ISW INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY: June 6-13, 2015
Reviewing the Week
Compiled by Harleen Gambhir
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: President Obama and other leaders condemned Russian aggression at the Group of 7 (G7) summit, pledging to extend sanctions against the country soon after Russian-backed separatists launched a new offensive in eastern Ukraine on June 3. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton and Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power also pushed for more decisive action, signaling an increased effort by the U.S. to pressure and isolate and Russia. The Obama administration also announced a plan to send 450 additional U.S. trainers to Iraq’s Anbar province to support an offensive to retake Ramadi, two days after President Obama announced that the U.S. does not have a “complete strategy” to train the Iraqi Security Forces and defeat ISIS. This incremental increase of support by the U.S. is unlikely to have immediate effects on ISIS, especially as the organization appears to be preparing for a major offensive targeting Anbar, Baghdad, or Shi’a holy sites to mark the holy month of Ramadan beginning on June 17. Wilayat Sinai’s attack on the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) airbase in Egypt on June 9 indicates that ISIS’s regional affiliates may support ISIS’s effort with spectacular attacks on international interests during Ramadan as well.
IRAQ: The U.S. delivered the first 1,000 of 3,000 AT4 anti-tank rockets to Iraq on May 30 and also announced on June 10 the deployment of 450 additional U.S. advisors to Taqqadum Airbase, south of Habaniya Airbase. The ISF and Popular Mobilization continue to pressure ISIS in and around Fallujah and Ramadi, with the aid of Russian Kornet anti-tank rockets and American AT4 rockets to repel SVBIED attacks. Popular Mobilization forces assaulting through the Thar Thar also reached and reportedly secured priority infrastructure on the ‘Tigris Arm,’ north of Fallujah. In a departure from previous stated objectives, prominent militia commander Hadi al-Amiri declared on June 11 that the Popular Mobilization will next focus on liberating Fallujah, which ISIS captured in January 2014. In Baiji, the Popular Mobilization and the ISF have increased their hold on the district and have opened supply lines to friendly forces in the refinery. However, ISIS remains operational south of Kirkuk and in Diyala, where it maintains a steady stream of low-level attacks involving direct and indirect fire, IEDs, and SVBIEDs. Several of ISIS’s attacks this week may indicate its plans during Ramadan. ISIS moved VBIEDs along the Euphrates River valley and near Shi’a holy sites, likely in preparation for a major offensive to mark the beginning of Ramadan on June 17. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) destroyed multiple VBIEDs west of Samarra on June 6 as well as VBIEDs near Haditha, west of al-Asad Airbase on June 9 and 13. Eight VBIEDs directed toward Karbala were also interdicted on June 10. ISIS is likely moving VBIEDs in support of multiple objectives. ISIS may be testing ISF and Popular Mobilization reactions to attacks near military bases and significant holy sites in preparation for larger attacks over Ramadan. Alternatively ISIS may have attempted and and failed to attack proximate targets intended to commemorate the one year anniversary of the fall of Mosul. ISIS also may be seeking to divert ISF and Popular Mobilization fighters to shrines at Samarra and Karbala in order to prepare for a main offensive in Anbar. ISW previously forecasted that ISIS’s most likely course of action over Ramadan would be the consolidation of control along the Euphrates River, and ISIS’s movement near Haditha is an indicator of such intent. VBIEDS intended to strike the shrine cities of Karbala, Najaf, Samarra, and the capital would correspond with a more dangerous option for ISIS to conduct spectacular attacks over Ramadan to maximize sectarianism and broadly improve its military opportunities in Iraq.
