attacks and rebel activity have been rare. While the area has a high concentration of Alawites, members of the Muslim sect that has been the base of the Assad family’s power, it also has large populations of Christians and other Muslims.

Mr. Assad has long presented his government as a bulwark against terrorism and chaos. Russia, which backs the president and has supported his troops with airstrikes and other military aid, has a naval base in Tartus and an air base nearby.

Amaq, a news agency associated with the Islamic State, said jihadists from the militant group had carried out the assaults to strike “groupings of Alawites.”

But the attacks, on bus stations and the emergency department of a public hospital, seemed to target civilians in a religiously diverse area whose population has doubled as Syrians from other parts of the country, including areas held by insurgents that are routinely hit with government airstrikes, have sought refuge. The attacks also appeared to reflect the changing tactics of the Islamic State as its military fortunes have dimmed.

Having lost significant territory from its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it has turned its focus to external expansion while stepping up suicide bombings against civilian targets in places like Baghdad.

Map | Tartus and Jableh, Syria

A spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Monday that a recent surge in militant attacks and bombings “once again demonstrates how fragile the situation in Syria is.”

Asked whether Russia would reconsider its decision to scale back its military contingent in Syria, the spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, cited a previous statement by Mr. Putin that Russia’s bases in Syria allowed for “a very flexible approach” to its deployments.

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the government and tracks the conflict from Britain through contacts in Syria, described the attacks as coordinated and intended to maximize civilian casualties.

In Jableh, two blasts struck the bus station, then suicide attackers blew themselves up near an electricity administration building and at the entrance to the emergency department of a hospital.

In Tartus, a car bomb hit the bus station, then two suicide bombers targeted people who had gathered in the aftermath.

Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Islamic State appeared to be carrying out such high-profile suicide attacks against government forces and their supporters to show that it was still strong despite territorial losses.

The attacks also seek to incite draconian responses from the government and its militias against Sunni civilians, perpetuating a cycle of radicalization that benefits the jihadists, Mr. Bonsey said.

Late Monday, pro-government militias stormed though camps for the displaced, searching for jihadist supporters, activists said.

SANA said that at least 78 people had been killed in the two attacks. The Observatory reported at least 145 dead and many more wounded.

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(via NY Times)