Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Syria Situation Report: November 7 - 20, 2017

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct 

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from November 7 - 20, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of November 16, 2017. 

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of this Syria SITREP Map.

Al Qaeda Clearing the Path to Dominance in Southern Syria

By Bryan Amoroso and Genevieve Casagrande
Key Takeaway: Al Qaeda is growing stronger in Southern Syria. An assassination campaign targeting mainstream opposition commanders and governance officials is facilitating al Qaeda’s consolidation of power along the borders of Jordan and Israel. Southern Syria stands at increasing risk of becoming a second Idlib Province, which currently serves as a formidable safe haven for al Qaeda.
Syrian opposition forces that could serve as a viable alternative to both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Salafi-jihadist groups are under attack in Southern Syria. A recent wave of assassinations beginning in August 2017 has killed over eleven ranking anti-regime opposition commanders and governance officials in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces. These assassinations have remained largely unclaimed. The unidentified perpetrators have targeted armed and political opposition officials using car bombs, roadside improvised explosive devices, and armed gunman. Of the forty-two attempted assassinations observed by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) from August 5 to November 21, 2017, approximately fifty-five percent successfully killed opposition fighters, commanders, or governance officials. More than half of the attempts targeted former or current U.S.-backed opposition groups. The Assad regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) are likely responsible for many, but not all, of the assassinations in Southern Syria.
Al Qaeda may leverage the wave of other attacks carried out by ISIS and the Assad regime to conceal its own covert campaign against the opposition. Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) likely seeks to exploit the deteriorating security situation in Southern Syria to advance its own covert assassination campaign against rival governance structures and armed opposition groups.Al Qaeda dispatched over thirty senior officials to reinvigorate its efforts to embed within the opposition in Southern Syria in May 2017. The areas currently experiencing the most concentrated number of assassinations overlap with the regions where al Qaeda conducted significant governance outreach in Southern Syria since 2016. Of the forty-two assassination attempts recorded by ISW in Southern Syria between August 5 and November 21, 2017, at least twenty-six occurred near the towns and villages where al Qaeda previously conducted governance outreach. The targets also increasingly include governance structures competing with HTS. At least four senior jurists from the opposition Dar al Adel Court were targeted by assassination attempts in October 2017, including the successfulassassination of Dar al Adel Executive Force Commander Omar al Mafa’alani on October 9. The spate of assassinations ultimately forced the Dar al Adel Court to cease its operations for a week on October 28.
Al Qaeda has previously capitalized on a similar security environment to undermine and coopt armed opposition groups and affiliated governance structures in Idlib Province. Idlib Province once stood as a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) just as Dera’a Province is currently dominated by the FSA-affiliated Southern Front. Al Qaeda’s consolidation of power in Idlib Province was preceded by a series of assassinations targeting opposition commanders and governance officials in Idlib Province. Al Qaeda sought to marginalize U.S.-backed opposition groups and remove opposition leadership that would be resistant to mergers and joint operations rooms with Al Qaeda during this campaign. Al Qaeda launched targeted operations against opposition groups backed by the U.S. in Idlib Province – specifically the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm – beginning in July 2014. These shaping operations preceded the formation of the Jaysh al Fateh Operations Room in March 2015. Al Qaeda acted through Jaysh al Fateh to effectively force the regime from Idlib Province by the end of May 2015. Al Qaeda exploited the success of these operations to fill the resulting governance vacuum and consolidate its control over a jihadist safe haven in greater Idlib Province in Northwest Syria. Al Qaeda also leveraged other Salafi-jihadist groups such as Jund al Aqsa to support its targeted attacks against the opposition in Northern Syria. The pattern of assassinations against U.S.-backed opposition groups in Southern Syria suggests that al Qaeda is seeking to replicate its success in Idlib Province. HTS could similarly facilitate attacks against opposition groups in Southern Syria by ISIS-affiliated groups or other jihadist splinter factions in order to maintain a low profile in Southern Syria.
Al Qaeda seeks to marginalize remnants of U.S.-backed opposition groups in Southern Syria to create a sustainable power base along the Syria-Jordan border. An assassination campaign by al Qaeda could mark the first phase of operations to coopt opposition factions and covertly remove leaders that would oppose the formation of joint structures with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda likely seeks to disguise its assassination campaign among other attacks by ISIS and the Assad regime to avoid reprisals or local resistance from civilians and other opposition groups in rebel-held Southern Syria. Al Qaeda will also continue to obfuscate its efforts to embed itself within the local population in order to avoid triggering intervention by the West. The current U.S.-Russia-Jordan ceasefire in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces provides a conducive environment for al Qaeda to lay the groundwork for its desired safe haven in Southern Syria. Al Qaeda also stands to exploit the decision by the Trump Administration to dismantle a covert program to support vetted opposition factions in Syria by December 2017. This decision will end the provision of weapons, training, and salaries for thousands of opposition fighters in Southern Syria even as opposition groups and governance structures are struggling to maintain basic security and infrastructure across Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces. The decrease in external support to non-jihadist forces will likely further embolden and empower al Qaeda in Southern Syria.
ISW collected reports of assassinations from local activists’ reports in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces from August 5 to November 20, 2017. The dataset curated by ISW does not represent a complete record of all assassination attempts during the reporting period in Southern Syria. The situation in opposition-held regions remains fluid with key gaps in local activist reporting from Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces.
The following map does not represent attacks that only killed civilians, pro-regime forces, or the ISIS affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn Walid. Of the attacks represented on the following map, approximately fifty-five percent were successful in killing opposition fighters, commanders, or governance officials.
ISW defines the ‘mainstream opposition’ as the armed opposition groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that do not adhere to the tenets of Salafi-Jihadism. The label encompasses a spectrum of opposition groups that range from secular moderates aligned with the Free Syrian Army to political Islamists. These groups may or may not cooperate in military or governance structures with al Qaeda.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Iran Solidifies Influence in Kirkuk

