Thursday, December 22, 2016

Syria Situation Report: December 15 - 22, 2016

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Turkey, Russia, and Iran released a joint statement - termed the ‘Moscow Declaration’ - noting that all three countries agree to “facilitate and become the guarantors” of any political agreement to end the Syrian Civil War following a trilateral meeting in Moscow, Russia on December 20. The statement also noted that all three countries “reiterate their determination” to fight against ISIS and Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as well as separate both factions from other “armed opposition groups” in Syria. The meeting occurred as scheduled despite the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on December 19. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces announced their full control over Aleppo City on December 22 following the last evacuations from the remaining opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City. The evacuations faced repeated delays due to poor weather conditions as well as last-minute demands by Iran for parallel evacuations from the besieged pro-regime towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya in Idlib Province. The final deal included phased parallel evacuations for the two towns as well as two besieged opposition-held towns near Damascus.

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria DirectThe graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of December 19, 2016.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: November 21 - December 19, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia tempered its air operations across Northern Syria following the surrender of the last remaining opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City on December 13, but only after playing a decisive military role in enabling this major battlefield victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia continued its campaign of airstrikes against the pocket of opposition-held districts southwest of the city center from December 7 – 12, intensifying its bombardment in the two days before Russia and Turkey brokered a surrender and local ceasefire agreement to evacuate remaining opposition fighters and civilians to Western Aleppo Province. Russia resumed its airstrikes in Aleppo City on December 14 after Iran spoiled the initial deal with additional last-minute demands for parallel evacuations from the besieged majority-Shi’a towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya in Idlib Province. Russia nonetheless slowed the tempo of its air operations in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces from December 13 – 19 in a likely attempt to preserve the evacuation deal and gain credibility as an impartial diplomatic broker. The eventual completion of the evacuation, however, will likely signal the start of a new phase in Russia’s air campaign in Northern Syria. Russia will likely resume its aggressive targeting of opposition-held terrain in Idlib Province under the guise of anti-terrorism operations against Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – the successor of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. This narrative may gain further traction as the remaining acceptable opposition forces evacuated from Aleppo City deepen their cooperation with Salafi-jihadist groups in Northern Syria in order to continue their insurgency against the Assad regime.

Russia also intensified its air operations against ISIS in Eastern Syria beginning on December 7 in a failed attempt to prevent the recapture of Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province by ISIS on December 11. Russia conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against ISIS on the outskirts of Palmyra from December 7 – 10 amidst an ongoing offensive by the group against outlying oil and natural gas fields. Although the air campaign forced ISIS to temporarily reverse its progress into Palmyra, poorly-trained pro-regime militiamen on the ground proved unable to hold the city – particularly given the withdrawal of local garrisons by Russia and Iran on or around December 7. In the wake of that defeat, Russia conducted punitive air operations against ISIS-held terrain in Eastern Syria on December 12, including the group’s stronghold in Ar-Raqqa City and a swathe of several villages in Eastern Hama Province allegedly targeted with chemical munitions. Russia will likely invest more heavily in the defense of the nearby T4 (Tiyas) Airbase in order to protect its main base of operations in Central Syria. Russia reportedly deployed special operations forces to T4 Airbase on December 13 amidst ongoing clashes with ISIS, reflecting the airfield’s critical importance as a launching point for helicopter gunships operated by Russia in Palmyra. The recapture of Palmyra highlights the inability of pro-regime forces to establish security across the entire country without sustained support from Russia and Iran, notwithstanding their recent success in Aleppo City. In the end, Russia and Syria prioritized the defeat of the opposition in Aleppo City over the defense of Palmyra from ISIS, ultimately enhancing the threat posed by Salafi-jihadist groups in both Northern and Eastern Syria. 

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: December 7-20, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Local and regional actors are maneuvering to secure their position in 2017 and for a post-ISIS Mosul. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki travelled to the southern provinces on December 9 and 10 to attend several tribal conferences where he has typically looked to secure electoral support, suggesting the he is positioning for upcoming 2017 provincial and 2018 parliamentary elections with an eye on the premiership. Large anti-Maliki protests, which were likely Sadrist, however, forced him to cut his visits short, indicating that Maliki may be facing stronger competition from other Shi’a parties in southern Iraq than before. Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is moving to extend its boundaries while anti-ISIS operations in the region are ongoing and before the complete recapture of Mosul cements the current control of terrain. The KRG used operations around Mosul, including those prior to October 17 when the operation launched, to claim territory that will remain under its jurisdiction after operations end. The KRG will do so similarly around Sinjar. The U.S. and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) separately warned on December 15 that the continued presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist group, in Sinjar is a detriment to the area’s stability and resettlement. The PKK recaptured western Sinjar during anti-ISIS operations in November 2015; the KRG occupies the eastern half. The KRG will move to expel the PKK from Sinjar while the power dynamics are still shifting lest the PKK gain a permanent presence in northern Iraq, contrary to the KRG’s interests.  ISIS, however, is also positioning for the upcoming year and for the possible loss of Mosul. The group is reconstituting networks and capabilities in recaptured areas, such as Fallujah despite its recapture by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in June 2016, from where it can continue to launch attacks, particularly into Baghdad and the southern belts. ISIS’s position in the Euphrates River Valley could also maintain a connection with its affiliates in Syria which can provide support as ISIS reconstitutes in Iraq.

