Friday, February 24, 2017

Syria Situation Report: February 16 - 24, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Opposition groups backed by Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield seized full control over Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province as well as two neighboring towns, ending more than three months of heavy clashes. The fall of Al-Bab will enable Turkish President Recep Erdogan to pursue his next stated strategic priorities in Northern Syria – including an offensive to expel the Syrian Kurdish YPG from Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik warned that Turkey will “reevaluate” military operations against the town if the U.S. does not ensure the imminent withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish YPG from Manbij. Meanwhile, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura opened the Geneva IV Talks between regime and opposition delegations with the goal of reaching a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. The negotiations nonetheless appear primed to fail amidst deteriorating conditions on the ground - including an increasingly unstable nationwide ceasefire and a continued consolidation of power by Al-Qaeda in Syria. 

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 February 16, 2017.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Warning Update: The Expansion of ISIS in Northwestern Afghanistan

By: Caitlin Forrest and Richard DeKold

Key Takeaway: ISIS Wilayat Khorasan may be developing a regional powerbase in northwestern Afghanistan. Former Taliban militants operating in the name of ISIS executed international aid workers and held others captive in a prison in Jowzjan Province in February 2017, a step change in ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan. ISIS may increasingly use this hub to regenerate manpower as it suffers losses elsewhere, threatening US and NATO interests in multiple regions across Afghanistan. Malign external actors like Russia and Iran could also use ISIS’s expansion in the region to validate their support of Taliban militants and undermine the U.S. and NATO.

Tripwire: The Jowzjan Provincial Governor claimed ISIS-linked militants killed six International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) workers on February 8 in Qush Tepah District. Militants are holding two more ICRC workers captive in an ISIS prison in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan Province according to a local news source. This report comes one month after local officials and elders separately claimed that ISIS members destroyed homes in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province and forced up to 60 families to leave their homes in Sayad District, Sar-e Pul Province in December 2016. Another report emerged on February 8 that the son of the slain leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which pledged to ISIS in August 2015, is leading efforts to resettle up to 650 foreign Pakistani and Uzbek militants and their families in Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces. ISW is issuing a warning based on these reports that ISIS may be developing a regional power base in northwestern Afghanistan. Neither ISIS Wilayat Khorasan nor ISIS’s central media has claimed the aforementioned events.

Pattern: The execution of international aid workers is a step change for ISIS in Afghanistan. The establishment of a prison and population displacement are new developments for ISIS in northwest Afghanistan, but typical of ISIS generally. ISIS militants previously used resettlement efforts to increase presence in Kunar in March 2016, and also established multiple prisons in their strongholds in Nangarhar Province. Reporting of ISIS-linked activity in northwestern Afghanistan accelerated in February 2017 compared to previous trends, but early indicators corroborate the presence of ISIS-linked fighters in this zone. Local security officials first claimed ISIS was recruiting and raising “black flags” in Jowzjan and Sar-e Pul Provinces in January 2015. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which historically operates in northern Afghanistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, pledged to ISIS in August 2015. ISIS militants reportedly clashed with security forces in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan province in July 2016. Another report in August 2016 alluded to a local ISIS commander in Jowzjan. ISIS militants clashed again with security forces in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province in October 2016. ISIS-linked groups also killed a local prayer leader in for assaulting minors in Darzab District in October 2016.  

Timing: ISIS may be exploiting a gap in security by Dostum’s Junbish Militia in northwestern Afghanistan. ISIS’s expansion in the region comes as First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who maintains significant influence in the North through his Junbish Militia, remains confined to his home surrounded by his militia in Kabul City following a scandal involving the alleged assault of former Jowzjan Provincial Governor Ahmad Eschi in November 2016 by his bodyguards. The lack of reported Junbish militia action to combat ISIS-linked militants in Northern Afghanistan may represent the absence of Junbish militias. Alternatively, Dostum may be sanctioning the expansion of ISIS in the region in order to demonstrate his significance to Afghan security in an attempt to relieve the political pressure to prosecute him for the alleged assault. Meanwhile, the ANSF is currently undergoing a U.S.-led force regeneration process during their 2016-2017 winter campaign. The Afghan National Unity Government has historically relied on a joint force of ANSF units and Junbish militiamen to provide security in northwestern Afghanistan. The lessened presence of Dostum’s militia while the ANSF rests and refits units may be granting ISIS-linked militants increased freedom of movement in the region.  

