MESOPOTAMIA NEWS INTELLIGENCE REPORT MIDDLE EAST – By Meir Amit Intelligence and Terror Information Center – Israel
Spotlight on Global Jihad (March 29 – April 11, 2018) Published: 12/04/ 2018 – SYRIA & IRAQ
The Syrian army continued to attack the rebel organizations in the city of Duma, their last significant stronghold in eastern Al-Ghouta. The Syrian army’s ground operation was accompanied by airstrikes, one of which involved the use of a chemical (possibly chlorine gas).
President Trump and other Western countries condemned the use of chemical weapons and held the Syrian regime responsible. President Trump has publicly stated that he expects to make significant decisions regarding the use of chemical weapons in the coming days and that the United States will be able to act in a variety of military ways. On the agenda is the possibility of an attack against targets of the Syrian regime by the United States and the International Coalition countries.
- Meanwhile, the Syrian army is about to complete its takeover of eastern Al-Ghouta. On April 10, 2018, the evacuation of 8,000 operatives of the Army of Islam to the Idlib area was completed. The Army of Islam is the dominant force in Duma. The departing operatives were accompanied by 40,000 residents, mainly families of the evacuees (another expression of the mass displacement of residents that is causing a significant demographic change in the eastern suburbs of Damascus). The Syrian regime now has its sights on the ISIS enclave on the southern outskirts of Damascus and the area of Daraa and the Yarmouk Basin in southern Syria (which are controlled by the rebel organizations and ISIS). In the ITIC’s assessment, when the Syrian regime finishes dealing with these two areas of resistance, most of its attention will be diverted to the Idlib region, the last stronghold of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other rebel organizations.
- Recently, there have been more and more reports of the US intention to withdraw its troops from Syria (“very soon,” according to President Trump). The American forces, which number about 2,000 combatants, support the Kurdish forces (SDF), which control the area east of the Euphrates River and the city of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River. In the ITIC’s assessment, the withdrawal of the American forces will lead to the weakening of the control area of the (US-supported) Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates River, and the strengthening of the ISIS sector in the lower Euphrates River as a result of the weakening of the SDF. Moreover, the withdrawal of the American troops from Syria would weaken the ability of the US to meet the many challenges posed by the Syrian crisis and would strengthen the status of Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Syria and the region as a whole.
American involvement in Syria
- Following are some American statements, official and unofficial, on the issue of the removal of US soldiers from Syria:
- Speaking in Ohio, US President Donald Trump surprisingly announced that the US would soon withdraw from Syria, saying, “By the way, we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’re coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon – very soon we’re coming out.” (The Washington Post, March 29, 2018).
- US president Donald Trump ordered the US Armed Forces commanders to complete the military operation in Syria and all the preparations that would enable the US to withdraw from Syria in a few months. The President waived his demand for an immediate withdrawal from Syria after military commanders told him they needed months to complete the mission (The New York Times, April 4, 2018). In addition, a senior official in the Trump administration said that the President had ordered the Department of State to freeze the economic aid to Syria, in a sum exceeding $200 million, as long as the United States is reassessing its role and its involvement in the conflict in Syria (The New York Times, March 30, 2018).
- A senior official in the US administration said that when President Trump announced a quick withdrawal from Syria, he effectively canceled plans to help restore stability in Syria and eliminate the Islamic State. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon, the US Department of State and the CIA were concerned about the President’s intention to withdraw abruptly, due to the fear of a vacuum being created in Syria, which could be exploited by elements hostile to the United States (The New York Times, April 4, 2018).
- A senior official in the Trump administration reported that President Trump had asked for the plans for the withdrawal from Syria, and discussed the matter with White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. The senior official added that the President’s advisers had persuaded him to remain in Syria at this stage in order to prevent the recovery of the Islamic State, and to prepare the ground for a future peace agreement that would benefit the US. According to official reports, President Trump’s announcement was apparently unplanned and preparations are being made for such a possibility (The Washington Post, March 30, 2018).
