MESOP NEWS MIDDLE EAST INTEL SUMMARY BY MEIR AMIT INTELLIGENCE & TERRORISM INFORMATION CENTER – ISRAEL
Spotlight on Global Jihad (February 22-28, 2018) – Published: 01/03/2018
Main events of the week
- The focus of the fighting in Syria has been moved to the area of eastern Ghouta (east of Damascus), where the Syrian forces are attacking (with Russian air support) in order to remove the threat of the rebels from the Syrian capital. The fighting in eastern Ghouta continues even after the UN Security Council resolution on a general ceasefire throughout Syria and President Putin’s order of a daily “humanitarian pause.”
- The shift in the focus of the fighting to eastern Ghouta gave a timeout to the rebel organizations in the Idlib region, mainly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. The pause was utilized by the organization for making preparations on the ground for the (anticipated) Syrian attack on Idlib. At the same time, internal clashes continued between the rebel organizations in the Idlib region, weakening the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham.
- In various provinces in Iraq, the Iraqi security forces continue to exert pressure on local ISIS networks. This week, many ISIS operatives were killed and detained and weapons were seized. ISIS still finds it difficult to adequately respond to the Iraqi activity.
Russia and the United States
The arrival of two advanced fighter planes in Syria
- According to Russian media reports, two Su-57 fighter jets landed at Hmeymim base on February 12, 2018, along with four Su-35s and an A-50 early warning aircraft. Su-57 is a two-engine fighter aircraft with stealth capability, equipped with new generation advanced missile systems (Wikipedia; Zvezda TV website, August 11, 2017). A source at the Russian Ministry of Defense said that the aircraft arrived as part of a “mission to test the aircraft’s performance under real conditions” (RBK, February 22, 2018). Russian military sources said that the aircraft would not participate in the fighting in Syria (Sputnik, February 26, 2018).
Damage to a Russian site in eastern Ghouta
- According to a report by the Russian Center for Reconciliation, “armed groups” operating in the area of eastern Ghouta fired at residential areas and hotels in the suburbs of Damascus. On February 20, 2018, more than ten mortar shells were fired at the Russian Center for Reconciliation (Russian Defense Ministry website, February 20, 2018). According to a source close to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the attackers belonged to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the attack caused minor damage to the infrastructure of the Russian Center for Reconciliation (Kommersant, February 20, 2018). At present, it is not clear whether the Russian Center for Reconciliation was the target of the attack, or whether it was a case of collateral damage.
The United States
- Daniel R. Coats, US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), presented the US intelligence community’s Worldwide Threats Assessment. The document estimates that ISIS and Al-Qaeda will continue to pose a threat to the interests and partners of the US around the world. With regard to ISIS, the estimate is that in the coming year, the organization is expected to focus on reorganizing in Syria and Iraq while strengthening its global presence. ISIS’s claim that it has a functioning caliphate that controls a population is incorrect. However, the organization’s core is still operating in Iraq and Syria, as part of its long-term strategy of reestablishing the Caliphate. According to the document, it is likely that ISIS will continue to prioritize terrorist attacks abroad. This is because its leadership may believe that if ISIS attacks continue to dominate the public discourse, and if the organization’s narrative continues to be popular, it will be hard for the Coalition to present ISIS as a defeated organization (DNI website, Worldwide Threats Assessment, February 13, 2018).
Main developments in Syria
The fighting in Eastern Ghouta
Fighting in Syria focused this week on eastern Ghouta, where the Syrian forces (with Russian air support) carry out airstrikes and ground attacks in order to remove the rebel threat from Damascus. On February 24, 2018, the UN Security Council adopted a unanimous resolution calling for a 30-day general ceasefire throughout Syria. According to the resolution, all parties are required to allow the UN convoys safe, unimpeded and sustained access to all areas. The Security Council also called on all parties to lift the siege from populated areas such as eastern Ghouta, the Yarmouk Basin (controlled by ISIS, in the southern Golan Heights), Al-Fu’ah and Kafraya (two Shiite villages about seven km northeast of Idlib, besieged by the rebel organizations). President Putin ordered daily “humanitarian pauses” to allow for the evacuation of civilians suffering from severe difficulties.
