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 late 2015. 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.

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.

Iraq Situation Report: October 12-17, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced the launch of operations to retake Ninewa Province and Mosul from ISIS at dawn on October 17. PM Abadi named Deputy Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Abdul al-Amir Jarallah as commander of the operation. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Peshmerga began offensives on the Khazar-Gwer axis, southeast of Mosul, and moved north from the Qayyarah airbase, retaking several villages. ISIS offered minimal resistance to the joint forces’ advance and may elect to withdraw the bulk of its forces to Mosul to await the city offensive.

Security forces over the past several weeks have moved into position to begin a multi-axis offensive to encircle the city. Units from Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) and Iraqi Army moved to locations in Kurdish-held territory north and northeast of the city, where they have begun to work in parallel with Peshmerga forces around Khazar and Gwer. Units from the Peshmerga affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) also moved into primarily Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) terrain around Khazar. Coordination between the KDP and PUK Peshmerga is rare and was likely the result of a still undisclosed agreement. Shi’a militias, including Iranian-backed groups, have deployed into the vicinity, primarily around Qayyarah and Shirqat, where they will likely shadow militia-friendly ISF units northwards. Turkey also responded to the launch of the Mosul operation, moving military forces along the Iraqi border as Turkish President Recep Erdogan maintained Turkey’s right to intervene in Iraq. Coordination between forces in Iraq remains high, although complications may ensue as these forces near the city itself and prospects for Mosul’s post-ISIS administration become more immediate.

Iraq Launches the Campaign for Mosul

By Emily Anagnostos, Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Iraqi and regional actors are preparing to assist with or spoil the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) operation to retake Mosul and its environs from ISIS. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced the start of operations to retake the city on October 17. The ISF began shelling ISIS-held villages south of Mosul, Iraqi Army armored units and Federal Police advanced towards Mosul near Gwer, southeast of Mosul, and Peshmerga units began advancing towards Mosul from Khazar, east of Mosul. The ISF’s operation against ISIS will require security forces to isolate Mosul before it can begin a block-by-block clearing operation in the city itself. The ISF recaptured Shirqat, the last major ISIS-held city on the Mosul-Baghdad highway, on September 22, thereby setting the operational conditions to launch operations for Mosul. The ISF will need to continue its line of effort up the highway while also encircling the city from the north and northeast. ISIS will seek to conduct attrition warfare against the ISF before it arrives in Mosul, leveraging its remaining lines of communication in Anbar, Ninewa, and Syria to shift people and supplies. ISIS will also use the sparsely populated areas on both the eastern and western sides of the Tigris River to launch attacks against recaptured areas and the ISF.

The ISF does not have the force size to take both the city and its environs on its own. Consequently, although the ISF will lead the operations into the city proper, they will need to cooperate with the Kurdish Peshmerga, who hold the majority of terrain surrounding the city. However, the Peshmerga participating in anti-ISIS operations will likely exploit the opportunity to take control of areas by displacing Sunni Arabs from their homes, as they did following operations in Sinjar in November 2015.

The shortage of manpower also leaves a gap for Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, which will likely follow the ISF as they clear the cities and remain as a part of the holding force, as they have already done in Shirqat. The Popular Mobilization reported on October 10 that militias are moving to the Ninewa provincial border to participate. Unnamed commanders from Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), two Iranian proxies with a record of sectarian violence, reported on October 13 that more than 2,000 of their fighters withdrew from Syria, mostly from Aleppo, to redeploy to Mosul as well as Hawija. The deployments were followed by two high level meetings indicating heavy Iranian proxy participation in the operation. On October 15, PM Abadi received senior Iranian proxy militia commanders, including Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri, AAH leader Qais al-Khazali, Harakat al-Nujaba leader Akram al-Kaabi, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSAS) leader Abu Alaa to discuss Mosul and Hawija operations. A day later, images circulated of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Suleimani visiting an undisclosed location with Amiri and senior Popular Mobilization commander and U.S.-designated terrorist Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (Unsafe link – do not visit). Iranian proxy involvement in the operation opens up the possibility of sectarian violence against the 1.2 to 1.5 million civilians estimated to flee the Mosul area.

Actors outside of Iraq are positioning themselves for the operation as well. Turkey has insisted that it reserves the right to intervene in northern Iraq if Mosul operations fail to go its way. There are Turkish forces inside Iraq already, and Turkish President Recep Erdogan has increased Turkish forces along the Iraqi border ostensibly to defend against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan also announced that Turkey is actively participating in Mosul operations following PM Abadi’s announcement of operations, which could open up conflict with Iraqi Shi’a militias who vow to attack Turkish forces.