Assessment: The prison in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan province is the first indicator of social control by ISIS in Afghanistan outside of its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan.
The prison is run by former Taliban shadow governor Qari Hekmat, who reportedly joined ISIS in mid-2016 a few months after he was expelled from the Taliban due to his excessive brutality. Qari Hekmat is one of several ISIS-linked groups operating in the area, including Abdul Rahman Yuldash, the son of the slain leader of the IMU, who has also been implicated by local sources in recent reporting. The Jowzjan Provincial Governor claimed on February 8 that five ISIS factions with up to 200 fighters are present in Qush Tepah District alone. The successful recruitment of former-Taliban and IMU militants in Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces will allow ISIS to regenerate manpower and absorb losses incurred in its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. ISIS seeks to take advantage of the vast ungoverned and remote spaces in Afghanistan to establish camps where it can recruit, train, and deploy local and foreign fighters. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan has trained recruits from India, planned successful attacks in Kabul, and deployed expeditionary recruiters to remote provinces from its strongholds in Nangarhar and Zabul according to local sources. ISIS will likely use its growing presence and influence in the northwestern provinces to establish an additional regional base in which it can implement social control and expand ISIS’s Caliphate as it loses territory in core terrain.  

Implications: The expansion of ISIS’s Caliphate in Afghanistan would grant ISIS an additional logistical hub to receive and train foreign fighters as it becomes more difficult for foreign fighters to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan is likely strengthening its ties with IMU militants in order to expand its regional network and coopt local groups and fighters. Russia may use the expansion of ISIS in northwestern Afghanistan, which borders former Soviet satellite states Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, to continue undermining the U.S. and NATO by supporting Taliban militants and claiming that Taliban militants are fighting ISIS rather than the U.S. The expansion of ISIS outside of its bases in eastern Afghanistan will also strain the ongoing U.S. counterterrorism mission as it will have to shift resources to remote northwestern provinces. This shift may allow ISIS in Nangarhar to reconstitute sanctuaries lost to joint U.S.-ANSF operations in 2016. Any remaining Junbish militias under Dostum’s control in the area would further complicate U.S. response if Dostum faces backlash from his alleged assault against Eschi and orders his militias not to cooperate with the U.S. as a result. Both ISIS and Russia stand to benefit from the expansion of ISIS into the northwest at the expense of the U.S.

Indicators: Increased reports of ISIS conducting executions and establishing courts or prisons in the northwestern provinces would indicate ISIS is solidifying social control in the region. Reports that the group is suddenly flush with cash or is able to procure explosive materials may indicate a transfer of capabilities from either ISIS in core terrain, ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan, or both. Any recognition of these ISIS-linked groups in official ISIS media, either coming from core or with official ISIS Wilayat Khorasan branding, would indicate ISIS is consolidating ties with these groups and attempting to expand the Caliphate in northwestern Afghanistan. The continued successful recruiting of former-Taliban militants would increase the likelihood that ISIS will establish a regional stronghold as it coopts is main competitors in the area. If Dostum’s militia remains disengaged, it could further deteriorate security in the northwestern provinces and allow ISIS to make significant gains in the region. These gains may prompt Russia to take action against ISIS in the northwest, which would severely undermine and complicate the U.S. and NATO missions.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: February 1-21, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched operations to retake western Mosul on February 19. The ISF has not yet begun operations inside western Mosul city, focusing instead on isolating ISIS in Mosul by cutting off exits routes west of the city and setting conditions to breach the city limits through the southern airport.

