Sunday, October 22, 2017

ISW Intelligence Summary: October 13-20, 2017

Jennifer Cafarella

Key takeaway: The US-led campaign against ISIS achieved a major victory in Raqqa, but post-ISIS conflict in northern Syria remains likely due to the dominant role of the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the Raqqa operation and its commitment to shaping post-ISIS governance in accordance with the vision of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime are meanwhile preparing to cut a deal with the YPG for the future governance of northeastern Syria, which could oust the U.S. Turkey is exploiting US calls for action in Idlib to establish military positions in the province that posture Turkey for future confrontation against the YPG to the north. Turkey is not meaningfully constraining al Qaeda. In Iraq, the Kurdish retreat across Iraq's disputed internal boundaries could destabilize northern Iraq rather than unify the country if Kurdish civilians now under the control of Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies turn to violence. Early indications of civil unrest have already emerged. The Kurdish retreat is nonetheless a political win for Prime Minister Abadi and a military win for Iran, whose proxies are now consolidating control over formerly contested cities and advancing further into northern Iraq. 


Raqqa fell, but under conditions that favor continued insurgency. The US announced the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized the last pocket in Raqqa City held by the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) on October 20th. Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG) exploited the victory for political gain. A large contingent of female Kurdish (YPJ) fighters held a photo shoot in Raqqa’s central roundabout with massive YPG/YPJ flags and a large photo of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan on October 19th. YPG forces also reportedly arrested Arab fighters flying Syrian revolutionary flags in Raqqa City. This could be an isolated incident, but the YPG’s clear effort to dominate the narrative after defeating ISIS in Raqqa city will drive support for Sunni Arab resistance against the YPG. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has recruited and trained 1,600 fighters in a “Raqqa Internal Security Force” to provide security in Raqqa after its recapture. It is unclear how much military training these forces received from the coalition, however. They will likely depend on continued YPG support to defend Raqqa against infiltration and spectacular attacks by ISIS and possibly al Qaeda

Female YPJ units pose for a photo shoot honoring PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in Raqqa City on October 19th.

Pro-regime forces seized Mayadin, the headquarters of ISIS senior leadership & external operations.
Pro-regime forces claimed to seize the city on October 14th, although it is unclear whether ISIS withdrew preemptively. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other ISIS senior leaders, including external operators, had reportedly relocated to Mayadin from Mosul and Raqqa in late 2016 and early 2017. They most likely relocated to Abu Kamal IVO the Syrian-Iraqi border. Pro-regime forces are now positioned to disrupt further SDF movements along the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) southeast of Raqqa City. 

Russia and the Syrian regime are preparing to cut a deal with the YPG that could oust the US from northeastern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish YPG reportedly handed over the Conoco gas field in Deir ez Zour Province to the Syrian regime, which would most likely allow Russian contractors to operate it. The handover, which the Syrian regime claimed occurred, would be a first sign of a future deal between the YPG and the Syrian regime for the governance of northeastern Syria, which ISW forecasted in September. Negotiations are already underway for that deal, which could apply limits on US presence. A most dangerous possibility is that Russia and the Syrian regime will demand a full withdrawal of US forces in Syria in return for a federal status and return of services to SDF-held areas. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with senior officials of the YPG’s political wing in Qamishli on the Syrian-Turkish border on October 18th. Russian Senator Ziyad Sabsabi of Chechnya later arrived in Qamishli on October 19th. Russia will reportedly host a conference regarding the Syrian Kurds at the Bassel al-Assad International Airport on the Syrian Coast on 10 NOV. Anonymous sources also claimed that Syrian National Security Bureau (NSB) Director Ali Mamlouk met with senior officials from the Syrian Kurdish YPG in Qamishli on October 17th. The two sides allegedly discussed the post-conflict role of the YPG in Syria as well as the long-term presence of the U.S. in Northern Syria, although the YPG’s political wing denied the meeting took place

Turkey deployed to Idlib, but in coordination with al Qaeda. Turkish armed forces deployed to multiple locations in northern Idlib Province beginning on October 13th in accordance with an agreement with Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Turkey is exploiting US calls for Turkish action to constrain al Qaeda-held in Idlib and is instead posturing against the YPG, which holds a “canton” north of Idlib Province. Turkey’s deployment to Idlib positions Turkish troops on a second flank of the Kurdish canton, setting conditions in Turkey’s favor for future confrontation. Turkey is also positioning its troops as potential guarantors of its de-escalation agreement with Russia and the Syrian regime Idlib Province. Turkey’s deployment does not meaningfully constrain al Qaeda, and instead limits U.S. options in Idlib Province. Unconfirmed reports indicate Turkey has offered to help provide targeting intelligence to the U.S. to eliminate high value al Qaeda leaders. High value target (HVT) strikes in Idlib could degrade senior al Qaeda leadership in Syria, but will not reverse al Qaeda’s ongoing and successful efforts to embed within Syrian society in Idlib and to govern through a network of local affiliates and proxies.


Peshmerga forces collapsed across most of the front line in Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, ceding terrain to ISF and Iranian proxies. The Kurdish retreat empowers Iran and could destabilize northern Iraq rather than unify the county. Iraq and Iran, through Qassem Soleimani and Badr Organization leader Hadi al Amiri, demanded a Kurdish withdrawal from areas seized since 2014, starting with Kirkuk. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran's proxies in Kirkuk.
Two Iranian proxy leaders – Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mehdi al Muhandis – participate in a flag raising in Kirkuk City along with leadership of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Services (CTS) on October 16th.

Iraqi forces began to push farther north on 20 OCT, raising fears of a push into Iraqi Kurdistan beyond the 2003 Kurdish front line.
Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) and unspecified other Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) seized Ton Kubri, ten kilometers north of Dibis, Kirkuk Province and 40 KM southeast of Arbil, after clashing with Peshmerga forces.

Kurdish populations now under the control of the Iraqi government and Iran's proxies may drive an insurgency. Civil unrest against Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies began in Kirkuk and Khanaqin on October 18th. Prime minister Abadi reportedly ordered a handover of security in Kirkuk to local police, and early reports indicate Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies may have drawn back from Khanaqin in northern Diyala. It is unclear whether these withdrawals will pacify the Kurdish population.

*A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Iraqi Kurdish concerns over an advance past the 2014 front line. Iraqi forces had already breached that front line on October 16, 2017 and began to push to the front line of the Kurdistan Regional Government's formal boundaries on October 18, 2017.