By Omer Kassim with Jennifer Cafarella and Zachary Goulet

Key Takeaway: Iran is consolidating its military control in Kirkuk, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has appointed an Iranian-friendly commander to lead a new “Kirkuk Operations Command.” The new commander will likely provide a durable conduit for Iran’s proxies to retain military strength in Kirkuk. Abadi’s decision reflects a concession to Iran’s proxies and a recognition that he cannot constrain them.

Iran is consolidating military control in Kirkuk. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi appointed an Iranian-friendly commander, Lieutenant General Ali Fadhil Imran, to lead the newly created “Kirkuk Operations Command” on October 28, 2017. Imran is the former head of the Iranian-influenced 5th Iraqi Army (IA) Division, based in Diyala. Photos in Iraqi and Jordanian media and a Facebook page linked with Imran show him closely coordinating with Iranian proxy Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri in 2015. The 5th IA Division is a component of the Dijla Operations Command (DOC), which is responsible for security in Iraq’s Diyala Province along the Iraq-Iran border. Iran’s influence over the DOC’s leadership is a template for how the security structure in Kirkuk will likely evolve. Iran’s proxies have disproportionate influence over the DOC. A video published by Vice News in February 2015 shows the former head of the DOC Abdul Amir al Zaydi taking direct orders from Ameri. Imran will likely provide a durable conduit for Iran’s proxies to dominate Kirkuk’s security structure similar to their role in Diyala. 

Hadi al Ameri ordering what appears to be Dijla Operations Command commander Abdul Amir al Zaydi to launch an attack. Source:  Vice News, February 2015.

Former Commander of the Dijla Operations Command General Abdul Amir al Zaydi appears to be taking direct orders from Badr Organization head Hadi al Ameri. Source: Jordanian media outlet JBC news, June 2014. 

Former Commander of the Dijla Operations Command General Abdul Amir al Zaydi sits in a meeting chaired by Badr Organization head Hadi al Ameri. Source: Badr Organization-affiliated Al-Ghadeer TV Channel, February 2015. 

Ameri and Imran appear together in a photograph posted in March 2015. Source: Facebook page linked to Imran.

Ameri and Imran appear together in a photograph posted in October 2017. Source: Facebook page linked to Imran.

Prime Minister Abadi’s previous attempt to constrain the Iranian proxy-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Kirkuk failed. Abadi initially demanded that that armed groups withdraw from Kirkuk on October 18, handing control of security to the Counterterrorism Services (CTS) and local police. The PMF did not comply. A double suicide vest attack, likely carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), targeted a location near the Kirkuk city headquarters of Saraya al Salam – an armed group affiliated with nationalist Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – on November 5. Sadr subsequently ordered Saraya al Salam to withdraw, but the presence of his unit on November 5 demonstrates that he initially ignored Prime Minister Abadi’s withdrawal order. Iran’s proxy group Asa’ib Ahl al Haq (AAH) also appears to retain presence in the city. Unconfirmed reports from Iraqi Kurdish media indicated that the ISIS attack targeted AAH in addition to Saraya al Salam. The head of the Kirkuk Provincial Council Rebwar Taha also accused AAH of occupying his home in Kirkuk during a press conference on October 20. Iran’s proxies also continue to dominate the areas around Kirkuk Province. The Iranian proxy Badr Organization’s Turkmen unit, also known as the 16th PMF Brigade, retains a strong presence south of Kirkuk City and is now deployed in the northern Kirkuk countryside up to the outskirts of Altun Kupri district, about 50 kilometers south of Arbil City. Abadi’s decision to appoint Imran as the head of the Kirkuk operations command reflects a concession to Iran’s proxies and a recognition that he cannot constrain them.

Turkey’s Politics Promise a More Hostile Erdogan

By Noah Ringler and Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a new political challenge at home as a new opposition party fractures his main political ally. Erdogan may ultimately strengthen his position against the divided opposition with tools of repression he has employed in his bid for greater power. Erdogan will grow more hostile toward the U.S. and the broader West as he competes for nationalists’ support ahead of Turkey’s 2019 presidential election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s key political ally, the main nationalist bloc, is fracturing. Turkey’s former Interior Minister Meral Aksener established a new Turkish opposition party named the Good Party (İYİ Parti) on October 25. She has opposed Erdogan for some time and campaigned against the constitutional reforms he achieved through his April 2017 referendum. The referendum amended Turkey’s constitution to shift from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, centralizing the Turkish Presidency’s power. Aksener seeks to siphon support from other opposition groups, including the Turkish Nationalist Movement (MHP) currently in a coalition with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Aksener quietly campaigned for support before announcing her party. Hundreds of MHP members resigned with the intent to join her in the months before she announced the formation of the Good Party. Aksener will likely attempt to run against Erdogan in Turkey’s upcoming presidential election in 2019. 

