Barrel bomb dropped from a Syrian army helicopter on Maarat Harma, north of Hama.
Main events of the week
- This week, the main event in the Syrian arena was a ground offensive by the Syrian army in the Idlib region, which is controlled by the jihadi rebel organizations. The objective of the move is apparently to take control of areas southwest of the Idlib region (in the eastern part of the Al-Ghab Plain) and in the northwest (the area of Jisr al-Shughur). So far, the Syrian army, with Russian air support, has taken control of a number of towns and villages northwest of Hama (where the main effort of the attack is concentrated, in the ITIC’s assessment).
- Concurrently with the fighting, attempts were made in the diplomatic arena to prevent the continuation of the attack and the massive harm to civilians (in light of the fear that a wave of refugees is liable to flood Turkey and Europe). The diplomatic moves included a UN Security Council session, talks between Turkey and Russia, and a joint statement by Britain, Germany and France. The European countries expressed concern over the massive civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian regime and Russia (over 120 fatalities and 180,000 displaced persons in the past two weeks). However, so far the diplomatic activity has had no real impact on the offensive moves of the Syrian army, which are still ongoing.
- The main event of the week in the Iraqi arena was a suicide bombing attack in an open market in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. The attack was unusual since most of the attacks carried out by ISIS in Iraq up to now were “ordinary” (planting IEDs, shooting attacks, executions, etc.). This might also be an indication of ISIS’s intention to carry out mass-casualty showcase attacks also in Iraq, with an emphasis on attacks against members of the Shiite community.
- The usual activity of ISIS’s various provinces and regions around the globe continued: In Libya, ISIS took control of a village in the south of the country for a short time, killing persons affiliated with Haftar’s Army (whose attention is focused on the campaign to take over Tripoli in northern Libya). In Nigeria, ISIS attacked a Nigerian army camp in Borno State (11 dead Nigerian soldiers, according to ISIS); in Central Africa (near the Uganda-Congo border), ISIS operatives continued their attacks against the Congolese army; in Somalia, an attempt was made to assassinate a senior judge in the city of Bosaso, on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, which serves as a focal point for ISIS’s activity. In India, ISIS operatives attacked Indian soldiers in the Kashmir Province and announced the establishment of the India Province (a name that appeared for the first time); in Afghanistan, attacks continued against the Afghan army and the Afghan government security apparatus.
Main events in Syria
The Idlib area
Syrian army attack on the Idlib area (updated to May 14, 2019)
This week, the Syrian army continued its ground attack against the rebel organizations in the Idlib area, which started in early May 2019. In the initial stage, the Syrian army moves focused on the southwestern part of the Idlib area, where the army took over several towns and villages northwest of Hama. Subsequently, the Syrian army exerted pressure on the rebel organizations on the road between Latakia and the city of Jisr al-Shughur, on the northwestern part of the Idlib area. The ground attack of the army was accompanied by Syrian and Russian air support. Convening the UN Security Council (May 10, 2019), an approach by the Turkish foreign minister to his Russian counterpart to stop the attack and the airstrikes, as well as protests by West European countries, did not stop the attack so far.
- The main war effort of the Syrian army focused on towns and villages along Road 56, leading from Hama to the Al-Ghab Plain (the road crosses the Al-Ghab Plain and reaches the city of Jisr al-Shughur controlled by the rebels). In the ITIC’s assessment, the Syrian move was intended to take control of the southwestern part of the Idlib area, thereby undermining the jihadi organizations’ control of the entire Idlib region.
- During the first days of the attack (May 6-10, 2019), the Syrian army took over several towns and villages northwest of Hama, on the eastern outskirts of the Al-Ghab Plain (see map). The army attached special importance to the village of Kafr Nabudah, east of the Al-Ghab Plain, which was taken over with Russian air support. This village is perceived as the “gate” to the region controlled by the rebels and as a key area in the defense of Idlib (Enab Baladi, May 8, 2019; Al-Quds Al-Araby, May 9, 2019). A counterattack of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, which defended the village, was thwarted by the Syrian army (Syria News, May 10, 2019).
The towns and villages taken over by the Syrian army in the southwestern Idlib area, northwest of Hama, during the first days of the attack (SANA, May 11, 2019): Kafr Nabudah (1); Al-Janabra (2); Al-Bana (3); Tell Uthman (4); Qalaat al-Madiq (5); Bab al-Taqa (6); Karkat (7) (Google Maps)
Russian and Syrian airstrikes
- Russian and Syrian fighter jets carried out intensive airstrikes against targets in the Idlib area, among other things as air support for the Syrian army ground attack. Thus, for instance:
- The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that Russian fighter jets attacked the outskirts of Kafr Nabudah, 30 km northwest of Hama (Ibaa, May 10, 2019).
