Spotlight on Global Jihad (January 18-25, 2018) –  Main events of the week  Syria – Iraq – Kurdistan

  • On January 21, 2018, Turkey and the rebels sponsored by it launched a military operation against a Kurdish enclave in Ifrin, in northwestern Syria (Operation Olive Branch).
  • This week, the Syrian forces took over the Abu al-Duhur military airbase south of Aleppo. The takeover of the airbase, and the mopping up of vast areas east of the Hama-Aleppo highway, indicate that the first stage of the campaign to take over the Idlib region is coming to an end. Subsequently, the Syrian forces are expected to continue attacking the core areas controlled by the rebel groups, mainly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, in and around the city of Idlib.

  • In eastern Syria, ISIS continues to carry out intensive attacks against the Kurdish SDF forces east of the Euphrates River (mainly on the area between Albukamal and the town of Al-Mayadeen). In these attacks, ISIS is making use of anti-tank missiles and drones that document the attacks for propaganda purposes. At the same time, ISIS published photos from a Kornet anti-tank missile course that began recently. This is another expression of ISIS’s efforts to rehabilitate its forces in eastern Syria and restore them to operational capability in eastern Syria after the fall of the Islamic State.
Involvement of Russia and the United States
Russia and the Turkish invasion
  • According to Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Russia is closely monitoring the operation in the Ifrin region and Russian representatives are in contact with the Syrian authorities and the Turkish authorities on the issue. Peskov stressed that Russia would continue to view maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity as a basic principle. He also noted that Russia was monitoring the humanitarian aspects of the situation in Ifrin. Peskov refused to say whether Russia knew in advance about the Turkish operation (RIA, January 22, 2018).
  • Following the Turkish operation, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that the Russian forces command in Syria had decided to transfer the operations group of the Russian Center for Reconciliation and the Russian Military Police unit from the Ifrin area to the Tal Ajar area (north of Aleppo). According to the announcement issued by the Ministry of Defense, the transfer of the forces was intended to prevent provocation and protect the lives of the Russian forces. The announcement states that the Center for Reconciliation continues to monitor the situation in order to provide the necessary assistance to civilians fleeing the fighting zones (Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Defense, January 20, 2018).
American spokespersons’ statements regarding the Turkish invasion
  • Heather Nauert, spokesperson for the United States Department of State, called on Turkey to stop its military activity in the Ifrin Province and to focus on ISIS (US Department of State, January 18, 2018). In interviews with the Turkish press, Eric Pahon, spokesman for the US Department of Defense, said that the United States was not present and did not operate in the Ifrin region, so the Turkish operation would not directly affect its actions. Pahon expressed the hope that all the forces would continue to focus on the main goal of defeating ISIS. He noted that Russia’s withdrawal from Ifrin was a matter between it and the governments of Syria and Turkey, and stressed that the United States was not involved in the issue (Anatolia News Agency, January 20, 2018).
US Secretary of State outlines US policy in Syria
  • Speaking at Stanford University, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the American strategy in Syria in the era after the defeat of ISIS. According to him, three main factors currently affect the situation in Syria: ISIS has ceased to be a significant factor, but has not been completely defeated; the Assad regime controls half of the territory of Syria and its population; the strategic threats to the US [from the Syrian arena] are not only from ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but also from Iran.
  • Tillerson listed five US goals and courses of action in Syria:
    • To make Syria no longer serve as a platform or a safe haven for terrorists to organize, recruit, fund, train and carry out attacks against American citizens or against US allies, in the United States itself or abroad
    • To resolve the conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime. The solution will be achieved through a UN-led political process, as determined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The goal of the process is to create a stable, united and independent Syria that functions as a state.
    • To reduce Iranian influence in Syria
    • To disarm Syria of weapons of mass destruction
    • To help the refugees return to Syria
    • Tillerson stressed that the United States would not repeat the mistakes made in Libya or Iraq. Therefore, in order to achieve these goals, the United States plans a long-term military presence in Syria until the final and absolute defeat of ISIS. At the same time, it will work to reduce tension and encourage all sides to join negotiations (US Department of State website, January 17, 2018).
Main developments in Syria
The campaign to take over Idlib

On January 21, 2018, the general headquarters of the Syrian army announced that the army and the supporting forces (including Iranian reinforcements sent to the area) had taken over the military airbase of Abu Ad-Duhur. Syrian army sapper teams are neutralizing mines, explosive charges and car bombs left on the ground. Concurrently with mopping up the airbase, it has been reported that towns and villages in the rural area of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo were mopped up too and that ISIS operatives were surrounded in the enclave southeast of the airbase.

