Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: January 24-31, 2017

Operations in Mosul paused since the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured eastern Mosul on January 24. The ISF is now preparing to retake the western side. Political conditions have changed, however. Increased pressure on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to keep his premiership and uncertain relations between the U.S. and Iraq may allow pro-Iranian groups to extract concessions from PM Abadi that run contrary to U.S. interests in Iraq.

The ISF recaptured the last ISIS-held neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 24, nearly three months since operations in the city began on November 1, 2016. Preparations and troop movement are now underway for operations to break into western Mosul, though no official start date has been announced. Mosul Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Yarallah announced that local Ninewa police and fighters, headed by the 16th Iraqi Army Division, will hold recaptured eastern neighborhoods while local Ninewa tribal militias will hold recaptured land outside of the city limits. The Federal Police stated on January 29 that their forces were moving towards western Mosul, suggesting that the three brigades which supported southeastern operations returned to their original position on the southern axis. 
PM Abadi is at increased risk of losing his premiership. Former PM Nouri al-Maliki is maneuvering to reclaim the position by appealing to Iranian interests and courting the pro-Iranian support base away from PM Abadi. PM Abadi, who has been receptive to and supported by the U.S., may need to make concession to the pro-Iranian political base in order to ensure his position, especially if U.S.-Iraq relations strain. PM Abadi compromised on the appointment of a Badr Organization member as the Minister of Interior on January 30, despite previous reservations. He may also need to appease political parties by allowing their affiliated militias greater latitude in anti-ISIS operations.

PM Abadi may have conceded Tel Afar to the Popular Mobilization, who have long lobbied to own the operation. Popular Mobilization media stated on January 27 that Lt. Gen. Yarallah announced that the Popular Mobilization were assigned to recapture Tel Afar with Iraqi air support. Pro-Iranian militias, including the Badr Organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kata’ib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, have been building up in the vicinity of Tel Afar, rather than moving west towards the Syrian border as they had previously intended. In previous urban operations, such as Fallujah, the Popular Mobilization has entered urban terrain behind a more experienced ISF frontline. The militias are likely seeking to coordinate with the ISF to bolster their limited urban warfare capabilities and generate Coalition air support. Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri met with Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Uthman al-Ghanimi on January 26 to discuss northern operations, indicating that this effort is underway. 
Pro-Iranian militias may also try to establish a presence in Mosul, though will likely remain far from the frontline. Badr Organization media claimed that a small Badr unit found a VBIED factory in the industrial neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 18 however the unit was also sited in the countryside southeast of Mosul around the same time, making it unclear if the unit actually entered the city. Coalition ground forces commander Gen. Joe Martin stated on January 25 that he is unaware of any militias present in the city. This is the first report of militias operating east of the Tigris River, however, and it could be an early indicator that the militias will use PM Abadi’s vulnerable position and lack of a political support base to maneuver without check from the Iraqi Government. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: December 20, 2016 – January 25, 2017

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia shifted the focus of its air campaign from northwestern to eastern Syria from January 14 – 25 in support of pro-regime forces vying to repel a major ISIS offensive against Deir ez Zour City. Prior to the start of that offensive, however, Russia conducted aggressive air operations against opposition terrain in southern Idlib and western Aleppo Provinces from January 12 – 13, continuing to flout the nationwide ‘ceasefire’ agreement that Russia brokered with Turkey and Iran on December 28. These operations demonstrate Russia’s commitment to set conditions for pro-regime forces to clear the suburbs of Aleppo City and thereby strengthen their hold over Syria’s largest urban center. Then, on January 14, ISIS mounted an offensive against pro-regime forces in Deir ez Zour City, severing the pro-regime ground line of communication linking regime-held districts in the western half of the city to the Deir ez Zour Military Airport two days later. In response to the jihadist group’s gains, Russia conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against ISIS in Deir ez Zour City and its environs from January 14 – 17, intensifying its operations even further from January 18 – 25 amidst concerted pro-regime ground efforts to relieve the besieged airport. In support of those efforts, Russian Tu-22 strategic bombers conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Deir ez Zour Province after taking off from Russia and transiting Iraqi and Iranian airspace on January 21 and 23 – 25, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. Meanwhile, Russian warplanes also targeted ISIS sanctuaries in eastern Homs and Hama Provinces, including the city of Palmyra. The dramatic surge in Russian airstrikes against ISIS, however, does not suggest that Russia can be a reliable partner for the U.S. against Salafi-jihadist groups. Rather, the surge reflects Russia’s strategic interest in bolstering the claim of Syrian President Bashar al Assad over all of Syria and maintaining a foothold in the Euphrates River valley from which to launch future operations into western Iraq. Although the ISIS offensive precipitated a shift in the focal point of the Russian air campaign in Syria, that shift will be a temporary one. Once militarily practicable, Russia will renew its air operations against the acceptable opposition in northwestern Syria in order to further constrain U.S. options for engagement in the Syrian Civil War.

