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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 17-29, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) slowed its advance into western Mosul on March 26 in order to regroup and prepare for an assault on the Old City, the densest part of western Mosul in terms of both population and infrastructure. The U.S. is deploying an additional 240 soldiers to Mosul, likely to support a final push through the Old City. The ISF has also slowed its operation out of continued concerns of civilian casualties throughout the western Mosul operation. Humanitarian concerns flared when local sources claimed that a Coalition airstrike on March 17 killed as many as 200 civilians. Meanwhile, Iran is deepening the role of its proxy Badr Organization in Ninewa Province to influence the post-ISIS security and political structure in the province.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) slowed its offensive in central Mosul on March 26 out of concern for the estimated 400,000 civilians remaining in the Old City. The ISF continues operations in the outer neighborhoods, but has largely paused the offensive into the Old City. Local sources claimed that a Coalition airstrike on March 17 killed as many as 200 civilians in the adjacent New Mosul neighborhood. The Coalition confirmed that it conducted a strike in the area on March 17, however the strike may have set off ISIS VBIEDs or rigged houses near the strike, which caused the bulk of casualties. U.S. officials insisted that the Trump Administration has not loosened the rules of engagement for airstrikes. The Obama Administration in December 2016 had allowed Coalition advisors on the ground to directly call in airstrikes in order to improve precision. International human rights groups have criticized the Coalition for not making sufficient effort to prevent civilian casualties, however. A UN official stated that at least 307 civilians have died in western Mosul so far, the majority in the March 17 airstrike. ISIS is deliberately complicating the Coalition’s ability to conduct airstrikes by using the civilian population as human shields.
The ISF is opening a second front to isolate the Old City, rather than working through it, in order to maintain pressure on ISIS and avoid civilian casualties. Units are advancing along the Old City’s western edge towards the Great Mosque, which they will likely seek to retake before turning inward. The ISF could also increase pressure on ISIS by positioning the 9th IA Division, which completed the recapture of Badush Sub-District on March 26, to breach Mosul from the northwest.

U.S. officials announced on March 27th the deployment of 240 additional troops from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, likely in order to accelerate the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. The troops have likely already arrived. This deployment is not likely a response to the March 17 airstrike, as the force is tasked with force protection and IED clearance, but it could still further enable airstrike precision. Iraqi political backlash against the March 17 airstrike could slow or constrain Coalition efforts, however. Sunni political leader Osama al-Nujaifi called for an “immediate end” to airstrikes in Mosul on March 24. A reduction in Coalition airpower in Mosul would increase the risk to ISF and U.S. forces by making them more vulnerable to ISIS tactics such as SVBIEDs.

Meanwhile, Iranian proxies in the Ministry of Interior and the Badr Organization have increased Iran’s influence in the Mosul operation.

  1. The ISF’s official media outlet listed the 2nd Badr Brigade’s operations together with the 9th IA Division northeast of Mosul city on March 22, suggesting a growing interoperability between the Popular Mobilization and the Iraqi Army. Coalition advisors are currently supporting the 9th IA Division.
  2. The Popular Mobilization entered Mosul’s city limits as part of a humanitarian campaign which it launched on March 14. Aid convoys entered recaptured western neighborhoods soon after, bearing the flags of the Badr Organization and Liwa Ali al-Akbar, a Hawza affiliated militia. Unidentified armed forces, likely Badr, accompanied the convoys.
  3. The Ministry of Interior, an Iranian client, appointed Abu Dargham al-Maturi as commander of the 6th Federal Police Division, a new unit that made its operational debut at the start of the western Mosul operation on February 19. Abu Dargham is also the commander of a Badr Organization’s brigade and has used his dual role to permit entry to proxy militias into off-limit operations. His appointment to the division underscores the risk of further Iranian infiltration into the ISF and inside Mosul.