The Virtual Caliphate: ISIS's Information Warfare

By Harleen Gambhir

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) poses an evolving threat to the U.S., its allies, and its broader interests. Its approach to information warfare has represented a key component of its overall strategy, including during the period it has faced sustained pressure. ISIS has suffered significant setbacks on the ground, yet has demonstrated the ability to adapt.

ISIS will likely maintain the capacity to align its military and information operations (IO) in the coming years. Continuing conflicts and the plodding effort to address the underlying conditions where it has taken root will likely help ISIS retain physical sanctuary and command and control capability in Iraq, Syria, and North Africa, even if it loses control of major cities.

ISIS’s IO campaign has supported multiple objectives, including control over territory, coercion of populations, and recruitment. This campaign has enabled ISIS’s survival and execution of international terror attacks. It may ultimately usher in a “Virtual Caliphate” – a radicalized community organized online – that empowers the global Salafi-jihadi movement and that could operate independently of ISIS.

This “Virtual Caliphate,” the emergence of which becomes more likely the longer ISIS’s physical caliphate exists, would represent a unique challenge to American national security. Other hostile actors, beyond ISIS and the global Salafi-jihadi movement, are also adopting elements of a broader IO campaign, highlighting the requirement for the U.S. to formulate a determined response.

The U.S. possesses inherent advantages, including material resources, military strength and convening power, with which to confront this evolving threat. It also has challenges to overcome, including the lack of a government-wide strategy – supported by the necessary resources and proper bureaucratic organization – to counter enemy IO.

The U.S. should continue to counter ISIS and other enemies in this arena by focusing on rolling them back on the ground, degrading their technical capabilities and other means they employ to reach their intended audiences, and helping facilitate the emergence of compelling counter-narratives amenable to American interests.  

Please visit our website to read the full report. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Campaign for Mosul: December 13-19, 2016

Operations in eastern Mosul largely paused from December 13 to 19 likely in order to stem the growing casualties taken by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and to regroup before pushing into central Mosul. Meanwhile, the Popular Mobilization continued its push west, connecting its parallel lines of effort when it recaptured the north-south road between the Tel Afar Airbase and the southern town of Ashwa on December 13.

Operations in eastern Mosul largely paused from December 13 to 19. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), which is bearing the brunt of the operation, is facing a degree of attrition that risks the successful completion of anti-ISIS operations in Mosul. Senior U.S. military officials reported that the U.S.-trained Golden Brigade, the first of three brigades of the CTS, is facing a 50% casualty rate and could be rendered combat ineffective in a month if the rate remains constant. The CTS has deliberately slowed operations in eastern Mosul in order to reduce the rate of attrition, and the ISF announced it will begin to rely more on artillery and precision airstrikes to target ISIS militants in response. These new tactics, however, will likely increase civilian casualties because ISIS militants continue to use Mosul’s civilian population as human shields. The ISF will either be forced to heavily deploy its assets from other areas of the country to match the capability of the elite CTS forces or to call up non-acceptable partners, such as the Popular Mobilization, to complete the current operation in Mosul.
The pause in eastern Mosul may also align with a need to regroup before the ISF pushes into central Mosul. Operations in northeastern Mosul, under the efforts of the CTS, have reached the Khosr River, a tributary river that feeds into the Tigris and bisects northeastern Mosul. The CTS will need to regroup before bridging the river in order to resolve the logistics of the crossing, notably for heavy equipment. The CTS will also need to plan for how to approach these new neighborhoods, especially the University of Mosul, a logistical hub for ISIS. Unconfirmed sources report that ISIS destroyed the campus and withdrew, however the “scorched earth” tactic, if true, will still slow the ISF’s advance and leave it open to ISIS counterattacks. ISIS will resist the CTS’s advance further into central Mosul and towards the government center. The CTS will need to carefully assess how to secure this area in light of its reduced numbers and limited ability to call in reinforcements.

