Main events of the week
- The decisive battle being waged by the SDF forces in the village of Al-Baghouz continued this week. There was another lull in the fighting to enable thousands of civilians who remained in the village (including families of ISIS operatives) to escape. On March 10, 2019, fighting resumed with Coalition air support. The SDF spokesman said that the battle was “about to be decided.” ISIS media outlets have already begun to prepare the ground for the expected downfall of Al-Baghouz (the main message: the loss in battle does not indicate a loss in the campaign, and it’s too early to declare ISIS’s defeat).
- Following are additional incidents in the various Syrian arenas:
- Idlib: Incidents continue between the Syrian army and the jihadi organizations. This week, they were concentrated mainly in the southern part of the area. The defense ministers of Russia and Turkey reported that Russian and Turkish soldiers had begun to patrol in the demilitarized zone and on its outskirts (as was decided at the Sochi summit).
- Al-Sukhnah: The clashes continued between the Syrian Army and ISIS operatives in the desert area near the village of Al-Sukhnah. After the expected fall of ISIS’s stronghold on the east bank of the Euphrates River, the desert area between Al-Sukhnah and the Euphrates River will remain ISIS’s main power base in Syria.
- Manbij: An ISIS suicide bomber blew himself up near American vehicles traveling on the main road between Manbij and Al-Bab. According to a US media report, four American soldiers were killed (according to ISIS, three American soldiers were killed).
- While ISIS is about to lose its significant stronghold in Syria, ISIS’s provinces abroad continue to carry out attacks and conduct fierce fighting against the local armies and regimes. This week, there was a wave of attacks in Afghanistan, including two suicide bombing attacks carried out by ISIS’s Khorasan Province. Dozens of security personnel and civilians were killed in these attacks. In the Philippines, ISIS operatives are waging fierce battles against the Philippine army on the island of Mindanao in the southern part of the country (ISIS claimed that its operatives had killed 10 Filipino soldiers and wounded 10 others).
The Idlib area
Incidents continue between the Syrian army and the jihadi rebel organizations
- This week as well, incidents continued between the Syrian army and the jihadi rebel organizations, focusing on the southern Idlib area.
- This week, the Syrian army continued to fire artillery at rebel organization targets in the southern part of the Idlib area (Shabakat al-Sham, March 9, 2019). Hezbollah also took part in the exchanges of artillery fire on the night of March 4-5, 2019, between the Syrian army and the rebel organizations. Hezbollah operatives attacked the rebel organizations from positions west of Hama (Al-Modon, March 6, 2019). On March 9 and March 10, 2019, the Syrian army fired artillery at the southern part of the Idlib enclave and the Al-Ghab Plain. At least 20 “militants” were reportedly killed in the exchanges of fire (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, March 9, 2019; SANA, March 10, 2019). On March 11, 2019, the Syrian army attacked targets of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham southeast of Idlib (SANA, March 11, 2019).
- On March 6, 2019, the Islamic Turkestan Party (the Uyghurs) attacked positions of the Syrian army (Telegram, March 6, 2019); The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fired rockets at the rural area south of Aleppo (March 7, 2019); The rebel organizations fired mortar shells at the town of Mahrada and several villages north of Hama (SANA, March 9, 2019). On March 9, 2019, the Syrian army thwarted a rebel attack about 65 km southeast of Aleppo. Most of the attackers were killed (SANA, March 9, 2019). Nine Syrian army soldiers were killed (Baladi News, March 9, 2019). The “Awaken the Believers” operations room (affiliated with Al-Qaeda) and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fired artillery at Syrian army forces in the areas of Khan Touman, the Aleppo rural area, and west of Hama (Telegram, Ibaa, March 10, 2019).
- According to Russian media reports, on March 9, 2019, Russian planes carried out focused airstrikes against targets of “militants” near the village of Jisr al-Shughur, southwest of Idlib. The airstrikes were carried out in response to violations of the ceasefire on the part of the jihadi organizations. Russian officials reportedly announced in advance their intention to provide the Syrian army forces (operating in the Idlib area) with “air cover.” There was no official report of the airstrikes from the Russian Defense Ministry (Kommersant, Russia, March 1, 2019). The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham announced that Russian planes had attacked the rural areas of Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur (Shabakat Ibaa, March 9, 2019).
