ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: January 29 – February 10, 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, Kurdistan .
Key Take-Away – Proposed U.S. defense budget highlights shift in strategic priorities. The White House unveiled its Fiscal Year 2017 federal budget with $583 billion in funding allocated for the U.S. Department of Defense, marking a slight decrease from the previous year. The proposed budget shrinks the active-duty combat strength of the Army by 15,000 troops while trimming funding for the Navy in exchange for new investments in the Air Force. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated that the request aims to prepare the U.S. for a “new strategic era” that will require expanded capabilities of “full spectrum warfare” in order to deter or defeat five major threats: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and ISIS. The budget quadruples U.S. expenditures on the European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion in order to counter Russia through the deployment of an additional 3,000 to 5,000 rotational U.S. troops to forward positions in Eastern Europe. The budget provides $7.5 billion towards the ongoing anti-ISIS campaign, a fifty percent increase from the previous year. This funding will purchase 45,000 additional GPS-guided munitions to replenish dwindling stockpiles and defer the final retirement of the A-10 ground attack aircraft until 2022 in order to maintain sufficient capabilities in the fight against ISIS. The budget provides the Army, Marine Corps, and other service branches with renewed training in combined arms operations as strategic requirements shift away from large-scale counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan towards a wider spectrum of threats. The budget also includes major investments in cyber-warfare, space technology, advanced weapons systems, and research & development in order to prepare the U.S. for future emergent threats.
Top U.S. officials painted conflicting views on the trajectory of the anti-ISIS campaign. U.S. Special Envoy to the Anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk expressed optimism regarding the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on February 10, asserting that ISIS has lost significant amounts of territory and “not had a significant battlefield victory” since mid-2015. McGurk stated that the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition will cooperate with local partners to “seal” the last ISIS-held portions of the Syrian-Turkish border, “isolate” ar-Raqqa City in Northern Syria, and “clear and stabilize” the Euphrates River Valley in Western Iraq. McGurk nonetheless indicated that the coalition and its partners remain unlikely to seize Mosul in Northern Iraq over the coming year and noted that the campaign for the city would be a “slow and steady suffocation” rather than a decisive operation. This forecast contrasted sharply with that provided by U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 9 that ISIS will probably “retain large Sunni Arab urban centers” and “strong military capabilities” through 2016. Gen. Stewart also expressed significant doubts regarding the capabilities of local U.S. partners in both Iraq and Syria, stating that the Iraqi Security Forces “cannot sustain conventional military operations” against ISIS without “continued foreign assistance” while noting that Syrian Kurdish forces will “probably remain incapable” of capturing ar-Raqqa City. These blunt assessments suggest that ISIS will remain a major threat in Iraq and Syria over the coming year even as the group further develops dangerous local affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
The looming siege of Aleppo marks a strategic inflection in Syrian Civil War. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is poised to encircle Aleppo City following a renewed offensive that severed the primary opposition supply route north of the city on February 3. The operation also quickly derailed ongoing UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva. The regime will likely attempt to siege-and-starve the opposition-held districts of Aleppo City, similar to its campaign in other urban areas such as Damascus and Homs. The potential threat has already created 70,000 new internally-displaced persons and will fuel a new humanitarian catastrophe. Pro-regime forces will likely push toward the Syrian-Turkish border as well as ISIS-held terrain to the east before closing the siege. The potential siege of Aleppo City will entrench the favorable position currently held by President Assad and force regional backers of the opposition to consider intensified interventions in the conflict. Turkey will likely respond to this inflection through military force. Turkish President Recep Erdogan may even consider a range of high-risk military options to reassert his control over the conflict, including mounting a cross-border intervention to secure a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates attempted to spur the U.S. into action by offering to provide small contingents of Special Forces to a hypothetical U.S.-led ground campaign against ISIS in Syria. The timing of the offer suggests that the Gulf States hope to establish new sources of leverage against the regime and its allies amidst mounting setbacks for the armed opposition. The scale of the military intervention that Saudi Arabia and its allies could muster in Syria will nonetheless be limited by their participation in the ongoing Yemeni Civil War. The potential for escalation by Saudi Arabia or Turkey risks a wider regional conflict in the absence of U.S. leadership.