  • Concurrently with the takeover of the airbase, the Syrian forces attacked several outposts of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and took over several villages in the areas southeast of the airbase (SANA, January 19, 2018). On January 22, 2018, the Syrian army forces took control of the village of Abu Ad-Duhur, about 5 km west of the military airbase. The village has served as one of the most important strongholds of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the rural area of Idlib (Mourasiloun, January 22, 2018). A car bomb detonated by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reportedly killed 30 Syrian army soldiers and destroyed three military vehicles (, January 22, 2018).

The Abu Ad-Duhur military airbase, situated about 50 km south of Aleppo, is the second largest airbase in Syria. Since September 2015, it has been controlled by the rebels (the dominant force among them is currently the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham). In December 2017, the Syrian forces opened a campaign with the aim of taking over the airbase, as an important interim stage in the campaign to take over the Idlib region. The fall of the airbase in the hands of the Syrian forces and mopping up large areas east of the Hama-Aleppo highway indicate that the first stage in the campaign to take over Idlib is about to end. Subsequently, the Syrian forces are expected to continue the attack against the core areas controlled by the rebel organizations, mainly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, in the city of Idlib and its environs. A website affiliated with the Syrian army alluded that the rural area east of Idlib, where the two besieged Shiite towns of Al-Fu’ah and Kafraya are situated, may be the next target of the Syrian forces (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, a website affiliated with the Syrian army, January 21, 2018).

Response of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and ISIS
  • On January 22, 2018, a suicide bomber belonging to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham detonated a car bomb. The car blew up among a group of Syrian soldiers (Ibaa News Agency, affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, January 22, 2018).
  • Prior to the takeover of the Abu Ad-Duhur airbase, ISIS’s Idlib Province reported about an attack carried out by its operatives against the Syrian forces in the area of Sinjar (about 18 km southwest of the airbase). According to ISIS, part of the Syrian forces retreated, and some of them were killed or taken prisoner (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 17, 2018).
Operatives of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization killed in clashes with the Syrian army
  • During clashes with the Syrian forces in the rural area north of Hama, three operatives of the Salafist jihadi organization Khalq, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, were reportedly killed. Two of them were Kurds and another one was from Baluchistan. Khalq is a small jihadi organization operating in Syria along with the other rebel organizations. Not much is known about it probably because its volume of activity is relatively small.
Clashes continue north of Albukamal

Clashes between ISIS operatives and the SDF forces continued this week in the area east of the Euphrates River, between Albukamal and the town of Mayadeen. This area has still not been mopped up completely from ISIS operatives, who continue their guerrilla warfare against the Syrian forces and the SDF. The SDF forces are supported by the US-led Coalition airstrikes. ISIS operatives attack the SDF forces using car bombs. Both sides have been sustaining casualties.

