MESOP : ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: February 11-20, 2016 Reviewing the Week Compiled by Harleen Gambhir & Dina Shahrokhi

This report is derived from open sources collected  & processed at ISW during the reporting period. The report includes analysis on Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, ISIS,  Kurdistan.
Key Take-Away -Russia strategically outmaneuvered the U.S. to secure Syrian regime gains, threaten Turkey, and expand its military footprint in the Middle East. Russia is pressuring U.S. partners in the Middle East and NATO in pursuit of its grand strategic objective of expanding its influence globally at the expense of the U.S. Three developments this week highlight Russian gains.
Russia introduced a “cessation of hostilities” agreement in Syria that permits its client Syrian regime and Iranian partner to continue operations unhindered. The agreement allows for the distribution of humanitarian aid to particular cities, but it has not led to a cessation of violence and will not likely be implemented. The façade of achieving a ceasefire in principle allows Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime to consolidate recent military gains across western Syria and prepare for future operations to encircle and besiege Aleppo City, while reinforcing the desire of the United States to stay out of the conflict. Increased regime pressure on Aleppo City will likely eliminate or radicalize current and potential U.S. partners in northern Syria, thereby empowering Salafi-jihadi militant groups.
Russia’s success in Aleppo has exacerbated fault-lines in the U.S.-led anti-coalition in ways that challenge Turkey and NATO. Syrian Kurdish forces are exploiting the Russian-backed regime offensive to create a united Kurdish territory along the Turkish border. Turkey escalated its military involvement in Syria in response to Kurdish gains, facilitating transit of Syrian opposition fighters and announcing plans to establish a 10-kilometer “buffer zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border on February 16. The Russian-backed Syrian offensive will not only exacerbate the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, but will also widen the schism between Turkey and the U.S. as the latter will likely continue to rely on its Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS.
Russia is changing the economic and military balance of power in the Middle East as it expands its influence. Russia is strengthening its own capability in the region while also bolstering Iran. Unconfirmed reports indicate Russia deployed diesel electric submarines into the eastern Mediterranean, allegedly to support its precision strike capability in Syria. The arrival of the platform may portend future submarine operations in the Mediterranean in ways that would permanently alter the security requirements of U.S. and allied trade and transport through international waters. Russia and Iran are meanwhile negotiating the sale of Su-30 fighter jets to Iran despite a UN arms embargo. Successful execution of the arms deal would modernize Iran’s arsenal and give it long-range air-to-air and air interdiction capabilities. The sale also undermines the U.N. Security Council, demonstrating the extent to which the passage of the Iranian nuclear deal has expanded Iran’s freedom of action in the international community. Russia will likely use its military and political backing of Iran to advance its own objectives, while withholding assistance when Iran acts counter to Russian interests. Russia could exert such pressure on Iran now, as Tehran may jeopardize a recently negotiated deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia to stabilize oil prices. Russia is in its second year of recession due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions, reportedly leading it to consider a five percent cut in defense procurement spending. Russia may punish Iran’s unwillingness to curb oil production as international sanctions lift by delaying weapons sales. The Kremlin indicated that the previously negotiated delivery of its long-range S-300 to Iran would not be delivered until Iran completed its payments, despite Iranian claims of a planned February 18 delivery. Russia’s increasing leverage over Iran and its strengthening influence in the Middle East empowers the Kremlin with new negotiating chips.

