ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: March 21-27, 2015 – Reviewing the Week – Compiled by Sasa Hezir / ISW
Key Take-away: Concerns about rising Iranian influence in the Middle East prompted military responses by various Arab countries. In Yemen, Egypt participated in a Saudi-led coalition that launched Operation Decisive Storm, a possible precursor to a joint Arab military force that Arab heads of state will discuss at their summit from March 28-29. In Iraq, U.S.-led coalition aerial support at the request of the Iraqi government could have doubly positive effects of helping to clear ISIS from Tikrit and of providing a counterweight to Iranian influence in the country. The success of the ongoing anti-ISIS operation in Tikrit is by no means guaranteed, however, and ISIS continues robust operations in its Near Abroad ring. In Syria, al-Qaeda-aligned rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra in concert with other rebel groups made gains against the Assad regime in both the north and south of the country, seizing the provincial capital of Idlib on March 27. The fall of Idlib challenges not only the Syrian regime’s goal of maintaining outposts in every corner of Syria, but also the U.S.’s train-and-equip program in northern Syria.
The U.S. slowed its drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and pledged significant funding as Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah concluded a week of visits in the country. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government’s maneuvers to control domestic affairs risk upsetting the delicate political balance there and exposing cracks for Russia to exploit.
IRAQ: The U.S.-led coalition began providing aerial support, including airstrikes and reconnaissance, to the anti-ISIS campaign in Tikrit this week in response to an Iraqi government request, a move to cement Iraq’s sovereignty by balancing against Iranian influence in the country. U.S. CENTCOM Commander General Lloyd Austin maintained that the coalition would not cooperate with Shi’a militias. Tension between the Iranian-backed Shi’a militias and the Iraqi government is growing. Some groups falsely alleged that the U.S.-led coalition was in fact targeting the militias. Other groups, including Badr Organization, insulted Iraqi Army personnel requesting U.S. involvement by calling them “weaklings.” The militias are reacting defensively because they stand to lose influence if their claim to be the most powerful anti-ISIS allies for Iraq is proven false because U.S. airstrikes and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) support were required for success. The Iranian-backed militias will gain prestige, however, if the Iraqi Security Forces fail to clear Tikrit with U.S. support from the air, especially if the Shi’a militias temporarily withdraw from the battle. As of March 27, ground attacks against ISIS in Tikrit ensued from multiple axes, but the battle is not yet won. Tikrit therefore remains the current main effort for the fight against ISIS as well as the battle for Iraq’s security.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: March 26-27, 2015”;“Iraq Situation Report: March 24-25, 2015”; “Iraq Situation Report: March 21-23, 2015.” Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analyst Sinan Adnan here.
The regime-held city of Idlib fell to a major rebel offensive spearheaded by al-Qaeda affiliated Salafi-jihadist factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Ahrar al-Sham, and Jund al-Aqsa. This military loss challenges the regime’s prestige and military power in northern Syria. The fall of a second provincial capital to JN and allied groups underscores the dominant position currently held by hardline Islamist forces in Idlib Province, a former bastion of the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA). The success of this operation may result from the consolidation and centralization of Islamist rebel coalitions, enhanced by a merger between two prominent Islamist factions on March 22. These developments are likely to make northern Syria a hostile environment for moderate opposition fighters participating in the U.S.-led train-and-equip program, which is experiencing delays. Meanwhile, JN and other Islamist factions cooperated with the FSA-affiliated Southern Front in Dera’a Province in operations that pushed the frontlines east toward Suwayda Province, traditionally a regime stronghold. This advance may prompt a pro-regime mobilization among the Druze of Suwayda. Meanwhile, ISIS continued its westward shift to central Syria with attacks against regime positions along key supply routes leading to Aleppo city and Deir ez-Zour, potentially creating indirect opportunities for rebel forces in the Syrian central corridor and Idlib by forcing the regime to reprioritize resources and efforts in eastern Homs and Hama Provinces.
See:“Syria Situation Report: March 17-24, 2015”; “Syrian Jihadists Signal Intent for Lebanon,”by Jennifer Cafarella, March 6, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.
ISIS:ISIS continues robust operations in its Near Abroad ring, especially in North Africa, despite pressure from Iranian- and coalition-backed forces in Iraq. Over the past two weeks, ISIS has accelerated its Near Abroad campaign to gain traction in conflict zones while simultaneously provoking disorder in stable countries. ISIS possibly conducted a joint SVBIED operation with the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries (SCBR), indicating a growing relationship and possible transfer of military expertise between ISIS and a strong actor on a Libyan frontline. ISIS also claimed attacks in Lihaj, Yemen, which local media attributed to Ansar al-Sharia militants, demonstrating that ISIS may be gaining the support of small jihadist