Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Turkey Prepares Offensive Against Syrian Democratic Forces in Manbij

By Christopher Kozak

An open conflict will likely erupt imminently between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Manbij in Northern Syria. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG – the main component of the SDF - to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently waging an insurgency in Southern Turkey. The fight for Manbij will derail the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS and create opportunities for al Qaeda to expand further in Syria. The U.S. must reduce its dependence upon both Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish YPG.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated his intent to expel the Syrian Kurdish YPG – the main component of the SDF – from Manbij to the Euphrates River’s eastern bank. 
  • Turkish President Recep Erdogan reiterated on February 28 that Turkish-backed opposition groups in Operation Euphrates Shield will advance against Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province after they finish consolidating control over Al-Bab, located twenty five miles to the west. Turkish-backed forces in Operation Euphrates Shield seized Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province on February 23 after ISIS withdrew from the city and its environs toward Ar-Raqqa City. 
  • The end of combat operations in Al-Bab frees Erdogan to pursue his strategic aim to roll back the de-facto contiguous autonomous zone controlled by the YPG along the Syrian-Turkish Border.
The U.S. reportedly gave a deadline of February 27 for Turkey to present an alternative operational plan to seize Ar-Raqqa City as part of a wider review of the campaign against ISIS due to U.S. President Donald Trump on the same day.
  • Turkey proposed inserting opposition forces into Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province and forming a ‘corridor’ through terrain held by the SDF as part of a its preferred plan for an offensive against Ar-Raqqa City during a meeting between Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on February 17. 
  • Senior U.S. officials remain unwilling to contemplate proposals to exclude the SDF from operations against Ar-Raqqa City despite high-level lobbying by Turkey. Instead, U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis met with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik on February 15 and offered increased intelligence support for operations against the PKK in Northern Iraq. 
  • Erdogan has already demonstrated his willingness to take actions in Syria that undermine U.S. policy positions and admonitions. Turkey threatened to partner with Russia to conduct joint airstrikes against ISIS in Al-Bab, and then did so after the U.S. ignored its repeated requests for air support. 
The U.S. has taken overt actions to deter an attack by Turkey and reaffirm its support for the SDF over the past several weeks given the growing risk of a direct military conflict.
  • U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel and Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend met with senior SDF leaders in Northern Syria on February 24. Anonymous sources claimed that the U.S. pledged to protect Manbij against attacks from Turkey. CENTCOM denied any such assurances. 
  • CENTCOM publicized several photos over the past week highlighting the role of the Manbij Military Council (MMC) in the campaign against ISIS in Northern Syria. The MMC is a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces that retains close organizational ties to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the political wing of the YPG. 
  • The U.S. led a field inspection with a delegation from the Turkish Armed Forces in December 2016 to demonstrate that the YPG had withdrawn completely from Manbij. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later stated that the visit failed to satisfy concerns that the town remains controlled by proxies of the group. Thousands of residents held demonstrations in Manbij on February 13 calling for the release of imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. 
  • Unconfirmed activist reports claim that some of the 500 U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) currently present in Northern Syria may have been deployed to frontlines on the Sajur River near Manbij within the past several days in order to deter further aggression by Turkey. 
Turkish leaders met on February 27 and likely made the decision to proceed with operations against Manbij rather than wait on coalition support for an offensive against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City.
  • Erdogan called unscheduled meetings with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik and Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar in Istanbul on February 27. 
  • Turkish Presidential Advisor Ilnur Cevik claimed on February 27 that Turkey plans to end its military operations in Syria after establishing a fifty-mile “buffer zone” in Manbij. 
  • Turkey has continued to deploy additional armored vehicles to Northern Aleppo Province in recent weeks. These reinforcements could be deployed against Manbij as well as the isolated Kurdish Afrin Canton in Western Aleppo Province. 
Further escalation between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds would severely jeopardize – and likely halt indefinitely - the campaign against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City.
  • The U.S. has relied extensively upon the YPG as the main component of the SDF – the preferred coalition partner on the ground against ISIS in Northern Syria. 
  • Open fighting between Turkey and the SDF would allow ISIS to retain its hold on Ar-Raqqa City and potentially secure new gains across Northern Syria. 
  • The U.S. must exercise all of its sources of leverage over Turkey – including its military presence in Syria as well as bilateral military-to-military assistance, humanitarian support, and economic investment – in order to prevent a Turkish offensive against the SDF. 
  • The U.S. should also consider slowing down or halting further SDF advances in order to avoid fueling a wider conflict between Arabs and Kurds in Northern Syria. The U.S. must not sacrifice long-term stability for a quick victory against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. 
  • The U.S. must ultimately build an alternative partner force of Syrian Sunni Arabs that is both willing to fight Salafi-jihadi groups and is independent from the political project of the PYD. The U.S. cannot rely upon the Turkish-backed opposition force due to its inclusion of Salafi-jihadi groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, that serve as a vector for al Qaeda in Syria. 
Further Reading