Shi’a militias operating in the western Ninewa desert connected their northern and southern lines of effort by retaking the Tel Afar-Ashwa road on December 13. The militias have been operating on two separate axes, the first stretching west from Tel Afar along the Sinjar highway, in the northern desert, and the second stemming west from Qayyarah, moving through key villages of Ain al-Jahush, Tel Abtah, and Ashwa in the southern desert. Units connected these lines of effort on December 13 when they cleared the road stretching between Tel Afar and Ashwa, giving the operations a greater ability to move forces and equipment as they continue to progress west. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Syria Situation Report: December 8 - 15, 2016

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Opposition forces agreed to a ceasefire in order to evacuate their remaining positions in Eastern Aleppo City on December 13 following bilateral negotiations between Russia and Turkey. The deal states that all opposition fighters and civilians who wish to depart Eastern Aleppo City will be evacuated to Western Aleppo Province. The initial wave of evacuations scheduled to begin on December 14 failed to materialize after Iran inserted new last-minute conditions that called for simultaneous evacuations from the besieged Shi’a-majority towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya in Idlib Province. The deal resumed on December 15 with medical evacuations from Fu’ah and Kefraya as well as Aleppo City. Meanwhile, ISIS recaptured the city of Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province on December 11 following clashes with pro-regime forces despite heavy air support provided by Russia. The fall of Palmyra marks the first seizure of a major urban center by ISIS in Iraq and Syria since May 2015 and demonstrates the sustained ability of ISIS to command, control, and resource major operations that exploit vulnerabilities among its opponents even as it faces increasing pressure from coalition forces in Ar-Raqqa City and Mosul. The success of ISIS in Palmyra also highlights the fragility of pro-regime forces despite their gains against opposition forces in Eastern Aleppo City.

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria DirectThe graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of December 6, 2016.

Iraq Control of Terrain: December 15, 2016

By Staley Smith, Michael Momayezi, and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continued operations to retake Mosul and its environs, consolidating gains along its five axes before breaching the city limits on November 1. The ISF continued to advance north from Qayyarah towards southwestern Mosul, but have yet to breach the city limits there; south from Kurdish-held territory towards northern Mosul, besieging Tel Kayyaf; and in the countryside southeast of Mosul, from where they entered the city itself. The Counter Terrorism Service has retaken upwards of twenty neighborhoods from ISIS in the northeast quarter over the past six weeks, but the Iraqi Army has struggled to advance in Mosul’s southeast quarter. The ISF and Peshmerga also consolidated gains around Makhmur in late October. The Peshmerga, meanwhile, advanced from Bashiqa Mountain to retake Bashiqa, northeast of Mosul, on November 7. Peshmerga involvement in the operation has since largely concluded, while the ISF continues its lines of effort inside Mosul itself and at remaining ISIS-held areas, including the southern axis. ISW is thus changing the respective areas to ISF-, Peshmerga-, and joint ISF and Peshmerga-control. 

Meanwhile, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) launched operations into the western desert, west of Mosul, on October 29. The militias recaptured the Tel Afar airbase on November 16 but Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called for the ISF, not the PMUs, to recapture the city itself. The PMUs have since expanded west beyond Tel Afar, aiming for ISIS-held Baaj, south of Sinjar, and the Syrian border. ISW is thus changing this area to a control zone where Shi’a militias are the primary security force. 

The ISF launched a minor operation to recapture the eastern bank of the Tigris River across from Shirqat on November 29 in order to counter ISIS’s ability to attack recaptured areas. The ISF deployed the Baghdad-based 60th Brigade of the 17th Iraqi Army (IA) Division alongside tribal forces and an armored battalion to lead the operation, which launched south from Makhmur, making minimal gains. ISW is thus expanding the area of ISF and tribal fighter control to include recent gains from the operation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


The pro-Assad forces’ onslaught in Aleppo marks a key inflection point for the war in Syria. Eastern Aleppo’s imminent fall – to a coalition that includes Russia and Iran and its various proxies – will accelerate the war’s destabilizing effects. Jihadists will further improve their position within the Syrian opposition. Fighters aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will continue committing atrocities against civilians. The Russian and Iranian regimes will grow more emboldened. The United States, its allies, and its international partners must now confront this new, yet predictable, phase in the Syrian war.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has led a significant effort on Aleppo, tracking developments and putting the situation there in the context of the broader war and U.S. policy. ISW’s analysts have offered trenchant insights on the battle and led the way in forecasting events and trends. ISW will remain a critical resource on the continuing Syrian conflict and its strategic implications.

The following excerpts provide an overview of ISW’s prescient work on Aleppo over the last year:

  • “Eastern Aleppo City serves as one of the last remaining major hubs of acceptable opposition groups in Northern Syria. The surrender of Eastern Aleppo City will likely drive these groups into deeper partnership with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, and other Salafi-Jihadist Groups in order to preserve their military effectiveness on the battlefield.”

  • “…the fall of Aleppo City will not mark the end of the Syrian Civil War. Opposition groups will likely wage an increasingly-radicalized insurgency across Northern Syria with continued support from regional backers such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.” 

