ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: May 16 – 25, 2015 – Compiled by Christopher Kozak
This report is derived from open sources collected and processed at ISW during the reporting period. The report includes analysis on Iraq, Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Updates on Egypt will resume in the coming weeks.
Key Take-away: The U.S. anti-ISIS strategy suffered a series of severe setbacks this week after ISIS gained control of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in Iraq, and the ancient crossroads city of Palmyra in central Syria. ISIS also conducted spectacular attacks in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, prompting calls for expanded U.S. involvement against ISIS in the region. However, officials in the Obama Administration messaged that no changes in the broader anti-ISIS strategy are planned. The perception of a lack of decisive U.S. support likely prompted Iraqi PM Haidar al-Abadi to seek other avenues of assistance against ISIS and travel to Moscow despite the Ukrainian government’s efforts to highlight mounting Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine in the lead up to the EU Eastern Partnership summit. Similarly, the government of Afghanistan concluded an intelligence-sharing agreement with Pakistan likely directed against the Taliban, ISIS, and other extremists in the border region despite fears that close cooperation with Pakistan could compromise Afghan security. Meanwhile, the Iranian government has yet to reveal whether how it will prioritize its support for its allies in both Syria and Iraq amidst recent setbacks. Senior Iranian officials signed several investment deals to bolster the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Iranian-backed proxies in Iraq expanded their footprints into Anbar Province under likely Iranian direction. The fall of Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq will likely prompt further Iranian military intervention in both countries, including additional deployments of Iranian proxy forces, including Hezbollah, and the provision of unique technical skills such as rockets or improvised explosives. Iran may seek to exploit U.S. reluctance to deepen regional engagement against ISIS in order to bolster its own position as an alternative to the West.
ISIS seized Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province and the birthplace of the Sunni tribal Awakening, on May 17 in a major setback to the Iraqi government. ISIS also captured the al-Tanf/al-Waleed border crossing between Iraq and Syria in remote Anbar on May 22-24th in a move which potentially opens the door for westward expansion by ISIS toward Damascus along that road. The fall of Ramadi, the longstanding symbol of ISF and Sunni tribal resistance to ISIS, highlighted the limits of the U.S. anti-ISIS strategy and prompted further calls for direct U.S. support to train and equip anti-ISIS Sunni fighters. The massive displacement of Sunnis from Anbar Province, however, will compromise future opportunities to mobilize against ISIS. The Obama Administration has messaged that the fall of Ramadi will not change the broader anti-ISIS strategy, with Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stating on CNN, “If there comes a time when we need to change the kinds of support we’re giving to the Iraqi forces, we’ll make that recommendation. But what happened in Ramadi was a failure of the Iraqi forces to fight.” Meanwhile, thousands of largely-Shi’a Popular Mobilization (PM) fighters, including Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, began arriving at the Habaniya military base east of Ramadi in preparation for a potential counteroffensive. As of May 25, these forces are reportedly launching counterattacks against ISIS east of Ramadi. These mobilizations underscore a shift in Iraqi government policy to favor Iranian support over U.S. support for the time being, reversing the apparent trend established following U.S.-supported gains at Tikrit last month. Iraqi security forces in northern and western Iraq are moving in favor of Iranian leadership, and Iran and Iraq signed another defense agreement on May 19 pledging mutual support. Additionally, Iran is reportedly providing artillery support to PM and Shi’a militia fighters in Baiji in another indicator of the escalation in Iranian posture in Iraq.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: May 23-25, 2015; Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 25, 2015“; “Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 22, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: May 21-22, 2015“; “The Fall of Ramadi Was Avoidable,” by Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan inThe Washington Post, May 18, 2015; “Iraq Situation Report: May 19-20, 2015“; “Iraq Situation Report: May 16-18, 2015“; “Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 18, 2015“; “ISIS Captures Ramadi,” by Patrick Martin, Genevieve Casagrande, Jessica Lewis McFate, and the ISW Iraq and Syria Teams. Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analysts Sinan Adnan and Theodore Bell or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.