By: Hugo Spaulding
Russia ruptured Syrian peace talks and challenged Turkey with an intensified campaign in Aleppo. The Russian-enabled advance of pro-regime forces around opposition positions in the city of Aleppo forced the UN to suspend peace negotiations in Geneva on February 3 after just two days of talks. The maneuver to encircle Aleppo City, reportedly supported by Russian special forces in addition to heavy Russian airstrikes, threatens to enable an envelopment of Syrian opposition forces in the key northern stronghold. The maneuver suggests that Russia is designing operations on the ground in Syria. As in Ukraine, Russia is phasing offensive operations in Syria while sitting at the negotiating table under the pretense of being a concerned international stakeholder in the conflict rather than a dominant belligerent. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called on Russia to stop airstrikes against the armed opposition and uphold a “genuine ceasefire” on the eve of the UN’s suspension of peace talks. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated on February 9 that Russia had provided the U.S. with a “concrete outline” for a ceasefire in Syria ahead of the February 11 meeting of the International Syria Support Group in Munich. Lavrov and his deputy Mikhail Bogdanov named the inclusion of Syrian Kurds and cutting off “smuggling across the Turkish-Syrian border” as key preconditions for a ceasefire, signaling Russia’s intent to use the empty promise of a ceasefire to demand concessions from Turkey and its allies. The Russian-backed pro-regime advance around Aleppo City marks a new escalation in Moscow’s confrontation with Ankara just days after a Russian warplane violated Turkish airspace for the first time since the November 2015 downing of a Russian bomber. Russia continues to expand its leverage over Turkey by cultivating ties with Kurdish groups, allowing the dominant Kurdish political group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to open its first European representative office in Moscow on February 10. Russian airstrikes have enabled the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to capture five villages from the Aleppo-based opposition in recent days in tandem with the pro-regime advance around Aleppo City. Moscow set conditions for a negative international response to a possible Turkish attempt to establish a safe zone across the border by accusing Ankara of “intensive preparation” for a “military invasion” of Syria. Foreign Minister Lavrov later accused Turkey of preparing to advance into northern Syria “under the pretext” of establishing camps for internally displaced persons and called Turkey’s potential creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ an escalatory “violation of all principles of international law.” Russia seeks to frame any Turkish response to its actions in Aleppo Province as compromising a possible settlement to the Syrian Civil War in order to strain Turkish-NATO ties and obfuscate its own role in disrupting the peace process. Russia is likely to propose a ceasefire that preserves its dominant forward-deployed military position and the momentum of its offensive operations, much as it did during its siege of the eastern Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, giving it the ability to dial violence up and down in order to extract further concessions.
See: “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 26 – February 1, 2016,” by Genevieve Casagrande and Jodi Brignola, February 3, 2016; “Russia Security Update: January 26 – February 2, 2016,” by Hugo Spaulding, February 2, 2016. Direct press or briefing requests for Russia and Ukraine analyst Hugo Spaulding or Syria analyst Chris Kozak here.
The opposition High Committee for Negotiations withdrew from the Geneva Talks in response to the ongoing regime operation to encircle Aleppo City, forcing UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura to announce a “temporary pause” in the negotiations only two days after their start on February 1. The upcoming battle for Aleppo City will likely preclude a scheduled return to the negotiating table on February 25. The successful seizure of Aleppo City by the regime and its allies would prompt many opposition groups to surrender or otherwise abandon the political process, while a prolonged defense of the city would likely bolster the resonance of calls by Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and its allies to reject a negotiated settlement. The intensifying pressure placed upon the opposition in Aleppo City will likely drive groups to deepen their coordination with JN and other Salafi-jihadist factions. Jabhat al-Nusra deployed a major convoy of reinforcements to Aleppo City prior to the regime advance and had previously proposed a “full merger” of opposition factions based in neighboring Idlib Province. The incentives to solidify this cooperation will only grow in the face of further regime gains. The current campaign undertaken by President Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran will thus further constrain potential opportunities for the U.S. to achieve its strategic objectives as the opposition becomes increasingly radicalized and irreconcilable.
