ISI has detected massive fierce fighting damages within the city of Hajin. Facilities, structures and roads are destroyed as well as most of the main junctions. There is no evidence of significant civilian traffic within Hajin City. It is probable that most of its inhabitants have left the city.
Main events of the week
- Following is an overview of the situation in Syria, against the backdrop of the Trump declaration and the American political and media activity surrounding it:
- The ISIS-controlled enclave on the east bank of the Euphrates River is gradually shrinking. It is now reduced to a pocket around 10 km long and 6 km wide. A senior SDF official announced that ISIS operatives were “living their final moments.” A spokesman for the Coalition said that the SDF was advancing but the fighting was still ongoing. According to one report, ISIS operatives asked the SDF to open a safe passage for them, leading to the desert areas of Iraq. It is possible that the ISIS operatives are also considering the possibility of fleeing to the desert areas west of the Euphrates River.
- The evacuation of the Kurdish and American forces from Manbij continued. The city is controlled by a local council supervised by the Kurds, which is negotiating with the Syrian regime to regain control of the city. The area surrounding the city has been supervised since January 8, 2019, by a Russian Military Police force. According to Russian media reports, the Kurds are now under Russia’s protection.
- In the Idlib area, the jihadi organization the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham continues to take over areas controlled by other jihadi organizations and rebel organizations affiliated with Turkey. According to the Turkish media, the Headquarters now controls at least 75% of the Idlib region. Neutralizing the Turkish-backed rebel organizations in the Idlib region poses an immediate challenge to the Turks, whose political and military status in the Idlib region is weakening.
- The United States officially announced that it had begun withdrawing its troops from Syria. In practice, air support for the SDF continued and even seemed to have increased during the attack by SDF forces against the ISIS enclave east of the Euphrates River. At the political and media level, American officials continue to convey messages that address the concerns of their allies. One of the most prominent such messages was President Trump’s tweet threatening Turkey that he would destroy its economy if it were to harm the Kurds. Following this, and in order to calm the Turks, the US President held a telephone conversation with Erdoğan to discuss the establishment of a Turkish-sponsored safe zone along a 32-kilometer border strip between Turkey and Syria.
President Trump’s announcement of the pullback of US forces from Syria (update)
Against the backdrop of the beginning of the pullback of American forces from Syria, American officials, mainly the President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, continued to convey reassuring messages to the allies of the US in the Middle East. The messages focused on the US commitment to continue to act against ISIS, to help countries fighting against the “terrorist threat” and to remove the Iranian presence in Syria. These messages, which stressed the US commitment to protect its Kurdish allies, created tension between the US and Turkey. President Trump made an effort to calm Turkey and held a telephone conversation with Erdoğan to discuss the establishment of a Turkish-sponsored safe zone along a 32-kilometer border strip between Turkey and Syria.
- Sean Ryan, the spokesman for the International Coalition against ISIS, stated (January 11, 2019) that the pullback of the American forces from Syria had begun. Due to security considerations, the spokesman refrained from mentioning the timetables, the location of the forces and how they were moving. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the pullback began on Thursday night (January 10, 2019), and armored vehicles and trucks were observed traveling from northern Syria to Iraq (The New York Post, January 11, 2019).
- Following are a number of noteworthy statements made by senior US officials regarding the pullback from Syria and its implications:
- US President Donald Trump tweeted that the United States had begun to pull back its forces from Syria while continuing to attack what remained of ISIS’s territorial caliphate. The US President threatened Turkey that he would destroy its economy if it were to harm the Kurds (President’s Twitter account, January 13, 2019). In the wake of the tweet, President Trump held a telephone conversation with Turkish President Erdoğan. According to the White House spokeswoman, the President expressed his desire to address Turkey’s security concerns in northeastern Syria, stressing the importance that the US attaches to fair treatment of the Kurds and the SDF, both of which fought alongside the US to defeat ISIS (Reuters, February 14, 2019).