- On May 10, 2019, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that Syrian army helicopters had attacked the village of Maarat Harma, 47 km north of Hama, with barrel bombs (Ibaa, May 10, 2019).
Response of the jihadi organizations
In order to halt the Syrian army attack, the rebel organizations operating in the Idlib area set up a joint operations room called “Fateh Dimashq” (i.e., victory over or conquest of Damascus). This operations room comprises 26 organizations operating in the Idlib area, headed by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. On the ground, the response to the Syrian attack included mainly artillery and rocket fire at Syrian army forces in the southern Idlib area. In addition, the rebel organizations sent reinforcements to the areas attacked by the Syrian army in the southwestern Idlib area and attempted to carry out local counterattacks, mostly without success. A demonstration took place in the city of Idlib, during which the protesters called for toppling the Syrian regime (Khotwa, May 10, 2019).
- Following are highlights of the rebel activity:
- The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham announced that Grad rockets had been launched against Syrian army forces northwest of Hama (Ibaa, May 10, 2019).
- The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham announced that it had fired heavy weapons at Syrian army positions in the villages of Kafr Nabudah and Al-Mughayir, northwest of Hama (Ibaa, May 11, 2019).
- On May 8, 2019, a force of the Turkestan Islamic Party (Uyghur operatives from China) attacked Syrian army positions in the central Al-Ghab Plain, 57 km northwest of Hama. The Syrian army killed dozens of operatives who participated in the attack (Sputnik, May 8, 2019; Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, May 9, 2019).
- The commander of the Russian Coordination Center in Syria reported that on May 8, 2019, a total of 12 rockets were launched at the Hmeymim airbase. He noted that thanks to the airbase air defense system, all rockets were intercepted. According to him, there were no casualties and or damage (TASS, May 8, 2019).
- On May 13, 2019, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fired self-manufactured rockets at Syrian army positions about 30 km northwest of Hama.
Self-manufactured rockets launched at Syrian army positions northwest of Hama (Ibaa, May 13, 2019)
- On May 10, 2019, the United Nations Security Council convened to discuss the situation in Idlib. At the session, Russia prevented the Security Council from issuing a public statement, claiming that the text of the statement presented the situation in Idlib improperly (TASS News Agency, May 10, 2019). The United States, Britain, France and eight other countries issued their own statement expressing their concerns about a humanitarian disaster in Idlib due to attacks in the region. The statement called on all parties concerned to protect civilians in the region and to comply with the ceasefire agreement that was decided upon between Russia, Turkey and Iran in September 2018 (AP, May 11, 2018).
- In addition, Turkey and Western European countries carried out political activity aimed at halting the Syrian army’s offensive and preventing civilian casualties:
- According to a report by the Turkish news agency from May 9, 2019 (the eve of the Security Council meeting), Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu asked his Russian counterpart for Russia to stop the airstrikes, which, according to him, have killed more than 100 civilians in the past two weeks (Anatolia News Agency, May 10, 2019).
- On May 13, 2019, the British, German and French governments issued a joint statement saying that “this military escalation must stop.” The statement also condemned the targeting of the civilian population by the Syrian regime and Russia. According to the statement, more than 120 civilians have been killed in recent weeks as a result of airstrikes and indiscriminate bombing of population centers and humanitarian infrastructure (schools, medical facilities). According to the statement, in the past two weeks, there were more than 180,000 newly displaced persons. The statement ends with a call on all parties concerned to “avoid any military offensive in the region,” to maintain the ceasefire and to ensure the protection of civilians (www.gov.uk, May 13, 2019).
- On May 13, 2019, Turkish President Erdoğan held a telephone conversation with Russian President Putin on the developments in Idlib. Erdoğan expressed concern over the ceasefire violations by the Assad regime in the Idlib region and protested the attacks on civilians and hospitals. According to him, the Assad regime is striving to sabotage Turkish-Russian cooperation on the Idlib issue, to undermine the Sochi Agreement, and to torpedo political processes in Syria (Anatolia, May 14, 2019). On May 14, 2019, a telephone conversation took place between the defense ministers of Turkey and Syria, who discussed the steps to be taken to reduce tension in Idlib, as part of the Sochi Agreement (Anatolia, May 14, 2019).