RussiaMiddleEastRussia in the Middle East –By: Hugo Spaulding, Jennifer Cafarella, and Genevieve Casagrande
Russia reframed the international agenda on Syria with a disingenuous ceasefire agreement. Russia and the U.S.-led International Syria Support Group (ISSG) agreed to implement a nationwide “cessation of hostilities” in Syria in a meeting on February 11. The agreement also included the delivery of humanitarian aid to numerous critically besieged areas, which subsequently occurred. Russia demonstrated its intent to use the “cessation of hostilities” agreement to legitimize continued targeting of the opposition, including U.S-backed groups, in Aleppo Province. Russian airstrikes continued to target vital civilian infrastructure in an effort to weaken the resolve of the Syrian armed opposition and depopulate opposition-held terrain. Aid organizations accused Russia of bombing four hospitals and one school in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces on February 15 alone. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meanwhile stated his intent to retake all of Syria “without hesitation,” showing that the regime will not adhere to the agreement to cease hostilities. Although Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin claimed that Assad’s statement was “not in accord with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is making,” his statement underscored Russia’s intent to pose as a neutral party rather than a belligerent supporting pro-regime advances against the opposition. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov nevertheless claimed that the success of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement rests on the U.S.’s willingness to “cooperate” with Russia militarily, exposing the Kremlin’s objective to force the U.S. to abandon its support for the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian opposition is unlikely to have the capability or intent to cease hostilities. The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee (HNC) was not included in the original cessation of hostility negotiation, and did not agree to the terms. The HNC announced on February 20 that it is ready “in principle” to implement a provisional truce in Syria, if all parties including Russia and Iran actually cease hostilities, and if the Syrian regime lifts blockades on opposition-held areas and releases thousands of prisoners. The HNC does not have sufficient influence within the armed opposition to coerce them to accept the deal, however. The group stated that any truce agreement with the regime must be approved by “faction leaders” from the northern and southern fronts, demonstrating its limited influence. U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura postponed tentatively scheduled negotiations between the HNC and the regime delegation in Geneva on February 19, stating he “cannot realistically call for new Geneva talks starting on February 25.” The breakdown indicates that actual negotiations between the HNC and regime delegation remain unlikely while Russia continues to provide the Syrian regime with considerable military advantage.
Russia continues to challenge the U.S. by expanding its military and commercial footprint in the Middle East. Russia deployed its advanced Tu-214R intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance aircraft to its airbase in Syria’s Latakia Province on February 15, four days after reaching an agreement with the U.S. and its allies to halt hostilities in Syria. The deployment of the spyplane increases Russia’s ability to collect intelligence from and target the armed opposition in Syria. Russia also continued to advance its economic interests in the Middle East as it faces a recession at home driven by slumping oil prices and sanctions that may reportedly force the largest defense budget cuts under Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Russian Deputy Prime Dmitry Rogozin led a 100-person delegation to Baghdad, where he signed an agreement that will reportedly double trade with Iraq on February 11. Russian President Vladimir Putin also hosted a meeting on military cooperation with Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan on February 16.  The Iranian defense minister recently revealed Tehran’s desire to purchase supermaneuverable Russian Su-30 fighter jets, a deal that would violate the arms sales restrictions a UN Security Council Resolution imposed on Iran after the July 14, 2015 nuclear deal. The Kremlin rejected an Iranian claim that Russia would deliver the previously negotiated S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system on February 18, however, stating that Iran had not yet paid for the air defense hardware. Russia is testing a military partnership with Iran through combat operations in Syria, and may seek to expand this alliance regionally. Russia reached a preliminary agreement with Saudi Arabia to freeze oil production, even as bilateral tensions heightened due to Russian-backed pro-regime gains in Syria and Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it was willing to deploy ground forces in Syria against ISIS.  The agreement to stabilize slumping oil prices is contingent on the support of other major producers including Iran, which has hesitated to commit to the deal after gaining sanctions relief. Outside the Middle East, Russia may also challenge U.S. interests by cultivating ties in Afghanistan. An unnamed U.S. intelligence official quoted on February 12 reported that Russia was supporting “certain elements” of the Taliban through training camps in neighboring Tajikistan, arms, and financial assistance.
See: “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: February 2-16, 2016,” by Jodi Brignola, February 20, 2016; “Update on the Situation in Aleppo,” by Jennifer Cafarella, February 16, 2016; “Syrian Armed Opposition Forces in Aleppo,” by Jennifer Cafarella, February 13, 2016; “Besieged and Hard-to-Reach Regions in Syria Proposed Cessation of Hostilities: February 12, 2016,” by Christopher Kozak; “How Russia Controls American Policy,” by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, February 12, 2016, “Russia Security Update: February 2-17, 2016,” by Hugo Spaulding and Franklin Holcomb, February 17, 2016. Direct press or briefing requests for Russia and Ukraine expert Hugo Spaulding or Syria experts Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande here.