Iraq Situation Report: February 17-28, 2017

By the ISW Iraq Team

ISIS could be facing difficulty coordinating successful attacks in Iraq as losses in Mosul are forcing it to transform from a governing to guerrilla style terrorist organization. ISIS did not carry out the wave of complex attacks predicted to occur in response to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launching operations to retake western Mosul on February 19. The deviation from the expectation may be a result of ISIS losing coordination between cells across Iraq as it takes time to regroup or as the ISF puts pressure on lines of communication in northern Iraq. The ISF may also be improving in its ability to preempt or thwart attacks. ISIS launched a major attack against checkpoints near the Syrian-Jordan-Iraqi border from February 22 to 24 and targeted checkpoints in Diyala Province on February 23. However, these attacks alone do not match the intensity of ISIS’s previous responses, in which ISIS either carried out major attacks in generally quiet areas, such as Kirkuk City or Sinjar, or ramped up the frequency or scale of attacks in usual attack zones, such as Baghdad. ISIS may have planned for attacks in Samarra, Karbala, and Abu Ghraib to reach the response threshold, but these attacks were thwarted by the ISF over the course of February 21 to 24. The decline in ISIS’s response is not likely a sign of permanent loss of ability to attack, but rather an indication that ISIS may take time to sufficiently regroup its command and logistical hubs as it deals with losses in Mosul and northern Iraq. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

ISIS Sanctuary Map Update: February 27, 2017

By Alexandra Gutowski and the ISW Research Team 

Update: The Syrian regime seized additional towns from ISIS southeast of al-Bab on 27 FEB 2017 after ISIS withdrew. Regime control now abuts US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and also Turkish-backed opposition forces. ISIS will continue to launch spectacular attacks along this seam at which the interests of local and global anti-ISIS actors compete directly.

Key Takeaway: ISIS launched offensives against the Syrian regime in Deir ez Zour, eastern Homs province, and eastern Damascus province in January 2017, exploiting the regime’s focus on Aleppo and attempting to offset or divert regime operations near al-Bab. Regime forces began to reverse ISIS’s gains in Homs province on February 14. ISIS lost additional territory in Mosul to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in early 2017. ISIS also lost al-Bab, Syria to Turkish-backed Operation Euphrates Shield on February 23. ISIS may increasingly infiltrate opposition-held territory in northwest Syria as U.S.-backed, Kurdish-dominated Operation Euphrates Shield threatens its control of Raqqa. ISIS-linked opposition group Liwa al-Aqsa conducted numerous attacks in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces against opposition groups in early 2017, especially those affiliated with al-Qaeda’s de facto affiliate in Syria, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Liwa al-Aqsa subsequently negotiated a withdrawal from villages in northern Hama province, which may remain an attack zone for ISIS. ISIS’s affiliate in southwest Syria, Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid, also seized towns in Dera’a province in February, exploiting the focus of local opposition groups on an offensive in Dera’a City. ISW is placing a watch on ISIS in Damascus province and in Jordan, where ISIS may have latent potential to launch attacks in response to further losses in Raqqa and Mosul. A depiction of ISIS sanctuary in Jordan is forthcoming.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

ISIS Sanctuary Map: February 26, 2017

By Alexandra Gutowski and the ISW Research Team 
ISIS launched offensives against the Syrian regime in Deir ez Zour, eastern Homs province, and eastern Damascus province in January 2017, exploiting the regime’s focus on Aleppo and attempting to offset or divert regime operations near al-Bab. Regime forces began to reverse ISIS’s gains in Homs province on February 14. ISIS lost additional territory in Mosul to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in early 2017. ISIS also lost al-Bab, Syria to Turkish-backed Operation Euphrates Shield on February 23. ISIS may increasingly infiltrate opposition-held territory in northwest Syria as U.S.-backed, Kurdish-dominated Operation Euphrates Shield threatens its control of Raqqa. ISIS-linked opposition group Liwa al-Aqsa conducted numerous attacks in northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces against opposition groups in early 2017, especially those affiliated with al-Qaeda’s de facto affiliate in Syria, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Liwa al-Aqsa subsequently negotiated a withdrawal from villages in northern Hama province, which may remain an attack zone for ISIS. ISIS’s affiliate in southwest Syria, Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid, also seized towns in Dera’a province in February, exploiting the focus of local opposition groups on an offensive in Dera’a City. ISW is placing a watch on ISIS in Damascus province and in Jordan, where ISIS may have latent potential to launch attacks in response to further losses in Raqqa and Mosul. A depiction of ISIS sanctuary in Jordan is forthcoming. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Strategic Convergence of Russia and Iran

By Christopher Kozak

Key Takeaway: The U.S. cannot drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in the near term. Tehran and Moscow share regional and global interests across the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Their common interests and overarching objective of expelling the U.S. from the Middle East will likely bind Iran and Russia together into an enduring partnership.

The Trump administration reportedly seeks to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria. Officials have suggested that the U.S. could exploit natural tensions between the two states and persuade Russia to check Iran in the Middle East. This notion assumes that cooperation between the two countries is limited to tactical efforts in Syria and misses the deep strategic convergence between Moscow and Tehran. Iran and Russia share many fundamental and enduring common interests and strategic objectives, most notably the expulsion of the U.S. from the Middle East.

