Thursday, October 27, 2016

Syria Situation Report: October 20 - 27, 2016

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Key Takeaway: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated on October 25 that coalition operations against IS in Ar-Raqqa City will begin “within weeks” and “overlap” with ongoing operations to seize Mosul in Northern Iraq. The statement comes one day after Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) Representative to Paris Khaled Issa stated that “conditions are not in place” for an operation to seize Ar-Raqqa City, stressing that the Syrian Kurdish YPG could not participate in the offensive amidst ongoing clashes with opposition groups backed by Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield in Northern Aleppo Province. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces resumed their offensive operations in Aleppo City on October 23 after the end of three eleven-hour ‘humanitarian pauses’ implemented by Russia and Syria. The truces ended without any significant evacuations of civilians or opposition fighters from Eastern Aleppo City.

Moldova Update: Contested Elections Threaten to Destabilize Eastern Europe

By: Franklin Holcomb and Catherine Harris

Key Takeaway: Eastern European security could be seriously undermined should the closely contested October 30 elections in Moldova lead to civil strife. Clashes between pro-western and pro-Russia movements in Moldova are likely. Russian President Vladimir Putin supports the pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon, who is leading in the polls, in an effort to both undermine what he perceives as the threatening expansion of the EU and NATO and increase Russia’s control over former Soviet states. Dodon and his Party of Socialists have a high chance of winning, or at least performing well enough that they will be able to contest the election results. Clashes between pro-Russia and pro-EU forces in Moldova might provoke a response from Russian soldiers stationed in the pro-Russia separatist region of Transnistria, critically destabilizing the region and threatening Ukraine’s western border and NATO member Romania.

Putin openly supports the pro-Russia candidate Igor Dodon and his Party of Socialists in order to expand Russia’s influence in the region and remove the current pro-western government.[i] Dodon has called for the “restoration of strategic relations with Russia” and accused pro-western forces of “taking orders from Washington.”[ii] Pro-Russia forces held a series of military exercises in Transnistria, a pro-Russia separatist region where Russia has maintained a military presence since it helped the region separate from Moldova in 1992, from September 30 – October 7. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported on October 17 that it was conducting readiness checks on its forces deployed in Transnistria.[iii]­­ The timing of these actions indicates that Russia is attempting to intimidate Moldova and discourage it from further pursuing a pro-western path.

Divided pro-western forces in Moldova face significant challenges in their effort to retain control of the presidency and may prove unable to keep pro-Russia forces from power. The pro-western movement in Moldova has struggled to maintain power in the face of charges of corruption, destabilizing levels of disunity, and the ongoing public dissatisfaction and from the theft of $1 billion (roughly 1/8th of Moldova’s GDP) in 2015. Pro-western forces are attempting to unify behind former Education Minister Maia Sandu to stop pro-Russia forces from exploiting the fragile coalition’s disunity. A defeat for pro-western forces in Moldova would critically undermine the country’s efforts to integrate with western structures and significantly increase Russia’s influence in Eastern Europe.

Political unrest is likely regardless of the result of the election. Both pro-Russia and pro-western forces have laid the groundwork to contest the results of the election. The speaker of Moldova’s parliament accused the Kremlin of funneling resources to pro-Russia parties and promoting anti-government protests on October 4. Sandu warned of the potential of “massive fraud” in the coming election and claimed that unless Moldova received EU support “we will have people in the streets and a pro-Russia president.” Pro-Russia forces announced that they planned protests in the event of the victory of a pro-western candidate. They further accused the government of “illegally” interfering in the election by issuing an arrest warrant for Renato Usatii, the leader of Moldova’s second largest pro-Russia party, on charges of attempted murder.[iv] A close victory or a contested result could draw both factions to the streets, which would dramatically increase the chance of civil strife.

The security interests of the US, Russia, and their allies overlap in Moldova to a sufficient degree that severe civil strife would challenge NATO and undermine the stability of Eastern Europe. Putin perceives Moldova’s open courtship of the EU and NATO as a direct threat to Russia’s security interests and a provocative act of defiance. Putin will likely act to support pro-Russia forces in the event of conflict in Moldova against what he perceives as an aggressive and expansionist West. Putin also sees increased Ukrainian-Moldovan cooperation as a threat to his military bases in Transnistria.[v] Ukraine and Moldova share security concerns about Russia and have increased security cooperation in recent years. Ukraine would probably consider Russian intervention in its western neighbor a dangerous threat to its security. This could provoke a Ukrainian military response to civil conflict in Moldova, particularly in the case of overt Russian intervention, although Ukraine’s military weakness and overextension makes so dramatic an eventuality unlikely. NATO member Romania shares deep cultural, political, and economic ties with Moldova that have led to discussions of the unification of the two states. Romania would also strongly oppose further Russian intervention on Moldovan territory and may feel compelled to act to stabilize or check Russian military aggression on its eastern border. This dangerous convergence of clashing security concerns threatens to escalate already-high tensions in Eastern Europe and create yet another challenge to NATO and US policy.

