MESOP : ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: January 15 – 22, 2016 Reviewing the Week Compiled by Christopher Kozak

This report is derived from open sources collected and processed at ISW during the reporting period. The report includes analysis on Russia, Syria, Iraq, ISIS, Afghanistan, and KURDISTAN.
Key Take-Away –The U.S. pressed for new measures to expand the global anti-ISIS campaign.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter met with his counterparts from Britain, France, Australia, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands on January 20 in order to press for further contributions to the fight against ISIS. Secretary Carter outlined a new framework of operations that highlights the need to “combat the metastasis” of ISIS affiliates across the globe even as the anti-ISIS coalition acts to destroy ISIS’s “parent tumor” in Iraq and Syria by “collapsing its two power centers in ar-Raqqa City and Mosul” with the support of local partners. These steps come amidst renewed efforts to accelerate the anti-ISIS campaign in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS currently faces significant military pressure from the anti-ISIS coalition and reportedly cut the salaries of its fighters by nearly half in response to targeted strikes against oil production facilities and cash distribution nodes. The anticipated operations by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to seize ar-Raqqa City and Mosul over the coming year will likely prompt ISIS to consolidate its control over its core terrain along the Euphrates River Valley in Iraq and Syria. ISIS launched a major offensive against regime-held parts of Deir ez-Zour City on January 17. ISIS could conduct similar operations against remaining Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)-held positions in Western Iraq in response to further pressure.
Iran and Russia exploited international outreach in order to undermine the U.S. and NATO.
The U.S. and European Union lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran on January 16, granting Iran access to over $100 billion of previously-frozen assets. Iran and the U.S. also conducted a high-profile prisoner exchange on January 17 meant to signify a thawing of relations between the two countries. Iran nonetheless remains willing to challenge international norms in order to assert its regional interests. Iran staged two ballistic missile tests in late 2015 in violation of the terms of the nuclear accord, prompting the U.S. to apply new sanctions on several Iranian entities on January 17. Suspected Iranian-backed proxy fighters also kidnapped three U.S. citizens in Baghdad on January 15 in an action possibly authorized by senior officials in Iran. This pattern of disregard for the spirit of its international commitments suggests that Iran will leverage the sanctions relief in order to bolster its support to proxy forces in both Iraq and Syria in opposition to the U.S. and its allies. Meanwhile, Russia leveraged its key position in international talks to end the Syrian Civil War in order to demand favorable changes to the opposition delegation. The demands met with predictable resistance from the opposition and its foreign backers, enabling Russia to portray the opposition as an obstacle to the scheduled start of negotiations between the regime and its opponents on January 25. In Eastern Europe, Russia took new steps to reassert itself as a rival center of power in Europe by courting anti-European Union and anti-NATO opposition groups in Moldova and Montenegro even as it maintained pressure on Ukraine by stalling the implementation of the February 2015 ceasefire agreement. Russia remains willing to subvert both domestic and international political processes in order to expand its global influence at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.

RussiaMiddleEastRussia in the Middle East –By: Genevieve Casagrande and Christopher Kozak
The divergent objectives of the U.S., Russia, and regional powers delayed and ultimately threaten to upend scheduled negotiations to resolve the Syrian Civil War.
UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq warned that negotiations between the regime and its opponents will likely suffer delays, stating that the UN remains unable to issue invitations to the talks until countries within the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) “come to an understanding” on the composition of the opposition delegation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stressed that the negotiations would only be pushed back by a “day or two” and would not constitute a “fundamental delay” in the talks. Russia nonetheless continues to exacerbate preexisting disagreements regarding who would attend the talks. Russia demanded a broader opposition delegation that includes both pro-Russian elements of the internal political opposition as well as the Syrian Kurds. It also reasserted that prominent Salafist opposition groups Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham constitute “terrorist organizations” and rejected their participation in any future opposition delegation. These proposals met with stiff resistance from Saudi Arabia, a key backer of Jaysh al-Islam and other hardline opposition groups that seek to replace the regime with a Salafist government. The opposition High Committee for Negotiations formed in Saudi Arabia in December 2015 named Jaysh al-Islam’s political head as the chief negotiator for the upcoming talks in a possible further attempt to derail negotiations. Leading opposition representatives asserted that the committee would not attend indirect negotiations if the regime and its allies do not cease airstrikes against civilian populations and lift sieges on opposition-held areas. Russia reportedly threatened to send its own delegation of select opposition groups to negotiate with the regime if the mainstream opposition decides to boycott the talks, further highlighting its intent to use superficial democratic processes to preserve its client regime in Syria. Turkey similarly pushed back against Russian demands to incorporate the Syrian Kurds in the talks. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu stated that Turkey “will never allow” representatives from the Syrian Kurdish YPG to be included in the official opposition delegation to Geneva. Turkey considers the YPG to be an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization.
