Main events of the week
- This week, the Syrian army forces completed the takeover of the rural area west and northwest of the city of Khan Shaykhun. Syrian advance forces entered the western outskirts of the city and set up a roadblock north of it on Highway M-5 (the Damascus-Hama-Aleppo Highway). The Syrian army is apparently striving to take control of Khan Shaykhun (which is held by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other rebel organizations), complete the mopping up of the southern Idlib region and continue to advance northward towards Idlib, the rebel stronghold.
- In view of these developments, the first of their kind since the start of the Syrian army’s ground campaign (early May 2019), on August 19, 2019, Turkey sent a military convoy that included dozens of armored vehicles and tank transporters. In the ITIC’s assessment, the aim of the Turkish move was to establish a presence on Highway M-5 north of Khan Shaykhun in order to assist the rebel organizations and prevent the Syrian army from advancing towards Idlib. The convoy was attacked from the air, reportedly by Russian and Syrian aircraft. The incident created the first friction of its kind between Turkey, on the one hand, and Russia and Syria on the other.
- In response to the airstrike, the Turkish foreign minister warned Syria “not to play with fire” (but refrained from mentioning Russia, which supports Syria). He noted that Turkey would do “whatever it takes” to secure its troops and observation posts. The tension currently centers on two Turkish observation posts: a new observation post that was set up around 11 km north of Khan Shaykhun, where the Turkish force that arrived in the convoy is located; the second is located south of Khan Shaykhun (“observation post No. 9”), which is surrounded by a Syrian force (according to the Syrian Foreign Minister, the military staff of the observation post cannot exit or enter it without Syrian and Russian approval).
- In the Iraqi arena, ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla operations in the various provinces continued, in the form of sniper fire, IEDs, and mortar shells. The Iraqi security forces continued their counterterrorism activities, detaining several ISIS operatives, one of them a senior operative in the Al-Anbar Province, in western Iraq.
- This week as well, Afghanistan was the scene of many of the attacks carried out by ISIS operatives in its provinces in Africa and Asia. A suicide bombing attack was carried out in a wedding hall at a Kabul hotel in which more than 60 people were killed and more than 180 were wounded. ISIS announced that the attack was directed against a “large Shiite gathering” taking place in the hall. In addition, “routine” attacks in Egypt, the Philippines, Chad and Yemen continued.
Overview (updated to August 20, 2019)
During the past two weeks, the Syrian army scored a series of victories southwest of the Idlib region, the first of their kind since the beginning of the ground offensive in early May 2019. Syrian army forces took control of a number of villages west and northwest of the city of Khan Shaykhun. Syrian advance forces entered the western outskirts of the city and set up a roadblock north of the city, on Highway M-5 (the Damascus-Hama-Aleppo road).
In view of the developments, on August 19, 2019, Turkey sent a military convoy to the Khan Shaykhun region. It was composed of dozens of armored vehicles and tank transporters. The convoy was accompanied by fighters from a rebel organization supported by Turkey (Faylaq al-Sham). In the ITIC’s assessment, the objective was to take control of Highway M-5 north of Khan Shaykhun to support the rebel organizations defending the city and halt the advance of the Syrian army northward towards Idlib. The convoy was attacked from the air (reportedly by Russian and Syrian aircraft). Three people were killed and 12 wounded (apparently operatives of a Syrian rebel organization supported by Turkey).
Right: Tank transporter in the Turkish convoy (Twitter account of TRT, the Turkish state TV station, August 20, 2019). Left: The Turkish army armored convoy north of Khan Shaykhun (Khotwa, August 19, 2019)
Developments after the attack
- In response to the airstrike, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned Syria “not to play with fire.” He added that Turkey would do “whatever it takes” to secure its troops and observation posts. He noted that “observation post No. 9” in Morek (about 6 km south of Khan Shaykhun) was surrounded by the Syrian army and the militias supporting it after they had taken over Khan Shaykhun (Hürriyet Daily News, August 20, 2019).
- Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview that on August 19, 2019, the rebel organizations had retreated from Khan Shaykhun and the rural area north of Hama (Note: At this point, the ITIC does not have a proof for that). According to Abdulrahman, Syrian fighter jets carried out about 90 airstrikes in the southern Idlib region, attacking also the Heesh area, about 10 km north of Khan Shaykhun. A new Turkish observation post is located nearby (where the Turkish military convoy stopped). He added that the Turkish force stationed in the observation post in Morek (south of Khan Shaykhun) could not exit or enter without Syrian or Russian approval (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, August 20, 2019).
The Heesh area north of Khan Shaykhun, where a new Turkish observation post was set up. This is where the Turkish force arriving in the convoy stopped. Morek is marked (with a red circle) south of Khan Shaykhun. This is the location of Turkish observation post No. 9, which is surrounded by the Syrian army (Google Maps).