SyriaSYRIA & TURKEY –By:Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande 

Turkish intervention in Aleppo Province is likely as Syrian Kurds continue to advance North of Aleppo City. The Syrian Kurdish Peoples Defense Forces (YPG) is making large gains in its attempt to connect disparate Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border. The YPG cleared over 10 kilometers of opposition-held terrain in northwestern Aleppo Province, including the town of Tel Rifat this week. Heavy Russian aerial bombardment facilitated these gains, demonstrating Russia’s continued intent to collapse opposition forces in the province while provoking Turkey by empowering Syrian Kurds along the border. The YPG is now positioned to seize the opposition-held towns of Mare’a, and Azaz, located 10 kilometers south of the Turkish border. Opposition forces defending these towns include graduates of the U.S.’s train and equip program, a second batch of U.S. backed forces independent from the U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab Syrian Defense Forces (SDF). The capture of Azaz and Mare’a would position the YPG to attack ISIS-held terrain, the seizure of which would connect YPG-held areas west and east of the Euphrates River and establish a contiguous zone of control along the Turkish border.
Turkey regards the connection of Kurdish cantons as a national security threat and responded by intermittently shelling recently seized YPG-held villages in the vicinity of Azaz from February 15 onwards. Turkey also called for the formation of a 10-kilometer deep “secure strip” along Syria’s northern border with Turkey, which would encompass Azaz. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu also expressed desire for U.S. support to conduct a Turkish ground incursion into Aleppo on February 17, but the U.S. is attempting to restrain Turkey. In an effort to reinforce Azaz, Turkey allowed two convoys totaling 2000 opposition fighters to transit from Idlib Province into Aleppo Province via Turkey within the past week. The growing schism between the U.S and Turkey on Syria advances Russia’s objective to split NATO. Russia presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council on February 19 demanding an end to Turkish actions that violate Syrian sovereignty, demonstrating its intent to isolate Turkey from the international community while simultaneously undermining Turkish national security interests.
U.S.-backed opposition groups in Aleppo submit to hardline leadership in absence of increased U.S. support. Eight groups in Aleppo City, including four U.S.-backed groups, agreed to unite under the command of a prominent commander in the Syrian Salafi jihadi group Ahrar al Sham, Hashim al Sheikh. The move demonstrates that potential U.S. partners in Aleppo will seek higher levels of support from hardline groups in the absence of Western support in order to coordinate more effective in the defense of Aleppo City. Ahrar al Sham will likely use its new leadership role to facilitate deeper coordination between Aleppo-based groups and al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, as well as to push for a full merger of these groups under Ahrar al Sham. Possible increases in Turkish and Saudi support to Syrian armed opposition groups in Aleppo will likely facilitate this outcome, as both Turkey and Saudi Arabia support Ahrar al Sham.
Suicide attack in Ankara by Kurdish splinter group increases likelihood of Turkish intervention in Syria. A vehicle-borne explosive device (VBIED) killed at least 28 people and wounded 61 others in the Turkish capital of Ankara on February 17. The explosion targeted a convoy of military service vehicles in the vicinity of the Turkish Department of Defense headquarters, near the Turkish Grand National Assembly in central Ankara. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that the attacker was a Syrian national with links to the YPG. Davutoglu vowed that Turkey would retaliate, stating “all necessary measures will be taken against them.” While the YPG denied involvement, a PKK splinter group named the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons claimed credit for the attack in a statement released on February 19. A second unclaimed improvised explosive device (IED) attack targeted a Turkish military convoy in Diyarbakir, killing six on February 18. The attack occurred as Turkish warplanes struck PKK camps in northern Iraq in apparent retaliation for the February 17 Ankara bombing. The attacks heighten Turkish tensions as Syrian Kurdish YPG forces continue to advance in Syria south of the Turkish border, and could prompt Turkey to intervene in Syria despite a lack of U.S. support.
See: “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: February 2-16, 2016,” by Jodi Brignola, February 20, 2016; “Update on the Situation in Aleppo,” by Jennifer Cafarella, February 16, 2016; “Syrian Armed Opposition Forces in Aleppo,” by Jennifer Cafarella, February 13, 2016; “Besieged and Hard-to-Reach Regions in Syria Proposed Cessation of Hostilities: February 12, 2016,” by Christopher Kozak; “How Russia Controls American Policy,” by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, February 12, 2016, “Russia Security Update: February 2-17, 2016,” by Hugo Spaulding and Franklin Holcomb, February 17, 2016. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria experts Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande here.
