By Isabel Nassief, Valerie Szybala, and Chris Harmer
Iraq continues to impact Syria. Rebel gains, particularly in Damascus and Qalamoun, may also suggest that Hezbollah recruitments to replenish the redeployed Iraqi Shi’a militants are either insufficient or not occurring quickly enough. There is no evidence that Syrian Air Force (SAF) is reducing air sorties in support of existing operations in order to reallocate sortie counts towards ISIS targets in central and eastern Syria.Continued movement of Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters
The return of Iraqi Shi’a militias from Syria to Iraq has continued to increase in response to ISIS operations in Iraq. The battlefield implications of this redeployment are most visible in Damascus where Iraqi Shi’a fighters played an important role. Opposition news site Zaman al-Wasl reported on June 19 that the majority of the Iraqi militias operating in Mleiha in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus have withdrawn from the battlefield and are returning to Iraq. The withdrawal of Iraqi Shi’a militants is having a direct impact on the regime’s forces composition. As rebels have made gains in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs over the last two weeks, the regime has failed to launch a successful counteroffensive. Rebel gains, particularly in Damascus and Qalamoun, may also suggest that Hezbollah recruitments to replenish the redeployed Iraqi Shi’a militants are either insufficient or not occurring quickly enough.
Regime airstrike reallocation
Reporting on kinetic activity in Syria by Sham News Network indicates an escalation in overall regime air raids throughout Syria in the last two weeks. Regime air strikes in eastern Syria against ISIS positions have continued to increase since ISIS began its attack on Mosul. It is likely that the expansion of regime airstrikes into eastern Syria will affect its ability to conduct airstrikes in key areas of contestation along the central corridor in western Syria. The regime’s reliance on airpower has also increased due to the manpower deficit caused by the redeployment of Iraqi Shi’a militias. To deal with this increased demand on airpower, the regime will likely commit standard ordnances to eastern Syria while concentrating rotary wing strikes and barrel bomb attacks along the central corridor in western Syria. This will allow the regime better precision targeting against ISIS in the east while enabling it to continue air strikes in key areas of contestation.
The Syrian Air Force (SAF) continues to show that it is capable of conducting targeted sorties at a distance from its operating bases. The increase in strikes targeting ISIS strongholds in central and eastern Syria, far from the Assad regime’s primary ground operations in and around Aleppo, Homs, Deraa, and Damascus, is evidence that the SAF is capable of fighting on two fronts simultaneously. It is clear that SAF continues to receive significant external, state based logistics and technical support resulting in adequate supplies of fuel, munitions, and spare parts enabling the SAF to operate over the entire stretch of Syrian airspace. There is no evidence that SAF is reducing air sorties in support of existing operations in order to reallocate sortie counts towards ISIS targets in central and eastern Syria. It appears that SAF has generated some additional “surge” capacity to service targets of opportunity in Syria that may be temporarily vulnerable due to increased ISIS operations in Iraq.
Recent rebel gains on fronts throughout Syria indicate that opposition forces may be capitalizing on both regime and ISIS vulnerabilities as a result of the escalation of violence in Iraq.
*Qalamoun: Rebels have continued to make gains in Qalamoun, seizing strategic hills near Hayrud and Hawsh al-Arab and ambushing the town of Rankous, reportedly killing 40 Hezbollah fighters.
*Deraa province: Opposition fighters have also made advances in Deraa province, taking a military base near the Tal al-Jumu’a hill. In response, the regime has escalated air raids in the southern province against rebel positions, including an camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the town of Shajara on the Syrian-Jordanian border.
*Damascus: Rebels have continued to make gains in Mleiha over the last two weeks, reportedly killing Captain Rudein Ali Issa, the NDF leader for Damascus’ Southern Front near Mleiha. In an attempt to undo recent rebel gains in the area, regime forces mounted an unsuccessful offensive on June 18 to retake the Dilati Mosque from Islamic Front (IF) forces in Mleiha. The following day the regime launched 23 airstrikes and nine surface-to-surface missiles on Mleiha amid ongoing clashes between rebel forces and the regime.
*Aleppo province: In northern Aleppo province, rebel groups including Jabhat al-Nusra continue targeting ISIS-controlled villages of al-Bab and al-Rai near the Turkish border as part of the Naharwan al-Sharq offensive. In the countryside south-west of Aleppo city, prominent rebel groups announced seizing the regime-held villages Buhayra, Mashfa, Qalaya, Dubagha, and Manashir. The seizure coincided with the announcement of a new operations room to coordinate the “Invasion of the Age of the Honest” offensive which began on June 11.
Changes in ISIS posture in Syria
In the past week ISIS in Syria has made several unusual moves that suggest the organization is adjusting its posture on the ground as a result of the crisis in Iraq.
*After a video appeared online on June 14 showing Abu Haf al-Masri, the ISIS emir of the northern border town of Jarablus, cruelly toying with an old man, the ISIS Wilayat of Aleppo released a statement that al-Masri had been reprimanded and removed from his responsibilities.
*On June 15 opposition reporting networks put out an alert that ISIS was removing its flags from its headquarters in several towns in northern Raqqa province including Tel Abyad, al-Sharakrak, and Saluk. ISIS had only weeks before raised a behemoth of a flag in Tel Abyad, which sits right on the border with Turkey. There are no indications that ISIS has withdrawn its presence or relinquished control in any of these locations.
*On June 18 aid was allowed to enter the city of Deir ez-Zour for the first time in weeks since ISIS took control of the rebels’ only supply route into the city and cut off access. The aid delivery was the result of negotiations between ISIS and opposition groups in the area and photos from the delivery clearly show vehicles from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but ISIS posted photos of the event claiming credit for having “saved” the city.
These incidents take place against the backdrop of events in Iraq, where on June 18 ISIS repealed the Medina decree which imposed harsh Sharia law in the city of Mosul. All together this cluster of ISIS actions suggests an internal strategic decision by ISIS leadership aimed at appearing slightly more moderate. It is not yet clear if ISIS is actually attempting an organizational shift to improve its relationship with civilians or if this is a temporary move intended to lower its profile and lessen backlash in Syria while it is directing resources and attention to the Iraqi theatre. Continuing reports from Syrians living in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria indicate that ISIS has not actually moderated its draconian methods, which means that this cluster of uncharacteristic moves by ISIS is likely just a temporary reaction to the increased international spotlight.