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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Russia Moves to Supplant U.S. Role

By Genevieve Casagrande

Russian President Vladimir Putin is leveraging Russia’s position in Syria to further diminish U.S. influence in the broader Middle East and North Africa. Russia will increasingly constrain U.S. freedom of maneuver in the broader region by expanding its military footprint and its anti-access and area denial zone. Putin advanced his regional strategy from February 27 to March 20, 2017 in three ways. First, he promoted economic relationships with key U.S. allies, including Egypt and Iraqi Kurds. Russia and Egypt reached tentative agreements to establish a Russian industrial zone in the Suez Gulf area and to resume Russian flights to tourist destinations in Sinai. Russia also renegotiated its oil agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government on February 28. Second, Putin cultivated ties to local security forces, particularly those he seeks to draw away from partnership with the U.S., such as the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Russia brokered an agreement to give the Syrian regime control of villages near Manbij, Syria to deter a Turkish-backed offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, and deployed Russian forces to train the YPG on March 20. Third, Putin took steps to further develop Russian strategic basing across the region. The deployment of Russian special forces to a base in western Egypt in early March signals Russia’s intent to expand its strategic basing along the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s overtures to Egypt pose a particular concern as NATO conducts greater outreach to Egypt.




The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) produced this map with the Critical Threats Project (CTP). The graphic is part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. The ISW-CTP team recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: Nowruz Update

Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: November 23, 2016 - March 15, 2017

By: Caitlin Forrest

KT: The U.S. faces pressure from Russia as well as militant groups that seek to undermine the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan during spring and summer 2017. The ANSF faces readiness gaps that will expose multiple provincial capitals to recurrent attacks by the Taliban and escalating attacks in Kabul by multiple groups, including ISIS. These threats will compound the difficulty the ANSF already faces in holding territory recaptured from Taliban forces in 2016. Russia meanwhile will attempt to thwart the U.S. and NATO by brokering peace talks with the Taliban that increasingly incorporate competing international power centers, such as China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

The Taliban set conditions during the winter phase of its yearlong campaign, Operation Omari, to target provincial capitals during its upcoming spring 2017 offensive. Taliban militants attacked security posts and district centers near the provincial capitals of Helmand, Kunduz, and Uruzgan provinces over the reporting period, indicating their intent to attack these cities during their upcoming spring 2017 offensive when they announce it in April 2017. Taliban militants had also launched simultaneous attacks on the same three cities, as well as the provincial capital of Farah Province, in October 2016. Taliban militants attacked four district centers in Helmand in January and February 2017 to weaken security forces and gain territory to stage attacks against Lashkar Gah city. Taliban militants also launched several attacks against security posts on the outskirts of Tarin Kot city, the provincial capital of Uruzgan province in January and February. Taliban militants also attacked ANA bases in Baghlan-e Jadid District in Baghlan Province in March 2017 in an attempt to gain control of the ground line of communication (GLOC) that the ANSF uses to send reinforcements to Kunduz City from Kabul. These attacks indicate that the Taliban intends to launch ground campaigns against Lashkar Gah, Tarin Kot, and Kunduz cities during the upcoming spring offensive.

ISIS Wilayat Khorasan took advantage of ungoverned and remote spaces in northwest Afghanistan to expand its territory. ISIS expanded beyond its stronghold in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan and established a base to receive and train foreign fighters in northwest Afghanistan. Uzbek militants fighting with ISIS in Jowzjan province exerted social control by destroying Sufi shrines, burning civilian homes, and erecting prisons in early 2017. ISIS deployed recruiters from Zabul province to set up a training camp in Nimroz province in early 2017. ISIS will prioritize expanding its control in Afghanistan as it faces the loss of its capital cities in Syria and Iraq in 2017. ISIS will also attack Afghan state institutions directly. ISIS launched a complex attack against the ANSF national military hospital in Kabul on March 8, 2017. The attack demonstrated an increase in capability, insider access, and the transfer of techniques from other groups in the area or from ISIS’s core terrain.

ANSF force regeneration is not on track to match the Taliban’s spring offensives. The ANSF failed to secure large swaths of territory from Taliban militants during the winter phase of its own counter-offensive campaign, Operation Shafaq. The majority of its holding forces are insufficiently trained and under-equipped, requiring additional support from Afghan Special Security Forces. Taliban militants targeted southern and northern districts during the winter phase of Operation Omari while the ANSF conducted anti-ISIS operations in the East. The ANSF continues to struggle with high casualties and attrition despite ongoing U.S.-led force regeneration efforts. Recruitment generally keeps pace with these losses, but it is insufficient to build the force necessary to clear and hold territory from Taliban militants. The Afghan Air Force’s (AAF) capabilities are steadily increasing, but its airframes are in “dire condition” due to high operational tempo and compromised helicopter maintenance due to sanctions on Russian equipment. Russia will attempt to leverage this weakness to insert itself in Afghanistan’s security sector on its own terms. The Taliban will likely capitalize on the ANSF’s readiness gaps by launching simultaneous offensives in separate regions during its spring offensive in order to stretch and weaken the ANSF to a breaking point.