  • Following are the main incidents:
    • Clashes around the town of Gharanij: On January 19, 2018, clashes reportedly occurred between ISIS operatives and SDF forces about 37 km northwest of Albukamal, on the east bank of the Euphrates River. The ISIS operatives detonated three car bombs. ISIS sustained casualties. Among its fatalities was reportedly also the operative codenamed Abu Talha al-Almani (i.e., the German). The SDF forces lost at least eight fighters (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, January 19, 2018).
    • A car bomb was detonated against a staging area of the SDF forces in the town of Gharanij. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber codenamed Abu al-Zubayr al-Shimali (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 17, 2018).
    • Attack against the SDF fighters in the village of Al-Bahra al-Gharbiya, about 32 km north of Albukamal. ISIS operatives attacked SDF fighters in the village of Al-Bahra al-Sharqiya (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 20, 2018). A suicide bomber detonated a car bomb during the clashes, killing 30 SDF fighters, according to ISIS (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 19, 21, 2018).
  • Clashes between ISIS and SDF in the town of Al-Shu’fa, about 12 km north of Albukamal. The SDF forces received Coalition air support (SDF website, January 21, 2018).
Clashes in south of Quneitra
  •  On January 18, 2018, it was reported that a force comprising about 40 operatives of the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army (affiliated with ISIS) infiltrated the village of Al-Bakar, about 27 km south of Quneitra, near the border between Syria and Israel. They arrived there from their positions in the village of Ain Thakar, south of Al-Bakar. An ISIS forces held a school and a local checkpoint for about an hour, but a Free Syrian Army force arriving on the scene took over Al-Bakar once again.
Main developments in Iraq
Clashes continue between ISIS and the Iraqi security forces
  • This week as well, Iraqi security forces continued to conduct intensive military activity against ISIS operatives scattered throughout northern Iraq, in enclaves, sporadic pockets, and clandestine networks. ISIS on its part continued its terrorist and guerrilla activities. Following are several prominent incidents:
    • On January 19, 2018, ISIS’s Al-Anbar Province issued an announcement that its operatives had broken into the homes of two senior Iraqi police officials in the area of Albu Dhiyab, near Ramadi. One of the officials was killed and the other was severely wounded.
    • On January 19, 2018, the Iraqi security forces reported the killing of an ISIS commander in clashes around the village of Albu Sayf, about 2 km south of the Mosul airport. ISIS operatives are reportedly hiding in the bushes growing on the banks of the Tigris River near the village (Al-Sumaria News, January 19, 2018).
    • Based on intelligence, the Popular Mobilization forces, in coordination with the federal police, killed an ISIS suicide bomber in the area of Albu Badri, east of Samarra (Iraqi News Agency, January 19, 2018).
ISIS claimed responsibility for the double suicide bombing attack in central Baghdad
  • On January 15, 2018, a suicide bombing attack was carried out in the open market in Al-Tayaran Square in central Baghdad. Two suicide bombers wearing explosive belts blew themselves up. A total of 26 people were killed and 95 others were wounded. On January 17, 2018, two days after the attack, ISIS released a statement claiming responsibility for carrying out the suicide bombing attack. The message stated that two hundred Shiites were killed and wounded in the attack (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, January 17, 2018). The delay in releasing the claim of responsibility may indicate problems in the functioning of ISIS’s propaganda network in the Baghdad area.
ISIS’s conduct in the various provinces
·            ISIS’s Al-Baraka Province (eastern and northeastern Syria) has published photos documenting an anti-tank missile course for ISIS operatives that was held over the past few weeks. The photos show the operatives in class receiving explanations about the advanced Russian Kornet anti-tank missile. The operatives are also shown watching the dry launching of an anti-tank missile and the launching of anti-tank missiles at SDF targets (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, January 17, 2018). Holding such a course is another expression of ISIS’s efforts to rehabilitate its forces in eastern Syria and restore them to operational capability in the era after the fall of the Islamic State.
Abu Mohammad al-Julani calls on the terrorist organizations to unite their efforts against the Syrian army, the common enemy
  • An audiotape of a speech by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, head of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, was distributed on social media on January 16, 2018. The title of the 18-minute speech is: Dealing with enemies instead of dealing with the soul and differences of opinion. At the beginning of the speech, Al-Julani elaborates on the damage caused by the process of regulation in Syria and explains why the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham opposes it. He notes that in the future as well, the organization will not take part in a conference or process that will not benefit the residents of Syria. He says that this is because the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham is “part of the people and its revolution against the regime.”
  • In view of the crises and the grave situation, Al-Julani begs the Syrian armed organizations to set aside their disputes, combine their efforts and unite their ranks against the Syrian army. He praises the steadfastness of the fighters in Daraa, Quneitra, and the Damascus region, saying that they are the basis for the takeover of Damascus. At the end of his speech, he turns to the operatives and tells them that the continuation of jihad in Al-Sham is the mainstay of thwarting the “plots” that are being fabricated against Al-Aqsa Mosque. He notes that this is a heavy responsibility and therefore it is necessary to unite the ranks and the hearts and to set aside the differences.