The ISIS offensive in Deir ez Zour City coincided with a Russian Ministry of Defense announcement that Russia and Turkey conducted their first “joint air operation” against ISIS in the suburbs of al Bab in northern Aleppo Province on January 18, but Russia will not make a long-term investment in the defeat of ISIS in northern Syria, either. Russian warplanes actually began targeting al Bab and its environs in advance of the announcement, conducting airstrikes against the nearby town of Tadef on January 13 and the city itself on or around January 16 – 17. Meanwhile, the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition began airstrikes in support of Turkish-backed operations against ISIS in al Bab, conducting no fewer than four strikes near the city from January 16 – 17. The failure of Turkish and Turkish-backed forces to make significant gains near al Bab during this period, however, suggests that Russia will not allocate the air assets necessary to confer a decisive military advantage to the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield (OES). In striking al Bab, Russia aims to exploit Turkey’s condemnation of the U.S. for failing to provide more timely support to OES and thereby exacerbate the rift between the two NATO allies, all at a minimal investment of military assets and while claiming credit for counter-terrorism operations. Russia likely also sortied strategic bombers against ISIS in Deir ez Zour Province and falsely claimed coordinated airstrikes with the U.S. against ISIS in al Bab on January 22 to highlight its ostensible value to the anti-ISIS campaign to the new U.S. administration. Whatever the effectiveness of its anti-ISIS air operations in the short-term, Russia’s reactionary response to ISIS in Deir ez Zour City and its opportunistic targeting of the jihadist group in al Bab demonstrate that Russia will prioritize its own strategic objectives over the defeat of Salafi-jihadist threats in the long run.                 

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. 

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Iran Positions for Reset in Iraq after Recapture of Mosul

By Emily Anagnostos

The recapture of Mosul can reset the balance of power between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq and in the region. Iran has tolerated U.S. presence in Iraq because the U.S. provided sufficient airpower and training to combat ISIS. It has also backed Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi because his premiership was a condition of U.S. support and because PM Abadi is too weak to resist Iranian control. Pro-Iranian groups in Iraq will likely consider the recapture of Mosul as the end of major anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and continued U.S. presence unnecessary and unwelcomed. Recent U.S. statements suggest that the U.S. may increase, not decrease, its involvement in Iraq after Mosul, which is likely accelerating Iran’s efforts to expel the U.S. from the region. Iran has started to consolidate its proxies in Iraq, including a reconciliation between Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr and senior pro-Iranian officials, in order to both increase pressure on PM Abadi against further Western support and establish Iraq as a base from which it can project regional influence. Iran’s support for PM Abadi’s premiership could also waver, especially if a more pro-Iranian candidate emerges.

Former PM Nouri al-Maliki will aim to convince Iran that he, as prime minister, would support the power shift from the U.S. to Iran in order to secure Iran’s political support for 2018 parliamentary elections. Maliki has begun to court Iranian proxies and officials and is continuing to weaken PM Abadi’s authority, including by resuming efforts to dismiss key Abadi allies. More dangerously, he may move to retake the premiership in the upcoming month. The Council of Representatives (CoR) scheduled a questioning session with PM Abadi on February 11, alongside ten other government officials over the coming month. The questioning could be a prerequisite for a no-confidence vote. At the very least, the questioning will be a show of strength for Maliki and could undermine PM Abadi’s legitimacy.

The Situation

The recapture of Mosul is a given. 
  • The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured eastern Mosul on January 24. Operations to retake western Mosul will begin in the coming days, with heavy support from the U.S. and the anti-ISIS Coalition to ensure the city’s complete recapture.