The operation to retake Mosul is resulting in a dangerous convergence of Shi’a, Turkish, and Kurdish actors as they jockey for influence in northern Iraq. Iranian proxy militias appear set to play a major role in the operation. A multi-party sectarian, ethnic, and international conflict will likely give opportunities to ISIS and other Sunni insurgent groups, such as the Baathist group Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), to reconstitute after areas have been cleared.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Turkish-Backed Opposition Forces Seize Dabiq from ISIS

By: Genevieve Casagrande

Turkey continues to position its allied opposition forces as powerbrokers in the fight against ISIS in order to counter Kurdish influence in northern Syria. Coalition-backed opposition forces seized the town of Dabiq from ISIS on October 16 as part of the Turkish-led operation Euphrates Shield. The recapture of Dabiq represents a symbolic loss for ISIS as the town holds symbolic significance for the jihadist group as the site of a future apocalyptic battle against the West. For Turkey, the recapture further solidifies its hold over the Syrian-Turkish border in northern Aleppo. Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Turkish-allied opposition factions have expressed their intent to next push south to seize the ISIS-held town of Al Bab, likely to preempt the predominantly Kurdish U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from establishing a contiguous zone of control connecting the Afrin and Kobani Cantons in northern Aleppo Province. Turkish-backed opposition forces are particularly susceptible to penetration by al Qaeda, however, and their success against ISIS can undermine U.S. objectives in Syria over the long term.

Russia Advances its IADS in Syria

By Chris Harmer and Kathleen Weinberger 

Over the last year, Russia has built up an expeditionary Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) in Syria.  Russia intends to use this IADS to push the potential cost of continued US coalition involvement in Syria past the threshold of acceptable risk. On 03 OCT the Russian military deployed the S-300 (NATO reporting name: SA-23) air defense system to the Syrian naval base in Tartus. Russian forces already operate the S-400 (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler) long-range air defense system, which has a claimed range of 400km, as well as the S-200 (SA-5 Gammon), in Syria. Russia also operates a number of short-range air defense systems, including the Pantsir-S1 and Buk missile systems, as well as the naval version of the S-300 a Slava-class guided missile cruiser in the Mediterranean. In addition to the IADS, Syrian forces operate the Bastion coastal defense system out of Tartus.  

Now that the Russian IADS in Syria is deployed and presumably fully functional, it changes the regional security situation in two ways. First, it confirms that the ongoing Russian deployment of disparate missile systems to Syria over the past year always intended to culminate in a fully functional IADS, rather than individual missile systems in different locations. SAM systems in the S-300 family (including the S-400) are designed to be both forwards and backwards compatible, which means that their component parts – command and control modules, search and fire control radars, missile launchers and missiles  –  may be used in different combinations. 

Second, this deployable and road mobile IADS solely aims to threaten US and coalition aircraft and deter further involvement or escalation of coalition operations.  There is no credible fixed wing, rotary wing, or ballistic missile threat to Russian forces in Syria from ISIS or any other potential adversary that would require a modern IADS. The only purpose of this IADS is to pressure US and coalition policy makers to cede the majority of Syrian airspace to Russian and Syrian aircraft in order to continue their campaign of targeting civilian populations for destruction or depopulation, as evidenced by recent Russian threats to shoot down U.S. coalition aircraft. This expeditionary, modular, and mobile Russian IADS is a significant upgrade over the legacy Syrian IADS.  The component parts of the Syrian IADS were largely fixed, difficult if not impossible to move, and highly dependent on centralized command and control as well as external long range radar cuing. The interdependency of the legacy Syrian IADS meant that destroying any one component of the Syrian IADS would significantly reduce its efficacy. In contrast, the Russian expeditionary IADS is fully road mobile, with partial offroad capability, and modular, meaning each component can operate as a standalone SAM system or be organized as a genuine IADS, which is what Russia has now achieved. The Russian expeditionary IADS is much more survivable than the legacy Syrian IADS.