The Syrian army continued to attack Jaysh al-Islam (The Army of Islam) and other rebel organizations in the city of Duma, their last significant stronghold in eastern Al-Ghouta. The Syrian army’s ground operation was accompanied by airstrikes, one of which involved the use of a chemical (possibly chlorine gas), causing at least 70 deaths, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR, April 9, 2018). On April 10, 2018, the implementation of the agreement for the evacuation of 8,000 Jaysh al-Islam operatives and 40,000 members of their families to the Idlib area was completed. Hence the battle for the takeover of eastern Al-Ghouta is nearly over.
Use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime in the city of Duma
- At the same time, Syrian media reported that the Syrian Air Force had carried out a chemical attack against the city of Duma. According to the SOHR, at least 70 people died of suffocation as a result of inhaling the toxic gas. According to additional reports in the Arab and Western media, the number of fatalities was higher, between 150 and 200.
The Syrian regime (with political and media support from Russia) denied its involvement in the attack.
In the ITIC’s assessment, the use of chemical weapons, at a time when the rebel organizations in eastern Al-Ghouta are facing defeat, is intended to convey a message to the other organizations to lay down their arms and surrender to the Syrian regime. President Trump and other Western countries strongly condemned the use of chemical weapons and held the Syrian regime responsible.
Agreement for the evacuation of the rebels from Duma
In the course of the attacks against Duma, negotiations were held to evacuate civilians and rebel operatives from the city, especially Jaysh al-Islam operatives. For various reasons (including internal rivalries in Jaysh al-Islam), no agreement was reached until April 8, 2018. The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime apparently expedited the process of reaching an agreement that led to the surrender of the rebels in Duma and will expedite the completion of the Syrian forces’ takeover of the entire region of eastern Al-Ghouta.
- On April 8, 2018, Syrian sources announced that an agreement had been reached whereby all the Jaysh al-Islam operatives would be evacuated to the cities of Jarabulus and Al-Bab in the Turkish security zone. In the wake of Turkey’s refusal to accept them, it was apparently agreed to transfer them to the Idlib area. In return, Jaysh al-Islam will release its captives. As part of the agreement, 8,000 Jaysh al-Islam operatives and 40,000 members of their families were evacuated to the Idlib area (Mourasiloun, April 10, 2018). Jaysh al-Islam released 52 captives (Zaman Al-Wasl, April 9, 2018).
The uprooting of the residents of eastern Al-Ghouta
- According to the Russian Center for Reconciliation, around 161,000 residents have been evacuated from eastern Al-Ghouta with the help of the Russians since the beginning of the humanitarian lull in the region (Russian Ministry of Defense website, April 10, 2018). The departure of the residents from eastern Al-Ghouta is still ongoing. Most of them are being transferred to northern Syria, mainly to the rebel-controlled area of Idlib. On the eve of the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the number of residents of eastern Al-Ghouta was estimated at 400,000 (Al-Jazeera, February 21, 2018).
In addition to the physical devastation and the many victims, the population of the eastern suburbs of Damascus quickly dropped by half. It is by no means certain that the Syrian regime will allow this population to return to its home, partly because, from the perspective of the regime, this population is not loyal to it and supports the rebel organizations. In the ITIC’s assessment, the Syrian regime may prefer to populate the Damascus suburbs with residents that are loyal to it, thereby making a significant demographic change in the area east of the Syrian capital.
Preparation for the takeover of ISIS’s control area south of Damascus
- According to Syrian media reports, the Syrian army and forces supporting it started about a week ago to concentrate forces to take over the area held by ISIS in the southern suburbs of Damascus. Most of the reinforcement sent to the area comprises Palestinian forces fighting alongside the Syrian army, the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), and other Palestinian militias (Zaman Al-Wasl, April 7, 2018). ISIS’s Damascus Province reported that ISIS in southern Damascus was preparing for the attack by the Syrian forces. ISIS reportedly proposed to the rival jihadi organization, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (which is clearly outnumbered) to collaborate in fighting against the Syrian army.