Read the full article here

Warning Update: Russia Prepares to Escalate Military Intervention in Syria,” Jonathan Mautner, Genevieve Casagrande, and Christopher Kozak with Omar Kebbe, Kathleen Weinberger, Franklin Holcomb, and Benjamin Knudsen, November 4, 2016
  • “Russia will likely use the Kuznetsov and its extant military assets in Syria in order to intensify operations against opposition forces in Aleppo City and its surrounding countryside, bolstering the regime’s crippling siege on opposition-held districts of the city.” 

  • “Russia’s support to the Assad regime continues to remove potential partners for the U.S. against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria from the battlefield.” 

Read the full article here

Syrian Opposition Plans Operation to Break Aleppo Siege,” Jennifer Cafarella, October 24, 2016
  • “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.”

  • “[Jabhat Fatah al-Sham Emir Abu Muhammad al-] 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.”

Read the full article here and a follow-up article here

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: September 13 – October 11, 2016,” Jonathan Mautner, October 13, 2016
  • “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.”

  • “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.”

Read the full article here

Russian Airstrikes in Aleppo Province: September 20 – 22, 2016,” Jonathan Mautner, September 23, 2016
  • “Russia has periodically intensified and tempered its air operations in Aleppo Province during negotiations with the U.S., wielding the threat of even deeper humanitarian crisis and the defeat of the acceptable opposition in Aleppo City in order to extract concessions.”

  • “Russia will not accede to a partnership with the U.S. except on its own terms, and will continue to wage its air campaign in Syria coercively in order to secure them.”    

Read the full article here

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post-Cessation of Hostilities,” Genevieve Casagrande, September 21, 2016
  • “Both Russia and the Syrian regime will continue to use subsequent ceasefires to solidify gains against the Syrian opposition in Aleppo City and to employ siege-and-starve tactics to force the defeat of the opposition in critical terrain.”

  • “Russia and the regime will therefore pursue a strategy to remove mainstream opposition forces from the battlefield either through their submission, destruction, or the transformation of these groups into radical elements that can be rightfully targeted as terrorists. Russia is purposefully driving this radicalization through its deliberate targeting of civilian and humanitarian infrastructure.”

Read the full article here

Opposition Forces Break the Siege of Aleppo City,” Christopher Kozak, August 8, 2016
  • “The estimated quarter-million remaining residents of Eastern Aleppo City nonetheless face a continued threat of siege amidst ongoing clashes and heavy aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes that have prevented humanitarian groups and civilians from using the newly-established supply route.”

  • “These grievances provide Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham an opportunity to leverage their integral role in lifting the siege to generate public support and draw opposition groups into a closer partnership. This integration would advance the long-term goal of al Qaeda to unify the jihad in preparation for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate.” 

Read the full article here

Opposition Forces Launch Offensive to Break the Siege of Aleppo,” Genevieve Casagrande and Jennifer Cafarella, August 3, 2016
  • “The regime and Russia will pursue a protracted ‘siege and starve’ campaign in order to force the submission of these remaining acceptable groups, solidifying the dominance of the Salafi jihadist opposition in northwestern Syria.” 

  • “The collapse of acceptable armed opposition groups in Aleppo would not only solidify the staying power of hardline opposition factions in northwestern Syria, but would also ensure a continued Salafi jihadist safehaven in Idlib Province.”

Read the full article here

Syria 90-Day Forecast: The Assad Regime and Allies in Northern Syria,” Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Jennifer Cafarella, February 24, 2016
  • “…Assad now sits within reach of several of his military objectives, including the encirclement and isolation of Aleppo City and the establishment of a secure defensive perimeter along the Syrian Coast.”

  • “Russian campaign designers have clearly planned the ongoing operations in northern Syria, introducing to the Syrian battlefield signature Russian doctrinal concepts such as frontal aviation, cauldron battles, and multiple simultaneous and successive operations.” 

Read the full article here 

American Security is at Risk in Aleppo,” Jennifer Cafarella, February 23, 2016
  • “Russian airstrikes are weakening the opposition’s defenses in the outskirts of Aleppo, setting conditions for a final assault by pro-regime forces. They are also destroying critical infrastructure and hospitals to force civilians to flee.”

  • “The opposition forces now inside the city include U.S.-supported groups that are relatively independent from jihadist forces. They cannot prevent the encirclement of Aleppo, however, and may not survive the siege. Those who do survive are more likely over time to submit to the leadership of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra, and other hardline elements that can help them endure when no one else offers assistance.” 

Read the full article here

The Russian Air Campaign in Aleppo,” Genevieve Casagrande, February 13, 2016
  • “The distribution of Russian airstrikes in Aleppo Province demonstrates that its air campaign is primarily directed at weakening the armed Syrian opposition generally, not ISIS or al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.”