IraqIRAQ –By: Emily Anagnostos and Rachel Bessette


Ramadi and Baghdad Iraq seeks international support to counter crippling financial crisis. The current 2016 Iraqi federal budget is failing to provide adequate funding to field security forces as the price of oil, Iraq’s main revenue source, remains well below the budgeted $45 per barrel. The price rose on February 17 to nearly $35 a barrel as Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed to freeze oil outputs at January production levels. However, this rise still underwhelms the 2016 budget expectation, and continued loss of revenue may hinder Iraq’s ability to pay security forces. Low oil prices affect both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan’s ability to pay anti-ISIS fighters, the latter of which overwhelmingly relies on oil sales as its main source of revenue. Peshmerga protested after four months of unpaid salaries on February 9, and the Popular Mobilization Commission stated on February 17 that it reduced its ranks by 30 percent in response to financial constraints. To combat this financial crisis, Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi called on the U.S.-led anti-ISIS Coalition to establish a separate fund to support the Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) urgent needs on February 12. Financial support for the ISF is necessary to ensure that the Coalition has a capable ground partner to defeat ISIS in Iraq. The Coalition has yet to indicate a willingness to provide this support, however, which has opened windows of opportunity for countries looking to undermine the Coalition. A large Russian delegation visited Iraq on February 11 and offered to supply weapons and aircraft. As Iraq’s financial situation continues to crumble and the country struggles to fund military salaries, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi may no longer have the ability to be selective about whose support he accepts. Coalition members will thus need to provide financial assistance in order to help PM Abadi withstand pressure to turn to countries like Russia and Iran that seek to undermine Coalition interests in the region. The Coalition will also need to increase direct support to the ISF both to help Iraq recapture territory from ISIS and to provide a sign of support for PM Abadi during a time of vulnerability. Measures such as recent positioning of U.S. trainers and advisers, confirmed by Inherent Resolve spokesperson Col. Steve Warren on February 18, in Makhmur, southeast of Mosul, to assist with Ninewa operations, represent a component of such needed support to help the ISF in the anti-ISIS campaign.
PM Abadi faces declining support and offers to resign as part of his proposed cabinet reshuffle. PM Abadi announced a cabinet reshuffle on February 9, but supporters of his previous cabinet reshuffle in August now offer tepid support at best. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced on February 13 that PM Abadi had 45 days to enact his reforms or else the Sadrist bloc would withdraw from the Council of Representatives. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) stated that problems in Iraq are due to administration and not political ministers and that all positions should be considered in the cabinet reshuffle, including that of the premiership. PM Abadi offered on February 16 to resign from his position as part of the reshuffle if necessary. Kurdish parties also remain skeptical of the reforms. One Kurdish representative stated they “paid the price” for supporting previous government reforms by losing several positions within the security forces, and that the current proposal therefore did not concern the Kurds. The Badr Organization, Etihad, and Dawa, PM Abadi’s own party, have expressed support for the reshuffle as a means to limit their rivals’ power in the government.  Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri met with PM Abadi on February 15 to discuss the reforms, likely posturing to ensure that Badr retains the coveted position of Minister of Interior. The outcome of the reshuffle will be determined by political infighting among the parties within government who will attempt to oust one another to increase their respective representation within the Council of Ministers.
The proposed reshuffle is placing PM Abadi in a tenuous position from which he may not be able to reestablish adequate control over the Iraqi government. He lacks the power to undertake serious reforms and remains beholden to the whims of the political blocs. The Council of Representatives (CoR) hosted PM Abadi on February 20 to discuss the reforms, and PM Abadi insisted on the need for a consensus government without political quotas determining how parties divide up ministerial positions. He also stated that the Popular Mobilization would participate in operations to recapture Ninewa province. This does not necessarily mean that he is willing to introduce Iraqi Shi’a militias into Ninewa operations, as a large number of Sunni tribal fighters are in the Popular Mobilization. However, it could indicate that PM Abadi is caving to pressure Iranian proxy leaders, who insist on the Popular Mobilization’s participation in Ninewa operations, and that he is facing a major threat from Iraqi Shi’a militias to his position as premier if he does not cooperate. Should PM Abadi be forced to leave his post, a new prime minister may replace him with political interests and alignments divergent to U.S. and Coalition interests. However, a February 18 statement by a senior State of Law Alliance leader supporting keeping PM Abadi in his position suggests that his opponents may not have settled on a candidate to replace him.
