Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have the potential to disrupt ISIS by obstructing the physical links across its disparate operating areas. Degrading the military ability of ISIS to launch coordinated attacks across a wide area and limiting the ability of ISIS to launch new ground offensives is vital. However, these strikes do not operate inside a closed system. Observing how ISIS operates on its multiple fronts is key to understanding how airstrikes in one area affect the others. One of the primary areas where ISIS has been on the offensive in September 2014 is the Northern Baghdad Belts zone in Iraq, including strikes upon the capital itself. U.S. airstrikes have recently begun to target ISIS assets in this zone and it is important to anticipate how ISIS will react within Iraq’s capital region.
Attacks upon the capital
Explosive attacks have continued in Baghdad throughout the summer. On September 4, ISIS detonated an SVBIED in Kadhmiyah, apparently aimed at civilian targets in Abdul Mohsen al-Kadhimi Square. Kadhmiyah is a predominantly Shi’a neighborhood housing one of Iraq’s most important shrines, and ISIS has attacked it often in order to incite sectarian mobilization. The ISIS attack on the Adala Prison in the Kadhmiyah military intelligence headquarters complex on September 18 marked an escalation in ISIS’s operations in the Baghdad zone. This attack was the first ground force attack upon a fixed military facility in the city since the fall of Mosul in June 2014. ISIS had attacked numerous prisons across Iraq during the 2012-2013 “Breaking the Walls” campaign, ending with the successful prison break at Abu Ghraib in July 2013. The complex combined arms attack against the prison in Kadhmiyah included mortars, an SVBIED, two SVESTS, and small-arms fire. ISIS detonated an additional VBIED at the office of the Badr organization in Iskan, western Baghdad. ISIS denied that the operation was an unsuccessful prison break attempt, but at minimum the attacks indicate that ISIS is exercising its ability to breach capital defenses at a concentrated point near a shrine in order to strike military and Shi’a militia targets.
Indirect fire was also reported from locations north of Baghdad on September 15 and September 21. The use of indirect fire in the capital may indicate attempts by ISIS or other groups to attack Baghdad from a distance. Isolated indirect fire events may also constitute operational testing in support of future attacks. However, ISF defenses have increased in response to recent attacks. The ISF closed two bridges in central Baghdad after a VBIED detonated in the Karrada neighborhood on September 19. While airstrikes continue to escalate against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, ISIS may react by projecting greater force within the Baghdad zone.
Attacks to control the lower Tigris
ISIS militants have also made repeated efforts to break the line of ISF defenses along the Tigris River which protect access to the northern Baghdad belts. On September 8 and 9, ISIS launched a twomajorattacks on the village of Dhuluiya, southeast of Samarra, involving mortars, three SVBIEDs, and two IEDs emplaced on boats. ISIS successful used another IED-equipped boat on September 13 to destroy the last remaining bridge to Dhuluiya, severing lines of resupply linking the ISF garrison to Baghdad and Camp Taji military base. Extensiveindirectfire on the area was also reported between September 11 and September 16, including a possible attack by chlorine gas shells on September 15. These actions marked a heavy escalation of force and were likely an attempt to prepare the ground for a future offensive by softening ISF fortifications. If confirmed, the deployment of chemical assets to the area conforms to a historical pattern of chlorine gas use by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and may also signal the strategic importance which ISIS places on the northern Baghdad front. On September 18, ISIS launched another major attack on Dhuluiya which was repelled by local tribal fighters. As ISIS comes under increasing pressure on other fronts, particularly from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, further pressure on the northern Baghdad system can be expected.
