Thursday, March 30, 2017

Syria Situation Report: March 17 - 30, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Al-Qaeda resumed large-scale offensive operations against the regime following a consolidation phase in Northern Syria. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham - the successor of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham - and Ahrar al-Sham launched a major operation against pro-regime forces in Northern Hama Province on March 21. ISW has previously assessed that Al-Qaeda would launch operations against Hama City in order to destabilize the regime and achieve symbolic resonance among Salafi-Jihadists due to the 1982 Hama Massacre. Current conditions remain unpromising for the Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War that resumed on March 23. The likely failure of these negotiations will provide additional impetus to Al-Qaeda’s narrative that opposition groups should abandon the negotiating table.

The U.S. accelerated its campaign to isolate and seize Ar-Raqqa City alongside the Syrian Kurdish YPG. The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an operation to seize the Tabqa Dam west of Ar-Raqqa City on March 22 with extensive support from the U.S. including airstrikes, artillery fire, attack helicopters, and embedded advisors. The U.S. also transferred at least 500 SDF fighters to the southern bank of the Euphrates River via helicopter to cut the Aleppo - Ar-Raqqa Highway. The operation - which will likely provoke a negative response from Turkey - began on the same day as a two-day ministerial conference of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Washington D.C.

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 March 30, 2017.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 17-29, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) slowed its advance into western Mosul on March 26 in order to regroup and prepare for an assault on the Old City, the densest part of western Mosul in terms of both population and infrastructure. The U.S. is deploying an additional 240 soldiers to Mosul, likely to support a final push through the Old City. The ISF has also slowed its operation out of continued concerns of civilian casualties throughout the western Mosul operation. Humanitarian concerns flared when local sources claimed that a Coalition airstrike on March 17 killed as many as 200 civilians. Meanwhile, Iran is deepening the role of its proxy Badr Organization in Ninewa Province to influence the post-ISIS security and political structure in the province.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) slowed its offensive in central Mosul on March 26 out of concern for the estimated 400,000 civilians remaining in the Old City. The ISF continues operations in the outer neighborhoods, but has largely paused the offensive into the Old City. Local sources claimed that a Coalition airstrike on March 17 killed as many as 200 civilians in the adjacent New Mosul neighborhood. The Coalition confirmed that it conducted a strike in the area on March 17, however the strike may have set off ISIS VBIEDs or rigged houses near the strike, which caused the bulk of casualties. U.S. officials insisted that the Trump Administration has not loosened the rules of engagement for airstrikes. The Obama Administration in December 2016 had allowed Coalition advisors on the ground to directly call in airstrikes in order to improve precision. International human rights groups have criticized the Coalition for not making sufficient effort to prevent civilian casualties, however. A UN official stated that at least 307 civilians have died in western Mosul so far, the majority in the March 17 airstrike. ISIS is deliberately complicating the Coalition’s ability to conduct airstrikes by using the civilian population as human shields.
The ISF is opening a second front to isolate the Old City, rather than working through it, in order to maintain pressure on ISIS and avoid civilian casualties. Units are advancing along the Old City’s western edge towards the Great Mosque, which they will likely seek to retake before turning inward. The ISF could also increase pressure on ISIS by positioning the 9th IA Division, which completed the recapture of Badush Sub-District on March 26, to breach Mosul from the northwest.

U.S. officials announced on March 27th the deployment of 240 additional troops from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, likely in order to accelerate the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. The troops have likely already arrived. This deployment is not likely a response to the March 17 airstrike, as the force is tasked with force protection and IED clearance, but it could still further enable airstrike precision. Iraqi political backlash against the March 17 airstrike could slow or constrain Coalition efforts, however. Sunni political leader Osama al-Nujaifi called for an “immediate end” to airstrikes in Mosul on March 24. A reduction in Coalition airpower in Mosul would increase the risk to ISF and U.S. forces by making them more vulnerable to ISIS tactics such as SVBIEDs.

Meanwhile, Iranian proxies in the Ministry of Interior and the Badr Organization have increased Iran’s influence in the Mosul operation.

  1. The ISF’s official media outlet listed the 2nd Badr Brigade’s operations together with the 9th IA Division northeast of Mosul city on March 22, suggesting a growing interoperability between the Popular Mobilization and the Iraqi Army. Coalition advisors are currently supporting the 9th IA Division.
  2. The Popular Mobilization entered Mosul’s city limits as part of a humanitarian campaign which it launched on March 14. Aid convoys entered recaptured western neighborhoods soon after, bearing the flags of the Badr Organization and Liwa Ali al-Akbar, a Hawza affiliated militia. Unidentified armed forces, likely Badr, accompanied the convoys.
  3. The Ministry of Interior, an Iranian client, appointed Abu Dargham al-Maturi as commander of the 6th Federal Police Division, a new unit that made its operational debut at the start of the western Mosul operation on February 19. Abu Dargham is also the commander of a Badr Organization’s brigade and has used his dual role to permit entry to proxy militias into off-limit operations. His appointment to the division underscores the risk of further Iranian infiltration into the ISF and inside Mosul.