Iran and Russia are historic rivals and dissimilar regimes. Each poses a unique threat to the existing international order. Russia aims to reestablish itself as a global superpower and restore the multipolar world of the Cold War at the expense of the U.S. and Europe. Iran aims to become a regional hegemon by expelling the U.S. from the Middle East, undermining Saudi Arabia, and eliminating Israel. These aims do not diverge over the short to medium term. Iran remains far from its goal of regional hegemony – a position that would likely draw concern from Moscow. Russia is also not close to achieving parity with the U.S. and NATO. Russia and Iran will thus likely continue to partner closely until one or the other comes within striking distance of its goals – a condition unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future.

Strategic Convergence

Syria - Iran and Russia support the Syrian regime against all its opponents.

Iran needs a friendly regime in Damascus to provide a secure base from which it can support Lebanese Hezbollah and conduct operations against Israel. Russia requires a regime willing and able to guarantee long-term access to its air and naval bases on the Mediterranean Sea from which to challenge the U.S. and NATO. Minor divergences between Iran and Russia in their approach to the Syrian Civil War reflect the friction normal to any coalition rather than signs of fragility. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears to view the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a matter of personal honor while Russian President Vladimir Putin does not. Even if Putin agreed to abandon Assad, however, there is no reason to imagine that the partnership between Russia and Iran would collapse given their numerous other grounds for cooperation.

Iraq and Afghanistan – Iran and Russia seek to expel the U.S. from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russia and Iran both seek to eliminate the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tehran aims to prevent Iraq from becoming a hostile base of attack, remembering the existential struggle of the Iran-Iraq War against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  Tehran uses political parties and militias to pressure the weak government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, periodically threatening to replace him with a pro-Iranian leader who might order the U.S. out of Iraq. Meanwhile, Russian outreach in Iraq has been opportunistic.  Russia formed a joint intelligence-sharing cell with Iran, Iraq, and Syria and stands ready to further increase its involvement with support from political actors aligned with Iran in Baghdad. Iran and Russia both also desire a stable buffer state in Afghanistan that excludes the U.S. and NATO. Both countries prefer to work with the same set of allies on the ground within the Northern Alliance as well as the Afghan Taliban.

Turkey - Iran and Russia desire to peel Turkey away from the U.S. and NATO.

Iran and Russia both seek to pull Turkey out of the orbit of the U.S. and NATO while ending Ankara’s support to opposition groups in Syria. Both countries also oppose Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman strategic vision to reassert Turkish economic, cultural, and military dominance over the Middle East. Russia and Iran also have major economic interests in Turkey as a transit route for natural gas pipelines and a buyer of energy resources. Moscow and Tehran have coopted Turkey into diplomatic initiatives to end the Syrian Civil War that exclude the U.S. Both countries jointly took advantage of tensions between the U.S. and Turkey over coalition support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which Turkey considers to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan has expressed a willingness to pursue membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the rival to NATO led by Russia and China.

Egypt – Iran and Russia aim to accelerate Egypt’s drift away from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Russia and Iran encourage Egypt’s movement away from the U.S. and Gulf States. Russia likely seeks new military basing on the Mediterranean Sea and Red Sea in Egypt that would give it control over the Suez Canal. Iran needs new points of access to support its illicit networks throughout Africa after losing its partners in Sudan and Eritrea. Both countries likely view Cairo as an acceptable counterweight to Saudi Arabia for leadership of Sunni Arabs in the Middle East. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has voted for Russian initiatives on Syria at the UN Security Council and reportedly sent a limited number of troops to Syria on behalf of the Russia and Iran.

Caucasus – Russia and Iran back Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Russia maintains a strong alliance with Armenia that spans centuries. Moscow has sold billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Yerevan over the past two decades and has permanent military bases in Yerevan and Gyumri. Iran supports Armenia as a counterweight to Azerbaijan. Tehran fears that Baku could support a secessionist movement within its own domestic Azeri population and accuses Azerbaijan of providing Israel with a base for intelligence-gathering and military training.

Global Stage Russia and Iran seek to weaken and divide the EU and NATO.

Russia and Iran view the EU and NATO as tools of U.S. domination in Europe. Russia pressures NATO through continuous military exercises and violations of airspace or territorial waters as well as attacks against pro-Western governments in the former Soviet Union, with Ukraine being the most notable example.  Russia supports extremist political parties in Europe that seek to devolve power from the EU to national governments. Iranian rhetoric has recently begun incorporating greater criticism of the EU, including public expressions of support for Brexit.


Russia and Iran diverge on only a few key points. Russia does not seek to usurp the regional and religious influence of Saudi Arabia or destroy the state of Israel. Iran’s quest for regional hegemony also likely poses a problem for Moscow, which would prefer a regional balance among Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt as well as positive relations with Israel. Putin has done nothing to protest or contain Iranian efforts against Israel, however, even in the numerous instances when weapons Russia gave to Syria were reportedly transferred to Lebanese Hezbollah. Russia seems willing to accept increased tensions with Saudi Arabia and Israel in exchange for its partnership with Iran.