Rising tensions in the National Unity Government will allow the Taliban and extremist networks to exploit security gaps. First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum undermined the government by refusing to comply with Afghan law or cooperate with judicial institutions following accusations that he assaulted the former Jowzjan Governor in November 2016. ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) exploited security gaps caused by the absence or fracturing of Dostum’s militia in Jowzjan while it protected him in Kabul. Meanwhile, Dostum’s rival, Balkh Provincial Governor Mohammad Atta Noor, seeks to supplant fellow Tajik and Jamiat party member CEO Abdullah Abdullah’s influence in the National Unity Government. President Ghani benefits from Atta’s efforts to undermine Abdullah, his rival. Atta is currently holding private talks with President Ghani, either to join the central government or possibly set up a bid for the 2019 Afghan presidential elections. The National Unity Government will lose its ability to prevent insurgent and Salafi-jihadi groups from reconstituting as it fractures along powerbrokers and warlords’ competing interests. The National Unity Government will also become increasingly willing to entertain peace talks with the Taliban brokered by Russia, which could accelerate bold posturing and independent action by former Northern Alliance Warlords within the government.

Russia is undermining the U.S. and NATO by positioning itself as the key interlocutor of peace talks with the Taliban. General Nicholson expressed concern over the “malign influence” of Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and their support of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan in a press conference on December 2, 2016. He stated that the Russian narrative that Taliban militants are countering ISIS in Afghanistan is false, and further undermines the U.S. missions in Afghanistan. Russia plans to discuss Afghan peace talks with representatives from Iran, China, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan in Moscow in April 2017, following similar meetings in December 2016, February 2017, and March 2017. Russia is courting Afghan government officials to legitimize itself as a dominant regional actor in the Afghan conflict. Russia may use economic incentives, such as restoring Soviet-era infrastructure, to strengthen its ties with the Afghan government. Russia’s continued support for the Taliban will thwart the U.S. and NATO missions in Afghanistan, weaken the Afghan government, and position Russia to use peace talks in Afghanistan to assert its own legitimacy as a guarantor of international order. Russia will use its increasing influence in Afghanistan to weaken and ultimately oust NATO from Afghanistan.

Current levels of U.S. support to the ANSF will fail to secure Afghanistan against militant groups and prevent Russia’s efforts to undermine NATO in Afghanistan. The Taliban can modulate violence in Afghanistan during the fighting season and therefore exert leverage over the Afghan state, the U.S. and NATO. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) optimized its force structure in order to mitigate the drawdown from 9,800 to 8,448 troops during the winter fighting season, but the force is still inadequate to prepare the ANSF’s to secure the country. U.S. leaders attest that the U.S. must increase its troop levels to increase the ANSF’s capacity through the train, advise, and assist (TAA) mission. The U.S. has a national security interest in preventing Salafi-Jihadist groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, from reconstituting in Afghanistan.



Correction: ISW previously listed that Taliban militants attacked Talah wa Barfak District in Baghlan Province in March 2017. It has since been corrected to state Taliban militants attacked ANA bases in Baghlan-e Jadid District in March 2017 as of 22 MAR 2017. 

Putin’s Real Syria Agenda

By Genevieve Casagrande and Kathleen Weinberger

Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary objective in Syria is to constrain U.S. freedom of action – not fight ISIS and al Qaeda. Russia’s military deployments at current levels will not enable the Iranian-penetrated Assad regime to secure Syria. Moscow’s deepening footprint in Syria threatens America’s ability to defend its interests across the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Sea. The next U.S. step in Syria must help regain leverage over Russia rather than further encourage Putin’s expansionism.

Read the full report here.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) produced this report with the Critical Threats Project (CTP). The insights are part of an intensive multi-month exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) and al Qaeda in Syria. The ISW-CTP team recently released “America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” which details the flaws in the current U.S. approach in Iraq and Syria and proposes the first phase of a strategic reset in the Middle East.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Syria Situation Report: March 9 - 17, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Conditions on the ground are not set for a political solution to the Syrian Civil War despite diplomatic efforts by regional powers. Russia, Iran, and Turkey held the third round of Astana Talks on March 14 – 15. The talks failed to generate any significant results amidst a boycott by the opposition delegation driven by the failure of Russia to implement a promised nationwide ceasefire. The Syrian Civil War will further protract due to the regime’s unwillingness to consider meaningful concessions as well as continued attacks by irreconcilable factions. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham conducted a double suicide attack in the Old City of Damascus on March 11. Unidentified militants later conducted a second double suicide attack targeting the Palace of Justice in Damascus on March 15.

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 Direct. The graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of March 3, 2017.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 9-16, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made significant progress from March 9 to 16, pushing deep into western Mosul and eliminating ISIS’s presence north of the city. ISIS has reopened attack fronts around Tikrit and Baiji, however, underscoring that Mosul’s recapture will not defeat ISIS in Iraq.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) advanced towards the Old City in western Mosul from March 9 to 16, consolidating control over southwestern Mosul. The Federal Police and Emergency Response Division, an elite unit within the Ministry of Interior, inched into the Old City on March 11 along the Tigris River. The Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) meanwhile quickly established control over several southwestern neighborhoods and contact with the Old City on March 13. Northeast of the city, the 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division recaptured Badush Sub-District on March 15 and its environs. Across the river, units from the 16th IA Division recaptured remaining ISIS-held territory between Tel Kayyaf District and the western Peshmerga defensive line, including the Badush Dam facility on March 11. The facility, never finished, is the intended replacement for the eroding Mosul Dam.

The U.S. and Coalition will need to ensure their continued presence in Iraq after Mosul’s recapture, which could occur within a month, in order to clear remaining ISIS-held areas and ensure stability in recaptured areas. Coalition Spokesman Col. John Dorrian stated on March 15 that there should be an “enduring [force] requirement” beyond Mosul’s recapture, but that Coalition members would need to discuss any force posture with the Iraqi Government. These conversations should focus on short-term requirements for continuing anti-ISIS operations post-Mosul and the long-term training mission to ensure a local security force that can hold recaptured terrain. Both will require continued U.S. and Coalition support in order to sustainably defeat ISIS, prevent its resurgence, or security the country.

ISIS is reestablishing its network and capabilities between Baiji and Tikrit. The police chief of Baiji, an oil town recaptured from ISIS in October 2015, stated that extremists carried out forty “hit-and-run” attacks in Baiji in the last month alone. The police chief previously categorized attacks in the city as “rare.” Attacks around Baiji extend beyond simple hit-and-run tactics, however. Two SVESTs detonated at a wedding party south of Baiji on March 9, killing more than 20 people. ISIS executed members of the Albu Nimr tribe in Baiji and detonated an SVEST in a home south of the city on February 25. Both incidents underscore ISIS’s advanced technical ability and that ISIS either has a cell in Baiji or steady access to the area. Attacks in Tikrit have likewise increased, despite the high level of security provided by the ISF and militias. ISIS detonated a SVBIED in central Tikrit on March 15, one of the few attacks inside Tikrit City since its recapture in March 2015. ISIS has been reviving its capabilities east of Tikrit, particularly in al-Dawr, over the past three months. The attack inside Tikrit, however, suggests an advancement in ISIS’s capabilities in the area. Reviving and maintain these networks and capabilities could allow ISIS to maintain strength in Iraq even after it loses control of Mosul.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Syria Situation Report: March 2 - 9, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesperson Col. John Dorrian stated that the U.S. deployed roughly four hundred soldiers drawn from the 75th U.S. Army Ranger Regiment and 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Northern Syria. These forces come in addition to an estimated three hundred to five hundred U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) operating with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northern Syria. The Marines reportedly deployed to Northern Ar-Raqqa Province in order to provide "all-weather" artillery support to the SDF in operations against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City while the Rangers deployed to Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province in order to "deter" an open confrontation between the SDF and Turkey. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford also held an unprecedented trilateral meeting with Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and Russian Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Turkey on March 7 to deconflict ongoing operations near Manbij in Aleppo Province. Turkey will likely retaliate against these efforts to contain its operations in Northern Syria.

Meanwhile, the latest round of Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War concluded on March 3 without significant progress. The regime and opposition delegations agreed on an agenda for the next round of negotiations that included the regime’s demand to include talks on counter-terrorism but excluded opposition requests for direct negotiations on a political transition. Conditions are not set for a meaningful political settlement of the war as the regime remains unwilling to make concessions at the negotiating table and the opposition remains unable to guarantee any settlement on the ground.

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 Direct. The graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of March 3, 2017.


Iraq Control of Terrain Map: March 9, 2017

By the ISW Iraq Team


The ISF has continued to make significant progress in operations to recapture terrain from ISIS in Mosul. The ISF cleared the last ISIS-held neighborhood in eastern Mosul on January 24 and launched operations to recapture western Mosul on February 19. As of March 9, the ISF has cleared Mosul International Airport, the Ghazlani Military Base, the Ninewa Government Center, and several neighborhoods in western Mosul. Forces from the Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), Emergency Response Division (ERD), and Federal Police (FP) have penetrated southern Mosul and are currently advancing towards the Old City in central Mosul.

Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMU) operations to clear Tal Afar, west of Mosul, and the Jazeera desert in western Ninewa have made marginal progress since November 2016 and are currently stalled. The PMU’s lack of urban clearing capabilities combined with political challenges regarding Iraqi Shi’a militias clearing a majority Sunni Turkmen city have slowed operations. The ISF are on track to clear western Mosul but security breaches in eastern Mosul and the heavy presence of Iraqi Shi'a militias in Ninewa raise serious concerns over the future stability of Ninewa and the future outbreak of sectarian and ethnic conflict.


ISIS Sanctuary Map: March 9, 2017

By Alexandra Gutowski and the ISW Research Team 

ISIS incurred territorial losses in Iraq and Syria between February 27 and March 9, 2017. Pro-regime forces recaptured Palmyra with the assistance of Iran, Russia, and Lebanese Hezbollah on March 2. Pro-regime forces seized additional villages from ISIS in northeast Aleppo province on March 7 and March 9, recapturing critical infrastructure. The U.S.-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continues to clear the countryside east of Raqqa in an effort to isolate Raqqa city, seizing villages along an interior road on March 9. Iraqi Security Forces captured the Ninewa government building in southwest Mosul on March 7 as well. ISIS retains capable ground forces in Raqqa, eastern Homs, and Deir ez Zour provinces that will continue to attack regime forces in Syria. ISIS has also likely infiltrated broader zones across Iraq and Syria that it will cultivate for future spectacular attack campaigns. ISIS appears to be concurrently surging in Afghanistan, which ISIS may increasingly emphasize within its global campaign as it incurs losses in Iraq and Syria that it cannot immediately offset.




Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: March 2-8, 2017

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) recaptured the government complex in central Mosul on March 7. ISIS has increased its use of chemical weapons in its defense.

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) made a push towards central Mosul on March 7, retaking the government complex and securing a second bridge. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi arrived in Mosul for the occasion. The Federal Police and Emergency Response Division (ERD) continue to advance north by skirting along the river’s edge rather than penetrate into the dense Old City. The Federal Police and ERD have spearheaded operations in western Mosul instead of the Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) which is leading a secondary line of effort in southwestern neighborhoods. The move was likely an effort to relieve the weary CTS of bearing the main thrust of the western operations. The ISF will likely continue to advance along the river, where the roads are wider and the ISF can remain in vehicles, until it reaches the 1st “Iron” Bridge. There it can turn west and advance towards the Great Mosque. Recapturing the mosque would be a symbolic victory in the anti-ISIS fight as the location where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first public appearance as Caliph in July 2014. The 9th Iraqi Army Armored Division alongside Popular Mobilization units meanwhile began efforts on March 7 to recapture the village of Badush, northwest of Mosul, seizing the nearby prison on March 8. 



ISIS increased its use of chemical weapons in the defense of western Mosul. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated on March 3 that it treated seven patients for exposure to chemical agents near Mosul. The United Nations likewise stated it treated twelve patients for wounds from a “blistering agent.” ISIS has used chemical weapons before; in November 2016, ISIS used chlorine and mustard gas in Bashiqa against the Peshmerga and burned sulfur plants around Qayyarah to prevent ISF advance. ISIS may increase its use of chemical weapons as the ISF breaks through its lines of defense in western Mosul. It may also try to combine chemical weapons with spectacular attacks, as the Federal Police reported it dismantled a Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED) carrying unspecified chemical weapons on February 26. 

The Coalition must set conditions for political stability and good governance at the local level to prevent ISIS from resurging after the recapture of Mosul. Coalition outreach has thus far been primarily directed at the Iraqi Government. ISIS is already resurging in provinces where local governments suffer from political infighting, such as Anbar. The Iraqi Government and U.S.-led Coalition need to facilitate the Ninewa Provincial Government’s ability to deliver services, reconstruction, and governance while remaining politically stable. Failure to rebuild local institutions and governance in Ninewa and other provinces risks the return to an environment of instability in which ISIS and other Sunni insurgencies thrive. 



Iran's Assad Regime

By Christopher Kozak

Key Takeaway: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is neither sovereign nor a viable U.S. partner against ISIS and al-Qaeda. Russia and Iran have penetrated the Syrian Arab Army’s command-and-control authorities at all levels and propped up the force by providing the bulk of its offensive combat power. The pro-regime coalition cannot secure all of Syria and primarily serves as a vehicle for Moscow and Tehran’s regional power projection. Any U.S. strategy in Syria that relies on pro-regime forces will fail to destroy Salafi-Jihadists while empowering Iran and Russia.

Both former U.S. President Barack Obama and current U.S. President Donald Trump have considered deeper cooperation with Russia – and thereby Iran and Assad – against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. This idea is based on two fundamental fallacies. First, Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime cannot recapture Salafi-Jihadist safe havens and secure them over the long-term given their severe manpower shortages and shortfalls in command-and-control. Second, Assad is not sovereign. Iran and Russia have both inserted themselves deep into the framework of the state. Both states aim to entice the U.S. into actions that advance their own strategic interests and ultimately facilitate the expulsion of the U.S. from the Middle East.

Regime Manpower Shortage

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) no longer exists as a unified or coherent fighting force capable of independently securing the entire country. Six years of defections, desertions, and combat attrition have more than halved its pre-war combat strength to an estimated 100,000 soldiers as of 2014 – primarily ill-equipped and poorly-trained conscripts. Only a fraction of these forces can reliably deploy in offensive operations – perhaps as few as 30,000-40,000 soldiers. These units largely consist of ‘elite’ forces such as the Republican Guard, Special Forces, and Fourth Armored Division that recruit heavily among Syrian Alawites.

The regime struggled to overcome these structural weaknesses due to a severe manpower shortage. The SAA intensified an indiscriminate conscription campaign in late 2014 amidst reports that the conflict had killed as many as one-third of fighting-age males among Syrian Alawites. Activists reported the conscription of underage children and prisoners into units that received less than one week of training before battlefield deployment. Assad acknowledged these strains in a public speech in July 2015, noting an ongoing “shortfall in human capacity” that forced the state to “give up some areas” in order to focus on more “important regions” in Syria.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 has not altered these underlying shortfalls. Reinforcements from Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah helped in part to close this gap between the regime’s requirements and capabilities. The regime nonetheless remains fragile and unable to muster sufficient forces for major simultaneous operations. Most notably, ISIS recaptured Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province in December 2016 and increased its attacks against regime positions in Deir ez-Zour City while pro-regime forces focused their main effort against opposition-held districts of Aleppo City. This zero-sum allocation of resources will not be alleviated unless an outside actor conducts a major ground deployment – a step neither Russia nor Iran have been willing to pursue to date.

Breakdowns in Command-and-Control

The Syrian Civil War also forced the regime to surrender control over pro-regime forces on the ground. The regime mobilized tens of thousands of paramilitary and foreign fighters not beholden to the state in order to mitigate and reverse its operational immobility. The regime directs this coalition through an increasingly decentralized and ad hoc network of command-and-control structures that grants expanded operational authority to junior officers in the field. These structures have been coopted by local strongmen as well as Iran and Russia.

The SAA has fractured as a result of policies undertaken to survive internal security threats. Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad first implemented a system of military decentralization called the ‘quta’a system’ in 1984. This system assigned each combat division to a specific geographical region, assigned it responsibility for local population centers, and granted wide discretionary powers to the commanding officer. These ‘quta’as’ – or sectors – became fiefdoms for senior military officials, giving commanders a stake in preserving local security at the cost of reduced dependence on the state.

The regime further task-organized its maneuver units and consolidated loyal formations into larger units after the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 in order to exert command-and-control and improve their combat effectiveness during the Syrian Civil War. These reorganizations extended as low as the battalion level with individual companies, platoons, and soldiers being reallocated into new formations. Many formal combat brigades and divisions no longer exist in 2017 as meaningful frames of reference for operations on the ground.

The regime simultaneously organized a network of paramilitary auxiliaries to supplement its flagging combat forces. These paramilitary groups routinely evade efforts by the regime to impose state control and instead remain loyal to foreign powers, political parties, criminal networks, or individual benefactors, further degrading regime command-and-control. These units closely coordinate with the remnants of the formal military, blurring the lines between official and unofficial combat forces. This fragmentation of command authority granted the regime resiliency against immediate collapse at the cost of receding state sovereignty.

Initial efforts to consolidate these paramilitary groups under state control have regressed since 2015. The regime formed the National Defense Forces (NDF) in 2013 with assistance from Iran in order to bring disparate popular committees, criminal networks, and self-defense groups under a military umbrella. At its peak, the NDF incorporated between 80,000 to 100,000 fighters focused on rear-area security and static defense, freeing valuable manpower for other offensive operations. Over the past year, the NDF reportedly fragmented and reverted to local groups outside the formal command structure as economic turmoil hampered the regime’s ability to match the salaries offered by foreign or private actors.

Paramilitary groups linked to a wide variety of benefactors, causes, and ideologies fight alongside the regime, generating intense friction with the state. These factions include political militias organized by the Syrian Arab Ba’ath Party and Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Palestinians, private militias run by wealthy businessmen, and tribal organizations. Several branches of the state security apparatus – including the four rival intelligence agencies – also recruit their own paramilitaries. These groups reportedly engage in a wide range of criminal activity that exploits local populations to bolster their meager incomes. Paramilitary groups have even engaged in direct confrontations with state authorities. For example, Assad reportedly ordered the withdrawal of nearly 900 individuals from two prominent paramilitary groups - the ‘Desert Hawks’ and ‘Naval Commandos’ - after their forces allegedly interfered with a presidential convoy in Latakia City in February 2017.

Foreign Dominance

Iran currently provides the high-end manpower capable of securing significant gains for pro-regime forces on the ground. Iran operates a coalition of nearly 30,000 fighters that includes the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and Afghan Shi’a fighters. These forces likely constitute one-sixth to one-eighth of total pro-regime forces – this ratio only increases when compared to the small number of combat-effective regime units.

Iran has deployed at least 7,000 of its own fighters to Syria. These forces include elements of the IRGC-Ground Forces and Iranian ‘Artesh’ that represent the first expeditionary deployment of conventional forces by Iran since the Iran-Iraq War. Iran also leads a coalition of roughly 20,000 foreign fighters in the country, including 6,000 to 8,000 from Lebanese Hezbollah, 4,000 to 5,000 from Iraqi Shi’a militias, and 2,000 to 4,000 Afghan Shi’a fighters. These totals exclude the wide array of local paramilitary groups supported by Iran in Syria. This coalition provides a disproportionate amount of the combat-capable infantry used in major pro-regime operations. For example, Iran and its proxies reportedly provided more than half of the 10,000 fighters assembled for the year-long regime campaign to seize Aleppo City in 2015. These forces also played key roles in the two operations launched to recapture Palmyra over the past year.

Iran has created a self-sufficient method of combined force operations that excludes a major role for the regime’s military. The IRGC has developed a model of cadre-warfare that allows Iran to implant military leadership over a base of irregular fighters that it organizes, funds, and equips in a host country. Iran operates sophisticated infrastructure – including a strategic air bridge from Tehran to Damascus via Baghdad - to train, equip, manage, and redeploy these forces across the region in line with its own strategic priorities. The IRGC – Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah lead key operations and relegate the SAA to providing heavy support including artillery, armor, and airstrikes to foreign infantry forces.

Iran gradually co-opted the regime’s remaining command structure as its combat forces became the most asymmetric advantage in the conflict. Iran reportedly assumed control of key operations rooms and ad hoc headquarters in both Latakia and Dera’a Provinces in 2015. The transitions were accompanied by widespread claims of purges, executions, and transfers of low-ranking regime officers to other fronts. The takeover also extended to senior officers who resisted the expansion of Iran’s influence. In the most prominent example, Syria Political Security Directorate Head Rustom Ghazalah died in April 2015 following a severe beating rumored to be related to his resistance to the increased Iranian deployment to Southern Syria.

Iran also played an integral role in the development of pro-regime paramilitary groups ostensibly under regime authority in order to establish the long-term infrastructure of a ‘Syrian Hezbollah.’ Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah played a foundational role in building the NDF based on the Iranian ‘Basij.’ Iran also oversaw enlistment campaigns across the country – in some cases competing directly with the regime for new recruits by providing competitive salaries and military equipment. Iran nurtured its pool of future manpower through religious outreach including funding for theology schools and revolutionary youth groups among Alawites on the Syrian Coast. Iran worked to develop independent infrastructure against Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights as demonstrated by the deaths of key Lebanese Hezbollah operatives such as Jihad Mughniyeh in January 2015 and Samir Kantar in December 2015.

Russia, by contrast, strengthened the regime’s military and security services’ formal structures. Russia provides the majority of its military aid, including advanced weaponry and air support, directly to the SAA. This support included the provision of advanced armored vehicles such as T-90 Main Battle Tanks and BTR-82 Armored Personnel Carriers to elite units such as the Syrian ‘Tiger Forces’ and Republican Guard. Russia took great pains to present its military engagement as a bilateral agreement between two legitimate governments against terrorism through high-profile basing deals and public coordination with senior regime officials. These efforts complement the actions of Iran in Syria while simultaneously allowing Russia to develop an independent partner for long-term influence. 

Russia also tried to reconsolidate paramilitary groups under state control via new headquarters and command structures. Russia drove the establishment of the Fourth Storming Corps in Latakia Province in October 2015 and the Fifth Storming Corps in Damascus in November 2016. These new corps structures reportedly intend to consolidate paramilitary groups under state control with Russian command-and-control support, funding, and equipment. The Fifth Storming Corps spearheaded the pro-regime offensive that recaptured Palmyra from ISIS in March 2017 with backing from Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Russia has nonetheless eroded the regime’s sovereignty. Russia took control over major operations in Northern Syria in late 2015, including key battlefronts in Latakia and Aleppo Provinces. Russia’s increasing influence in operational planning and strategic decision-making generated noticeable changes in pro-regime campaign design, including the use of frontal aviation and major cauldron battles against the opposition in Aleppo Province. On the diplomatic front, Russia attempted to impose its own constitutional draft upon both the regime and opposition in order to resolve the Syrian Civil War under favorable terms that preserve its long-term basing rights on the Syrian Coast.

Implications

The U.S. will not find a partner willing or capable of advancing its national security interests within the pro-regime coalition. Pro-regime forces are not capable of independently expelling ISIS and al-Qaeda from Syria. Iran currently provides the high-end combat units that lead pro-regime offensives on the ground. Any policy that leverages Russia and Assad against Salafi-Jihadist groups will thus empower Iran in Syria by default. Conversely, any effort to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria in the near-term will also fail due to the critical role of Iran in supporting both parties. Russia has no proxy in Syria without Iran. Russia and Assad cannot afford to divorce themselves from Iran even if they intended to do so. Neither Russia nor Iran requires an end to the Syrian Civil War or the defeat of ISIS in Syria. Rather, Russia and Iran have consistently intervened in the conflict in order to suppress the opponents of the regime, enhance their own regional freedom of action, and oust the U.S. from the Middle East. Their public appeals for political and military cooperation with the U.S. are disingenuous and unconstructive. The U.S. must focus on regaining leverage and extracting meaningful concessions from the pro-regime coalition rather than surrendering to the interests of strategic adversaries for unsustainable gains against ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Al Qaeda Resumes Offensive Operations in Syria

Jennifer Cafarella

Al Qaeda in Syria has resumed offensive operations against the Syrian regime in northern Syria after the fall of Aleppo City. The recapture of Aleppo City by Syrian president Bashar al Assad and his external backers was a turning point in the Syrian civil war, but it did not seal Assad’s victory. It was instead a victory for Al Qaeda because it defeated Al Qaeda’s main competitors in northern Syria. Al Qaeda consolidated its strength and resumed offensive operations against pro-Assad forces in February 2017. Pro-Assad forces could begin to lose terrain to Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda will increasingly pose a threat to the West as its strength in northern Syria grows. The contest between Al Qaeda and pro-Assad forces, which include Iran and Russia, will increasingly challenge U.S. policy options in Syria.

Al Qaeda won a victory in Aleppo in two important ways. First, it won favor with opposition groups in August and October 2016 by launching two offensives to break the regime’s siege of opposition held neighborhoods of the city, the first of which temporarily succeeded. Al Qaeda’s effort – and temporary success – demonstrated its value to the Syrian opposition and its commitment to defending populations in opposition-held areas. Al Qaeda did not test whether it was strong enough to prevent Aleppo from falling after failing to keep the siege broken. Assad and his external backers used horrifying tactics to recapture Aleppo City, which Al Qaeda exploited to recruit. The fall of Aleppo City also neutralized opposition groups that had constrained Al Qaeda’s influence in northern Syria. Al Qaeda meanwhile preserved its own military strength and resources for future operations.

Al Qaeda took steps to advance its goal of merging all northern opposition groups under its leadership after the battle for Aleppo. Al Qaeda attacked numerous U.S.-backed groups in Idlib in January and February 2017 and forced them and other independent groups to merge under Ahrar al Sham on January 26. Prior to the merger, Ahrar al Sham’s leader reaffirmed the group's ideology and goals, which align with Al Qaeda. The statement served as a guarantee that the absorption of moderates would not dilute Ahrar al Sham. Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Fatah al Sham (JFS), then absorbed four smaller, allied opposition groups and siphoned off hundreds of fighters from Ahrar al Sham on January 28 and rebranded itself into Hayyat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). The creation of HTS involved a full merger of all military forces into a single fighting force, according to the statement announcing the formation. Al Qaeda intends to demonstrate how a full merger can increase the combat effectiveness of the whole. HTS will now lead a major offensive campaign in order to revive the opposition’s war effort after the fall of Aleppo City.

Al Qaeda obfuscated the success of its merger by appointing a veteran Al Qaeda commander formerly within Ahrar al Sham named Hashim Al-Sheikh to command HTS. Al Qaeda likely chose to elevate Hashim Al Sheikh because of his reputation as an effective military commander and because the U.S. has not listed him as a specially designated terrorist. Al Qaeda continues to prioritize staying below the threshold of American policy as it proceeds with its program to transform the Syrian opposition in Syria into a global Salafi-Jihadi base. Hashim al Sheikh is also likely viewed more favorably by Syrian opposition elements that remain hesitant to merge fully with Al Qaeda. Former JFS leader Abu Mohammad al Joulani meanwhile took control of HTS military forces in order to build his reputation as an effective anti-Assad commander.

HTS resumed offensive operations against pro-Assad forces in late February 2017. HTS launched a complex, coordinated attack against two regime military installations in Homs City on February 25. Five HTS sleeper cell members detonated Suicide Vests (SVESTs) outside the State Security and Military Intelligence Offices in the al-Mahatta and al-Ghouta Districts of Homs City. The attack killed dozens of regime soldiers including two high-ranking generals. It set conditions for follow-on military operations by disrupting the regime’s command and control and possibly fixing pro-regime forces in Homs City. HTS’ most likely operational objective is to attack Hama City, which has symbolic resonance for the Salafi Jihadi movement because of the 1982 massacre conducted by former Syrian president Hafez Al Assad against the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged supporters. HTS may alternately launch an offensive against the regime’s coastal stronghold in order to shake the regime’s confidence and possibly to threaten Russia’s military bases in Latakia and Tartous.

A major HTS-led campaign against pro-Assad forces would require Assad and his external backers to dedicate significant resources to defense. It would likely deny them the ability to launch clearing operations in Idlib Province after consolidating in Aleppo City. It may force Russia and Iran to dedicate more resources to the Syrian theater in order to defend key regime-held terrain. HTS could degrade the regime’s defenses enough to create opportunities for ISIS to advance after the regime’s recapture of Palmyra. ISIS has conducted regular attacks deep into Homs City, indicating that it is positioned to exploit regime vulnerabilities that HTS may inflict and vice versa. It is also possible, although less likely, that HTS and ISIS will coordinate tactically against the regime in the Homs-Hama corridor. Most dangerous possibilities include simultaneous and possibly coordinated Al Qaeda and ISIS offensives that overmatch the Syrian regime’s defenses north of Damascus. Russia and Iran are taking steps to bolster the regime’s ability to defend terrain against major offensives, but it is unclear how rapidly they can respond or how many positions they can defend at once.


President Trump will face a decision point on how to respond to the resumption of large-scale violence in western Syria. Russia will attempt to draw the U.S. into a counterterrorism partnership in Syria in reaction to HTS’ upcoming offensive. President Trump must avoid ceding more power to Russia in Syria in return for a counterterrorism partnership that would only radicalize Syria’s population further. Al Qaeda’s continued rise demonstrates that a counterterrorism strategy is inappropriate, furthermore. The U.S. will not destroy Al Qaeda’s army in Syria through precision airstrikes against individual high profile Al Qaeda operatives. President Trump must instead adopt a new long-term strategy that integrates American efforts against Al Qaeda and ISIS to destroy both armies while depriving them of local support. 

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 26 – February 28, 2017

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia waged an aggressive air campaign against critical civilian infrastructure in southern and northern Syria from February 12 – 27, marking the continuation of a policy Russia has implemented since the start of its intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Russia conducted heavy waves of airstrikes against opposition terrain in southern Dera’a Province during this period, supporting pro-regime forces after U.S.-backed Southern Front-affiliated groups and prominent Salafi-jihadi factions launched a joint offensive to capture the regime-held Manshiya District in Dera’a City. Russian warplanes repeatedly targeted medical facilities and other vital civilian infrastructure in the area, aiming to depopulate opposition-held districts of the city and draw opposition forces away from front lines. Russian airstrikes also targeted hospitals in southern Idlib and western Aleppo Provinces, likely in anticipation of a pending opposition offensive against regime-held Hama City. Notably, the UN concluded two weeks prior that Russian and regime airstrikes extensively targeted hospitals in Aleppo City from July – November 2016, such that “no hospitals were left functioning” in December. The UN findings and recent wave of hospital strikes indicate that Russia will continue to flout international humanitarian law and target civilian infrastructure as part and parcel of its way of war in Syria.

The Russian air campaign in southern and northern Syria also rendered acceptable opposition groups increasingly vulnerable to Salafi-jihadist attacks. Russian airstrikes in and around Dera’a City enabled ISIS affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn al Walid to seize several towns from opposition forces in the vicinity of the nearby Yarmuk Basin, an area dominated by the Southern Front. Russian warplanes also targeted a headquarters of former U.S.-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipient Jaysh Idlib al Hur in southern Idlib Province on February 15, likely emboldening al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate to threaten the weakened group ten days later. Although Russian airstrikes facilitated pro-regime gains against ISIS in eastern Homs Province from February 8 – 11 and 26 – 28, the ambit of Russia’s anti-ISIS effort extends only so far as it aligns with its goal to preserve the Syrian regime. In contrast, Russia will continue to invest heavily in the targeting of acceptable opposition groups, so as to make them more susceptible to recruitment and attack by ISIS and al Qaeda. As Russia continues to both violate international legal norms and accelerate the radicalization of the armed opposition, it all but disqualifies itself as a viable partner for the U.S. counter-terrorism coalition.



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. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

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.