Increasing levels of mobilization have been occurring behind this exterior line of ISF positions as well, in the vicinity of Taji, Balad, and Ishaqi. ISIS control of these areas would break the main lines of communication between Baghdad and forward-deployed ISF units in Tikrit, Samarra, and Dhuluiya. A chain of small-scale insurgent attacks, including roadsideIEDs in Taji in September 14 and 20 as well as an attempt to kill a local Sahwa [Awakening] commander in Tarmiyah on September 22, indicate that ISIS maintained at least a low-level presence to harass ISF operations in the area. Following the Kadhmiyah prison break attempt, however, ISIS has visibly increased its force posture north of Baghdad. On September 21, ISIS launched a ground assault on the village of Dujail from four axes and has continued to apply pressure through dailyattacks. ISIS forces also seized the village of Kaban in the Ishaqi sub-district on September 21, placing the neighboring village of Abu al-Sifa under siege. Dujail and Ishaqi both sit along the highway connecting the ISF units and Shi’a militias in Baghdad and Camp Taji with Samarra and Tikrit. Direct clashes also took place on September 23 in Tarmiyah, Mashahda, and Filahat, northeast of Camp Taji near the road to Baquba and al-Udhaim. This series of attacks is a decisive step change in ISIS behavior in the northern Baghdad belt and may be indicative of an ISIS response to increased pressure in other areas. The manpower required to execute simultaneous ground offensives also suggests that ISIS has redeployed units from neighboring control zones or activated latent capabilities in the northern Baghdad belt. One potential source of these reinforcements is the neighboring Thar Thar region, which has been previously assessed as a zone of strong ISIS control. Another ISIS line of communication may run along the far bank of the Tigris River from the outskirts of Dhuluiya, through al-Dujma across the river from Balad, and on to Tarmiyah. From this area, militants could also travel across unsecured desert to interact with other ISIS systems in the Hamrin Mountains and Tikrit.
Attacks to clear the lower Euphrates
In the western Baghdad belts, in the vicinity of Fallujah, ISIS has also expanded their operations in recent days. On September 21, ISIS militants overran an ISF military base in Saqlawiyah, northwest of Fallujah, after a multi-day siege, killing up to several hundred ISF members. Survivorsreported that ISIS militants deployed an SVBIED and several SVESTs to breach the garrison’s defenses. The ability to concentrate and subsequently deploy a critical mass of forces in an active combat zone implies the presence of a nearby ISIS strategic reserve, likely located in the adjacent Thar Thar region. In conjunction with the attacks to the north of Baghdad, the location of the attack also suggests that ISIS elements in the Thar Thar area have been mobilized to cut ISF lines of communication to points in western Anbar, including Habbaniyah and Ramadi. The fall of the base in Saqlawiyah demonstrates the vulnerability of ISF positions on the outer Baghdad belt if ISIS efforts to isolate them from reinforcement and resupply are successful.
Baghdad locator map with ISIS control, attack, and support zones.
The Thar Thar region that stretches from Fallujah north to Samarra is a likely stronghold for ISIS, which took control of the Muthanna Complex there on June 11 - 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. This ISIS force, along with elements in the northern Baghdad Belts near Taji and Balad, are likely responsible for attacks in northwestern Baghdad. They also likely contribute to attacks upon Samarra, Dhuluiya, and Balad. Combined with the ISIS force operating within Fallujah, this Thar Thar force was also likely responsible for the September 22 attack upon the ISF compound in Saqlawiyah, north of Fallujah. This force has been increasingly active in September 2014, a necessary reminder that ISIS still possesses the capacity to go on the offensive in the Baghdad zone. U.S. strategic planners appear to have recognized the threat posed by ISIS elements in the Thar Thar region. On September 23, one U.S. airstrike hit an ISIS vehicle northwest of Baghdad and on September 24 two additional U.S. airstrikes targeted ISIS armed vehicles to the west of Baghdad. These were the first strikes to be carried out in this area. A key measure for the effectiveness of these airstrikes will be whether ISIS can continue to mount further attacks forward of its primary control zones.
An important instance of unity among counter-ISIS forces has emerged in Northern Syria, possibly galvanized by recent effective operations against ISIS in Iraq by local Iraqi forces with the support of U.S. airstrikes. The Kurdish YPG, Jabhat al-Akrad [The Kurdish Front], and numerous FSA-affiliated rebel groups announced the formation of the “Euphrates Volcano” joint operations room in Northern Aleppo and Raqqa Provinces on September 10, the most significant rebel-YPG coordination to date. The video statement announcing the formation of the operations room declared the intent liberate to Qarah Qawzaq, Sireen, and Jarablus in addition to Manbij, Raqqa, and their surroundings, and called for material support from the international community in the fight against ISIS. The joint force appears to have immediately initiated operations against ISIS, claiming responsibility for a VBIED targeting an ISIS vehicle in the village of Qarah Qawzaq in the northeastern Aleppo countryside on September 11. A second VBIED in the ISIS-held city of Tabqa west of Raqqa went unclaimed, but is likely to have been conducted by groups within the operations room.