Russia and Iran also diverge on their stance towards the Kurds. Iran fears separatism among Kurds in Northern Iran amidst an increase in low-level domestic attacks over the past year. Russia by contrast views the Kurds as a source of leverage against regional and international powers including the U.S., Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Moscow has nevertheless offered no meaningful support for an independent Kurdistan – the one item that might fully draw the Kurds into the orbit of Russia. Iran and Russia seem quite capable of managing these differences to sustain their pursuit of common goals.


There is nothing unnatural, artificial, or inherently temporary about the coalition between Russia and Iran. Their relationship rests on a deep foundation of common strategic objectives and interests. The two countries are building a military coalition that can operate across the region – including a potential anti-access, area-denial zone stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. Meaningful divisions between Moscow and Tehran will only materialize under extreme conditions when either or both are on the verge of victory or collapse, forcing the other to make hard choices about its long-term regional interests. The foreseeable future offers little prospect of any such development. The inflation of minor disagreements in Syria into opportunities to split Russia from Iran misses the depth of this alignment and opens the U.S. up to strategic surprise by a rising coalition that is already rewriting the rules of the game in the Middle East. 

The Campaign for Ar-Raqqah: February 24, 2017

By Tom Ramage

Key Takeaway: The Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized the majority of ISIS-held territory in the eastern countryside of ar-Raqqah and is positioned to complete the isolation of the city in coming months. The U.S.’s main partners in Syria, the SDF and Turkey, are competing to lead the next phase of operations to seize ar-Raqqah City and thereby solidify their influence over post-ISIS governance. The SDF are currently the U.S. partner force best positioned to seize the city and have begun establishing governance structures comprised of local allied Arab leaders. Turkey’s alternative proposals for a Turkish-approved force to seize ar-Raqqah City risk an armed conflict with the SDF or pro-regime forces as well as the empowerment of Salafi-Jihadi group Ahrar al-Sham. The U.S. must work with its allies to both prevent an armed conflict between Turkey and the SDF that would detract from current anti-ISIS operations and while simultaneously setting conditions to ensure a representative governance structure for post-ISIS ar-Raqqah City.

The Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized the majority of ISIS-held territory in the eastern countryside of ar-Raqqah in ongoing efforts to isolate the city. The SDF launched the third phase of Operation Euphrates Wrath on February 4 with the stated objective of seizing the eastern countryside of ar-Raqqah City. The SDF attacked south towards ar-Raqqah City along two axes from SDF-held territory east of the town of Ayn Issa, reportedly seizing 98 villages and hamlets northeast of ar-Raqqah City by February 12. The SDF connected these two axes on February 11 and was approximately 5 km northeast of ar-Raqqah City as of February 17. The SDF subsequently announced the second stage of phase three on February 17 and launched two axes of attack in a pincer movement to seize the Raqqa-Hasakah highway and encircle ISIS-held territory in Northern Deir ez Zour Province. The SDF simultaneously advanced south from newly seized territory on the Raqqah-Hasakah highway and seized the village of Judaydat Khabour on February 21, thereby weakening ISIS’s ability to resupply ar-Raqqah City. The SDF are now positioned to complete the isolation of ar-Raqqah City and subsequently transition to the next phase of seizing the city.

The U.S.’s main partners in Syria, the SDF and Turkey, are competing to lead operations to seize ar-Raqqah City and solidify their influence over post-ISIS governance. The SDF are currently advancing towards the city with increased U.S. material support, and have requested heavy weapons and additional armored vehicles to counter ISIS’s strength in urban combat. The SDF and affiliated political parties have also begun solidifying relationships and alliances with local Arab tribal leaders in order to create a governance structure of SDF-friendly local notables similar to the structure established by the SDF in Manbij City. Turkey, meanwhile, has demanded that the U.S. end its support for the SDF and proposed two alternative plans for a Turkish approved force to seize ar-Raqqah City. Turkey’s plans, however, will likely not beas effective in combating ISIS in ar-Raqqah City as a U.S.-supported SDF assault on the city and will fail to achieve U.S. strategic objectives for Syria. The first plan to advance along a 12-mile wide corridor from the town of Tal Abyad to ar-Raqqah City would bisect SDF-held territory east of the Euphrates. The SDF will not concede to this plan without major U.S. guarantees or Turkish concessions, and may launch counter-attacks if Turkey proceeds unilaterally. Turkey’s second proposal is an offensive from the recently seized town of al Bab, which would require Turkish troops to advance approximately 100 miles and seize at least two heavily fortified ISIS-held towns before reaching ar-Raqqah City. This second proposal violates a reported agreement between Turkey and Russia preventing Turkish troops from advancing south of al Bab, and pro-regime forces have already begun advancing east towards Lake Assad in an effort to prevent Turkish-backed opposition groups from seizing vast territory.

Turkish-backed opposition groups acceptable to the U.S. likely [DS1] cannot seize ar-Raqqah City without additional support from prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al Sham. Turkey used Ahrar al Sham during the offensive on al Bab to seize territory when other Turkish backed opposition groups proved unable to effectively combat ISIS in and around the urban terrain. Turkey will likely utilize Ahrar al Sham in a leading role in a Turkish offensive on ar-Raqqah City. Ahrar al Sham’s seizure of the city would likely allow the group to dictate the composition of ar-Raqqah City’s governance structure, effectively trading control of ar-Raqqah from one Salafi-Jihadist group to another. A governance structure established by Ahrar al Sham is antithetical to U.S. strategic interests in Syria.