- In order to calm Turkey, President Trump tweeted (January 14, 2019) that he had talked with President Erdoğan about the developments in the fighting against what remained of ISIS. Other topics included the establishment of a safe zone 20 miles long (32 km) in northern Syria and the development of the economic ties between the two countries, which have significant potential (President Trump’s Twitter account, January 14, 2019). Turkish President Erdoğan referred to his conversation with Trump, stating that the two men had reached an agreement on the establishment of a 30 km long safe zone in northern Syria. Erdoğan added that the Kurdish forces (YPG) must be evacuated from the safe zone and that Turkey and the United States must arrange the relevant logistical details (Daily Sabah; Hürriyet, January 15, 2019).
- In a speech delivered by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the American University in Cairo on January 10, 2019, he notes, inter alia, that the United States remains committed to the destruction of ISIS, but also expects its allies to do more in this regard (“We remain committed to the complete dismantling of ISIS – the ISIS threat – and the ongoing fighting against radical Islamism in all of its forms.”). Secretary of State Pompeo adds, “For our part, airstrikes in the region will continue as targets arise. We will keep working with our partners in the Coalition to Defeat ISIS” (US Department of State, January 10, 2019).
The Idlib region
The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham continues to establish its control in the Idlib region
- This week as well, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (affiliated with al-Qaeda) continued to take over areas controlled by other rebel organizations in the Idlib region, both Islamic jihadi and Turkish-sponsored rebel organizations. This week, its efforts were concentrated on taking control of the areas south and northeast of Idlib. According to the estimates, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham now controls at least 75% of the Idlib region (Khotwa, January 9, 2019; Orient News, January 12, 2019; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 9, 2019).According to a senior operative in the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, the organization’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani was working to dismantle the armed organizations and control the Idlib region by himself in order to “defend the Syrian revolution” (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, January 10, 2019).
- In this context, it was reported that the Jaysh al-Ahrar organization (a jihadi rebel organization) transferred control of its positions and headquarters in the rural area of the city of Idlib to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. As part of the agreement, Jaysh al-Ahrar transferred control of the Taftanaz military airfield, about 13 km northeast of Idlib, to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (Orient News, January 13, 2019). In addition, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that it had reached an agreement with Ahrar al-Sham (an Islamic rebel organization supported by Turkey) regarding the administration of the Al-Ghab Plain southwest of Idlib. According to the agreement, the Ahrar al-Sham organization will hand over its medium and heavy weapons to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the region (Ibaa Magazine, January 11, 2019).
Turkish response to steps taken by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham
- The establishment of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the weakening of the Turkish-sponsored rebel organizations posed an immediate challenge to the Turkish government. On January 12, 2019, senior Turkish officials held a meeting in the Hatay Province (which borders on the Idlib Province). The meeting was attended by the Turkish Defense Minister, the Chief of Staff, the Commander of the Ground Forces and the Head of Military Intelligence. According to a report by the Turkish Anadolu News Agency, the meeting participants discussed the latest developments in the Idlib area and the efforts to maintain the ceasefire in the framework of the Sochi Agreement (Anadolu, January 12, 2019).
- According to Syrian media reports, on January 13, 2019, Turkish army reinforcements, including armored vehicles and Special Forces, arrived in the Hatay Province, near the Idlib Province. It was reported that troops were reinforced in light of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham’s takeover of the territories held by the National Liberation Front, the umbrella framework of the Turkish-supported organizations (Enab Baladi, January 13, 2019).
The Hatay Province in Turkey, which borders on the Idlib Province in Syria (Wikimapia)
- In addition to the reinforcement of its troops, the Turkish government carried out a series of arrests among operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the provinces of Istanbul, Ankara, and Adana (in southern Turkey). The operatives are accused of helping the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham recruit new operatives and transfer money, in addition to their involvement in attacks in Syria. According to the Turkish police, the detainees include Hasan Süslü, chairman of the Fukara Der Charitable Society  (Sabah, Turkey, January 13, 2019).
The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham’s takeover of the control areas of pro-Turkish organizations in the Idlib area establishes its status as the dominant organization in the region, and perhaps even improves its ability to fight against the Russian-backed Syrian army. On the other hand, the Turkish-controlled rebel organizations (which are organized in the framework of the National Liberation Front) are weakening and, as a result, Turkey’s political and military status has weakened in the Idlib region. This creates the potential for military friction between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and Turkey, which until now had been opposed to a Syrian-Russian campaign to take over the Idlib region.