The Badr Organization will continue to expand Iranian influence in Mosul after its recapture. It is already working to establish a political presence in northern Iraq. It may also try to coopt local tribal militias, currently acting as hold forces, as it did in Salah al-Din by financially supporting a tribal militia as part of the Popular Mobilization in early 2016. The Badr-controlled Ministry of Interior will likewise ensure that the Mosul Police Chief remains friendly to the central government and amenable to Iranian interests. The U.S. must ensure that the post-ISIS holding force in Mosul City is both controlled by the Iraqi government and responsive to its authority. The U.S. must contain and reduce Iran’s influence in Mosul. The Badr Organization’s direct presence in Mosul city and its environs places American service members at risk. Its continued presence in Mosul could also could drive sectarian tensions that ISIS or other insurgent groups could use to recruit, undermining the success of anti-ISIS operations.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ukraine's Blockade Crisis

By Franklin Holcomb and Charles Frattini III


Rising instability in Ukraine has created an opportunity for Russia to further press its political-military campaign to weaken Kyiv and exert greater control over Ukraine. Ukrainian activists instituted a potentially crippling blockade against territory in Eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian proxies. The blockade has exacerbated tensions between the Ukrainian government and parts of Ukrainian civil society while increasing political and social tensions. Russia has further destabilized the situation by providing additional political and economic support to its separatist proxy forces, which have seized Ukrainian businesses and continue to conduct military operations. Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to exploit vulnerabilities in Ukraine while American and Western policy remains in a transitional state. Efforts to strengthen Kyiv and enable it to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russian aggression will be critical to U.S. interests in Europe.

An activist-led blockade of Russian proxy-controlled territory in Eastern Ukraine has increased political and social tensions in Ukraine. The activists, many of whom are Ukrainian veterans, intend to halt the flow of goods between separatist and Ukrainian territory. Blockade leaders condemned Ukraine for profiting from trade with separatists and demanded that Kyiv cease trade with the Russian proxies and release Ukrainian prisoners held by separatists. MP Semenchenko claimed that the blockade would “bring the entire war to an end” by putting economic pressure on the separatists. The blockade threatens a primary source of separatist income but it comes at a cost to Ukraine. The blockade prevents the transfer of anthracite coal, a shortage of which prompted Ukraine to declare a state of emergency in its energy sector on February 15, 2017, and continues to present economic risks. The blockade also provided an excuse for Russian-backed separatist forces to seize Ukrainian-owned and operated enterprises across their territory on March 01 as levels of fighting in the eastern Ukraine steadily increased. Ukrainian efforts to negotiate with the activists failed to make significant progress. Attempts to disperse the activist-led blockade on March 13 prompted protests in support of the activists nationwide. The Ukrainian government took no significant steps to disperse the activists, due to issue’s sensitivity, public support for the activists, and limited political capital to confront the veteran-led blockade. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a suspension of cargo traffic with occupied-Donbas on March 15th, in an attempt to de-escalate rising tensions and in response to separatist seizures of assets. Poroshenko emphasized that the blockade will continue until the Russian-backed separatists return control of seized assets and comply with the Minsk agreements, an agreement signed by both sides to end the conflict. The Ukrainian government continued to condemn the blockade despite its policy shift. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman condemned the blockade, stating that it was “in the interests of Russia” because it weakens the Ukrainian economy. Poroshenko accused the activists of finding and exploiting a “raw public nerve” and condemned the blockade as a “special operation aimed at pushing the occupied areas of Ukrainian Donbas towards the Russian Federation” on March 20.

Russia took steps to increase its economic and political support of its proxy forces in order to increase pressure on Kyiv as it struggles to deal effectively with the blockade crisis, and test Western reaction. The Kremlin maintains its objective of forcing Ukraine to re-integrate the separatist republics on Moscow’s terms in order to have a permanent lever of influence within Ukraine. The blockade threatens a primary source of separatist income and could lead to widespread unemployment and social crisis in separatist-held territory. Russia needs to intervene through financial support to prevent the economic collapse of its proxies, or end the blockade. Russia indicated that it would purchase goods from Donbas in order to maintain economic stability on March 06, although reports emerged that mines in Donbas were not operating on March 09. The Russian government also increased its political support for its proxies. Russia officially recognized legal documentation issued by separatist republics on February 18.  This decision prompted Ukrainian nationalist groups to barricade Russian state-owned banks across Ukraine, leading to an escalation of tensions and the 22 March announcement by Russian banks that they intend to immediately cease operations in Ukraine. The Russian lower house of parliament proposed giving preferences in employment and in pursuing Russian citizenship to citizens of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics on March 20[i]. Russia and its proxies may use the blockade to justify further escalation of hostilities in order to force Ukraine to end its economic pressure and pursue legitimization of separatist forces on Moscow’s terms. The Kremlin will also seek to exploit any political crisis in Ukraine to destabilize the pro-Western coalition, undermine Ukraine’s reform efforts, and halt Ukraine’s integration with the West.