A U.S. failure to prevent conflict between its Kurdish- and Turkish-led partner forces in Syria could jeopardize the anti-ISIS mission in Syria. A Turkish attack on Manbij City or an attempt to bisect Kurdish territory could instigate a wider armed conflict that would distract both major U.S.-partner ground forces from the anti-ISIS fight in ar-Raqqah City. The U.S. must also set conditions to prevent the resurgence of Salafi-Jihadism after the seizure of ar-Raqqah City by ensuring that the city is governed by representatives of its population rather than another Salafi-Jihadist group or a Kurdish puppet.

The Campaign for Mosul: February 22-24, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and ISW Iraq Team

Update: The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured the Mosul Airport and Ghazlani military base on February 24 from where they advanced into neighborhoods in western Mosul. Units from the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) completed the two-day operation to recapture the airport before moving into adjacent neighborhoods in western Mosul. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) crossed the Tigris River, likely around Yarmjah in eastern Mosul, on February 22 and conducted a two-day operation on February 23 and 24 to clear the Ghazlani military base before likewise moving into nearby neighborhoods. The ISF will continue to use the airport and military base as a springboard and logistical and command hub for operations into western Mosul. Meanwhile, the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division supported by a Hawza militia continued efforts around Mount Atshan on February 22 and 23 before moving into an outermost neighborhood in Mosul on February 24.

Syria Situation Report: February 16 - 24, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Opposition groups backed by Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield seized full control over Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province as well as two neighboring towns, ending more than three months of heavy clashes. The fall of Al-Bab will enable Turkish President Recep Erdogan to pursue his next stated strategic priorities in Northern Syria – including an offensive to expel the Syrian Kurdish YPG from Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik warned that Turkey will “reevaluate” military operations against the town if the U.S. does not ensure the imminent withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish YPG from Manbij. Meanwhile, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura opened the Geneva IV Talks between regime and opposition delegations with the goal of reaching a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. The negotiations nonetheless appear primed to fail amidst deteriorating conditions on the ground - including an increasingly unstable nationwide ceasefire and a continued consolidation of power by Al-Qaeda in Syria. 

These graphics mark the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of February 16, 2017.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Warning Update: The Expansion of ISIS in Northwestern Afghanistan

By: Caitlin Forrest and Richard DeKold

Key Takeaway: ISIS Wilayat Khorasan may be developing a regional powerbase in northwestern Afghanistan. Former Taliban militants operating in the name of ISIS executed international aid workers and held others captive in a prison in Jowzjan Province in February 2017, a step change in ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan. ISIS may increasingly use this hub to regenerate manpower as it suffers losses elsewhere, threatening US and NATO interests in multiple regions across Afghanistan. Malign external actors like Russia and Iran could also use ISIS’s expansion in the region to validate their support of Taliban militants and undermine the U.S. and NATO.

Tripwire: The Jowzjan Provincial Governor claimed ISIS-linked militants killed six International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) workers on February 8 in Qush Tepah District. Militants are holding two more ICRC workers captive in an ISIS prison in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan Province according to a local news source. This report comes one month after local officials and elders separately claimed that ISIS members destroyed homes in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province and forced up to 60 families to leave their homes in Sayad District, Sar-e Pul Province in December 2016. Another report emerged on February 8 that the son of the slain leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which pledged to ISIS in August 2015, is leading efforts to resettle up to 650 foreign Pakistani and Uzbek militants and their families in Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces. ISW is issuing a warning based on these reports that ISIS may be developing a regional power base in northwestern Afghanistan. Neither ISIS Wilayat Khorasan nor ISIS’s central media has claimed the aforementioned events.

Pattern: The execution of international aid workers is a step change for ISIS in Afghanistan. The establishment of a prison and population displacement are new developments for ISIS in northwest Afghanistan, but typical of ISIS generally. ISIS militants previously used resettlement efforts to increase presence in Kunar in March 2016, and also established multiple prisons in their strongholds in Nangarhar Province. Reporting of ISIS-linked activity in northwestern Afghanistan accelerated in February 2017 compared to previous trends, but early indicators corroborate the presence of ISIS-linked fighters in this zone. Local security officials first claimed ISIS was recruiting and raising “black flags” in Jowzjan and Sar-e Pul Provinces in January 2015. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which historically operates in northern Afghanistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, pledged to ISIS in August 2015. ISIS militants reportedly clashed with security forces in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan province in July 2016. Another report in August 2016 alluded to a local ISIS commander in Jowzjan. ISIS militants clashed again with security forces in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province in October 2016. ISIS-linked groups also killed a local prayer leader in for assaulting minors in Darzab District in October 2016.  