[i] “Vladimir Putin met with Moldova Socialist leader Igor Dodon in the Kremlin,” Bloknot, November 5, 2014 [Russian]. Available: http://bloknot(.)ru/politika/vladimir-putin-prinyal-v-kremle-lidera-sotsialistov-moldavii-igorya-dodona-126529.html
[ii] “Igor Dodon: if I am elected, I commit my first visit to Moscow,” TASS, October 11, 2016 [Russian]. Available: http://tass(.)ru/opinions/interviews/3694005
[iii] “Peacekeeping battalion of the Operational Group of Russian Forces in Transnistria is ready for rotation in the Security Zone,” Russian Ministry of Defense, October 17, 2016 [Russian]. Available:
[iv] “Moldovan court issues warrant for arrest of opposition figurehead,” TASS, October 25, 2016. Available: http://tass(.)com/world/908451
[v] “Russian FM: Kiev contributes to economic blockade of Transnistria,” TASS, March 18, 2015. Available:

ISIS’s Capable Defense of Mosul: Counteroffensives in Kirkuk, Rutbah, and Sinjar

By Jessica Lewis McFate and Alexandra Gutowski

Key Take Away:  ISIS is actively defending Mosul, and its actions provide a window into the intent and capability of the group. ISIS’s forces in Iraq are still able to coordinate attacks at the operational level of war to achieve linked military objectives. ISIS is likely to expand upon its counteroffensive to offset Coalition operations near Mosul in ominously quiet areas like Diyala and Baghdad. ISIS’s various defensive tactics and campaigns demonstrate organizational integrity rather than collapse. The Coalition will ultimately recapture the city of Mosul, but ISIS is likely to resurge elsewhere in Iraq and Syria both before and after the city falls. In its wake, the Ba’athist group Jaysh Rijal al Tariqa al Naqshabandiya (JRTN) will resume a Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Al Qaeda is also preparing to expand its operations from Syria back into Iraq. The greatest strategic vulnerability the anti-ISIS coalition continues to face is the empowerment of al Qaeda through its surgical anti-ISIS measures.

The anti-ISIS coalition is making progress toward Mosul, ISIS’s largest urban holding, recapturing the district of Hamdaniyah on October 22 and the Christian town of Karmeles on October 25. ISIS is actively defending Mosul, and its actions provide a window into the intent and capability of the group. The Coalition campaign for Mosul is designed well near the city but leaves other locales in Iraq and Syria vulnerable. ISIS is taking measures to exploit the vulnerabilities of the coalition both to defend Mosul and to set conditions for its future resurgence in Iraq.

ISIS’s grand strategic objectives remain to expand its physical caliphate to include the entire Muslim world and to provoke and win an apocalyptic battle with the West. In order to meet those objectives, ISIS will attempt to weaken the Iraqi state and the coalition and to provoke a reaction against its Sunni base. ISIS can pursue these objectives even if it loses control of Mosul. ISIS is nevertheless defending Mosul, a crown jewel in its claim to a physical caliphate. ISIS’s forces in Mosul are insufficient to block the coalition’s advance. ISIS is therefore employing an asymmetric defense, leveraging its remaining forces in Iraq and to some extent in Syria as of October 27, 2016.   

ISIS’s defense of Mosul bears hallmarks of its previous campaigns in 2014-2015, assessed in depth by the author here. ISIS has anticipated an offensive to recapture Mosul for years and has prepared a robust static defense of the city, including a vast tunnel network, berms and cement barriers, and a trench filled with burning oil. ISIS has also deployed mobile defenses including SVBIEDS and SVESTS to interdict attacking forces. Ninewa Operations Commander Major General Najm al-Jabouri cited 95 VBIEDS intercepted by the coalition near Mosul as of October 25, a positive measure of the Coalition’s ability to deal with ISIS’s mobile defenses, which are comparable to ISIS’ previous defenses of Tikrit and Ramadi. The geographic spread of Coalition forces outside Mosul and ISIS’s VBIED deployment are vaster, however, which may explain recent reports from the field of both high casualties and insufficient air support. ISIS also reportedly executed civilians en masse in Tulul al-Nassir on October 25, indicating ISIS’s weakening control over its population and its willingness to destroy the population and the land in order to deny it to the anti-ISIS coalition. Some reports suggest that ISIS uses executions to quell uprisings as well as civilians who resist. ISIS reportedly crushed a rebellion plot by executing 58 supposed conspirators on October 14 in Mosul.  