The ISF launched operations on February 19 to recapture western Mosul after a three week operational reset following the recapture of eastern Mosul on January 24. The ISF has not yet entered western Mosul, and is continuing shaping operations south and southwest of the city. Units from the Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division (ERD) consolidated control over villages south of Mosul on February 19 and 20. The units reached the outskirts of the Ghazlani military base and Mosul airport on February 20 and began artillery strikes on February 21 on the airport and base in preparation to storm. Meanwhile, the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division alongside a Hawza militia from the Popular Mobilization, Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliya (FAQ), began to close off western escape routes out of the city. The division will likely continue the current trajectory to isolate Mosul by heading north towards the Tigris River. The desert operations are also more suitable to the armored division, which would have trouble navigating western Mosul’s narrow streets. The units may ultimately enter the city, but moving from the outside in rather than the inside out. 

Humanitarian conditions inside the city remain a concern as operations advance. The 16th Iraqi Army Division alongside police and local tribal fighters assumed control of security in eastern Mosul. The area has already suffered a series of suicide attacks over the past few weeks, suggesting that areas were insufficiently cleared or that ISIS already re-infiltrated the city. The UN announced on February 15 that it would temporarily pause humanitarian aid to the eastern half of Mosul because of the attacks. Meanwhile, the UN has also announced that food, fuel, and supplies are unable to reach western Mosul, distressing the humanitarian crisis for an estimated 750,000 civilians. The ongoing military operations are compounding these issues by further closing off possible access points for aid into the city. The ISF will need to prioritize efforts to secure the distribution of aid in both eastern and western Mosul and provide evacuation routes from western Mosul as the expected months-long operation will increase the severity of the humanitarian crisis.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: February 11-16, 2017

By the ISW Iraq Team

Baghdad witnessed serious breaches of security from February 11 to 16 due to both escalating protest movements and ISIS attacks. A large Sadrist-led protest, demanding electoral reforms, tried to move from Tahrir Square into the Green Zone on February 11, but security forces repelled the protesters with force, resulting in casualties. Soon after the protesters withdrew, unidentified attackers launched three rockets at the Green Zone from eastern Baghdad, resulting in no casualties. The Sadrist-affiliated militia denied responsibility for the rockets, however the attack may have been the act of Iranian proxy militias which have carried out rocket attacks against U.S. infrastructure before. ISIS, meanwhile, continued carrying out spectacular attacks in the capital, including a bombing on February 16 that killed upwards of fifty people, the deadliest of 2017 so far. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called an emergency meeting on February 16 in order to issue procedures to ensure security.

The increased intensity of the Sadrist demonstrations could escalate ongoing intra-Shi’a competition in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr retains the momentum to continue mass protests, busing in and mobilizing thousands on February 11, then again on February 14, and calling for another protest on February 17. Sadr had similar momentum in early 2016, when protests spread from Baghdad to the southern provinces. Sadrist protesters are historically undisciplined, however, and in 2016 they attacked political offices in southern Iraq, including Dawa Party and other pro-Iran party headquarters. Similar attacks now as political parties gear up for both provincial and national elections could inflame a greater intra-Shi’a conflict in the southern provinces. Basra will likely be a significant flash point as there have already been attacks related to election violence in the past month. Baghdad will need to move quickly to quell Sadr’s protests before they instigate a greater conflict between armed political groups in the capital and southern provinces.

Syria Situation Report: February 2 - 16, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Turkish President Recep Erdogan reiterated that the “ultimate goal” of Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield is the establishment of a five-thousand square kilometer ‘safe zone’ that includes Al-Bab, Manbij, and Ar-Raqqa City in Northern Syria during a speech on February 12. Erdogan stated that the proposed “terrorist-free zone” would require the implementation of a no-fly zone, noting that he had discussed the issue with both the U.S. and Russia. The statement came after pro-regime forces supported by Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah effectively completed the encirclement of ISIS in Al-Bab in line with a predetermined agreement between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, preparations continued for the next round of Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War scheduled to begin on February 23. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) approved a watered-down delegation to the talks that replaced several key armed opposition representatives with civilian members of the exiled political opposition as well as delegates from domestic opposition factions backed by Russia that lack legitimacy on the ground. The potential for successful talks also remains muted amidst continued calls by armed opposition groups for the full implementation of a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian access, and prisoner releases agreed upon at the Astana Talks on January 23 – 24.