Timing: ISIS may be exploiting a gap in security by Dostum’s Junbish Militia in northwestern Afghanistan. ISIS’s expansion in the region comes as First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who maintains significant influence in the North through his Junbish Militia, remains confined to his home surrounded by his militia in Kabul City following a scandal involving the alleged assault of former Jowzjan Provincial Governor Ahmad Eschi in November 2016 by his bodyguards. The lack of reported Junbish militia action to combat ISIS-linked militants in Northern Afghanistan may represent the absence of Junbish militias. Alternatively, Dostum may be sanctioning the expansion of ISIS in the region in order to demonstrate his significance to Afghan security in an attempt to relieve the political pressure to prosecute him for the alleged assault. Meanwhile, the ANSF is currently undergoing a U.S.-led force regeneration process during their 2016-2017 winter campaign. The Afghan National Unity Government has historically relied on a joint force of ANSF units and Junbish militiamen to provide security in northwestern Afghanistan. The lessened presence of Dostum’s militia while the ANSF rests and refits units may be granting ISIS-linked militants increased freedom of movement in the region.  

Assessment: The prison in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan province is the first indicator of social control by ISIS in Afghanistan outside of its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan.
The prison is run by former Taliban shadow governor Qari Hekmat, who reportedly joined ISIS in mid-2016 a few months after he was expelled from the Taliban due to his excessive brutality. Qari Hekmat is one of several ISIS-linked groups operating in the area, including Abdul Rahman Yuldash, the son of the slain leader of the IMU, who has also been implicated by local sources in recent reporting. The Jowzjan Provincial Governor claimed on February 8 that five ISIS factions with up to 200 fighters are present in Qush Tepah District alone. The successful recruitment of former-Taliban and IMU militants in Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces will allow ISIS to regenerate manpower and absorb losses incurred in its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. ISIS seeks to take advantage of the vast ungoverned and remote spaces in Afghanistan to establish camps where it can recruit, train, and deploy local and foreign fighters. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan has trained recruits from India, planned successful attacks in Kabul, and deployed expeditionary recruiters to remote provinces from its strongholds in Nangarhar and Zabul according to local sources. ISIS will likely use its growing presence and influence in the northwestern provinces to establish an additional regional base in which it can implement social control and expand ISIS’s Caliphate as it loses territory in core terrain.  

Implications: The expansion of ISIS’s Caliphate in Afghanistan would grant ISIS an additional logistical hub to receive and train foreign fighters as it becomes more difficult for foreign fighters to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan is likely strengthening its ties with IMU militants in order to expand its regional network and coopt local groups and fighters. Russia may use the expansion of ISIS in northwestern Afghanistan, which borders former Soviet satellite states Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, to continue undermining the U.S. and NATO by supporting Taliban militants and claiming that Taliban militants are fighting ISIS rather than the U.S. The expansion of ISIS outside of its bases in eastern Afghanistan will also strain the ongoing U.S. counterterrorism mission as it will have to shift resources to remote northwestern provinces. This shift may allow ISIS in Nangarhar to reconstitute sanctuaries lost to joint U.S.-ANSF operations in 2016. Any remaining Junbish militias under Dostum’s control in the area would further complicate U.S. response if Dostum faces backlash from his alleged assault against Eschi and orders his militias not to cooperate with the U.S. as a result. Both ISIS and Russia stand to benefit from the expansion of ISIS into the northwest at the expense of the U.S.

Indicators: Increased reports of ISIS conducting executions and establishing courts or prisons in the northwestern provinces would indicate ISIS is solidifying social control in the region. Reports that the group is suddenly flush with cash or is able to procure explosive materials may indicate a transfer of capabilities from either ISIS in core terrain, ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan, or both. Any recognition of these ISIS-linked groups in official ISIS media, either coming from core or with official ISIS Wilayat Khorasan branding, would indicate ISIS is consolidating ties with these groups and attempting to expand the Caliphate in northwestern Afghanistan. The continued successful recruiting of former-Taliban militants would increase the likelihood that ISIS will establish a regional stronghold as it coopts is main competitors in the area. If Dostum’s militia remains disengaged, it could further deteriorate security in the northwestern provinces and allow ISIS to make significant gains in the region. These gains may prompt Russia to take action against ISIS in the northwest, which would severely undermine and complicate the U.S. and NATO missions.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: February 1-21, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched operations to retake western Mosul on February 19. The ISF has not yet begun operations inside western Mosul city, focusing instead on isolating ISIS in Mosul by cutting off exits routes west of the city and setting conditions to breach the city limits through the southern airport.

The ISF launched operations on February 19 to recapture western Mosul after a three week operational reset following the recapture of eastern Mosul on January 24. The ISF has not yet entered western Mosul, and is continuing shaping operations south and southwest of the city. Units from the Federal Police and the Emergency Response Division (ERD) consolidated control over villages south of Mosul on February 19 and 20. The units reached the outskirts of the Ghazlani military base and Mosul airport on February 20 and began artillery strikes on February 21 on the airport and base in preparation to storm. Meanwhile, the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division alongside a Hawza militia from the Popular Mobilization, Firqat al-Abbas al-Qitaliya (FAQ), began to close off western escape routes out of the city. The division will likely continue the current trajectory to isolate Mosul by heading north towards the Tigris River. The desert operations are also more suitable to the armored division, which would have trouble navigating western Mosul’s narrow streets. The units may ultimately enter the city, but moving from the outside in rather than the inside out. 