The Badr Organization will continue to expand Iranian influence in Mosul after its recapture. It is already working to establish a political presence in northern Iraq. It may also try to coopt local tribal militias, currently acting as hold forces, as it did in Salah al-Din by financially supporting a tribal militia as part of the Popular Mobilization in early 2016. The Badr-controlled Ministry of Interior will likewise ensure that the Mosul Police Chief remains friendly to the central government and amenable to Iranian interests. The U.S. must ensure that the post-ISIS holding force in Mosul City is both controlled by the Iraqi government and responsive to its authority. The U.S. must contain and reduce Iran’s influence in Mosul. The Badr Organization’s direct presence in Mosul city and its environs places American service members at risk. Its continued presence in Mosul could also could drive sectarian tensions that ISIS or other insurgent groups could use to recruit, undermining the success of anti-ISIS operations.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Ukraine's Blockade Crisis

By Franklin Holcomb and Charles Frattini III

Rising instability in Ukraine has created an opportunity for Russia to further press its political-military campaign to weaken Kyiv and exert greater control over Ukraine. Ukrainian activists instituted a potentially crippling blockade against territory in Eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian proxies. The blockade has exacerbated tensions between the Ukrainian government and parts of Ukrainian civil society while increasing political and social tensions. Russia has further destabilized the situation by providing additional political and economic support to its separatist proxy forces, which have seized Ukrainian businesses and continue to conduct military operations. Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue to exploit vulnerabilities in Ukraine while American and Western policy remains in a transitional state. Efforts to strengthen Kyiv and enable it to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russian aggression will be critical to U.S. interests in Europe.

An activist-led blockade of Russian proxy-controlled territory in Eastern Ukraine has increased political and social tensions in Ukraine. The activists, many of whom are Ukrainian veterans, intend to halt the flow of goods between separatist and Ukrainian territory. Blockade leaders condemned Ukraine for profiting from trade with separatists and demanded that Kyiv cease trade with the Russian proxies and release Ukrainian prisoners held by separatists. MP Semenchenko claimed that the blockade would “bring the entire war to an end” by putting economic pressure on the separatists. The blockade threatens a primary source of separatist income but it comes at a cost to Ukraine. The blockade prevents the transfer of anthracite coal, a shortage of which prompted Ukraine to declare a state of emergency in its energy sector on February 15, 2017, and continues to present economic risks. The blockade also provided an excuse for Russian-backed separatist forces to seize Ukrainian-owned and operated enterprises across their territory on March 01 as levels of fighting in the eastern Ukraine steadily increased. Ukrainian efforts to negotiate with the activists failed to make significant progress. Attempts to disperse the activist-led blockade on March 13 prompted protests in support of the activists nationwide. The Ukrainian government took no significant steps to disperse the activists, due to issue’s sensitivity, public support for the activists, and limited political capital to confront the veteran-led blockade. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a suspension of cargo traffic with occupied-Donbas on March 15th, in an attempt to de-escalate rising tensions and in response to separatist seizures of assets. Poroshenko emphasized that the blockade will continue until the Russian-backed separatists return control of seized assets and comply with the Minsk agreements, an agreement signed by both sides to end the conflict. The Ukrainian government continued to condemn the blockade despite its policy shift. Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman condemned the blockade, stating that it was “in the interests of Russia” because it weakens the Ukrainian economy. Poroshenko accused the activists of finding and exploiting a “raw public nerve” and condemned the blockade as a “special operation aimed at pushing the occupied areas of Ukrainian Donbas towards the Russian Federation” on March 20.

Russia took steps to increase its economic and political support of its proxy forces in order to increase pressure on Kyiv as it struggles to deal effectively with the blockade crisis, and test Western reaction. The Kremlin maintains its objective of forcing Ukraine to re-integrate the separatist republics on Moscow’s terms in order to have a permanent lever of influence within Ukraine. The blockade threatens a primary source of separatist income and could lead to widespread unemployment and social crisis in separatist-held territory. Russia needs to intervene through financial support to prevent the economic collapse of its proxies, or end the blockade. Russia indicated that it would purchase goods from Donbas in order to maintain economic stability on March 06, although reports emerged that mines in Donbas were not operating on March 09. The Russian government also increased its political support for its proxies. Russia officially recognized legal documentation issued by separatist republics on February 18.  This decision prompted Ukrainian nationalist groups to barricade Russian state-owned banks across Ukraine, leading to an escalation of tensions and the 22 March announcement by Russian banks that they intend to immediately cease operations in Ukraine. The Russian lower house of parliament proposed giving preferences in employment and in pursuing Russian citizenship to citizens of the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics on March 20[i]. Russia and its proxies may use the blockade to justify further escalation of hostilities in order to force Ukraine to end its economic pressure and pursue legitimization of separatist forces on Moscow’s terms. The Kremlin will also seek to exploit any political crisis in Ukraine to destabilize the pro-Western coalition, undermine Ukraine’s reform efforts, and halt Ukraine’s integration with the West.

Ukraine took concrete steps to continue its fight against corruption and further integrate itself with the West despite increasing instability. The Ukrainian government suspended the Director of its State Fiscal Service due to a corruption investigation on March 03. This action may be a catalyst for a much-needed anti-corruption campaign. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) preliminarily approved Ukraine for a $1 billion loan on March 05. This loan strengthens the Ukrainian government’s ability to fulfill financial obligations that are key to its political stability. Ukraine and Canada extended their bilateral military cooperation through 2019, signaling Ukraine’s continued commitment to meeting Western military standards. The U.S. and its allies must continue to support Kyiv’s efforts to reform and counter corruption.