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism fuels the nationalist political fracture. Aksener broke from the MHP in early 2016 after a failed attempt to usurp the party’s leadership. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli deepened his political alliance with Erdogan after ejecting her and other dissidents from the party. Bahceli then supported Erdogan’s constitutional referendum, providing the votes necessary for Erdogan's narrow victory. Bahceli’s attempt to maintain power alienated nationalists opposed to Erdogan’s authoritarianism. The mass resignation of hundreds of MHP members since mid-2017 indicates Bahceli’s support for Erdogan has weakened his leadership of Turkey’s main nationalist party. Aksener seeks to supplant Bahceli’s leadership role and deny Erdogan the nationalist vote in 2019. 

The Good Party’s durability is unclear. Aksener is attempting to unify diverse opponents of Erdogan. Aksener’s anti-Erdogan stance may galvanize individuals frustrated with the failure of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to contest Erdogan. A leading CHP member defected to the Good Party on October 23, expanding Aksener’s reach beyond the MHP. Preliminary polling indicates Aksener’s party could win additional seats in parliament and may even contest the CHP as the largest opposition party in 2019. The nascent party currently lacks a network capable of sustaining a nationwide campaign, which could limit its ability to translate current public appeal to enduring support. It is unclear whether opposition to Erdogan is sufficient to overcome divisions between former MHP and CHP members over the long term. One of the party’s founding members resigned on November 16, highlighting the risk of fragmentation. The Good Party will likely struggle to capitalize on public appeal despite its success in siphoning political support from other parties. Aksener oversaw a broad and violent crackdown on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and civilians in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces during her tenure as Interior Minister in the mid-1990s. This legacy will likely limit her appeal to Kurdish voters as an “anti-Erdogan” candidate. That period also included rising political instability and economic stagnation, for which voters may hold her accountable. It is unclear whether her resistance to Erdogan will be sufficient to overcome her previous negative public perception. 

Aksener’s move may ultimately strengthen Erdogan. Erdogan retains the political advantage because he controls tools of repression. He has already taken steps to reinvigorate his AKP party after his narrow referendum victory in order to decrease his reliance on the MHP. He forced the resignation of several mayors in key electorates that failed to sufficiently support his referendum campaign, including Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas on September 22 and Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek on October 29. He will still compete for the nationalist vote to secure a wider margin of victory in 2019. Erdogan will continue to use aggressive media campaigns and legal inquiries to discredit opposition parties, including the Good Party. He will also continue his campaign of intimidating and arresting opposition lawmakers. He has already begun to undermine Aksener by arresting her lawyer and allegedly attempting to block the Good Party’s first party congress on October 25. He may once again manipulate the electoral processes itself, if necessary. 

Erdogan will become more aggressively anti-Western as he competes for nationalist support. Aksener’s anti-U.S. stance rivals that of Erdogan. She vehemently opposes Turkey’s membership in the U.S.-led Anti-Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Coalition. Her opposition to Erdogan’s presidency will drive him to even more aggressive policies against the U.S. in order to solicit nationalist support. He may revoke U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base, which supports anti-ISIS air operations in Syria. He will increase his support for ethnic Turkmen populations in Iraq and Syria, a key nationalist cause. He will also increase his support for a Sunni insurgency against the primary U.S. military partner force in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He will continue to demand the extradition of alleged putschist Fethullah Gulen from the United States. He may arrest additional U.S. citizens and employees of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Turkey. The U.S.-Turkish alliance will continue to deteriorate as Erdogan’s fear of losing his grip on power rises.

Friday, November 17, 2017

ISIS Plotting Attacks from Afghanistan

By: Jennifer Cafarella and Caitlin Forrest with Charles Aubin

Key Takeaway:  Afghanistan remains a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan and an American ISIS member in Pakistan coordinated an attack attempt in the U.S. in early 2016. ISIS seized at least one district in northwestern Afghanistan in early November, and is assembling new foreign fighter units. ISIS will use this safe haven to conduct new attacks abroad.

ISIS is using safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan to plan attacks in the U.S. ISIS operatives in Pakistan, Canada, and the Philippines planned a major coordinated attack against New York City in early 2016, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The cell planned to attack civilians in Times Square using firearms and suicide vests made using the signature ISIS explosive TATP. A U.S. citizen and ISIS operative in Pakistan told an undercover FBI asset that he received authorization from ISIS’s “Wilayat Khorasan” in Afghanistan for the attack. American, Canadian, Pakistani, and Philippine authorities dismantled the cell after the ISIS operative in Canada attempted to cross into the U.S. The cell’s geographic disposition indicates ISIS shifted more of its external operations activity out of Syria and Iraq. ISIS previously exported an external operations cell to Libya in December 2015, which is supporting ISIS’s attack campaign in Europe.