U.S. officials, including presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, have suggested establishing a no-fly zone in parts of northern Syria. This would mean using U.S. aircraft to patrol Syrian airspace in order to prevent Russian and Syrian planes from carrying out strikes. Russian expansion of its IADS network means that U.S. coalition aircraft risk being shot down while operating within Russia’s A2AD envelope. A shoot-down of a U.S. coalition aircraft would force the U.S. to either drastically escalate in order to answer Russia’s provocation, or to downscale or cease operations in Syria. Russia aims to present the U.S. with these two undesirable options on the assumption that the U.S. would choose to avoid any potential conflict. By establishing this expeditionary IADS in Syria, Russia aims to establish a de facto no-fly zone for US and coalition aircraft over much of Syria. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 13 - October 11, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia intensified its air campaign in Aleppo Province following the collapse of the nationwide ceasefire on September 19, aggressively targeting opposition-held districts and suburbs of Aleppo City in support of pro-regime ground operations to seize the city and defeat the acceptable opposition in Northwestern Syria. Russian warplanes conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against opposition forces and critical civilian infrastructure in and around Aleppo City from September 20 – October 6, relying increasingly on incendiary and bunker busting munitions in order to degrade opposition defenses and render the city uninhabitable. Russian airstrikes and concerted pro-regime ground operations concentrated against opposition-held terrain in the southern, central, and northern districts of Aleppo City in order to fix opposition forces along multiple fronts and hinder the movement of opposition reinforcements within the city. These successive and simultaneous operations are a hallmark of Russian campaign design and facilitated pro-regime advances in the northern outskirts of Aleppo City as well as some limited territorial gains near the city center. Russian air power alone likely will not enable pro-regime forces to recapture the densely-populated urban terrain of Aleppo City. Rather, the regime and Iran will have to deploy more combat-effective ground forces in order to leverage the asymmetric effect of the Russian air campaign to clear Aleppo City of the Syrian opposition.

ISW was unable to assess any Russian airstrikes in Aleppo City with high confidence during this reporting period.

Russia, however, briefly tempered its air operations in Aleppo Province beginning on September 29 in order to prioritize the targeting of core opposition-held terrain in western Syria. Russia intensified its airstrikes against opposition forces in the vicinity of frontlines in the mountainous Jabal al Akrad region of Latakia Province beginning on October 5, allowing pro-regime forces to reverse opposition gains secured as part of the Jaysh al Fatah-led “Battle of Ashura” offensive on October 10. Russian warplanes also targeted opposition strongholds in southern Idlib Province in order to halt the movement of fighters aiming to back opposition forces vying to seize nearby Hama City. Russia conducted airstrikes against U.S.-backed opposition groups in northern Hama Province as part of this effort, reportedly using bunker busting munitions to target underground headquarters of Jaysh Idlib al Har – a newfound coalition of former TOW anti-tank missile recipients – and TOW anti-tank missile recipient Jaysh al Izza on September 23 and October 2, respectively. At the same time, Russia conducted air operations in support of the ongoing pro-regime siege-and-starve campaign in the countryside of Damascus, using incendiary munitions against opposition-held areas in the Eastern and Western Ghouta suburbs of the city. Russia will likely continue to coordinate its air operations with regime siege-and-starve tactics that aim to neutralize opposition forces in dense urban terrain with minimal military resources.

Russia also exploited the collapse of the nationwide ceasefire to deter the U.S. from expanding the ambit of its own military mission in the Syrian Civil War. Russia used the period from September 18 – October 10 to move additional military assets into Syria and prepare for the establishment of a permanent naval base in the country. Most notably, Russia deployed components of the S-300 (NATO reporting name SA-23 Gladiator) anti-aircraft, anti-missile system to its naval base along the city of Tartus in western Syria beginning on or around October 1. Russia subsequently announced plans to upgrade and expand its existing naval facility at Tartus into a permanent base on October 10. Russia also reportedly deployed four Mi-28 ‘Havoc’ attack helicopters to the Shayrat Airbase near Homs City on September 18, marking a continuation of Russia’s practice of using ceasefire agreements to deploy additional military assets in Syria. Further, Russia deployed an unidentified number of Su-24 and Su-34 fighter jets to the Bassel al Assad Airbase in western Latakia Province on September 30. Significantly, the SA-23’s deployment to Syria coincided with the U.S. decision to suspend bilateral engagement with Russia on the Syrian Civil War on October 3, as well as statements from anonymous U.S. administration officials that the U.S. is weighing direct military action against the regime and other new options to address Russian intervention in the conflict. SA-23 missiles reportedly possess a range sufficient to reach targets in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra, suggesting that Russia aims to use the SA-23 in order to both deter the U.S. from conducting airstrikes against core regime terrain in Syria and project force into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The deployment of the SA-23 to Tartus thus likely forecloses additional options for the U.S. to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, ensures Russia’s continued freedom of action in Syria, and will bolster Russia’s integrated air defense system in Syria. The expansion of the Russian base at Tartus, however, demonstrates that Russia aims to create a military foothold in Syria that will endure beyond the conclusion of the Syrian Civil War. 

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. 

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.

ISW was unable to assess any Russian airstrikes in Syria with high confidence during this reporting period.