- The UN Security Council resolution notes that the ceasefire does not apply to military operations against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other organizations described by the Security Council as “terrorist organizations” (the UN official website, February 25, 2018). Excluding these organizations from the ceasefire agreement gives legitimacy to the Syrian regime (and Russia, which supports it) to carry on with the military activity against the rebel organizations in eastern Ghouta.
The campaign to take over the Idlib area
- Shifting the main site of the fighting to Eastern Ghouta allowed the rebel organizations, mainly the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, a temporary lull in the Idlib area. The operatives used the temporary lull to prepare for defense against the Syrian forces. The preparations on the ground focused on the town of Saraqib, about 16 km southeast of Idlib. The town is situated on an important junction near the main Damascus-Hama-Aleppo highway. The rebel organizations blocked the roads leading to Idlib with embankments of sand and earth; placed snipers on areas dominating the routes, and reinforced the checkpoints on roads leading to Idlib (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, February 26, 2018). On the other hand, the Syrian forces, which finished mopping up most of the area east of the Hama-Aleppo road, halted their advance toward Aleppo for the time being and shifted their attention to the fighting in eastern Ghouta.
- In the meantime, internal confrontations between the rebel organizations in the Idlib area continue. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, which is the dominant organization in this area, moved armored vehicles and heavy weapons from Idlib to fight against the “Front for the Liberation of Syria” (a rebel organization which was established recently by merging the Ahrar Al-Sham and Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki organizations). The trigger for this move was the Ahrar Al-Sham organization’s takeover of a hangar belonging to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham near the Turkish border, about 35 km north of Idlib (Furat Post Facebook page, February 27, 2018).
Yarmouk refugee camp area
- According to a Syrian opposition news website, ISIS recently sent a number of operatives to the area south of Damascus. The arrival of these operatives had an effect on the confrontations between ISIS and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. One of the new arrivals is called Abu Ahmad al-Iraqi, the new official in charge of ISIS’s Sharia office in southern Damascus. At the same time, ISIS operatives south of Damascus received large sums of money, allowing the organization to pay salaries, which were recently denied from its operatives (revospring.com, February 21, 2018).
- A Lebanese news website and Syrian media outlets reported that an agreement had been reached between the Syrian regime and operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham on the operative’s evacuation from the Yarmouk refugee camp. According to the agreement, operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham will be evacuated to northern Syria (probably to the Idlib area). In return, dozens of wounded people (according to another version, 160 wounded and sick people) will be evacuated from the besieged Shiite villages of Kafraya and Al-Fu’ah (about 7 km northeast of Idlib). The Red Crescent will supervise the implementation of the agreement. Furthermore, according to the agreement, several operatives of the militias supporting the Syrian regime, who are currently detained by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, will be released. The sides are reportedly still discussing the manner of implementation of the agreement (Al-Modon, February 21, 2018); Khotwa; Al-Durar Al-Shamiya, February 25, 2018).
- The agreement was reportedly reached about a week after ISIS operatives had carried out a large-scale attack against positions of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the northwestern part of the Yarmouk refugee camp. Following this attack, the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham now control a limited territory in the northwestern part of the refugee camp, about 5%-15% of the camp (Al-Modon, February 21, 2018).
The Albukamal area
- In the area north of the city of Albukamal, clashes continued between ISIS operatives and the SDF forces. ISIS released several photos showing an armored vehicle attacking an SDF position on the outskirts of the village of Abu Al-Hassan, about 20 km north of Albukamal.
- Four ISIS operatives reportedly escaped from a detention facility of the SDF forces in northern Syria. According to the report, thousands of ISIS operatives, most of them Syrians, are being held in SDF detention camps. In addition, about 500 ISIS foreign fighters from forty different countries are also held there (Enab Baladi, February 24, 2018).
The Golan Heights
- On February 24, 2018, the Syrian Army’s Military Information released a video documenting the foiling of an attack by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham against Syrian army positions around Madinat Al-Baath (about 6 km northeast of Quneitra). The video shows anti-tank missiles being fired at an armored vehicle belonging to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (SANA’s YouTube channel, February 24, 2018).