Iraq Situation Report: March 1-20, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos, Jennifer Cafarella, and Jessa Rose Dury-Agri

Regional actors are vying to dominate the post-ISIS security structure and political order in northern Iraq. Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are threatening the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and its affiliates in Sinjar, west of Mosul City. Sinjar is a historic flashpoint for ethnic tensions and at the center of Turkish, Iranian, and Kurdish interests. The KDP seeks to incorporate Sinjar into the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), expanding the KRG’s territorial control. Turkey supports the KDP’s desire to move against the PKK and has threatened to participate in a direct attack. The desire to move against Sinjar could bring Turkey and the KDP into conflict with Iran. Iranian-backed elements of the Popular Mobilization are stationed nearby at Tel Afar and have claimed that the PKK-backed Yazidi militia in Sinjar is part of the Popular Mobilization. Iranian-backed militias could intervene on the side of the PKK in Sinjar if Turkey or the KDP act further, escalating the conflict which could undermine post-ISIS stability in northern Iraq. Russia is also seeking to gain influence in northern Iraq through a financial relationship with the KDP, which could embolden the KDP by granting it greater independence from Baghdad. Russian-owned oil company Rosneft renegotiated a loan with the KRG to pre-finance crude oil exports to Russia on February 21. Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani later met with a senior Russian delegation in Arbil on March 1 to discuss strengthening bilateral relations between the KRG and Russia, marking the first high-level Russian delegation to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. Separately, tribal violence in southern Iraq, particularly in Maysan Province, signals rising intra-Shi’a competition ahead of provincial elections in September 2017.  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: February 8 - March 19, 2017

This update highlights why Russia remains an unfit partner to fight ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria.  See the new Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project report on Putin's Real Syria Agenda here.

By Jonathan Mautner

Threats to regime security across Syria will likely challenge Russia’s ability to provide decisive air support throughout the country, notwithstanding the resumption of aggressive Russian air operations against opposition terrain in western Aleppo and northern Idlib Provinces from March 3 – 19. The surge in Russian airstrikes in northern Syria signals regime preparations to clear the targeted areas with ground forces, but opposition groups likely preempted that course of action by launching a concerted offensive in the vicinity of regime-held Hama City in central Syria on March 21. Opposition factions seized no fewer than eight towns in northern Hama Province from pro-regime forces within hours, indicating that Russia may need to divert significant air assets from northern Syria in order to secure strategic regime interests in the country’s central corridor. Russia can likely conduct high tempo air operations against opposition forces on both fronts, but it cannot do so and maintain its current campaigns against ISIS in eastern Homs and Aleppo Provinces and opposition groups in Syria’s south. Pro-regime forces, moreover, are also vying to break ISIS’s ongoing siege of the Deir ez Zour Military Airport in eastern Syria and to repel a recently-launched opposition offensive in Damascus City. The confluence of these proliferating threats, the finite supply of Russian airframes in Syria, and the regime’s want for sufficient combat effective ground forces indicates that Russia will have to identify regime security priorities and deploy its air assets accordingly. Notably, the pro-regime alliance has struggled to triage effectively in the past, ceding Palmyra to ISIS merely two days before securing the surrender of opposition-held Aleppo City in December 2016. This experience counsels that Russian air power alone—whatever its allocation—will not enable pro-regime forces to secure Syria in all of its corners.

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. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

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.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Russia Moves to Supplant U.S. Role

By Genevieve Casagrande

Russian President Vladimir Putin is leveraging Russia’s position in Syria to further diminish U.S. influence in the broader Middle East and North Africa. Russia will increasingly constrain U.S. freedom of maneuver in the broader region by expanding its military footprint and its anti-access and area denial zone. Putin advanced his regional strategy from February 27 to March 20, 2017 in three ways. First, he promoted economic relationships with key U.S. allies, including Egypt and Iraqi Kurds. Russia and Egypt reached tentative agreements to establish a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Gulf area and to resume Russian flights to tourist destinations in Sinai. Russia also renegotiated its oil agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government on February 28. Second, Putin cultivated ties to local security forces, particularly those he seeks to draw away from partnership with the U.S., such as the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Russia brokered an agreement to give the Syrian regime control of villages near Manbij, Syria to deter a Turkish-backed offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, and deployed Russian forces to train the YPG on March 20. Third, Putin took steps to further develop Russian strategic basing across the region. The deployment of Russian special forces to a base in western Egypt in early March signals Russia’s intent to expand its strategic basing along the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s overtures to Egypt pose a particular concern as NATO conducts greater outreach to Egypt.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) produced this map with the Critical Threats Project (CTP). The graphic is part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. The ISW-CTP team recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: Nowruz Update

Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: November 23, 2016 - March 15, 2017

By: Caitlin Forrest

KT: The U.S. faces pressure from Russia as well as militant groups that seek to undermine the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2017. The ANSF faces readiness gaps that will expose multiple provincial capitals to recurrent attacks by the Taliban and escalating attacks in Kabul by multiple groups, including ISIS. These threats will compound the difficulty the ANSF already faces in holding territory recaptured from Taliban forces in 2016. Russia meanwhile will attempt to thwart the U.S. and NATO by brokering peace talks with the Taliban that increasingly incorporate competing international power centers, such as China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Taliban set conditions during the winter phase of its yearlong campaign, Operation Omari, to target provincial capitals during its upcoming spring 2017 offensive. Taliban militants attacked security posts and district centers near the provincial capitals of Helmand, Kunduz, and Uruzgan provinces over the reporting period, indicating their intent to attack these cities during their upcoming spring 2017 offensive when they announce it in April 2017. Taliban militants had also launched simultaneous attacks on the same three cities, as well as the provincial capital of Farah Province, in October 2016. Taliban militants attacked four district centers in Helmand in January and February 2017 to weaken security forces and gain territory to stage attacks against Lashkar Gah city. Taliban militants also launched several attacks against security posts on the outskirts of Tarin Kot city, the provincial capital of Uruzgan province in January and February. Taliban militants also attacked ANA bases in Baghlan-e Jadid District in Baghlan Province in March 2017 in an attempt to gain control of the ground line of communication (GLOC) that the ANSF uses to send reinforcements to Kunduz City from Kabul. These attacks indicate that the Taliban intends to launch ground campaigns against Lashkar Gah, Tarin Kot, and Kunduz cities during the upcoming spring offensive.