  • “Russia obscures its true intentions in Syria through an active disinformation campaign.”

Read the full article here

Syrian Armed Opposition Forces in Aleppo,” Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, February 13, 2016
  • “The U.S. has a short time frame in Aleppo to prevent the upcoming humanitarian catastrophe and preserve opposition groups the U.S. needs in order to destroy ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in the long term.”

  • “There is very little to indicate that Russia, Iran, or the Syrian regime have any intention of halting their military campaign in northern Syria, despite this diplomatic overture.”

Read the full article here

  • “The regime and its allies have waged a multi-pronged campaign in Aleppo Province over the past four months to set conditions for an offensive to isolate and ultimately seize Aleppo City…The operations in Aleppo Province have hinged upon heavy military support from both Russian warplanes and Iranian proxy fighters.”

  • “The flows of displaced persons generated by this campaign will place additional strain upon regional U.S. allies while fueling further resentment and radicalization among the refugee population.”   

Read the full article here

Please visit ISW’s main website  for updates.

For media and general inquiries, please e-mail

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Ukraine Update:November 9-December 13, 2016

                                                                                 By: Franklin Holcomb, and Ben Knudson

The Ukrainian government implemented a series of reforms in the face of rising public dissatisfaction and protests. The slow pace of reform and perceived corruption of the Ukrainian government manifested in demonstrations of over 5,000 protestors in November. These movements enjoy the support of pro-Russia and populist parties that are making a concerted effort to capitalize on increasing public frustration in order to strengthen their movements and undermine the legitimacy of pro-western president Petro Poroshenko. Lack of unity and a clear direction from populist parties will likely prevent them from gaining meaningful traction among the Ukrainian electorate in the short term, however. Ukraine’s reformist movement also continued to voice its dissatisfaction with the Poroshenko administration. Former governor of Odessa Oblast, Mikheil Sakaashvili, announced the creation of a new reformist political party, held protests and launched a fundraising effort. President Poroshenko attempted to quell dissatisfaction by enacting reforms doubling the minimum wage, restructuring the health care system to make insurance universally available and protecting depositors against bank fraud. President Poroshenko will likely seek high-profile public victories, particularly EU visa liberalization, in order to stabilize support for his government.

Ukraine also continued to strengthen its military and political ties with the EU and NATO in its effort to distance itself from Russia and modernize its infrastructure and military. Ukraine and the EU signed a memorandum of understanding on a strategic energy partnership that enhances cooperation in efficiency and facilitates energy market integration in the future. The deal also makes progress towards a visa-free travel regime for Ukrainians visiting EU nations. Ukraine launched numerous domestically manufactured surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles near Crimea, forcing a strong Russian reaction. In an effort to avoid prompting Russian military action against their forces, Ukraine shifted the tests further inland, revealing its ability to utilize its military buildup in Crimea to alter Ukraine’s use of its sovereign territory. Russia went so far as to assert that it would use its military assets in Crimea against another Black Sea power. Despite Russian pushback, the missile tests demonstrated the growing capabilities of Ukraine’s military and domestic arms industry, which continues to improve and modernize from its post-Soviet state of disrepair.

ISIS Recaptures Palmyra in Major Blow to Pro-Regime Forces

By Christopher Kozak and Alexandra Gutowski

ISIS recaptured the historic city of Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province on December 11 following the withdrawal of pro-regime forces, marking the first seizure of a major urban center by ISIS in Iraq and Syria since ISIS last captured Palmyra in May 2015. ISIS launched a multi-axis offensive against the outskirts of Palmyra beginning on December 8, 2016, seizing several nearby regime-held oil and natural gas fields as well as critical positions in the mountains overlooking the city. Local activists stated that Russia and Iran withdrew their garrisons from Palmyra as this outer line of defenses began to collapse, leaving the city under the control of only several hundred ill-trained and poorly-motivated militiamen from the National Defense Forces. These fighters proved unable to hold the city despite heavy air support provided by Russia. ISIS subsequently capitalized upon its advances to launch an attack against the T4 (Tiyas) Airbase between Palmyra and Homs City. Heavy clashes reportedly remain ongoing as of December 13.

The fall of Palmyra demonstrates ISIS’s sustained ability to command, control, and resource major operations even as it mounts the defense of Mosul in Iraq and Ar-Raqqa City in Syria. ISIS exploited the ongoing main effort of pro-regime forces in Aleppo City in order to recapture Palmyra with an offensive maneuver characteristic of its previous campaigns, allowing ISIS to shift the pervading narrative that it is on its heels in Iraq and Syria. Palmyra is key terrain that positions ISIS to project force into regime-held ‘central corridor’ of Western Syria, including Damascus, Homs City, and Hama City. ISIS may continue its offensive south and west of Palmyra in Central Syria in order to maximize its gains as ongoing offensives against Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province and Ar-Raqqa City challenge its urban holdings in Northern Syria. Notably, ISIS claimed to replenish its arsenal with dozens of armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, and other systems left behind by pro-regime forces in Palmyra. The seizure of Palmyra by ISIS may also be a blocking maneuver to protect its holdings in Eastern Syria or a diversionary effort to set conditions for a renewed offensive against pro-regime positons in Deir ez-Zour City. In either case, ISIS will likely use its offensives against the regime in order to expand its influence, leverage, and recruitment among the opposition following the upcoming fall of Eastern Aleppo City.