ISIS elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have already coordinated additional attack plots in the U.S. Another would-be attacker in the U.S., Mahin Khan, contacted a member of the Pakistani Taliban in order to receive support for an attack on behalf of ISIS, according to the FBI. Federal authorities arrested Khan in July 2016. It is possible he actually contacted the ISIS faction that split from the Pakistani Taliban in October 2014. The Pakistani Taliban has previously attempted to conduct attacks in the U.S., including a foiled 2010 car bombing in New York City.

ISIS is organizing new foreign fighter units in northern Afghanistan. Local officials and residents in Jowzjan Province claimed in early November that ISIS foreign fighters from France, Sudan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are recruiting locals and training child suicide bombers. ISIS likely began to recruit Taliban members in Jowzjan in early 2015. ISIS’s growth in the province accelerated after November 2015 when the Taliban kicked out Qari Hekmat, who became a local ISIS commander. ISIS is also siphoning fighters from the pro-al Qaeda Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). An IMU faction pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2015. The IMU founder’s son, Abdul Malik, moved to Jowzjan in February 2017 with “hundreds” of fighters and their families in order to seize control from the Taliban. The Institute for the Study of War warned the same month that ISIS was on track to create a logistical hub to receive and train foreign fighters as the group lost ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS achieved full freedom of movement in the province in early November by defeating Taliban forces, including reinforcements likely deployed from southern Afghanistan. ISIS also compelled the local government to relocate all rural offices to the provincial capital. ISIS exploited overstretched security forces in the province and regional Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s exile to Turkey. The growing presence of diverse foreign fighters indicates ISIS seeks to create an external operations node for new waves of global attacks.

A global network of ISIS external operations nodes will pose new challenges for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. U.S. special operations forces are at risk of overstretch. ISIS is still planning attacks from Syria despite its loss of Raqqa. The U.S. has already increased anti-ISIS operations in Yemen and Somalia to keep pace with ISIS growth. ISIS is generating new global attack capability in Afghanistan while regenerating lost capability in Libya, meanwhile. The U.S. military cannot deploy enough personnel and resources to destroy every new attack cell ISIS generates. The U.S. must start to deny ISIS its non-military sources of strength such as the perception in many Sunni communities that ISIS is a “defender” of Sunni populations. American strategy thus far has instead appeared to legitimize ISIS by aligning the U.S. with the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria, Russia, and Iran. These forces are committing systematic abuses against Sunni populations in Syria that likely amount to crimes against humanity. This violence drives recruits to ISIS and in part provides rationalization for ISIS attacks against Western populations. An immediate, fundamental change in America’s strategic approach to securing the homeland is necessary in order to prevent the next Paris attack from happening here at home. 

Russia: Iran’s Air Force in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and Jackson Danbeck

Russia intensified its air campaign in early November 2017 in support of Iran’s strategic ground gains in Eastern Syria. Russian forces targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)-held town of Abu Kamal in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province on the Syrian-Iraqi border with Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire-C’ strategic bombers and submarine launched ‘Kalibr’ cruise missiles between October 31 and November 3. The Russian military conducted these strikes in order to set conditions prior to the start of pro-Bashar al Assad regime operations to seize Abu Kamal on November 8. Russia later leveraged its unique air capabilities to provide direct support to pro-regime operations around Abu Kamal. Russia conducted multiple overnight and real-time interdiction strikes targeting ISIS fighters attempting to reinforce towns around Abu Kamal by crossing the Euphrates River. The forces targeting Abu Kamal included Iranian-directed fighters, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that entered Syria from Western Iraq. The PMF units included Kata’ib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and key Iranian proxy. ISIS nonetheless retains control over Abu Kamal as of November 12.

Russia is directly enabling Iran’s establishment of a land corridor running from Tehran to Beirut and Israel’s doorstep. Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and the Iranian proxy-dominated PMF likely coordinated the cross-border maneuvers against Abu Kamal through the so-called Quartet Mechanism in Baghdad established in May 2017. Russia and Iran likely intend to further deepen cooperation with the Iraqi government along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran thus stands to gain long-term influence along the Syrian-Iraqi border via Abu Kamal and nearby Al-Qa’im in Western Iraq. Iran will also enjoy significant freedom of movement along the Baghdad-Damascus Highway. Russia has simultaneously used its support to Iran to limit the freedom of action of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and its allied Syrian Democratic Forces along the Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria. Russia and Iran are setting conditions to try and expel the U.S. from Syria and Iraq.