Context and Implications

Iran was tolerant of continued U.S. presence in Iraq in order to defeat ISIS, but now that Mosul’s capture is certain it will seek to expel the U.S. from the region.
  • Iranian grand strategic objectives converged with the U.S. in the near term over the shared objective to defeat the Salafi-Jihadi threat. In the long term, however, Iran aims to expel the U.S. from the Middle East.
  • The U.S. and Iran both supported PM Abadi’s premiership in 2014 over Maliki in the interest of re-stabilizing Iraq and defeating ISIS. They both prevented Maliki from ousting PM Abadi in the midst of political turmoil in April 2016.
  • The U.S. provided anti-ISIS support, including critical airpower, on the condition that Maliki would not bid for a third term in 2014 elections. The U.S. supported PM Abadi as a candidate receptive to U.S. interests. Iran supported him because he was a weak candidate it can control.
  • The longevity of PM Abadi’s premiership, therefore, is linked to the necessity of U.S. military support to defeat ISIS, which Iran’s military capacity was and still is unable to duplicate, and Iran’s confidence that it controls the premiership.

U.S. involvement in Iraq may increase, not decrease, after Mosul’s recapture.
  • PM Abadi stated during a press conference that U.S. President Donald Trump assured Iraq of his support “at all levels” and that the Trump Administration promised to “double U.S. support for Iraq, not just continue it.”
  • U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman stated on January 22 that the U.S. will continue the 2008 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), which governs bilateral relations, including in the fields of military and economic. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs discussed the SFA further on January 26, its activation, implementation, and ways to “increase the volume of cooperation” between the U.S. and Iraq “in all fields.”

Going Forward

Iran is consolidating its proxies to challenge the U.S.’s continued presence in Iraq
  • Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr reconciled with major Iranian proxy militia leaders, including Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) leader Qais al-Khazali, and Popular Mobilization Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, in Najaf on October 18, 2016. Sadr’s interests in Iraq have long been distinct from, and often at odds with, Iranian interests and he, his militia, and political party rarely operate in coordination with pro-Iranian groups. (Do not enter: Bringing Sadr back under Iran’s fold consolidates the major Shi’a groups in Iraq and creates a unified proxy through which Iran can act.
  • The passing of the Popular Mobilization Act on November 26, 2016 further institutionalized Iranian proxy militias in the Iraqi state, but they continue to operate under Iran’s command and control.
  • Popular Mobilization participation in anti-ISIS operations will cement Iranian presence in northern Iraq and the Popular Mobilization as a legitimate security force.

Iran is also pursuing its objective to supplant the U.S. in the Middle East by using Iraq as a regional proxy.
  • Muqtada al-Sadr visited Beirut on January 20 where he met with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Iranian proxy Hezbollah, to discuss both Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militias’ influence in the region.
  • On January 24, Sadr stated that the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would be a “declaration of war against Islam” and he called for a formation of a “special division to liberate Jerusalem.” Sadr’s statement falls in line with the Iranian grand strategic objectives to eliminate the state of Israel and to expel the U.S from the region.
  • Iran named IRGC Brig. Gen. Iraj Masjedi as Iranian Ambassador to Iraq on January 11. Masjedi is IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani’s senior advisor. Previous ambassadors have also served in the Quds Force, but Masjedi’s relation with Qassem Suleimani, a U.S. designated terrorist, will likely strengthen Iran’s efforts to convert the Iraqi Government and its institutions into proxy forces.

Iran may no longer value PM Abadi’s premiership as it did in 2014, when Abadi was necessary to ensure U.S. support, opening an opportunity for former PM Nouri al Maliki to bid for the premiership.
  • Iran may consider it more preferable to have an Iraqi Prime Minister that actively pursues pro-Iranian interests, rather than a premiership that is receptive to the U.S. and merely too weak to resist Iran.
  • Maliki, since he lost the premiership in 2014, has sought to return to the office by undermining PM Abadi’s office. Iran previously mitigated these ambitions through direct intervention.

