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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Turkey's Erdogan Pivots to Target U.S.-Backed Force in Syria

By Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella with Bradley Hanlon

Key Takeaway: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing to attack America’s local partner in northern Syria on two fronts along the Turkish border. Russia and the Bashar al Assad regime support his planned operation, which could constrain the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and possibly neutralize American plans to build an SDF-linked “border security force.” Erdogan’s escalation is consistent with the Institute for the Study of War’s September 2017 forecast that Turkey will conduct new military operations against U.S.-backed forces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pivoted from blocking Russia in northern Syria’s Idlib Province to preparing an attack against the U.S. partner force. Erdogan announced his intent to attack the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at a political event in Turkey on January 13. He stated Turkish forces will attack two SDF-held areas along the Turkish border within one week unless Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the SDF, withdraw. The areas Erdogan intends to attack are a zone of YPG control northwest of Aleppo City called the “Afrin canton” and the town of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo City. Erdogan deployed reinforcements to the front line between Turkish troops and the YPG in Afrin and began a military buildup across the Turkish border on January 14. Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups renewed shelling YPG-held areas on January 13, provoking return fire. Erdogan does not face internal obstacles to launching offensive operations against the SDF and claimed the operation can “start at any time” on January 15. Erdogan will likely seek the formality of the Turkish National Security Council’s (MGK) approval during the next meeting on January 17, however.

Erdogan has been preparing to attack the YPG for nearly one year. Erdogan regards the YPG as a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in Turkey. Erdogan has consistently reiterated his intent to remove what he refers to as the YPG’s “terror corridor” along Turkey’s southern border. He intervened militarily in mid-2016 to block further YPG gains and prepare future options. He began preparing for renewed military operations against Afrin in March 2017, when Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the conclusion Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria and suggested Turkey would launch future operations. Turkish troops deployed into northwestern Syria to secure the front line between the YPG and Turkish-backed opposition groups west of Aleppo City in October 2017 in order to prepare for future operations against YPG forces in Afrin. Erdogan meanwhile built up his opposition proxy force north of Aleppo City in order to prepare for future operations against Manbij.

Turkey is now taking pre-emptive action to block the U.S. from further solidifying the SDF in power. Turkey is prepared to seize SDF territory to mitigate the effect of U.S. policy in Syria, or, in Erdogan’s ideal scenario, to reverse it. U.S. officials announced plans to build a “Border Security Force” from the SDF in late 2017 and stated that the U.S. intends to make the SDF into a “model for a future Syria.” Erdogan views the conversion of the SDF into a stabilization force as a fundamental threat to Turkish national security and Turkey’s interests in Syria. Turkey condemned the U.S. policy as “absolutely impossible” for Turkey to accept. Erdogan plans to take pre-emptive action to prevent the U.S. from transitioning the SDF into a durable stabilization force. He will also use the operation to gain domestic support among the Turkish nationalist electorate ahead of Turkey’s presidential election in 2019. The Institute for the Study of War warned on November 21, 2017 that Erdogan would become even more aggressively anti-U.S. as he campaigns for re-election.

Russia and the Assad regime are backing Erdogan’s play out of a shared desire to thwart U.S. policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Russian officials condemned the U.S. for “provocations” against Turkey on January 14 and 15. Russian state-controlled media has framed the U.S. plan to build the “Border Security Force” as an instigator of Turkish aggression. Russia’s rhetoric is consistent with Turkish messaging and helps legitimize Erdogan’s operations. Russian forces are deployed along front lines in both Afrin and Manbij, and will likely withdraw. The Assad regime has also condemned the U.S. policy as an attack on Syrian sovereignty and appeared to condone a Turkish operation. Russia will attempt to exploit Turkey’s operation for its own gain and to further strengthen the Assad regime. Russia may draw back to and reinforce its positions in the Menagh Airbase and Tel Rifaat, north of Aleppo City, which provide leverage it can use to attempt to thwart possible future Turkish-backed efforts to contest pro-regime control of Aleppo City. Russia will likely seek to create a new security arrangement with Turkey that protects its interests in Aleppo City and the surrounding countryside after the operation, if it occurs. Lavrov called on Turkish forces to establish up to twenty observation points on January 15 as part of the ‘de-escalation’ agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Lavrov’s statement indicates that Russia will continue to drive Turkey to become a security guarantor in northern Syria in order to enable Russia to leverage great-power negotiations to solve local problems in Syria

