MESOP NEWS INTEL : Spotlight on Global Jihad (November 30 – December 6, 2017) / PKK/PYD-SDF MEETINGS WITH RUSSIAN OFFICERS


printfacebooktwitterMain events of the week

On both sides of the Euphrates River in the area between Deir ez-Zor and Albukamal, searches after ISIS operatives who fled to the desert continue. The Syrian forces are operating on the west bank of the river and the Kurdish forces (SDF) on the east bank. Long-range Russian bombers provided air support to the searchers.This week, a meeting was held between senior Russian and Kurdish officers in the village of Al-Salihiyah, located midway between Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal. The meeting was attended by local representatives from Deir ez-Zor. It was agreed, among other things, to set up a joint operations room in the village of Al-Salihiyah for the Russian army, the Kurdish forces and representatives of the Arab tribes in the area.

  • Of late, a fierce dispute has surfaced between Al-Qaeda and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). The root of the dispute is the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham’s independent “Syrian” policy, which has been expressed in a refusal to obey Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and pragmatic conduct aimed at preserving its survival. In the ITIC’s assessment, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham’s pragmatic conduct stems primarily from the fear that, following the collapse of the Islamic State, the strategic attention of Syria, Russia and Iran will shift to the rebel enclave in the Idlib area, where the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham is the dominant force.
  • In Iraq, ISIS’s terrorist attacks continue, along with extensive counterterrorism activities on the part of the Iraqi forces. Abroad, ISIS’s provinces in Yemen and Afghanistan have succeeded in carrying out a series of attacks, some of them complex, thus proving that the fall of the Islamic State has not impaired their capabilities (in Aden, Yemen, a car bomb was detonated in front of the Ministry of Finance building; in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, a car bomb was detonated at the entrance to a TV building.
  • Even after the collapse of the Islamic State, ISIS continues to threaten Western countries and to call on its supporters to carry out attacks against the so-called infidels. ISIS’s media outlets released a video addressing the United States and “infidel” Western countries, threatening that the jihad against them would continue. In addition, ISIS-affiliated social media accounts published a poster threatening the countries of the West in anticipation of the coming Christmas.
Russian involvement in Syria
More Russian statements about the intention to reduce the number of forces in Syria
  • Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said that the withdrawal of the Russian forces from Syria would be carried out according to their level of readiness, and that preparations for the withdrawal were already underway. Previously, Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov said that Russia might begin to reduce the size of its forces in Syria by the end of the year. According to the plan, the Russian military bases in Hmeymim and Tartus would remain in Syria, along with the Coordination Center of reconciliation between the warring parties and various infrastructures needed for maintaining stability in the country ( website, owned by the Russian Ministry of Defense; RIA, November 30, 2017).
Russian call for imposing sanctions on those trading in cultural objects stolen from Iraq and Syria
  • Russia has reportedly urged the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on individuals and organizations that trade with terrorists in cultural objects from Iraq and Syria. Russian Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya raised the issue at a Security Council session on trading in cultural objects. According to him, ISIS operatives and criminals associated with them use all the existing loopholes to smuggle cultural valuables abroad. Recently, Russian border control forces managed to thwart the smuggling of Syrian cultural objects from areas that had been under the control of the Islamic State.

According to the Russian ambassador, the trade in works of art is carried out by anonymous suppliers (including via the Internet). He said it was difficult to control such transactions, mainly because of a problem in identifying forbidden valuables. He urged countries around the world to provide the Security Council sanctions committee on ISIS and Al-Qaeda with the information in their possession about the sources of financing of the organizations involved in this illegal trade (TASS News Agency, November 30, 2017).

Main developments in Syria
Syrian army searches the Al-Mayadeen-Albukamal region
  • The Syrian forces are searching the region between Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal southeast of the Deir ez-Zor Province, mopping up the area from ISIS operatives who fled to the desert areas after these cities had been taken over. Large quantities of weapons were found, including anti-tank missiles, ammunition and IEDs (Syrian News Agency, November 30, 2017).
Russian air support for the Syrian army
  • On December 1 and 3, 2017, six Tu-22M3 long-range Russian bombers, which took off from an airbase in Russia, attacked ISIS targets in the Deir ez-Zor Province (mainly in the southeast of the province, where the Syrian army conducts the searches). Su-30SM planes from the Hmeymim airbase covered the bombers. ISIS positions, ammunition depots and equipment were destroyed during the airstrike. After the attack on December 3, 2017, the bombers returned to their base in Russia (Facebook page of the Russian Defense Ministry, December 1, 3, 2017).
Deir ez-Zor area The SDF forces mop up the east bank of the Euphrates River
  • On December 3, 2017, the SDF forces announced that their fighters had mopped up the rural area east of Deir ez-Zor, on the east bank of the Euphrates River, with assistance from local tribes, the International Coalition and Russian air support (YPG website, December 3, 2017). Sihanouk Dibo, the presidential adviser to the PYD (the Kurdish Democratic Union Party), stated that the Russian forces had provided the Kurds with logistic support (RT, December 4, 2017).

