MESOP : ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: May 25 – 29, 2015 – IRAQ & SYRIA Reviewing the Week – Compiled by Christopher Kozak
Key Take-away: The United States and its allies faced deteriorating security situationsin multiple theaters across the globe, prompting renewed efforts to strengthen regional coalitions and further calls for U.S. leadership. In the Middle East, major ISIS gains in Ramadi and Palmyra last week forced U.S. officials to order a “fine-tuning” of the current strategy against ISIS ahead of a June 2nd meeting of international anti-ISIS coalition members. In Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter advocated further support for anti-ISIS Sunni tribal fighters amid rising sectarian tensions caused by the participation of Iraqi Shi’a militias in operations to retake Ramadi and ISIS-held areas of Salah ad-Din Province. The U.S. also reportedly agreed to support expanded Kurdish offensive operations in northern Syria along the Turkish border. However, the Obama administration has continued to avoid dramatic policy changes such as the direct arming of Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters or the provision of air support to Syrian opposition fighters battling ISIS.
The launch of the joint Iraqi Security Force (ISF) and Iraqi Shi’a militia operation to retake Ramadi comes amidst increased questioning of the ISF’s independent ability to capture and secure territory following U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s comments asserting that the ISF lacked the “will to fight” in Ramadi. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shi’a militias launched a two-front operation aimed at recapturing ISIS-held territory in Anbar and Salah al-Din Provinces which quickly came under criticism for its alleged sectarian composition. These incidents underscore the perception that the U.S. lacks reliable partners on the ground, particularly as Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias regain prominence in Iraqi security operations despite U.S. efforts to marginalize the groups during the clearing of Tikrit in March 2015. The persistence of ISIS attacks has also raised concerns about whether the U.S.-led coalition air campaign against ISIS is effective. ISIS maintains the capacity to launch complex attacks involving SVBIEDs as well as direct and indirect fire throughout Anbar Province, despite the ongoing counteroffensives by ISF and Iraqi Shi’a militias. ISIS attacks have targeted ISF positions in eastern Anbar in the inner Baghdad Belts as well as Haditha in western Anbar, the last major ISF-held city in the province. In addition, ISIS recently reestablished itself in southern Salah ad-Din Province, forcing the ISF and Iraqi Shi’a militias to divert resources in the current operation towards re-securing an area that had been cleared in early 2015. A spike in VBIED attacks in Diyala Province and central Baghdad also point tocontinued ISIS efforts to divert the attention of the security forces away from priority areas in eastern Anbar and northern Salah al-Din. ISIS is also directing VBIED attacks into Babil and Wasit, predominantly Shi’a provinces south of Baghdad.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: May 28-29, 2015“; “ISF Disposition in Anbar: May 15 – May 27, 2015,” by Theodore Bell and Patrick Martin, May 29, 2015; “Iraq Situation Report: May 26-27, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: May 23-25, 2015; Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 25, 2015“; “The Fall of Ramadi Was Avoidable,” by Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan inThe Washington Post, May 18, 2015; “ISIS Captures Ramadi,” by Patrick Martin, Genevieve Casagrande, Jessica Lewis McFate, and the ISW Iraq and Syria Teams, May 18, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analysts Sinan Adnan and Theodore Bell or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.