Erdogan’s previous intervention in Idlib Province, south of Afrin, set conditions for his pivot against the U.S. Erdogan applied constraints on the scale of a current pro-regime push in Idlib Province by raising pro-regime military costs and proposing that Turkey and pro-regime forces refocus on their common interest against the U.S. in Syria. Erdogan provided armored vehicles and advanced weapons systems to Syrian opposition forces fighting alongside Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the successor of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Turkish support enabled these forces to reverse some pro-regime gains from January 11-15 and inflict higher casualties on pro-regime forces. Russia pivoted away from escalation with Turkey and back towards escalation with the U.S. after Putin spoke with Erdogan via phone on January 11. Russian media had shifted  blame for a January 6 drone attack on Russia’s airbase in Hmeimim on the Syrian coast from the U.S. to Turkey on January 11 as Russia and Turkey escalated in Idlib. Putin later absolved Erdogan of responsibility, and Russian media resumed its campaign to implicate the U.S. Erdogan and Putin’s deal appears limited to northwestern Syria despite Erdogan’s effort to include the Syrian capital, however. Putin has not conceded to Erdogan’s demand for a halt to pro-regime operations in Damascus.

The YPG is unlikely to accept the loss of Afrin and Manbij. The YPG was on track to deepen its relations with the U.S. after the U.S. decided in late 2017 to remain in Syria and increase U.S. support to the YPG-dominated SDF. The YPG views Manbij and Afrin as critical components of its statelet in northern Syria. The YPG rebuked Russia’s effort to coopt it by inviting its political wing to participate in international negotiations. Such negotiations have excluded YPG-linked groups to date. A YPG-linked political leader in the SDF, Aldar Khalil, publicly rejected Russia’s offer to participate in upcoming negotiations, accusing Russia of holding them for “show.” The YPG may recalculate its alignment with the U.S. if the U.S. does not take action to prevent a Turkish attack, however. The YPG is posturing as if it will retaliate against a Turkish strike. Kurdish leaders in Afrin affirmed that YPG forces are “not responsible” for the outcome if they are forced to exercise their right to self-defense. The YPG has also reportedly reasserted military control over Manbij and accused Turkey of provoking anti-YPG demonstrations on January 14. The YPG has a range of options for how to respond to an outright ground attack. YPG forces could try to strike a deal with Russia that contains the scale of the Turkish operations. The YPG could also simply choose to fight back. Possible most dangerous escalation paths include YPG support to the PKK insurgency in Turkey.

A change in U.S. policy is required to achieve a viable “post-ISIS” political-security structure in northern Syria. The U.S. shares long-term interests with Turkey in Syria that include containing and reducing Iran’s proxy buildup and reaching a negotiated settlement of the war in accordance with the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Near-term U.S. policies remain out of alignment with these long-term goals, however. The result is a perpetual showdown with Turkey reflected in increasingly incompatible American- and Turkish-backed structures. The U.S. should reconsider plans to develop the border security force and offer to restart a diplomatic engagement with Turkey over a “post-ISIS” stabilization strategy that re-aligns the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. must redline the involvement of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, which Turkey has been willing to enable and, in some cases, support. The U.S. can still find common ground with Turkey, however. The U.S. should pursue technical talks on the ultimate merger of American-backed and Turkish-backed structures. The U.S. should consider committing to the following in order to incentive Turkey to choose engagement over escalation: negotiations on the composition of a future border security force that leverages both American-backed and acceptable Turkish-backed forces, providing guarantees that acceptable Turkish-backed opposition parties can participate politically in Raqqa, and U.S. or international action to hold the SDF accountable for upholding human rights and inclusive governance.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Turkey Attempts to Block Russian-led Push in Western Syria

By Jennifer Cafarella and Elizabeth Teoman with Matti Suomenaro

Key Takeaway: Turkey is using a combination of military and diplomatic pressure to compel Russia and Iran to halt further offensive operations against Syria’s al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province. An Assad-Iranian-Russian conquest of Idlib is not in America’s national security interest. The US should help Turkey block these operations but must do so without accepting Turkey’s willingness to work with al Qaeda and without submitting to Russia’s sham diplomatic track to negotiate an end to the Syrian war. The US must instead retain freedom of action and avoid the temptation to outsource American national security requirements to regional actors already at war in Syria. 

Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime launched a joint operation in northwestern Syria against the al Qaeda stronghold in Idlib Province in November 2017. Their operational objective is to seize the Abu ad Duhor airbase southwest of Aleppo City. Russian airstrikes shifted to front lines in Hama and Idlib Provinces in November 2017 to set conditions for a ground operation. Pro-regime forces including Iranian proxy militias have reportedly seized the base as of January 10, 2018, although conflicting reports indicate clashes are ongoing. 