ISIS Wilayat Khorasan took advantage of ungoverned and remote spaces in northwest Afghanistan to expand its territory. ISIS expanded beyond its stronghold in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan and established a base to receive and train foreign fighters in northwest Afghanistan. Uzbek militants fighting with ISIS in Jowzjan province exerted social control by destroying Sufi shrines, burning civilian homes, and erecting prisons in early 2017. ISIS deployed recruiters from Zabul province to set up a training camp in Nimroz province in early 2017. ISIS will prioritize expanding its control in Afghanistan as it faces the loss of its capital cities in Syria and Iraq in 2017. ISIS will also attack Afghan state institutions directly. ISIS launched a complex attack against the ANSF national military hospital in Kabul on March 8, 2017. The attack demonstrated an increase in capability, insider access, and the transfer of techniques from other groups in the area or from ISIS’s core terrain.

ANSF force regeneration is not on track to match the Taliban’s spring offensives. The ANSF failed to secure large swaths of territory from Taliban militants during the winter phase of its own counter-offensive campaign, Operation Shafaq. The majority of its holding forces are insufficiently trained and under-equipped, requiring additional support from Afghan Special Security Forces. Taliban militants targeted southern and northern districts during the winter phase of Operation Omari while the ANSF conducted anti-ISIS operations in the East. The ANSF continues to struggle with high casualties and attrition despite ongoing U.S.-led force regeneration efforts. Recruitment generally keeps pace with these losses, but it is insufficient to build the force necessary to clear and hold territory from Taliban militants. The Afghan Air Force’s (AAF) capabilities are steadily increasing, but its airframes are in “dire condition” due to high operational tempo and compromised helicopter maintenance due to sanctions on Russian equipment. Russia will attempt to leverage this weakness to insert itself in Afghanistan’s security sector on its own terms. The Taliban will likely capitalize on the ANSF’s readiness gaps by launching simultaneous offensives in separate regions during its spring offensive in order to stretch and weaken the ANSF to a breaking point.

Rising tensions in the National Unity Government will allow the Taliban and extremist networks to exploit security gaps. First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum undermined the government by refusing to comply with Afghan law or cooperate with judicial institutions following accusations that he assaulted the former Jowzjan Governor in November 2016. ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) exploited security gaps caused by the absence or fracturing of Dostum’s militia in Jowzjan while it protected him in Kabul. Meanwhile, Dostum’s rival, Balkh Provincial Governor Mohammad Atta Noor, seeks to supplant fellow Tajik and Jamiat party member CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s influence in the National Unity Government. President Ghani benefits from Atta’s efforts to undermine Abdullah, his rival. Atta is currently holding private talks with President Ghani, either to join the central government or possibly set up a bid for the 2019 Afghan presidential elections. The National Unity Government will lose its ability to prevent insurgent and Salafi-jihadi groups from reconstituting as it fractures along powerbrokers and warlords’ competing interests. The National Unity Government will also become increasingly willing to entertain peace talks with the Taliban brokered by Russia, which could accelerate bold posturing and independent action by former Northern Alliance Warlords within the government.

Russia is undermining the U.S. and NATO by positioning itself as the key interlocutor of peace talks with the Taliban. General Nicholson expressed concern over the “malign influence” of Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and their support of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan in a press conference on December 2, 2016. He stated that the Russian narrative that Taliban militants are countering ISIS in Afghanistan is false, and further undermines the U.S. missions in Afghanistan. Russia plans to discuss Afghan peace talks with representatives from Iran, China, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan in Moscow in April 2017, following similar meetings in December 2016, February 2017, and March 2017. Russia is courting Afghan government officials to legitimize itself as a dominant regional actor in the Afghan conflict. Russia may use economic incentives, such as restoring Soviet-era infrastructure, to strengthen its ties with the Afghan government. Russia’s continued support for the Taliban will thwart the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, weaken the Afghan government, and position Russia to use peace talks in Afghanistan to assert its own legitimacy as a guarantor of international order. Russia will use its increasing influence in Afghanistan to weaken and ultimately oust NATO from Afghanistan.

Current levels of U.S. support to the ANSF will fail to secure Afghanistan against militant groups and prevent Russia’s efforts to undermine NATO in Afghanistan. The Taliban can modulate violence in Afghanistan during the fighting season and therefore exert leverage over the Afghan state, the U.S. and NATO. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) optimized its force structure in order to mitigate the drawdown from 9,800 to 8,448 troops during the winter fighting season, but the force is still inadequate to prepare the ANSF’s to secure the country. U.S. leaders attest that the U.S. must increase its troop levels to increase the ANSF’s capacity through the train, advise, and assist (TAA) mission. The U.S. has a national security interest in preventing Salafi-Jihadist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, from reconstituting in Afghanistan.

