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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 purported 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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: December 21, 2016 - January 5, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

ISIS launched waves of counteroffensives and spectacular attacks across Iraq after operations in eastern Mosul resumed on December 29. The attacks were widespread and hit highly secured areas, including Baghdad and the shrine cities of Najaf and Samarra. ISIS also attempted to sever the main highway running from Mosul to Baghdad by attacking locations north of Baiji. The attack pattern is similar to ISIS’s attacks in the week after the Mosul operation launched on October 17, when ISIS struck targets in Kirkuk, Sinjar, Rutba, and Samarra, and in the week after the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) breached Mosul’s city limits on November 1, when ISIS launched major attacks in Tikrit, al-Alam, Samarra, and Shirqat. The most recent attacks from December 29 to January 5 underscore that ISIS will react to major phase changes in Mosul by launching wide-spread attacks with the intent to spread the ISF thin, force it to reallocate units away from northern operations, and undermine political legitimacy in Baghdad. The attacks demonstrate that, despite its losses in Mosul, ISIS is capable of reopening old fronts, such as in Sinjar which it lost in November 2015; penetrating deep behind the frontlines, such as Kirkuk City; and retaining access into highly secured areas, such as Baghdad and Samarra. Continued minor attacks in the Euphrates River Valley also suggest that ISIS may be reviving networks in historical support zones. The ISF and Coalition can reasonably expect that ISIS will launch a similar wave of attacks across Iraq when the ISF reaches and crosses the Tigris River in Mosul.  


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: December 20, 2016 - January 3, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) launched the second phase of operations in Mosul on December 29, 2016, after weeks of limited gains and heavy casualties. The Coalition and ISF introduced new accelerants that revived the push, including advisors embedded at a lower-level and increased ISF deployments, allowing the ISF to make significant gains in eastern Mosul from December 29 to January 3, 2017.

The ISF announced the “second phase” of operations in Mosul’s city limits, now in its second month, on December 29 after operations paused for a week from December 21 to 28 to allow ISF units to regroup and remobilize. Since December 29, the ISF recaptured five major neighborhoods along Mosul’s main east-west highway and pushed further towards the eastern bank of the Tigris River. The advances inward have put the Mosul Airport and adjacent military base in range of ISF artillery.
New accelerants from the ISF and Coalition made this revived push successful. Three brigades of Federal Police and units from the Emergency Response Division, an elite unit in the Ministry of Interior, redeployed from the southern axis and began operating in the southeast alongside units from the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division. The introduction of the Federal Police into Mosul is a risk if the units are especially compromised by or comprised of pro-Iranian militias, which has historically resulted in sectarian violence, although the Coalition has previously cooperated with at least one of the three brigades in Ramadi. These reinforcements bolstered Iraqi Army efforts to retake several southeast neighborhoods from December 29 to January 3 and relieved the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), which has shouldered the bulk of the urban warfare, the burden to both hold territory and support less-experienced ISF units.

The Coalition also accelerated the advance by embedding deeper with Iraqi units. The Coalition announced on December 24 that it would embed at a lower-level in the ISF, including alongside formations, such as the Federal Police, with which the Coalition has not embedded in the past. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter had announced in July, after the ISF retook the Qayyarah Airbase, that embedding U.S. advisors at brigade- and battalion- levels was one of four accelerants it would deploy as the ISF set final conditions for Mosul, however advisors continued to remain primarily at the division level. U.S. advisors are now particularly focused on supporting the northern axis, where Iraqi Army units have not yet breached the city, though the advisors are also operating alongside the CTS and other ISF units. The ISF may also begin relying on increased Coalition airstrikes to counter ISIS targets, rather than door-to-door operations; this raises the risk of civilian casualties but can stave off further attrition.

ISIS launched a series of spectacular attacks from December 31 to January 2 in the shrine cities Najaf and Samarra and in Baghdad in response to the renewed push. ISIS will try to increase the pressure on provinces and political leaders to draw back forward deployed ISF units from Mosul operations, reducing reinforcements. It has also attempted to sever the ISF’s supply routes by attacking the Baghdad-Mosul highway around Shirqat District on January 2, though Iraqi forces later reopened the road. ISIS’s ability to continue attacks in the shrine cities and capital and to create a protracted battle in Mosul will put increasing pressure on an already vulnerable Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, who had pledged that the operation would be over before 2017 but now states it will take another three months.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Syria Situation Report: December 15 - 22, 2016

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Turkey, Russia, and Iran released a joint statement - termed the ‘Moscow Declaration’ - noting that all three countries agree to “facilitate and become the guarantors” of any political agreement to end the Syrian Civil War following a trilateral meeting in Moscow, Russia on December 20. The statement also noted that all three countries “reiterate their determination” to fight against ISIS and Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as well as separate both factions from other “armed opposition groups” in Syria. The meeting occurred as scheduled despite the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on December 19. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces announced their full control over Aleppo City on December 22 following the last evacuations from the remaining opposition-held districts of Eastern Aleppo City. The evacuations faced repeated delays due to poor weather conditions as well as last-minute demands by Iran for parallel evacuations from the besieged pro-regime towns of Fu’ah and Kefraya in Idlib Province. The final deal included phased parallel evacuations for the two towns as well as two besieged opposition-held towns near Damascus.

This graphic marks 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 December 19, 2016.