Maliki is courting Iranian proxy groups as an electoral base, likely on the promise to expel the U.S. from Iraq after Mosul’s recapture and shift the balance of power to Iran. 
  • A report on January 25 alleged that Maliki will contest PM Abadi’s reelection in 2018 by building an alliance of Shi’a militias, naming mid-level Iranian proxy militias as allies.
  • Maliki chaired a meeting of the State of Law Alliance (SLA), his political bloc, on January 24, at which PM Abadi was not present. Iranian representatives were allegedly in attendance.
  • Maliki conducted a four-day visit to Tehran from December 31, 2016 to January 3, 2017, meeting with senior Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during which he discussed elections and the Popular Mobilization’s involvement in the region.
PM Abadi faces a questioning by the Council of Representatives (COR) on February 11. 
  • The CoR released a list on January 24 of eleven ministers, independent commission chairmen, and senior government officials that will be questioned over the next month.
  • PM Abadi is the fifth of the eleven officials to be questioned. The list also includes three of the five technocratic ministers that PM Abadi succeeded in appointing during his Cabinet reshuffle in August 2016, including the Oil Minister, Water Minister, and Transportation Minister.
  • PM Abadi’s questioning will reportedly be about recent security breaches in Baghdad and vacant ministerial positions. Protests, including those led by the Sadrist Trend, have occurred in response to continued ISIS attacks in the capital.
  • Pro-Maliki CoR members will lead the majority of the questioning sessions, as they did during sessions to dismiss Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari on September 21, 2016 and Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25, 2016. A member of Gorran, a Kurdish opposition party, will question PM Abadi, however.
  • The Iraqi Constitution (Article 7.A-C) lists two types of questioning sessions: one of which is for the sake of inquiry into a subject and one of which is the first step in a no-confidence vote. The latter requires a petition of 25 CoR members to launch the questioning session. It is unclear if these questionings were petitioned. Nevertheless, the dismissal of both the Finance and Defense Ministers did not follow constitutional procedure, underscoring the danger that the questioning, even if it is framed as a basic inquiry, may be considered the first step of a no-confidence vote.

Maliki’s efforts to replace PM Abadi and the lack of Iranian support may place PM Abadi’s position in double jeopardy. PM Abadi’s questioning on February 11 may set the stage for a no-confidence process. But Maliki will need to ensure that he has the needed votes and backing to become prime minister. He continues to hold wide support within the Shi’a National Alliance, but far from a majority in the CoR. Indicators of whether the questioning will lead to a no-confidence vote will include how Kurdish and Sunni parties throw their weight. Maliki courted Kurdish parties, primarily the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran, in April and May 2016, but he has made limited outreach to these parties in the past months. If Maliki does not have the votes, he may instead choose to use PM Abadi’s session as a rallying call for further support, continue efforts to weaken PM Abadi’s authority, and build an electoral support base over the next year.

Syria Situation Report: January 19 - 26, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Delegations from the regime and opposition held indirect negotiations on the Syrian Civil War at the Astana Talks brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran on January 23 - 24 but failed to reach an initial breakthrough on efforts to reinforce a faltering nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ that began on December 29, 2016. Russia, Turkey, and Iran released a joint communique at the end of negotiations between the regime and its opponents in Astana, Kazakhstan pledging to create a new “trilateral mechanism” to monitor and enforce the ceasefire. The three countries also agreed to “fight jointly” against ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham - the successor of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra - after “separating” them from armed opposition groups. The exact mechanism or time-frame for implementing these guarantees remains unclear even as the UN prepares to host the regime and opposition for new round of Geneva Talks on 08 FEB.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda continued to consolidate control over Idlib and Western Aleppo Provinces in preparation for the next phase of its campaign against the regime. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham - the successor of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra - launched an assault against a number of opposition groups backed by the U.S. in Northern Syria starting on January 23. The operation likely represents an attempt to cohere the remaining independent opposition in Northern Syria under structures that align with the vision of Al-Qaeda for Syria. Prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham has facilitated this objective - directly or indirectly - by positioning itself to absorb the bulk of the opposition groups in conflict with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. These mergers shift the character of the opposition further towards Salafi-Jihadism - thereby reducing the options for potential partners of the U.S. in Syria. 

These graphics mark the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria DirectThe graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of January 26, 2017.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: January 12-24, 2017