- In the meantime, the Free Syrian Army withdrew one of its forces located in the Al-Tadamoun neighborhood, held by ISIS. The force (called Jaysh Al-Ababil) was transferred to southern Syria following an agreement reached with Russian officials. The evacuation started on the morning of April 7, 2018. About 1,500 operatives with their personal arms set out for the town of Jassem (about 40 km north of Daraa) (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, April 8, 2018). In the town of Jassem, the operatives joined the rebel organizations encircling the ISIS enclave in the Yarmouk Basin. In the ITIC’s assessment, their evacuation from the Al-Tadamoun neighborhood is due to their reluctance to fight alongside ISIS.
Main developments in Iraq
Iraqi security forces’ activity against ISIS
- This week, Iraqi security forces continued to operate against local ISIS networks throughout Iraq:
- Al-Anbar Province:
- The Iraqi security forces announced that Abu Taha the Tunisian, nicknamed “ISIS’s butcher,” had been killed along with nine other operatives during a security activity in the Al-Anbar Province. In addition, tunnels used by these operatives had been located (Al-Bawaba, April 2, 2018).
- Omar Safouk, ISIS commander north of Ramadi, and several ISIS operatives were killed in clashes with a special force of the Iraqi police (Sky News in Arabic, April 4, 2018).
- Diyala Province:
- Three ISIS operatives were killed in a security activity near Hamrin Lake, about 20 km south of Baqubah (Iraqi News, April 6, 2018).
- The Iraqi Intelligence Directorate announced that its members had located an ISIS hiding place about 18 km south of Baqubah. The hiding place contained an explosive belt, weapons and explosive charges. In addition, fake ID cards, cellphones, food and clothes were also found there (Al-Sumaria News, April 6, 2018).
- Nineveh Province:
- Twenty Three ISIS operatives were arrested in a security activity taking place in the Nineveh Province. According to Iraqi federal police, fifteen ISIS operatives who had planned to attack security forces deployed in western Mosul were arrested in a tunnel, with their weapons (Iraqi News, April 7, 2018).
- The Nineveh Province police arrested eight ISIS operatives in the northern Mosul neighborhood of Al-Saddiq (Iraqi News Agency, April 8, 2018).
- Kirkuk Province:
- Iraqi security sources announced that a senior ISIS operative codenamed Abu al-Waleed the Chechen had been killed in the Kirkuk area. The operative had been described as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s right-hand man. On his body, the Iraqi security forces found important documents on ISIS operatives (Al-Sumaria News, April 9, 2018).
- ISIS operatives set up a checkpoint about 30 km northwest of Kirkuk. The operatives at the checkpoint killed four Tribal Mobilization fighters and attacked federal police force which arrived as reinforcements (file-sharing website, April 8, 2018).
Suicide bombing and shooting in the city of Hit
- On April 7, 2018, two ISIS suicide bombers carried out a suicide bombing and shooting attack against the headquarters of the Iraqi Al-Hall Party. The attack was carried out in central Hit, in the Al-Anbar Province. The terrorists tried to enter a building where municipal election candidates were present. According to the ISIS version, the operatives shot and killed the security guards using weapons with silencers. Next, one of the operatives entered the headquarters and blew himself up with an explosive belt. Yet another operative entered the building, exchanged fire with those inside, and blew himself up with an explosive belt (file-sharing website, April 8, 2018).
- According to an announcement by the Al-Anbar Province, seven security guards and army personnel were killed in the attack. Additional 13 people were wounded, including election candidates and two senior officials in the Iraqi government (file-sharing website, April 8, 2018). According to an Iranian source, two security guards were killed and five other people were wounded, including a candidate for the parliament elections (Al-Alam, April 8, 2018).
Additional ISIS activity
- ISIS media reported on several attacks carried out by ISIS operatives against the Iraqi security forces, mainly against Popular Mobilization fighters (the Shiite militias):
- On April 4, 2018, ISIS operatives killed three Popular Mobilization fighters about 46 km southwest of Kirkuk. Two off-road vehicles were destroyed and an APC was hit by the explosion of IEDs (Amaq, April 5, 2018).
- ISIS announced that it had fired machine guns and rockets at a Popular Mobilization position in the Daqouq area, south of Kirkuk (Nasher, April 6, 2018).
- Amaq News Agency announced that four Popular Mobilization fighters had been killed and three wounded in an ISIS “security activity” west of Kirkuk (Amaq, April 8, 2018).