Correction: ISW previously listed that Taliban militants attacked Talah wa Barfak District in Baghlan Province in March 2017. It has since been corrected to state Taliban militants attacked ANA bases in Baghlan-e Jadid District in March 2017 as of 22 MAR 2017. 

Putin’s Real Syria Agenda

By Genevieve Casagrande and Kathleen Weinberger

Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary objective in Syria is to constrain U.S. freedom of action – not fight ISIS and al Qaeda. Russia’s military deployments at current levels will not enable the Iranian-penetrated Assad regime to secure Syria. Moscow’s deepening footprint in Syria threatens America’s ability to defend its interests across the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Sea. The next U.S. step in Syria must help regain leverage over Russia rather than further encourage Putin’s expansionism.

Read the full report here.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) produced this report with the Critical Threats Project (CTP). The insights are part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. The ISW-CTP team recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Syria Situation Report: March 9 - 17, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Conditions on the ground are not set for a political solution to the Syrian Civil War despite diplomatic efforts by regional powers. Russia, Iran, and Turkey held the third round of Astana Talks on March 14 – 15. The talks failed to generate any significant results amidst a boycott by the opposition delegation driven by the failure of Russia to implement a promised nationwide ceasefire. The Syrian Civil War will further protract due to the regime’s unwillingness to consider meaningful concessions as well as continued attacks by irreconcilable factions. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham conducted a double suicide attack in the Old City of Damascus on March 11. Unidentified militants later conducted a second double suicide attack targeting the Palace of Justice in Damascus on March 15.

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 March 3, 2017.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 9-16, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made significant progress from March 9 to 16, pushing deep into western Mosul and eliminating ISIS’s presence north of the city. ISIS has reopened attack fronts around Tikrit and Baiji, however, underscoring that Mosul’s recapture will not defeat ISIS in Iraq.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) advanced towards the Old City in western Mosul from March 9 to 16, consolidating control over southwestern Mosul. The Federal Police and Emergency Response Division, an elite unit within the Ministry of Interior, inched into the Old City on March 11 along the Tigris River. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) meanwhile quickly established control over several southwestern neighborhoods and contact with the Old City on March 13. Northeast of the city, the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division recaptured Badush Sub-District on March 15 and its environs. Across the river, units from the 16th IA Division recaptured remaining ISIS-held territory between Tel Kayyaf District and the western Peshmerga defensive line, including the Badush Dam facility on March 11. The facility, never finished, is the intended replacement for the eroding Mosul Dam.

The U.S. and Coalition will need to ensure their continued presence in Iraq after Mosul’s recapture, which could occur within a month, in order to clear remaining ISIS-held areas and ensure stability in recaptured areas. Coalition Spokesman Col. John Dorrian stated on March 15 that there should be an “enduring [force] requirement” beyond Mosul’s recapture, but that Coalition members would need to discuss any force posture with the Iraqi Government. These conversations should focus on short-term requirements for continuing anti-ISIS operations post-Mosul and the long-term training mission to ensure a local security force that can hold recaptured terrain. Both will require continued U.S. and Coalition support in order to sustainably defeat ISIS, prevent its resurgence, or security the country.

ISIS is reestablishing its network and capabilities between Baiji and Tikrit. The police chief of Baiji, an oil town recaptured from ISIS in October 2015, stated that extremists carried out forty “hit-and-run” attacks in Baiji in the last month alone. The police chief previously categorized attacks in the city as “rare.” Attacks around Baiji extend beyond simple hit-and-run tactics, however. Two SVESTs detonated at a wedding party south of Baiji on March 9, killing more than 20 people. ISIS executed members of the Albu Nimr tribe in Baiji and detonated an SVEST in a home south of the city on February 25. Both incidents underscore ISIS’s advanced technical ability and that ISIS either has a cell in Baiji or steady access to the area. Attacks in Tikrit have likewise increased, despite the high level of security provided by the ISF and militias. ISIS detonated a SVBIED in central Tikrit on March 15, one of the few attacks inside Tikrit City since its recapture in March 2015. ISIS has been reviving its capabilities east of Tikrit, particularly in al-Dawr, over the past three months. The attack inside Tikrit, however, suggests an advancement in ISIS’s capabilities in the area. Reviving and maintain these networks and capabilities could allow ISIS to maintain strength in Iraq even after it loses control of Mosul.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Syria Situation Report: March 2 - 9, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesperson Col. John Dorrian stated that the U.S. deployed roughly four hundred soldiers drawn from the 75th U.S. Army Ranger Regiment and 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Northern Syria. These forces come in addition to an estimated three hundred to five hundred U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northern Syria. The Marines reportedly deployed to Northern Ar-Raqqa Province in order to provide "all-weather" artillery support to the SDF in operations against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City while the Rangers deployed to Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province in order to "deter" an open confrontation between the SDF and Turkey. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford also held an unprecedented trilateral meeting with Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and Russian Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Turkey on March 7 to deconflict ongoing operations near Manbij in Aleppo Province. Turkey will likely retaliate against these efforts to contain its operations in Northern Syria.

