by Sinan Adnan and Brian Fisher
Friday, October 31, 2014
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
By Christopher Kozak
Key Takeaway: Iraqi Army units in Anbar province have adopted a largely defensive posture in October 2014, retreating to their bases and leaving the defense of most urban areas in the hands of local Iraqi Police and Sunni tribal forces. The recent success of ISIS offensives in western Anbar will place the ISF in an inferior position for launching future counter-offensives. Many of the ISF units in Anbar are now understrength, suffer poor morale, and lack decisive leadership – leaving them vulnerable to ISIS attempts to isolate, encircle, and destroy the remaining Iraqi Army presence in the province. If the Iraqi Army cannot reinforce its positions and regain the offensive, the ISF may find itself hard-pressed to curb ISIS momentum in Anbar province and the western Baghdad Belts.
As demonstrated by the sudden fall of Hit district to ISIS forces on October 3, 2014, ISIS possesses significant offensive momentum in western Iraq which has not been entirely curbed by coalition airstrikes. As of October 29, 2014, ISF units augmented by local police and tribal forces man positions in Haditha, al-Asad Airbase, in the vicinity of Ramadi, and in Amiriyat al-Fallujah. Recently, on October 5, ISF units around Ramadi retreated from the city to their military headquarters. If the Iraqi Army cannot maintain these positions in outer Anbar, ISIS will exercise control of the Euphrates to project force into Amiriyat al-Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and Baghdad itself. The poor performance of the Iraqi Army exemplified by retreats also threatens to raise the prominence of Iraqi Shi’a militias within the Iraqi military. These militias, which have won acclaim for their role in breaking the siege of Amerli in Salah ad-Din province in August and completing the clearing operation in Jurf al-Sakhar in northern Babil province on October 27, are highly sectarian and display ties to the Iranian government. Their rise at the expense of a national Iraqi Army poses an additional challenge to the Iraqi state.
Some of the disorganization in Anbar may be linked to leadership changes or losses. On October 7 - only a few days after reports of IA withdrawals in Ramadi and Hit – tribal leaders in Anbar province demanded that Anbar Operations Command chief Lieutenant General Rashid Flaih be removed from his post for “mishandling the security portfolio” in the province. On October 12, ISF leadership in the province took another blow when Anbar police chief Ahmed Saddak al-Dulaimi was assassinated by an IED, potentially weakening the command structure of the Iraqi Police units forming the front line of resistance against ISIS. Targeting local leaders to eliminate nodes of resistance is a long-standing ISIS tactic. On September 7, for example, Anbar governor Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi was injured when ISIS militants attacked his convoy with rockets and on October 19 the commanding general of the Iraqi Army 8th Motorized Brigade was killed by a SVBIED at his headquarters in Amiriyat al-Fallujah.
However, Iraqi Army units in Anbar province suffer deficiencies of manpower and morale more broadly. This was true even before numerous Iraqi Army units deployed to reinforce Anbar in early 2014, but after many months of fighting these conditions may still prevail. The expansion of al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command (JBOC) activities near Hit in mid-June and the deployment of elite Counter-Terrorism Services / Iraqi Army units east of Ramadi in early October, as well as an October 12 offer from the Badr Organization militia to intervene in Anbar province, may indicate a belief that Iraqi Army units under Anbar Operations Command have been put under severe pressure by recent events. In many cases, these units were already operating at reduced strength due to desertion and attrition. If the Iraqi Army cannot reinforce its positions and regain the offensive, the ISF may find itself hard-pressed to curb ISIS momentum in Anbar province and the western Baghdad Belts.
The following sections describe ISF units and their positions in key areas of Anbar province in greater detail. This information is a current estimate as of October 29, 2014.
The town of Haditha is garrisoned by a robust combination of Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, and local tribal fighters. Units from the Iraqi Army 7th Infantry Division drawn from nearby Al-Asad Airbase remain on the frontlines in Haditha and have not adopted the passive stance seen in other areas of Anbar. Pro-government Sunni tribes – and particularly the al-Jughaifi tribe – maintain a highly active presence in Haditha and even engage in limited offensives on the outskirts of the district. Al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command (JBOC) has coordinated effectively with the tribal fighters, providing them additional arms and convincing 28 local tribes to support ISF operations in the district on October 8. A unit of elite Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) members is also present in Haditha. The active force posture of ISF units in Haditha likely reflects the importance which JBOC places on defending the nearby strategic Haditha Dam.
Al-Asad Airbase is the designated headquarters of the Iraqi Army 7th Infantry Division and remains the primary deployment location of the unit. However, the 7th Division was heavily depleted by desertions and had its leadership gutted by an ISIS ambush in Rutbah in December 2013 which killed the division commander and 17 members of his senior staff. Helicopter gunships and at least one unit of Emergency Response Brigade (SWAT) Iraqi Police are also reportedly located on the base. When ISF units retreated from Hit to their headquarters for ‘restructuring’ and withdrew from the surrounding areas, they likely pulled back to Al-Asad.
