MESOP : ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: February 21 – 26, 2016 Reviewing the Week

Compiled by Christopher Kozak and Dina Shahrokhi
This report is derived from open sources collected and processed at ISW during the reporting period. The report includes analysis on Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, ISIS, KURDISTAN:
Key Take-Away –Russia intensified its efforts to position itself as a rival guarantor of global security. The U.S. and Russia reached an agreement on February 22 that lays the groundwork for a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria that came into effect on February 27. Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly moved to seize leadership over international efforts to implement the ceasefire with a blitz of calls to his counterparts in Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The opposition and its foreign backers expressed tentative agreement for the deal despite concerns that the regime and its allies will use the opportunity to solidify their dominant battlefield position under the guise of fighting terrorism. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned that the U.S. may consider “Plan B” options if the ceasefire fails to gain traction over coming weeks, while other senior administration officials – including U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford – have reportedly pushed for a more muscular response to Russia in Syria. Secretary Carter and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove later testified before Congress that Russia poses a “long-term existential threat” to the U.S. and Europe due to its efforts to undermine the “rules of the international order.” Meanwhile, Russia pursued new weapons sales to Armenia, Indonesia, and Thailand as well as a potential $8 billion arms deal with Iran that would include long-range S-300 surface-to-air missile systems and supermaneuverable Su-30 ‘Flanker-C’ fighter jets. Russia also announced plans to establish a new airfield with permanently-deployed airborne forces on the occupied Crimean Peninsula, while Ukraine entered a new period of political instability driven by its continued conflict with Russian-backed separatists. Russia will continue to leverage international inaction in Syria, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere to assert its status as a resurgent great power at the expense of the U.S. and NATO.
China and Iran took new steps to assert their regional dominance. China deployed a small number of modern fighter jets and two batteries of surface-to-air missiles to the disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea in a major provocation that threatened to escalate regional tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi backed up the deployment with strong language calling for the U.S. Navy to end all “close-up military reconnaissance overflights” as well as patrols by “missile destroyers or strategic bombers” in the contested region. U.S. Navy 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin stated that the U.S. will not cease its activities to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. These events may set the stage for future confrontation. Meanwhile, Iran also took steps to bolster its own military position in the Middle East. Iran reportedly began negotiations with Russia on a major arms deal that would significantly increase its air defense capabilities. If completed, these acquisitions may allow Iran to challenge U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf more symmetrically and construct an effective deterrent to protect its nuclear program. Iran will likely attempt to use the window granted by the July 2015 nuclear accord in order to modernize its military arsenal even as hardliners seek to solidify their hold on power during the parliamentary and Guardian Council elections on February 26. Iran also leveraged its network of regional proxies in order to secure its interests abroad. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed militias continued combat operations near Aleppo City in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite renewed claims that the IRGC had withdrawn. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shi’a militias successfully forced Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to soften a measure meant to limit Iranian influence over funding streams for the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) overseeing militias. Iran and China will continue to test the limits of their military strength at the expense of neighboring states in the absence of a strong U.S. deterrent.

RussiaMiddleEastSyria “Cessation of Hostilities”
By: Genevieve Casagrande, Jodi Brignola, and Hugo Spaulding
The UN Security Council unanimously approved a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria on February 26 brokered by Russia and the United States. The agreement calls upon the regime and its foreign allies as well as the armed opposition to cease all military actions including airstrikes, refrain from acquiring territory from other parties to the agreement, and allow humanitarian access to areas under their control beginning on February 27. The cessation of hostilities does not apply to ISIS, Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council. The UN noted that there has been a general “increase of military activity” throughout Syria in the lead up to the deadline and local activists reported an intensification of Russian airstrikes against the armed opposition in Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs Provinces on February 26. The likely continuation of Russian and regime air operations against mainstream elements of the opposition in Aleppo and Damascus under the guise of fighting terrorism will ultimately threaten the stability of any sustainable ceasefire agreement. Russia also announced the opening of a ceasefire “coordination center” at the Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia Province in order to facilitate negotiations between the regime and opposition representatives as part of a “monitoring mechanism” for the ceasefire. Russia could use the center to collect targeted intelligence on armed opposition groups; it has been accused of using a similar coordination center in eastern Ukraine to gather intelligence on the disposition of Ukrainian forces. The UN held the first meeting of the Ceasefire Task Force charged with overseeing the cessation of hostilities on February 26, after which UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced that the next round of Geneva Talks on a political settlement to the Syrian Civil War will be held on March 7.