ISIS has also reinvigorated attacks on other urban centers in order to divert attention and effort from Mosul. ISIS’s counter-offensive targeted Sinjar on October 19 and 24, Kirkuk City on October 21, and Rutbah, near the Syrian border in Anbar province, on October 23. The operations in Sinjar, Kirkuk, and Rutbah mirror the geographic pattern of ISIS’s blitz offensive in June 2014, when it seized many cities across Iraq and Syria, beginning with Mosul. The repeat of this geographic grouping is significant. ISIS’s forces in these locations are still able to coordinate attacks to achieve linked military objectives. ISIS also likely intended its attacks on Kirkuk City and Sinjar to exploit a seam in the coalition between rival Kurdish factions.

The anti-ISIS coalition, however, has remained united and focused on the Mosul offensive and resisted ISIS’s diversion. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk stated that “there has been no diversion whatsoever from these attacks in Kirkuk or in Rutba from the Mosul operation,” and that the coalition had anticipated and planned for such a counteroffensive. He also cited unprecedented cooperation between the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, particularly northeast of Mosul where the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services are cooperating to retake Bashiqa, a sign of resilient unity in the coalition. Kurdish leaders in Kirkuk continued to expel Sunni Arabs as of October 25, however, which could fracture the coalition over time if allowed to continue.

ISIS is likely to expand upon its counteroffensive elsewhere in Iraq in ways that could test the coalition further. Salah al-Din, Diyala, Anbar, and Baghdad Provinces have remained largely and ominously quiet, but ISW has assessed ISIS’s presence and capability in all of them. The indicators of that presence include the following: ISIS demonstrated a resurgent capability in Salah al-Din province with attacks near Tuz Khurmato on September 3 and Tikrit on September 24. ISIS has also re-infiltrated Ramadi according to reporting from the Anbar Operations Command as of September 15. ISIS is also attempting to reinvigorate its campaign in Diyala Province, most recently in Qara Tapa, where security forces arrested suspected ISIS members and thwarted an SVEST attack in October 2016. ISIS may attempt to unravel the military gains of the anti-ISIS coalition by compromising security in cities ISIS once held, demonstrating the weakness and in some cases sectarian tendencies of the hold forces put in place, which largely consist of Federal Police and Popular Mobilization forces. ISIS may also attempt to accelerate political crisis and sectarian war in Iraq. ISIS’s spectacular attacks IVO Baghdad and Khalis continued on October 9, following noteworthy attacks on Samarra on September 28 and Karbala on August 29. ISW assesses that Diyala is particularly vulnerable.

ISIS’s various defensive tactics demonstrate organizational integrity rather than collapse. ISIS’s defensive strategy for Mosul in October 2016 indicates that either ISIS can reprise old military campaigns or innovate despite leadership loses. It also demonstrates that ISIS is still using its 2015 defensive strategy to maintain flexibility and evade defeat by retreating into the desert and shapeshifting into a terrorist organization. It is employing historic operational frameworks, such as geographic rings that emanate from Baghdad. ISIS’s attacks in Kirkuk, Mosul, Sinjar, and Rutbah are all part of the outer ring depicted on the map below, comprised of the areas of northern Iraq that are farthest from Baghdad. The ISF has largely cleared ISIS from the cities it once controlled in the middle ring in 2014-2015, but ISIS is lying in wait in that ring as of October 2016, either for conditions to bend back in its favor or for opportunities to act in sequence with operations elsewhere in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s capability is rejuvenating in the middle ring and the Baghdad Belts, as demonstrated by the aforementioned attacks.

ISIS has suffered significant battle damage as of October 2016, but it is resuming its previous physical disposition and attack patterns alarmingly quickly, signaling it may rapidly resurge. The coalition will need to stay the course in Mosul and to anticipate where ISIS will next attack in order to ensure sufficient security conditions prevail throughout Iraq, as ISIS will likely test its limits during the battle for Mosul.

Were ISIS to withdraw from Mosul and choose to lay low throughout Iraq, the behavior would indicate that ISIS has chosen to reset and outlast the coalition rather than to fight. That course would still be dangerous for the coalition and for Iraq. ISIS’s resurgence after the last battle of Mosul in 2008 progressed through a similar phase to resurge violently throughout the country by 2012. ISIS’s attacks and campaign design in October 2016 indicate that the counteroffensives have not yet reduced ISIS to 2012-2013 attack and capability levels.