NORTHWEST OF RAMADI (INC. HIT)
The areas along the Euphrates northwest of Ramadi, including Hit, are primarily the operation zones of local Iraqi Police and pro-government Sunni tribes – particularly the Albu Nimr and Abu Risha tribes – who continue to resist ISIS encroachment. When Iraqi Army units retreated to their headquarters at Camp Hit on the northwestern outskirts of Hit city, these Iraqi Police and tribal units stayed behind to defend their home territory in Hit district as well as the surrounding areas. On October 6, al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command (JBOC) announced that it was preparing an offensive to retake Hit and on October 9 JBOC stated that it had participated in airstrikes against ISIS fighters near Hit. However, the exact forces which JBOC will bring to bear remain unclear and on October 13 the last Iraqi Army unit in Camp Hit – the 1st Tank Regiment, 27th Mechanized Brigade, 7th Infantry Division - withdrew to al-Baghdadi, near Al-Asad Airbase, leaving behind most of its tanks and armored vehicles.
Ramadi has been a central hub of ISF activity in western Anbar since ISIS took control of Fallujah in January 2014. The headquarters complex of Anbar Operations Command (AOC) lies on the northern edge of the city, while a headquarters containing at least two battalions from the 8th Motorized Brigade, 2nd IA Motorized Division (serving under the operational command of the 7th Infantry Division with additional regiments in Habbaniyah and Amiriyat al-Fallujah) sits on the western outskirts. Pro-government Sunni tribes – including the Abu Risha tribe – and Iraqi Police also helped secure the city against ISIS attack. On October 2 additional Iraqi Army troops and possibly Shia volunteer units arrived in Ramadi to reinforce the city. However, on October 5 the Iraqi Army units in the city withdrew to their bases in Anbar Operations Command and the 8th Brigade headquarters. Reports indicated that several neighborhoods in Ramadi fell to ISIS after the withdrawal, but at least some ISF units still operate in the city proper. Recent ISIS postings suggest that Emergency Response Brigade (SWAT) Iraqi Police and possibly Iraqi Army soldiers still engage ISIS on the outskirts of the city, while a review of Twitter reports surrounding Ramadi appears to indicate that Iraqi Police and tribal fighters still resist ISIS advances into the city despite the withdrawal of most Iraqi Army forces. These remaining tribal and police units have performed well in urban operations, repelling a major ISIS assault on October 17 and clearing several areas in the city, but their ability to project force outside Ramadi’s urban core appears limited.
NORTHEAST OF RAMADI (INC. ALBU AITHA, INTERNATIONAL HIGHWAY)
A series of outposts held by Iraqi Army motorized regiments are scattered along the International Highway in a measure meant to protect the critical supply line connecting Ramadi to Baghdad. However, many of these units have been cut off and besieged by ISIS. News reports indicate that at least two units – the 10th Regiment, 30th Commando (Motorized) Brigade – Tank Battalion, 8th IA Division and the 2nd Regiment, 39th Motorized Brigade, 10th IA Division – have been surrounded in this manner. Both of these units come from southern Iraq and were deployed to Anbar province as reinforcements after the fall of Fallujah. The Iraqi Army appears to have committed portions of its elite units – including the Counter-Terrorism Services ‘Golden Division’ and the Iraqi Army 1st Rapid Reaction Force - to break the sieges of these outposts and reopen the supply lines to Ramadi.
Along with the precarious ISF positions in outer Anbar province detailed above, ISIS also threatens to overrun the strategic town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah. Amiriyat al-Fallujah is located in inner Anbar province, southeast of Fallujah, and controls access to the southwestern Baghdad Belts system, including Karbala and northern Babil province. Thus, the town occupies a critical node in the ISF defensive lines surrounding the capital. As of early October, Amiriyat al-Fallujah was garrisoned by at least one battalion of the Iraqi Army 8th Motorized Brigade as well as Iraqi Police and several local anti-ISIS Sunni tribes , including the Albu Issa, al-Fahailat, al-Halabsa, and Albu Alwan tribes. In response to reports that ISIS militants with armored vehicles and heavy weapons were surrounding Amiriyat al-Fallujah from three sides in preparation for an offensive, the Iraqi Army reinforced the area with unknown units from Baghdad and northern Babil province on October 17. After Iraqi Security Forces supported by coalition airstrikes repelled a major ISIS assault on Amiriyat al-Fallujah on October 22, the Iraqi Army deployed an additional two companies - totaling 200 soldiers - to the town. Two armored regiments were also sent to the town on 28 OCT after several additional ISIS offensives. The battle for Amiriyat al-Fallujah will be a key test of the ISF’s ability to resist ISIS ground advances in Anbar province and Iraq as a whole.