Ukraine took concrete steps to continue its fight against corruption and further integrate itself with the West despite increasing instability. The Ukrainian government suspended the Director of its State Fiscal Service due to a corruption investigation on March 03. This action may be a catalyst for a much-needed anti-corruption campaign. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) preliminarily approved Ukraine for a $1 billion loan on March 05. This loan strengthens the Ukrainian government’s ability to fulfill financial obligations that are key to its political stability. Ukraine and Canada extended their bilateral military cooperation through 2019, signaling Ukraine’s continued commitment to meeting Western military standards. The U.S. and its allies must continue to support Kyiv’s efforts to reform and counter corruption.

Iraq Situation Report: March 1-20, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos, Jennifer Cafarella, and Jessa Rose Dury-Agri

Regional actors are vying to dominate the post-ISIS security structure and political order in northern Iraq. Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are threatening the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates in Sinjar, west of Mosul City. Sinjar is a historic flashpoint for ethnic tensions and at the center of Turkish, Iranian, and Kurdish interests. The KDP seeks to incorporate Sinjar into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), expanding the KRG’s territorial control. Turkey supports the KDP’s desire to move against the PKK and has threatened to participate in a direct attack. The desire to move against Sinjar could bring Turkey and the KDP into conflict with Iran. Iranian-backed elements of the Popular Mobilization are stationed nearby at Tel Afar and have claimed that the PKK-backed Yazidi militia in Sinjar is part of the Popular Mobilization. Iranian-backed militias could intervene on the side of the PKK in Sinjar if Turkey or the KDP act further, escalating the conflict which could undermine post-ISIS stability in northern Iraq. Russia is also seeking to gain influence in northern Iraq through a financial relationship with the KDP, which could embolden the KDP by granting it greater independence from Baghdad. Russian-owned oil company Rosneft renegotiated a loan with the KRG to pre-finance crude oil exports to Russia on February 21. Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani later met with a senior Russian delegation in Arbil on March 1 to discuss strengthening bilateral relations between the KRG and Russia, marking the first high-level Russian delegation to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. Separately, tribal violence in southern Iraq, particularly in Maysan Province, signals rising intra-Shi’a competition ahead of provincial elections in September 2017.  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: February 8 - March 19, 2017

This update highlights why Russia remains an unfit partner to fight ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria.  See the new Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project report on Putin's Real Syria Agenda here.

By Jonathan Mautner


Threats to regime security across Syria will likely challenge Russia’s ability to provide decisive air support throughout the country, notwithstanding the resumption of aggressive Russian air operations against opposition terrain in western Aleppo and northern Idlib Provinces from March 3 – 19. The surge in Russian airstrikes in northern Syria signals regime preparations to clear the targeted areas with ground forces, but opposition groups likely preempted that course of action by launching a concerted offensive in the vicinity of regime-held Hama City in central Syria on March 21. Opposition factions seized no fewer than eight towns in northern Hama Province from pro-regime forces within hours, indicating that Russia may need to divert significant air assets from northern Syria in order to secure strategic regime interests in the country’s central corridor. Russia can likely conduct high tempo air operations against opposition forces on both fronts, but it cannot do so and maintain its current campaigns against ISIS in eastern Homs and Aleppo Provinces and opposition groups in Syria’s south. Pro-regime forces, moreover, are also vying to break ISIS’s ongoing siege of the Deir ez Zour Military Airport in eastern Syria and to repel a recently-launched opposition offensive in Damascus City. The confluence of these proliferating threats, the finite supply of Russian airframes in Syria, and the regime’s want for sufficient combat effective ground forces indicates that Russia will have to identify regime security priorities and deploy its air assets accordingly. Notably, the pro-regime alliance has struggled to triage effectively in the past, ceding Palmyra to ISIS merely two days before securing the surrender of opposition-held Aleppo City in December 2016. This experience counsels that Russian air power alone—whatever its allocation—will not enable pro-regime forces to secure Syria in all of its corners.