The Syrian army reinforces its troops near the Idlib enclave
- According to a website affiliated with the Syrian regime, Syrian army reinforcements keep arriving at the contact lines with the Idlib enclave, the area north of Hama. According to a Syrian “senior military source,” in recent days, the Syrian forces have raised their alertness on the fronts in the rural areas of Hama and Idlib. This happens following the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham’s takeover of the Idlib area and the rural area of Hama, and the escalation in the attacks against Syrian army positions on these fronts (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, January 14, 2019). Reinforcements sent to the area reportedly included the “Tiger” forces and militias supporting the Syrian regime (Al-Modon, January 12, 2019).
Shrinking of the ISIS enclave in the Euphrates Valley
- After the SDF forces took over the city of Hajin and its environs, the focus of the fighting shifted to the village of Al-Sha’fah, the largest village remaining in ISIS’s control (about 11 km north of Albukamal). It seems that this week, the SDF forces managed to take over the village of Al-Sha’fah and the area to its south, even though apparently, they haven’t completed mopping up the village yet. This means that ISIS’s enclave has shrunk into a “pocket” 12 km long and 5.8 km wide, extending from Albukamal up to the village of Al-Susah (see map). According to a senior SDF official, the ISIS operatives are “living their final moments.” According to a spokesman on behalf of the US-led International Coalition, the SDF have made “great progress… but the fight continues” (Reuters, January 13, 2019).
Map of the ISIS enclave (according to the Khotwa website): ISIS (gray); SDF forces (yellow); areas where the SDF recently advanced (maroon); areas controlled by the Syrian regime and the forces supporting it (red); the current friction lines (light blue); attacks by the Kurdish forces (red arrows) (Khotwa, January 14, 2019)
Satellite photos of Hajin after its takeover (courtesy of ISI)
ISI has detected massive fierce fighting damages within the city of Hajin. Facilities, structures and roads are destroyed as well as most of the main junctions. There is no evidence of
significant civilian traffic within Hajin City. It is probable that most of its inhabitants have left the city.
ISI has detected new SDF military posts which have been built lately in Hajin City surroundings, probably for preventing additional ISIS forces from arriving from the Syrian-Iraqi deserts.
Fighting in Al-Sha’fah
- On January 10, 2019, it was reported that the ISIS operatives had regained control over the village of Al-Sha’fah several days after the SDF forces had taken most of it from ISIS (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 10, 2019). On January 12, 2019, the SDF forces attacked once again the ISIS operatives in the village and its environs, in order to retake it. The SDF announced that they had advanced for a distance of 1 km and that ISIS had sustained casualties. According to an SDF report, ISIS tried to carry out a counterattack, using antitank missiles and drones, but it was halted (SDF press; Amaq, January 12, 2019). On January 14, 2019, it was reported that the village of Al-Sha’fah was fully taken over by the SDF forces (Deir ez-Zor 24 Twitter account, January 14, 2019).
ISIS operatives reportedly asked to allow the evacuation of their operatives to the “Iraqi Desert”
- According to a report of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (which still requires verification), ISIS asked the SDF and the Coalition countries to open a “safe passage” for its operatives to the “Iraqi Desert” (i.e., the desert area in the Al-Anbar Province in Iraq). Their request was denied and they were offered the choice between surrender and death. It was also reported that ISIS was on the verge of collapse; to halt the attacks, its defense is based on planting a large quantity of mines, using car bombs, and handling suicide bombers. In addition, it was noted that the ISIS operatives who remained in the enclave were divided between those who preferred to surrender and those who sought exit to areas on the west bank of the Euphrates River (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 10, 2019).
ISIS foreign fighters captured in the Hajin area
- The Kurdish forces reported that during the operations in the city of Hajin and its environs, they captured eight ISIS foreign fighters who had planned to carry out terrorist attacks against civilians (Enab Baladi, January 10, 2019). The Kurdish forces (YPG) published the operatives’ names and details. Two of them are from Uzbekistan, one from Tajikistan, one from Ukraine, one from Kazakhstan, one from Russia, one from the United States and one from Germany. The operative from the United States is an American boy aged 16, codenamed Abu Suleiman the American. The German operative is 31 years old, codenamed Abu Ibrahim the German (YPG website ypgrojava.org, January 9, 2019).