The Coalition will retake Mosul. ISW assesses that even reducing ISIS to 2012-2013 levels will not prevent the resurgence of ISIS, the re-emergence of a Sunni Ba’athist insurgency as its successor, or the co-optation of ISIS’s remnants by al Qaeda because of the underlying political and social conditions in Iraq. Indeed, the greatest operational friction ISIS may encounter after the battle of Mosul may come from a Sunni insurgency in Iraq led by the Ba’athist group JRTN and from al Qaeda, which is preparing to expand its operations from Syria back into Iraq. The greatest strategic vulnerability the anti-ISIS coalition continues to face is the empowerment of al Qaeda through surgical anti-ISIS measures. Al Qaeda will rise during ISIS’s operational reset, and ISIS will also resurge. The combination will be synergistic rather than neutral. The policy constraints in Syria surrounding the cultivation of Sunni partners on the ground in the midst of an insidious al Qaeda threat will transpose onto Iraq, limiting future strategies to protect Iraq’s population and to cultivate US interests in Iraq in the future.  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Iraq Control of Terrain Map: October 26, 2016

By Staley Smith and the ISW Iraq Team

Key Take-Away: The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Peshmerga forces launched operations from eastern and southern axes to recapture Mosul and Ninewa province on October 17. Peshmerga and Iraqi Army (IA) units opened a northern front on October 20 from villages to the north and the Mosul Dam, northwest of Mosul. The Peshmerga and ISF, spearheaded by the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS), reached Mosul city limits on the eastern axis on October 24. ISF units on the southern axis, led by the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) with support from Iraqi Army and the Popular Mobilization, launched the offensive farthest from Mosul and lag behind the northern and eastern axes, despite considerable progress capturing most of the Tigris River’s eastern bank near Qayyarah. An operational pause is in effect for units on the eastern axis until ISF units on the southern axis approach Mosul. ISW is updating the shape of the ISIS control zone near Mosul to reflect the current progress of the Mosul operation and changing the color of the southern axis to differentiate areas where the ISF operates exclusively and joint ISF and Iraqi Shia militias operate alongside one another.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: October 18-25, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The operation to retake Mosul entered its second week with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Peshmerga advancing along the northern and eastern axes, nearing Mosul’s city limits. ISF units in the southern axis advanced but lagged behind the other axes, resulting in operational pauses on October 19 and October 25 in order for the southern units to regroup and catch up. Delays on the southern axis will challenge the operational objective to encircle Mosul if the axes cannot close in on the city in sync and there remains an opening for ISIS to escape to Syria or other strongholds in Iraq. The southern axis is critical to closing that aperture as there is no offensive moving in from the west. 

ISIS responded to gains made by the ISF and Peshmerga in Mosul by launching sophisticated counteroffensives in far-reaching areas in Iraq in an effort to draw security forces away from frontlines and to prove that ISIS remains strong despite territorial losses. ISIS launched attacks in Sinjar, in Iraq’s northwest corner, on October 19 and 24, in Kirkuk City on October 21, and Rutba, in far western Iraq, on October 23, resulting in a redeployment of security forces to secure the areas. The attacks undermine the argument that ISIS’s command and control lies only in its top leadership echelon and that knocking out that leadership damages its ability to attack. ISIS may further increase attacks in order to prove its continued strength, despite losses, including large-scale suicide attacks in Baghdad and southern Iraq.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Syrian Opposition Plans Operation to Break Aleppo Siege

by: Jennifer Cafarella

Syrian armed opposition groups are preparing a counteroffensive to break the siege of Aleppo for a second time since the regime initially imposed a siege on July 28, 2016. Russia instituted a "humanitarian pause" in Aleppo City from October 17-23 and ceased airstrikes on opposition-held areas of the city. Russia and the Syrian regime called on acceptable opposition groups and civilians to evacuate the city's besieged eastern districts through six "corridors". Opposition groups rejected the offer, equating it to a "surrender" to the Syrian regime, and continued their preparations for an offensive to break the siege. The Jaysh al Fatah coalition, an alliance of opposition groups under the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al Sham - al Qaeda's successor in Syria - and Syrian Salafi-jihadi group Ahrar al Sham, will lead the counteroffensive.

Russia paused its aerial attacks on Aleppo for reasons of self-interest rather than humanitarian concerns. The pause followed a series of meetings between US, European powers, and regional states over Syria, after which the US and UK proposed imposing additional sanctions on Russia and the Syrian regime in response to war crimes in Aleppo City. The United Nations Human Rights Council also opened a Special Inquiry into war crimes committed in Aleppo City on October 21.  Russia feigned receptivity to international concern over the Aleppo siege while shifting air assets to target other opposition-held areas outside of Aleppo. Russia may also have used the pause to complete some maintenance on its air frames in Syria.

Opposition sources announced an upcoming attack on October 21 and are mobilizing for the battle. The military commander for the Jaysh al Fatah coalition announced the battle would begin "within hours" in a video uploaded to YouTube on October 23. The opposition will likely focus on breaking through the regime's siege in the southwestern districts of Aleppo City, where the urban terrain favors the opposition. The opposition initially broke through this area on August 6, temporarily lifting the siege before pro-regime forces reinstated it shortly after. Pro-regime forcesresumed their offensive to recapture besieged areas of the city after the "pause" expired on October 24, seizing a hill south of Aleppo City to buffer the siege against a counter-attack. Opposition forces shelled regime-held areas of the city, but have not yet attacked.

