Reviewing the Week – Compiled by Sasa Hezir (ISW)
Key Take-away: The United States is struggling to shape developments in the Middle East region as erstwhile allies and partners have reset the terms of engagement by pursuing their interests without U.S. leadership. U.S. officials announced the start of the train-and-assist mission for moderate Syrian rebels but stopped short of supporting further involvement in the Syrian war, such as setting up humanitarian safe zones, despite calls from visiting key Syrian opposition figures to do so. Meanwhile regional actors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia confirmed their support for hardline anti-Assad forces, and Iran increased its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by approving a $1 billion credit line for Syria. Amid growing political tensions in Kurdish Iraq, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visited Washington this week, where numerous U.S. officials including President Obama reiterated the U.S.’s support for a unified Iraq. Iranian-backed militias moved to counter ISIS’s attack against the Baiji oil refinery this week, signaling their intent to re-enter the fight against ISIS despite being sidelined recently by the Iraqi government as it sought aerial strikes in Tikrit.
U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and seven Representatives visited Iraq and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on May 3 to discuss the bill that would directly provide assistance to Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Sunnis, circumventing Iraq’s central government. PM Abadi reiterated his opposition while McCaul said the proposed aid could proceed without undermining the central government. President Obama echoed this position during his meeting with visiting President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani on May 5, reaffirming the U.S.’s support to a “united, federal and democratic Iraq.” The Iraqi government appears to be trying to fold in more domestic factions in the fight against ISIS. It is moving closer to involving more Anbaris, which would help alleviate the government’s need for manpower, assuage some grievances among Anbaris, and contribute to Congress’s proposal to arm the Iraqi Sunnis directly. The Iraqi government would likely work to separate Anbari fighters from Shi’a militia militia leadership to minimize sectarian tension. Meanwhile, ISIS launched a significant attack against the Baiji Oil Refinery this week and, as of May 8, the fight for control over the facility continues. The U.S-led coalition intensified airstrikes around the facility to assist the ISF and dropped pallets of supplies to those besieged. Iranian-backed militias are saying that they are moving in support of the ISF, though U.S. airstrikes are also supporting the ISF there. The Iranian proxies are likely trying to take on a greater role to support Iraq’s security after their recent marginalization by the government. On May 7, Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri reportedly visited Baiji and either on May 6 or 7, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis reportedly visited Camp Speicher to support Shi’a militia efforts to re-enter the fight against ISIS. Though the Baiji refinery has likely suffered too much damage over the last year to generate meaningful revenue, its capture would provide a psychological boost to ISIS following its recent defeat in Tikrit and would strengthen ISIS’s posture in northern Iraq.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: 4-6, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: May 1-4, 2015“; “Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 1, 2015“; “Iraq’s Prime Minister Comes under Attack by Political Rivals,” by Sinan Adnan.” Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analyst Sinan Adnan here.
U.S. officials announced the start of the train-and-assist mission for moderate Syrian rebels while also expressing skepticism about further involvement in Syria, leaving space for regional actors to support more hardline anti-Assad forces. Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) President Khaled Khoja called for an expanded train-and-assist program, assistance in combatting regime air power, and the establishment of safe zones during a visit to the U.S. However, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense expressed concern regarding an expanded U.S. role in testimony before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other rebels established the Jaysh al-Fatah al-Qalamoun Operations Room and launched simultaneous attacks against multiple pro-regime positions along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Turkish officials confirmed a joint Turkish-Saudi effort to bolster anti-Assad forces, in particular hardline Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham (HASI). Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah downplayed previous reports of an imminent Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun region, possibly following internal pressure to avoid an escalation which could encourage attacks inside Lebanon. The UN announced that UN Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura has started individual meetings as part of the Geneva III talks. However, no parties appear willing to make the concessions required to the end the conflict and Iran gave preliminary approval to a $1 billion credit line to strengthen the Assad regime.
See: “Syria Situation Report: April 28-May 5, 2015“; “Warning Intelligence Update: Possible Upheaval in the Syrian Capital” by Jennifer Cafarella, May 4, 2015; “An Army in All Corners:” Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria, by Christopher Kozak, April 30, 2015; “Control of Terrain in Syria: April 30, 2015“; “Second Idlib Stronghold Falls to Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Forces“by Jennifer Cafarella, April 26, 2015; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria: An Islamic Emirate for al-Qaeda, by Jennifer Cafarella, December 18, 2014. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
ISIS is continuing to execute multiple simultaneous and successive operations in Iraq, a sign of its strength and resilience, with its ongoing major offensive against the Baiji Oil Refinery As of May 8, fighting over control of the facility continues with greater success than in any of the several previous offensives. ISIS will likely maintain its attacks against the refinery and against Ramadi in Anbar to isolate and overwhelm forward ISF positions on multiple fronts, a core part of ISIS’s defensive strategy to keep its other cities in Iraq by denying the ISF the ability to mass in one place. Two gunmen in Garland, Texas injured a police officer outside of a convention center holding a contest to draw the Prophet Muhammad on May 4. The perpetrators were American citizens who were in contact with a member of ISIS who is reportedly inside Syria. Thus the attack was not fully a case of self-radicalization, but rather the result of ISIS’s success at encouraging individuals to attack in support of ISIS. This decentralized component of ISIS’s strategy makes ISIS-related activity more difficult to interdict in the Far Abroad. Meanwhile, a military alliance in Derna, ISIS’s Libyan stronghold, publically condemned ISIS on May 7, but claimed that it does not have enough resources to combat ISIS while continuing its fight against the Libyan government. Thus ISIS can thrive in existing conflict zones because its potential enemies are focused on an existing fight. ISIS can also offer new resources, such as military expertise and financial backing, as both the governor of Kunduz province and a Taliban commander in Ghazni claim ISIS is doing in Afghanistan. ISIS appears to be gaining allies on the Afghanistan front.
See: “ISIS Global INTSUM,” by Harleen Gambhir, February 19, 2015; “The Islamic State’s Global Ambitions,” by Harleen Gambhir and Jessica Lewis McFate, Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2015 (subscribers only). Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir here.