The success enjoyed by ISIS in Palmyra also highlights the fragility of pro-regime forces despite their recent gains in Western Syria, foreshadowing the difficulty that the regime and its allies will face in securing the country over the long-term. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains reliant upon a small cadre of elite military units and foreign fighters – including Russian Spetznaz, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shia Militias – in order to secure gains against his opponents on the ground. The regime reportedly redeployed the majority of these assets to enable its successful operations to clear opposition forces from Eastern Aleppo City over the past several months, generating vulnerabilities on other battlefronts including Central Syria. Pro-regime forces remain unlikely to deploy in large numbers to Eastern Homs Province in the near-term. Russia will likely use this renewed threat in order to press the U.S. for increased cooperation against ISIS in Syria. Nonetheless, the regime remains incapable of reestablishing security across the country without sustained foreign support – and thus remains incapable of meeting the long-term strategic objectives of the U.S. in Syria. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Campaign for Mosul: December 6-12, 2016

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made significant gains in northeastern Mosul from December 6 to 12, but struggled to advance in the southeast. The ISF ordered a change in tactic on December 4 in order to address the lopsided eastern offensive, attempting to make rapid advances in the southeast rather than grind through neighborhood-by-neighborhood clearing operations. The shift, however, failed drastically when the rapid gains left the ISF open to ISIS counterattacks, resulting in heavy casualties on December 6 and 7. In response, the ISF moved units previously allocated to breach Mosul’s southwestern neighborhoods to reinforce efforts in the southeast on December 10.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) pushed to accelerate and complete operations in eastern Mosul from December 6 to 12 in order to reach the Tigris River and launch an offensive into western Mosul as the second month of the operation comes to an end. Efforts in the southeast, largely under the command of the Iraqi Army, however, have struggled to match efforts in the northeast, led by the elite Counter Terrorism Forces (CTS). 
The CTS, with the support the 16th Iraqi Army Division entering from the north, made significant gains in northeastern Mosul from December 6 to 12. These gains have been the result of weeks of intensive and difficult block-by-block clearing operations. The CTS used this tactic in operations in Ramadi and Fallujah; it is not having the same level of effectiveness in Mosul as it did before, largely due to the dense civilian population remaining in the city whom ISIS has used as human shields. As a result the CTS requires additional time to advance, but it is still able to make gains against ISIS because of its superior skills and experience in urban warfare.

In the southeast quarter, the less experienced Iraqi Army has not been able to overcome ISIS’s resistance by grinding through block-by-block. As a solution, the ISF ordered a change in tactic on December 4, calling for “surprise” operations that would seek rapid extensions into ISIS-held areas. The tactic was put to the test on December 6, when a unit from the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division made a quick offshoot west in order to retake the Salaam Hospital, near the bank of the Tigris River. The move, however, left the ISF open to ISIS counterattacks and ISIS, hidden in the area, launched a massive ambush on the unit on December 6 and 7. The failure required a Coalition airstrike and a rescue by the CTS to extract the unit on December 7, which reported one hundred casualties.

The ISF and Coalition are now focusing efforts in the southeast in order to accelerate the entire eastern operation. The ISF moved three brigades from the 5th Federal Police Division, or roughly 4,000 men, from the southern axis to reinforce the ISF in the southeast on December 10. These forces, previously allocated to spearhead operations into the Mosul airport and military base, will reportedly operate in the same neighborhood of the failed hospital offensive. They are currently mobilizing in Hamdaniya, southeast of Mosul, before they move into the city itself. Additionally, sources reported that a Coalition airstrike targeted the fifth and final bridge connecting east and west Mosul. The destruction of the bridge will reduce ISIS’s ability to transport equipment and people into eastern Mosul and will help anti-ISIS forces box in remaining ISIS militants in order to advance west. If the ISF can succeed in pushing ISIS out of southeastern Mosul, forces in the southeast may move to breach Mosul’s airport and military base from the east where it could establish a forward operating base for further operations into western Mosul. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Order of Battle of the Ukrainian Armed Forces: A Key Component in European Security

The Order of Battle of the Ukrainian Armed Forces: A Key Component in European Security