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) pushed ISIS out of eastern Mosul on January 24, but will need to continue efforts to expel ISIS from historic support zones in Diyala and Anbar. With the support of Coalition advisors, the ISF recaptured the last ISIS-held neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 24 and is preparing to launch operations into western Mosul. ISIS continues to demonstrate, however, that it has set conditions to retain its capabilities and networks in order to survive the loss of Mosul in Iraq. The group remains active in recaptured areas in which it, and its predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), had extensive networks. Ongoing low-level attacks in the Euphrates River Valley and in Diyala Province underscore that ISIS is reconstituting its abilities and returning to traditional style terror tactics outside of its efforts to govern and hold cities. The ISF and Coalition will need to continue anti-ISIS operations beyond the recapture of Mosul and may need to reopen clearing operations in previously recaptured areas in order to eliminate ISIS in Iraq.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Campaign of Mosul: January 19-23, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) stormed the last neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 23, nearing the end of a nearly three month long battle to clear the eastern half of the city. The ISF is preparing to enter the smaller, but denser and heavily populated, western half within the coming days.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continued its momentum in northern Mosul from January 19 to 23, as the Iraqi Army (IA) pushed into the last ISIS-held neighborhood in east Mosul, Rashidiyah, on January 23. The complete recapture of the city east of the Tigris River is expected within a day. Units from the 9th IA Armored Division and 1st IA Division, previously operating in now-recaptured southeastern Mosul, deployed to and recaptured Tel Kayyaf District on January 19, then extended the ISF’s northern control to encompass the main Dohuk-Mosul road. Units from the 16th Iraqi Army Division had isolated but bypassed Tel Kayyaf in late October 2016 in order to keep apace with other axes already nearing the city limits. Meanwhile, the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) expanded control along the Tigris River in central Mosul, gaining control of all five bridges on the eastern side on January 19. The recent gain in momentum follows increased Coalition and ISF efforts to reinforce and synchronize ground efforts across the city and block ISIS’s cross-city mobility. 
Both the ISF and ISIS are preparing for operations in western Mosul. Sources reported on January 22 that engineering units had begun to assemble five pontoon bridges, provided by the Coalition to replace the destroyed bridges, in order to cross the Tigris River into western Mosul. ISIS, meanwhile, destroyed the landmark Mosul Hotel, situated on the river bank near the northernmost Third Bridge, in order to deny the ISF a strategic base. ISIS will likely use the density of western Mosul to attrite the ISF in an urban fight and limit the ISF’s ability to call in air support or heavy artillery. 

The ISF will also need to prepare to operate around an estimated 750,000 civilians remaining in western Mosul. Evacuating residents from western Mosul will be challenging, whether the ISF directs Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to cross first into eastern Mosul towards the camps east of the city, against the grain of current advances, or towards camps west of the Tigris River. Evacuating residents will place an added burden on the ISF to police the IDPs flows. The ISF could elect, then, to operate while residents remain in place, as they largely did in eastern Mosul though it slowed its advances, and import humanitarian aid rather than take responsibility for IDPs flows. Any option will complicate urban operations.
Correction: Previous maps incorrectly showed Mosul’s city limits as encompassing two villages in northern Mosul west of Rashidiyah. These villages are suburbs and are not within the city limits, making Rashidiyah the last ISIS-held area in Mosul.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Syria Situation Report: December 22, 2016 - January 19, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Russia and Turkey implemented a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement on December 29 in preparation for negotiations between the regime and opposition scheduled to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan on January 23. The deal will exclude all groups designated as “terror organizations” by the UN Security Council including ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). Anonymous sources claimed that the deal also calls for splitting the country into “informal zones of regional power” between Turkey and Russia. Nonetheless, violence continued across the country. Pro-regime forces including Lebanese Hezbollah conducted sustained military operations to force the surrender of the opposition-held valley of Wadi Barada near Damascus. Meanwhile, ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham conducted major spectacular attacks in Damascus, Tartus City, Jableh, and Azaz. 

At the same time, Russia and the U.S. intensified their competition to define anti-terrorism operations in the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. and Russia both began airstrikes against ISIS in Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province in coordination with Turkey in Operation Euphrates Shield. The U.S. also continued its escalated campaign of airstrikes targeting members of Al-Qaeda in Idlib Province in Northern Syria with at least five separate sets of strikes reported in the first two weeks of January 2017. 

These graphics mark the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria DirectThe graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of January 5, 2017.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: January 10-18, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is rapidly consolidating control over eastern Mosul following a major push from January 10 to 18. The ISF has extended its control along the Tigris River and recaptured the University of Mosul, once ISIS’s major logistical hub in the city.

The ISF is nearing the end of operations in eastern Mosul after a major push from January 10 to 18 to recapture several remaining neighborhoods and the University of Mosul. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), the ISF’s elite urban warfare units, advanced two efforts to clear the University of Mosul and to extend the ISF’s control of the Tigris River. The CTS officially announced control over the university on January 15, after storming it two days prior, and continued to advance north along the river bank, seizing two additional bridges and key government buildings on January 13.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi Army (IA) and Federal Police are consolidating gains in northern and southeastern Iraq. The Iraqi Army is advancing west along Mosul’s northern city limit towards the remaining ISIS-held areas in eastern Mosul. Federal Police and Iraqi Army units announced on January 14 full control of southeastern Mosul with the recapture of Yarmjah and the southeastern countryside with the recapture of Qiz Fakhri, the last ISIS-held village on the eastern bank. The Federal Police announced the same day the completion of its mission in southeastern Mosul and that its units will return to the southern axis in order to resume efforts to break into the Mosul airport and southern military base. This effort will likely occur in synchronization as the ISF cross the Tigris River into western Mosul, though no timeline has yet been given.