The formation of a joint Arab-Kurdish operations room against ISIS in Northern Syria is a significant inflection that is likely to force a shift in ISIS’s calculus. Significantly, the YPG is also involved in the fight against ISIS near Azaz, where a rebel coalition including FSA groups, Jabhat al-Akrad, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and Islamic Front groups appear to have been initially successful in blunting the momentum of ISIS’s advance against a key rebel supply line near the Turkish border. Furthermore, in Hasaka province, the YPG has made a number of recent gains against ISIS. The YPG successfully recaptured the town of Jaza’a near the Iraqi border, which had been seized by ISIS forces on August 19. In addition, a YPG offensive against the ISIS stronghold of Tel Hamis is currently underway, and initial reports indicate a successful advance by the YPG.
The Euphrates Volcano Joint Operations Room is an important case study for how the rebel landscape in a given area can be expected to interact with U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, if such airstrikes are to be conducted. Airstrikes alone are unlikely to be successful in defeating ISIS. However, it is possible that rebel action against ISIS on the ground may make considerable gains while ISIS forces are under pressure. While it is too early to examine the battlefield effectiveness of this joint Kurdish-Rebel force, clashes between the YPG and ISIS in the summer of 2014 provide a crucial lens into the force the YPG is able to bring to bear as a member of the new alliance. While they have taken notable losses, YPG forces have consistently been successful in resisting ISIS advances. Furthermore, activity in the months preceding the formation of the operations room sheds light on how ISIS is likely to perceive this new threat to its “border.” An instance of cooperation between YPG rebel forces against ISIS in Northern Syria in March provoked immediate aggression from ISIS, which moved quickly to reassert its control over its own critical terrain.
Background: the Syrian Kurdish Dynamic
The Syrian Civil War placed Syrian Kurds in a position of both extreme risk and unprecedented opportunity. Taking advantage of the regime’s decreasing control, Kurdish leaders from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) formed an armed wing titled the People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the intent of securing control of predominantly ethnic Kurdish areas in Northern and Eastern Syria. Throughout 2012, the PYD assumed administrative and military control over large parts of northern and northeastern Syria. However, the PYD continued to cooperate locally with the Syrian regime, and YPG forces have shared joint control with the regime over Qamishli and Hasaka cities. As a result of this cooperation, Islamist and rebel groups in Eastern Syria frequently clashed with the YPG, including prominent advances by JN, Islamist rebel groups, and ISIS deep into Hasaka province in early 2013.
In a highly successful operation titled the Serekeniye Martyrs’ Offensive, YPG forces expelled JN and ISIS forces from the border town of Ras al-Ayn and its surrounding countryside in July 2013. During these clashes, the YPG proved itself to be a capable fighting force able to evict coalitions of rebel groups from predominantly Kurdish territory. The success of the offensive was closely followed by PYD’s declaration of the Self-Rule Transitional Government, which conferred de-facto autonomy to the Kurdish-majority “cantons” of Afrin and Kobane, in Aleppo province, and Jazira, in Hasaka province.
Fighting between rebel forces and the YPG also occurred in northern Aleppo province. In August of 2013, a coalition of Syrian groups including ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and local groups from the town of Shuyukh announced that they were placing Ayn al-Arab under siege “to liberate the highway between Manbij and Hasaka from PKK [a derogatory reference to Kurdish forces by groups hostile to the YPG] checkpoints.” Nevertheless, rebel forces and the YPG were brought in alignment against ISIS in Northern Syria in the aftermath of the counter-ISIS offensive in January 2014 spearheaded by the Syrian Revolutionaries Front.
YPG support for rebels in Aleppo provokes ISIS containment operations
In the Spring of 2014, ISIS escalated hostilities against the YPG in northeastern Aleppo Province. The timing, geographical distribution, and intensity of ISIS attacks indicate three ISIS objectives. First, ISIS wanted to push back YPG positions in order to establish a buffer zone between the YPG’s area of free movement and the “borders” of ISIS’s infant Aleppo Wilayat [Governorate]. Second, ISIS sought to protect key terrain essential to the congruity of ISIS territory in Syria; specifically, the towns of Sarrin, Zawr Maghar, and Upper and Lower Shuyukh. Finally, ISIS sought to deter future YPG aggression against potential ISIS vulnerabilities surrounding the canton of Kobane.
A decision by the YPG to join an attack by the Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front against the ISIS stronghold of Sarrin on March 14 appears to have provoked a shift in ISIS’s disposition toward the YPG and is likely to have encouraged the subsequent ISIS assault against the YPG in Northern Aleppo province. ISIS had seized the towns of Sarrin and Shuyukh Fawqani in the southernmost outskirts of the Kobane canton on March 10 and 11 respectively, allowing it to secure two major crossings north of the Euphrates and more effectively link its control zone north of Aleppo to those in northern Raqqa province. A strategically located town, Sarrin provides access to the Qarah Qozaq bridge and is therefore critical to ISIS’s freedom of mobility in the area. Wresting the bridge from ISIS control would have allowed the YPG and other rebel groups to cut an ISIS ground line of communication (GLOC) between Manbij and Tel Abyad, forcing ISIS to rely on a circuitous route south through the contested Tishrin Dam region.