Russia deployed military personnel to Qamishli Airbase in predominantly-Kurdish Northeastern Syria, challenging U.S. leadership of the anti-ISIS campaign and further provoking Turkey. U.S. defense officials and local activists confirmed that approximately one hundred Russian soldiers and engineers deployed to Qamishli Airbase in order to expand the facility to handle Russian military aircraft. Local activists similarly reported the arrival of Russian personnel at Kuweiris Airbase in Aleppo Province. The establishment of an airbase in Qamishli provides Russia with a new platform to stage its aircraft across Eastern Syria and Iraq as well as a lever to reassert regime influence within oil-rich Hasaka Province. Russia could also use the potential deployment of large numbers of Russian personnel or aircraft in order to compete with the U.S. in Eastern Syria. Local activists claimed that U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) finished renovating a small agricultural airstrip in Hasaka Province for use as a forward base of operations and resupply point for the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russia likely aims to undermine the activities of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition as an avenue to reestablish its own claims to great power status and global leadership in the fight against ISIS. Russia is also courting other local actors in Eastern Syria that represent current or potential partners for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. Russian officers reportedly met with both the Syrian Kurdish YPG and a prominent anti-ISIS tribe based in Deir ez-Zour Province in order to discuss prospects for further military cooperation. The direct outreach to the Syrian Kurds marks a significant new development that will place substantial torque on the stability of the international anti-ISIS coalition, heighten Kurdish ambitions, and fuel security concerns within Turkey. Turkish President Recep Erdogan stated that Turkey “will not tolerate” the deployment of Russian forces along its border. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani reopened discussions of an independent Kurdistan in an interview in The Guardian, stating that the Sykes-Picot Agreement had failed and calling for the redrawing of international boundaries according to a new framework.
See: Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 12 – 19, 2016,” by Jodi Brignola and Genevieve Casagrande, January 20, 2016;Russia Security Update: January 5 – 12, 2016,” by Hugo Spaulding, January 12, 2016; “S-400 Missile Radius Map,” by Daniel Urchick, December 21, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Russia and Ukraine analyst Hugo Spaulding or Syria analyst Chris Kozak here.
SyriaSYRIA –By: Genevieve Casagrande
ISIS seeks to consolidate control along the Euphrates River amidst growing pressure in both Syria and Iraq. ISIS launched a major offensive against regime positions on the northwestern outskirts of Deir ez-Zour City on January 17, threatening the regime’s control over one of its last remaining outposts in Eastern Syria.A victory at Deir ez-Zour City would allow ISIS to consolidate control over oil-rich terrain along the Euphrates River Valley and preclude Russia and other regime allies from using the city as a base of operations against ISIS-held terrain in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. ISIS will likely further prioritize the consolidation of its safe haven along the Euphrates River as it faces increasing military pressure from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition near ar-Raqqa City in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq. The complete seizure of a new provincial capital would also allow ISIS to reestablish its narrative of victory following continued territorial losses as well as mounting financial strain from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against key oil infrastructure and cash distribution centers. ISIS could also leverage victory at Deir ez-Zour City in order to redeploy its combat forces to other key frontlines in Western Syria. A military campaign by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition that fails to apply pressure upon Deir ez-Zour Province will thus remain insufficient to diminish ISIS capabilities inside of Syria or deprive the group of the safe haven necessary to plot sophisticated attacks against the West.
U.S. and its allies appear to be making efforts to combat the threat of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in Southern Syria. Unconfirmed reports claimed that the covert U.S.-led Military Operations Center (MOC) based in Jordan ordered the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Southern Front to cease all anti-regime operations in Southern Syria and redirect its campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies. The change reflects a growing recognition within the U.S. and its regional partners that irreconcilable groups pose an enduring threat to local and nationwide efforts to end the Syrian Civil War. Nonetheless, only a limited number of factions in the Southern Front reportedly attended the meeting, highlighting the challenges that the U.S. will face in cohering the armed opposition into an effective force against Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and like-minded groups. Jabhat al-Nusra has accelerated its campaign of assassinations and targeted violence against moderate FSA-affiliated factions in Southern Syria over the past few months. It historically used similar measures in order to limit the influence of Western-backed opposition groups in Northern Syria by undermining select prominent factions and intimidating others into rejecting further partnership with the West. The U.S. and its regional partners likely view the Southern Front as one of the few factions capable of reaching a durable settlement to the Syrian Civil War. The protection of this faction remains necessary in order to preserve the potential for a secular, democratic endstate in line with U.S. interests.