The pro-regime offensive violates the “de-escalation” zone in Idlib Province. Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to deploy monitoring forces to enforce the de-escalation zone in September 2017. Russian military police deployed to front lines on the southern outskirts of Idlib Province on September 13th. The deployment blocks further al Qaeda-led attacks against the regime’s stronghold in Hama. Turkish troops deployed on the northern outskirts of Idlib Province along the front line between the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and al Qaeda-led opposition groups in mid-October 2017. Turkey’s deployment opens a second front line against a pocket of YPG control northwest of Aleppo City. The pro-regime push to seize the Abu ad Duhor airbase strengthens the pro-regime front line in eastern Idlib by extending it to a more defensible perimeter. It also sets conditions for a possible subsequent offensive deeper into Idlib. 

Turkey is using a combination of military and diplomatic pressure to compel Russia and Iran to stop their offensive at the airbase. An unidentified group conducted three attacks against Russia’s Hmeimim airbase on the Syrian coast on December 27th & 31st, 2017 and January 6th, 2018. The first two attacks included rockets and mortars likely fired from al Qaeda-held areas on the outskirts of Latakia Province. The third attack was a complex drone swarm attack. Al Qaeda likely conducted the attacks as retaliation against the pro-regime operation in Idlib, but has not claimed credit. It is possible that Turkey indirectly or covertly supported these attacks. Russia demanded that Turkish intelligence increase its control over anti-Assad groups in northwestern Syria on January 10th, 2018, indicating that Russia intends to hold Turkey accountable for future attacks. The military threat to Hmeimim undermines Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative of victory and military strength in Syria. Continued attacks could also increase the cost of Russian operations in Syria. Groups fighting with al Qaeda in Idlib have also used advanced weapons systems including reports of MANPADs and other guided missile systems against advancing pro-regime forces, possibly indicating Turkey is equipping these groups to defend against the offensive.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also applying diplomatic pressure. The Turkish Foreign Ministry told Russian Ambassador Alexei Yerkhov on January 8th to cease “violations” of the de-escalation zone ahead of the upcoming Syrian war diplomatic talks in Sochi, Russia on January 29. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later called on Russia and Iran to “realize their duties” as guarantors of the de-escalation zone in Idlib on January 10th. Erdogan is leveraging European and American fears over a renewed migrant flow out of Idlib to rally support to pressure Russia and Iran to halt their offensive. The pro-regime operation has reportedly already displaced up to 100,000 Syrians. Cavusoglu stated that Turkey raised this issue with the US, France, Germany, and the UK in addition to Russia and Iran on January 10th. 

Turkey is likely conditioning its support to the Russian-backed diplomatic process on a cessation of the Idlib operation. Cavusoglu stated on January 10th that Turkey supports democratic elections in Syria that maintain Syria's territorial integrity and that "We seek to integrate” the tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish Astana negotiations with the Russian effort to broker a deal between Syrian parties in Sochi on January 29th. Cavosoglu’s statement puts Turkish support for Russia’s Sochi talks on the table as part of a negotiation over Idlib Province. Erdogan had previously signaled Turkish opposition to Russia’s diplomatic play on December 27, 2017. Erdogan called Assad a “terrorist” and stated it is “absolutely impossible” to move ahead in the Syrian diplomatic track with Assad in power. 

Turkey is applying constraints on the diplomatic track in order to mitigate risks to its own interests in Syria, meanwhile. Turkey retains veto power at the negotiating table through its influence over Syrian opposition groups. Turkey claimed to receive guarantees in December 2017 that US-backed Syrian Kurds would not attend upcoming talks in Sochi, although Russia claims the attendee list is still under negotiation. Turkey also summoned the American chargé d'affaires in Turkey to protest US support for the YPG on January 10th. The meeting likely indicates Turkey seeks to pressure the US to block the YPG's participation in the political process. 

It is unclear whether pro-regime forces will halt at the Abu ad Duhor airbase. The military threat to Russia’s airbase on the Syrian coast could deter further operations in the near term. Putin likely intends to keep his losses in Syria low ahead of Russia’s presidential election in March 2018 in order to avoid undue risk to his domestic support. Erdogan can also spoil Putin’s effort to grandstand as a mediator in Syria by rejecting the upcoming Sochi talks. A halt to Russia’s air support in Idlib would prevent further large scale pro-regime operations in Idlib, which depend on Russia’s air campaign to advance. Pro-regime forces will likely take an operational pause in Idlib, at minimum, after they secure the Abu ad Duhor airbase.