See: “Iraq Situation Report: May 28-29, 2015“; “ISF Disposition in Anbar: May 15 – May 27, 2015,” by Theodore Bell and Patrick Martin, May 29, 2015; “Iraq Situation Report: May 26-27, 2015“;
“Iraq Situation Report: May 23-25, 2015; Control of Terrain in Iraq: May 25, 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: Turkish officials released statements suggesting that deals with the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Syria and to provide air support to moderate rebels participating in the train-and-equip program against ISIS were close to fruition. These statements are likely attempting to pressure the U.S. to embrace more expansive policies against the Assad regime ahead of the international anti-ISIS coalition meeting being held in Paris on June 2. Meanwhile, Kurdish officials stated that the U.S.-led coalition agreed to support a YPG-led effort to clear ISIS-held terrain along the Turkish border, including the ISIS stronghold of Tel Abyad in northern ar-Raqqa Province, and connect Kurdish-held terrain in Aleppo and Hasaka Provinces. If successful, ongoing Kurdish advances along this corridor would greatly increase the scope of the self-proclaimed Kurdish autonomous zone of Rojava – a development which would likely prompt backlash from Turkey. Meanwhile, pressure on the Assad regime continued to build on multiple fronts. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-al Nusra led rebel forces in the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room (headquarters) in the seizure of the town of Ariha south of Idlib City, the last major obstacle to completing opposition control over Idlib Province. Rebels will likely move to consolidate their hold over the remaining regime holdout positions in the province in preparation for future offensives against Latakia or Hama Provinces. Meanwhile, ISIS continued to consolidate and expand its control over Palmyra and its associated network of military installations and infrastructure in central Syria. ISIS will most likely aim to capture the Deir ez-Zour military base in the East, as well as the T4 military base near Palmyra, positioning ISIS forces for future attacks against the regime near Damascus and the Syrian central corridor. Despite early reports of a regime mobilization for a counteroffensive against Palmyra, the Assad regime likely lacks sufficient manpower to deploy significant reinforcements to either front. Recent reports of mass conscription incidents in the coastal Alawite heartland highlight the strain currently faced by regime forces.
See: “ISIS Control and Expected Offensives in Central Syria: May 29, 2015,” by Christopher Kozak and Jennifer Cafarella, May 29, 2015; “The Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Campaign for Idlib Province,” by Jennifer Cafarella, May 29, 2015; “Control in Syria: May 28, 2015“;
“Syria Situation Report: May 21-26, 2015
“; “The Regime’s Military Capabilities: Part 1
,” May 26, 2015; “New ISIS Offensives in the Syrian Civil War,” by Christopher Kozak, May 14, 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: Militant groups launched two significant terrorist attacks this week, signaling a likely degradation of security within Egypt. ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai launched mortars and a rocket at the al-Jura airport adjacent to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) base in North Sinai on June 9. Wilayat Sinai described the airport as used by “Crusader forces for maintaining the security of Jews,” indicating a deviation in the group’s usual focus on Egyptian security forces to now include international peacekeepers. The next day, three unidentified militants armed with assault rifles and an explosive belt launched a suicide attack at the Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor, Upper Egypt. Police thwarted the attack, which injured four Egyptian citizens. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which represents a shift in target type and operating zone for most Egyptian armed groups. Wilayat Sinai is the only group currently operating in Egypt that has conducted suicide operations and possesses the capability to carry out such an attack. Wilayat Sinai’s has primarily constrained its operations to North Sinai over the past year, however, making the attack in Luxor an aberration. Terrorist attacks targeting tourists and international peacekeepers threaten to destabilize Egypt and weaken its already fragile economy leading to discontent with President Sisi who has championed efforts to revitalize the economy and contain the terrorist threat
See: “International ISIS’s Wilayat Sinai Attacks Base,” by Harleen Gambhir and Jantzen Garnett, July 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: The Obama administration announced plans on June 10 to send additional U.S. trainers to a new military base in Iraq’s Anbar province to help Iraqi forces retake Ramadi. Increased assistance from the U.S. likely will help the ISF in the long term, but the province remains extremely vulnerable to new offensives by ISIS in the short term, specifically during the month of Ramadan. For the past three years ISIS has launched major offensives at the start of Ramadan in order to accomplish its annual campaign objectives. ISIS and its affiliates took action this week that support Ramadan forecasts for ISIS’s most likely and most dangerous courses of action alike. ISIS may focus during Ramadan upon consolidating territorial gains in Anbar, Deir ez Zour, and Sirte in Libya as a continuation of its current campaign. Alternately, ISIS may conduct asymmetric attacks against military bases, such as the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) base in al-Jura, Sinai on June 9 in order to deter the anti-ISIS coalition. ISIS may also launch spectacular attacks on Shi’a holy sites in Iraq, a danger that was highlighted by ISIS’s attempt to move multiple VBIEDs into the city of Karbala on June 10. Overall, ISIS is likely to declare its achievement to have remained and expanded since the declaration of the caliphate at the beginning of Ramadan last year. The next week is a critical time period to determine and plan against ISIS’s likely offensive operations to underscore its message of success and prelude its new campaign.
