MESOP TODAYS SITUATION REPORT WEST KURDISTAN / SYRIA (BY ISW) – Key Takeaways: ISIS Pushes to Reclaim Former Territory in Western Syria

9 April 2015 – MESOP – The ISIS push into the Yarmouk refugee camp signifies ISIS intent to reclaim areas of southern Damascus with a history of ISIS control. Unconfirmed reports that ISIS called for Palestinian fighters to turn themselves into JN may indicate that ISIS seeks to coerce JN into supporting ISIS in the capital, where their relationship has been characterized by coexistence and de-confliction rather than hostility. ISIS may also seek to leverage apparent seams in the relationship between JN forces in the eastern and southern outskirts of the capital to fragment JN’s overall level of influence, possibly to allow ISIS to attract groups of fighters away from JN. Meanwhile, the dual ISIS SVBIED attack against JN and rebel front line positions north of Aleppo City likely indicates the start of an ISIS offensive to seize the border town of Azaz, also with a history of ISIS control. The attack follows a recent increase in ISIS messaging condemning the Aleppo-based Jabhat Shamiya coalition and the increasing partnership between rebels and the YPG in the province. ISIS may therefore be designating a main effort against Aleppo-based rebels supportive of the YPG in order to preempt joint rebel and YPG forces from attacking ISIS territory northeast of Aleppo City.

JN Tailors Behavior to Local Dynamics:

The distinct character of JN’s behavior in Damascus and Idlib indicates JN’s ability to adapt to its local environment in order tailor the pursuit of its interests to the realities of local dynamics. In Damascus, JN’s nuanced role navigating the ISIS advance into Yarmouk reflects careful JN calculation regarding its own position within rebel ranks in the southern outskirts of the capital. Rather than joining a rebel counteroffensive against ISIS, JN leveraged its own position in Yarmouk to prevent an expansion of influence by a rebel group that has resisted JN presence in the area. This effectively allowed ISIS to seize the camp, yet provided JN leverage over Islamist rebels that may allow JN to acquire influence over rebel activities in southern Damascus. In Idlib city, JN’s decision to try JN members for the mistreatment of Christians indicates JN’s strict adherence to behavioral requirements established by rebel members of the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room, which has prioritized the protection of civilians and minorities in the “liberated” provincial capital. JN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani highlighted JN’s commitment to continued partnership in Idlib in a speech on April 1 commemorating the JN and rebel victory the city. Joulani furthermore highlighted JN’s commitment to reestablishing functional services in the city, positioning JN as a benefactor of Idlib civilians in accordance with the framework for governance established by the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room. Yet Joulani also indicated JN intent to establish a joint Shari’a court to oversee the implementation of governance in the city, which JN is likely to heavily influence. These two instances demonstrate that JN carefully scales its strategy for achieving influence over rebel behavior according to the local dynamics within which JN operates.

Syrian Regime Continues Brutality despite Moscow Negotiations:

Assad continues to capitalize on opportunities to utilize brutality to force the submission of rebels and rebel-supportive populations despite the ongoing Moscow II negotiations, which focus in part on humanitarian issues. The regime launched a considerable aerial bombardment of the Yarmouk camp after the ISIS advance, including the use of indiscriminate barrel bombs against the civilian population. Assad has also launched heavy bombardments against Idlib City and the Nasib border crossing, resulting in dozens of civilian deaths. The regime furthermore continues to use jihadist presence in liberated areas to put forth the narrative that all armed opposition groups are actually radical Islamist terrorists and to justify the wholesale punishment of civilians in these areas. The Syrian Foreign Ministry declared that all “armed opposition” groups in Syria are terrorists in an open letter sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the president of the U.N. Security Council on April 6. These trends indicate continued belligerence on the part of the Assad regime despite its declared willing to engage in negotiations for peace, and highlight Assad’s duplicitous strategy to foment radicalization in order to justify his continued brutality.