A pro-regime campaign to seize Idlib Province is not in America’s interest. The extension of Assad’s control produces a corollary extension of Iran’s military footprint and leverage in Syria. This outcome directly contradicts the Trump administration’s stated Iran policy. Assad and his external backers remain the primary drivers of radicalization in Syria, moreover. Their operations drive support for al Qaeda and will likely trigger a widening escalation of the war in Western Syria. Al Qaeda retains significant combat power in Idlib and will launch a counter-offensive. 

Neither Turkey nor Russia can deliver an outcome in Syria that supports US interests. The US should help Turkey block pro-regime operations that will cause further humanitarian catastrophe. The US must refrain from accepting either Russia’s diplomatic play or Turkey’s relationship with al Qaeda, however. The US must instead retain freedom of action and avoid the temptation to outsource American national security requirements to regional actors already at war in Syria.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Syria Situation Report: November 16 - December 14, 2017

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

This series of graphics marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. These graphics depict significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from November 16 to December 14, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as of November 16 or December 12, 2017.

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of these Syria SITREP Maps.



Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Back To The West: Russia Shifts Its Air Campaign in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and Jackson Danbeck

Russia announced the conclusion of major ground operations against ISIS in Eastern Syria and refocused its air campaign to support ongoing pro-regime offensives against opposition forces in Western Syria.

Russia claimed the full ‘defeat’ of ISIS in Syria to press for an expedited withdrawal of the U.S. from the Middle East. Pro-regime forces including Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) achieved significant gains against ISIS in Eastern Syria between November 19 and December 6. Pro-regime forces backed by Russia seized the key border town of Albu Kamal along the Syrian-Iraqi Border on November 19. Pro-regime forces later cleared the majority of the western bank of the Euphrates River in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province - including the towns of Qurayyah and Asharah - between November 28 and December 6. Russia conducted at least fourteen long-distance sorties involving Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire-C’ strategic bombers in support of these offensives between November 3 and December 6. Russian Col. Gen. Sergey Rudskoy subsequently announced the defeat of ISIS in Syria during a press briefing at the Russian Ministry of Defense on December 7. Russia likely intends to exaggerate its military successes in order to bolster its credentials as a legitimate counter-terrorism actor and intensify pressure for an expedited withdrawal by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition from Eastern Syria. Rudskoy also claimed that Russia provided direct air and special forces support against ISIS to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Syrian Kurdish YPG Spokesperson Nuri Muhammad previously acknowledged the existence of air and logistical support from Russia on December 3. Russia likely intends to leverage its air campaign as one tool in its diplomatic efforts to co-opt the Syrian Kurds - and thereby undermine the long-term presence of the U.S. in Syria.

Russia will refocus its air campaign against opposition forces in Western Syria despite its announcement of a partial military withdrawal from Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of a “significant part” of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria during a surprise visit to the Bassel al-Assad International Airport on the Syrian Coast on December 11. Russian Armed Forces in Syria Commander Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin stated that the withdrawal will include twenty-three fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopter gunships as well as select detachments of special forces, military police, and field engineers. Russia maintained at least thirty-five fixed-wing aircraft in Syria as of November 17. Russia has previously used claims of partial withdrawals in order to rotate out select units for refit-and-repair, remove redundant capabilities, and reinsert alternative weapons systems better suited for the next phase of pro-regime operations. Pro-regime forces launched limited offensives to capitalize on infighting between ISIS and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) - the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria - in Western Aleppo, Southern Idlib, and Northern Hama Provinces in early November 2017. Pro-regime forces later began to achieve sustained territorial gains along these fronts after Russia refocused its air campaign towards Western Syria in late November 2017. Russia likely intends to set conditions for future pro-regime operations to contain and ultimately clear opposition-held Idlib Province.


The preceding 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.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Syria Situation Report: November 7 - 20, 2017

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct 

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from November 7 - 20, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of November 16, 2017. 

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of this Syria SITREP Map.