Meanwhile, the latest round of Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War concluded on March 3 without significant progress. The regime and opposition delegations agreed on an agenda for the next round of negotiations that included the regime’s demand to include talks on counter-terrorism but excluded opposition requests for direct negotiations on a political transition. Conditions are not set for a meaningful political settlement of the war as the regime remains unwilling to make concessions at the negotiating table and the opposition remains unable to guarantee any settlement on the ground.

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 March 3, 2017.

Iraq Control of Terrain Map: March 9, 2017

By the ISW Iraq Team

The ISF has continued to make significant progress in operations to recapture terrain from ISIS in Mosul. The ISF cleared the last ISIS-held neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 24 and launched operations to recapture western Mosul on February 19. As of March 9, the ISF has cleared Mosul International Airport, the Ghazlani Military Base, the Ninewa Government Center, and several neighborhoods in western Mosul. Forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Emergency Response Division (ERD), and Federal Police (FP) have penetrated southern Mosul and are currently advancing towards the Old City in central Mosul.

Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMU) operations to clear Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and the Jazeera desert in western Ninewa have made marginal progress since November 2016 and are currently stalled. The PMU’s lack of urban clearing capabilities combined with political challenges regarding Iraqi Shi’a militias clearing a majority Sunni Turkmen city have slowed operations. The ISF are on track to clear western Mosul but security breaches in eastern Mosul and the heavy presence of Iraqi Shi'a militias in Ninewa raise serious concerns over the future stability of Ninewa and the future outbreak of sectarian and ethnic conflict.

ISIS Sanctuary Map: March 9, 2017

By Alexandra Gutowski and the ISW Research Team 

ISIS incurred territorial losses in Iraq and Syria between February 27 and March 9, 2017. Pro-regime forces recaptured Palmyra with the assistance of Iran, Russia, and Lebanese Hezbollah on March 2. Pro-regime forces seized additional villages from ISIS in northeast Aleppo province on March 7 and March 9, recapturing critical infrastructure. The U.S.-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continues to clear the countryside east of Raqqa in an effort to isolate Raqqa city, seizing villages along an interior road on March 9. Iraqi Security Forces captured the Ninewa government building in southwest Mosul on March 7 as well. ISIS retains capable ground forces in Raqqa, eastern Homs, and Deir ez Zour provinces that will continue to attack regime forces in Syria. ISIS has also likely infiltrated broader zones across Iraq and Syria that it will cultivate for future spectacular attack campaigns. ISIS appears to be concurrently surging in Afghanistan, which ISIS may increasingly emphasize within its global campaign as it incurs losses in Iraq and Syria that it cannot immediately offset.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 2-8, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured the government complex in central Mosul on March 7. ISIS has increased its use of chemical weapons in its defense.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made a push towards central Mosul on March 7, retaking the government complex and securing a second bridge. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi arrived in Mosul for the occasion. The Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) continue to advance north by skirting along the river’s edge rather than penetrate into the dense Old City. The Federal Police and ERD have spearheaded operations in western Mosul instead of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) which is leading a secondary line of effort in southwestern neighborhoods. The move was likely an effort to relieve the weary CTS of bearing the main thrust of the western operations. The ISF will likely continue to advance along the river, where the roads are wider and the ISF can remain in vehicles, until it reaches the 1st “Iron” Bridge. There it can turn west and advance towards the Great Mosque. Recapturing the mosque would be a symbolic victory in the anti-ISIS fight as the location where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance as Caliph in July 2014. The 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division alongside Popular Mobilization units meanwhile began efforts on March 7 to recapture the village of Badush, northwest of Mosul, seizing the nearby prison on March 8. 

ISIS increased its use of chemical weapons in the defense of western Mosul. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated on March 3 that it treated seven patients for exposure to chemical agents near Mosul. The United Nations likewise stated it treated twelve patients for wounds from a “blistering agent.” ISIS has used chemical weapons before; in November 2016, ISIS used chlorine and mustard gas in Bashiqa against the Peshmerga and burned sulfur plants around Qayyarah to prevent ISF advance. ISIS may increase its use of chemical weapons as the ISF breaks through its lines of defense in western Mosul. It may also try to combine chemical weapons with spectacular attacks, as the Federal Police reported it dismantled a Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED) carrying unspecified chemical weapons on February 26. 

The Coalition must set conditions for political stability and good governance at the local level to prevent ISIS from resurging after the recapture of Mosul. Coalition outreach has thus far been primarily directed at the Iraqi Government. ISIS is already resurging in provinces where local governments suffer from political infighting, such as Anbar. The Iraqi Government and U.S.-led Coalition need to facilitate the Ninewa Provincial Government’s ability to deliver services, reconstruction, and governance while remaining politically stable. Failure to rebuild local institutions and governance in Ninewa and other provinces risks the return to an environment of instability in which ISIS and other Sunni insurgencies thrive. 

Iran's Assad Regime

By Christopher Kozak

Key Takeaway: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is neither sovereign nor a viable U.S. partner against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Russia and Iran have penetrated the Syrian Arab Army’s command-and-control authorities at all levels and propped up the force by providing the bulk of its offensive combat power. The pro-regime coalition cannot secure all of Syria and primarily serves as a vehicle for Moscow and Tehran’s regional power projection. Any U.S. strategy in Syria that relies on pro-regime forces will fail to destroy Salafi-Jihadists while empowering Iran and Russia.