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 February 16, 2017.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ukraine Warning Update: Russia preparing to ‘cash in’ its military gains in Ukraine

By Nataliya Bugayova and Franklin Holcomb 

Key Takeaway: Recent Russian maneuvering in Ukraine poses a growing risk to U.S. interests as Vladimir Putin presses to capitalize on his intervention. Russia may have assessed that it does not require a full-fledged separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine anymore, as it sees a political opportunity to force Kyiv into accepting and legitimizing the occupied territories of Donbas on Russia's terms. Putin continues setting conditions to advance his political objective of creating a pliable, pro-Russian, anti-Western Ukraine, and to shape how the West should respond to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The U.S. must recognize Putin’s game and seize the initiative, including by boosting support for a sovereign Ukraine, rather than let the Kremlin transform the region toward its own destabilizing ends. 

Tripwire: Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees an opportunity to ‘cash in’ his military gains to get closer to his objective of reinstating a client regime in Ukraine.

Russia has recently shown little interest in preserving the combat effectiveness of its proxy forces. First, Russia has allowed a continuous purge of the separatist leadership. In the past two weeks alone, there have been three deaths of high-profile separatist leaders, including Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, a senior commander, notorious for his brutality against Ukrainian forces. Second, Russia allowed the separatists to suffer major losses in the most recent Avdiivka escalation. The Ukrainian Army was able to easily repel separatist attacks and force the dispersed, low-quality separatists from their positions. These defeats followed months of setbacks for separatist forces in the Svitlodarsk Arc, where Ukrainian forces had counter-attacked, driven separatist forces from their positions, and thereby threatened their supply lines. Ukrainian armed forces also killed or wounded several high profile separatist commanders, a previously rare occurrence. Russia chose not to provide the backing the separatists would have required to make major gains. This suggests that Russia was not primarily focused on separatist battlefield victories.

Having the most heinous separatist leaders out of the picture gives Russia additional framing leverage vis-à-vis Kyiv in the peace negotiations in Minsk. Their absence may weaken Kyiv's argument that Ukraine cannot consider direct negotiations or any form of legitimization of the occupied territories while the war criminals, who tortured and killed Ukrainian soldiers, are in power. It might also make it easier for Russia to sell legitimization of its proxies to the international community if the separatists are perceived as 'beheaded' and weakened. 

Additionally, various political actors inside and outside Ukraine have changed their rhetoric about what is possible in the context of Donbas peace deal. Yevhen Marchuk, Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk talks group, said in a Feb. 6 interview that Ukraine is approaching a “painful stage” in the peace talks, during which it will have to compromise. German Ambassador to Ukraine Ernst Reichel stated that elections in the non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine are possible while there are still Russian forces in the area. Meanwhile, Russia has intensified its various false narratives[i] about Ukraine in the West.

Timing: Uncertainly about the new U.S. administration's policy vis-à-vis Russia has opened two cracks for the Kremlin to exploit.

First, some European countries are delaying taking strong stands as they await the new U.S. administration's first move. The pause gives Russia time to exploit any divergences and shape a new narrative about the potential peace deal with Ukraine. 

Second, the fear among some decision-makers in Kyiv that the U.S. will 'abandon' Ukraine and leave them dealing one on one with Putin allows the Kremlin to coerce them into a deal. There have been informal reports that such a back door deal is already in the making. 

Lastly, Russia needs to make a decision about the cost-benefit of further investment in the separatist forces, which have continued to degrade in capability and have shown signs of little improvement over three years, while the Armed Forces of Ukraine have grown increasingly effective.