Al Qaeda Clearing the Path to Dominance in Southern Syria

By Bryan Amoroso and Genevieve Casagrande
Key Takeaway: Al Qaeda is growing stronger in Southern Syria. An assassination campaign targeting mainstream opposition commanders and governance officials is facilitating al Qaeda’s consolidation of power along the borders of Jordan and Israel. Southern Syria stands at increasing risk of becoming a second Idlib Province, which currently serves as a formidable safe haven for al Qaeda.
Syrian opposition forces that could serve as a viable alternative to both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Salafi-jihadist groups are under attack in Southern Syria. A recent wave of assassinations beginning in August 2017 has killed over eleven ranking anti-regime opposition commanders and governance officials in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces. These assassinations have remained largely unclaimed. The unidentified perpetrators have targeted armed and political opposition officials using car bombs, roadside improvised explosive devices, and armed gunman. Of the forty-two attempted assassinations observed by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) from August 5 to November 21, 2017, approximately fifty-five percent successfully killed opposition fighters, commanders, or governance officials. More than half of the attempts targeted former or current U.S.-backed opposition groups. The Assad regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) are likely responsible for many, but not all, of the assassinations in Southern Syria.
Al Qaeda may leverage the wave of other attacks carried out by ISIS and the Assad regime to conceal its own covert campaign against the opposition. Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) likely seeks to exploit the deteriorating security situation in Southern Syria to advance its own covert assassination campaign against rival governance structures and armed opposition groups.Al Qaeda dispatched over thirty senior officials to reinvigorate its efforts to embed within the opposition in Southern Syria in May 2017. The areas currently experiencing the most concentrated number of assassinations overlap with the regions where al Qaeda conducted significant governance outreach in Southern Syria since 2016. Of the forty-two assassination attempts recorded by ISW in Southern Syria between August 5 and November 21, 2017, at least twenty-six occurred near the towns and villages where al Qaeda previously conducted governance outreach. The targets also increasingly include governance structures competing with HTS. At least four senior jurists from the opposition Dar al Adel Court were targeted by assassination attempts in October 2017, including the successfulassassination of Dar al Adel Executive Force Commander Omar al Mafa’alani on October 9. The spate of assassinations ultimately forced the Dar al Adel Court to cease its operations for a week on October 28.
Al Qaeda has previously capitalized on a similar security environment to undermine and coopt armed opposition groups and affiliated governance structures in Idlib Province. Idlib Province once stood as a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) just as Dera’a Province is currently dominated by the FSA-affiliated Southern Front. Al Qaeda’s consolidation of power in Idlib Province was preceded by a series of assassinations targeting opposition commanders and governance officials in Idlib Province. Al Qaeda sought to marginalize U.S.-backed opposition groups and remove opposition leadership that would be resistant to mergers and joint operations rooms with Al Qaeda during this campaign. Al Qaeda launched targeted operations against opposition groups backed by the U.S. in Idlib Province – specifically the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm – beginning in July 2014. These shaping operations preceded the formation of the Jaysh al Fateh Operations Room in March 2015. Al Qaeda acted through Jaysh al Fateh to effectively force the regime from Idlib Province by the end of May 2015. Al Qaeda exploited the success of these operations to fill the resulting governance vacuum and consolidate its control over a jihadist safe haven in greater Idlib Province in Northwest Syria. Al Qaeda also leveraged other Salafi-jihadist groups such as Jund al Aqsa to support its targeted attacks against the opposition in Northern Syria. The pattern of assassinations against U.S.-backed opposition groups in Southern Syria suggests that al Qaeda is seeking to replicate its success in Idlib Province. HTS could similarly facilitate attacks against opposition groups in Southern Syria by ISIS-affiliated groups or other jihadist splinter factions in order to maintain a low profile in Southern Syria.
Al Qaeda seeks to marginalize remnants of U.S.-backed opposition groups in Southern Syria to create a sustainable power base along the Syria-Jordan border. An assassination campaign by al Qaeda could mark the first phase of operations to coopt opposition factions and covertly remove leaders that would oppose the formation of joint structures with al Qaeda. Al Qaeda likely seeks to disguise its assassination campaign among other attacks by ISIS and the Assad regime to avoid reprisals or local resistance from civilians and other opposition groups in rebel-held Southern Syria. Al Qaeda will also continue to obfuscate its efforts to embed itself within the local population in order to avoid triggering intervention by the West. The current U.S.-Russia-Jordan ceasefire in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces provides a conducive environment for al Qaeda to lay the groundwork for its desired safe haven in Southern Syria. Al Qaeda also stands to exploit the decision by the Trump Administration to dismantle a covert program to support vetted opposition factions in Syria by December 2017. This decision will end the provision of weapons, training, and salaries for thousands of opposition fighters in Southern Syria even as opposition groups and governance structures are struggling to maintain basic security and infrastructure across Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces. The decrease in external support to non-jihadist forces will likely further embolden and empower al Qaeda in Southern Syria.
Methodology
ISW collected reports of assassinations from local activists’ reports in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces from August 5 to November 20, 2017. The dataset curated by ISW does not represent a complete record of all assassination attempts during the reporting period in Southern Syria. The situation in opposition-held regions remains fluid with key gaps in local activist reporting from Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces.
The following map does not represent attacks that only killed civilians, pro-regime forces, or the ISIS affiliate Jaysh Khalid ibn Walid. Of the attacks represented on the following map, approximately fifty-five percent were successful in killing opposition fighters, commanders, or governance officials.
ISW defines the ‘mainstream opposition’ as the armed opposition groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that do not adhere to the tenets of Salafi-Jihadism. The label encompasses a spectrum of opposition groups that range from secular moderates aligned with the Free Syrian Army to political Islamists. These groups may or may not cooperate in military or governance structures with al Qaeda.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Iran Solidifies Influence in Kirkuk