- On February 25, 2018, there were clashes between the rebel organizations and the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army affiliated with ISIS, in various sites in the southern Golan Heights (Khotwa News Agency, February 25, 2018). The Rebel organizations, among other things, attacked a Khaled bin Al-Walid Army checkpoint around the village of Al-Ma. ISIS’s Amaq News Agency reported an attempt to attack a Khaled bin Al-Walid Army position near the village of Jamla, about 2 km east of the Syrian-Israeli border (Enab Baladi, February 26, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
Activity of the Iraqi security forces against ISIS networks throughout Iraq
- Iraqi security forces’ activity against local ISIS networks continued throughout Iraq. ISIS operatives were killed or detained, and many weapons were seized. ISIS still finds it difficult to adequately respond to the Iraqi activity. Following are highlights of the Iraqi security forces’ activity:
- The city of Mosul: Mohammad al-Biyati, chairman of the security committee in the Nineveh Province council, said that after an intelligence collection effort, eighty ISIS operatives and about 170 people suspected of being affiliated with ISIS had been detained in recent weeks. The detainees were interrogated in the Iraqi security centers, and most of them were tried (Iraqi News Agency, February 25, 2018).
- Tal Afar (northwest of Mosul): The Military Intelligence personnel in the Iraqi Army 15th Division located an ISIS cache of explosives, IEDs and equipment in the Tal Afar area (about 68 km west of Mosul). According to them, the cache contained 15 explosive belts, 12 IEDs, 9 RPG-7 anti-tank rockets, four detonators for explosive belts and IEDs, two hand grenades and one anti-tank missile. The weapons were destroyed by the Iraqi army (Al-Sumaria News, February 22, 2018).
- Diyala Province: Maj. Gen. Mazhar al-Azzawi, Diyala Province operations commander, reported that ISIS’s Diyala Province commander had been killed in an airstrike in the Halawiya area (about 110 km northeast of Baqubah). Al-Azzawi noted that ISIS had lost many of its commanders in airstrikes by the Iraqi Air Force. He said that this was accomplished thanks to pinpoint intelligence possessed by the Iraqi forces (Al-Sumaria News, February 23, 2018).
- Al-Qaim (Iraqi-Syrian border): The Military Intelligence Directorate announced that the Military Intelligence had located an ISIS depot of weapons and ammunition in the city of Al-Qaim. The weapons depot contained, among other things, 167 mortar shells, seven explosive belts, two anti-tank missile launchers, Grad rockets and a mortar (Al-Sumaria News, February 23, 2018).
- Al-Anbar Province (Hit): Two ISIS operatives wearing explosive belts barricaded themselves at a plaster factory in Hit. The four men, who were traced and killed by the Iraqi security forces based on intelligence, intended to carry out terrorist attacks in the area. (Iraqi News Agency, February 26, 2018).
- Baghdad: Dozens of women are being tried in Baghdad courts on charges of supporting ISIS. Fifteen Turkish women were reportedly sentenced to death for being affiliated with ISIS. Another woman was sentenced to life imprisonment (Iraqi News Agency, February 25, 2018). The women admitted that they had married ISIS operatives or provided logistical support to ISIS operatives, including assistance in carrying out attacks (Reuters, February 25, 2018).
ISIS activity in the Kirkuk Province
- On February 24, 2018, ISIS’s Kirkuk Province announced that it had carried out a suicide bombing attack against the headquarters of the Asaeb Ahl Al-Haqq Shiite movement. The attack was carried out by a suicide bomber codenamed Abu Muadh al-Iraqi, who blew himself up with an explosive vest. As a result, many people were killed and wounded (Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, February 25, 2018).
- On February 25, 2018, Iraqi media outlets released a video showing a suicide bomber with an explosive belt wearing a jacket with his hands in his pockets. He was shown approaching the building of the Shiite militia and trying to enter it. The suicide bomber was seen escaping from the entrance when the security guards on the premises shot at him. Several minutes later, he blew himself up at the plaza near the entrance, without any casualties among those at the scene (Al-Sumaria News, February 25, 2018).
- On February 24, 2018, an ISIS force attacked the oil police station at the Khabbaz oil field, one of Kirkuk’s five oil fields. Two Iraqi policemen were killed, and a third was wounded (Ilaf; AFP, February 24, 2018).