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.




Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Russia Moves to Supplant U.S. Role

By Genevieve Casagrande

Russian President Vladimir Putin is leveraging Russia’s position in Syria to further diminish U.S. influence in the broader Middle East and North Africa. Russia will increasingly constrain U.S. freedom of maneuver in the broader region by expanding its military footprint and its anti-access and area denial zone. Putin advanced his regional strategy from February 27 to March 20, 2017 in three ways. First, he promoted economic relationships with key U.S. allies, including Egypt and Iraqi Kurds. Russia and Egypt reached tentative agreements to establish a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Gulf area and to resume Russian flights to tourist destinations in Sinai. Russia also renegotiated its oil agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government on February 28. Second, Putin cultivated ties to local security forces, particularly those he seeks to draw away from partnership with the U.S., such as the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Russia brokered an agreement to give the Syrian regime control of villages near Manbij, Syria to deter a Turkish-backed offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, and deployed Russian forces to train the YPG on March 20. Third, Putin took steps to further develop Russian strategic basing across the region. The deployment of Russian special forces to a base in western Egypt in early March signals Russia’s intent to expand its strategic basing along the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s overtures to Egypt pose a particular concern as NATO conducts greater outreach to Egypt.




The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) produced this map with the Critical Threats Project (CTP). The graphic is part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. The ISW-CTP team recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: Nowruz Update

Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: November 23, 2016 - March 15, 2017

By: Caitlin Forrest

KT: The U.S. faces pressure from Russia as well as militant groups that seek to undermine the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2017. The ANSF faces readiness gaps that will expose multiple provincial capitals to recurrent attacks by the Taliban and escalating attacks in Kabul by multiple groups, including ISIS. These threats will compound the difficulty the ANSF already faces in holding territory recaptured from Taliban forces in 2016. Russia meanwhile will attempt to thwart the U.S. and NATO by brokering peace talks with the Taliban that increasingly incorporate competing international power centers, such as China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Taliban set conditions during the winter phase of its yearlong campaign, Operation Omari, to target provincial capitals during its upcoming spring 2017 offensive. Taliban militants attacked security posts and district centers near the provincial capitals of Helmand, Kunduz, and Uruzgan provinces over the reporting period, indicating their intent to attack these cities during their upcoming spring 2017 offensive when they announce it in April 2017. Taliban militants had also launched simultaneous attacks on the same three cities, as well as the provincial capital of Farah Province, in October 2016. Taliban militants attacked four district centers in Helmand in January and February 2017 to weaken security forces and gain territory to stage attacks against Lashkar Gah city. Taliban militants also launched several attacks against security posts on the outskirts of Tarin Kot city, the provincial capital of Uruzgan province in January and February. Taliban militants also attacked ANA bases in Baghlan-e Jadid District in Baghlan Province in March 2017 in an attempt to gain control of the ground line of communication (GLOC) that the ANSF uses to send reinforcements to Kunduz City from Kabul. These attacks indicate that the Taliban intends to launch ground campaigns against Lashkar Gah, Tarin Kot, and Kunduz cities during the upcoming spring offensive.

ISIS Wilayat Khorasan took advantage of ungoverned and remote spaces in northwest Afghanistan to expand its territory. ISIS expanded beyond its stronghold in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan and established a base to receive and train foreign fighters in northwest Afghanistan. Uzbek militants fighting with ISIS in Jowzjan province exerted social control by destroying Sufi shrines, burning civilian homes, and erecting prisons in early 2017. ISIS deployed recruiters from Zabul province to set up a training camp in Nimroz province in early 2017. ISIS will prioritize expanding its control in Afghanistan as it faces the loss of its capital cities in Syria and Iraq in 2017. ISIS will also attack Afghan state institutions directly. ISIS launched a complex attack against the ANSF national military hospital in Kabul on March 8, 2017. The attack demonstrated an increase in capability, insider access, and the transfer of techniques from other groups in the area or from ISIS’s core terrain.