The preceding 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, November 15, 2017

Southern Syria Deal Fails to Constrain Iran, al Qaeda

By Genevieve Casagrande, Patrick Hamon, and Bryan Amoroso

Key Takeaway: The ‘de-escalation zone’ in Syria brokered by the U.S, Russia, and Jordan threatens the strategic interests of the U.S. and its allies. The deal fails to constrain Iran and al Qaeda despite the decreased violence in Southwest Syria. Iran continues to consolidate its presence along the Golan Heights through a network of proxy forces while retaining significant positions in Southern Syria. Russia remains both unwilling and unable to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent foothold in the south, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin's assurances. The failure to prevent Iran’s entrenchment threatens Israel, increasing the likelihood of further Israeli military intervention. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has leveraged the ceasefire and diminishing support to non-jihadist opposition groups to deepen its presence along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The ‘de-escalation zone’ in Southern Syria will ultimately preserve rather than roll back Iran’s long-term position. The U.S., Russia, and Jordan agreed upon a Memorandum of Principles for Southern Syria on November 8. The deal includes an “exclusionary zone” that requires foreign forces – including Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah - to depart from a five-to-seven kilometer buffer zone along the agreed-upon line of contact. The buffer zone at its maximum extent places foreign forces up to thirty kilometers away from the Syrian-Jordanian border and Golan Heights. The exclusion zone seeks to complement the pre-existing ‘de-escalation zone’ in Southern Syria brokered on July 7. Iran has nonetheless set conditions to preserve its safe haven in Southern Syria. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah initially withdrew many of their foreign forces from areas along the Syrian-Jordanian border after the ‘de-escalation zone’ went into effect on July 9. However, Iran left behind friendly local paramilitary groups and a small number of foreign fighters to continue to cultivate and recruit local groups not covered by the exclusion zone but ultimately subordinate to Iran. Iran is also continuing its build-up on the outskirts of this zone, which places its forces less than an hour drive from the Golan Heights.

The failure of the ‘de-escalation zone’ to meaningfully constrain Iran risks further intervention by Israel along the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have expressed concern with the terms of the exclusion zone in Southern Syria, stressing that the deal does not meet their “unequivocal demands” to bar Iran and its proxies from the Golan. The deal likewise will not prevent Iran from developing permanent military basing in Syria, another Israeli redline. Israel has likewise reiterated its continued freedom of action to confront Iran in Syria. Israeli officials have repeatedly said that Iran risks crossing a red line that could prompt further Israeli military action against Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. Lebanese Hezbollah has also signaled its readiness for a possible military escalation and is rumored to have begun deploying elite forces from Syria to Southern Lebanon. The failure of the U.S. to constrain Iran raises the possibility of a conflict between Iran and Israel in Southern Syria that could ultimately spread into Southern Lebanon, particularly given Lebanon’s worsening political crisis following the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri.

Al Qaeda has exploited the ‘de-escalation zone’ to develop a new durable safe haven along the Syrian-Jordanian border. Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) will capitalize on the diminishing external support to vetted anti-Bashar al Assad regime opposition groups to expand its footprint in Southern Syria. The Trump Administration issued orders that will reportedly end all covert support to opposition groups in Syria by December 2017. The cutoff will lead to the cancellation of salaries for thousands of rebel fighters even as opposition groups and affiliated governance structures are already struggling to maintain basic security and infrastructure - such as prisons and courthouses - across Southern Syria. HTS is positioning itself to fill this governance and military vacuum. HTS has also resumed offensive operations in Southern Syria in order to bolster its legitimacy within the opposition as the guarantor of the continued revolution against the Assad regime. HTS alongside other opposition factions temporarily relieved the pro-regime siege on the town of Beit Jinn in the Western Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus near the Golan Heights on November 3 after clashes that included at least one suicide bombing. The joint operations room leading the offensive urged opposition groups to disregard “international pressure” to adhere to the ‘de-escalation zone’ and instead “join [their] brothers” to continue the fight against Assad. Meanwhile, a recent spike in unclaimed assassinations of opposition commanders and governance officials could also indicate an active campaign by al Qaeda to marginalize opposition groups backed by the U.S. and Jordan in Southern Syria. HTS has employed similar tactics to eliminate potential competitors in Idlib Province since 2014. Al Qaeda ultimately seeks to leverage its role in joint military structures, support to local governance, and targeted violence against resistant opposition officials to further integrate itself within the opposition and establish a new safe haven for Salafi-Jihadism along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