YPG fighters (the Kurdish fighters comprising the dominant part of the SDF) during clashes with ISIS on the east bank of the Euphrates River (Twitter account, December 2017)

  • The SDF forces took over from ISIS the villages of Abu Hamam and Al-Khan, southeast of Al-Mayadeen, on the east bank of the Euphrates River. On December 1, 2017, the forces announced that during Operation Al-Jazeera Storm (the mopping up of the east bank of the Euphrates River), ISIS sustained 17 fatalities (SDF Information Center website).
Meeting between Kurdish representatives and senior Russian army officers
  • On December 3, 2017, a meeting was held between Russian senior officers and Kurdish senior operatives in the YPG (the Kurds’ military force in Syria comprising the main part of the SDF forces). The meeting was attended by Deputy Commander of the Russian forces in Syria General Alexander (Aleksey) Kim; YPG Spokesman Noureddine (Nouri) Mahmoud; and Ghassan Al-Yusuf, the chairman of a local body named “the Deir ez-Zor Civilian Council” (Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, December 4, 2017). The meeting was held in the village of Al-Salihiyah on the west bank of the Euphrates River, halfway between Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal.
  • At the end of the meeting, a press conference was held, in which YPG Spokesman Nouri Mahmoud praised the active role played by the Coalition forces and Russia in the fight against ISIS (YPG website, December 3, 2017). He pointed out the importance of future cooperation to restore security and reconstruct infrastructures in the area (Al-Akhbar, December 3, 2017). The Russian general Alexander Kim noted in the press conference that the operation to eliminate ISIS’s pockets of resistance east of Deir ez-Zor is near its end. He said that in the village of Al-Salihiyah, where the meeting was held, a joint operations room would be set up, shared by the Russian army, YPG, and the representatives of the Arab tribes (Twitter, December 4, 2017).
SDF denies reports of ceasefire agreement with ISIS
  • On November 28, 2017, reports appeared on social networks about a ceasefire agreement allegedly achieved between the SDF forces and ISIS (Al-Mayadeen, November 28, 2017). Mostafa Bali, director of the SDF Information Center, denied these reports and stressed that the SDF forces continued to fight against terrorism “with all their might” until it ended in Syria (Russia Today, November 28, 2017). In the ITIC’s assessment, these reports are false, as on the ground, the SDF forces continue mopping up the areas from ISIS operatives.
Clashes between ISIS and the Syrian army in western Albukamal suburbs
  • On December 1, 2017, ISIS released several photos documenting clashes between its operatives and the Syrian army in the western suburbs of Albukamal (Haqq, December 1, 2017). It seems that the security situation in the city of Albukamal, taken over by the Syrian forces and the Shiite militias, has not yet been stabilized.
   Fierce dispute between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and Al-Qaeda

Recently, harsh words have been exchanged between Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front), indicating a widening rift between the two organizations. At the core of the dispute was the nature of the relationship between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and Al-Qaeda, its parent organization: is the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham allowed to conduct an independent “Syrian” policy of its own, taking into account the serious constraints it is facing, or is it subject to the instructions of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose overview of the situation and set of considerations are completely different. A series of arrests carried out by Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, the leader of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, among operatives affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and his response to the accusations against him by Al-Qaeda leader, are, in the ITIC’s assessment, an indication that Al-Julani chose to follow his own independent path, in order to try to survive the serious constraints it is facing, even though he has not yet completely burnt his bridges with Al-Qaeda.

  • Note: A detailed analysis of the dispute, its causes and implications, will be published in a separate document.
Main developments in Iraq
Iraqi counterterrorist activities in the various provinces
  • The Iraqi security forces continued their counterterrorism activities in the various provinces:
    • South of Baghdad: The Iraqi security forces found three IEDs and explosives inside an apartment. Several suspects were detained (Iraqi News Agency, December 4, 2017).
    • Hamrin Mountains, east of Baqubah: An intelligence and counterterrorism unit of the Diyala police killed a suicide bomber and detained three foreign terrorist operatives (Iraqi News Agency, December 4, 2017).
    • South of Baqubah: Diyala police detained five wanted terrorists (Iraqi News Agency, December 4, 2017).
    • Al-Ghabat area, north of Mosul: The Iraqi army found a weapons and ammunition cache which included anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank missiles and artillery and mortar shells (Iraqi News Agency, December 3, 2017).
    • Neighborhoods in southeast Mosul: The Iraqi security forces detained several ISIS operatives who had settled in two disadvantaged neighborhoods in southeast Mosul (Iraqi News Agency, December 3, 2017).
ISIS terrorist and guerrilla warfare activity
  • ISIS operatives continued their terrorist and guerrilla activity in various provinces in Iraq, albeit not in a coordinated manner and without central direction:
  • The (Shiite) Popular Mobilization forces halted an ISIS attack west of the Baiji District. ISIS operatives used three SUVs (Iraqi News Agency, December 2, 2017).
  • An Iraqi army soldier was wounded as a result of ISIS sniper fire about 28 km northeast of Baqubah (Al-Sumaria News, December 3, 2017).
  • Five people, apparently civilians, were wounded when IED exploded in Al-Hamamiyat area, about 16 km north of Baghdad (Iraqi News Agency, December 2, 2017).