Wednesday, June 18, 2014

ISIS’s Second Front in Syria

by Jennifer Cafarella and Valerie Szybala

Key Takeaway:
ISIS has sustained its campaign in the countryside of Deir ez-Zour province throughout its escalation in Iraq, indicating its continued prioritization of this military effort inside of Syria despite increased pressure from the regime. Although it is possible that ISIS will take an operational pause in Syria to solidify its control and absorb its gains in Iraq, it is likely to move swiftly in a renewed offensive fully to rout JN and rebel forces from the Deir ez-Zour countryside and firmly to establish the lines of control and oil reserves within its state.

After the fall of Mosul, widespread celebrations were held throughout ISIS-held territory within Syria in the Aleppo strongholds of  Jarablus, al Bab, Manbij, Deir Heifer, and Maskana, with a full parade held in ar-Raqqa. ISIS social media outlets reported wildly on the ongoing advances in Iraq, using the hashtag #SykesPicotOver to celebrate the game-changing successes achieved in Iraq. In addition to the outpouring of support on social media and in the streets of ISIS’s Syrian territory, ISIS commander in northern Syria Omar al-Shishani issued a “general communication” urging support for our “brothers in Mosul.” These celebrations indicate the cross-border resonance of ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria.

Raqqa & Aleppo

ISIS firmly solidified its control over the de-facto capital of its emirate in ar-Raqqa city in early 2014. While local resistance to ISIS rule has continued, it has been limited to low-level clashes and civilian protests that have fallen short of posing a threat to ISIS’s control in the area. In northern ar-Raqqa province Kurdish YPG forces regularly target ISIS positions in the countryside surrounding the Tel Abyad border crossing with Turkey, but ISIS has been able to maintain control of the crossing and has engaged in a number of vicious reprisal attacks including executions and kidnapping of Kurdish civilians in an attempt to deter future offensive raids. Tel Abyad is a key strategic location for ISIS, likely serving as a transit point for foreign fighters and supplies into ISIS’s ar-Raqqa stronghold.

ISIS has come under increased pressure in Aleppo from rebel groups which have recently launched an offensive to regain territory in the northeast of the province. The Islamic front (IF), Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other Islamic brigades initiated a renewed push against ISIS positions in the countryside, seizing a string of villages north of the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. The objective of the operation is to seize control of the northern border village of al-Ra’ii which is likely used by ISIS as a second route for foreign fighters and supplies. However, although the loss of al-Ra’ii would negatively affect ISIS’s supply routes into its Aleppo strongholds, there have been no indicators that the IF and JN intend to escalate this offensive beyond minor countryside villages and directly attack the ISIS strongholds of al-Bab, Manbij or Deir Heifer. In the absence of a significant rebel offensive against these cities, ISIS is likely to remain secure in its Aleppo strongholds as it transfers weapons, funds, and possibly new recruits into its Syrian theater.

Deir ez-Zour

ISIS’s offensive to take control of parts of Deir ez-Zourfrom other rebels and to secure critical supply routes between Iraq and ar-Raqqa has met with relative success since it began in March.  However, ISIS has been unable to claim a decisive victory as Syrian rebels, tribes, and JN all rallied together in defense of the province. The Mujahideen Shura Council, consisting of the IF, JN, other rebel brigades, and local tribal militias was declared on May 25 to counter ISIS in the province and has continued to challenge ISIS. Members of the council have continuously engaged in clashes with ISIS in the strategic as-Suwar – Deir ez-Zour – al-Basira triangle as they attempt to disrupt ISIS’s attempt to consolidate its supply lines and sources of revenue. This fighting has resulted in large civilian displacement in the area, prompting the FSA’s Supreme Military Command to declare the province a disaster area and to call for humanitarian assistance
Deir ez-Zour Province