ISIS seized the strategic city of Palmyra in central Syria on May 20, reinforcing recent indications of the Assad regime’s declining combat strength and demonstrating ISIS’s enduring capability to launch major offensive operations in the country despite U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. The fall of Palmyra will likely allow ISIS to consolidate control over the contested city of Deir ez-Zour and its adjacent military airbase, and to project force westward toward core regime-held terrain in Homs and Hama. In response, the regime has reportedly engaged in an intense barrel bombing campaign in Deir ez-Zour while mobilizing resources in the vicinity of Hama to either defend its core terrain or launch a counteroffensive against Palmyra. The regime’s inability to defend key infrastructure in eastern Homs Province, including Palmyra and numerous natural gas facilities supplying energy to large portions of regime-held western Syria, likely reflects the strain placed on regime forces in northern Syria following a strong of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)-led rebel victories in Idlib Province, which have set the conditions for an upcoming assault on the stronghold of Ariha south of Idlib City. These losses suggest that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly unable to generate sufficient combat power to maintain the far-flung outposts which form the backbone of his ‘army in all corners’ strategy. Anti-Assad forces are likely to capitalize on the regime’s inability to respond on multiple fronts to launch further escalations, particularly in Aleppo and Dera’a Provinces. However, Iran is providing support to the regime to help bolster its ability to sustain the fight. Prior to the loss at Palmyra, a top aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met separately with both President Assad and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on May 18-19 in an apparent signal of continued Iranian support to the regime despite prior losses on the battlefield. Nasrallah later stated in a speech on May 24 that ISIS is an unprecedented threat and warned that Hezbollah will fight wherever necessary throughout Syria, indicating that Hezbollah will likely increase its support to the Assad regime. Iran still faces a key decision point on how to increase its own direct military support to the Assad regime amidst ISIS and opposition advances.
See: “Control of Terrain in Syria: May 22, 2015“; “Control of Terrain in Syria: May 20, 2015“; “Syria Situation Report: May 14-20, 2015“; “New ISIS Offensives in the Syrian Civil War,” by Christopher Kozak, May 14, 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. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
ISIS’s near-simultaneous seizure of Ramadi and Palmyra indicates that it can still plan and execute multi-front maneuver campaigns to consolidate control and expand its territory. ISIS’s concurrent spectacular attacks in Saudi Arabia and Yemen further demonstrate that ISIS is scaling its strategy to hit many places at once in order to prevent its potential enemies from massing on any one front. ISIS’s strategy to attack three different adversaries concurrently as represented by Ramadi, Palmyra, and Saudi Arabia appears to be an evolution from its strategy to divide the Iraqi Security Forces between Ramadi and Baiji over recent weeks. ISIS’s selection of Shi’a targets inside Saudi Arabia and Yemen will likely feed the existing sectarian conflict across the Middle East region, diverting strategic attention away from ISIS. In particular, ISIS’s operations inside Saudi Arabia force the kingdom to protect its Shi’a populations as an internal security effort even as Saudi Arabia leads a coalition working to counter Iranian influence in Yemen. ISIS’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula will likely continue to stoke sectarian tensions in both Saudi Arabia and Yemen in order to generate further disorder at a regional scale, thereby weakening the strongest states in the region. Elsewhere in the Near Abroad, a prominent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) associate pledged allegiance to ISIS in Algeria and claimed to hold a Romanian hostage, reinforcing the competition between al-Qaeda and ISIS for leadership of the global jihadist movement. ISIS also continued to collect support from militant groups in the Far Abroad with the latest pledge of allegiance from a new militant formation in the Philippines called Ma’rakat al-Ansar.
See: “The ISIS Regional Strategy for Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” by Harleen Gambhir, May 22, 2015; “ISIS Sanctuary Map: May 22, 2015“; “ISIS Sanctuary Map: May 20, 2015“; The ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy, by Jessica Lewis McFate, May 15, 2015; “‘ISIS IS A STATE-BREAKER’ – Here’s the Islamic State’s strategy for the rest of 2015,” Jessica Lewis McFate onBusiness 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. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.