Kurdish support for PM Abadi questionable as political divide between Baghdad and Arbil widens. PM Abadi offered to pay Kurdish employees’ salaries in exchange for Kurdish oil on February 16. The proposal was similar to the oil agreement struck between Baghdad and Arbil at the start of PM Abadi’s term in September 2014. The original agreement broke down in June 2015 over Kurdish complaints of not receiving their share of the budget while Baghdad claimed that Iraqi Kurdistan independently sold oil in violation of the agreement’s terms. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) stated that it accepted PM Abadi’s most recent offer, although it questioned the proposal’s sincerity as Baghdad also suffers from financial difficulties and likely cannot pay KRG salaries consistently. While the KRG’s acceptance of PM Abadi’s proposal could open the door to political accommodation between Arbil and Baghdad, political and financial challenges will pose a significant obstacle to any agreement. PM Abadi’s rejection of the notion of Kurdish independence on February 11 will further weaken relations, as Regional President Masoud Barzani covets independence. The financial challenges facing the KRG and Baghdad may heighten the possibility that the Kurds will not support PM Abadi in the face of political challenges or will insist on major concessions in exchange for their votes in either the cabinet or the Council of Representatives. The divide could also pave the way towards a renewed push for Kurdish independence, which would significantly undermine U.S. and Coalition interests.
See: “Iraq Prime Minister’s Cabinet Reshuffle May Lead to No-Confidence Vote,” by Patrick Martin, February 15, 2016; The Pitfalls of Relying on Kurdish Forces to Counter ISIS,” by Patrick Martin and Christopher Kozak, February 3, 2016;Iraq Situation Report: January 26 – February 1, 2016“; “Iraq Control of Terrain Map: February 9, 2016“. Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq expert Patrick Martin or ISIS expert Harleen Gambhir here.


ISISISIS –By: Claire Coyne
President Obama rejected a policy change and continued surgical strikes against ISIS in Libya. U.S. planes struck an ISIS training camp and killed a Tunisian leader in Sabratha, western Libya on February 17. The strike represents the administration’s current strategy of taking “opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in in Libya,” according to President Obama, as they arise by targeting individual operatives. ISIS’s safe haven in Libya is arguably home to the group’s most operationally capable affiliate with the most potential to destabilize the U.S.’s regional partners. The current U.S. strategy of conducting surgical strikes against leadership in Libya may temporarily disrupt specific attack plans, but is unlikely to stop the group from using Libya as a safe haven from which to plan and resource attacks in North Africa and beyond. Maintaining regional safe havens and active affiliates allows ISIS to grow human networks that may not necessarily depend on contact with Iraq and Syria to endure. Libya is only one place in the historic caliphate lands where ISIS is cultivating such groups. U.S. defense sources indicated on February 11 that they are also considering additional intelligence collection on Wilayat Sinai in Egypt, which proved its advanced international terror capability with the October 2015 downing of a Russian airliner. ISIS’s leadership sent a representative to Gaza to develop relationships with armed groups and to serve as a point of contact between pro-ISIS groups in Gaza and ISIS in Libya and Syria, as new U.S. sanctions announced on February 11 revealed. The existence of specifically funded networks between Gaza, Libya, and Syria demonstrates that the group is actively building infrastructure for future coordination across affiliates and supporters. Given the absence of a concerted strategic effort to combat the group outside of Iraq and Syria, ISIS will likely persist in exacerbating regional conflict in order to expand its caliphate across the Muslim world.
Competition and coordination among ISIS supporters in Southeast Asia may fuel more attacks. Spikes in ISIS-linked arrests imply the existence of several pro-ISIS groups (as well as other jihadi groups) in Indonesia, which will likely compete with each other for recognition and funding from ISIS. Police arrested three distinct cells in Jakarta on February 15, each with plans for attacks on various locations in the city. At least one of the cells had received funding from individuals in Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan. These arrests follow official reports since the January 14 Jakarta attack that there are multiple pro-ISIS terrorist groups in Southeast Asia with multiple backers in Syria. Coordination among pro-ISIS groups in Southeast Asia and between these groups and ISIS members in Syria may increase their operating capabilities, further heightening the possibility for more attacks.
This section draws upon sourcing and analysis provided by our partners at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
See: “ISIS’s Campaign in Libya: January 4-February 19, 2016,” by Claire Coyne, Emily Estelle, and Harleen Gambhir, February 19, 2016;  “ISIS’s Regional Campaign: January 2016,” by Claire Coyne with Harleen Gambhir, February 1, 2016; “ISIS’s Regional Campaign: December 2015,” by Harleen Gambhir, January 11, 2016; “ISIS Sanctuary: December 21, 2015“. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst and ISIS expert Harleen Gambhir here.