This report is derived from open sources collected & processed at ISW during the reporting period. Including analysis on Iraq, Syria, ISIS.
KeyTake-away: ISIS’s spectacular attacks in Yemen and Tunisia challenged the scope of the U.S. mission to defeat the group, which is constrained to Iraq and Syria. The attacks demonstrated that ISIS can penetrate areas presumed to be impermissible. ISIS is likely trying to offset perceptions of their decline in Iraq by conducting attacks elsewhere in the region, a strategy that it has pursued since November 2014. ISIS is also expanding westward in Syria, conducting new attacks against the Assad regime. These events occurred while the operation to clear ISIS from Tikrit paused, possibly indicating that the Iraqi Security Forces, with Shi’a militias and Iranian backing, may lack the means to clear ISIS fully without reinforcements or U.S. aerial support. Iran, however, may increase its force commitment as well as its indirect fire capabilities, thereby raising the threat of future sectarian fallout to anti-ISIS operations.
IRAQ: Prime Minister Abadi denied on March 18 that the Iraqi government is being influenced by any external pressure and said that Tikrit is close to being cleared of ISIS. The operation to re-take Tikrit paused, however, suggesting that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Iranian-advised and funded Iraqi Shi’a militias, and Sunni tribal militias participating in the operation did not have the means to clear the entire city. Shelling on Tikrit began on March 19, potentially supporting further clearing operations, but also indicating that clearing ISIS will likely involve severe damage to Iraq’s larger cities. Iraqi government figures appeared divided over whether to involve the U.S. in the operation. Iraqi military officials, including the commander of the Salah ad-Din Operations Command, publicly called for coalition airstrikes to support the Tikrit operation; he said that the Ministry of Defense denied his request for political reasons. If this operation succeeds, Iranian-backed forces may try to conduct further operations in Kirkuk, Ninewa, and Anbar provinces, thereby expanding Iran’s role and increasing the risk of sectarian consequences.
SYRIA: The Syrian regime shot down a U.S. drone over Bashar al Assad’s home province of Latakia on March 17, potentially renewing concerns about air superiority over Syrian airspace. Both the Assad regime and the U.S. minimized the issue in order to maintain the status quo, however. ISIS launched attacks against the regime in central Syria, indicators of ISIS’s westward expansion toward Syria’s central corridor and its potential aspiration to shift its future relationship with Syrian rebel groups toward greater cooperation. However, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and rebel groups in eastern Qalamoun launched an attack against an ISIS-affiliated rebel brigade on March 15, suggesting that these rebel groups still view a build-up of ISIS forces between Homs and eastern Qalamoun as a threat. Meanwhile, JN and rebel groups in Damascus and Aleppo both reportedly began to establish new mergers and round-up ISIS sleeper cells out of renewed concern for ISIS penetration in these cities. The Assad Regime allegedly used chemical weapons in Idlib on March 17. JN, Ahrar al-Sham, and other rebel groups in northern Syria increased their shelling of Idlib city on March 20 and appear to be mobilizing, possibly with the intent to challenge the regime’s control of the city. Meanwhile, the Assad regime appears to have received new material support from Iran, based upon activist reporting of the delivery of Su-22 jets to Syria. Reports also indicated Hezbollah reinforcements are increasing in preparation for clearing operations in the Bekaa Valley directed against Syrian rebels, JN, and ISIS.
ISIS: ISIS accelerated its activities in the Near Abroad, launching spectacular attacks and broadcasting propaganda from several new locations. Most notably, ISIS claimed credit for five suicide bombings targeting al Houthis in Zaydi mosques in Sana’a and Sa’ada, Yemen on March 20, as well as an attack by suicide gunmen at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia on March 18. Tunisian security forces also arrested members of an ISIS cell that reportedly planned to detonate vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in multiple locations across the country. Meanwhile,ISIS forces in Libya have increasingly clashed with Libya Dawn forces along the central coast, while ISIS-affiliated Wilayats Khorasan (Afghanistan/Pakistan) and al-Jaza’ir (Algeria) released media messages, rounding out a set of events that may be part of a coordinated ISIS initiative in the Near Abroad intended to compensate for ISIS’s recent losses in Tikrit, Iraq. ISIS’s entrée into Tunisia and Yemen indicate the organization’s willingness to deploy resources even to areas with relative stability or strong competing jihadist groups. Attacks in these two countries indicate that ISIS will likely focus on high casualty, soft target attacks in nations where ISIS faces greater barriers to establishing a foothold. Outside of the region, an ISIS video featuring Southeast Asian children within ISIS’s caliphate raised concerns about the group’s continued ability to attract supporters from the Far East, a worry seemingly justified by the detainment of three Indonesian families who had attempted to cross from Turkey to Syria.
See: “ISIS in Yemen: Fueling the Sectarian Fire,” by Alexis Knutsen of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, March 20, 2015; “Desknote: ISIS Signals Tunisian Presence with Bardo Museum Attack,”by Jared Ferris of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, March 20, 2015; “ISIS Global INTSUM,”by Harleen Gambhir, February 18, 2015