Large numbers of opposition groups agree to ‘cessation of hostilities’ even as Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra rejects it. The opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) confirmed the commitment of 97 moderate armed opposition factions’ to a two-week long truce beginning on February 27 in order to “determine the commitment” of the regime and its allies to a longer cessation of hostiles. The HNC reiterated that the truce must be “balanced, inclusive, and binding to all parties” and prevent Russia from carrying out its “criminal” air campaign. The regime also expressed support for the agreement, although a Syrian Arab Army general stated that the besieged opposition stronghold of Darayya in the Western Ghouta suburbs of Damascus will be excluded from the ceasefire due to the presence of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the town. Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly comprises only one-fifth of opposition fighters in Darayya. The Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Southern Front also declared its support for a ceasefire, although its spokesman later stipulated that it would not adhere to a nationwide ceasefire without the inclusion of Darayya. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra head Abu Mohammad al-Joulani released an audio statement on February 26 rejecting the cessation of hostilities and calling for increased attacks against pro-regime forces throughout Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra and other irreconcilable elements of the opposition remain capable and willing to spoil any potential ceasefire.
The U.S. and Russia spar over “Plan B” options for a ceasefire in Syria while intelligence officials urge stronger stance on Russia. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the U.S. will turn to “Plan B” options including the potential partition of Syria if ongoing negotiations for a ceasefire and political transition fail to develop over the coming months. Kerry noted that the actions of Russia and Syria over the next three months will reveal their level of commitment to the negotiations, asserting that there are “no illusions” that the regime and its allies may attempt to manipulate the political process. Kerry later cited the Pentagon as estimating that a safe zone in northern Syria would require anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 U.S. ground troops before questioning the willingness of Congress to authorize such a deployment. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cautioned against discussing any alternative to the cessation of hostilities, warning that “there should be no ambiguous talk about any ‘Plan B'” and asserting that proposals for ground operations or no-fly zones are “absolutely unacceptable”. Meanwhile, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency officials have called for the U.S. to take stronger action against Russia in Syria, according to anonymous administration officials quoted on February 23. Proposals offered by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, and CIA Director Brennan have reportedly included expansion of military assistance and intelligence support for CIA-backed opposition groups, although no formal recommendations have been submitted to U.S. President Barack Obama.
See: “Syria 90 Day Forecast: The Assad Regime and Its Allies in Northern Syria,” by Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Jennifer Cafarella, February 24, 2016; Russia Security Update: February 17 – 24, 2016,” by Franlklin Holcomb, Hugo Spaulding, and ISW Russia / Ukraine Team, February 24, 2016; Russian Airstrikes in Syria: February 2-16, 2016,” by Jodi Brignola, February 19, 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. Direct press or briefing requests for Russia and Ukraine expert Hugo Spaulding or Syria experts Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande here.
By: Christopher Kozak and Jodi Brignola

The U.S.-led coalition continued efforts to break ISIS’s supply lines between Iraq and Syria by recapturing a cross-border transit hub. TheU.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a group predominantly composed of the Syrian Kurdish YPG – seized the ISIS stronghold of Shaddadi in southern Hasaka Province on February 18 with heavy coalition air support. ISIS later launched a counteroffensive against the town and clashes remain ongoing. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated that the offensive represents an “operationally significant stride” against ISIS by severing the last major ISIS-held supply route between its strongholds in Mosul, Iraq and ar-Raqqa City, Syria. ISIS still retains a safe-haven in ar-Raqqa City and along the Euphrates River Valley, including the besieged regime-held enclave of Deir ez-Zour City where the UN attempted its first humanitarian airdrop on February 24.