Turkish and Russian patrols in the demilitarized zone around the Idlib enclave
- The Russian and Turkish defense ministers announced that on March 9, 2019, mounted patrols of Russian and Turkish soldiers had started to patrol the Idlib area. Russia is supposed to patrol along the border of the Idlib area (in an area controlled by the Syrian army), while the Turkish army is supposed to patrol inside the demilitarized zone. The establishment of the demilitarized zone was agreed upon during the Sochi summit on September 17, 2018. However, in practice, so far it has still not been implemented. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the patrols were intended to separate between opposition groups (i.e., Turkish-affiliated rebel organizations) and the terrorist organizations (i.e., the jihadi organizations) (TASS, March 6, 2019; Anadolu News Agency, March 8, 2019).
The battle in the village of Al-Baghouz (updated to March 13, 2019)
- The battle in the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani, which started on March 1, 2019, is still ongoing. According to the SDF, the end of the campaign was delayed due to the fact that civilians are still coming out of the “pocket” where ISIS operatives are being surrounded (SDF Press, March 7, 2019; Reuters, March 9, 2019). Many of the civilians in question are family members of ISIS operatives. In addition, ISIS operatives besieged in the “pocket” keep surrendering or attempting to flee. The SDF spokesman stated on the night of March 12, 2019, that during the preceding 24 hours, about 3,000 ISIS operatives and their family members had surrendered to the SDF forces (Twitter account of Mostafa Bali, March 12, 2019).
- On the evening of March 10, 2019, battles in Al-Baghouz resumed. There were heavy exchanges of fire between the two sides, and Coalition planes attacked ISIS targets (Mostafa Bali’s Twitter account, March 10, 2019; ANHA, March 11, 2019). On March 11 and on the morning of March 12, 2019, the heavy exchanges of fire continued. According to SDF Spokesman Mostafa Bali, the Coalition forces carried out 20 sorties. According to a report by Mostafa Bali, ISIS fired two missiles at the SDF forces, killing three fighters and wounding 10 others. A total of 38 ISIS operatives were killed (Mostafa Bali’s Twitter account, March 12, 2019).
Right: ISIS’s “pocket” in Al-Baghouz Fawqani (Shabakat Shumukh, March 11, 2019). Left: ISIS flag waved in the “pocket” in Al-Baghouz Fawqani (Al-Ghad Channel, March 10, 2019)
ISIS operatives who fled from the ISIS “pocket” in Al-Baghouz Fawqani (from a video on the Al-Hadath Channel, March 7, 2019)
Exchanges of fire between the Syrian army and ISIS in Al-Sukhnah
- Heavy exchanges of fire took place in the area south of the village of Al-Sukhnah on March 7 and 9, 2019. Several Syrian soldiers were killed and several others wounded. Syrian Air Force fighter jets attacked ISIS operatives moving in the area. ISIS set up an ambush near the village of Al-Sukhnah and took prisoner several fighters of the National Defense militia affiliated with the Syrian regime (Baladi News, March 8, 2019; Halab Al-Youm, March 9, 2019; Al-Watan, March 10, 2019; Al-Jisr, March 9, 2019).
Syrian army force in the Al-Sukhnah Desert (Baladi News, March 8, 2019)
ISIS suicide bombing attack near a US convoy in the Manbij area
- According to Kurdish sources, a suicide bomber blew himself up with a car bomb on the main highway between Manbij and Al-Bab, wounding several people (ANHA, March 9, 2019). According to a CBS News report, four American soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing attack with a car bomb in southern Manbij (CBS News, March 9, 2019).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to ISIS, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb amidst a convoy of four vehicles of American soldiers on the highway between Manbij and Al-Bab. ISIS claimed that three American soldiers (“Crusaders”) had been killed and several others wounded. ISIS’s claim of responsibility concluded with the words, “The Crusaders should know that we are following them on Syrian soil and they shall not live as long as we are alive. What is to come will be even more bitter and deadlier” (Shabakat Shumukh, March 9, 2019).