Recent reinforcements and increased Coalition advisors enabled these quick advances, though it is also likely that ISIS did not resist the ISF to the same extent as in the early stages of the city battle. The destruction of the five bridges spanning the Tigris River by Coalition airstrikes has likely limited ISIS’s mobility between east and west Mosul, hurting its ability to reinforce and resupply its fighters in the east. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis stated on January 9 that ISIS has resorted to makeshift means, including planks and cranes, to move people and equipment into eastern Mosul. The ISF is therefore facing an enemy incapable of regenerating its ranks as it takes losses. ISIS may have already withdrawn the majority of its fighters from eastern Mosul, as well, in order to limit its casualties in the face of growing ISF momentum.

ISF operations in western Mosul will require a change in tactic. The block-by-block method of clearing eastern Mosul will not be effective in the west because its infrastructure is not laid out by city blocks. ISIS will use western Mosul’s narrow and winding streets to challenge less-experienced ISF units, such as the Iraqi Army. The group may rely more on the city’s infrastructure for static defenses, as it did in Ramadi, in order to stave of its imminent loss of the city. Lessons learned from eastern Mosul, however, such as the need for cross-axis coordination, will help the ISF rebuff ISIS’s defenses and ensure that operations in western Mosul are smoother than the stop-and-go progress that protracted operations in the east.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: December 6, 2016 – January 11, 2017

 By Jonathan Mautner

Russia continued to wage an aggressive air campaign in Syria from December 20, 2016 – January 11, 2017 despite announcing a ceasefire and military drawdown in the country. Russia and Turkey brokered a ‘nationwide’ ceasefire on December 28 that took effect one day later, nominally securing the participation of the Syrian government but excluding ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS), successor of al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. At the same time, thirteen various armed opposition factions reiterated their support for a cessation of hostilities, conditioning their assent on the regime’s compliance. Notwithstanding its negotiations with Turkey, Russia conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against at least five opposition towns in the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from December 28 – 29, aiming to bolster the pro-regime siege-and-starve campaign near the Syrian capital in advance of the ceasefire. Russian warplanes also aggressively targeted opposition terrain west and south of Aleppo City from December 22 – January 2 and January 9 – 11, setting conditions for pro-regime forces to clear the city’s outlying suburbs and thereby strengthen their hold over its recently recaptured eastern districts. Russia’s continuing air operations in the wake of the evacuation of Aleppo City on December 22 indicate that Russia will continue to take military action to achieve its strategic objectives in Syria, including the consolidation of regime control over the country’s major urban centers. Russia will likely exploit the exclusion of JFS from the ceasefire in order to continue its targeting of acceptable opposition forces that cooperate and collocate with JFS out of military necessity. Russia also conducted airstrikes against ISIS-held terrain in the vicinity of Palmyra in eastern Homs Province from December 20 – January 11 in order to defend the nearby T4 (Tiyas) Airbase, its main base of operations in central Syria. The primary target of the Russian air campaign during this period remained the acceptable opposition, however, demonstrating that the U.S. cannot rely upon Russia to invest heavily in anti-ISIS operations even when the jihadist group threatens core pro-regime interests.         

The commencement of the Russia-Turkey brokered ceasefire coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia will pursue a “reduction of [its] military presence” in Syria. Russia will likely use this period to prepare for a new phase of its military intervention in the country, however. Although Russia withdrew its lone aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, from the Syrian coast on January 6 and as many as six Su-24 bombers from Latakia Province in the following days, these withdrawals do not materially diminish Russia’s military capabilities in Syria. Pro-regime forces advanced into eastern Aleppo City despite the loss of at least two Russian airframes attempting to recover to the Kuznetsov from November 14 – December 3, suggesting that the carrier was neither highly functional nor militarily decisive during its deployment to Syria. Rather, Russia used the Kuznetsov to demonstrate its force projection capabilities, transferring some of its accompanying aircraft to the Bassel al Assad Airport in western Syria following the crashes. Whether by design or for operational safety, those transfers will help enable Russia to continue its aggressive air campaign moving forward. In an effort to refine that capability, the Russian Ministry of Defense also acted swiftly to replace the departing Su-24s, announcing the deployment of four Su-25 warplanes to the airbase on January 12. The deployment of the Su-25s — a more effective ground attack aircraft than the ageing Su-24s — indicates that Russia will use the guise of its purported drawdown in order to rotate out dated airframes in favor of assets that will better enable it to achieve the aims of future pro-regime operations. Russia’s deployment of a military police battalion to Aleppo City on December 22 suggests that those operations may include a concerted effort to clear the city of any opposition fighters who remain in the wake of its evacuation. Whatever their respective missions, the recent deployments of military police, more capable attack aircraft, and new military vehicles to Syria following the Russian drawdown announcement all but confirm that the pro-regime alliance will not simply abandon its pursuit of territorial gain in the Syrian Civil War.