By participating in the attack, the YPG proved it posed a threat to the not-yet-hardened periphery of ISIS’s Aleppo region. In response, ISIS forces launched an offensive operation to force a contraction of the YPG’s area of operations and deter future aggression. According to Kurdish news site Welati, 700 ISIS fighters arrived in Sireen on March 18 after further clashes erupted between ISIS and YPG-backed rebels. On March 19, the YPG Central Command announced a general mobilization on its website, indicating that reinforcements from other cantons would be moved to Kobane to assist against “inhuman attacks from the ISIS gang.” Shortly thereafter, during Friday prayers on March 21, ISIS-affiliated preachers in Raqqa province declared Ayn al-Arab to be “inside ISIS’s borders.”
Likely seeking to relieve pressure near Sireen, ISIS forces based near Tel Abyad on the Turkish border in northern Raqqa province opened a second front against YPG forces in Kobane. As clashes west of Tel Abyad continued on March 29, ISIS launched its first of three nighttime raids on the town of Zawr Maghar, located just east of Jarablus on the Turkish border. A second attack on Zawr Maghar on April 3 prompted an alarmed statement from the PYD, calling the attacks “the most violent since ISIS began its siege on Kobane.” A third nighttime raid, rumored to have been staged from Khirab Ato, against Zawr Maghar was reported by the YPG on April 17 amidst continued ISIS shelling in eastern Kobane, the last major ISIS operation in the initial ISIS effort to encircle and contain the canton of Kobane in 2014.
Reports of ISIS-YPG clashes in Kobane largely died down in early April, with local sources claiming the ISIS offensive had been thwarted. A YPG commander declared on April 19 that ISIS “not in a condition to advance now” and had been “entirely broken.” Overall, ISIS forces had been able to secure the valuable Qarah Qozaq bridge, but failed to decisively punish and deter the YPG. In fact, the YPG announced “a new resistance campaign against attacks” on April 25, launching immediate attacks against ISIS southwest of Ayn al-Arab city. More importantly, the YPG continued to support rebel groups fighting ISIS in Sarrin as late as May 1, clearly demonstrating ISIS’ failure to contain the YPG and prevent it from threatening critical lines of communication. By the beginning of May, the only ISIS aggression reported in Kobane were isolated firefights along front-line positions, other than ISIS’ brief capture of a hill that was reportedly quickly retaken by the YPG.
After failing in its first attempt to deter the YPG through direct military action, ISIS changed tactics, launching a wave of kidnappings targeting the Kobane canton as well as groups of Kurdish civilians travelling through Aleppo province. On May 21, ISIS fighters abducted 15 Kurdish civilians from the town of Kun Eftar, located along the road between Shuyukh at Sarrin and reported to have been on the frontline between the YPG and ISIS. ISIS’s kidnapping campaign expanded significantly in late May, with ISIS fighters kidnapping 200 Kurds from the town of Qabasin in Aleppo province on May 30. It is possible that ISIS conducted these kidnappings with the intent of conducting swaps for captured fighters and remains. YPG spokesman Redur Xelil confirmed in an interview with McClatchy on June 21 that the YPG was “waiting for their demands to determine if there should be a prisoner swap.” Additionally, Kurdish journalist Multu Civiroglu suggested in an email sent to McClatchy DC that ISIS hoped to use the captured students as a “bargaining chip to pressure YPG.” However, it is also possible the attacks were simply punitive. The Guardian reported that over the following months ISIS tried to “brainwash” the captives and induct them into ISIS ranks, sparking intense fear within the Kurdish population.