Franklin Holcomb and the ISW Russia/Ukraine Team

The United States and its partners can improve regional security and stability in Eastern Europe by supporting the modernization and reform of the Armed Forces of Ukraine more aggressively. Ukraine has suffered from consistent Russian military aggression since Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula and militarily intervened in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in 2014. The overall unpreparedness of the Ukrainian military and its inability to match the capabilities of Russian forces allowed Russian and Russian proxy forces to gain a foothold in eastern Ukraine from which they continue to destabilize the entire country. The Ukrainian armed forces have been partially restructured and strengthened in the face of this constant pressure, enough to stabilize the front lines for a time.  They require significantly more support of all varieties, however, if they are to stop the advance of Russia and its proxies permanently, to say nothing of reversing the armed occupation of Ukrainian territory.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine continue to fight Russian troops and proxy forces operating in Ukraine in a war that has claimed approximately 10,000 lives. Ukraine has engaged in an ambitious military reform program to modernize its armed forces and meet standards required for NATO accession by 2020. These reform efforts have seen important successes in recent years, but the Ukrainian military remains vulnerable to conventional and unconventional warfare. U.S. General John Abizaid (former Commander of U.S. Central Command), U.K. General Nick Parker (former Commander of Britain’s Land Forces), and other western military leaders are in Ukraine to support the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s efforts to restructure itself and reform its forces.The U.S., NATO, and individual western states can support these reform efforts and shape the Ukrainian military into a force capable of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty and becoming a key player in Eastern European security.The effectiveness of Ukraine’s land forces has increased due to ongoing reform efforts and two years of combat experience. These forces still suffer from a lack of modern equipment and from an incompletely reformed organizational structure. Ukrainian front-line soldiers have learned much from the protracted conflict and now outmatch separatist forces operating in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has made progress in overcoming the low morale and poor discipline that confronted the Ukrainian Ground Forces Command in the early stages of the conflict. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that conscripts would no longer serve at the front line on November 2, for example. This step is critical in order to improve the effectiveness of Ukraine’s forces in the field and create a more professional army.  

Ukrainian forces nevertheless lack experience in counter-insurgency operations, a lacuna which will become an increasingly exploitable vulnerability if they regain control of separatist territory in eastern Ukraine. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are in the midst of a transition from the Soviet structure on which they were based and remain inefficiently-organized. This cumbersome, inefficient, and brittle organization left Ukrainian front line units vulnerable to the rapid advance of Russian and Russian proxy forces throughout the conflict, leading to multiple serious defeats. Ukrainian front-line troops also lack standardized modern weaponry. Ukraine’s defense sector remains highly productive, but the Armed Forces of Ukraine does not have the modern weaponry necessary to allow them to counter Russian military intervention. Russian and pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine continue to use heavy armor and electronic-warfare systems that Ukraine has struggled to counter, leading to some of their most serious defeats in the conflict. Ukrainian forces remain highly vulnerable to conventional military forces as long as they lack the means to counter massed heavy armored formations. Ukrainian Ground Forces will be unable to provide a true deterrent to offensive action by regional aggressors until these problems are addressed.

The Ukrainian Air Force plays a key role in protecting Ukrainian sovereignty but faces capability gaps that undermine its ability to support Ukrainian ground forces in combat or consistently assert sovereignty over Ukrainian airspace. At the outset of the conflict in 2014, the underfunded Ukrainian Air Force used Soviet equipment and was not prepared for major combat operations. It nevertheless played a decisive role in supporting Ukrainian ground forces in early stages of the conflict. The years of neglect took their toll, and Ukraine’s air forces suffered heavy losses during the initial four months of intensive air operations, losing 18 aircraft and helicopters, mostly to man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and heavier anti-aircraft installations. Ukraine ceded its right to conduct air operations in the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on September 19, 2014 in an effort to deescalate the conflict, and the Ukrainian Air Force has not operated against hostile targets since. The Ukrainian Air Force’s high vulnerability to even limited deployments of Russian anti-air systems raises serious concerns about its ability to fight against a conventional combined arms force. Ukraine and its western partners should prioritize supporting the refurbishment of the Ukrainian Air Force in order to allow the Ukrainian Air Force to operate in its own airspace. 

The Ukrainian Navy was nearly destroyed by the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and has struggled to reform itself in order to be a force capable of asserting Ukrainian sovereignty. Multiple high-profile defections during the initial stages of the Russian occupation of Crimea weakened the leadership of the Ukrainian navy, which proceeded to lose at least 51 ships, the majority of which were captured by Russia. The current flagship of the Ukrainian Navy, the frigate Hetman Sahaydachniy, along with several patrol boats and cutters, are the only combat-ready vessels available to the Armed Forces of Ukraine as of September 2016.  