By Omer Kassim with Jennifer Cafarella and Zachary Goulet

Key Takeaway: Iran is consolidating its military control in Kirkuk, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has appointed an Iranian-friendly commander to lead a new “Kirkuk Operations Command.” The new commander will likely provide a durable conduit for Iran’s proxies to retain military strength in Kirkuk. Abadi’s decision reflects a concession to Iran’s proxies and a recognition that he cannot constrain them.

Iran is consolidating military control in Kirkuk. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi appointed an Iranian-friendly commander, Lieutenant General Ali Fadhil Imran, to lead the newly created “Kirkuk Operations Command” on October 28, 2017. Imran is the former head of the Iranian-influenced 5th Iraqi Army (IA) Division, based in Diyala. Photos in Iraqi and Jordanian media and a Facebook page linked with Imran show him closely coordinating with Iranian proxy Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri in 2015. The 5th IA Division is a component of the Dijla Operations Command (DOC), which is responsible for security in Iraq’s Diyala Province along the Iraq-Iran border. Iran’s influence over the DOC’s leadership is a template for how the security structure in Kirkuk will likely evolve. Iran’s proxies have disproportionate influence over the DOC. A video published by Vice News in February 2015 shows the former head of the DOC Abdul Amir al Zaydi taking direct orders from Ameri. Imran will likely provide a durable conduit for Iran’s proxies to dominate Kirkuk’s security structure similar to their role in Diyala. 


Hadi al Ameri ordering what appears to be Dijla Operations Command commander Abdul Amir al Zaydi to launch an attack. Source:  Vice News, February 2015.


Former Commander of the Dijla Operations Command General Abdul Amir al Zaydi appears to be taking direct orders from Badr Organization head Hadi al Ameri. Source: Jordanian media outlet JBC news, June 2014. 


Former Commander of the Dijla Operations Command General Abdul Amir al Zaydi sits in a meeting chaired by Badr Organization head Hadi al Ameri. Source: Badr Organization-affiliated Al-Ghadeer TV Channel, February 2015. 


Ameri and Imran appear together in a photograph posted in March 2015. Source: Facebook page linked to Imran.


Ameri and Imran appear together in a photograph posted in October 2017. Source: Facebook page linked to Imran.

Prime Minister Abadi’s previous attempt to constrain the Iranian proxy-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Kirkuk failed. Abadi initially demanded that that armed groups withdraw from Kirkuk on October 18, handing control of security to the Counterterrorism Services (CTS) and local police. The PMF did not comply. A double suicide vest attack, likely carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), targeted a location near the Kirkuk city headquarters of Saraya al Salam – an armed group affiliated with nationalist Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – on November 5. Sadr subsequently ordered Saraya al Salam to withdraw, but the presence of his unit on November 5 demonstrates that he initially ignored Prime Minister Abadi’s withdrawal order. Iran’s proxy group Asa’ib Ahl al Haq (AAH) also appears to retain presence in the city. Unconfirmed reports from Iraqi Kurdish media indicated that the ISIS attack targeted AAH in addition to Saraya al Salam. The head of the Kirkuk Provincial Council Rebwar Taha also accused AAH of occupying his home in Kirkuk during a press conference on October 20. Iran’s proxies also continue to dominate the areas around Kirkuk Province. The Iranian proxy Badr Organization’s Turkmen unit, also known as the 16th PMF Brigade, retains a strong presence south of Kirkuk City and is now deployed in the northern Kirkuk countryside up to the outskirts of Altun Kupri district, about 50 kilometers south of Arbil City. Abadi’s decision to appoint Imran as the head of the Kirkuk operations command reflects a concession to Iran’s proxies and a recognition that he cannot constrain them.