Rumors indicate the leader of Jabhat Fatah al Sham, Abu Mohammad al Joulani, will announce the start of the battle soon. If he does, he will likely use it as a platform to rally support for opposition unity under the shared leadership of Jabhat Fatah al Sham and Ahrar al Sham. The battle will require close coordination between the two groups and, if successful, could help Joulani restart negotiations over a "grand merger" of opposition forces. Joulani will also undoubtedly condemn the US for failing to prevent Russian war crimes in Aleppo and characterize the fight for Aleppo as a struggle against the enemies of Sunni globally in order to fuel the growing alienation of Syrian civilians and opposition fighters from the US.

Turkey is likely providing covert support to enable the upcoming battle to break the Aleppo siege.  Turkish military bulldozers entered Syria on October 19 to establish a new, fortified border crossing north of the official Bab al Hawa crossing, west of Aleppo City. Turkey has been transporting Syrian opposition fighters from Western Aleppo and Idlib Province, through Turkish territory, and into northern Aleppo Province via an unofficial border crossing north of Bab al Hawa at the border town of Atmeh in order to help Turkey and opposition forces defend against ISIS attacks targeting the opposition reinforcements. Turkey may also intend to use the crossing to resource the upcoming Aleppo City battle. Turkey created a similar border crossing northwest of Idlib City in order to funnel weapons and equipment to the Jaysh al Fatah coalition in the lead up to the offensive that captured Idlib City in March 2015.

Turkey will most likely remain focused on fighting ISIS and blocking gains by Syrian Kurds while providing covert support to opposition forces attempting to break the Aleppo siege. Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition fighters participating in Turkey's "Operation Euphrates Shield" are operationally positioned to advance south to seize the ISIS-held town of al Bab after clearing the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey is "obliged" to retake the ISIS-held town of al Bab after seizing the symbolic town of Dabiq from ISIS on October 16. Turkey also seeks to use its gains against ISIS to block the Syrian Kurdish People's Defense Forces (YPG) from establishing a contiguous zone of control along the Turkish border. The U.S. relies heavily on the YPG as a component of its Syrian Democratic Forces, the local anti-ISIS partner supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. Turkey opposes the US' reliance on the SDF and is negotiating with the US over the composition of forces that will retake Raqqa.

It is possible Turkey will play a direct role in the upcoming Aleppo battle, however. Turkish-backed opposition forces have shifted their focus west to confront the YPG north of Aleppo City after the YPG started advancing eastward in an apparent "race for al Bab," trying to take the town before Turkish-backed forces do. Turkish-backed opposition forces declared their intent to recapture from the Kurds the town of Tel Rifat, north of Aleppo City, on October 21. YPG forces seized Tel Rifat from the opposition with Russian air support in February 2016. Turkey conducted airstrikes against YPG positions in the area amidst local clashes between YPG-led forces and Turkish-backed on October 20, prompting the regime to threaten to shoot down Turkish planes over Syrian airspace. Turkey has since conducted extensive shelling of YPG positions and deployed additional tanks to the area. The YPG's positions north of Aleppo City buffer the regime's encirclement of opposition-held areas of the city. Turkish-backed opposition forces participating in Operation Euphrates Shield have stated their intent to attack the regime's encirclement of Aleppo from the northern countryside. These opposition forces could seek to transition Turkey's support against the YPG into an attack against pro-regime forces in support of an operation to break the siege.

A successful operation to break the siege of Aleppo could enable the United Nations to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to over 250,000 starving civilians. It would also have negative second order effects, however. It would further limit the already constrained policy options available to the next U.S. president by cementing the leadership of Jabhat Fatah al Sham and Ahrar al Sham over Syrian opposition groups that were previously reconcilable to US interests. Russia and the Syrian regime will use growing support for Jabhat Fatah al Sham and Ahrar al Sham to legitimize continued war crimes in opposition-held areas such as the intentional targeting of hospitals and use of improvised chemical weapons. Turkey's role in the upcoming battle will also signal the trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations in Syria, which are currently characterized by a primarily economic d├ętente despite incompatible strategic goals in Syria and the region. Finally, an escalation between Turkish -backed opposition forces and the YPG north of Aleppo City risks fracturing the unity of effort the US is attempting to negotiate in order to make a Raqqa operation possible in the near term.

**CORRECTION: A previous version of this blogpost incorrectly stated that the YPG seized Tel Rifat in "late 2015." The correct date for the YPG's recapture of Tel Rifat is February 15, 2016.

The Campaign for Mosul: October 24, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Peshmerga contested ISIS’s hold over significant urban centers in Mosul’s environs from October 22-24, 2016. In response, ISIS continued to launch suicide attacks against advancing security forces and to attack far-flung areas in a diversionary tactic.