See: “The Pitfalls of Relying on Kurdish Forces to Counter ISIS,” by Patrick Martin and Christopher Kozak, February 3, 2016; “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 26 – February 1, 2016,” by Genevieve Casagrande and Jodi Brignola, February 3, 2016; “Control of Terrain in Syria: December 23, 2015“. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
Coalition training and airstrikes support successful operations in Iraq, but Mosul likely will not fall in 2016. The ISF recaptured central Ramadi and reconnected the road between Ramadi and Baghdad on February 9 amid heavy Coalition airstrikes. Coalition airstrikes also assisted Peshmerga, Sunni tribal fighters, and Iraqi Army units who have received Coalition arms and training to recapture terrain southeast of Mosul in early February. However, large parts of the country remain exposed to ISIS counterattacks and violence. The ISF still needs to secure recaptured territories in Salah al-Din province where ISIS continues to launch attacks. Security forces have begun constructing a 22-foot tall concrete wall around Baghdad to deter ISIS attacks that could permit the ISF in the future to redeploy some of its forces from the capital to participate in forward operations such as the one planned for Mosul. The forces for that operation are not ready, and Defense Intelligence Agency chief Vincent Stewart stated that the operation is unlikely to occur in 2016. Increased support for the ISF and the Peshmerga will be necessary to both recapture territory from ISIS and to provide political support for Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who faces immense pressure to introduce the Popular Mobilization and Iranian proxy militias into forward operations. The U.S. Department of Defense 2017 defense budget request, announced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter on February 9, aims to intensify support for the ISF, including a 50 percent increase in the budget allocation for funding to train, advise, and assist missions in Iraq and Syria; to conduct airstrikes; to launch Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids; and to increase in the air fleet available for Operation Inherent Resolve airstrikes. These measures could include Operation Inherent Resolve commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland’s suggestion of the deployment of attack helicopters and forward positioning of advisers in a future Mosul operation with Iraqi government approval.
Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) faces popular protests as it attempts to handle financial crisis. Large groups of Kurdish citizens began demonstrating on February 6 to protest KRG measures to cut salaries. Although the KRG parliament stated that Ministry of Interior employees and Peshmerga are still receiving their full salaries, Peshmerga protesters in Sulaimaniyah claimed on February 9 that they had not been paid in four months. Divisive Kurdish politics centering on the tenure of President Masoud Barzani are exacerbating the challenge. The five main parties in the KRG were scheduled to meet for the first time since October 2015 to address outstanding political and financial issues. However, the meeting was postponed indefinitely on February 7 amid ongoing political disagreements between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdish opposition. The KRG’s inability to address its financial and political crises within the confines of the Iraqi federal system could push Barzani to formally seek independence. Secession would likely worsen the KRG’s financial situation, but it remains a politically popular initiative among Iraqi Kurdish political leadership. Any moves towards independence would directly undermine U.S. and Iraqi interests by compromising future joint operations to recapture Mosul and effectively fracturing Iraq as a singular territory. Urgent financial support from the U.S. and its allies could serve as a crucial lever in deterring the KRG from moving towards independence, preventing threats to future operations against ISIS.
Sistani cancels political sermons. The representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the preeminent but historically quietist Shi’a religious authority, announced on February 5 that weekly sermons on political subjects would be suspended, though there would be periodical sermons as required by developments. Sistani, who retains a massive degree of authority over Iraq’s Shi’a population, is an important ally of PM Abadi and essential to cohesion among the Shi’a political elite. His influence was a strong factor in forcing the removal of PM Abadi’s primary political opponent, former PM and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, from office in September 2014, and a fiery sermon by his representative against corruption sparked the beginning of large popular demonstrations in August 2015. The announcement also weakens the thousands of mainly Shi’a civil demonstrators in southern Iraq, who receive guidance from Sistani and were emboldened by him to protest for reforms and against corruption in their provincial governments and political parties. It is unclear why Sistani has suspended the sermons. The decision may also stem from health concerns as rumors persist regarding the poor health of Sistani, who traveled to London for treatment of a serious heart issue in 2004. More likely, his return to quietism may indicate that Sistani has grown increasingly frustrated with the inability of PM Abadi’s government and the political blocs to achieve any meaningful reform. A reduction in Sistani’s moderating role in Iraqi politics is problematic for the U.S., as it weakens Abadi, a key ally in the fight against ISIS, and could embolden Iranian proxy militias to lay the groundwork to replace him eventually by a pro-Iranian actor.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s announces cabinet reshuffle under pressure from both rivals and supporters, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called the replacement of ministers with technocrats and academics on February 9 in a “radical cabinet reshuffle.” He requested that the Council of Representatives (CoR) and political parties support the measure. PM Abadi leads a unity government and does not have the ability to reshuffle without the support of other political parties. He could have called for the cabinet reshuffle in response either to pressure from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or to imminent moves to undercut his position by his political opponents. PM Abadi’s announcement lacked details, but he has been trying to conduct reforms since August 2015 and replace senior political party leaders in the Council of Ministers (CoM) with less prominent members of the same political parties since January 19. PM Abadi’s move is likely to face resistance from nearly all political blocs, despite statements of support from Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish politicians on February 10. Iraq’s political blocs are likely to approve of the reshuffle publicly but fight behind the scenes to ensure that they maintain or increase their influence within the CoM during the reshuffle. Control over ministries gives parties patronage and political influence, so they are unlikely to relinquish them. PM Abadi risks failing to pass any genuine reforms and increasing the likelihood that other parties may marginalize him further.