See: “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 12 – 19, 2016,” by Jodi Brignola and Genevieve Casagrande, January 20, 2016; “UN Push for Ceasefires in Syria Achieves Results but Empowers Regime,” by Jennifer Cafarella, Katie Menoche, Genevieve Casagrande, and the ISW Syria Team, December 31, 2015; “The Military Situation in Syria’s Aleppo Province,” by Jennifer Cafarella, Genevieve Casagrande, and Jodi Brignola, December 30, 2015; “The Syrian Opposition’s Political Demands,” by Genevieve Casagrande with Jennifer Cafarella, December 29, 2015; “Control of Terrain in Syria: December 23, 2015“. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
IraqIRAQ –By: Emily Anagnostos and Rachel Bessette
Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias escalate confrontation with the United States by kidnapping three American contractors. Three U.S. citizens and their interpreter were kidnapped by unidentified armed men in southern Baghdad on January 15Anonymous local sources claimed that the kidnapping had been conducted by members of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a proxy militia that takes direction from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force. AAH kidnapped and executed five U.S. soldiers in 2007. U.S. intelligence officials are also investigating two other proxy militias – the Badr Organization and Kata’ib Hezbollah – as potential perpetrators of the abduction. Iranian-backed proxy forces likely conducted the kidnapping in order to secure future leverage against the U.S. after a high-profile prisoner exchange between Iran and the U.S. on January 17. The kidnapping demonstrates the effective tools that Iran maintains in order to pursue its ultimate objectives to expel U.S. forces from Iraq and supplant the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition as the primary security guarantor for the country. The proliferation of these proxy forces across the country during the ongoing anti-ISIS campaign undermines the sovereignty of Iraq and lays the groundwork for an inevitable confrontation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in the future.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) remain vulnerable to overstretch due to competing demands to recapture Mosul while maintaining security in Ramadi and other areas recaptured from ISIS. Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson Col. Steve Warren stated on January 20 that recapturing Mosul will require at least “eight brigades” of U.S.-trained forces. This requirement constitutes three times the force size used in ongoing clearing operations in Ramadi. The ISF will face severe challenges in securing Ramadi against both resurgent ISIS attacks and infiltration by Iranian-backed Shi’a militias. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated on January 22 that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition will put additional “boots on the ground” to “enable” local forces in the fight against ISIS. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford separately noted that the U.S. and Iraq were discussing options to “integrate” U.S. forces with the ISF in order to recapture Mosul. The characteristics of the local forces ultimately used to conduct these operations will prove critical to the long-term security of Iraq. The UN and Amnesty International issued reports detailing human rights abuses committed by the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and certain ISF units against Sunni civilians. Recent attacks by Iranian-backed proxy militias against Sunni mosques in Muqdadiyah in Diyala Province on January 11 also prompted the Sunni Etihad parliamentary bloc to temporarily boycott the government. Local Sunni support will be necessary to secure recaptured territory from ISIS over the long-term and these tensions will only hamper the U.S.-led coalition in its efforts to degrade and defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi faces mounting pressure to increase the use of Iranian-backed militias and other Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in forward operations rooms, threatening to further exacerbate sectarian tensions and disrupt any progress towards national reconciliation. The continued marginalization and disenfranchisement of Iraqi Sunnis at the hands of the militias and security forces will undermine efforts by Prime Minister Abadi to create a cohesive government backed by non-sectarian security forces.