Eight ISIS operatives captured by the YPG
(YPG website ypgrojava.org, January 9, 2019)
ISIS operatives fleeing among the local population
- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that since early December 2018, over 14,800 people had fled from the ISIS enclave east of the Euphrates River. Most of those who fled are local residents, but there are also hundreds of ISIS operatives of various nationalities among them (Syrians, Iraqis, Russians, Somalis, Filipinos and foreign fighters of other Asian nationalities). It was also reported that among the civilians who had fled there were also 850 ISIS operatives who had been arrested by the SDF forces. Many of them reportedly carried millions of dollars in cash (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 10, 2019).
Evacuation of the Kurdish forces from Manbij
- Following is the situation in the Manbij area as is known to the ITIC: The evacuation of the Kurdish and the American forces from the city of Manbij continues. The city itself is controlled by a “local council” operating under Kurdish supervision and maintaining contact with the Syrian regime to regulate the control over the city (Orient News, January 12, 2019; Kurdish website A50 Network, January 9, 2019). The area in the vicinity of the city is supervised by a Russian Military Police force. The Syrian army is still present on the outskirts of the city and is ready to enter it under the Russian umbrella. A question mark still remains concerning the intentions of Turkey: forces affiliated with it are also present in the area, as Turkey is also interested to have control or influence over Manbij and the Kurdish enclave west of the Euphrates.
Syrian army armored vehicles and artillery in the Manbij rural area (SANA, January 12, 2019)
Russian Military Police force operates in the Manbij area
- The Russian media reported that the Manbij area, until recently controlled by the US military, was transferred on January 8, 2019, to the supervision of the Russian Military Police. This happened after a telephone conversation between US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. According to Russian official media outlets, the Russian Military Police force is expected to stay in the Manbij area on a permanent basis, as Russia virtually extended its protection to the Kurdish YPG forces (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 10, 2019). As of January 11, 2019, Russian Military Police soldiers reportedly patrol the “security zone” near the city of Manbij (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 14, 2019).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activities
Detonating a car bomb in Al-Qaim
- On January 11, 2019, a car bomb exploded in a market in Al-Qaim, in western Al-Anbar Province (near the border with Syria). A council member of the Al-Anbar Province stated that the detonation of the car bomb was intended to hit a crowd celebrating a local holiday. He added that ISIS sleeper cells were still present in other sites (Al-Sumaria News, January 11, 12, 2019). So far, no claim of responsibility by ISIS was found, but it is reasonable to assume that ISIS was behind the attack.
- Following are additional activities carried out by ISIS this past week (based on ISIS’s claims of responsibility):
- The border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia: ISIS reported that its operatives had attacked a position of the Iraqi Border Police near the border with Saudi Arabia. According to ISIS, about ten soldiers were killed, two vehicles were destroyed and the position was set on fire (Amaq, January 10, 2019).
- Diyala Province: ISIS operatives fired mortar shells at Ma’adan, a Shiite village about 70 km northeast of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, January 12, 2019).
- Kirkuk Province: ISIS operatives fired mortar shells at an Iraqi police position northwest of the city of Kirkuk (Shabakat Shumukh, January 12, 2019). Iraqi sources reported the incident (Al-Sumaria, January 13, 2019).
Counterterrorist activities of the Iraqi security forces
- Following are the main counterterrorist activities carried out by the Iraqi security forces this past week (according to the Iraqi media):
- Detention of terrorist operatives in west, north and east Baghdad (Iraqi News Agency, January 13, 2019).
- Killing five ISIS commanders in an airstrike targeting a vehicle about 80 km southeast of the Al-Rutba District. Three explosive belts and military equipment were found in the wreckage of the vehicle (Iraqi News Agency, January 13, 2019).
- A depot of weapons, probably belonging to ISIS, was located by the Popular Mobilization 113 km west of Mosul. It contained dozens of mortar shells, rockets and IEDs (Al-Hashed.net, January 13, 2019).