Continuation of the Syrian army offensive moves
- In spite of the political efforts of Turkey and western European countries to halt the fighting, Syrian army offensive moves in the southern Idlib area continued. On May 13, 2019, the Syrian army announced that its forces had continued to advance in the rural area northwest of Hama. According to the announcement, the Syrian army took over several sites about 40 km northwest of Hama, including the villages of Sheikh Idris, Al-Toubah and Tal Hawash (Enab Baladi, May 13, 2019). The rebel organizations reported that they had managed to retake the village of Sheikh Idris, which is situated on an important crossroads (Khotwa, May 13, 2019). Fighter jets (possibly Syrian) continued to drop barrel bombs on the southern Idlib area (Khotwa, May 13, 2019).
Towns, villages and areas which the Syrian army announced that it had taken over on May 13, 2019. One of the villages (Sheikh Idris) was retaken by the rebel organizations. The area marked in red was taken over by the Syrian army in the initial days of the attack (Google Maps)
Right: Antitank missile launched by the National Liberation Front at a van of the forces supporting the Syrian army in the village of Sheikh Idris (YouTube channel of the National Liberation Front, May 13, 2019). Left: The van being hit (YouTube channel of the National Liberation Front, May 13, 2019)
- On May 12, 2019, it was reported that Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the Kabanah area, 13 km southwest of Jisr al-Shughur (in the northwestern part of the Idlib area, controlled by the jihadi organizations). It was reported that the Syrian army and the forces supporting it had started to fire artillery at the positions of the rebel organizations in the area with the purpose of advancing towards the rebel forces (Syria TV, May 12, 2019). The Turkestan Islamic Party announced on May 13, 2019, that the organization operatives had curbed the Syrian army advance on the Kabanah road for three consecutive days (announcement by the Turkestan Islamic Party, Telegram, May 13, 2019).
The Kabanah area, southwest of the city of Jisr al-Shughur (Wikimapia)
- On May 14, 2019, fighter jets attacked an open market and a school in Jisr al-Shughur. According to one version, those were Syrian fighter jets; according to another version – Russian fighter jets. Five civilians were reportedly killed in the airstrike and over 10 others were wounded (Orient News, May 14, 2019; Idlib Plus@IdlibPlus Twitter account, May 14, 2019).
Summary of the casualties in the fighting (updated to May 14, 2019)
- On May 14, 2019, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 364 people were killed during the first two weeks which had passed since the beginning of the escalation in the Idlib area. At least 132 of the fatalities belonged to the rebel forces, 110 belonged to the Syrian army and the forces supporting it, and 122 were civilians (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, May 14, 2019).
- ISIS continues to carry out intensive guerrilla activity against the SDF forces in the Al-Mayadeen-Deir ez-Zor area, mainly on the east bank of the Euphrates. Following are the main attacks carried out in the passing week (see map):
- On May 7, 2019, a motorcycle bomb was detonated near an SDF vehicle in the village of Kashkiya, about 30 km south of Al-Mayadeen. An SDF fighter was killed and three others were wounded (Pastethis.to file-sharing website, May 8, 2019).
- On May 8, 2019, ISIS captured two SDF fighters in the village of Jadid Baqarah, 24 km north of Al-Mayadeen. The two were executed in the village of Al-Basira, 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen (pastethis.to file-sharing website, May 8, 2019).
- On May 9, 2019, fire was shot at an SDF vehicle on the Dhiban-Al-Tiyana Road, southeast of Al-Mayadeen. Several SDF fighters were killed and wounded (Deir ez-Zor 24, May 9, 2019).
- On May 10, 2019, an IED was activated against an SDF checkpoint in the village of Al-Jardhy, about 19 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. One of the SDF fighters was killed and two others were wounded (Deir ez-Zor 24, May 10, 2019).
- On May 10, 2019, ISIS operatives attacked a position of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it in the Ayn Ali area on the west bank of the Euphrates, about 10 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen (Deir ez-Zor 24, May 10, 2019).
- On May 11, 2019, a motorcycle bomb was detonated in the village of Al-Sour, about 50 km northeast of Deir ez-Zor. Two SDF fighters were wounded (Deir ez-Zor 24, May 11, 2019).
Attacks carried out by ISIS in the Al-Mayadeen-Deir ez-Zor area during the past week: Kashkiya (1); Al-Jardhy (2); Ayn Ali spring (3); Al-Tiyanah (4); Dhiban (5); Jadid Baqarah (6); Al-Sour (7) (Google Maps)
- On May 14, 2019, ISIS operatives shot at an SDF vehicle in the Al-Basira area, about 30 km southeast of Deir ez-Zor, killing three fighters who were in the vehicle. On May 13, 2019, ISIS operatives shot at an SDF checkpoint in the Al-Basira area and wounded two fighters (Shabakat Shumukh, May 14, 2019).
