Key Take-away: U.S. interests in the Middle East were further challenged this week by an aggressive ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria. ISIS launched its most broad-based ground attacks in Iraq and Syria since the summer of 2014 and continues in its goal to govern territory there. Despite recent successful attacks against multiple senior ISIS leaders this week, including a U.S. Special Forces raid in Eastern Syria, ISIS demonstrated its resilience by pursuing a sophisticated strategy in Iraq to divert the Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias across the country. The threat to Iraq is pronounced, as cities such as Ramadi are at risk of falling to ISIS unless conditions on the ground change. In Iraq, ISIS has stated its intent to eventually use the besieged Baiji Oil Refinery to produce oil, an indication that it still wants to govern key territory. In Syria, military momentum has for now shifted against the Assad regime as it faces multiple opponents in the western, central, and eastern parts of the country. The regime’s opponents are confident that the regime is weakening and have refused to participate in the international Geneva III negotiation for a political solution in Syria.
IRAQ: ISIS conducted a series of attacks in Iraq that show its continued capacity to design sophisticated military operations. ISIS aims to remain in Iraq and Syria, its stated strategic objective, by diverting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias from their planned counteroffensive and dividing those forces up among multiple areas of Iraq such that they no longer can set the terms of battle. The ISF is likely off its ambitious campaign plan, such that it will probably not attempt to clear Mosul this summer. ISIS’s main attack on Ramadi on May 15 followed other tactical offensives in recent weeks that were likely planned preparatory phases for the assault in Anbar rather than isolated attacks. First, ISIS launched attacks on the Baiji Oil Refinery in northern Iraq, diverting ISF attention from Anbar. Second, though perhaps a serendipitous event, ISIS elements from eastern Iraq broke free from a prison in Diyala Province northeast of Baghdad, likely drawing further attention away from Anbar. Third, ISIS conducted attacks against pilgrims en route to the Shi’a shrine in Kadhimiya, Baghdad, and possibly propagated the rumors that provoked Shi’a attacks on a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. As a result, the ISF reinforced its concentration on Shi’a shrines during a Shi’a religious holiday. ISIS launched its May 15th attack on Ramadi after thus causing the Iraqi Security Forces and Shi’a militias to splay themselves in different geographical areas. ISIS further set conditions for success in Anbar by attacking north of Baghdad during the assault on Ramadi to fix ISF and militia forces there. ISIS also attacked Jubba village near al-Asad airbase, fixing ISF forces that would likely deploy from the base to reinforce Ramadi. Finally, ISIS also reportedly took advantage of inclement weather in Ramadi, mitigating the risk of airstrikes. As a result, the ISF was caught off guard in Ramadi and delayed in their reinforcement. ISIS has several times since January 30, 2015 paired attacks in northern Iraq near Baiji with attacks on Ramadi, demonstrating that ISIS can launch offensives on both fronts simultaneously, while the ISF may not possess the same capability. The ISF is currently at risk to lose either Ramadi or Baiji if it cannot repel ISIS’s attacks on both fronts, a situation which Shi’a militias along with ISIS are likely to exploit to undermine the ISF. The reported presence of senior militia figures, such as Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Ameri, together with the ISF Ground Forces Commander in Baiji District may indicate that militias have again begun cooperating with the ISF in the anti-ISIS fight.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is taking an increasingly conciliatory approach to oil deal discussions with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), evidenced by this week’s visit of Oil Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to Arbil.
See: “‘ISIS IS A STATE-BREAKER’ – Here’s the Islamic State’s strategy for the rest of 2015,” Jessica Lewis McFate on Business Insider, May 15, 2015; “Iraq Situation Report: 14-15, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: May 12-13, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: May 9-11, 2015“; “Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 1, 2015“; “Iraq’s Prime Minister Comes under Attack by Political Rivals,” by Sinan Adnan.” Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analyst Sinan Adnan or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.