Both former U.S. President Barack Obama and current U.S. President Donald Trump have considered deeper cooperation with Russia – and thereby Iran and Assad – against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. This idea is based on two fundamental fallacies. First, Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime cannot recapture Salafi-Jihadist safe havens and secure them over the long-term given their severe manpower shortages and shortfalls in command-and-control. Second, Assad is not sovereign. Iran and Russia have both inserted themselves deep into the framework of the state. Both states aim to entice the U.S. into actions that advance their own strategic interests and ultimately facilitate the expulsion of the U.S. from the Middle East.

Regime Manpower Shortage

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) no longer exists as a unified or coherent fighting force capable of independently securing the entire country. Six years of defections, desertions, and combat attrition have more than halved its pre-war combat strength to an estimated 100,000 soldiers as of 2014 – primarily ill-equipped and poorly-trained conscripts. Only a fraction of these forces can reliably deploy in offensive operations – perhaps as few as 30,000-40,000 soldiers. These units largely consist of ‘elite’ forces such as the Republican Guard, Special Forces, and Fourth Armored Division that recruit heavily among Syrian Alawites.

The regime struggled to overcome these structural weaknesses due to a severe manpower shortage. The SAA intensified an indiscriminate conscription campaign in late 2014 amidst reports that the conflict had killed as many as one-third of fighting-age males among Syrian Alawites. Activists reported the conscription of underage children and prisoners into units that received less than one week of training before battlefield deployment. Assad acknowledged these strains in a public speech in July 2015, noting an ongoing “shortfall in human capacity” that forced the state to “give up some areas” in order to focus on more “important regions” in Syria.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 has not altered these underlying shortfalls. Reinforcements from Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah helped in part to close this gap between the regime’s requirements and capabilities. The regime nonetheless remains fragile and unable to muster sufficient forces for major simultaneous operations. Most notably, ISIS recaptured Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province in December 2016 and increased its attacks against regime positions in Deir ez-Zour City while pro-regime forces focused their main effort against opposition-held districts of Aleppo City. This zero-sum allocation of resources will not be alleviated unless an outside actor conducts a major ground deployment – a step neither Russia nor Iran have been willing to pursue to date.

Breakdowns in Command-and-Control

The Syrian Civil War also forced the regime to surrender control over pro-regime forces on the ground. The regime mobilized tens of thousands of paramilitary and foreign fighters not beholden to the state in order to mitigate and reverse its operational immobility. The regime directs this coalition through an increasingly decentralized and ad hoc network of command-and-control structures that grants expanded operational authority to junior officers in the field. These structures have been coopted by local strongmen as well as Iran and Russia.

The SAA has fractured as a result of policies undertaken to survive internal security threats. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad first implemented a system of military decentralization called the ‘quta’a system’ in 1984. This system assigned each combat division to a specific geographical region, assigned it responsibility for local population centers, and granted wide discretionary powers to the commanding officer. These ‘quta’as’ – or sectors – became fiefdoms for senior military officials, giving commanders a stake in preserving local security at the cost of reduced dependence on the state.

The regime further task-organized its maneuver units and consolidated loyal formations into larger units after the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 in order to exert command-and-control and improve their combat effectiveness during the Syrian Civil War. These reorganizations extended as low as the battalion level with individual companies, platoons, and soldiers being reallocated into new formations. Many formal combat brigades and divisions no longer exist in 2017 as meaningful frames of reference for operations on the ground.

The regime simultaneously organized a network of paramilitary auxiliaries to supplement its flagging combat forces. These paramilitary groups routinely evade efforts by the regime to impose state control and instead remain loyal to foreign powers, political parties, criminal networks, or individual benefactors, further degrading regime command-and-control. These units closely coordinate with the remnants of the formal military, blurring the lines between official and unofficial combat forces. This fragmentation of command authority granted the regime resiliency against immediate collapse at the cost of receding state sovereignty.

Initial efforts to consolidate these paramilitary groups under state control have regressed since 2015. The regime formed the National Defense Forces (NDF) in 2013 with assistance from Iran in order to bring disparate popular committees, criminal networks, and self-defense groups under a military umbrella. At its peak, the NDF incorporated between 80,000 to 100,000 fighters focused on rear-area security and static defense, freeing valuable manpower for other offensive operations. Over the past year, the NDF reportedly fragmented and reverted to local groups outside the formal command structure as economic turmoil hampered the regime’s ability to match the salaries offered by foreign or private actors.

Paramilitary groups linked to a wide variety of benefactors, causes, and ideologies fight alongside the regime, generating intense friction with the state. These factions include political militias organized by the Syrian Arab Ba’ath Party and Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Palestinians, private militias run by wealthy businessmen, and tribal organizations. Several branches of the state security apparatus – including the four rival intelligence agencies – also recruit their own paramilitaries. These groups reportedly engage in a wide range of criminal activity that exploits local populations to bolster their meager incomes. Paramilitary groups have even engaged in direct confrontations with state authorities. For example, Assad reportedly ordered the withdrawal of nearly 900 individuals from two prominent paramilitary groups - the ‘Desert Hawks’ and ‘Naval Commandos’ - after their forces allegedly interfered with a presidential convoy in Latakia City in February 2017.

Foreign Dominance

Iran currently provides the high-end manpower capable of securing significant gains for pro-regime forces on the ground. Iran operates a coalition of nearly 30,000 fighters that includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and Afghan Shi’a fighters. These forces likely constitute one-sixth to one-eighth of total pro-regime forces – this ratio only increases when compared to the small number of combat-effective regime units.