Turkey’s Politics Promise a More Hostile Erdogan

By Noah Ringler and Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a new political challenge at home as a new opposition party fractures his main political ally. Erdogan may ultimately strengthen his position against the divided opposition with tools of repression he has employed in his bid for greater power. Erdogan will grow more hostile toward the U.S. and the broader West as he competes for nationalists’ support ahead of Turkey’s 2019 presidential election.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s key political ally, the main nationalist bloc, is fracturing. Turkey’s former Interior Minister Meral Aksener established a new Turkish opposition party named the Good Party (İYİ Parti) on October 25. She has opposed Erdogan for some time and campaigned against the constitutional reforms he achieved through his April 2017 referendum. The referendum amended Turkey’s constitution to shift from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, centralizing the Turkish Presidency’s power. Aksener seeks to siphon support from other opposition groups, including the Turkish Nationalist Movement (MHP) currently in a coalition with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Aksener quietly campaigned for support before announcing her party. Hundreds of MHP members resigned with the intent to join her in the months before she announced the formation of the Good Party. Aksener will likely attempt to run against Erdogan in Turkey’s upcoming presidential election in 2019. 

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism fuels the nationalist political fracture. Aksener broke from the MHP in early 2016 after a failed attempt to usurp the party’s leadership. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli deepened his political alliance with Erdogan after ejecting her and other dissidents from the party. Bahceli then supported Erdogan’s constitutional referendum, providing the votes necessary for Erdogan's narrow victory. Bahceli’s attempt to maintain power alienated nationalists opposed to Erdogan’s authoritarianism. The mass resignation of hundreds of MHP members since mid-2017 indicates Bahceli’s support for Erdogan has weakened his leadership of Turkey’s main nationalist party. Aksener seeks to supplant Bahceli’s leadership role and deny Erdogan the nationalist vote in 2019. 

The Good Party’s durability is unclear. Aksener is attempting to unify diverse opponents of Erdogan. Aksener’s anti-Erdogan stance may galvanize individuals frustrated with the failure of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) to contest Erdogan. A leading CHP member defected to the Good Party on October 23, expanding Aksener’s reach beyond the MHP. Preliminary polling indicates Aksener’s party could win additional seats in parliament and may even contest the CHP as the largest opposition party in 2019. The nascent party currently lacks a network capable of sustaining a nationwide campaign, which could limit its ability to translate current public appeal to enduring support. It is unclear whether opposition to Erdogan is sufficient to overcome divisions between former MHP and CHP members over the long term. One of the party’s founding members resigned on November 16, highlighting the risk of fragmentation. The Good Party will likely struggle to capitalize on public appeal despite its success in siphoning political support from other parties. Aksener oversaw a broad and violent crackdown on the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and civilians in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces during her tenure as Interior Minister in the mid-1990s. This legacy will likely limit her appeal to Kurdish voters as an “anti-Erdogan” candidate. That period also included rising political instability and economic stagnation, for which voters may hold her accountable. It is unclear whether her resistance to Erdogan will be sufficient to overcome her previous negative public perception. 

Aksener’s move may ultimately strengthen Erdogan. Erdogan retains the political advantage because he controls tools of repression. He has already taken steps to reinvigorate his AKP party after his narrow referendum victory in order to decrease his reliance on the MHP. He forced the resignation of several mayors in key electorates that failed to sufficiently support his referendum campaign, including Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas on September 22 and Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek on October 29. He will still compete for the nationalist vote to secure a wider margin of victory in 2019. Erdogan will continue to use aggressive media campaigns and legal inquiries to discredit opposition parties, including the Good Party. He will also continue his campaign of intimidating and arresting opposition lawmakers. He has already begun to undermine Aksener by arresting her lawyer and allegedly attempting to block the Good Party’s first party congress on October 25. He may once again manipulate the electoral processes itself, if necessary. 