ISIS launched a wave of six suicide attacks in both Homs City and Damascus on February 21. The group retains its capacity to conduct coordinated spectacular attacks throughout Syria despite its losses on the battlefield. ISIS detonated two SVBIEDs and two SVESTs in the Sayyida Zeinab District of Damascus, killing at least 120 individuals near the country’s most important Shi’a shrine, which serves as a key hub for Iranian-backed Shi’a militias. ISIS also detonated two SVBIEDs in an Alawite-majority neighborhood in Homs City on the same day, killing at least 60 additional civilians. ISIS likely intends to leverage a campaign of similar attacks in order to diminish the already-limited capacity of pro-regime forces and gain support from opposition groups that are currently under extreme strain from joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian advances near Aleppo City.
ISIS advances threatened to disrupt joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian operations to encircle Aleppo City. ISIS and several independent Salafi-jihadist groups severed the only regime ground line of communication (GLOC) to Aleppo City after seizing the key town of Khanaser and several adjacent villages on February 22 – 23. Pro-regime forces later recaptured Khanaser on February 25 with the participation of Syria’s elite ‘Tiger Forces’ Special Forces unit and heavy Russian airstrikes. Clashes are ongoing as the regime and its allies continue clearing operations to secure the IED-laden supply line. The diversion of resources to reopen the supply line to Aleppo City could thus preclude the regime and its allies from completing the encirclement of Aleppo, forcing the regime campaign to culminate prematurely. Heightened pressure on the opposition in Aleppo Province may spur deeper coordination between armed opposition groups and ISIS or Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. If left unchecked, the looming siege of Aleppo City will further empower U.S. adversaries while increasing the risk of a wider regional conflict involving Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
See: Syria 90 Day Forecast: The Assad Regime and Its Allies in Northern Syria,” by Genevieve Casagrande, Christopher Kozak, and Jennifer Cafarella, February 24, 2016; “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: February 2-16, 2016,” by Jodi Brignola, February 19, 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; “The Russian Air Campaign in Aleppo,” by Genevieve Casagrande, February 13, 2016; “Besieged and Hard-to-Reach Regions in Syria: Proposed Cessation of Hostilities,” by Christopher Kozak, February 12, 2016; “The Syrian Ceasefire is a Big Win for Russia, Assad, and Iran,” by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, February 12, 2016; “How Russia Controls American Policy,” by Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, February 12, 2016. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
By: Patrick Martin, Emily Anagnostos, and Rachel Bessette


Popular Mobilization leaders blocked an attempt by Prime Minister Abadi to establish greater control over the militias. On February 18, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi appointed retired Federal Police Gen. Mohsen al-Kaabi to serve as Deputy Chairman for Financial, Administrative, and Operations Affairs in the Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC), the government body that officially oversees the irregular militias in the Popular Mobilization. The appointment marked a bold attempt to establish greater control over the PMC by undermining Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a U.S.-designated terrorist and senior Iranian proxy leader. PM Abadi’s move triggered significant backlash from Iranian proxy militias. Kata’ib Hezbollah – an Iraqi Shi’a militia ostensibly under Muhandis’ command – issued a thinly-veiled threat on February 21 with the false announcement that Kaabi had offered his resignation. Condemnations from the proxy militias quieted after Muhandis affirmed his position following a meeting with PM Abadi, PMC Chairman Faleh al-Fayadh, and Kaabi on February 22. Muhandis appears to retain his control over the PMC’s finances and thus the PMC as a whole. Muhandis, Fayadh, and Badr Organization head Hadi al-Ameri reportedly later reached an agreement with PM Abadi on February 24 to secure benefits for 50,000 Popular Mobilization fighters. The agreement called for all future deployments of these fighters to require consultation with the PMC, although it noted that participating fighters will only earn salaries and benefits if they do not deploy to Syria. These power plays by the leaders to the Popular Mobilization underscore the limits of PM Abadi’s political power in the face of the influence that Iranian proxy militias wield in the political system. Any further attempts to undercut the Popular Mobilization could prompt the militias to withdraw critical forces from the frontlines and push for the removal of PM Abadi.