A second ISIS offensive against western Kobane began in late June. On June 23, the YPG and Kurdish media reported a renewed ISIS ground offensive on Zawr Maghar. On July 3, ISIS finally succeeded in capturing Zawr Maghar, which had been the target of ISIS attacks since March. A YPG statement published on July 4 announced the YPG’s withdrawal from Zawr Maghar, Bayadi, and Ziyara, temporarily granting ISIS a buffer zone. In addition to denying the YPG the ability to target Jarablus with indirect fire, the capture of Zawr Maghar allowed ISIS to broaden its offensive against the YPG, paving the way for ISIS’s capture of Bayadiya on July 6. Similar to its previous attacks on Kobane, ISIS opened a second front against the YPG staged from northern Raqqa. On July 8, ISIS attacked a YPG cordon around the village of Abdi Kuwi, east of Ayn al-Arab along the Turkish border, and detonated a VBIED against a YPG checkpoint at a cement factory on the road between Sireen and Ayn Issa. This ISIS front appears to have been successful, and the YPG released an official admission on July 9 that its forces had withdrawn from the villages of Kiri Sor, Afdouki, and Kendal as ISIS claimed to have broken the YPG siege of Abdi Kuwi following massive bombardment with tanks and artillery.
However, YPG resistance continued. According to ARANews, the YPG recaptured Jubb al-Faraj, east of Shuyukh Fawqani, and Khirab Ato by July 6.. On July 11, the YPG announced an attack on ISIS-controlled Shuyukh Tahtani, situated along the road linking the key ISIS bridgeheads of Shuyukh Fawqani and Sireen. In mid-July, reports surfaced indicating that the PYD in the Hasaka “Jazira” canton had begun debating instituting compulsory service in the YPG, possibly for purposes of redeployment to Ayn al-Arab. However, the proposed law never came to a vote,, and instead upwards of 800 Turkish Kurds arrived from PKK training camps in Turkey to join the YPG’s fight against ISIS in mid-July. ISIS captured the village of Fiyunta in Eastern Kobane from the YPG two days after the arrival of the PKK reinforcements, but the fresh forces allowed the YPG to stabilize their defenses and begin to push ISIS forces back. On the western front, the YPG halted ISIS’s advance at the town of Jebneh, east of Bayadiya. By July 23, the YPG had recaptured the towns of Jel Oghlu and Darbazin, and took Katsh, Jabb al-Faraj and Kjel a week later, giving the YPG the positioning needed to attack the town of Shuyukh.
The YPG attack on Shuyukh Tahtani was the climactic moment of the Kobane campagin. During the attack, 14 YPG and 35 ISIS fighters were reportedly killed in about 12 hours of fighting. The YPG did not take control of the town, but the takeaway was clear: the YPG could still place significant pressure on the Jarablus-Sireen GLOC and compel ISIS forces in Jarablus to detour around the Shuyukh Fawqani bridge. While sporadic clashes continued through August, these occurred on a much smaller scale with no major territories changing hands. By the beginning of September, ISIS had decisively accomplished one of its primary objectives and decidedly failed in the other two: ISIS had captured Zawr Maghar, pushed the YPG back from Sireen, and held onto Shuyukh, demonstrating ISIS’ ability to secure certain critical locations on the eastern border of its declared Aleppo region. ISIS failed, however, to create a buffer zone around Shuyukh or Zawr Maghar that would preclude subsequent YPG penetration into ISIS territory.
Analysis of the Kobane fight in the summer of 2014 reveals important aspects of ISIS strategy in Syria, indicative of an ISIS prioritization of continuity between its Syrian territories. It is clear that ISIS perceived the YPG to be a threat to important lines of communication that run close to the canton’s borders, and was willing to make a concerted effort to contract the YPG’s area of operations. ISIS specifically mentioned the proximity of Zawr Magharto the city of Jarablus in a report it published on the attack, confirming that ISIS considered YPG control of the town to be an untenable threat to the borders of its declared Aleppo region. The failure of the first phase of the offensive in March and April revealed that ISIS’ forces in the area lacked the strength to consistently make significant gains against the YPG. However, after the Mosul offensive in early June, newly strengthened ISIS forces made important gains, inducing panic in the Kurdish canton. This increased ISIS strength was likely the result of newly acquired indirect fire capabilities acquired from weapons depots in Mosul, and possibly the deployment of veteran fighters to supplement those based in the Aleppo area. The ISIS attack on Zawr Maghar began with days of sustained indirect fire bombardment, distinguished from previous attacks that had almost exclusively consisted of nighttime raids. Testament to this inflection, a YPG statement published on July 4 claimed that ISIS fired over three thousand mortar shells at the town. While the veracity of this claim is impossible to verify, the extent of ISIS’s weapons seizures in Iraq has been well documented.