Ukraine’s loss of its primary naval facilities in Crimea remains the largest hurdle to the reconstitution of the Ukrainian Navy. Ukrainian Minister of Defense Stepan Poltorak reported on June 28, 2016 that Ukraine had allocated $100 million to construct a new naval base in Odessa to serve as the headquarters for the Ukrainian Navy as well as plans to repair and modernize Ukraine’s remaining vessels. Even when this expansion has been completed and these reforms implemented, Ukraine’s navy would likely face extreme difficulty protecting its key port cities of Odessa and Mariupol against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. 

The Ukrainian Navy is currently the weakest navy in the Black Sea region. It is weaker than the Russian Black Sea Fleet as well as the navies of NATO members Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, though is slightly stronger than the Georgian Coast Guard. It is, and likely will remain in coming years, incapable of asserting Ukrainian sovereignty around the occupied Crimean peninsula or over Ukrainian resource rights on the Black Sea should Russian forces in the region seek to prevent it from doing so. The U.S. has pledged $500 million to support the reformation of the Ukrainian Navy, $30 million of which was delivered in 2016.The reconstruction of the Ukrainian Navy will take time, particularly so long as Ukraine is denied access to its bases in Crimea, and will require continued focus from both Ukraine and its partners if the Ukrainian Navy is to be able to defend Ukraine’s coast and waters. 

Ukrainian Special Forces play a key role in countering conventional and unconventional threats to Ukrainian sovereignty, and the effort to reform them has had great success. Much of Russia’s aggressive action in Crimea, Donbas, and elsewhere in Ukraine relied on small groups of special operators or light infantry who infiltrated Ukrainian territory, caused chaos, seized key terrain, and thereby undermined the morale and effectiveness of Ukrainian units ahead of the main body of pro-Russia forces. Ukrainian forces’ initial inability to counter this type of warfare demonstrated the need for a highly-motivated, well-trained special operations force to counter Russian infiltration, reconnaissance, and sabotage teams.Ukraine has therefore prioritized reforming the structure and practices of its special operations forces with support from U.S. and NATO. These reforms, intended to streamline the command structure of Ukrainian special operations units, will play a critical role in Ukrainian efforts to create armed forces capable of protecting Ukrainian sovereignty. President Poroshenko signed a law on July 26, 2016 officially establishing the separate Special Operations Command in the Ukrainian armed forces. Poroshenko noted that “in 2014 special operations forces had nothing except morale” and praised the necessary efforts to reform Ukraine’s special operations capabilities. Ukraine’s Special Operations Command is still nascent, however, and Ukrainian special operations forces have yet to become a fully mature force.

Ukraine has prioritized obtaining NATO assistance in reforming and retraining its armed forces since 2014. Ukraine and NATO’s partnership has existed since Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and improved significantly in recent years. Ukraine expanded its efforts to train with NATO in order to support its armed forces’ initiatives to improve their overall readiness, modernize their training and tactics, support structural reform, and improve interoperability with NATO forces. These ongoing efforts included expanded participation in large-scale NATO exercises, such as Agile Spirit 2015 in Georgia, Sea Breeze 2016 in the Black Sea, Flaming Thunder 2016 in Lithuania and Rapid Trident 2016 in Ukraine. These exercises allow members of Ukraine’s armed services to share best practices across disciplines with their counterparts in NATO.  These exercises also give Ukrainian soldiers and officers the opportunity to become more accustomed to Western military practices, on which they are basing many of their reforms. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have shown a strong desire to expand interoperability with western military structures and improve military relationships with NATO in order to counter and deter further Russian aggression. 

Ukraine has also made efforts to develop military relationships with individual NATO member states in order to expand its network of partners who support ongoing reform efforts. Since 2014, Ukraine has conducted exercises with many western countries including Poland, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Turkey, and the UK. Ukrainian forces joined a joint Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade in September 2014 and have since proposed a joint military brigade with Bulgaria and Romania. These multilateral partnerships, combined with ongoing NATO efforts to improve the logistics and standardization of the Ukrainian armed forces, constitute a concerted investment in Ukrainian security by both NATO and Ukraine. The continuation and expansion of these efforts will build on the progress Ukraine has made in reforming its armed forces while using this momentum to further integrate into NATO and Ukraine’s efforts to maintain its sovereignty and counter Russian aggression.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine have made significant strides towards their objective of reforming into a modern military force by 2020, but they continue to face major challenges. As U.S. and Western policymakers consider the most effective path forward for European security, they should focus on supporting the ongoing reformation of the Ukrainian armed forces into a fully professional and modern force that can help maintain stability in Eastern Europe. Ukraine’s partners in the West should prioritize supporting Ukraine’s efforts to complete systemic structural reforms, modernize their military hardware, and rebuild its navy. These efforts will allow Ukraine to defend its sovereignty against regional aggressors and play a greater role in contributing to the security of Europe and the Black Sea Region.

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