Iran has deployed at least 7,000 of its own fighters to Syria. These forces include elements of the IRGC-Ground Forces and Iranian ‘Artesh’ that represent the first expeditionary deployment of conventional forces by Iran since the Iran-Iraq War. Iran also leads a coalition of roughly 20,000 foreign fighters in the country, including 6,000 to 8,000 from Lebanese Hezbollah, 4,000 to 5,000 from Iraqi Shi’a militias, and 2,000 to 4,000 Afghan Shi’a fighters. These totals exclude the wide array of local paramilitary groups supported by Iran in Syria. This coalition provides a disproportionate amount of the combat-capable infantry used in major pro-regime operations. For example, Iran and its proxies reportedly provided more than half of the 10,000 fighters assembled for the year-long regime campaign to seize Aleppo City in 2015. These forces also played key roles in the two operations launched to recapture Palmyra over the past year.

Iran has created a self-sufficient method of combined force operations that excludes a major role for the regime’s military. The IRGC has developed a model of cadre-warfare that allows Iran to implant military leadership over a base of irregular fighters that it organizes, funds, and equips in a host country. Iran operates sophisticated infrastructure – including a strategic air bridge from Tehran to Damascus via Baghdad - to train, equip, manage, and redeploy these forces across the region in line with its own strategic priorities. The IRGC – Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah lead key operations and relegate the SAA to providing heavy support including artillery, armor, and airstrikes to foreign infantry forces.

Iran gradually co-opted the regime’s remaining command structure as its combat forces became the most asymmetric advantage in the conflict. Iran reportedly assumed control of key operations rooms and ad hoc headquarters in both Latakia and Dera’a Provinces in 2015. The transitions were accompanied by widespread claims of purges, executions, and transfers of low-ranking regime officers to other fronts. The takeover also extended to senior officers who resisted the expansion of Iran’s influence. In the most prominent example, Syria Political Security Directorate Head Rustom Ghazalah died in April 2015 following a severe beating rumored to be related to his resistance to the increased Iranian deployment to Southern Syria.

Iran also played an integral role in the development of pro-regime paramilitary groups ostensibly under regime authority in order to establish the long-term infrastructure of a ‘Syrian Hezbollah.’ Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah played a foundational role in building the NDF based on the Iranian ‘Basij.’ Iran also oversaw enlistment campaigns across the country – in some cases competing directly with the regime for new recruits by providing competitive salaries and military equipment. Iran nurtured its pool of future manpower through religious outreach including funding for theology schools and revolutionary youth groups among Alawites on the Syrian Coast. Iran worked to develop independent infrastructure against Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights as demonstrated by the deaths of key Lebanese Hezbollah operatives such as Jihad Mughniyeh in January 2015 and Samir Kantar in December 2015.

Russia, by contrast, strengthened the regime’s military and security services’ formal structures. Russia provides the majority of its military aid, including advanced weaponry and air support, directly to the SAA. This support included the provision of advanced armored vehicles such as T-90 Main Battle Tanks and BTR-82 Armored Personnel Carriers to elite units such as the Syrian ‘Tiger Forces’ and Republican Guard. Russia took great pains to present its military engagement as a bilateral agreement between two legitimate governments against terrorism through high-profile basing deals and public coordination with senior regime officials. These efforts complement the actions of Iran in Syria while simultaneously allowing Russia to develop an independent partner for long-term influence. 

Russia also tried to reconsolidate paramilitary groups under state control via new headquarters and command structures. Russia drove the establishment of the Fourth Storming Corps in Latakia Province in October 2015 and the Fifth Storming Corps in Damascus in November 2016. These new corps structures reportedly intend to consolidate paramilitary groups under state control with Russian command-and-control support, funding, and equipment. The Fifth Storming Corps spearheaded the pro-regime offensive that recaptured Palmyra from ISIS in March 2017 with backing from Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Russia has nonetheless eroded the regime’s sovereignty. Russia took control over major operations in Northern Syria in late 2015, including key battlefronts in Latakia and Aleppo Provinces. Russia’s increasing influence in operational planning and strategic decision-making generated noticeable changes in pro-regime campaign design, including the use of frontal aviation and major cauldron battles against the opposition in Aleppo Province. On the diplomatic front, Russia attempted to impose its own constitutional draft upon both the regime and opposition in order to resolve the Syrian Civil War under favorable terms that preserve its long-term basing rights on the Syrian Coast.


The U.S. will not find a partner willing or capable of advancing its national security interests within the pro-regime coalition. Pro-regime forces are not capable of independently expelling ISIS and al-Qaeda from Syria. Iran currently provides the high-end combat units that lead pro-regime offensives on the ground. Any policy that leverages Russia and Assad against Salafi-Jihadist groups will thus empower Iran in Syria by default. Conversely, any effort to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria in the near-term will also fail due to the critical role of Iran in supporting both parties. Russia has no proxy in Syria without Iran. Russia and Assad cannot afford to divorce themselves from Iran even if they intended to do so. Neither Russia nor Iran requires an end to the Syrian Civil War or the defeat of ISIS in Syria. Rather, Russia and Iran have consistently intervened in the conflict in order to suppress the opponents of the regime, enhance their own regional freedom of action, and oust the U.S. from the Middle East. Their public appeals for political and military cooperation with the U.S. are disingenuous and unconstructive. The U.S. must focus on regaining leverage and extracting meaningful concessions from the pro-regime coalition rather than surrendering to the interests of strategic adversaries for unsustainable gains against ISIS and al-Qaeda.