Despite the reinvigoration of ISIS forces, the YPG was largely successful in defending its border against ISIS. The summer offensives therefore exhibit the ability of the YPG to resist ISIS gains, and to challenge the ISIS interior in a meaningful way. Newly united with rebel groups against ISIS within the Euphrates Volcano Operations Room, YPG forces are likely to contribute both effective fighters and critical staging capabilities that may lead to success against ISIS in the province. The joint operations room is a critical indicator of the possibilities for the formation of local counter-ISIS coalitions within Syria, and, if effective, may provide much-needed rebel momentum within the province. While insufficient to defeat ISIS, effective counter-ISIS action in Northern Syria may nonetheless encourage further exploration of local counter-ISIS alliances throughout Syria. However, the YPG’s participation has once again provoked a strong ISIS response. At the time of writing, an ISIS offensive against the Kobane canton has commenced and made sweeping initial gains. Thus the recent dynamics in Northern Syria illustrate that counter-ISIS movements face high risk in the short-term, and are likely to require additional assistance to be successful in resisting ISIS aggression.
On September 18, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) launched a complex attack likely targeting the Adala (Justice) Prison in Baghdad’s Kadhmiyah neighborhood in northern Baghdad. According to the Baghdad Operations Command, the attack was intendedto break into the prison but was foiled. ISIS also launched another attack in Baghdad’s Iskan neighborhood that likely targeted the offices of the Iraqi Shi’a political group and militia, the Badr Organization.
ISIS’s attack included mortar rounds, Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs), and Suicide Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs). The mortars were likely launched from the areas of the northern Baghdad belt including Taji. Fourteen mortar rounds reportedly targetedthe Adala prison and in the vicinity of Kadhmiyah, and other mortarrounds fell in the Greaat area in northern Baghdad which is adjacent to Kadhmiyah. An SVBIED also targeted the prison, resulting in the death of three people and injury of 10. Two attackers who had intended to attack the prison while wearing an explosive vest (SVEST) were arrested. Another VBIED exploded in a restaurant area in Kadhmiyah that resulted in the death of four people and the injury of 11 people. Iraqi police also defused yet another VBIEDthat was also found in Kadhmiyah. As a result of these attacks, security forces raised alert levels in Kadhmiyah. Security Forces also orderedcommercial shops to be closed in the predominantly Iraqi Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah. Adhamiyah lies just across the Aaima bridge from Kadhmiyah. Elsewhere in Baghdad, a VBIED detonated in the Iskan area in western Baghdad. The VBIED targeted the office of the Badr Organization, a Shi’a militia organization that has taken a leading role in directing Iraqi Shi’a militia operations to counter ISIS.
This attack is very significant. It is the first infantry-like, complex, and penetrating attack in Baghdad city by ISIS since the fall of Mosul in June of this year. ISIS likely carried out the attack to release some of the pressure it is facing as a result of the recent U.S. air campaign targeting its positions. The attack also signifies that, despite the heightened defenses of Baghdad in the aftermath of the fall of Mosul, ISIS is still able to carry out attacks in an area where it is unlikely to have active sleeper cells given Kadhmiyah’s predominantly Iraqi Shi’a demographic. The mortars were likely launched from Taji due to ISIS’s historical presence in the area and its ongoing activitiesthere.
The attacks will not likely divert great deal of resources of the ISF and Iraqi Shi’a militias into other areas. The government will want to maintain a strong defense of Baghdad by preserving the same posture. More likely, however, the attacks will trigger increased activities of Iraqi Shi’a militia in Baghdad in order to target ISIS sleeper cells and predominantly Iraqi Sunni areas including Adhamiyah.
The successful ISIS advance in the wake of its June 2014 capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul has prompted a shift in rival al-Qaeda group JN’s disposition within Syria. JN has abandoned its former center of gravity in Deir ez-Zour province in favor of consolidating control in Idlib Province.
This shift represents a transition by JN away from discreet influence within outwardly rebel-dominated structures that had characterized its activities in Deir ez-Zour.
JN advances on the Syrian-Turkish border helps to replace revenue lost to ISIS from the oil fields in Deir ez-Zour. It also allows JN to regroup deep within the rebel center of gravity in northwestern Syria.
A campaign to “counter corruption” in Idlib served as the pretext for JN’s seizure of control. Rebel participation in this anti-corruption activity has allowed JN to reaffirm its influence within rebel ranks.
Despite abandoning its involvement in joint Shari’a courts alongside prominent rebel groups, JN is unlikely to divert from its desired end state of an Islamic State in a post-Assad Syria.