Monday, October 27, 2014
Sunday, October 26, 2014
by Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
Friday, October 24, 2014
by Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, Sinan Adnan, and Nichole Dicharry
Monday, October 20, 2014
by Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Friday, October 17, 2014
by Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
by Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Friday, October 10, 2014
By Jared Ferris and Theodore Bell with Jennifer Cafarella
The armed forces of the Assad regime have established the use of chemical weapons (CWs) as a tactic to force localized disruptions of rebel operations. Regime forces have on a number of occasions used this tactic in order to set the conditions for success for ground offensives against critical rebel holdout positions. Similar to the use of the Syrian Arab Air Force to project force into areas where the regime cannot deploy ground troops, the utilization of chemical weapons serves to offset the regime’s manpower shortage and enable offensive operations otherwise unlikely to achieve success. Their use is therefore often a crucial indicator of the weakness of regime forces in a given area, or alternatively a positive indicator of the ability of rebel groups to meaningfully challenge the regime in certain sectors. As such, recent allegations of CW use by the Assad regime shed important light on the status of the regime’s military campaign in Syria and highlight the continued importance of the regime’s use of unconventional tactics in achieving and holding terrain.
The Syrian regime agreed to surrender its stock of chemical weapons in order to forestall an international intervention in the aftermath of the August 2013 sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta. According to the terms of the agreement, the U.S. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) embarked on a multilateral effort to destroy the regime’s CW stockpile. On August 19, 2014 the OPCW announced that all 600 tons of regime “Category 1” CWs, including 581 tons of sarin gas precursor and 19.8 tons of sulfur mustard gas, had been successfully destroyed, and on September 30, the OPCW-UN joint mission announced the completion of its mandate. However, subsequent allegations of the deployment of chlorine gas against rebel-held areas indicated that Assad had not relinquished the tactic itself. Assad was not required to declare his possession of chlorine given its ordinary use as an industrial agent, although the weaponization of chlorine is nonetheless a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which entered into force in Syria in October of 2013.
A fact-finding mission announced by the OPCW in April 2014 to investigate alleged regime use of chlorine gas voiced concern that the Syrian regime may not have handed over all CWs. In May, Human Rights Watch released a report on an alleged chlorine gas attack on three towns in Hama Province, concluding that there was “strong evidence” the chemical agent had been used by regime forces. The deployment of chlorine gas as a CW appears to have been conducted through the use of barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of the gas. Responding to continuing allegations, on September 10 the OPCW reported it had found “compelling confirmation” that the regime deployed chlorine gas “systematically and repeatedly” in northern Syria in early 2014. Since the OPCW declared the complete neutralization of the regime’s surrendered CW stockpile on August 19, 2014, local sources have alleged a minimum of 16 chlorine gas attacks conducted by the regime, largely against rebels entrenched in the Damascus suburbs. In the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, where rebel forces are largely commanded by the Jaysh al-Islam-led Islamic Front, local sources report that the regime has recently deployed chlorine gas prior to successful ground assaults on Adra, Dukhanniya, Jobar, and Irbeen. This tactic has permitted the regime to regain control over territory from the Islamic Front in Eastern Ghouta, most recently over parts of Adra on September 27 and over Dukhaniyya on September 28. In addition, the regime has allegedly deployed chlorine gas against a number of other rebel positions in Dera’a, Hama, and Deir ez-Zour provinces, areas in which regime offensives had been achieving little success.
In most cases, alleged CW strikes in Syria throughout 2014 have occurred in locations inaccessible to OPCW or Human Rights Watch investigators. Therefore, it is impossible to verify the accuracy of the allegations according to the standards utilized by these organizations. However, in the cases detailed here, evidence provided by local activist reporting regarding the occurrence of a strike is assessed with high confidence. In all cases, reports are drawn from sources on the ground assessed to have a high level of fidelity in their reporting, and are further crosschecked across sources. In addition, video evidence serves as a primary method through which to verify the symptomatic indicators of a likely CW strike, often involving the testimony of local physicians.
Where possible, alleged regime CW attacks are also evaluated against previous OPCW findings. Reported CW attacks near Hama, for example, follow a geographical pattern previously established by the OPCW. Reported regime CW usage between August and October furthermore follows a behavior pattern characterized by systematic and repeated CW usage. Given the dovetailing of local reporting with OPCW findings, we can therefore assess CW attacks reported between August and October with reasonable confidence.
Following the UN resolution mandating the destruction of the regime’s CWs, continued use of chlorine gas as a weaponized agent is a serious breach of international law and a violation of international attempts to prevent their use. If the reports listed here are confirmed, then use of CWs by the Assad regime appears to comprise a nearly routine element of regime military tactics to clear entrenched rebel positions. Combined with the utilization of siege-and-starve tactics in order to force the submission of rebel holdouts, the utilization of CWs is further evidence of the extent to which the regime is willing to utilize any means necessary in order to maintain control when faced with a meaningful challenge by rebel forces.
