Reviewing the Week – Compiled by Sasa Hezir (ISW)
Key Take-away: IRAQ:
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) with U.S. air support successfully repelled simultaneous attacks by ISIS and other militants on Ramadi and the Baiji Oil Refinery in western and northern Iraq. The U.S. provided this air support on the condition that Iranian-backed Shi’a militias not participate in the operations. The ISF is thereby increasing its freedom of action from Iranian proxies following the battle for Tikrit. ISIS is reconstituting itself however behind the ISF’s control line in Diyala and Salah ad-Din provinces, returning to locations which the ISF and Iranian-backed militias had previously cleared in late 2014. The militias will likely point to those recent upticks in ISIS activity as evidence that the ISF’s reliance on the U.S. has adverse consequences. Meanwhile, the National Guard law advanced to a second reading by the Council of Representatives, coming one step closer to a vote. Command and composition of the National Guard force are among the contentious issues that will likely generate much discussion. A particular point of concern will be the degree of command and control over Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, which will resist relinquishing command of their groups to the state.
Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and hardline Islamist rebel groups in Idlib launched an offensive to seize the regime-held town of Jisr al-Shughour in southwestern Idlib province. The offensive is coordinated through a newly established “Battle of Victory” operations room, a command and control model that JN also applied in order to integrate rebel forces into its successful late-March offensive to seize Idlib City. Jisr al-Shughour lies at the seam between Idlib and Latakia Provinces, and its fall would provide JN and rebels greater access to the Alawite stronghold in coastal Latakia. Jisr al-Shughour is a hardened military target, however, and it will likely be more difficult to penetrate than Idlib City. The outcome of the battle will indicate the relative strength of pro- and anti-Assad forces in the Idlib countryside after the regime’s withdrawal from its provincial capital to terrain on its outskirts. Meanwhile, reports indicate that the Syrian regime deployed reinforcements, likely regime-allied Arab Sunni tribal fighters, to support Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters in their operations against ISIS in northwestern Hasaka Province. This deployment signals deepening cooperation between the regime and the Kurds in northeastern Syria that may complicate the ability of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to continue coordinating with Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS.
See: “Syria Situation Report: April 14-21, 2015“; “ISIS in Syria Campaign Update: March 31, 2015”; “Control of Terrain in Syria: March 31, 2015”; “Assad Regime Loses Idlib to Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Offensive,” with JN Sanctuary Map by Jennifer Cafarella, March 31, 2015; Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria: An Islamic Emirate for al-Qaeda, by Jennifer Cafarella, December 18, 2014. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
ISIS’s supporters in the Far Abroad demonstrated coordination with ISIS’s central leadership and responsiveness to direction over the past week. ISIS released a video on April 20 of members of two Libyan governorates, Wilayats Fezzan and Barqa, executing 31 Ethiopian Christians, the latest in a series of ISIS strategic messages and actions about Christianity. Two days later, French authorities arrested a man accused of planning “imminent” attacks against churches in Paris, indicating efforts to respond to a central agenda. The man allegedly received instruction from a fighter in Syria, showing the linkages between skilled, forward deployed fighters and individuals plotting attacks in Europe. ISIS’s organization within Iraq and Syria also proved responsive to global events, as ISIS released a major publication promoting jihadism in Australia just after the arrest of five Australian teenagers who had planned to attack police officers in Melbourne’s Australian and New Zealand Army Corps Day parade. This activity suggests that ISIS continues to inspire violent plots in the Far Abroad. The arrest of six Somali-Americans attempting to join ISIS also shows that the organization enjoys support in the U.S. ISIS may receive greater support in the coming weeks by affiliates in Nigeria and Yemen, which both publicized activity this week, and by supporters in the Caucasus, where the recent death of Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus (IEC) leader Ali Abu Muhammad al-Dagestani may present opportunities for ISIS to exert greater influence in direct competition with al-Qaeda.
See: “ISIS Global INTSUM,” by Harleen Gambhir, February 19, 2015; “The Islamic State’s Global Ambitions,” by Harleen Gambhir and Jessica Lewis McFate, Wall Street Journal, February 23, 2015 (subscribers only). Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir here.