The declaration of a Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) on June 30 prompted a major inflection in the disposition of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in Syria. While ISIS forces swept southeast from Mosul in Iraq, an ISIS escalation against regime military bases in Syria demonstrated its high military effectiveness across two theatres. As a result, JN forces, once the preeminent military challenge to the Syrian regime, were faced with a major competitor and a significant challenge to their centers of gravity in Eastern Syria. Seeking to avoid marginalization, JN reprioritized its assets and adjusted its force posture to carve out a new center of gravity in northwestern Syria. An immediate withdrawal from most of its strongholds in Deir ez-Zour province in early July surrendered the primary source of JN military and economic strength, but allowed JN to avoid a significant confrontation with a strengthened ISIS that would have likely cost JN a large number of fighters and hindered its ability to continue to fight the Syrian regime.
Taken together, JN’s counterbalancing constitutes an immediate shift in its strategy within Syria. The withdrawal from Deir ez-Zour marked the conclusion of a provincial governance initiative through which JN had tested its ability to maintain social control by quietly exerting influence from within a broader rebel structure. In addition to withdrawing from Deir ez-Zour, JN announced its formal withdrawal from the Aleppo Shari’a Commission (ASC) on July 7, citing disagreements with other members regarding the functioning of the court, possibly on account of corruption. A few days later, an audio feed of JN leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani surfaced in which Joulani was heard announcing the establishment of an Islamic Emirate within Syria. The transmission of the audio appears to have been unsanctioned, and immediately vanished from social media platforms and YouTube. However, it nonetheless appears to have been genuine, prompting JN to issue an immediate six-part clarification. In a statement distributed by official JN social media accounts, JN stated that while its intent since the first day of its establishment has been to “return the rule of Allah to his land and arbitrate his law,” it had not yet declared the establishment of an Islamic Emirate. Significantly, the statement announced the discontinuation of Shari’a court structures shared with other groups as previously prioritized by JN and announced its intention to “arbitrate Shari’a through the role of [the] judiciary and establishing centers to maintain security and offer public services to Muslims.” Finally, the statement announced JN’s intolerance for “bad and corrupt” groups, and stated its intent solely to participate with “honest” factions.
The JN clarification conveys the prioritization of two main objectives: first is a shift in JN’s approach to governance. The announcement foreshadowed efforts by JN to implement rule of law in areas previously on the periphery of JN’s sphere of influence, a shift indicated by the termination of JN’s involvement in prominent Shari’a courts in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zour. After the release of the statement, a JN spokesperson with ties to the central al-Qaeda organization named Abu Firas al-Suri further clarified that JN did not seek to establish its own form of state governance, but rather “what is meant is to apply the Islamic Sharia rather than establish an emirate in the sense of a state and rule.” The second objective conveyed by the JN statement is a heightened attention to the purity of JN’s relationships to rebel groups. Seemingly credible rumors of a reshuffling within JN’s higher command is further evidence of this shift toward a more assertive approach to JN’s interaction with the Syrian opposition. While JN made no formal announcement, it has been reported that the leader of JN’s Shari’a Court, Abu Marea al-Qahtani, was replaced by his former deputy, Sheikh Sami al-Aridi. Qahtani is believed to have been a voice advocating for a more tolerant approach to interacting with rebel coalitions, whereas al-Aridi has put forth a more hard line and uncompromising agenda.
Counter Corruption Campaign
As a conditions-setting component of JN’s pursuit of these two objectives, JN forces moved in to take a more direct form of control over key villages along the Turkish border in Western Idlib province beginning in mid-July. This territorial acquisition facilitated JN’s new governance strategy, acquired an alternative source of revenue, and served to edge out more moderate rebel groups from key terrain near the Turkish border.
As JN moved in to control key border villages, an anti-corruption campaign served as a primary justification for JN forces asserting a higher level of local control. Periodical raids against smugglers and abusive fighters had previously been conducted by JN in areas on the Syrian-Turkish border, particularly in Northern Aleppo, throughout early 2014. However, the campaign against corruption initiated after the leaked Joulani announcement is representative of both an invigoration of this effort and a reassertion of JN influence throughout northwestern Syria. JN released a formal press statement on July 21 announcing the start of a counter corruption campaign, pledging to “cut off the hands” of those who have used the security vacuum to exploit the people and warning rebel groups that have “[utilized] the services of American interests” not to be “deceived by the patience of the Mujahideen.”