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. 

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Campaign for ar-Raqqah: January 12, 2017

By Genevieve Casagrande

Key Takeaway: The U.S. is proceeding with an emergent strategy to retake ar-Raqqah City from ISIS. The composition of forces and the contours of future operations to clear ISIS from the city remain undecided, despite ongoing operations by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to isolate the city. Both Turkey and the SDF continue to apply pressure on the U.S.-led coalition to exclude the other in any future capture and governance of ar-Raqqah City. The U.S. nonetheless moved forward with operations to isolate the city in early November to apply dual pressure to ISIS amidst an ongoing campaign to seize Mosul from ISIS in Iraq. 

The SDF launched the first phase of “Operation Euphrates Wrath” on November 5 with the aim of isolating the ISIS-held city of ar-Raqqah from the north. The SDF advanced over 15 KM south along two axes towards ar-Raqqah City with support from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes from November 5 - 19. Phase one ended after the SDF seized the village of Tel Saman on November 19, positioning the SDF at the entrance to the river valley encircling ar-Raqqah City from the north. ISIS only deployed a moderate mobile defense against the SDF in the northern ar-Raqqah countryside, allowing the SDF steady progress during the first phase of the operation. 

The SDF launched phase two of Operation Euphrates Wrath on December 10 with the aim of isolating the western axis of ar-Raqqah City after a two-week operational reset. The start of the operation coincided with the deployment of an additional 200 U.S. Special Operations Forces to support the SDF. The SDF advanced southeast from its areas of control in the vicinity of the Tishreen Dam along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, seizing over 130 villages and advancing over 40 KM as of January 12. The advance positions the SDF within 5 KM of the Tabqah Dam, the next target for the SDF. The Tabqah Dam, located west of ar-Raqqah City, is the largest dam in Syria and a likely command-and-control node for ISIS that reportedly houses senior leadership, an arms depot, and high value prisoners. The YPG remains the force best positioned to seize the Tabqah Dam as the SDF’s local Arab components are not independently combat capable, though a local component of the SDF answerable to the YPG may symbolically hold the dam after its seizure – a strategy previously seen in operations to seize the Tishreen Dam in late December 2015. The YPG will nonetheless require support from U.S. SOF to seize the dam. The composition of the force that takes Syria’s largest dam will have major implications for the power dynamics in Eastern Syria in the long-term and can exacerbate underlying grievances about expanding Kurdish influence at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition.

ISIS is meanwhile mounting a calculated defense of ar-Raqqah City and neighboring Tabqah. ISIS likely intends to cede rural terrain in the ar-Raqqah countryside, which lacks natural defense, in order to draw the SDF into dense urban terrain in Tabqah and ar-Raqqah City, where the group can maximize its advantages in irregular warfare including improvised explosive devices and suicide attackers. The U.S.-led coalition has reportedly conducted only limited strikes against the Tabqah Dam in order to minimize damage to the structure. Combat in dense urban terrain in Tabqah will risk the exhaustion of local forces before operations in ar-Raqqah City even begin. Moreover, intelligence officials estimate that there could be up to 10,000 ISIS fighters in ar-Raqqah City by the time the fight reaches the city limits. ISIS's defense of Mosul in Iraq highlights how high the jihadist group can raise the costs for multi-faceted coalitions by exploiting seams between rival factions within a coalition and mounting a robust defense of major urban centers under its control. 