The 9th Iraqi Army Division completed the recapture of Hamdaniya District, southeast of Mosul, on October 22. The ISF had breached the district center on October 18 but faced tough ISIS resistance to take full control of the city. The ISF continued its advance beyond Hamdaniya, linking up ISF areas of control across the Gwer-Khazar axis. Units from the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) advanced from its position in Bartella, which it secured October 21. As of October 24, the CTS is firmly in the urban terrain of Mosul’s outer limits and is positioning itself to begin an offensive into Mosul’s eastern city limits.

Operations north of Qayyarah continued to focus on retaking Shura, the former al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) hub which has been the center of the ISF’s attention in the southern axis since operations launched on October 17. Units from the Iraqi Army and Federal Police surrounded the city by October 24 and will likely begin a push into the city center in the coming days. Meanwhile, the ISF continued its advance up the western bank of the Tigris River towards the next major urban center, Hamman al-Alil. This southern axis will challenge the operational objective to encircle Mosul as it is lagging behind the others axes, which are relatively equidistant from Mosul’s city limits. The ISF’s inability to narrow ISIS’s escape aperture to the west towards Syria will complicate efforts to contain ISIS’s freedom to maneuver in northern Iraq. It could also result in increased ISIS attacks on the ISF’s western flank and recaptured terrain to the south.

The ISF and Peshmerga are contesting ISIS’s control north of Mosul. The 16th Iraqi Army Division advanced from its position at the Mosul Dam towards Tel Kayyaf on October 22. This effort is matched by the Peshmerga and CTS advancing from Tel Saqaf, north of Tel Kayyaf. The Peshmerga and CTS also continued its offensive to encircle Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul. The city is cut off from Mosul but still under ISIS control. Coordination between the Peshmerga and CTS on both axes will position the CTS directly on Mosul’s northern and northeastern limits from where it can begin an assault into the city, while the Peshmerga holds the city’s outskirts.

ISIS launched counteroffensives far from the frontlines around Mosul in order to both demonstrate its continued capacity to launch deadly attacks in Iraq despite losses in Ninewa and draw security forces away from the north. ISIS launched a massive attack on Rutba, in far western Anbar province, on October 23, forcing ISF units to deploy to the area. ISIS also targeted Peshmerga locations in Sinjar on October 24, the second time in a week. The attacks in Sinjar could aim to disrupt refugee flows to a UN camp in al-Hawl, Syria, while also ensuring that ISIS maintains an inroad, possibly by hiding in the refugee flow, to Syria. Meanwhile, ISIS continued minor attacks in Kirkuk City, following its large-scale counteroffensive on October 21, which required the Peshmerga to move units to the city. ISIS may further increase attacks in order to prove its enduring strength in Iraq, including through large-scale suicide attacks in Baghdad and the belts.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Campaign for Mosul: ISIS Counterattacks in Kirkuk, October 21, 2016

The Campaign for Mosul: October 20-21, 2016
ISIS attacks Kirkuk in Zone Defense to Divert Attention from Mosul

By Patrick Martin, Emily Anagnostos, and the ISW Iraq Team

ISIS launched a major counter-attack in Kirkuk Province in response to advances by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces towards Mosul. On the morning of October 21, ISIS attackers struck central and southern Kirkuk City and an under-construction power station in Dibis District, northwest of Kirkuk. The three attackers in Dibis stormed the power station and killed or executed 16 workers, including four Iranians, before Kurdish security forces arrived and clashed with the attackers. One attacker was killed while the other two detonated Suicide Vests (SVESTs), wounding several Kurdish security forces. Another report claimed that 12 people were killed and 34 were wounded in the Dibis attack. 

As many as 40 ISIS attackers supported by sleeper cells targeted multiple government facilities and landmarks in central and southern Kirkuk City, marking the first time that ISIS launched a major attack in the city since January 2015. These targets included:

  1. Police stations in Dumiz and al-Adala, and possibly in Wahid Haziran and Tisaeen areas, all demographically-mixed with significant Arab populations in southern Kirkuk City. The attackers detonated at least one SVEST.
  2. The Kirkuk police directorate, where ISIS attackers attempted to enter the building before being repelled. The attackers detonated either a SVEST or a Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) during the attack.
  3. A Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party headquarters and the central government building.
  4. A prison in Kirkuk, where some attackers may have attempted to break prisoners out.
Several ISIS attackers also stormed an “education building” in central Kirkuk, forcing Kurdish security forces to call in a Coalition airstrike to target the ISIS fighters holed up in the building. Unconfirmed reports indicate, however, the a Coalition airstrike may have targeted a Shi’a Husseiniyah (place of worship) in Daquq District, just south of Kirkuk, killing and wounding as many as 47 people and Peshmerga. ISW could not verify the report at the time of publication. 