Iraqi Shi’a political blocs jockeyed for influence during an ongoing cabinet reshuffle as Maliki inserted himself into the selection process. An unconfirmed report on February 25 from a senior State of Law Alliance (SLA) member stated that the committee to evaluate the replacement of ministers in an upcoming cabinet reshuffle is being overseen by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, SLA head Nouri al-Maliki, and senior SLA member Ali al-Adeeb. If true, the SLA holds the power to eject its opponents from the Council of Ministers while protecting the positions of key pro-Iran figures, including Interior Minister Muhammad al-Ghabban – a senior member of the Badr Organization. Initial reports indicate the committee has recommended nine ministers from all the major Shi’a political parties for removal, although the SLA’s opponents will still seek to curb its influence and increase their own representation in the cabinet. Former PM Maliki may attempt to use his position as a platform to reassert control over the government, although the extent of his control over the selection process remains unclear amidst previous reports that two separate committees may also play a role in the reshuffle. In addition, a senior Badr Organization member challenged the basis for the cabinet reshuffle on February 25 and insisted that PM Abadi discuss its final composition with the political blocs before any announcement. This unease indicates that Maliki may lack sufficient power to solidify his control within the Council of Ministers despite his significant influence over the process. Meanwhile, the predominantly-Sunni Etihad bloc symbolically issued the resignation of its ministers to Council of Representatives Speaker Salim al-Juburi and voiced its support for the cabinet reforms, although it insisted upon proper representation for the population through ministry positions.
Muqtada al-Sadr reentered the Iraqi political scene with a mass protest. Sadrist Trend leader and influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr reinserted himself into the political sphere as he seeks to increase his political power through his own reform agenda. Sadr delivered a Friday sermon on February 26 in Tahrir Square in Baghdad in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators in an overt attempt to capture the leadership of the Iraqi street and increase his political power in the absence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s weekly political sermons. Sadr stated that PM Abadi holds the support of the Shi’a religious authority with his reform agenda but had “dawdled” and warned that his position would be at stake if he failed to implement genuine reforms. Sadr’s continued threats against the government likely aim to motivate PM Abadi to follow his reform agenda rather than that the State of Law Alliance (SLA) and its head Nouri al-Maliki. Sadr named his own independent committee of judges, academics, and independent citizens on February 22 that met for the first time three days later to prepare a list of new technocratic cabinet ministers for submission to PM Abadi and the Council of Representatives (CoR). Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) head Ammar al-Hakim expressed support for Sadr’s proposal with the symbolic submission of the resignations of three ISCI cabinet members. Sadr pushed his recommendations during meetings with senior political figures and met with PM Abadi on February 23 to discuss the cabinet reshuffle. The ongoing competition between Shi’a political blocs will challenge the process of forming a new cabinet and Sadr’s threats to pull out of the government in particular threaten the stability of Baghdad. PM Abadi faces an immense degree of pressure from the SLA, ISCI, and Sadr but will remain unable to satisfy their conflicting demands, increasing the likelihood that he will lose control over the reform process.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) moved to extend control over the Euphrates River Valley while preparing for a future campaign to retake Mosul. The ISF deployed significant numbers of army, police, and counterterrorism forces to Ayn al-Asad Airbase north of Hit District in Anbar Province on February 22-23, suggesting an intent to recapture Hit from ISIS. This operation would undermine ISIS’s presence in Anbar Province and extend the ISF’s recent success in Ramadi further up the Euphrates River Valley. The ISF holds opportunities to advance in eastern Anbar Province amidst internal pressures generated by a civilian uprising against ISIS in Fallujah, Mosul, and Hit District from February 21 through 24, as well as reported discipline issues among ISIS fighters. Meanwhile, the governor of Anbar Province announced on February 25 that tribal fighters were deploying to areas around Fallujah, which is currently being encircled by both the ISF and the Popular Mobilization. The ISF and their advisors from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition also continued to mass forces at Makhmur south of Mosul as the Iraqi Peshmerga deployed north of the city on February 22 in anticipation of an upcoming operation. The U.S. and its coalition allies continue their efforts to generate and train the forces needed to recapture and secure Mosul. 82nd Airborne Division commander Maj. Gen. Richard Clarke stated that the coalition has trained over 16,000 ISF members and 4,000 Peshmerga fighters to date and identified a further eight to twelve Iraqi Army brigades as potential partners in a train, advise, and assist mission for a future operation in Mosul. The passage of a compulsory service law ratified by the Ministry of Defense on February 25 would also increase the ability of the ISF to generate and replenish its forces, although the measure still requires approval in the Cabinet and Council and Representatives.