Humanitarian conditions inside the city remain a concern as operations advance. The 16th Iraqi Army Division alongside police and local tribal fighters assumed control of security in eastern Mosul. The area has already suffered a series of suicide attacks over the past few weeks, suggesting that areas were insufficiently cleared or that ISIS already re-infiltrated the city. The UN announced on February 15 that it would temporarily pause humanitarian aid to the eastern half of Mosul because of the attacks. Meanwhile, the UN has also announced that food, fuel, and supplies are unable to reach western Mosul, distressing the humanitarian crisis for an estimated 750,000 civilians. The ongoing military operations are compounding these issues by further closing off possible access points for aid into the city. The ISF will need to prioritize efforts to secure the distribution of aid in both eastern and western Mosul and provide evacuation routes from western Mosul as the expected months-long operation will increase the severity of the humanitarian crisis.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: February 11-16, 2017

By the ISW Iraq Team

Baghdad witnessed serious breaches of security from February 11 to 16 due to both escalating protest movements and ISIS attacks. A large Sadrist-led protest, demanding electoral reforms, tried to move from Tahrir Square into the Green Zone on February 11, but security forces repelled the protesters with force, resulting in casualties. Soon after the protesters withdrew, unidentified attackers launched three rockets at the Green Zone from eastern Baghdad, resulting in no casualties. The Sadrist-affiliated militia denied responsibility for the rockets, however the attack may have been the act of Iranian proxy militias which have carried out rocket attacks against U.S. infrastructure before. ISIS, meanwhile, continued carrying out spectacular attacks in the capital, including a bombing on February 16 that killed upwards of fifty people, the deadliest of 2017 so far. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called an emergency meeting on February 16 in order to issue procedures to ensure security.

The increased intensity of the Sadrist demonstrations could escalate ongoing intra-Shi’a competition in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr retains the momentum to continue mass protests, busing in and mobilizing thousands on February 11, then again on February 14, and calling for another protest on February 17. Sadr had similar momentum in early 2016, when protests spread from Baghdad to the southern provinces. Sadrist protesters are historically undisciplined, however, and in 2016 they attacked political offices in southern Iraq, including Dawa Party and other pro-Iran party headquarters. Similar attacks now as political parties gear up for both provincial and national elections could inflame a greater intra-Shi’a conflict in the southern provinces. Basra will likely be a significant flash point as there have already been attacks related to election violence in the past month. Baghdad will need to move quickly to quell Sadr’s protests before they instigate a greater conflict between armed political groups in the capital and southern provinces.

Syria Situation Report: February 2 - 16, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Turkish President Recep Erdogan reiterated that the “ultimate goal” of Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield is the establishment of a five-thousand square kilometer ‘safe zone’ that includes Al-Bab, Manbij, and Ar-Raqqa City in Northern Syria during a speech on February 12. Erdogan stated that the proposed “terrorist-free zone” would require the implementation of a no-fly zone, noting that he had discussed the issue with both the U.S. and Russia. The statement came after pro-regime forces supported by Russia and Lebanese Hezbollah effectively completed the encirclement of ISIS in Al-Bab in line with a predetermined agreement between Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, preparations continued for the next round of Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War scheduled to begin on February 23. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) approved a watered-down delegation to the talks that replaced several key armed opposition representatives with civilian members of the exiled political opposition as well as delegates from domestic opposition factions backed by Russia that lack legitimacy on the ground. The potential for successful talks also remains muted amidst continued calls by armed opposition groups for the full implementation of a nationwide ceasefire, humanitarian access, and prisoner releases agreed upon at the Astana Talks on January 23 – 24.

These graphics mark the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of February 16, 2017.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ukraine Warning Update: Russia preparing to ‘cash in’ its military gains in Ukraine

By Nataliya Bugayova and Franklin Holcomb 

Key Takeaway: Recent Russian maneuvering in Ukraine poses a growing risk to U.S. interests as Vladimir Putin presses to capitalize on his intervention. Russia may have assessed that it does not require a full-fledged separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine anymore, as it sees a political opportunity to force Kyiv into accepting and legitimizing the occupied territories of Donbas on Russia's terms. Putin continues setting conditions to advance his political objective of creating a pliable, pro-Russian, anti-Western Ukraine, and to shape how the West should respond to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. The U.S. must recognize Putin’s game and seize the initiative, including by boosting support for a sovereign Ukraine, rather than let the Kremlin transform the region toward its own destabilizing ends. 

Tripwire: Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees an opportunity to ‘cash in’ his military gains to get closer to his objective of reinstating a client regime in Ukraine.

Russia has recently shown little interest in preserving the combat effectiveness of its proxy forces. First, Russia has allowed a continuous purge of the separatist leadership. In the past two weeks alone, there have been three deaths of high-profile separatist leaders, including Mikhail “Givi” Tolstykh, a senior commander, notorious for his brutality against Ukrainian forces. Second, Russia allowed the separatists to suffer major losses in the most recent Avdiivka escalation. The Ukrainian Army was able to easily repel separatist attacks and force the dispersed, low-quality separatists from their positions. These defeats followed months of setbacks for separatist forces in the Svitlodarsk Arc, where Ukrainian forces had counter-attacked, driven separatist forces from their positions, and thereby threatened their supply lines. Ukrainian armed forces also killed or wounded several high profile separatist commanders, a previously rare occurrence. Russia chose not to provide the backing the separatists would have required to make major gains. This suggests that Russia was not primarily focused on separatist battlefield victories.