Clashes in the Al-Safa area
- In the Al-Safa rocky area northeast of As-Suwayda, there are still operatives remaining in the ISIS enclave taken over by the Syrian army. This week, it was reported that the Syrian army had thwarted an infiltration attempt of hundreds of ISIS operatives who were moving from the desert towards the Al-Safa area (Al-Ittihad, Syria, March 6, 2019). On March 8, 2019, Syrian forces fired artillery at people suspected of being ISIS operatives in the Al-Safa area (As-Suwayda 24, March 8, 2019).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity
- Following are the highlights of ISIS’s activity in the past week:
- Dijla (Tigris) Province: ISIS operatives ambushed four vehicles of the Popular Mobilization. Eleven Popular Mobilization operatives were killed and 34 were wounded (Shabakat Shumukh, March 8, 2019). The Popular Mobilization confirmed that the attack had taken place and said that some of its fighters had been killed and wounded (Al-Hashd al-Shaabi website, March 7, 2019).
- The city of Mosul: A car bomb exploded in the western part of the city. A member of the security forces and a civilian were killed and 10 others were wounded (Al-Sumaria, March 8, 2019). To date, no organization has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it can be assumed that it was carried out by ISIS.
- The city of Kirkuk: On March 8, 2019, the home of an Iraqi officer with the rank of colonel in the city of Kirkuk was blown up with an IED (Al-Sumaria, March 8, 2019). To date, no organization has claimed responsibility for the attack, but it was apparently carried out by ISIS.
The home of the officer after the explosion (Al-Sumaria, March 8, 2019)
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces
- Following are the main counterterrorist activities carried out by the Iraqi security forces:
- The Iraqi security forces arrested two ISIS operatives in western Mosul. The two men admitted that they were operating within the framework of ISIS’s War Ministry, which existed until the collapse of the Caliphate (Al-Sumaria, March 9, 2019).
- On March 11, 2019, Iraqi security forces located 120 mm mortar shells under the ruins of a house used by ISIS (Iraqi News Agency, March 11, 2019).
- The Iraqi Air Force destroyed three guest houses of ISIS operatives in the northeastern part of the Diyala Province. Logistic and military equipment was stored in these guesthouses (Iraqi News Agency, March 11, 2019).
- Iraqi security forces located an ISIS guest house in the Tikrit area of the Salah al-Din Province, where they found explosives (Iraqi News Agency, March 8, 2019).
The Sinai Peninsula and Egypt
- The Egyptian army announced on March 7, 2019, that it had destroyed nine openings of three tunnels in northern Sinai 3 km in length. According to the Egyptians, the tunnels were used for smuggling arms, ammunition and explosives for “terrorist elements.” Large quantities of explosives were also found, some of them inside the tunnels (Al-Youm al-Sabea, March 7, 2019; Sky News, March 2, 2019; Al-Ain Al-Ikhbariya, March 7, 2019).
Right: Tunnel openings found in northern Sinai. Left: Tunnels found in northern Sinai (Al-Youm al-Sabea, March 7, 2019)
Right: Electrical equipment found inside the tunnels (Al-Youm al-Sabea, March 7, 2019). Left: Explosives and IEDs found in northern Sinai (Al-Youm al-Sabea, March 7, 2019)
Jihadi activity in other countries
Wave of ISIS attacks in Afghanistan
Suicide bombing attack near Jalalabad Airport
- On March 6, 2019, five ISIS operatives took over a building of a construction company near Jalalabad Airport and opened fire at the employees of the local security company. During the exchange of fire, which lasted around five hours, one of the attackers blew himself up with his explosive belt. The confrontation ended following the intervention of a US military force. All five ISIS operatives were killed in the attack. Two of them blew themselves up with their explosive belts and three were killed in the exchange of fire. A total of 16 employees of the construction company were killed in the attack, and nine others were wounded (Al-Jazeera, March 6, 2019; Khaama, March 6, 2019).
