Monday, October 31, 2016

The Campaign for Mosul: October 29-31, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) reached Mosul’s eastern city limits on October 31 to begin the initial push into the city. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shi’a militias, including Iranian proxies and U.S.-designated terrorist groups, opened up a western axis on October 29 with the intention to retake Tel Afar, west of Mosul. 

The ISF has concentrated on the northern and eastern axes of the Mosul operation and is making progress towards Mosul’s eastern city limits. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) reached the border of Mosul’s city limits on October 31, where it clashed with ISIS. The CTS is currently operating around Gogjali, a village bordering Mosul’s eastern limits. The CTS has not yet breached Mosul’s city limits, despite local reports. Meanwhile, units from the 9th Iraqi Army (IA) Division are advancing towards Mosul from the southeast, moving beyond Hamdaniya, which the ISF recaptured on October 22. The 16th IA Division is approaching the city from the north, composing part of the third axis working on breaching Mosul’s eastern side. The 16th IA Division also continues the offensive around Tel Kayyaf, which it reportedly stormed on October 31.

The southern axis advanced after nearly a week of limited progress. The Federal Police recaptured Shura, the former Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) hub, on October 29. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi visited the city on October 31 after a visit to the Qayyarah Airbase, which landed cargo planes on October 30 for the first time since 2014. The Federal Police now progress north towards Hamam al-Alil, the last major city on the southern axis before Mosul. 

Iraqi Shi’a militias launched an operation on Mosul’s western axis on October 29 in order to retake Tel Afar, a district with a significant Shi’a Turkmen population. The militias include Iranian-backed proxies such as the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a U.S.-designated terrorist group. IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani also appeared on the frontline on an unspecified date, indicating senior-level Iranian involvement in the planning and coordinating of the operation. The militias’ presence will complicate the Mosul operation and its success in defeating and preventing insurgent groups from resurging in recaptured territories. Many of the militias have a record of sectarian abuses against Sunni civilian populations and could carry out sectarian reprisals on the majority Sunni villages they pass through, as they did during their previous anti-ISIS operations in Fallujah and Tikrit. Sectarian attacks could drive Sunni populations to either seek a protectorate outside of the Iraqi government, including ISIS, or become a foothold for other insurgents, such as AQI, to resurge in Iraq. Tel Afar served as a Sunni insurgent and AQ stronghold in the early years of the Iraq War and could retain dormant AQI networks. Shi’a militia participation in greater Mosul operations also gives them a say in the post-ISIS governance of Mosul. Shi’a militias’ presence in Ninewa, combined with disputes with Kurds over the control of terrain, could marginalize Sunni Arab representation in the future provincial administration, exacerbating conditions for a renewed future Sunni insurgency after Mosul is recaptured.

Turkey may see the militias’ presence in Tel Afar, an ethnically Turkmen town, as grounds for greater intervention in northern Iraq. Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated on October 29 that Turkey would have a “different response” if Shi’a militias “unleash terror” on the city. Erdogan also announced that Turkey will be reinforcing its troops on the Iraqi border in the Turkish border town of Silopi. The town had reportedly already witnessed a military build-up when the Mosul operation began on October 17. The intervention of Shi’a militias into the Mosul operation could thus further ingrain Mosul as the convergence of regional and Iraqi actors, thereby undermining the sovereignty of the Iraqi government in northern Iraq.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Syrian Opposition Launches Second Operation to Break Aleppo Siege

By: Genevieve Casagrande and Jennifer Cafarella

The Syrian armed opposition launched an offensive to break the regime’s siege of Aleppo City on October 28, marking the second major opposition counteroffensive to break the siege since its initial imposition on July 28. Opposition forces led by Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS) – successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra – and Salafi Jihadist group Ahrar al Sham successfully lifted the initial pro-regime siege of the city on August 6. Pro-regime forces with Russian air support, however, re-established the siege once again on September 4.

The offensive seeks to once again break the siege from the city’s southwestern outskirts, which favors the opposition’s style of warfare. The hardline Jaysh al Fatah Coalition – led by JFS and Ahrar al Sham – and the Aleppo-based Fatah Halab Operations Room seized the Dahiyat al Assad district in the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo City on October 28 after JFS and Ahrar al Sham detonated at least three Suicide Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs) and a remote-controlled bulldozer-borne IED in the area. The opposition is now attacking pro-regime forces to the north and south of Dahiyat al Assad, likely in an attempt to fix pro-regime forces in those positions and enable a penetration of the regime’s encirclement through the center.

The opposition is conducting numerous supporting efforts to prevent the regime from reinforcing southwestern Aleppo City and to disrupt Russian and regime airpower. Opposition forces burned tires to obstruct the visibility of warplanes over the city. Ahrar al Sham and other opposition groups also shelled numerous regime-held areas distant from the axis of attack in order to fix pro-regime forces across multiple fronts. Opposition forces may also intend to set conditions for a second major attack against pro-regime forces from inside the city. The target of the most considerable bombardment was the Nayrab Airbase in eastern Aleppo City, which the opposition claimed to target “Russian officers” with “hundreds” of grad rockets. The opposition may have intended either to disrupt the regime and Russian coordination of pro-regime forces in the city or disrupt the regime’s ability to conduct rotary-wing bombardment including chlorine gas canisters. 
Turkish-backed opposition forces north of Aleppo City may join the operation to break the siege. Turkish-backed group Nour al Din al Zenki announced the formation of the “Victory Bloc” Operations Room under the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield. Zenki’s statement declared the opposition’s intent to “alleviate pressure on Aleppo City” and included vague references to targeting pro-regime forces. There is no indication that Turkey has authorized Zenki or other groups in Operation Euphrates Shield to participate in the operation to break the siege. These Turkish-backed forces would need to advance through Syrian Kurdish YPG-held terrain north of Aleppo City in order to reach a front line with pro-regime forces. Zenki’s statement may indicate that it and other rebel groups north of Aleppo City may nonetheless shell pro-regime held areas, further suppressing pro-regime forces inside the city to enable opposition groups to break the siege. 