Turkish officials released statements suggesting that deals with the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and to provide air support to moderate rebels participating in the train-and-equip program against ISIS were close to fruition. These statements are likely attempting to pressure the U.S. to embrace more expansive policies against the Assad regime ahead of the international anti-ISIS coalition meeting being held in Paris on June 2. Meanwhile, Kurdish officials stated that the U.S.-led coalition agreed to support a YPG-led effort to clear ISIS-held terrain along the Turkish border, including the ISIS stronghold of Tel Abyad in northern ar-Raqqa Province, and connect Kurdish-held terrain in Aleppo and Hasaka Provinces. If successful, ongoing Kurdish advances along this corridor would greatly increase the scope of the self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava – a development which would likely prompt backlash from Turkey. Meanwhile, pressure on the Assad regime continued to build on multiple fronts. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-al Nusra led rebel forces in the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room (headquarters) in the seizure of the town of Ariha south of Idlib City, the last major obstacle to completing opposition control over Idlib Province. Rebels will likely move to consolidate their hold over the remaining regime holdout positions in the province in preparation for future offensives against Latakia or Hama Provinces. Meanwhile, ISIS continued to consolidate and expand its control over Palmyra and its associated network of military installations and infrastructure in central Syria. ISIS will most likely aim to capture the Deir ez-Zour military base in the East, as well as the T4 military base near Palmyra, positioning ISIS forces for future attacks against the regime near Damascus and the Syrian central corridor. Despite early reports of a regime mobilization for a counteroffensive against Palmyra, the Assad regime likely lacks sufficient manpower to deploy significant reinforcements to either front. Recent reports of mass conscription incidents in the coastal Alawite heartland highlight the strain currently faced by regime forces.
See: “ISIS Control and Expected Offensives in Central Syria: May 29, 2015,” by Christopher Kozak and Jennifer Cafarella, May 29, 2015; “The Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Campaign for Idlib Province,” by Jennifer Cafarella, May 29, 2015; “Control in Syria: May 28, 2015“; “Syria Situation Report: May 21-26, 2015“; “The Regime’s Military Capabilities: Part 1,” May 26, 2015; “New ISIS Offensives in the Syrian Civil War,” by Christopher Kozak, May 14, 2015; “An Army in All Corners:” Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria, by Christopher Kozak, April 30, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s statement asserting that the Iraqi Security Forces’ lacked the will to fight in Ramadi provoked intense debate about whether the U.S. should reconsider its partners and strategic objectives in the fight against ISIS. Policy suggestions, ranging from an expansion of the U.S.-led coalition’s role beyond air support to the formation of a new Arab coalition or a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, will all fuel discussion as coalition members meet in Paris on June 2. Meanwhile, ISIS demonstrated the resilience of its combat capabilities by consolidating its gains in eastern Syria in preparation for an offensive targeting Deir ez-Zour or the Syrian military bases near Palmyra while simultaneously launching numerous complex attacks to combat an Iraqi counteroffensive in Ramadi.
In the Near Abroad, ISIS exploited ‘lone wolf’ attacks, plots connected to its network, and affiliate activity to seize territory and to propel its narrative of undermining stable states. ISIS’s affiliate in Saudi Arabia continued efforts to provoke sectarian conflict in the country, launching its second suicide bomb attack in the past week against a Shi’a mosque on May 29. Moroccan authorities arrested a member of a cell planning domestic attacks with the assistance of ISIS fighters on May 25, while ISIS praised a military recruit who opened fire on his fellow soldiers in the Tunisian capital on May 26. Meanwhile, ISIS’s affiliate in Libya gained full control of the central Libyan city of Sirte and a nearby airbase after a rival militia retreated from the area on May 29.
In the Far Abroad, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong emphasized the threat posed to Southeast Asia by ISIS at the Shangri-La Dialogue international security summit, highlighting the May 27 arrest of two Singaporean students planning to join the group. In addition, U.S. authorities continued to arrest American citizens accused of supporting ISIS, reinforcing a senior administration official’s recent warning that federal agencies open new investigations into homegrown extremism “every day.”
See: “The ISIS Regional Strategy for Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” by Harleen Gambhir, May 22, 2015; “ISIS Sanctuary Map: May 22, 2015“; The ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy, by Jessica Lewis McFate, May 15, 2015; “‘ISIS IS A STATE-BREAKER’ – Here’s the Islamic State’s strategy for the rest of 2015,” Jessica Lewis McFate onBusiness Insider, May 15, 2015;”ISIS Global INTSUM,” by Harleen Gambhir, May 7, 2015, covering March 1 – May 7, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.