Documentation of CW Strikes
August 20, Jobar
Sham News Network post, August 20, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/ShaamNews/posts/815670118483564
Irbeen Surgical Hospital, [“One of the injured gassed,”], YouTube, August 20, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptm06NEmUrw&feature=youtu.be
August 22, Irbeen
Sham News Network, August 22, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/ShaamNewsNetwork/posts/717557478292030
All4Syria, Said Khabeya, August 22, 2014,
Al-Hadath News, August 22, 2014,
September 13, Jobar
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights post, September 13, 2014,
All4Syria, September 13, 2014,
September 22, Dukhaniyya
Jaysh al-Umma, [“Cases of asphyxia”], YouTube, September 22, 2014,
El-Dorar, September 23, 2014,
September 24, Adra
Sham News Network post, September 24, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/ShaamNews/posts/833104183406824
Brown Moses Youtube Playlist, “Alleged chemical attack, Adra, Sept 24th 2014,” https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLPC0Udeof3T6uGM1wLJlI_gKz_208w3ex
September 26, Dukhaniyya
Sham News Network, September 26, 2014, https://twitter.com/shaamnews/status/515494153116221440
Orient News, September 26, 2014,
El-Dorar, September 26, 2014,
August 19, Atman, Dera’a
Brown Moses YouTube Playlist, “Alleged Chemical Attack in Daraa August 19th 2014,” [Sham News Network, AlAan TV],
RFS Media Office post, August 19, 2014, https://twitter.com/rfsmediaoffice/status/501657941360263168
August 23, Helfaya, Hama
Zaman al-Wasl, “Rebels kill 10 as they make advances in Hama, Alawites fears rise,” August 24, 2014,
Abu Mohammed al-Hamawi, [“Helfaya, Hama, bombed with chlorine gas on August 23”], YouTube August 23, 2014,
August 28, near Kafr Zita, Hama
Sham News Network post, August 28, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/ShaamNews/posts/819714851412424
Idlib Civil Defense post, August 28, 2014, https://twitter.com/SyriaCivilDef/status/505255819307278336
Abu Mu’ied Qutaini, [“Cases of asphyxiation resulting from the targeting of Siyad with chlorine gas by Assad’s planes on August 28, 2014”] and [“Asphyxiation of a baby as a result of being exposed to chlorine gas on August 28, 2014”]YouTube, August 28, 2014,
Union of Hama Rebels, [“Interview with chlorine gas treatment administrator and president of Kafr Zita hospital president Dr. Hassan al-Arj”], YouTube, August 31, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuEmzpX34OU&feature=youtu.be.
September 13, Morek, Hama
Local Coordination Committees of Syria, September 13, 2014,
Sham News Network, September 13, 2014, https://twitter.com/shaamnews/status/510738532034699264
Aksalser News, September 13, 2014,
Mahmoud al-Hamawy, YouTube, September 13, 2014,
September 26, Morek, Hama
Zaman al-Wasl, September 26, 2014,
Syrian Revolution Coordinators, September 26, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/SRC.Syria/posts/794359250614780
El-Dorar, September 27, 2014,
September 27, Sheikh Yassin, Deir ez-Zour City
Step News Agency, September 27, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/Step.Agency.news/posts/863663403651715
Local Coordination Committee Syria, September 27, 2014,
All4Syria, Safwan Al-Ahmed, September 28, 2014,
October 1, Deir al-Adas, Dera’a
Shaam News Network, October 1, 2014,
Orient News, October 1, 2014,
El-Dorar, October 1, 2014,
October 5, Sheikh Yassin, Deir ez-Zour City
SMART News Agency, October 5, 2014, https://twitter.com/SMARTNewsAgency/status/518821119004930048
El-Dorar, October 6, 2014,
Zaman al-Wasl, October 6, 2014,
October 9, Inkhil, Dera’a
Sham News Network, October 9, 2014,
Step News Agency, October 9, 2014,
SMART News Agency, October 9, 2014, https://twitter.com/SMARTNewsAgency/status/520092809970196480
Inkhil United Media Office, [“Dera’a Inkhil targeted with barrels carrying chlorine gas on October 9, 2014”], YouTube, October 9, 2014,
October 9, Handarat, Aleppo
Sham News Network, October 9, 2014,
Shabha Press Agency, October 9, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/SHahba.P.A/posts/855135534504661
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
Monday, October 6, 2014
Sunday, October 5, 2014
by: Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
Friday, October 3, 2014
by: Ahmed Ali and Nichole Dicharry
By Lauren Squires and Christopher Kozak
On October 2, ISIS detonated three SVBIEDs in Hit, a city between Ramadi and Haditha, targeting security checkpoints at the western and eastern entrances of the city as well as the city center. Hit is one of the few remaining areas in the Thar Thar area of Anbar Province that is not under ISIS control. ISIS followed this initial SVBIED wave with a ground attack and now reportedly controls between 70 and 90% of Hit. Local nationals report ISIS members moving freely around the city and black flags flying over government buildings.