Despite this resistance, ISIS seized a number of countryside villages to the west of Deir ez-Zour city in consolidation of its supply route from Aleppo province, and took control of the bridge connecting the city with the suburbs, cutting off rebel movement and the entrance of humanitarian aid. With the regime still maintaining control of the remaining supply routes into the city as well as a small presence in several northern neighborhoods, the city has been effectively under siege, prompting online activists to launch a campaign under the hashtag #DeirEzzorNeedYourHelp to draw attention to the crisis. Media reporting on Deir ez-Zour on June 12, 2014 highlighted the ISIS siege of the city and the possibility of an impending ISIS attack to fully secure the city, fears that were echoed by a plea by the SMC to “regional backers” to aid rebel forces in the province against ISIS. 

ISIS map of its positioning within ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour provinces

Possible Courses of Action in Syria in the wake of ISIS’s Iraq Campaign

Indicators that ISIS is undertaking a significant transfer of captured vehicles and weapons back into Syria emerged at the very beginning of the currently ongoing Iraq campaign, beginning with the capture of Mosul in early June. Vehicles reportedly began arriving on June 12, 2014 in the ISIS stronghold of Tel Hamis in Hasaka province around 20 miles south of Qamishli, the provincial border crossing into Iraq. Activists posted photos purporting to show ISIS Commander Abu Omar al-Shishani inspecting U.S. Humvees reportedly transported from Mosul into Syria. In addition, a video was circulated by pro-ISIS media of a convoy arriving in ash-Shadadi, which lies on the Khabur River in Hasaka province north of Deir ez-Zour and serves as ISIS’s strategic rear across both Iraq and Syria. 

ISIS Emir in Northern Syria Abu Omar ash-Shishani Inspects Iraqi Army Humvees

Translation: Spoils of war that from God that his fighters (Mujahideen) have after the destruction of the Sykes-Picot Borders

Translation: ISIS spoils of war coming from Iraq and headed to the Levant after the destruction of the ‘artificial’ border,’ praise God

The infusion of significant military assets and resources into the Syria theater has provoked a regime challenge to ISIS in eastern Syria. In the wake of the Iraq campaign, regime warplanes have conducted numerous airstrikes against ISIS headquarters, targeting the Tabaqa dam, ar-Raqqa city, Tel Hamis, the ash-Shadadistronghold, and a number of other locations along the Syrian-Iraq border in Deir ez-Zour province. These air strikes are a notable escalation in the regime’s disposition toward ISIS, which to date it had largely refrained from confronting. However, while these strike may be disruptive to ISIS’s ability to consolidate and reinforce its effort in Deir ez-Zour province, there are no indicators that they will be successful in defeating ISIS in Syria. 

ISIS in Syria during the Iraq Campaign

ISIS has continued to pursue its objective in the Deir ez-Zour countryside throughout the Iraq campaign, indicating an ongoing prioritization of this effort despite the increased pressure from the Syrian regime. A direct ISIS attack on regime strongholds in ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour provinces could attempt to relieve the pressure inflicted by ongoing regime airstrikes. However, there are no indicators that ISIS intends to escalate against the regime, as it is a course of action that would come at a much higher cost than ISIS is likely to accept. Instead, ISIS is likely to reinvigorate its efforts in Deir ez-Zour with its newfound military assets. In an early indicator of this line of effort, ISIS targeted a nearby JN headquarters with a suicide vehicular-borne explosive device (SVBIED) as it launched a concerted attempt to regain control of the contested al-Basira village on June 17. While clashes are still ongoing, this renewed effort indicates that ISIS is committed to securing key supply routes and oil fields in Deir ez-Zour province.

The control of critical supply routes has historically been the first step of an ISIS expansion. With the windfall of arms, men, and cash that it has taken from its gains in Iraq, ISIS may finally have the strength needed to rout other rebels from Deir ez-Zour and to secure full control of its supply lines and oil fields. If it is successful, ISIS may launch an expansive push back into western Syria in an attempt to regain territory lost after the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and JN in January 2014.