See: “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; “ISIS Sanctuary Map: May 22, 2015“; The ISIS Defense in Iraq and Syria: Countering an Adaptive Enemy, by Jessica Lewis McFate, May 15, 2015; “‘ISIS IS A STATE-BREAKER’ – Here’s the Islamic State’s strategy for the rest of 2015,” Jessica Lewis McFate onBusiness Insider, May 15, 2015;”ISIS Global INTSUM,” by Harleen Gambhir, May 7, 2015, covering March 1 – May 7, 2015. Direct press or briefing requests for Counter-Terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir or ISIS expert Jessica Lewis McFate here.
AFGHANISTAN: The U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Michael McKinley reiterated the U.S.’s commitment to supporting the Afghan government’s military and governance efforts alike on June 8. This statement comes as the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported that 1000 civilian casualties have occurred in Afghanistan in the first four months of 2015 and highlighted a recent trend of increased attacks against aid workers. There have been two instances of aid workers being taken hostage in the last week, in Logar province on June 7 and Faryab province on June 8. Meanwhile, the Taliban is attempting to reestablish its diplomatic legitimacy as it continues its warm weather offensive. It sent delegations to Oslo and Dubai to participate in informal talks on June 4-5 and June 6-7, respectively. Concurrently, the Taliban has escalated military operations, seizing the center of Yamgan district in Badakhshan with 300 militants on June 6. This is significant because, while there was militant activity in Badakhshan earlier this year, the province is far from the Taliban’s traditional stronghold in the south. This operation, along with advances in the northern provinces of Sar-e Pul and Kunduz this spring, indicate the group’s growing capacity to spread instability to new areas.
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: The U.S increased its involvement in the “Minsk II” ceasefire implementation process following the offensive maneuver launched by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine on June 3. U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called for a new military and political strategy beyond economic sanctions to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions, during a June 5 summit of U.S. military commanders and ambassadors in Germany.President Barack Obama joined international leaders at the G7 conference in condemning Putin’s actions and pledging to extend sanctions against Russia on June 8. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power travelled to Ukraine on June 10 to support the opening of a U.N. office dedicated to the implementation of the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement. Power said on June 11 that the U.S. was “ready to raise the costs on Russia” and “rally other countries to do the same” if the Kremlin continued its aggressive military course in Ukraine. Kyiv has attempted to include the U.N. and U.S. more directly in the peace process to offset the Kremlin’s influence over negotiations. Meanwhile separatist leaders released a document on June 8 proposing amendments to the Ukrainian constitution regarding the autonomy of the occupied regions of Donbas, the core political component of the “Minsk II” deal. One proposal would give the separatists the authority to appoint their own leaders in local elections that Kyiv has insisted on administrating with the support of international monitors. The release of the proposed amendments alongside renewed maneuver operations suggests that separatist forces are using military force as a negotiating tactic with the Ukrainian government.
See: “Ukraine Crisis Update: June 10, 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.