Hit occupies a strategic position along the Euphrates River Valley arm, and ISIS likely seeks to control Hit in order to counterbalance ISF control of Haditha, a city that has been highly contested between ISF and ISIS for the past several months. The attack on Hit is the latest in a series of operations that ISIS has conducted in Anbar province in order to gain freedom of movement and maneuver and to develop a secure staging area in preparation for further consolidating territory in the western Baghdad avenue of approach. Additionally, ISIS could be intensifying its effort in Anbar Province to eliminate tribal retaliatory attack planning. In the past two weeks ISIS has besieged an ISF base in Albu Aitha, north of Ramadi and overrun a second ISF position in Saqlawiyah northwest of Fallujah. ISIS persistently conducts attacks against emplaced ISF positions in the Euphrates River corridor to prevent ISF reinforcements from entering the province and to break ISF lines of communication to the outer Euphrates River belt.
ISIS’s Anbar urban offensive likely employs several different pincer movements in the outer Baghdad Belts and in the Euphrates River Valley, deliberately alternating its tactical engagements in time and space in order to keep the ISF and other adversarial forces off balance. ISIS attacks northwest of Baghdad appear to offset from ISIS attacks southwest of Baghdad, for example, and ISIS is offensives in eastern Anbar appear to offset from attacks in outer Anbar near Haditha. ISIS has been active in each of these locations over the last few weeks. ISIS tactics in the outer Anbar province also suggest ISIS commands from at least two distinct operational headquarter in Anbar. These two commands frame the Haditha-Ramadi corridor.
One headquarters element exercises control from the outer northwest Thar Thar region to middle Anbar, a block we have previously assessed to conduct attacks and provide strategic reinforcement along this corridor. The Thar Thar region that stretches from Fallujah north to Samarra is a likely stronghold for ISIS since the Abu Ghraib Prison attack in July 2013. ISIS took control of the Muthanna Complex there on June 11, 2014 - only a day after Mosul fell. The ISF have increasingly targeted villages on the southern edge of the region, such as Garma, after ISIS entered Fallujah in December 2013, but the evidence indicates that ISIS probably maintains a significant force in this zone.
The other element is likely in southwestern Anbar along the southern bank of the Euphrates near Haditha and Ana. This element is most likely responsible for attacks from far western Anbar towards the Haditha - Ramadi axis. ISIS was conducting attacks in Haditha at an almost daily rate in early September 2014. However, ISIS has been unsuccessful penetrating ISF defenses in Haditha and has shifted both logistical and operational focus farther down the Euphrates River Valley corridor. ISIS likely seeks to merge the efforts of these two Anbar elements and close the gap at Hit. If ISIS succeeds in this, it will isolate pro-government tribes that are fighting ISIS in Haditha and Ramadi from ISF reinforcements. It will also relieve ISIS elements in Anbar by diminishing the local population’s opportunity to resist. The ISIS offensive for Anbar is closely linked to the ISIS campaign for the Baghdad Belts. If ISIS can consolidate its core strength in Anbar, then its reinforcements that are currently augmenting attacks in this zone will likely shift to reinforce the northern and southern Baghdad Belts and prepare to attack the capital.
Hit locator map with ISIS control, attack, and support zones.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
by: Ahmed Ali, ISW Iraq team, and Nichole Dicharry
- The responses of rebel groups and civilians within Syria to the U.S. and coalition airstrikes are an important indicator of the unviability of a counter-ISIS strategy that does not fully engage with the Syrian population in order to facilitate a counter-ISIS movement within Syria.
- Jabhat al-Nusra has capitalized on civilian opposition to the airstrikes to deepen its influence and to propagate its narrative that the coalition is working alongside Assad against the revolution.
- The reactions of a number of Islamist groups to the strikes that targeted JN on September 23 indicate their close operations with JN. If additional strikes against JN occur, JN is likely to leverage front groups to conceal the extent of their activities.
- If airstrikes against ISIS and JN continue to alienate the Syrian population and rebel leadership, it is possible that the unrest will encourage and enable a consolidation of ISIS and JN efforts.
The combat operations initiated by U.S. and allied forces on September 23 are interacting with a landscape of actors within Syria that is markedly different from the situation in August 2013 when the Obama Administration contemplated strikes against the government of Bashar al-Assad. During the interim months, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has waged a highly successful and devastatingly brutal campaign for control of Sunni areas across Iraq and Syria. However, the rise of ISIS is only one component of a larger shift in the landscape of powerful actors within the Syrian civil war. The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has steadily deepened its influence with the Syrian population and has taken advantage of a continually degraded and fracturing Free Syrian Army (FSA) to play an increasingly vital role in the fight against Assad. JN’s largely unimpeded operations have enabled it to embed itself within the landscape of the Syrian opposition and to accelerate the degradation of the moderate trend within opposition ranks.