At the time of publication, Peshmerga forces sealed off all entrances to Kirkuk and were engaged in clashes with ISIS fighters barricaded in residential buildings in Dumiz and Wahid Haziran as well as with ISIS snipers using human shields at two hotels in Ras al-Jisr in central Kirkuk. The PUK’s “Dizha Tiror” counter-terrorism force, Turkmen and Badr Organization Popular Mobilization fighters, and other reinforcements arrived to the city to secure it from attack, though unconfirmed reports state that Badr Organization fighters were blocked from entering the city. ISIS claimed that it seized control of several villages, the Wasti neighborhood in Kirkuk, and Dibis District in the attack, though these claims are exaggerated. All signs indicate that Kurdish security forces are in the process of re-establishing full control over Kirkuk city and its environs, as Kurdish security forces have located and are currently targeting the remaining ISIS fighters who participated in the attacks.

The attack on Kirkuk may be part of a cluster of attacks away from Mosul that ISIS launched to divert forces from their main attack against ISIS in Mosul. ISIS fighters launched attacks against Peshmerga at a large silo in Sinjar, west of Mosul, using three VBIEDs on October 19 and against Popular Mobilization forces in Bashir, southeast of Kirkuk, on October 20. Two ISIS SVEST attackers also detonated their explosives at the home of a Sunni tribal Popular Mobilization leader in al-Mutasim sub-district, southeast of Samarra, on October 21.

ISIS Mounts Stiff Defense of Mosul’s Environs

ISIS’s combined its violent attack into Kirkuk City with stiff resistance in the vicinity of Mosul, resulting in slowed progress for advancing forces in the fight to recapture Mosul. ISIS launched spectacular attacks on October 21 against the ISF and Peshmerga near the village of Batnaya, north of Mosul, the town of Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, and near Bartalla, east of Mosul, which the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) recaptured on October 20. The ISF did manage to clear ISIS from most of the eastern bank of the Tigris River between Qayyarah and Makhmur on October 20 and 21, recapturing the villages of Duwayzat and Sultan Abdullah. However, outside of limited gains by the 9th and 18th Federal Police Brigade north of Qayyarah in Tel al-Nasr, al-Shakk, and the Mishraq Sulphur Plant, the ISF made limited gains on Mosul’s southern axis. Progress may also have been delayed by a 48-hour pause instituted by the ISF on October 19. However, the ISF continued to conduct operations across the Mosul theater during this time, indicating that the pause was not the driving factor in the slowed progress. ISIS’s zone defense across Iraq and spectacular attacks targeting forward-deployed security in the Mosul operations area substantially arrested the progress of the Mosul operation. Meanwhile, a U.S. serviceman was killed near Bashiqa as he was advising security forces, the fourth U.S. serviceman killed in action in anti-ISIS operations.


ISIS’s attacks in Kirkuk province and elsewhere outside of Mosul are a classic zone defense from ISIS’s 2015 playbook, in which ISIS attacked separate locations while facing a counter-attack it could deflect. The attack on Kirkuk City is a demonstration that ISIS still maintains lethal attack capabilities there, and furthermore that it can still mount a sophisticated defense. ISIS’s strike into Kirkuk was likely calculated to force the PUK to withdraw its Peshmerga forces away from operations in the vicinity of Mosul towards Kirkuk to arrest the progress of anti-ISIS operations east of Mosul. ISIS also launched other attacks to force security forces to consider withdrawing from Mosul to secure other parts of Iraq. 

The Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga, and the Popular Mobilization should expect ISIS to target frontlines away from the Mosul operations. ISIS may use its resurgent attack capabilities in Diyala Province and Baghdad to deploy spectacular attacks against civilian targets. ISIS is actively resisting security forces advances around Mosul, and has prepared for a difficult defense of the city itself, but the attack on Kirkuk is indicative that ISIS’s prepared defense may be more sophisticated and remains a serious threat despite its recent losses in Ninewa Province. ISIS’s defensive strategy may extend across the whole of Iraq, and possibly beyond. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Campaign for Mosul: October 19, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Coalition-led operation to secure Mosul from ISIS advanced towards the city from two directions in the first 72 hours as of October 19, 2016. U.S. Forces are participating in the operation as advisers and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Popular Mobilization units advanced from the south, while ISF and Peshmerga units advanced from the southeast. The ISF and Peshmerga recently opened a third offensive northeast of the city. The ISF have recaptured the city center of Hamdaniya, southeast of Mosul, but fighting is still underway.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) advanced north of Qayyarah towards Shura, a previous al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) hub south of Mosul, in a pincer move from the southwest and the southeast. Iraqi Army (IA) units moved in from the southeast, recapturing al-Hawd and al-Lazakah, directly north of Qayyarah on October 17. Civilians in al-Hawd had reportedly already risen up and killed many of the ISIS militants before the ISF arrived. Units from the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) moved in towards Shura from the southwest and also moved west to recapture towns and oil wells west of the highway. Popular Mobilization units, including Iranian proxy militias, reportedly advanced alongside Federal Police units that are penetrated by members of the Badr Organization, a major Iranian proxy militia. Advancing security forces have yet to enter Shura, and the ISF ordered a two-day operational pause on October 19 in order to regroup. The pause was likely intended to allow the 15th Iraqi Army Division to catch up, as it has advanced north at a slower pace than other units.