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province claimed responsibility for the attack. The claim of responsibility states that ISIS operatives exchanged fire near Jalalabad Airport for around seven hours. ISIS operatives used machine guns and grenades and wore explosive belts. According to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, the operatives took over one of the buildings and from there they fired at residential buildings in the area. According to ISIS, 30 airport security personnel and officials were killed and 25 were wounded (Shabakat Shumukh, March 7, 2019).
Suicide bombing attack against a procession in Kabul with the participation of senior Afghan government officials
- On March 6, 2019, two ISIS operatives attacked a procession in Kabul whose participants included senior political figures in the Afghan government (the former Afghan president, the national security advisor, and the Afghan foreign minister). The attack began with the firing of dozens of mortar shells at the ceremony that was held at the site. Later, the procession was attacked by two terrorists equipped with explosive belts. The two terrorists exchanged fire with the Afghan security forces. After a few hours, the security forces neutralized the terrorists. The deputy spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry said that 31 people had been wounded by mortar fire (Western media outlets, March 9, 2019; Shabakat Shumukh, March 8, 2019).
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The claim of responsibility stated that it was carried out at a Shiite ceremony held to mark the death of the founder of Hizb al-Wahda (a Shiite party founded in 1989 in Afghanistan). According to ISIS, 110 people were killed and wounded (Shabakat Shumukh, March 8, 2019).
Additional attacks carried out by ISIS in Afghanistan
- Following are ISIS’s announcements about other attacks carried out by ISIS in Afghanistan during the past week:
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province announced that its operatives killed and wounded seven American and Afghan soldiers in the south of Nangarhar Province. The attack was carried out by detonating IEDs when the soldiers arrived in the area (Shabakat Shumukh, March 7, 2019). The incident has not been verified.
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province announced that its operatives had killed three Afghan soldiers in exchanges of fire in the southwestern part of Nangarhar Province (Shabakat Shumukh, March 7, 2019).
- ISIS operatives detonated an IED against a traffic police post in Kabul (Shabakat Shumukh, March 12, 2019). Two deaths were reported in the Afghan media (Khaama, March 12, 2019).
The scene where the IED was detonated (Shabakat Shumukh, March 12, 2019).
Intensive fighting between ISIS and the Philippine army on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines
- On March 12, 2019, sources in the Philippines reported on two days of fighting between Philippine army forces and ISIS-affiliated operatives on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. The Philippine government ordered its citizens to evacuate several villages. Nine ISIS operatives and one Filipino soldier were killed (benarnews.org, March 12, 2019). Later in the day four more people were reported dead, as well as an ISIS operative killed in an exchange of fire (Philippine News Agency, March 12, 2019). ISIS’s East Asia Province claimed responsibility for killing 10 Filipino soldiers and wounding 10 others (Shabakat Shumukh, March 12, 2019).
The Battle for hearts and minds
While the fighting in Al-Baghouz is drawing to a close, ISIS released a video entitled “The significance of the steadfastness in Al-Baghouz.” The messages of the video are intended to cope with the (additional) blow sustained by ISIS, by emphasizing that the loss in the battle does not indicate a loss in the campaign, which is not over yet, and it is too early to declare ISIS’s defeat (a video released by ISIS’s Al-Barakah Province through Shabakat Shumukh, March 11, 2019).
Slide with the title of the video: “The significance of the steadfastness in Al-Baghouz” (Shabakat Shumukh, March 1, 2019)
 Following a meeting between the presidents of Russia and Turkey at the Sochi summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the two sides had agreed on the establishment of a demilitarized zone 15-20 km wide. The demilitarized zone was supposed to extend along the contact line between the Syrian army and the rebel organization forces, and the “radical armed forces” were supposed to be removed from it. Up to October 10, 2019, the various organizations were supposed to remove heavy and other kinds of weapons from the area. The demilitarized zone was supposed to be supervised by mobile patrolling units from Turkey and Russia. However, in practice, the jihadi organizations did not remove their weapons from the demilitarized zone, and its establishment was not implemented up till now. ↑
 For further details, see the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from March 12, 2019: “ISIS’s media response to the imminent defeat in the village of Al-Baghouz.” ↑