Most dangerous course of action: 
  • Russia gets its preferred deal. It forces Ukraine into accepting local elections in the occupied territories that will bring representatives of these separatist territories into the Ukrainian parliament. Russia might also push for the creation of transitional local authorities in these regions and amnesty for the insurgents. 
  • Russia manages to conceal its true intentions and frames these events as major concessions in the eyes of Europe and the U.S. 
Such arrangement places a permanent 'Trojan horse' inside Ukraine—an institutionalized political lever in the form of semi-autonomous regions and, potentially, their representation in the legislature. Russia would have gotten a 'foot in the door' and will expand on it until it reinstitutes its client regime. Moreover, the deal would be considered a betrayal by a large part of the Ukrainian population and might lead to violent internal confrontations and, if taken to an extreme, full political destabilization. 

Most likely course of action: A major push back from many decision-makers in Kyiv and the Ukrainian population will prevent Russia from getting its preferred arrangement at this time. Many top government officials in Ukraine reaffirmed that elections held in the non-government controlled areas of eastern Ukraine are inadmissible and impossible.

However, if unimpeded by the West, Russia is still likely to get a deal that includes some form of legitimization for the occupied territories. It is also likely to get European sanctions related to Donbas lifted. Russia still will have managed to get 'a foot in the door' and will continue expanding on it until it reinstitutes its client regime.

Russia is likely to continue advancing its proxy war in eastern Ukraine in the event that a strong alignment between Kyiv and the West prevents Russia from gaining increased legitimacy for its proxies or global pressure forces Russia to halt its military ambitions in Ukraine. 

Significance for U.S. policy:
  • Such a deal would get Russia closer to its objective of restricting Ukraine's movement toward the West. It would increase the risk of having a non-U.S. friendly government in Kyiv in the future. 
  • Such a deal would also mean that Russia will have achieved most of its objectives in Ukraine without paying a serious long-term price. 
  • Removal of the European sanctions related to Donbas would ease Russia’s access the debt market and allow the Kremlin to finance continued military expansion and challenge other strategic U.S. positions around the world. 
It is critical that the U.S. understands exactly what kind of gains Russia is making in Ukraine and what ‘concessions’ Russia claims, but is not making, as the U.S. considers its strategic options. 

Recommendation: A core element of U.S. policy needs to be a focus on strengthening a partner in Kyiv that can resist Putin’s pressure campaigns. The U.S. must in this instance prevent any non-transparent back door deal between the Kremlin and one or more factions of powerbrokers in Kyiv. The U.S. should also develop a more effective effort to strengthen Kyiv using its full range of tools, including political, military, and economic assistance. The U.S. should simultaneously avoid premature concessions, such as weakening the sanction regime on Russia or ruling out options for increasing economic pressure. The U.S. administration should seize the moment to send a strong signal to Ukraine, Europe, and Vladimir Putin. It has an opportunity to do so this week with Defense Secretary James Mattis scheduled to attend a NATO Defense Ministerial Conference and the Munich Security Conference. 

[i] “Escalation in Donbass manifests Kiev’s gross violation of Minsk Agreements-Lavrov” TASS, February 10, 2017, http://tass(.)com/politics/930102

Warning Update: Turkish Aggression Against Syrian Kurds Threatens to Halt U.S. Anti-ISIS Operations in Syria

By Tom Ramage

Key Takeaway: The U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Syria is in jeopardy as Turkey threatens an offensive against the U.S.’s primary partner force on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey has stated its intent to shift its focus from ISIS to the Syrian Kurds after the seizure of the ISIS-held town of al Bab in Northern Aleppo Province, which ISW forecasts is likely in the coming weeks. If the U.S. fails to protect its partner force, the Syrian Kurdish-led de facto government of Northern Syria may pursue closer cooperation with Russia, which could hinder the U.S.’s ability to influence the outcome of the Syrian Civil War and continue its operations in the country. Conflict between the U.S.’s allies in Northern Syria will also relieve pressure on ISIS in Raqqa Province and thereby allow ISIS to seize territory from the Syrian regime or reinforce its core terrain in Iraq.