The ISF is also advancing southeast of Mosul on the Khazar-Gwer axis towards Hamdaniya, a majority Christian town southeast of Mosul. The Gwer-Hamdaniya line currently forms the seam between the areas of operation of the ISF and Peshmerga as of October 19. Armored Iraqi Army brigades led by Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) units advanced to Hamdaniya on October 18. The ISF recaptured the government complex but do not yet have control over the entire city due to resistance from remaining ISIS personnel, including heavy sniper fire, and because of a large presence of civilians. There is no indication that the Peshmerga is participating in Hamdaniya alongside the ISF or if it will join in, though the Peshmerga made advances from Khazar towards Mosul in villages north of Hamdaniya. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga began an offensive from their position on Mt. Bashiqa northeast of Mosul into the ISIS-held town of Bashiqa at the base of the mountain on October 18, but have not made significant progress. The CTS reported on October 19 that they would assist in the Peshmerga operation beginning October 20. The CTS’s positioning in Kurdish terrain is one of the results of a U.S.-brokered agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi Government in August and will set the CTS up to breach Mosul’s city limits from the northeast.

ISIS demonstrated signs of resistance to the Coalition’s advances. ISIS launched suicide attacks against advancing forces in Hamdaniya and north of Qayyarah. ISIS has also attacked away from the frontlines, including in Sinjar on October 19, to distract from progress towards Mosul. In Mosul, the Pentagon stated that ISIS lighted tires and oil on fire in order to create black clouds to conceal their movements from Coalition aircraft. Reports also surfaced of ISIS using human shields in Mosul to avoid airstrikes.

The Pentagon confirmed that over 100 U.S. soldiers are on the ground with the Peshmerga and ISF in a report on October 18. The report stated that the forces, serving as advisors and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), are embedded with the ISF at the division level and with the Peshmerga in smaller units. The U.S. forces are expected to advance with the offensive.

Turkey remains a potential spoiler in northern operations. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated in a press conference on October 18 that Turkey’s air force was involved in Coalition airstrikes in Mosul, but later backtracked the statement, saying that Turkey participates “in principle.” The Pentagon likewise did not list Turkey as among the Coalition countries conducting airstrikes in Iraq. These statements come in the midst of a large-scale demonstration at the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad on the same day, directed by radical Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Turkey may escalate its rhetoric to military maneuvers in order to prove its importance in shaping the operation and post-ISIS conditions in Mosul.

Monday, October 17, 2016

ISIS Sanctuary Map: October 17, 2016

By Alexandra Gutowski and the ISW Research Team

ISIS will continue to demonstrate its legitimacy and vitality, despite major losses to its core landholdings. ISIS lost control of the Turkish border on September 4 and the town of Dabiq in Northern Syria on October 16. Dabiq holds narrative significance for the group, despite its small size. The Iraqi Security Forces also launched operations on October 17 to recapture Mosul, the largest remaining city under ISIS’s control. ISIS will aim to protract the battle for Mosul, despite its quick retreat from Dabiq. ISIS likely anticipates the loss of Mosul, but will prolong the battle in order to increase its opposition’s losses, much how it behaved in Ramadi and Fallujah. ISIS will transition into a guerilla phase in areas in which it loses control and will revive tactics it used historically, such as targeted VBIED and SVEST strikes, VBIED waves, and assassination campaigns. ISIS will coordinate attack campaigns in Iraq and Syria to divert or weaken its opponents. ISIS coordinated attacks in the vicinity of Latakia, Homs, Qamishli, Damascus, and Baghdad on September 6, indicating sustained ability to conduct command and control.

ISIS will increasingly compete for dominance among Sunni insurgents in Syria and Iraq as it loses control of terrain. ISIS may conduct attacks in new areas to demonstrate its continued legitimacy. For example, ISIS launched its first attack into Hama City on October 3. ISIS militants also detonated a successful SVEST attack targeting a meeting of opposition leaders in the vicinity of Inkhil, Daraa Province on September 22. Attacks also set conditions for a return to previously-held areas, such as al Rai and Salah ad Din, where ISIS has begun to conduct attacks with greater frequency in October 2016. ISIS may also attack neighboring states, such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan as it loses control of terrain. The expansion of ISIS into Western Syria, evident in an increasing number of attacks against Syrian opposition members, and ISIS’s presence in neighboring states are under-represented on this map.