Having the most heinous separatist leaders out of the picture gives Russia additional framing leverage vis-à-vis Kyiv in the peace negotiations in Minsk. Their absence may weaken Kyiv's argument that Ukraine cannot consider direct negotiations or any form of legitimization of the occupied territories while the war criminals, who tortured and killed Ukrainian soldiers, are in power. It might also make it easier for Russia to sell legitimization of its proxies to the international community if the separatists are perceived as 'beheaded' and weakened. 

Additionally, various political actors inside and outside Ukraine have changed their rhetoric about what is possible in the context of Donbas peace deal. Yevhen Marchuk, Ukraine’s representative in the Minsk talks group, said in a Feb. 6 interview that Ukraine is approaching a “painful stage” in the peace talks, during which it will have to compromise. German Ambassador to Ukraine Ernst Reichel stated that elections in the non-government controlled areas in eastern Ukraine are possible while there are still Russian forces in the area. Meanwhile, Russia has intensified its various false narratives[i] about Ukraine in the West.

Timing: Uncertainly about the new U.S. administration's policy vis-à-vis Russia has opened two cracks for the Kremlin to exploit.

First, some European countries are delaying taking strong stands as they await the new U.S. administration's first move. The pause gives Russia time to exploit any divergences and shape a new narrative about the potential peace deal with Ukraine. 

Second, the fear among some decision-makers in Kyiv that the U.S. will 'abandon' Ukraine and leave them dealing one on one with Putin allows the Kremlin to coerce them into a deal. There have been informal reports that such a back door deal is already in the making. 

Lastly, Russia needs to make a decision about the cost-benefit of further investment in the separatist forces, which have continued to degrade in capability and have shown signs of little improvement over three years, while the Armed Forces of Ukraine have grown increasingly effective.

Most dangerous course of action: 
  • Russia gets its preferred deal. It forces Ukraine into accepting local elections in the occupied territories that will bring representatives of these separatist territories into the Ukrainian parliament. Russia might also push for the creation of transitional local authorities in these regions and amnesty for the insurgents. 
  • Russia manages to conceal its true intentions and frames these events as major concessions in the eyes of Europe and the U.S. 
Such arrangement places a permanent 'Trojan horse' inside Ukraine—an institutionalized political lever in the form of semi-autonomous regions and, potentially, their representation in the legislature. Russia would have gotten a 'foot in the door' and will expand on it until it reinstitutes its client regime. Moreover, the deal would be considered a betrayal by a large part of the Ukrainian population and might lead to violent internal confrontations and, if taken to an extreme, full political destabilization. 

Most likely course of action: A major push back from many decision-makers in Kyiv and the Ukrainian population will prevent Russia from getting its preferred arrangement at this time. Many top government officials in Ukraine reaffirmed that elections held in the non-government controlled areas of eastern Ukraine are inadmissible and impossible.

However, if unimpeded by the West, Russia is still likely to get a deal that includes some form of legitimization for the occupied territories. It is also likely to get European sanctions related to Donbas lifted. Russia still will have managed to get 'a foot in the door' and will continue expanding on it until it reinstitutes its client regime.

Russia is likely to continue advancing its proxy war in eastern Ukraine in the event that a strong alignment between Kyiv and the West prevents Russia from gaining increased legitimacy for its proxies or global pressure forces Russia to halt its military ambitions in Ukraine. 

Significance for U.S. policy:
  • Such a deal would get Russia closer to its objective of restricting Ukraine's movement toward the West. It would increase the risk of having a non-U.S. friendly government in Kyiv in the future. 
  • Such a deal would also mean that Russia will have achieved most of its objectives in Ukraine without paying a serious long-term price. 
  • Removal of the European sanctions related to Donbas would ease Russia’s access the debt market and allow the Kremlin to finance continued military expansion and challenge other strategic U.S. positions around the world. 
It is critical that the U.S. understands exactly what kind of gains Russia is making in Ukraine and what ‘concessions’ Russia claims, but is not making, as the U.S. considers its strategic options. 

Recommendation: A core element of U.S. policy needs to be a focus on strengthening a partner in Kyiv that can resist Putin’s pressure campaigns. The U.S. must in this instance prevent any non-transparent back door deal between the Kremlin and one or more factions of powerbrokers in Kyiv. The U.S. should also develop a more effective effort to strengthen Kyiv using its full range of tools, including political, military, and economic assistance. The U.S. should simultaneously avoid premature concessions, such as weakening the sanction regime on Russia or ruling out options for increasing economic pressure. The U.S. administration should seize the moment to send a strong signal to Ukraine, Europe, and Vladimir Putin. It has an opportunity to do so this week with Defense Secretary James Mattis scheduled to attend a NATO Defense Ministerial Conference and the Munich Security Conference. 

[i] “Escalation in Donbass manifests Kiev’s gross violation of Minsk Agreements-Lavrov” TASS, February 10, 2017, http://tass(.)com/politics/930102