Erdogan will become more aggressively anti-Western as he competes for nationalist support. Aksener’s anti-U.S. stance rivals that of Erdogan. She vehemently opposes Turkey’s membership in the U.S.-led Anti-Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Coalition. Her opposition to Erdogan’s presidency will drive him to even more aggressive policies against the U.S. in order to solicit nationalist support. He may revoke U.S. access to Incirlik Air Base, which supports anti-ISIS air operations in Syria. He will increase his support for ethnic Turkmen populations in Iraq and Syria, a key nationalist cause. He will also increase his support for a Sunni insurgency against the primary U.S. military partner force in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He will continue to demand the extradition of alleged putschist Fethullah Gulen from the United States. He may arrest additional U.S. citizens and employees of the U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Turkey. The U.S.-Turkish alliance will continue to deteriorate as Erdogan’s fear of losing his grip on power rises.



Friday, November 17, 2017

ISIS Plotting Attacks from Afghanistan

By: Jennifer Cafarella and Caitlin Forrest with Charles Aubin

Key Takeaway:  Afghanistan remains a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham’s (ISIS) affiliate in Afghanistan and an American ISIS member in Pakistan coordinated an attack attempt in the U.S. in early 2016. ISIS seized at least one district in northwestern Afghanistan in early November, and is assembling new foreign fighter units. ISIS will use this safe haven to conduct new attacks abroad.

ISIS is using safe haven in Afghanistan and Pakistan to plan attacks in the U.S. ISIS operatives in Pakistan, Canada, and the Philippines planned a major coordinated attack against New York City in early 2016, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The cell planned to attack civilians in Times Square using firearms and suicide vests made using the signature ISIS explosive TATP. A U.S. citizen and ISIS operative in Pakistan told an undercover FBI asset that he received authorization from ISIS’s “Wilayat Khorasan” in Afghanistan for the attack. American, Canadian, Pakistani, and Philippine authorities dismantled the cell after the ISIS operative in Canada attempted to cross into the U.S. The cell’s geographic disposition indicates ISIS shifted more of its external operations activity out of Syria and Iraq. ISIS previously exported an external operations cell to Libya in December 2015, which is supporting ISIS’s attack campaign in Europe.

ISIS elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan may have already coordinated additional attack plots in the U.S. Another would-be attacker in the U.S., Mahin Khan, contacted a member of the Pakistani Taliban in order to receive support for an attack on behalf of ISIS, according to the FBI. Federal authorities arrested Khan in July 2016. It is possible he actually contacted the ISIS faction that split from the Pakistani Taliban in October 2014. The Pakistani Taliban has previously attempted to conduct attacks in the U.S., including a foiled 2010 car bombing in New York City.

ISIS is organizing new foreign fighter units in northern Afghanistan. Local officials and residents in Jowzjan Province claimed in early November that ISIS foreign fighters from France, Sudan, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are recruiting locals and training child suicide bombers. ISIS likely began to recruit Taliban members in Jowzjan in early 2015. ISIS’s growth in the province accelerated after November 2015 when the Taliban kicked out Qari Hekmat, who became a local ISIS commander. ISIS is also siphoning fighters from the pro-al Qaeda Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). An IMU faction pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2015. The IMU founder’s son, Abdul Malik, moved to Jowzjan in February 2017 with “hundreds” of fighters and their families in order to seize control from the Taliban. The Institute for the Study of War warned the same month that ISIS was on track to create a logistical hub to receive and train foreign fighters as the group lost ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS achieved full freedom of movement in the province in early November by defeating Taliban forces, including reinforcements likely deployed from southern Afghanistan. ISIS also compelled the local government to relocate all rural offices to the provincial capital. ISIS exploited overstretched security forces in the province and regional Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum’s exile to Turkey. The growing presence of diverse foreign fighters indicates ISIS seeks to create an external operations node for new waves of global attacks.

A global network of ISIS external operations nodes will pose new challenges for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. U.S. special operations forces are at risk of overstretch. ISIS is still planning attacks from Syria despite its loss of Raqqa. The U.S. has already increased anti-ISIS operations in Yemen and Somalia to keep pace with ISIS growth. ISIS is generating new global attack capability in Afghanistan while regenerating lost capability in Libya, meanwhile. The U.S. military cannot deploy enough personnel and resources to destroy every new attack cell ISIS generates. The U.S. must start to deny ISIS its non-military sources of strength such as the perception in many Sunni communities that ISIS is a “defender” of Sunni populations. American strategy thus far has instead appeared to legitimize ISIS by aligning the U.S. with the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria, Russia, and Iran. These forces are committing systematic abuses against Sunni populations in Syria that likely amount to crimes against humanity. This violence drives recruits to ISIS and in part provides rationalization for ISIS attacks against Western populations. An immediate, fundamental change in America’s strategic approach to securing the homeland is necessary in order to prevent the next Paris attack from happening here at home.