ANSF force regeneration is not on track to match the Taliban’s spring offensives. The ANSF failed to secure large swaths of territory from Taliban militants during the winter phase of its own counter-offensive campaign, Operation Shafaq. The majority of its holding forces are insufficiently trained and under-equipped, requiring additional support from Afghan Special Security Forces. Taliban militants targeted southern and northern districts during the winter phase of Operation Omari while the ANSF conducted anti-ISIS operations in the East. The ANSF continues to struggle with high casualties and attrition despite ongoing U.S.-led force regeneration efforts. Recruitment generally keeps pace with these losses, but it is insufficient to build the force necessary to clear and hold territory from Taliban militants. The Afghan Air Force’s (AAF) capabilities are steadily increasing, but its airframes are in “dire condition” due to high operational tempo and compromised helicopter maintenance due to sanctions on Russian equipment. Russia will attempt to leverage this weakness to insert itself in Afghanistan’s security sector on its own terms. The Taliban will likely capitalize on the ANSF’s readiness gaps by launching simultaneous offensives in separate regions during its spring offensive in order to stretch and weaken the ANSF to a breaking point.

Rising tensions in the National Unity Government will allow the Taliban and extremist networks to exploit security gaps. First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum undermined the government by refusing to comply with Afghan law or cooperate with judicial institutions following accusations that he assaulted the former Jowzjan Governor in November 2016. ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) exploited security gaps caused by the absence or fracturing of Dostum’s militia in Jowzjan while it protected him in Kabul. Meanwhile, Dostum’s rival, Balkh Provincial Governor Mohammad Atta Noor, seeks to supplant fellow Tajik and Jamiat party member CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s influence in the National Unity Government. President Ghani benefits from Atta’s efforts to undermine Abdullah, his rival. Atta is currently holding private talks with President Ghani, either to join the central government or possibly set up a bid for the 2019 Afghan presidential elections. The National Unity Government will lose its ability to prevent insurgent and Salafi-jihadi groups from reconstituting as it fractures along powerbrokers and warlords’ competing interests. The National Unity Government will also become increasingly willing to entertain peace talks with the Taliban brokered by Russia, which could accelerate bold posturing and independent action by former Northern Alliance Warlords within the government.

Russia is undermining the U.S. and NATO by positioning itself as the key interlocutor of peace talks with the Taliban. General Nicholson expressed concern over the “malign influence” of Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and their support of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan in a press conference on December 2, 2016. He stated that the Russian narrative that Taliban militants are countering ISIS in Afghanistan is false, and further undermines the U.S. missions in Afghanistan. Russia plans to discuss Afghan peace talks with representatives from Iran, China, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan in Moscow in April 2017, following similar meetings in December 2016, February 2017, and March 2017. Russia is courting Afghan government officials to legitimize itself as a dominant regional actor in the Afghan conflict. Russia may use economic incentives, such as restoring Soviet-era infrastructure, to strengthen its ties with the Afghan government. Russia’s continued support for the Taliban will thwart the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, weaken the Afghan government, and position Russia to use peace talks in Afghanistan to assert its own legitimacy as a guarantor of international order. Russia will use its increasing influence in Afghanistan to weaken and ultimately oust NATO from Afghanistan.

Current levels of U.S. support to the ANSF will fail to secure Afghanistan against militant groups and prevent Russia’s efforts to undermine NATO in Afghanistan. The Taliban can modulate violence in Afghanistan during the fighting season and therefore exert leverage over the Afghan state, the U.S. and NATO. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) optimized its force structure in order to mitigate the drawdown from 9,800 to 8,448 troops during the winter fighting season, but the force is still inadequate to prepare the ANSF’s to secure the country. U.S. leaders attest that the U.S. must increase its troop levels to increase the ANSF’s capacity through the train, advise, and assist (TAA) mission. The U.S. has a national security interest in preventing Salafi-Jihadist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, from reconstituting in Afghanistan.



Correction: ISW previously listed that Taliban militants attacked Talah wa Barfak District in Baghlan Province in March 2017. It has since been corrected to state Taliban militants attacked ANA bases in Baghlan-e Jadid District in March 2017 as of 22 MAR 2017. 