Iranian proxy militias plot to undermine security operations and Iraqi government. Iranian proxy groups in particular are constricting PM Abadi’s ability to act and are actively planning on interference with Coalition-supported security operations. Three prominent proxy militia leaders – Qais al-Khazali, Hadi al-Amiri, and Abu Alaa – met on February 8 and 9with other leaders of the Popular Mobilization ostensibly to discuss how the U.S. and the Coalition intend to exclude the Popular Mobilization from operations in Mosul. Iranian proxy militias maintain the objectives of expelling the Coalition from Iraq, positioning the Popular Mobilization as the essential ally in the fight against ISIS, and ensuring that government in Baghdad remains malleable to Iran. Their participation in any operations in the predominantly Sunni province of Ninewa by the Popular Mobilization would only exacerbate Sunni-Shi’a tensions and undermine any independent command and control that PM Abadi has over the ISF. Proxy militias will likely attempt to disrupt Coalition-supported ISF operations in Ninewa by clamoring for their participation or possibly by withdrawing from the front lines, intentionally exposing parts of the country to ISIS attacks and forcing the ISF to redeploy to re-secure territory. They have also grown increasingly resistant to any independent government action, rampaging in the mainly Sunni town of Muqdadiyah on January 11 and expelling from Basra an Iraqi Army armored brigade that clashed with an Iranian proxy militia in mid-January. Iranian proxy militias constrict PM Abadi’s already limited ability to exercise decision-making independent of Iranian directive. Their continued impunity remains a threat to PM Abadi’s ability to launch operations under independent command and control, to any successful future operations in Ninewa Province, and to U.S. interests and personnel.
See: “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.
The U.S. weighs airstrikes in Libya as ISIS seizes new populated areas. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk identified ISIS in Libya as the “greatest cause for concern” among ISIS’s affiliates on February 10 because of its capability and threat to regional partners. Yet U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.K. foreign secretary Philip Hammond had ruled out the use of ground troops against ISIS in Libya on February 3, emphasizing the need for the establishment of a unity government instead. International concern over the situation in Libya is increasing as ISIS demonstrates advanced military capability and commands a growing foreign fighter population in its expanding safe haven. Prospects for international intervention are complicated by the absence of a legitimate Libyan unity government with which to partner. President Obama had met with the National Security Council on January 29 to discuss military options against ISIS in Libya, but the administration is reportedly limiting its consideration to U.S. intervention to airstrikes, Special Operations Forces raids, and advising Libyan troops. ISIS is largely uncontested in central Libya, as demonstrated on January 31 when it easily seized the village of al-Buerat west of Sirte and continued to attack the oil facilities east of Sirte with little resistance. Airstrikes alone are unlikely to prevent ISIS from remaining and expanding in Libya, as shown by the slow progress of the anti-ISIS air campaign in Iraq and Syria. ISIS fighters reportedly instructed civilians not to leave the city of Sirte on January 31 amidst warnings of upcoming strikes, showing that the group is applying tactics learned in Iraq and Syria by using human shields in the populated areas it controls to resist airstrikes. Consolidating and expanding control over populated areas serves ISIS’s grand strategic objective of expanding its caliphate, as well as its strategic objective of developing a resilient safe haven. U.S. officials reportedly now estimate that ISIS has between 5,000 and 6,500 fighters in Libya, more than twice the number estimated in 2015. Foreign fighters comprise seventy percent of those fighting in Libya, according to head of military intelligence in Misrata Ismail Shukri. The group’s safe haven in Libya allows it to recruit and move foreign fighters from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa more easily than it from its base in Iraq and Syria, and the group will likely use this base to exacerbate disorder throughout North Africa and to plan and launch attacks in Europe.
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: 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.