U.S. Ceding Syria to Russian Designs

By Christopher Kozak

The U.S. is abdicating its role as a diplomatic powerbroker to Russia in Syria. The U.S. is ultimately empowering a political process driven by Russia that will not secure America’s strategic objectives in Syria. Those objectives include the Trump Administration’s focus on “neutralizing” Iran’s influence and “constraining its aggression” as well the lasting defeat of Salafi-Jihadists such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held an informal meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam on November 11. The two leaders later released a joint statement that ostensibly reiterated their commitment to previous agreements on the Syrian Civil War, including bilateral military de-confliction, de-escalation zones, and a negotiated settlement through the UN Geneva Process. The statement nonetheless reinforces a number of persistent fallacies regarding the interests of Russia in Syria.
  • Fallacy #1: “Russia intends to conduct a serious anti-ISIS campaign.” The U.S. and Russia praised “successful…enhanced de-confliction efforts” that “dramatically accelerated” the defeat of ISIS in Eastern Syria. President Trump also noted that the “successful implementation” of the deal will “save thousands of lives” in the Syrian Civil War. This statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the tactics used by Russia in Syria. Russia has waged a violent and indiscriminate air campaign against civilian infrastructure in opposition-held regions of Western Syria as well as areas governed by ISIS in Eastern Syria. The Russo-Iranian Coalition intends to soon redirect this brutal campaign against Idlib Province in Northern Syria. The U.S. risks legitimizing current and future crimes against humanity conducted by Russia and Iran on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – thereby fulfilling the narratives of global oppression promulgated by ISIS and Al-Qaeda across Iraq and Syria.
  • Fallacy #2: “Russia intends to counter Iran in Syria.” The U.S. and Russia reaffirmed their support for an ongoing ‘de-escalation zone’ in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces in Southern Syria brokered on July 7. The statement noted further progress under a recent Memorandum of Principles signed by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan on November 8 that called for the “reduction and ultimate elimination of foreign forces” – particularly Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah - from Southern Syria. Russia nonetheless remains unlikely to effectively enforce any such agreement against Iran and Syria. Russia shares fundamental and enduring strategic interests with Iran, starting with a mutual desire to expel the U.S. from the Middle East. The current ‘de-escalation zone’ has preserved – rather than limited – the freedom of movement of Iran and Hezbollah along the Golan Heights and Syrian-Jordanian Border.
  • Fallacy #3: “Russia intends to deliver a meaningful political settlement in Syria.” The U.S. and Russia stressed their support for constitutional reforms and internationally-monitored elections under a political settlement via the UN Geneva Process. Russia has nonetheless taken active steps to subvert and co-opt the Geneva Process through the rival Astana Talks hosted by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as its plans for an upcoming ‘Syrian Congress on National Dialogue’. Russia and Assad remain unlikely to concede to free and fair elections or reforms that meaningfully constrain the power of the regime. Assad leveraged legal and authoritarian means to dominate similar ‘democratic elections’ in Syria in 2014. Any faux political settlement that fails to address the legitimate grievances that sparked the Syrian Revolution will only perpetuate the conditions that fuel ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Iran’s Proxies Authorized to Compete in Iraq’s 2018 Election

By: Omer Kassim

Iran’s proxies in Iraq have a green light to parlay their military gains into political power in Iraq’s May 2018 elections.

Iranian proxies dominate Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The Iranian proxy-dominated PMF institution has expanded its reach and popularity through a heavy involvement in recent operations against ISIS and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi government’s Popular Mobilization Commission Law prohibits individuals associated with the PMF from running for political office unless they leave the force. The law is an attempt to constrain the political influence of Iran’s powerful military proxies. Yet those Iranian proxies are shifting members into new political parties and setting conditions to extend their influence in the forthcoming Iraqi elections.

Iraq’s High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has authorized two more Iranian proxy political parties to run candidates in Iraq’s next parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for May 2018. IHEC must grant Iraqi political parties a new license each election in order to allow that party to compete. IHEC has been licensing political parties for the 2018 elections intermittently since January 2017. It licensed the Badr Organization’s political wing in February 2017. The Iraqi Parliament voted in a new IHEC on October 23 after the end of the previous commission’s term. The new IHEC granted an additional six licenses to smaller political parties on November 6, including the political arm of Iran’s elite proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, the Sadiqoon Movement. The Sadiqoon Movement won its first seat in the Iraqi Parliament in 2014. IHEC also granted a license to al Tayyar al Risali al Iraqi al Jadid­, the political arm of the Iranian-backed Kata’ib al Tayyar al Risali. The party is within the State of Law Coalition aligned with Vice President Nouri al Maliki, whose post-2011 sectarian campaign as prime minister enabled ISIS’ rise.

The Badr Organization and Iran’s smaller proxies will exploit the popular support they gained among Iraq's Shi'a – by supporting Prime Minister Haider al Abadi's campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan – to increase their own political power in provincial governments and in Baghdad. These groups will likely outcompete candidates favorable to U.S. interests – those working toward a sovereign, representative, and unitary Iraq that Iran’s proxies do not dominate.

Syria Situation Report: October 24 - November 9, 2017

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct 

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from October 24 – November 9, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of November 9, 2017. 

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of this Syria SITREP Map.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Iran’s Role in the Kirkuk Operation in Iraq

By Jennifer Cafarella with Omer Kassim

Key Takeaway: Iran provided decisive military support to compel Iraqi Kurds to surrender in Kirkuk, Iraq, on October 16, 2017. Military forces from three major Iranian proxies participated in the operation: Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asa'ib Ahl al Haq, and the Badr Organization. Iran did not attempt to outshine Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in public. Iran instead allowed Abadi to take credit, while quietly positioning its proxies to influence Kirkuk in the future. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) conducted a rigorous study of social media activity and other reporting of troop movements in Iraq in order to assess the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk and across Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries.

Iranian military proxies in Iraq supported Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s retaking of Kirkuk by compelling Iraq’s Kurds to withdraw from their positions on October 16. ISW assesses that forces from three major Iranian proxies helped compel the Kurdish surrender in Kirkuk: Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH), Asa'ib Ahl al Haq (AAH), and the Badr Organization, as this report will detail. The Kurdish collapse in Kirkuk was a turning point in the conflict between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi Government. Iran and Abadi are now exploiting their success in Kirkuk and expanding their operations against Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s proxies continue to play a central role. 