The ongoing U.S. and allied operations have focused largely on disrupting ISIS’s freedom of movement, but also included a set of initial strikes against a group of al-Qaeda core members sent to Syria in an advisory role to JN. Action in Syria is therefore nested within the larger strategic objective of countering the threat of jihadist groups possessing the will, capabilities, and access, provided through foreign fighters with western passports, to attack the West. The U .S. justified its action in Syria on the grounds that the Syrian regime had failed to neutralize safe havens used by ISIS to launch attacks in Iraq, as well as an emergent plan to attack the United States by JN. In addition, the UN Security Council passed a resolution (2178) that seeks to create a policy and legal framework for international action in response to the threat of “Foreign Terrorist Fighters.” The resolution expresses concern about ISIS, JN, and “other groups associated with al-Qaeda.” U.S. action in Syria appears to be responsive to this threat. The U.S. State Department identified Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMA) and Harakat Sham al-Islam as Specially Designated Terrorist Groups on September 24. JMA and Harakat Sham al-Islam are Chechen and Moroccan-led foreign fighter brigades in Syria, respectively, that often cooperate closely with JN. While not explicitly linked to counter-JN action in Syria, the designation of these groups supports the assessment that they have been operating as JN front groups. A more detailed examination of JN and associated front groups is forthcoming from ISW in October 2014.
Airstrikes against ISIS and groups such as JN in Syria are a starting point for the elimination of a critical threat to regional security and U.S. interests, and are a component of a wider global effort to halt the proliferation of groups attracting and radicalizing foreign fighters. However, the strikes do not properly interact with a wartime environment in Syria in which treatment of jihadist threats cannot meaningfully be accomplished in the absence of a strategy for Syria as a whole. The responses of rebel groups and civilians within Syria to the U.S. and coalition airstrikes are an important indicator of the unviability of a counter-ISIS strategy that does not fully engage with the Syrian population in order to generate and protect a counter-ISIS movement within Syria. Popular and rebel support for U.S. airstrikes will be difficult to acquire unless counter-ISIS strategy in Syria includes the prioritization of the fall of the Assad regime, an objective unlikely to be surrendered by Syrian rebel forces. JN’s reactions to the airstrikes illustrate its ability to capitalize on the changing environment within Syria to strengthen its hand, foreshadowing a growth in anti-Western sentiments within Syria if the current trajectory is allowed to continue.
In the immediate aftermath of the first strikes, prominent figures within the Syrian opposition stated that the U.S. military had informed them of the impending airstrikes in Syria. However, there is no ongoing coordination between rebels on the ground and the airstrike campaign, leaving many to question their utility. The response to the airstrikes was therefore largely muted, and a number of elements within the opposition emerged quickly in protest. Prominently, the FSA affiliate and prominent TOW missile recipient Harakat Hazm issued an immediate statement condemning the U.S. strikes, and in the days that followed additional groups also came out in opposition. These included Jaysh al-Mujahideen (JAM) and a number of other FSA groups in addition to Islamic Front groups such as Liwa al-Tawhid and Suqour al-Sham. The consistent complaint put forth in statements released by these groups alleges that the strikes act against the Syrian revolution by failing to target the Assad regime. In some cases, these groups identified ISIS as a regime puppet and alleged that coalition strikes therefore actually directly strengthen the regime. In most cases, however, the statements released by these groups served to reaffirm their refusal to be distracted from their main objective of defeating the Assad regime. Highlighting this, the FSA General Staff released a statement re-pledging its commitment to fighting the Syrian regime and identified “the need to avoid targeting moderate national and Islamic forces and unarmed civilians.” Likely after receiving significant pressure from the West, Harakat Hazm reversed its position and released a subsequent statement alongside the FSA’s 5th Legion welcoming the strikes but stating they must also extend to “the source of terrorism: the Assad regime,” and that greater coordination with rebels on the ground is needed to avert civilian casualties.
This initial reaction by prominent rebel groups indicates the risk that a counter-ISIS strategy that isn’t tailored to the requirements for securing rebel support can serve to indirectly limit future possibilities for partnership with on-the-ground forces. Angered by a strike that appears to have hit a base of Islamic Front affiliate Liwa al-Haqq, the FSA General Staff called on the international coalition to clarify the concept of the “moderate opposition” with which the U.S. seeks to partner. Significantly, JAM is a group reportedly undergoing vetting as a possible future aid recipient, and its rejection of the airstrikes is therefore a crucial indicator of the danger of alienating those potential partners on whom a meaningful counter-ISIS strategy in Syria will depend.
A few localized efforts to align the promised support to the Syrian opposition with ongoing counter-ISIS airstrikes have emerged, however they remain too localized to produce a meaningful battlefield effect throughout ISIS’s depth. On September 25, CNN reported that over 20 rebel commanders from the FSA and the Syriac Christian Military Council signed an agreement, mediated by two U.S. representatives, to unite in the fight against both Assad and ISIS. The Syriac Christian Military Council operates in Hasaka Province, where it often cooperates with Kurdish YPG forces, and the coalition is therefore a localized effort. Highlighting the current threat posed by ISIS in this region, the council put out a statement on September 28 calling for a continuation of airstrikes near Ayn al-Arab as well as the initiation of airstrikes against ISIS positions on the borders of Hasaka Province. In addition, the YPG military command in Hasaka and an FSA brigade released a joint statement on September 28 announcing the formation of a joint operations room to fight ISIS in northern Syria and calling for military assistance from the international community. It remains unclear whether the U.S. has promised these new coalitions additional weapons and training, but reports of increased weapons shipments to Syrian rebels have emerged in the wake of U.S. and coalition airstrikes. If U.S. airstrikes continue to target ISIS positions near Ayn al-Arab and initiate strikes against ISIS in areas in northeastern Hasaka province, it is possible these new coalitions will achieve local battlefield success in pushing back ISIS. However, these groups are unlikely to be willing or able to penetrate deep into the ISIS interior, as they do not possess the manpower or the logistical command and control capabilities required for a sustained ground campaign into Syria’s southeast regions.