The nascent U.S. anti-ISIS strategy for ar-Raqqah City remains susceptible to potential spoilers seeking to disrupt the U.S.’s alliance with the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and NATO member state Turkey. Turkey and the SDF will continue to position themselves to shape the formation of U.S. anti-ISIS strategy in and the future of northern Syria through kinetic and political means. The U.S. must therefore consider slowing the SDF advance on ar-Raqqah or risk bringing about an Arab-Kurd war on the sidelines of Operation Euphrates Wrath. The battle for ar-Raqqah presents opportunities beyond the anti-ISIS fight, although victory in ar-Raqqah and the establishment of stable governance outside the influence of Salafi-jihadist groups will be measured in years, not months. The U.S. must not sacrifice long term stability for a quick victory against ISIS in ar-Raqqah City.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: January 6-11, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

ISIS continued to demonstrate its ability to carry out spectacular attacks inside Baghdad from January 6 to 11, following weeks of increasing activity in the capital in response to its losses in Mosul. These attacks indicate that ISIS retains the freedom to maneuver in and around the capital. Residents from Sadr City, which witnessed several major attacks in the past weeks, staged a protest in central Baghdad on January 9 and 10 demanding better security. Meanwhile, foiled attacks in northern Wasit, Diyala, and Ramadi, and an attack near Tikrit, underscore that ISIS is capable of reviving networks in historical support zones which have been recaptured by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). 

ISIS historically uses its attacks in Baghdad to drive doubts in the Iraqi Government, in particular the Abadi administration, over its ability to protect the capital. In May 2016, major ISIS attacks in Sadr City led to a local but organized demonstration storming the Green Zone. The protest revealed the degree of frustration with Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his administration and undermined its legitimacy. ISIS carried out similar attacks in Sadr City this week that also provoked a local but organized protest, a possible indication that recent ISIS attacks in the capital are accomplishing the group’s intent to undermine the Abadi government. ISIS is likely also trying to draw the security forces away from or prevent them from going to Mosul in order to protect the capital, limiting the possible reinforcements for the Mosul operation. Meanwhile, the political situation remains uneasy as the Council of Representatives resumed this week and will return to contentious issues, such appointments for vacant ministries, which put PM Abadi’s premiership in the crosshairs in early 2016 when he attempted a Cabinet reshuffle. If ISIS continues to successfully attack Baghdad, and if those attacks coincide with political upheaval as they did in 2016, mass protests and discontent could further weaken PM Abadi’s authority or, in the most dangerous scenario, lead to his dismissal.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: January 4-9, 2017

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) reached the Tigris River on January 8 after recapturing several of the remaining neighborhoods in southeast Mosul. In the north, the ISF pushed into central Mosul from the north and east from January 4 to 9, nearing the University of Mosul.

The ISF pushed towards key infrastructure for ISIS in Mosul after making significant progress in the northern and southeastern neighborhoods from January 4 to 9. The rapid gains follow new accelerants added to the operation from December 29 to January 3, with the arrival of ISF reinforcements and increased Coalition trainers. Newly deployed Federal Police units, working alongside the existing Iraqi Army units, are consolidating control of southeastern Mosul. Meanwhile, the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) reached the Tigris River after securing the eastern bank around the southernmost Fourth Bridge on January 8. The CTS, however, is unlikely to make any advance by ground into western Mosul in the near term because the bridge is inoperable due to previous Coalition airstrikes that destroyed the bridge in an effort to prevent ISIS movement into eastern Mosul. Coalition advisors on the ground will likely assist the ISF in rebuilding the bridge, or creating a new one, as they did in Qayyarah in July 2016. The ISF will likely pause before an operation launches to cross the river in order to regroup and plan for the likely stiff ISIS resistance on the western bank. It may also coordinate an advance into western Mosul with units remaining south of the city in order to retake the airport and military base.
The CTS is also leading a push from the north towards the University of Mosul, which had previously been a major logistical hub for ISIS in the city. The CTS entered the area after crossing the Khosr River, a tributary that feeds in the Tigris, during a night raid on January 6, shifting the focus from northeast to northern Mosul. Their effort was matched by units from the Iraqi Army breaching Mosul’s northern limits for the first time on January 6 as well. Their entrance into the city limits is likely the result of U.S. advisors embedding deeper in the ISF’s ranks, as the army units had struggled to advance beyond Mosul’s northern suburbs for weeks. The ISF will likely face significant resistance as it enters the university, though it is unclear if ISIS will actively fight for the campus. A CTS official reported on January 8 that ISIS had burned several buildings before withdrawing, corroborating earlier reports. ISIS may decide to heavily mine the buildings and crater the roads instead of fighting in order to slow the ISF’s advance and leave it vulnerable to counterattacks but limit the risk of its own casualties.