The Campaign for Mosul: October 25-28, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Operations to retake Mosul have made minimal progress since the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) announced an operational pause on October 25 in order for the five axes approaching Mosul to re-sync before advances into the city limits begin.

The northern and eastern axes are nearing Mosul’s city limits. The northern axis continues to focus on regaining the towns of Batnaya and Tel Kayyaf, north of Mosul, in order to position forces to breach Mosul’s northern city limits. The Peshmerga entered the Christian town of Batnaya on October 25, but are not assessed to be in control of the city. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) is poised to breach Mosul's outskirts from both the east and northeast but called for an operational pause on October 25 in order to wait for the southern axis to advance such that the encirclement of the city is evenly distributed.

The southern axis, however, has made limited progress during this pause. Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend described this area of ISIS’s defense as a “very hard external crust,” outside of Mosul’s hard core and a soft middle on October 26. The ISF has faced resistance from ISIS’s suicide attacks and is limited by a shortage in manpower. ISIS has also created a chemical barrier by igniting a sulfur plant on fire located near the confluence of the Tigris and Zab Rivers, north of Qayyarah, when they withdrew from the plant on October 20. The toxic plume of smoke will continue to halt forward movement until the sulfur fire is mitigated or MOPP suits are delivered, though the additional layers of clothing will likely further slow forward progress. 

The ISF finally breached Shura’s city limits, north of Qayyarah, on October 28, having encircled the city since October 19. The ISF will need to break through ISIS’s external crust and quickly make up progress towards Mosul, lest the axes grow out of sync. The southern axis may require additional reinforcements as it will face more attrition than the other axes due to its longer distance to travel towards Mosul.

New players are entering the operation. One thousand five hundred members of the Turkish-backed Ninewa Guard Force, based out of Zaylkan, are assessed to be operating alongside the 16th Iraqi Army Division around Tel Kayyaf. It is unclear if the group’s Turkish advisors are among the forces or if they remain at their base in Zaylkan, where another 1,500 members remain in reserve. All major Iraqi parties, especially the Shi’a militias, have rejected Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq; Turkish direct or indirect participation in the Mosul operation could escalate tensions between Turkey and Iraq. Shi’a militias have also stepped up their involvement in the Mosul operation and are working to open a western axis towards Tel Afar from their current position alongside the Federal Police near Qayyarah. Militia involvement could spark intra-Coalition tensions, especially if Kurdish, Turkish, ISF, and militia forces converge in an area with a proclivity for Sunni insurgency. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 20 - October 25, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner with Christopher Kozak

Russia implemented a series of unilateral ‘humanitarian pauses’ in Aleppo City in a new attempt to obscure its ultimate military objectives in the Syrian Civil War and reduce mounting diplomatic pressure against its intervention.  Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced a series of three eleven-hour ‘humanitarian pauses’ from October 20 – 22 to allow for the “safe exit” of civilians and opposition fighters from Eastern Aleppo City. The announcement followed a temporary halt to pro-regime airstrikes in Aleppo City that Russia instituted on October 18. Nonetheless, Russia dramatically intensified its airstrikes against opposition forces and critical civilian infrastructure in Aleppo City during the four-day period preceding the temporary halt in its air campaign, conducting strikes with bunker-busting munitions aimed at degrading opposition defenses and coercing the local population to abandon the city. Pro-regime forces also continued to conduct ground operations and restrict humanitarian access during the suspension of the air campaign as part of their continued effort to depopulate opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City. In effect, Russia acted to ensure that its ‘humanitarian pauses’ did not serve to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo City.

Russia paused its air operations in Aleppo City for military and geopolitical reasons rather than humanitarian ones. Although Russia shifted its air campaign away from Aleppo City to target core opposition terrain in Idlib Province from October 18 – 21, the overall tempo of the campaign decreased across Western Syria over the past seven days. Russia may have used this period as an opportunity to conduct much-needed maintenance on its forward-deployed aircraft given the pace of operations of its intervention since September 2015. Russia may have intended to further ease the strain on these airframes through the deployment of its sole aircraft carrier to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on October 17. Russia likely also sought to relieve mounting international pressure in response to its aggressive air operations in Aleppo City. The U.S. and EU both issued increasingly public threats of targeted sanctions and calls for investigations into potential war crimes committed by pro-regime forces in Aleppo City as Russian warplanes aggressively targeted the city from October 14 – 17. Russia nonetheless will not suspend its air campaign on any long-term basis in response to international censure, having ratified an agreement for the indefinite deployment of its air forces to Syria on October 7. Russia resumed heavy airstrikes against outlying suburbs of Aleppo just one day after the conclusion of the ‘humanitarian pauses’ on October 22, preventing opposition forces from reinforcing or resupplying the besieged city.

Russia partnered its ‘humanitarian pauses’ with a campaign of disinformation that aimed to draw parallels between the actions of Russia in Aleppo City and the Anti-ISIS Coalition in Mosul in Northern Iraq. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov argued on October 25 that the U.S. and Russia are both conducting military operations against major urban centers held by ‘terrorist groups’ and accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for its condemnations of Russia in Syria. This rhetoric marks an attempt to establish a moral equivalency between the actions of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and bolster its false narrative that Russia has solely targeted terrain occupied by jihadist forces. Russia will likely continue to cultivate this narrative as coalition forces move to recapture Mosul in Iraq and Ar-Raqqa City in Syria in order to justify even more aggressive pro-regime operations to clear opposition forces from Aleppo City. 

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.

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

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.