As an initial target, JN has capitalized on rebel antagonism toward the airstrikes to strengthen its own position within Syria. In its reaction to the attacks, JN has effectively put forth the narrative that the coalition airstrikes are against the Syrian revolution. In doing so, it has drawn direct parallels between Assad's bombardment of Syrian civilians and the counter-ISIS strikes, actively leveraging the civilian death tolls of the airstrikes to further its popularity with the Syrian population and deepen its influence within the ranks of the Syrian opposition.
JN emerged in immediate defiance of the strikes, yet carefully wove its condemnation within its narrative placing itself as champion of the Syrian uprising. On September 27, a JN spokesman with ties to the al-Qaeda core (AQC), Abu Firas al-Suri, released a defiant video statement, indicating that JN had expected this aggression, and that it would not be sufficient to “prevent the jihad or to stop its march.” Stating that the “heinous” and “criminal action was not against JN but the Syrian people themselves,” he continued “we trust in the people of Sham that they will stand with the al-Nusra Front… They will stand with us on our long path, until we achieve the Islamic State and its banner is raised high and fluttering across Sham, and across all of the Islamic countries.” After issuing condolences to the families of those killed in the strikes, he reaffirmed JN’s commitment to the Syrian people, stating “This war will not end within months, a year, or years. We are engaged in war, and perhaps it could last decades.” The following day, JN leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani released an audio statement titled “Advice to Muslims and Warning to Infidels” in which he called on the Syrian people to recognize that “the airstrikes are means to suppress your effort and uprising and to return you to Assad’s lap.” He also warned of attacks against the West, stating that the West would only be safe from the Mujahidin if it halts the “aggression” against Muslims.
The statements released by JN’s military and religious leadership convey important aspects of JN’s short and long-term strategies within Syria. Together, the statements comprise the most direct communication of JN’s vision and disposition toward the West, and as such serve as a crucial indicator of the true nature of JN’s long-term goals. Yet the couching of JN’s vision within a narrative of the defense of the Syrian people is a concerning indicator of the sense of safety perceived by JN’s leadership within Syria. The openness with which Abu Firas al-Suri discussed JN’s long-term goal of the establishment of an Islamic State indicates a new level of transparency in the communication of JN’s objectives within Syria. As such, the statements illustrate that the recent transition by JN to more overt forms of presence within Syria, spurred by the rise of ISIS, has continued to draw upon support from the Syrian people.
Civilian opposition to the airstrikes is a primary avenue through which JN has leveraged its more overt presence to capitalize on the situation within Syria. JN’s narrative of championing the Syrian people limits the extent to which Western actors can leverage the provision of armaments to the FSA to accomplish change on the ground that is counter to JN’s interests. JN encouraged civilian unrest against the strikes, posting video and picture evidence of the damage incurred through the strikes. Civilian protests against the strikes erupted almost immediately, with civilians perceiving the attack against JN headquarters housing “Khorasan” group leaders as an attack against the opposition itself. Immediate protests in Kafr al-Takhreem, Kafr Nabel, and Ma’aret al-Nu’man in Idlib Province and in Houla, Homs Province, firmly denounced the airstrikes. This civilian unrest escalated following Friday morning prayers on September 26, with widespread protests occurring throughout Dera’a, Homs, Idlib, ar-Raqqa, and Aleppo provinces. The protests had a distinctly anti-Western character, extending to the burning of an American flag in Telbisa and of a President Obama t-shirt in Qaalet al-Madeeq, Hama Province and to the chanting of “no to the secular state” in Homs Province. Testament to the success of JN’s soft power strategy within Syria, demonstrations in solidarity with JN also occurred in Ma’arat Misrin and Binnish and were advertised by JN on its social media platforms on September 27. In addition, JN's Hama twitter account released a video on September 30 of a civilian protest against the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in which protesters carried JN flags and chanted pro-JN slogans. Some of the flags carried were the full JN al-Qaeda flag, and at least one protester carried a sign that read “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra,” a parallel to the pro-JN rallies that occurred in December 2012 when the US listed JN as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. The fact that this protest took place in Hama is not surprising, as the regime considerably increased its bombardment of northwest Hama where JN operates in days prior to the protest. Finally, in footage of protests held in the town where the “Khorasan” leaders were struck, protesters held banners that read “stop shelling civilians” and “Nusra Front represents me.”