Iranian-backed proxy militias expelled an Iraqi Army (IA) armored brigade from Basra after Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi sent the unit to restore order in Southern Iraq. Members of Iranian-backed proxy militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada clashed with an armored brigade deployed to Basra by Prime Minister Abadi in order to curb tribal violence. Other prominent Iraqi Shi’a militias – including the Badr Organization, Kata’ib Imam Ali, and the Nujaba Movement – also condemned the presence of the brigade. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) later withdrew from Basra Province on January 19 due to pressure from the Iranian proxies as well as the continuing need for reinforcements on the frontline against ISIS. Iraqi Shi’a militias have historically challenged the federal government for control over the oil-rich province due to its financial resources and fertile recruiting pool. The militias enjoyed such impunity there from 2006 onward that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched an offensive to regain control of Basra Province in 2008. The deployment and subsequent withdrawal of the Iraqi Army from Southern Iraq underscores the ability of Iranian-backed Shi’a militias to restrict the actions of the federal government and threaten the tenure of Prime Minister Abadi, a key ally of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. Developments that significantly weaken the position of Prime Minister Abadi – including a loss of government control in Basra – threaten to undermine the anti-ISIS campaign, fuel state failure, and permit increased Iranian influence in Iraq at the expense of U.S. strategic objectives.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: January 12 – 19, 2016“; “Iraqi Security Forces Clear Ramadi’s Government Center,” by Patrick Martin, December 28, 2015; “Control Map of Ramadi: December 22, 2015,” by Patrick Martin, December 22, 2015; “Iraq Control of Terrain Map: November 25, 2015“. Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq expert Patrick Martin or ISIS expert Harleen Gambhir here.
ISISISIS –By: Harleen Gambhir
The U.S. is considering imminent military action against ISIS in Libya in recognition of the destabilizing potential of ISIS’s regional affiliates. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford announced on January 22 that the U.S. is “looking to take decisive action against ISIS in Libya” within coming weeks, stating that the White House gave the Department of Defensive the authority to act against the group’s local affiliates. The announcement comes just days after reports that U.S. President Barack Obama authorized similar rules of engagement against ISIS in Afghanistan. This policy shift reflects growing recognition that ISIS’s safe havens outside of Iraq and Syria threaten regional stability and raise the overall requirements to defeat the group. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter affirmed on January 19 that destroying ISIS in Iraq and Syria would remain insufficient to overcome the group due to the spread of its “metastases…around the world”. France, Britain, Italy, and the U.S. are reportedly considering “airstrikes and commando raids” against ISIS in Libya. Anti-ISIS operations in Libya will nonetheless be hindered by the lack of a unified government or ground force available for a partnership with the U.S.-led coalition. The proposed operations will only serve to contain the group as ground forces will eventually be required to clear-and-hold ISIS-held terrain along the central coast of Libya. Western military intervention in Libya would also  likely provoke militant backlash from ISIS and al Qaeda. An al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader called on January 14 for supporters of the global jihadist movement to emigrate to Libya. ISIS later issued its own video campaign urging followers in North Africa to join its forces. The mutual calls for mobilization could foreshadow wider conflict between ISIS and AQ-linked groups in North Africa. Mounting jihadist activity in Libya could destabilize U.S. regional allies such as Tunisia and Egypt that already suffer from intense political unrest, challenging partner-based strategies to combat both ISIS and AQIM.
ISIS is expanding its networks in Asia, reflecting intent to eventually conquer the broader Muslim world. ISIS is using its safe haven and foreign fighter population within Syria to facilitate attacks in Southeast Asia, demonstrating the continuing danger posed by ISIS’s persistent control of terrain in Iraq and Syria. Indonesia claimed this week that ISIS provides funding to the East Indonesia Mujahideen jihadist group. It also detained an individual linked to an ISIS-claimed attack in Jakarta on January 14 who had reportedly received funds from an ISIS member in Syria. Similar networks emerged in India on January 20 when police arrested four individuals who planned to target trains in New Delhi. The suspects had reportedly been in contact with a member of a pro-ISIS Indian militant group who had trained with ISIS in Syria. ISIS may increasingly use its foreign fighter networks and existing affiliate in Central Asia in order to strengthen its influence in South and Southeast Asia. Wilayat Khorasan emir Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai also hinted in an interview released January 19 that ISIS may soon expand to the disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan. ISIS’s regional affiliates facilitate its expansion beyond historic caliphate lands. ISIS may use these bases in order to plan, resource, and motivate attacks against the West. These inspired attacks continue to pose a direct threat to the U.S. as demonstrated by the arrest of a man in New York on January 21 who allegedly plotted to kill a police officer in the name of ISIS.
This section draws upon sourcing and analysis provided by our partners at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
See: “ISIS’s Regional Campaign: December 2015,” by Harleen Gambhir, January 11, 2016; “ISIS Sanctuary: December 21, 2015“; “Meet ISIL’s Most Dangerous Affiliates,” by Harleen Gambhir, Politico, December 14, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst and ISIS expert Harleen Gambhir here.