Syrian fighter jet shot down by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham
- The Syrian News Agency reported that on August 14, 2019, a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi-22 fighter jet had been shot down in the rural area south of Idlib. According to the statement, the jet was hit by an anti-aircraft missile fired at it by the rebel organizations (in the original statement, they were referred to as “terrorist organizations”). The jet was on an offensive mission to destroy command posts of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the area of Tamanah, in the southeastern sector of the Idlib region (SANA, August 14, 2019).
- The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham was quick to use the interception of the plane for propaganda purposes. A video released by the organization shows the wreckage of the plane and the pilot, Muqaddam (Lt. Col.) Mohammad Ahmad Suleiman, who was captured after several hours of searches after him (Ibaa, August 14, 15, 16, 2019).
Interim summary of the losses since the beginning of the Syrian ground attack
- Since the beginning of the Syrian army’s ground attack in early May 2019, a total of 3,676 people have been killed in the Idlib region. Fatalities included 1,460 rebel organization operatives, including 951 operatives of the jihadi organizations (bearing the brunt of the fighting). Fatalities also included 1,254 soldiers and operatives of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it, and 962 civilians (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, August 21, 2019).
Attacks inside the Kurdish control area
- On August 18, 2019, a car bomb was detonated against SDF forces in the city of Qamishli (about 70 km northeast of Al-Hasakah, near the border with Turkey). Six SDF fighters were killed (Telegram, August 18, 2019).
- On August 18, 2019, an IED was activated against an SDF vehicle in the village of Abu Rassin, about 60 km northeast of Al-Hasakah. The passengers were killed or wounded (Telegram, August 19, 2019).
ISIS’s activity in the Al-Hasakah region (May-August 2019)
- On August 19, 2019, ISIS’s Amaq News Agency released an infographic summarizing ISIS’s activity in the Al-Hasakah region between May 11, 2019, and August 19, 2019. According to the infographic, during this time ISIS carried out 66 attacks. A total of 203 SDF fighters were killed or wounded in these attacks, 105 people were taken prisoner, and eight International Coalition soldiers were killed or wounded. Most of the attacks were in the form of activation of IEDs (20). Other forms of attacks were machine gun fire (15), detonation of motorcycle bombs (13), detonation of car bombs (6), breaking into homes and taking prisoners (6), assassination by shooting (4), one suicide bombing attack and one ramming attack (Telegram, August 19, 2019).
Infographic showing ISIS’s activity in the Al-Hasakah region
(Telegram, August 19, 2019)
The Euphrates Valley
ISIS’s activity in the Euphrates Valley
- ISIS’s activity in the Deir ez-Zor–Al-Mayadeen–Albukamal region continues. Following are its highlights:
- August 16, 2019: An IED was activated against an SDF vehicle in the city of Hajin, about 25 km north of Albukamal. Six SDF fighters were wounded (Telegram, August 17, 2019).
- August 16, 2019: An SDF truck was hit by machine gun fire in a village 14 km southeast of Al-Mayadeen. Three SDF fighters were killed and another was wounded (Telegram, August 17, 2019).
- August 17, 2019: ISIS operatives attacked positions of the Syrian army and militias supporting it in Kobajep, about 70 km west of Al-Mayadeen (Deir ez-Zor 24, August 17, 2019).
- August 19, 2019: An SDF vehicle was hit by machine gun fire in Al-Sabha, about 20 km north of Al-Mayadeen. Two SDF commanders were killed (Telegram, August 19, 2019).
- Following are highlights of ISIS’s activity in the region of Al-Raqqah:
- August 19, 2019: A Syrian regime “agent” was shot and killed 24 km southwest of Al-Raqqah (Telegram, August 19, 2019).
- August 19, 2019: Two SDF fighters were shot and killed 24 km southwest of Al-Raqqah (Telegram, August 19, 2019).
SDF preventive activity
- Recently, more and more ISIS networks have been uncovered in the Euphrates Valley by the SDF’s counterterrorism service (HAT). In the ITIC’s assessment, the reason for the increase in the rate of uncovering those networks is an improvement in the intelligence capabilities of the SDF forces and assistance of ordinary civilians.
- On August 17, 2019, the security forces raided a house which was used as ISIS’s headquarters in Al-Basira (14 km north of Al-Mayadeen). Eight ISIS operatives were detained. Rifles, mines, cash and forged ID cards were found in the house. In addition, the forces found a lab for making explosives and a place where motorcycle bombs were stored (Khotwa, August 17, 2019). The photo of the rifles which were found indicates that they were mainly shotguns, some of them old, and one of them seemed improvised. It seems that ISIS operatives in the Euphrates Valley suffer from a lack of weapons. It is possible that the extensive use made by ISIS of IEDs, car bombs and motorcycle bombs stems from the relative ease in which materials used for making explosives can be acquired, in contrast to standard weapons.