Northern and northeastern Syria
- This week, ISIS carried out terrorist attacks in the Upper Euphrates Valley:
- On May 8, 2019, an SDF fighter was shot at in Tabqa, west of Al-Raqqah. The fighter was wounded (pastethis.to file-sharing website, May 8, 2019).
- On May 8, 2019, an IED was detonated against an SDF vehicle in the village of Al-Hus, about 40 km east of Al-Raqqah. Two fighters were wounded and the vehicle was damaged (pastethis.to file-sharing website, May 8, 2019).
- On May 10, 2019, an SDF fighter was shot dead while riding a motorcycle in the area of Al-Shaddadi (some 47 km south of Al-Hasakah). The incident was documented by ISIS (Telegram, May 11, 2019)
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity
- The main ISIS attack this week was a suicide bombing attack in the Al-Jamila open market in Madinat Al-Sadr, the Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad (Al-Sumaria, May 9, 2019). ISIS’s Amaq News Agency released a message claiming responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility, an ISIS operative blew himself up with an explosive belt, killing eight Shiites and wounding 10 others (Shabakat Shumukh, May 11, 2019). Note: A senior Iraqi police officer told Reuters that the report on the suicide bomber was not true. According to him, this was a controlled detonation of a suspicious object (Reuters, May 10, 2019). In the ITIC’s assessment, this was indeed a suicide bombing attack since it is known that a fire broke out and ambulances arrived at the site.
Right: The scene of the suicide bombing attack (www.iraqnews-in.com, May 10, 2019). Left: Ambulances arriving at the site after the attack (Akhbar Shams al-Haqiqa, May 9, 2019)
During recent months, most of the attacks carried out by ISIS throughout Iraq were “ordinary” attacks (planting IEDs, shooting attacks, executions, etc.). The last suicide bombing attack in Baghdad took place about a year ago, in one of the Shiite neighborhoods, when a suicide bomber blew himself up with an explosive belt, killing four people and wounding 15 others (Al-Jazeera, May 24, 2018). The suicide bombing at the open market in Baghdad, assuming it did take place, is therefore unusual and may indicate an ISIS effort to carry out mass-casualty showcase attacks, mainly targeting the Shiites.
- At the same time, ISIS’s usual attacks continued in the various provinces:
- Salah al-Din Province: ISIS operatives fired machine guns at an Iraqi army vehicle east of Samarra, killing and wounding several soldiers (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, May 11, 2019).
- Diyala Province: Snipers shot at an Iraqi army position about 40 km southeast of Baqubah, killing one soldier and wounding another (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, May 1, 2019).
- Salah al-Din Province: The Popular Mobilization announced that it had located dozens of ISIS IEDs south of Samarra (Al-Sumaria, May 9, 2019).
- Salah al-Din Province: ISIS’s Amaq News Agency announced that the organization operatives had detonated an IED against a Popular Mobilization position south of Shirqat, killing a Popular Mobilization fighter, wounding two others, and hitting military equipment of the militia (Telegram, May 9, 2019).
- Diyala Province: ISIS operatives detonated an IED against an Iraqi army vehicle in the Khanaqin area, wounding soldiers who were in the vehicle (Shabakat Shumukh, May 14, 2019).
Counterterrorist and preventive activity of the Iraqi security forces
- The Iraqi Defense Ministry announced that as part of the operation to mop up Al-Jazeera (the desert area in northwestern Iraq), several ISIS operatives were killed. In addition, several ISIS vehicles and guest houses in the desert were destroyed (Iraqi Defense Ministry, May 8, 2019).
Right: ISIS vehicle seized during the operation. Left: ISIS underground shelter located during the operation (Iraqi Defense Ministry, May 8, 2019)
- Additional activity:
- Nineveh Province: In Mosul, Iraqi Military Intelligence detained an ISIS operative who was in charge of making car bombs in the Nineveh Province. According to the report, he was involved in setting up ISIS sleeper cells (Al-Sumaria, May 14, 2019). The name of the detainee was not disclosed.
- Al-Anbar Province: The Iraqi security forces deactivated five IEDs ready for use west of the city of Hit, about 90 km west of Ramadi (Al-Sumaria, May 13, 2019).
- Salah al-Din Province: The Saraya al-Islam militia, led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, announced that it had located and destroyed four ISIS guest houses north of the city of Samarra (Al-Sumaria, May 13, 2019).