Screenshot of Video of pro-JN Civilian Protest Uploaded by JN on September 30, 2014.
Pro-JN protest in Ma’arat Misrin, uploaded by JN on September 27, 2014.
Impact on JN Allies within Syria
The reactions of certain rebel groups to the targeting of the JN Khorasan members on September 23 sheds important light on the nature of JN’s interaction with elements of the Syrian opposition. In its coverage of the strikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) indicated that some “Islamist groups” had been targeted by coalition airstrikes in addition to ISIS and JN. While no official confirmation has emerged regarding the targeting of Islamist groups close to JN’s center of gravity, it nonetheless appears that a number of groups fear this possibility. The clearest example has been Ahrar al-Sham (HASI), a hardline Salafist member from the Islamic Front with leadership ties to the al-Qaeda core that operates very closely with JN throughout Syria. A self-identified HASI spokesperson denied that coalition forces had not targeted HASI positions, and reaffirmed that HASI’s first priority is the fall of the Syrian regime in a phone conversation with al-Jazeera on September 25. However, according to SOHR, civilians living near HASI headquarters in addition to ISIS and JN bases throughout Deir ez-Zour, Aleppo, Hasaka, and ar-Raqqa provinces began to evacuate their homes for fear of future strikes. Citing the desire to avoid civilian casualties, HASI and JN announced the evacuation of its headquarters near civilian areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces on September 24. Finally, local sources reported on September 25 that JN fighters in Northern Aleppo had shaved their beards and began to dress in civilian clothing in order to blend in within the civilian population.
In addition, the execution of alleged informants by Jund al-Aqsa is an indicator of the group’s responsiveness to JN’s objectives within Syria. The group executed a man in Saraqeb, Idlib, on September 24 on charge of “dealing with the regime forces and putting electronic chips for the warplanes in the populated areas,” allegedly after the man confessed. Jund al-Aqsa cooperates closely with JN in Idlib and Hama Provinces, and may be a JN front group. In addition, JN reportedly executed 3 men in Khan Shaykhoun on charges of dealing with regime forces. On September 27, an unidentified Islamic battalion reportedly executed an additional 5 men in Aleppo province on charge of “spying on al Mujahedeen and correcting coordinates of bombing that have taken place on the rebels’ posts and densely populated places.” The execution of collaborators is not a new phenomenon within Syria, however their occurrence in areas where JN positions had been hit and the justifications offered for the executions themselves indicate the likelihood that these groups acted in the interest of JN’s continued operations within Idlib and Aleppo.
Rumors that JN and ISIS may be considering a merger emerged quickly in the wake of the strikes, with many expecting these jihadi elements to quickly resolve their differences in order to unite against the new threat. Reports that some JN members defected to ISIS on September 26 spurred this expectation. In addition, Reuters reported on September 26 that JN’s leadership is facing growing pressure from within its ranks to reconcile with ISIS in order to confront their now-common enemy. While this prospect has also been forwarded by AQ ideologue and JN supporter Abu Mussab al-Maqdisi, no credible evidence has yet emerged that such a rapprochement is underway. In fact, some of the more seemingly credibly rumors instead point to the possibility of an ISIS alliance with Islamist factions within Syria. If inclusive of Islamist elements heavily influenced by JN, this sort of alliance could serve as an indirect form of ISIS-JN partnership. In the interim, JN and ISIS are likely to maintain their tacit relationship in Syria, in which participation on opposite sides of local battlefronts hasn’t precluded negotiations elsewhere within Syria. However, if airstrikes against ISIS continue to alienate the Syrian population and rebel leadership, it is possible that civilian unrest toward the campaign will encourage and enable a direct consolidation of ISIS and JN efforts.
As the air campaign against ISIS continues in northern and eastern Syria, JN is likely to continue to be successful in capitalizing on anti-airstrike sentiment from within the Syrian population to deepen its influence in Syria’s western regions. Critically, this rise in influence follows a recent JN reconsolidation in Idlib province, and is therefore likely to bolster JN’s already-growing momentum in Syria’s northwest. Rebel antagonism to the strikes largely stems from the unlikelihood of success against ISIS by ground forces continually under bombardment from Assad’s air campaign. While initial efforts appear to have been made to consolidate the strength of groups in northern Syria against ISIS, this is a limited effort and is unlikely to be successful in penetrating into the ISIS interior. As such, the counter-ISIS strategy currently being implemented in Syria is insufficiently tailored to the local dynamics with which the strikes interact. This dissonance will likely hinder the effectiveness of the air campaign, and may actually result in a future JN-ISIS alignment, further increasing the threat against the U.S. homeland emanating from Syria.
**Coming in October**: ISW Syria analyst and Evans Hanson Fellow, Jennifer Cafarella, will release a comprehensive report on Jabhat al Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. This report will examine JN’s ideology, long-term strategy, military efficiency, and its governance in Syria in order to properly situate the al-Qaeda threat in its Syrian context.