In accordance with this threat, the primary target of JN’s consolidation in Idlib appears to have been territory under the control of the FSA-affiliated Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF). Beginning in the early morning of July 17, JN forces stormed numerous SRF bases across Idlib, seizing control of checkpoints and weapons and detaining fighters under allegations they had collected unfair taxes from residents. According to a rebel “leader” cited by McClatchy, SRF fighters were ordered to surrender because they could not match JN’s military strength. Facilitated by these localized surrenders JN forces seized control of a number of towns near the Turkish border in addition to the checkpoints of FSA’s Liwa 48 in the countryside of Jisr al-Shughour.
Support from the Islamic Front (IF) and other key JN allies affirmed JN’s continued commitment to the Syrian revolution and is likely to have aided in deterring civilian discontent or a meaningful backlash from the targeted local groups. A statement issued by numerous rebel groups on July 22 announced their participation in the campaign, including the IF members Ahrar al-Sham (HASI) and Suqour al-Sham, in addition to Liwa al-Bitar, Liwa al-Umma, Kataib Salah ad-Din and Faylaq al-Sham. Members of the IF also participated in what appears to have been a simultaneous set of JN raids against corruption and “checkpoint thieves” in Aleppo Province. In response to the JN aggression, the SRF released an immediate statement calling on JN to return the stolen equipment and requesting a Shari’a Court settlement. However, the statement made it clear that the SRF had no desire to go to war with JN, adding that it “[would] not take up arms against JN because we are busy fighting the regime and fighting in Deraa.” However, JN appears to have ignored this attempt at mediation and continued its consolidation. A later statement released by a set of prominent rebel groups in Idlib on July 18 criticized JN for attacking FSA forces in liberated areas and accused it of ceasing to fight the regime. This statement also appears to have gone unanswered. On August 18, the SRF issued a second statement against JN, accusing it of abandoning Aleppo, handing Deir ez-Zour to ISIS, and deploying to the Turkish border instead of key front lines in Aleppo Province. Nonetheless, JN appears to have continued its consolidation, reasserting control over Hafsarjah on September 15 after clashes erupted with local fighters. After this escalation, the SRF finally submitted, releasing an 8-minute statement in which SRF leader Jamal Ma’arouf issued a plea for immediate settlement of the ongoing confrontation. Ma’arouf stated his willingness to submit to a ruling by any Shari’a judge of JN’s choosing so long as the settlement can take effect immediately. JN agreed to Shari’a court mediation on September 15, and a formal truce is reported to have been signed by both parties.
JN flag in Hafsarjah
In these newly consolidated areas of control, JN has begun to implement a new paradigm for governance. Five towns exhibit the most overt signs of JN control, including of Haram, Salqin, Izmarin, al-Zanbaqi, Darkoush, and Hafsarjeh. While JN had long been active within the province, its activities had largely focused on religious and social outreach rather than the kinds of service provision that characterized its involvement in the Aleppo and Deir ez-Zour Shari’a governance systems. In its new territory, JN immediately launched an outreach program to the citizens in newly-seized localities, capitalizing on the end of Ramadan Eid al-Fitr holiday to begin establishing a connection with the local population. The formalization of JN’s new approach to governance appears to be underway, with JN reportedly establishing numerous “Dar al-Qadaa” branches in a less overtly religious form of judicial governance in Idlib in addition to initiating such efforts in Homs, Hama, and Latakia. As a component of this effort, a new set of civic and economic laws was reportedly declared by JN, including standardizations for the prices of important commodities and a set of social laws that include limitations on the playing of loud music, riding motorcycles at “excessive speeds,” and gender segregation.
The JN escalation in Western Idlib served a third strategic objective of reconsolidating JN’s wider influence within rebel ranks as a means through which to deter the growth in ISIS influence. In addition to direct rebel support in the campaign, the JN power play appears to have been successful in encouraging other rebel groups to shift their posture to accommodate its new agenda. On July 31, The Khalid bin al-Waleed brigade, a component group of the SRF operating in northern Homs province, announced its split from the SRF, stating that it will cease any fighting against Islamic or Jihadist groups and will focus on fighting the regime. In addition, Harakat Hazm, which also receives US military support, released a statement blaming its subsidiary group Liwa Daraa al-Watan for corruption and abuses in the liberated areas of Aleppo city and announcing its plan to bring the group before a Shari’a court. JN’s severing of ties with the Aleppo-based HASI affiliate Katiba Jaysh al-Muhammad on July 16 on the premise that “the behavior of the battalion are not representative of Jabhat al-Nusra” appears to have been successful in coercing the IF into expelling the group from the critical border town of Azaz. