30 June 2015

The Week in Review

Christopher Kozak
June 27, 2015

This report is derived from open sources collected and processed at ISW during the reporting period. The report includes analysis on Iraq, Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, Egypt and Ukraine.

Key Take-away: The United States reaffirmed in the importance of NATO security structures amidst escalating threat streams in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Southwest Asia. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the rotational deployment of U.S. troops and pre-placement of armor to several allied NATO states in Eastern Europe amidst swiftly-escalating geopolitical tensions with Russia and indications of a renewed separatist assault in the Donbas. Meanwhile, NATO defense ministers restated their commitment to Afghanistan amidst a surge in Taliban military operations, foreign fighters, and ISIS activity.

At the same time, the U.S. and allied forces participating in the international anti-ISIS coalition also face an expanded threat over the short-term as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) launched reinvigorated efforts across the Interior and Near Abroad as part of its Ramadan offensive campaign. U.S. government officials have not yet assessed whether the attacks claimed by ISIS in Kuwait and Tunisia, and inspired by ISIS in France, were formally coordinated. Fridays in Ramadan lend themselves to the clustering of attacks without direct coordination because it is the week’s holy day. The declaration of a new ISIS governorate in the Russian Caucasus, persistent ISIS affiliate activity in the Sinai Peninsula, and spectacular attacks against Shi'a targets in Kuwait and Yemen may spark wider sectarian or inter-jihadist regional conflict that could necessitate an expansion in the scope of the U.S. anti-ISIS campaign. In Iraq, ISIS forces have reestablished a presence in Diyala Province in eastern Iraq after being largely cleared from the region in January 2015. ISIS also regrouped in northern Syria, conducting spectacular counterattacks against Kurdish and regime forces in a likely attempt to deflect pressure away from ISIS’s core terrain on which the Kurdish forces had been advancing. ISIS’s operations set conditions for further offensives into central and western Syria, particularly as rebels in southern Syria have launched a major offensive that may force a regime contraction.

IRAQ: The geographic footprints of U.S. military personnel and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militias are increasingly overlapping in Iraq as the militias expand their national campaign against ISIS and the U.S. extends additional support to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Department of Defense officials acknowledged this week that Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militias serving as “liaisons” with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are present on Taqaddum Airbase in eastern Anbar Province, where U.S. military personnel are also stationed. Although the Pentagon stated that members of the militias have largely repositioned outside of Taqaddum, their presence in the vicinity of the base and its access points does increase the risk to the U.S. advisors stationed there. Meanwhile, the conclusion this week of a formal visit to Iran by an Anbari tribal delegation seeking weapons and training for Sunni tribal fighters within the Popular Mobilization signals the expanding influence of Iran into areas of Iraq previously outside the Iranian sphere of influence. The Kingdom of Jordan has also reportedly expressed interest in supplying arms and funding to tribal Sunnis in Anbar Province through the Iraqi government, although such an effort would likely face the same bureaucratic and recruitment challenges as the U.S. training mission.

The ISIS advance and subsequent fighting have generated more than 3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq, according to the International Organization of Migration, of which only 180,000 have returned home. Additional Sunni IDPs returned to Tikrit this week, a positive development for the only major Sunni area recaptured by an ISF-led force. The ISF’s resettlement of Sunni IDPs in Tikrit contrasts with the failure to allow IDPs to return to previous areas cleared of ISIS presence primarily by Shi'a militias, including northern Salah ad-Din Province, northern Babil Province, and Sunni areas of eastern Diyala Province, which remain largely depopulated of Sunni residents. ISIS has nevertheless demonstrated a revitalized capability to project force into these previously-cleared areas despite the depopulation and heavy militia presence. An ISIS suicide attack this week against a tribal gathering in eastern Diyala Province, for example, prompted the recently-elected provincial governor - himself a senior leader in the Iranian-backed Badr Organization - to call for expanded military operations in the province. The ISIS resurgence in Diyala will likely lead the province to become the focus of renewed security efforts, potentially forcing the ISF and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a militias to redirect resources from other theatres in western and northern Iraq.

See: “Iraq Situation Report: June 25-26, 2015”; “Iraq Situation Report: June 23-24, 2015”; “Iraq Situation Report: June 20-22, 2015”; “ISF Disposition in Anbar: May 15 - May 27, 2015,” by Theodore Bell and Patrick Martin, May 29, 2015; “The Fall of Ramadi Was Avoidable,” by Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan inThe Washington Post, May 18, 2015; “ISIS Captures Ramadi,” by Patrick Martin, Genevieve Casagrande, Jessica Lewis McFate, and the ISW Iraq and Syria Teams, May 18, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Iraq analysts Sinan Adnan and Theodore Bell or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.

SYRIA: The Syrian regime faces considerable pressure in southern Syria after primarily-moderate rebel forces announced the start of the “Battle of Southern Storm” on June 25. These forces launched an offensive against the provincial capital of Dera'a City and declared the entire Damascus - Dera'a Highway to be a military zone. This announcement confirms the previous ISW forecast regarding an imminent rebel operation to seize Dera'a City in preparation for an eventual drive on the Syrian capital of Damascus. In a related development, Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other Islamist rebel factions announced the formation of a new headquarters, the Jaysh al-Fatah al-Mintaqa al-Janoub Operations Room, in southern Syria on June 21 and announced its intent to seize the Western Ghouta region southwest of Damascus. The formation of a new JN-led headquarters based upon the model of the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room in Idlib Province likely represents a consolidation of JN’s influence over the Islamist opposition in southern Syria. The more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Southern Front coalition and other FSA-aligned rebel groups formally rejected cooperation with the new headquarters, but moderate rebel forces may ultimately seek to leverage the newly-consolidated strength of JN and its allies in southern Syria in order to achieve cross-front victories in both Western Ghouta and Dera'a Province. Such operations could set conditions for a future assault on Damascus. This effect could be magnified if a major opposition victory in Dera'a City ultimately leads the regime to contract its operational footprint and reconsolidate its forces in defense of the Syrian capital.

The escalation of operations in Dera'a and Quneitra Provinces comes amidst recent efforts by the Syrian regime to reassert control over the ISIS-held city of Palmyra in central Syria. The Syrian regime recently deployed the elite “Tiger Forces” unit and other elements of its limited combat reserves to the western countryside of Palmyra, suggesting that regime forces ultimately intend to launch an offensive to recapture the city. Rebel advances towards Damascus, however, could force the Syrian regime to abandon its efforts and redirect its forces, leaving space for further ISIS advances into the central corridor of Syria. Finally, ISIS launched a series of spectacular attacks in northern Syria over June 24-25 targeting YPG forces in the Kurdish border town of Kobani and regime forces in Hasaka City. ISIS likely seeks to disrupt ongoing operations by YPG-led anti-ISIS forces in northern ar-Raqqa Province in order to divert pressure away from core ISIS terrain in ar-Raqqa City. Kurdish and rebel forces seized the ISIS-held town of Ayn Issa, thirty miles north of Raqqa City, and its associated Brigade 93 military base on June 23. ISIS may also intend to set conditions for a counteroffensive in northern Syria which offsets these recent losses.

See: “ISIS Counterattacks in Northern Syria,” by Christopher Kozak with Jennifer Cafarella, June 25, 2015; “Control in Syria: June 19, 2015”; “The YPG Campaign for Tel Abyad and Northern ar-Raqqa Province,” by Christopher Kozak and Genevieve Casagrande, June 17, 2015; “Likely Courses of Action in the Syrian Civil War: June-December 2015,” by Jennifer Cafarella and Christopher Kozak, June 12, 2015; “The Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Campaign for Idlib Province,” by Jennifer Cafarella, May 29, 2015; “ISIS Control and Expected Offensives in Central Syria: May 29, 2015,” by Christopher Kozak and Jennifer Cafarella, May 29, 2015; “An Army in All Corners:” Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria, by Christopher Kozak, April 30, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Syria analysts Jennifer Cafarella or Chris Kozak here.

EGYPT: U.S.-Egyptian relations continue to improve as the U.S. increasingly comes to view Egypt as a strategic partner despite human rights concerns. The Egyptian government announced on June 23 that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Egyptian officials on July 28-29 to hold a strategic dialogue. Although the talks have not been confirmed by the U.S. State Department, the potential meeting would mark the first strategic dialogue held between the two countries since 2009. This announcement came on the same day as the Egyptian Navy received a French-built FREMM frigate and one day after the U.S. embassy in Cairo confirmed the delivery of two Fast Missile Crafts to Egypt. This expansion of the Egyptian Navy comes six weeks before the scheduled opening of the new Suez Canal on August 6 at a time when the Egyptian Navy is also patrolling off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea as part of the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in that country.

In the Sinai Peninsula, ISIS-affiliate Wilayat Sinai appears to have increased its use of house-borne improvised explosive devices (HBIEDs) targeting the homes of Egyptian security personnel, destroying at least four houses in al-Arish since June 16. ISIS in Iraq used this tactic extensively prior to the fall of Mosul in order to intimidate members of the security services, discourage locals from joining the police or military, and create the conditions whereby the security forces would be hollowed and ripe for collapse. The proliferation of this tactic in the Sinai Peninsula thus marks a concerning indication of the development of the intentions and capabilities of ISIS Wilayat Sinai, which may aim to hollow the official security forces in the area. This threat has been amplified by recent photo releases from ISIS Wilayat Sinai claiming the use of heavy weapons not previously known to be in the group’s possession, including an SPG-9 recoilless rifle and a Kornet anti-tank guided missile system.

See: “ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai Attacks International Base,” by Harleen Gambhir and Jantzen Garnett, June 13, 2015; “Wilayat Sinai Likely Preparing for Car Bomb Campaign,” by Jantzen Garnett and Aaron Reese, March 12, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests on Egypt here.

ISIS: ISIS launched spectacular attacks in northern Syria and eastern Iraq in an apparent attempt to divert opposing forces away from its core terrain and ongoing military offensives. The organization also released a major statement on June 23 to mark the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, urging other militant factions in Syria and Libya to cease conducting actions against ISIS in a message that likely reflected ISIS’s concerns regarding expanded indigenous opposition to its presence in those countries. In the same statement, however, ISIS also promoted its strength with the announcement of the creation of a new governorate in the North Caucasus region of Russia after a prominent militant commander in the area pledged allegiance to ISIS on June 20. ISW previously forecasted the declaration of the new “Wilayat Qawqaz” during Ramadan as part of an ISIS effort to assert its continued expansion. The establishment of this new wilayat may accelerate the disintegration of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus and will likely encourage Russia to increase its counterterror efforts domestically as well as abroad.

Meanwhile, ISIS’s affiliates in Yemen launched two SVBIED attacks targeting a Shi'a mosque and an al-Houthi checkpoint in Sana'a on June 20 and subsequently claimed the attacks as part of a concerted campaign against the al-Houthis. ISIS also claimed an SVEST attack on June 26 targeting a Shi'a mosque in Kuwait, marking ISIS’s first attack in Kuwait and its third attack against Shi'a targets in the Gulf countries over the span of five weeks. Kuwait has sectarian, socio-economic, and political faultlines that ISIS can exploit. These developments are consistent with ISW’s forecast that ISIS in the Near Abroad might seek to exacerbate sectarian tensions and incite regional sectarian war as a most dangerous course of action over Ramadan. ISIS claimed an attack on June 26 targeting the Imperial Marhaba resort in Sousse, Tunisia, killing thirty-seven civilians including European tourists and wounding thirty-six others in the deadliest terror attack in Tunisian history. Only hours before this attack, a French citizen with ISIS sympathies decapitated his employer and attempted to blow up an American-owned chemical factory in Lyon, France. Although witnesses reported that the assailant claimed an association with ISIS during the attack, ISIS has not claimed responsibility - suggesting that the attack in France was ISIS-inspired rather than ISIS-directed. If ISIS directed the attacks in Kuwait, France and Tunisia, they would mark the first synchronized wave of terror attacks targeting both the Near and Far Abroad. U.S. officials have stated that they do not yet have evidence of coordination.Fridays in Ramadan lend themselves to the clustering of attacks because of the day’s religious significance.

See: “ISIS Loses Libyan Stronghold,” by Cody Zoschak with Harleen Gambhir, June 24, 2015; “ISIS Declares Governorate in Russia’s North Caucasus Region,” by Harleen Gambhir, June 23, 2015; “ISIS Sanctuary Map: June 19, 2015”; “ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai Attacks International Base,” by Harleen Gambhir and Jantzen Garnett, June 13, 2015; “ISIS’s Military Operations During Ramadan: A Forecast for 2015,” by the ISW Analytic Team, June 7, 2015; “The ISIS Regional Strategy for Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” by Harleen Gambhir, May 22, 2015; The ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy, by Jessica Lewis McFate, May 15, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.

AFGHANISTAN: NATO Defense Ministers meeting in Brussels reaffirmed their commitment to a secure Afghanistan as security in the country continued to deteriorate. Militants affiliated with the Haqqani Network launched an attack on the Afghan Parliament in Kabul on June 22, killing two civilians and wounding thirty others. Meanwhile, clashes continued throughout northern Afghanistan as Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) regained control of a Taliban-held district in Badakhshan on June 22 and launched clearing operations in Kunduz Province. In response, Taliban forces seized two districts adjacent to the provincial capital of Kunduz between June 23-24 while raiding checkpoints and seizing villages in neighboring Takhar and Baghlan Provinces. Taliban forces also continued their fight for several strategic bases in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, carrying out attacks on civilians and ANSF in four different districts this week. Local officials report that Taliban ranks have been heavily bolstered by foreign fighters, including Arabs, Uighurs, Chechens, Tajiks and Uzbeks. This force composition is somewhat unusual for the Taliban and may reflect a unification of effort between several anti-government militant fronts or a spillover of foreign militants into Afghanistan in the wake of Pakistani military operations along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Finally, ISIS Wilayat Khorasan has established judiciary courts and imposed social restrictions in Nangarhar Province in a mark of its transition from a fighting force into a governing presence. The compelling threat posed by growing ISIS legitimacy, the surge of foreign militants, and the effective military operations of the Taliban will combine to test the limits of the Afghan government and ANSF throughout the summer offensive.

See: “Is the Islamic State Escalating in Afghanistan?” by Lauren McNally, April 27, 2015; The Taliban Resurgent: Threats to Afghanistan’s Security, by Lauren McNally and Paul Bucala, March 20, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests on Afghanistan here.

UKRAINE: U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the deployment of rotational U.S. troops, intelligence, and armor to Eastern Europe as part of the NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. Secretary Carter also reaffirmed the United States’ support for Ukrainian sovereignty and underscored the U.S. commitment to the NATO defensive alliance at a conference in Estonia. These developments come amidst rising geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and Russia in Eastern Europe as well as indications of a likely new military assault by Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine within the coming week. Meanwhile, principal actors held international meetings in Minsk and Paris regarding ceasefire implementation with little result. Ukrainian Interior Ministry head Zorian Shkiryakormer and the separatist-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Borodai exchanged dueling accusations that each side was preparing for new offensives near Donetsk City, while current DNR Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko announced that Russian-backed separatists would take control over the entirety of Donetsk Oblast by force if necessary. The increasingly belligerent rhetoric highlights the volatility of the situation on the ground despite the protocols for stability outlined in the frequently-violated Minsk-II ceasefire agreement. Russian-backed separatists have historically launched offensives during previous ceasefire negotiations, including three attacks on Ukrainian positions at Marinka west of Donetsk City this month. OSCE monitors have observed gatherings of separatist armor and equipment in the towns of Horlivka and Komsolmolske near Donetsk City and frequent artillery exchanges between Ukrainian and separatist forces. These indicators suggest that a similar offensive may be imminent. Separatist forces may seek to escalate the situation along the frontlines in order to add a sense of urgency to the Minsk II implementation negotiations and pressure Ukrainian negotiators into conceding political victories to the separatists, such as recognized elections in separatist-held areas or greater regional autonomy without OSCE control over the Russian-Ukrainian border.

See: “Ukraine Crisis Update: June 25, 2015”; “Russian-Backed Separatists Launch Offensive in Ukraine,” by Hugo Spaulding, June 5, 2015; “Ukrainian rebels may take advantage of Victory Day celebrations to launch a new offensive,” by Hugo Spaulding, Business Insider, May 8, 2015; “Russian-backed Offensive in Ukraine Looms as Minsk II Ceasefire Breaks,” by Hugo Spaulding, April 28, 2015; “Putin’s Next Objectives in the Ukraine Crisis,"by Hugo Spaulding, February 3, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Ukraine analyst Hugo Spaulding here.

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