Turkey’s threat to launch an offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after the impending seizure of al Bab endangers the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Syria. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and Turkish-backed opposition groups entered the ISIS-held town of al Bab in Northern Aleppo Province on February 9 following a two and a half month offensive on the town. Pro-regime forces severed ISIS’s last remaining ground line of communication south of al Bab on February 6, and ISW forecasts that the city will likely fall in the coming weeks. Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated on January 27 that the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish-backed opposition groups will not advance further south following the seizure of al Bab, but rather will launch an offensive against the SDF in Manbij City to push the SDF east of the Euphrates. The U.S. is relying on the SDF as the only U.S.-led coalition partner force currently capable of isolating ISIS’s de-facto capital in Syria – ar-Raqqah City. A Turkish offensive that both distracts and weakens the U.S.’s partner force in Syria will diminish the U.S.’s ability to combat ISIS in Syria.

Turkish officials have consistently announced their hostility towards the dominant group in the political alliance behind the SDF, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, currently a TSK and Turkish-backed opposition offensive against ISIS in Northern Aleppo Province, in large part to prevent the formation of a contiguous zone of control along the Syrian-Turkish border de facto governed by the PYD. In addition, TSK and Turkish-backed forces recently increased attacks against the SDF in Northern Aleppo Province, indicating that Turkey is preparing to escalate its currently low-scale conflict with the SDF. Turkey is also using arrests of alleged ‘PYD militants’ in Turkish-held Northern Aleppo Province and Turkey to reinforce Turkey’s designation of the PYD as a terrorist organization and legitimize their potential offensive.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan is likely timing its assault on the SDF in Northern Aleppo Province in conjunction with preparations to hold a referendum on a constitutional amendment package that would increase his executive powers. A Turkish offensive on the SDF will demonstrate Erdogan’s commitment to Turkey’s ongoing anti-PKK campaign, which is likely to increase popular support for the proposed constitutional amendments. Turkish officials likely also see U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported rejection of previous plans to increase support for the SDF as well as his recent phone conversation with Erdogan as indicators that the new administration is open to sacrificing support for the SDF in exchange for a closer partnership with Turkey in Syria.

A Turkish offensive to drive the SDF east could divert Turkish and SDF resources from combatting ISIS for months. The U.S. will likely attempt to hedge this effect by offering Turkey a leading role in operations to seize ar-Raqqah City. A Turkish offensive would require SDF approval to traverse Kurdish-held terrain, however, otherwise Turkish forces would have to advance approximately 100 miles through ISIS-held territory before attacking ar-Raqqah City. The PYD is opposed to allowing Turkey to establish a governing structure in ar-Raqqah City that is hostile to its goal of establishing a federal system in post-war Syria. The PYD is currently creating local governance structures for the city and the surrounding region with the support of local Arab tribal leaders in order to demonstrate the viability of its proposed governance structure and establish allied control over the region. Moreover, the extended Turkish assault on the ISIS-held town of al Bab demonstrates that Turkish-backed opposition forces are not independently combat capable of seizing ISIS-held urban terrain. A successful Turkish assault on ar-Raqqah City would require an increased commitment of TSK troops or the use of prominent Salafi-jihadi group Ahrar al Sham in addition to the full support of the U.S.-led coalition. Most dangerously, a halt to the SDF’s operations against ISIS could allow the group to retake territory in Northern Syria, divert forces to its assault on pro-regime held Deir ez-Zour City, or send reinforcements to defend Mosul City in Iraq.

