MESOP ANALYSIS : ISIS’s Second Front in Syria / Institute for the study of WAR

by Jenny Cafarella  & Valerie Szybala – Key Takeaway: ISIS has sustained its campaign in the countryside of Deir ez-Zour province throughout its escalation in Iraq, indicating its continued prioritization of this military effort inside of Syria despite increased pressure from the regime. Although it is possible that ISIS will take an operational pause in Syria to solidify its control and absorb its gains in Iraq, it is likely to move swiftly in a renewed offensive fully to rout JN and rebel forces from the Deir ez-Zour countryside and firmly to establish the lines of control and oil reserves within its state.

After the fall of Mosul, widespread celebrations were held throughout ISIS-held territory within Syria in the Aleppo strongholds of  Jarablusal BabManbijDeir Heifer, and Maskana, with a full parade held in ar-Raqqa. ISIS social media outlets reported wildly on the ongoing advances in Iraq, using the hashtag #SykesPicotOver to celebrate the game-changing successes achieved in Iraq. In addition to the outpouring of support on social media and in the streets of ISIS’s Syrian territory, ISIS commander in northern Syria Omar al-Shishani issued a “general communication” urging support for our “brothers in Mosul.” These celebrations indicate the cross-border resonance of ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria.

Raqqa & Aleppo

ISIS firmly solidified its control over the de-facto capital of its emirate in ar-Raqqa city in early 2014. While local resistance to ISIS rule has continued, it has been limited to low-level clashes and civilian protests that have fallen short of posing a threat to ISIS’s control in the area. In northern ar-Raqqa province Kurdish YPG forces regularly target ISIS positions in the countryside surrounding the Tel Abyad border crossing with Turkey, but ISIS has been able to maintain control of the crossing and has engaged in a number of vicious reprisal attacks including executions and kidnapping of Kurdish civilians in an attempt to deter future offensive raids. Tel Abyad is a key strategic location for ISIS, likely serving as a transit point for foreign fighters and supplies into ISIS’s ar-Raqqa stronghold.

ISIS has come under increased pressure in Aleppo from rebel groups which have recently launched an offensive to regain territory in the northeast of the province. The Islamic front (IF), Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other Islamic brigades initiated a renewed push against ISIS positions in the countryside, seizing a string of villages north of the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab. The objective of the operation is to seize control of the northern border village of al-Ra’ii which is likely used by ISIS as a second route for foreign fighters and supplies. However, although the loss of al-Ra’ii would negatively affect ISIS’s supply routes into its Aleppo strongholds, there have been no indicators that the IF and JN intend to escalate this offensive beyond minor countryside villages and directly attack the ISIS strongholds of al-Bab, Manbij or Deir Heifer. In the absence of a significant rebel offensive against these cities, ISIS is likely to remain secure in its Aleppo strongholds as it transfers weapons, funds, and possibly new recruits into its Syrian theater.

Deir ez-Zour

ISIS’s offensive to take control of parts of Deir ez-Zour from other rebels and to secure critical supply routes between Iraq and ar-Raqqa has met with relative success since it began in March.  However, ISIS has been unable to claim a decisive victory as Syrian rebels, tribes, and JN all rallied together in defense of the province. The Mujahideen Shura Council, consisting of the IF, JN, other rebel brigades, and local tribal militias was declared on May 25 to counter ISIS in the province and has continued to challenge ISIS. Members of the council have continuously engaged in clashes with ISIS in the strategic as-Suwar – Deir ez-Zour – al-Basira triangle as they attempt to disrupt ISIS’s attempt to consolidate its supply lines and sources of revenue. This fighting has resulted in large civilian displacement in the area, prompting the FSA’s Supreme Military Command to declare the province a disaster area and to call for humanitarian assistance.