Major elements of both the political and armed opposition have refused to participate in the ongoing Geneva III international negotiations. The potential for successful UN consultations at Geneva will also likely be handicapped by the revelation that UN investigators discovered traces of chemical nerve agents in a Syrian military installation on May 8 and by growing perceptions of the regime’s weakness on the battlefield. The regime is indeed under military pressure by different opponents in multiple areas of the country, including Idlib in the West, Palmyra in the center, and Deir ez-Zour in the East. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and allied rebels have continued their advance in Idlib Province following the seizures of Idlib City on March 28 and Jisr al-Shughour on April 25, the events that precipitated the change in military momentum against the regime. JN and rebels seized the town of Musaybin southeast of Idlib City on May 13, positioning combined anti-regime forces for a full assault on the regime’s final Idlib stronghold of Ariha. Meanwhile, ISIS launched major simultaneous offensives against several regime positions in central Syria on May 13 in a notable shift away from ISIS’s previous hit-and-run-style attacks in the region. ISIS rapidly seized the town of al-Sukhna along the regime’s supply line to Deir ez-Zour, the easternmost major city on the Euphrates, and penetrated the outer fortifications of Palmyra, a strategic regime bastion in the central Syrian desert. These gains support ISIS’s effort to isolate and seize the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport, a key regime forward position in eastern Syria which has been the target of ISIS offensives since September 2014. This military base is important to President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy for Syria, namely, keeping “an army in all corners” of the country in order to maintain his claim to all of Syria in a negotiated settlement. ISIS could, if it sustains operations in Palmyra, also contest the strategic Palmyra Military Airbase which has been a vital hub of Iranian-backed military support and to which reinforcements have been sent. Meanwhile, the JN-led combined headquarters in the Qalamoun region on the Lebanese border, in which numerous rebel groups are coordinating, declared its intent to fight ISIS in the border area following a series of ISIS provocations there. The operation, should it transpire, is a major inflection as JN and ISIS had previously had a cooperative relationship in Qalamoun. The area is under pressure because of an ongoing Hezbollah offensive to clear terrain along the Lebanese border.
See: “New ISIS Offensives in the Syrian Civil War,” by Christopher Kozak, May 14, 2015; “Syria Situation Report: May 5-12, 2015“; “Warning Intelligence Update: Possible Upheaval in the Syrian Capital” by Jennifer Cafarella, May 4, 2015; “An Army in All Corners:” Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria, by Christopher Kozak, April 30, 2015; “Control of Terrain in Syria: April 30, 2015“; “Second Idlib Stronghold Falls to Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Forces“by Jennifer Cafarella, April 26, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
U.S Delta Forces conducted an unusual raid into Eastern Syria in a successful effort to target a senior financier involved in ISIS’s lucrative oil and human trafficking operations. Disrupting ISIS’s finances is an important line of effort for the United States and the international coalition to counter ISIS. ISIS is a resilient organization that does not depend on single leaders for its success, however. ISIS continues to operate in its Interior Ring in Iraq and Syria, its Near Abroad Ring in the Middle East and North Africa, and its Far Abroad Ring in the wider world. ISIS is on the defensive strategically inside of Iraq and Syria, but it remains capable of launching highly coordinated and well-designed operational and tactical offensives. This week ISIS initiated aggressive operations to consolidate control in its core terrain, specifically attempting to seize Ramadi, the Baiji Oil Refinery, and the Deir ez-Zour military airport. ISIS remains intent on maintaining a viable caliphate in its Interior Ring, as indicated by its stated desire to produce oil at the Baiji Oil Refinery. ISIS is also pursuing increased strength by affiliating with existing groups in the Near Abroad, though it experienced a minor setback in Libya as militant and civilian groups in Derna and Benghazi criticized ISIS’s forces for their brutality. ISIS also claimed an attack conducted by Jundullah, a group of Baloch militants who previously operated under the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan umbrella and proclaimed support for ISIS in late 2014. Jundullah attacked a bus of Ismaili Shi’a civilians in Karachi, Pakistan on May 13. Along with recent pledges from elements of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), this development suggests that ISIS’s Wilayat Khorasan (its governorate in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is likely seeking to gain support from militant groups formed from ethnic minorities in the region. Meanwhile, supporters of ISIS continue to attempt attacks in the Far Abroad, as demonstrated by the failed explosive attack attempt by an Australian teenager in Melbourne on May 11. ISIS also continues to attract supporters in the United States, as shown by the May 14 arrest of a Texas resident who reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS and fought with the Free Syrian Army in Syria after working for the U.S. Army in Iraq. ISIS may attempt to capitalize on these arrests and on the death sentence given to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev as an opportunity to publicize its perceived ideological resonance in the Far Abroad.
See: “‘ISIS IS A STATE-BREAKER’ – Here’s the Islamic State’s strategy for the rest of 2015,” Jessica Lewis McFate on Business Insider, May 15, 2015;”ISIS Global INTSUM,” by Harleen Gambhir, May 7, 2015, covering March 1 – May 7, 2015; “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 or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.