The PYD may turn to Russia as an alternate patron if the U.S. fails to prevent an offensive against the SDF or attempt to allow Turkey a greater role in the ar-Raqqah offensive. Russia has attempted to reconcile the PYD with its rival Syrian Kurdish political parties in the Kurdish National Council and the Syrian regime in the past. Russia is also hosting a pan-Kurdistan meeting in Moscow on February 15 to reportedly discuss ways to foster Kurdish unity and PYD requirements for a post-war Syrian constitution. The PYD has already allowed Russian military police to patrol its controlled districts within Aleppo City and currently shares territory with pro-regime forces in Northern Aleppo Province west of the town of al Bab. The regime also reportedly delivered twenty-five tons of ammunition to the SDF on October 13 before the SDF launched operations against ISIS in ar-Raqqah City. Russian mediated reconciliation between the regime and the PYD would be a major political coup against U.S. influence in Syria, effectively pushing the U.S. further out into the fringes of being able to affect both the Syrian Civil War and the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Turkey may indicate an upcoming offensive by deploying further TSK reinforcements to the towns of Jarablus and Azaz in Northern Aleppo Province. An escalation in clashes between Turkish-backed opposition groups and the SDF in Northern Aleppo Province will also indicate that Turkey is shifting the focus of its operations in Syria from ISIS to the SDF. Syrian Kurds could show signs of drifting to Russia’s sphere of influence by accepting Russia’s offered concessions in a potential post-war Syrian constitution or taking increasingly frequent meetings with Russian officials. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Iranian Proxies Likely Fire Rockets at Green Zone in Baghdad, Saturday, February 11, 2017

By Patrick Martin

Unidentified gunmen fired rockets at the Green Zone during a large Sadrist demonstration in Tahrir Square in eastern Baghdad.

- The rockets came from the areas of Baladiyat and Filistin Street in predominantly Shi’a eastern Baghdad, according to the Joint Operations Command.

- No group has claimed responsibility for the rocket attack.

- The rockets struck the Green Zone either as or slightly after protesters attempted to cross bridges towards the Green Zone. Security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas at demonstrators, killing at least four and wounding at least 320. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to peacefully withdraw and denounced any effort by demonstrators or anyone else to use violence to destabilize Baghdad.

Rocket attacks against the Green Zone are a historical attack pattern by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias against the U.S. 

- Iranian-backed militias frequently fired rockets at the Green Zone targeting the U.S. Embassy compound before U.S. forces withdrew in December 2011. The U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched a major operation in April 2008 into Sadr City in northeastern Baghdad in part to stop rocket and mortar attacks against the Green Zone.

The rocket attack breaks from the behavioral pattern of Iranian proxy militias, which have not launched indirect fire at U.S. forces or the Green Zone since at least June 2014. 

- There has been only one indirect fire (IDF) incident in the Green Zone since ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014. Three mortar shells landed less than one mile from the Green Zone in May 2016 after the Iraqi government announced operations to clear Fallujah. No group claimed the attack. 

- The organization and disposition of the Sadrist demonstration, as well as Sadr’s reaction, strongly suggest that Sadrists did not fire the rockets. ISW hypothesizes but cannot assess that an Iranian-backed proxy group, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) or Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) could be responsible. 

- The attack follows changes in U.S. policy toward Iran, including a warning by U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a stricter interpretation of pre-existing sanctions, and leaks that the State Department might designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization

- The attack also follows threats by Iranian proxy militias to target the U.S. in Iraq and a warning by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei that the U.S. would see a response, albeit on February 10, the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, celebrations of which were typical rather than violent.

This incident marks an escalation in Iraq between the U.S. and Iran, if an Iranian proxy group did conduct the attack as hypothesized. ISW had forecasted on January 26, 2017 that Iran was changing its posture in Iraq. Iran is likely warning the U.S. that it has the capacity and will to escalate violence in Iraq, where it is best positioned to target U.S. interests and personnel should the U.S. continue to pressure it. Iran may deploy lethal force through its proxies against the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, U.S. advisers at multiple bases, and U.S. contractors.