The evidence of Iran’s involvement in the initial confrontation in Kirkuk requires careful analysis of openly available sources. Official media channels of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) released little information about which units participated in the initial military operations in Kirkuk on October 16. ISW assesses that the PMF imposed a media blackout, since they went dark for an abnormal duration. One Facebook page affiliated with an Iranian proxy militia took down photos and videos about its involvement in Kirkuk that it posted from October 13-16. Social media outlets that normally report on PMF units were also unusually quiet. This media blackout may have extended to Iraqi press, which also did not report details on PMF units. Iraqi sources also rarely reported on Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) unit numbers in Kirkuk, referring instead to general “Iraqi forces.” The media blackout and some retrospective removal of materials posted on unofficial social media links suggest that some authorities within the PMF, Iraq, or Iran wished to conceal evidence that the PMF participated.

Furthermore, some Kurdish press and social media sources published old, recycled imagery to argue that the Iranian-backed proxies were present, undermining the credibility of the official Iraqi Kurdish case. U.S. uniformed military spokesmen, senior general officers, and State Department officials have added to the confusion by dodging press questions about the involvement of PMF forces.

ISW conducted a rigorous study of the available evidence in social media and other reporting of troop movements in Kirkuk and across the disputed internal boundaries in order to assess which units comprised the PMF forces whose involvement Iraqi sources generally reported. Forces from three major Iranian proxies were present south of Kirkuk before the operation and advanced along with Iraqi forces: the 43rd and 42nd AAH Brigades and a Badr Organization unit also known as the PMF 24th Brigade. ISW has provided a list of indicators of the presence of these units below. ISW cannot assess the specific KH unit with confidence at the time of publication. KH, AAH, and the Badr Organization are lethal Iranian proxies that attacked U.S. forces in Iraq, particularly between 2006 and 2008.

Iranian Proxy Leadership in Kirkuk

  • Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri met with Federal Police (FP) commander Raed Jawat and the deputy head of the PMF and leader of KH Abu Mehdi al Muhandis in Bashir. An official Badr Organization media site provided pictures of this meeting on Facebook on October 15.* 
Hadi al Ameri, Abu Mehdi al Muhandis, and Raed Jawat near Bashir on or around October 15, 2017.
  • Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mehdi al Muhandis attended the flag raising in Kirkuk City along with Iraq’s Counterterrorism Services (CTS) commander General Yarallah. The Iraqi Army’s Twitter account posted a photo of the flag raising, showing all three in attendance. Facebook accounts affiliated with the Badr Organization also posted photos and videos showing the flag raising.* The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman said that he had not seen” the photos in response to a reporter’s inquiry during a press briefing on October 17.
Hadi al Ameri, Abu Mehdi al Muhandis, and General Yarallah in Kirkuk City on October 16, 2017.
  • Hadi al Ameri toured the Bai Hasan oil field on October 16 after Peshmerga forces withdrew. A Facebook account linked to the Badr Organization posted a video of Hadi al Ameri touring the Bai Hasan oil field. Ameri, during an interview from the field, thanked the Peshmegra for not clashing with the ISF. An Emergency Response Division (ERD) officer was standing next to Ameri. When asked if there were oil fields under PMF control, Ameri stuttered, saying that “oil fields… I don’t think so except for Daybaka oil field which is important to control. Besides that, I don’t think we have a problem.” *
Hadi al Ameri tours the Bai Hasan oil field on October 16, 2017.
  • Additional photos and videos that circulated on social media also show Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mehdi al Muhandis touring sites in Kirkuk Province.

Iranian Proxy Militia Deployments to Kirkuk

Asa'ib Ahl al Haq (AAH)
  • Photos and videos taken in the vicinity of Kirkuk City that circulated on social media included AAH flags. Western reporters also cited examples of AAH flags raised near Kirkuk. 
  •  A Facebook page affiliated with the AAH 42nd PMF Brigade shared photos with a caption stating that the 42nd Brigade led by Haj Abu Bakr Jubouri was deploying to Daquq for further movement to Kirkuk, and included a photo of a fighter with an AAH flag.
Photo of Asa'ib Ahl al Haq fighter either on the way to or near Kirkuk City.
  • A Facebook page affiliated with AAH’s 42nd PMF Brigade posted photos on October 16 of fighters holding an AAH flag with a caption stating the photo was taken at a Peshmerga position in central Kirkuk.*
  • ISW assessed on October 19 that the AAH 43rd PMF Brigade was also present within proximity of Kirkuk as of at least October 15. The 43rd PMF Brigade was deployed in Salah al Din province before the Kirkuk operation.* A Facebook page affiliated with AAH’s 43rd PMF Brigade published information, including photos and videos, that supported ISW’s assessment that fighters from the Brigade deployed close to Kirkuk in early October.* Screenshots from the AAH 43rd Brigade’s Facebook page are included below.

Badr Organization
  • The Badr Organization’s Turkmen brigade, also known as the 16th PMF Brigade, was already stationed near Bashir and may have received reinforcement from 16th PMF Brigade units in the vicinity of Hamrin and Qara Tapa.*
  • An Iraqi news outlet shared a video from September 18 that shows a column of fighters from the 24th Badr Brigade arriving near southern Kikuk with Abu Mehdi al Muhandis.
Abu Mehdi al Muhandis arrives close to southern Kirkuk and sits in an apparent Badr Organization office on September 18, 2017.
  • A Facebook account affiliated with Ansar Allah al-Awfiya posted a photo from IVO Bashir showing civilians offering food to the PMF and security forces.* The post included photos from al-Ghadeer channel (affiliated with the Badr Organization).
  • The communications directorate of the PMF announced that its force,s along with ISF, control Bai Hasan oil fields in Kirkuk. The PMF in Bai Hasan most likely included a Badr Organization unit, given Hadi al Ameri’s visit.

Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH)
  • Al Arabiya published a video on October 16 from a location near Kirkuk City showing two trucks laden with fighters carrying KH flags, in addition to fighters carrying KH flags stationed at a checkpoint. 
Al Arabiya video on October 16, 2017 shows Kata'ib Hezbollah fighters near Kirkuk.
These units joined the local Iranian-backed forces stationed south of Kirkuk, which included: Kita’ib Jund al Imam, Liwa Kirkuk al Thani, and Firqat Imam Ali al Qitaliya. Qiyadat Quwat Abu Fadl al Abbas and a Hawza-affiliated PMF unit named Firqat al Abbas al Qitaliya may also have been present.

Iran’s proxies joined an Iraqi force including the CTS and units from the 9th Iraqi Armored Division. It is unclear from publicly available information which specific CTS and 9th Iraqi Armored Division units participated. The deployment of elite Iraqi units supported by armored artillery indicates Abadi intended both to deter the Peshmerga from fighting and to prepare for that possibility. Abadi also deployed troops from the FP and ERD, which constituted the only government-controlled infantry force. The FP and ERD likely included units penetrated by Iran. These combined forces staged south of Kirkuk city in order to allow an avenue for retreat for Kurdish forces to the north. 

ISW mapped these forces on October 19 and updated that assessment on October 29. ISW will continue updating its assessment and map if and when new information becomes available.


Iran’s role in Kirkuk was decisive. The leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Qassem Suleimani traveled to Iraq on October 14 to convey Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s support for Abadi’s response to the referendum. He also issued an ultimatum to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and possibly to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Leader of the Badr Organization, Hadi al Ameri, also threatened “internal war” if the Peshmerga did not withdraw from Kirkuk. The deployment of Iran’s proxies to Kirkuk tipped the scales against Iraqi Kurdistan enough to compel it to withdraw from Kirkuk and large portions of Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries. 

Iran achieved a second goal through its support in Kirkuk: to further legitimize its proxies in Iraq while sidelining the United States. Iran seeks to subordinate the Iraqi government from within, and was careful to frame the Kirkuk operation as a sovereign Iraqi action. Iran quietly provided critical support that ensured Abadi’s success while positioning its proxies to have influence in Kirkuk moving forward. Iran also took action to keep the U.S. on the sidelines by deploying an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) against U.S. forces in early October. The Kirkuk operation thus bears signs of Iraq’s most likely future on current trajectory: Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi notionally in control, Iran’s proxies acting on Tehran’s orders but as legitimate arms of the Iraqi state, and the U.S. on the sidelines.

Iran’s proxies will capitalize politically and militarily on their role in Kirkuk and across Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBS). The battlefield circulations of major proxy leaders around Kirkuk bolstered their public image ahead of Iraq’s elections scheduled for early 2018. Their subordinates may compete in local Kirkuk politics. Their forces will likely control or contest Iraqi government control of Kirkuk’s military infrastructure and oil installations. Prime Minister Abadi placed an Iranian client, Ali Fadhil Imran, at the head of a new Kirkuk Operations command on October 28. Imran is the former head of the Iranian-influenced 5th Iraqi Army Division. Unconfirmed reports indicate Abadi also appointed an Iranian client, Abdul-Amir al-Zaydi, as the head of “redeployment operations” across Iraq’s DIBS and border crossings on November 5. Zaydi is the former head of the Iranian-influenced Dijla Operations Command. These appointments enable Iran’s proxies to consolidate militarily in Kirkuk and across the DIBS. 

The U.S. remains multiple steps behind Iran. President Donald Trump rolled out a new anti-Iran strategy days before the Kirkuk operation, without specifying prescriptions for containing and reversing the strength of Iran’s proxy networks. The Trump Administration’s initial apathy toward Iran’s role in the Kirkuk operation appeared to indicate the U.S. will not meaningfully push back against Iran in Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provided a more forceful, but still sluggish, U.S. response to Iran’s role in Kirkuk in a subsequent trip to the Middle East from October 22-23. Tillerson said “Iranian militias that are in Iraq…need to go home” during a press conference with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir on October 22. Secretary Tillerson’s statement recognizes the threat Iran’s proxies in Iraq pose, but rolling back their influence is not achievable through rhetoric alone. Abadi reportedly responded to Secretary Tillerson by stating the PMF “defended their country and made the sacrifices that contributed to the victory over ISIS. Abadi subsequently stated that he will disarm Iran’s proxies if they refuse to submit to his control, in an effort to reaffirm his intent to remain aligned with U.S. policy. He does not have the capability to do so without direct American military support, however. Only a serious change in U.S. policy in Iraq can save Abadi from de facto cooptation by Iran. 

* Please contact ISW directly to request citations for these data.