Putin’s Real Syria Agenda

By Genevieve Casagrande and Kathleen Weinberger

Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary objective in Syria is to constrain U.S. freedom of action – not fight ISIS and al Qaeda. Russia’s military deployments at current levels will not enable the Iranian-penetrated Assad regime to secure Syria. Moscow’s deepening footprint in Syria threatens America’s ability to defend its interests across the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Sea. The next U.S. step in Syria must help regain leverage over Russia rather than further encourage Putin’s expansionism.

Read the full report here.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) produced this report with the Critical Threats Project (CTP). The insights are part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. The ISW-CTP team recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Syria Situation Report: March 9 - 17, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Conditions on the ground are not set for a political solution to the Syrian Civil War despite diplomatic efforts by regional powers. Russia, Iran, and Turkey held the third round of Astana Talks on March 14 – 15. The talks failed to generate any significant results amidst a boycott by the opposition delegation driven by the failure of Russia to implement a promised nationwide ceasefire. The Syrian Civil War will further protract due to the regime’s unwillingness to consider meaningful concessions as well as continued attacks by irreconcilable factions. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham conducted a double suicide attack in the Old City of Damascus on March 11. Unidentified militants later conducted a second double suicide attack targeting the Palace of Justice in Damascus on March 15.

These graphics mark the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of March 3, 2017.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 9-16, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made significant progress from March 9 to 16, pushing deep into western Mosul and eliminating ISIS’s presence north of the city. ISIS has reopened attack fronts around Tikrit and Baiji, however, underscoring that Mosul’s recapture will not defeat ISIS in Iraq.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) advanced towards the Old City in western Mosul from March 9 to 16, consolidating control over southwestern Mosul. The Federal Police and Emergency Response Division, an elite unit within the Ministry of Interior, inched into the Old City on March 11 along the Tigris River. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) meanwhile quickly established control over several southwestern neighborhoods and contact with the Old City on March 13. Northeast of the city, the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division recaptured Badush Sub-District on March 15 and its environs. Across the river, units from the 16th IA Division recaptured remaining ISIS-held territory between Tel Kayyaf District and the western Peshmerga defensive line, including the Badush Dam facility on March 11. The facility, never finished, is the intended replacement for the eroding Mosul Dam.

The U.S. and Coalition will need to ensure their continued presence in Iraq after Mosul’s recapture, which could occur within a month, in order to clear remaining ISIS-held areas and ensure stability in recaptured areas. Coalition Spokesman Col. John Dorrian stated on March 15 that there should be an “enduring [force] requirement” beyond Mosul’s recapture, but that Coalition members would need to discuss any force posture with the Iraqi Government. These conversations should focus on short-term requirements for continuing anti-ISIS operations post-Mosul and the long-term training mission to ensure a local security force that can hold recaptured terrain. Both will require continued U.S. and Coalition support in order to sustainably defeat ISIS, prevent its resurgence, or security the country.

ISIS is reestablishing its network and capabilities between Baiji and Tikrit. The police chief of Baiji, an oil town recaptured from ISIS in October 2015, stated that extremists carried out forty “hit-and-run” attacks in Baiji in the last month alone. The police chief previously categorized attacks in the city as “rare.” Attacks around Baiji extend beyond simple hit-and-run tactics, however. Two SVESTs detonated at a wedding party south of Baiji on March 9, killing more than 20 people. ISIS executed members of the Albu Nimr tribe in Baiji and detonated an SVEST in a home south of the city on February 25. Both incidents underscore ISIS’s advanced technical ability and that ISIS either has a cell in Baiji or steady access to the area. Attacks in Tikrit have likewise increased, despite the high level of security provided by the ISF and militias. ISIS detonated a SVBIED in central Tikrit on March 15, one of the few attacks inside Tikrit City since its recapture in March 2015. ISIS has been reviving its capabilities east of Tikrit, particularly in al-Dawr, over the past three months. The attack inside Tikrit, however, suggests an advancement in ISIS’s capabilities in the area. Reviving and maintain these networks and capabilities could allow ISIS to maintain strength in Iraq even after it loses control of Mosul.