More information and analysis to follow.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: February 2-10, 2017

By the ISW Iraq Team

Security conditions have decreased in Mosul and Salah al-Din and in the southern provinces due to revived militant attacks and election-related violence, respectively, from February 2 to 10. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is struggling to find a suitable force that can secure recaptured areas in eastern Mosul and free up elite units like the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) to launch operations in western Mosul. A February 6 report stated that the CTS “violently” prevented a hold force from carrying out door-to-door raids for fear of sectarian persecution. The inability to find a suitable hold force is also creating openings for ISIS to reinfiltrate, as shown by several attacks in eastern Mosul on February 8. The recent attacks also suggest that the neighborhoods were not fully cleared in initial operations. Continued poor security in eastern Mosul as the ISF begins operations in the west could allow ISIS to re-infiltrate the east and attack the ISF from the rear, forcing the ISF to fight on two fronts to recapture the city.

Security in northern Salah al-Din is deteriorating after an increase of militant activity around Tikrit and Dour District from February 2 to 10. The Salah al-Din Governor appealed to Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on February 6 to intervene after a spike in activity around Dour District, southeast of Tikrit, led to a reported “exodus” of residents from the area. ISIS claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, however burning homes and issuing death threats may be indicators that ISIS is competing in the area with other insurgent groups, likely Baathist, as they indicated in Diyala in 2014. The activity indicates that a post-ISIS insurgency may be forming in the area. The January 31 arrest of two al Qaeda (AQ) operatives in Samarra suggests that AQ may be looking to gain traction within it.

Meanwhile, recent attacks against members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in Basra and Maysan Provinces on February 8 and 9, respectively, are hints of political violence and intimidation tactics in the lead up to local elections, likely scheduled for April 2018. These attacks are common in every election cycle and will likely increase as Shi’a parties use their affiliated militias to vie for dominance in the majority-Shi’a southern provinces. If violence increases to an untenable level, the ISF may need to deploy forces to southern Iraq to contain militia and tribal violence at a time when the ISF is stretched thin.

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 12 – February 7, 2017

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia resumed its aggressive air campaign in northern Syria in a renewed attempt to defeat the acceptable opposition and coerce the integration of its remaining fighters into Salafi-jihadi groups, demonstrating its unfitness to serve as a U.S. counter-terrorism partner. Russia conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Deir ez Zour City and its environs in eastern Syria from January 26 – 31 and February 3 – 6, vying to blunt the jihadist group’s ongoing offensive against pro-regime forces in the besieged Deir ez Zour Military Airport. Russia nonetheless belied its alleged commitment to the anti-ISIS fight by deliberately targeting acceptable opposition forces during this period, aiming to enhance the Salafi-jihadi makeup of the opposition and thereby bolster the purported counter-terrorism mandate of the pro-regime alliance. In pursuit of that objective, Russian warplanes targeted opposition terrain behind front lines in northern Hama, western Aleppo, and southern Idlib Provinces from January 26 – February 7, resuming air operations in those areas just two days after the conclusion of Russia-sponsored peace negotiations on the Syrian Civil War in Astana, Kazakhstan. Notably, Russia repeatedly targeted current and former U.S.-backed opposition forces during the course of those operations. Russia, for instance, conducted airstrikes against a Jaysh al Mujahideen headquarters in western Aleppo Province on January 19 and a Jaysh al Aza headquarters in northern Hama Province on January 29, continuing its campaign to eliminate U.S. ground partners in Syria. Likely by design, such strikes have rendered the targeted groups increasingly vulnerable to the attacks of al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al Sham as it also works to defeat the acceptable opposition. Russia also delivered a shipment of fifty SS-21 ‘Scarab’ short-range ballistic missiles to the Port of Tartus in western Syria on or around February 6, firing at least two ‘Scarab’ and four SS-26 ‘Iskander’ ballistic missiles against opposition terrain in Idlib Province over the next forty-eight hours, according to anonymous U.S. officials. This missile capability will likely advance the deliberate targeting campaign against the acceptable opposition, which will continue until Russia dismantles these groups and compels their remnants to cooperate more closely with Salafi-jihadi forces out of military necessity. In the process, Russia will in effect enhance a Salafi-jihadi threat in Syria that it has little intent to counter.

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.