PM Abadi invited the Popular Mobilization to participate in Mosul operation despite objections from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi complicated future U.S.-led coalition operations by announcing on February 20 that the Popular Mobilization would participate in future operations to recapture Mosul. The announcement comes despite strong U.S. aversion towards including Iranian proxies and anti-American Iraqi Shi’a militias in operations to secure Sunni-majority areas. PM Abadi may aim to win favor among Popular Mobilization leadership following friction this week with senior militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The announcement could also reflect Iranian pressure in ongoing negotiations to delineate the composition of forces used to recapture Mosul. The inclusion of the Popular Mobilization may compromise the willingness of the U.S. and its coalition allies to grant increased or continued support to the operation.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: February 18 – 22, 2016“; “Iraq Prime Minister’s Cabinet Reshuffle May Lead to No-Confidence Vote,” by Patrick Martin, February 15, 2016; “Iraq Control of Terrain Map: February 9, 2016“;The Pitfalls of Relying on Kurdish Forces to Counter ISIS,” by Patrick Martin and Christopher Kozak, February 3, 2016. Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq expert Patrick Martin or ISIS expert Harleen Gambhir here.
By: Claire Coyne
ISIS retains control of terrain and the ability to coordinate across multiple cities in Libya. ISIS’s safe haven in Libya gives the organization strategic resiliency even as ISIS in Iraq and Syria suffers from internal divisions, declining revenue, and decreased foreign fighter inflows, the last of which Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Colonel Steve Warren confirmed on February 22. ISIS has maintained a defensive footing in its Libyan stronghold of Sirte since January in preparation for both airstrikes and ground offensives on the city, but clashes to the east and west of Sirte indicate the group also maintains significant offensive capability. ISIS launched a major ground attack in western Libya on February 24, briefly seizing the center of Sabratha city. The group also claimed attacks in Benghazi and Derna despite recent losses in both cities. The disunity of local opposition to ISIS enables the group to strengthen its presence in uncontested areas along Libya’s central coast while also launching attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure and military factions.
ISIS’s success in Libya continues to inspire concern in the West as diplomatic efforts to establish a unity government are stalled. The U.S. opted to continue its current policy of countering ISIS in Libya through occasional targeted strikes on leadership rather than through a comprehensive campaign. Western air campaigns paired with a fragmented ground opposition are unlikely to dislodge the group from its Libyan safe haven, however.Italy revealed plans on February 22 to allow the U.S. military to fly armed UAVs out of Sicily to carry out strikes to protect U.S. personnel against ISIS in Libya, though the U.S. is also negotiating to carry out offensive missions from the Sicily base. The French government also reportedly sent special operators and intelligence personnel in mid-February to advise Libyan National Army forces linked to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives government and to coordinate targeted strikes against ISIS in Libya. Both adjustments in stance toward ISIS reflect a growing concern over the threat the group’s Libyan affiliate poses to Europe. Stronger Western intervention remains unlikely in the near term, however, as Western powers are reluctant to intervene without the request of a unity government.
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 Sanctuary: December 21, 2015“. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst and ISIS expert Harleen Gambhir here.