- Additional preventive activity of the SDF forces:
- August 17, 2019: The SDF forces detained six ISIS operatives in Al-Harmushiyah, about 30 km northwest of Deir ez-Zor, on the east bank of the Euphrates River (Deir ez-Zor 24, August 17, 2019).
- August 18, 2019: The SDF forces detained an ISIS operative in a village about 10 km north of Deir ez-Zor, on the east bank of the Euphrates River (Deir ez-Zor 24, August 18, 2019).
- ISIS operatives ambushed and attacked a Syrian convoy which consisted mostly of operatives of the Homeland Defense forces. The convoy moved east of Palmyra, on the road leading to Deir ez-Zor. Several Homeland Defense operatives were killed or wounded (Al-Masdar News, August 17, 2019).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity
- Following are ISIS’s main terrorist and guerrilla operations in the various provinces in Iraq over the past week (according to ISIS’s claims of responsibility):
- Kirkuk Province: ISIS operatives fired machine guns at a gathering of Tribal Mobilization operatives some 50 km southwest of Kirkuk. One operative was killed and another was wounded (Telegram, August 15, 2019).
- Diyala Province: Snipers fired at the living quarters of Popular Mobilization forces west of Khanaqin, some 90 km northwest of Baqubah. One operative was killed and another was wounded (Telegram, August 15, 2019).
- Kirkuk Province: An IED was activated against an Iraqi Federal Police vehicle near Al-Hamal, some 40 km southwest of Kirkuk. The passengers were killed or wounded (Telegram, August 18, 2019).
- Diyala Province: Mortar shells were launched at a Shiite village north of Khanaqin, some 90 km northeast of Baqubah (Telegram, August 18, 2019).
- Diyala Province: Snipers fired at an Iraqi soldier some 40 km east of Baqubah. The soldier was killed (Telegram, August 20, 2019).
- Diyala Province: An IED was activated against an Iraqi army vehicle some 20 km northeast of Baqubah. Five soldiers were killed or wounded (Telegram, August 20, 2019).
- Diyala Province: An IED was activated against two commandos of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, some 20 km northeast of Baqubah. Both commandos were wounded (Telegram, August 20, 2019).
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces
The detention of a senior ISIS commander close to the organization’s leader
- Iraqi Military Intelligence teams, acting on the basis of accurate intelligence, captured a senior ISIS operative in the city of Hit, in the Al-Anbar Province (around 140 km northwest of Baghdad). The operative served as a military commander in the city before it was retaken by Iraqi security forces and is considered one of the close associates of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Several of his sons were killed by the Iraqi security forces and another son fled Iraq (Al-Sumaria, August 19, 2019).
Additional counterterrorism activity
- Following are details of additional counterterrorism actions carried out by the Iraqi security forces:
- Diyala Province: Teams from the Iraqi Interior Ministry’s General Directorate for Internal Affairs and Security detained three men “wanted for terrorism” (implicitly ISIS operatives) (Iraqi News Agency, August 17, 2019).
- Nineveh Province: Teams from the Military Intelligence Directorate detained three “terrorist squad” members 12 km west of Mosul. The three men were prominent ISIS operatives who had carried out attacks against the Iraqi security forces (Al-Sumaria, August 18, 2019).
- Nineveh Province: A Popular Mobilization force detained two ISIS operatives around 130 kilometers west of Mosul (40 km east of the Iraq-Syria border). Several months ago, the two men were involved in a car bomb blast that resulted in the deaths of several civilians (al-hashed.net, August 18, 2019).
- Wasset Province (located in the area southeast of Baghdad): The Iraqi security forces detained a man wanted for “terrorist activity” some 50 km southeast of Baghdad (Iraqi News Agency, August 19, 2019).
- Kirkuk Province: Iraqi Federal Police intelligence teams destroyed three hideouts of “terrorist operatives” and located tunnels some 40 km south of Kirkuk. IEDs, army uniforms, dry food and cooking utensils were found in the tunnels (Iraqi News Agency, August 19, 2019).
Discussions between Iraq and European countries about ISIS operatives detained by the SDF forces
- According to a “senior Iraqi source,” Iraq has renewed its discussions with a number of European countries (the most prominent of which are France, Germany and Britain) regarding ISIS detainees who are citizens of those countries held prisoner in camps of the SDF forces near the Iraqi border. France, Germany and Britain want Iraq to accept the ISIS operatives held in Syria and put them on trial in accordance with the counterterrorism law applied in Iraq. In this regard, there is a commitment by those countries not to intervene in the sentences that are imposed. According to reports, Iraq is concerned that ISIS operatives will be held near the Iraqi border without being transferred to secure prisons. These statements were made a few days after James Jeffrey, United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement, announced that some 10,000 (ten thousand) ISIS operatives were staying at detention camps of the SDF forces (Al-Sumaria, August 19, 2019).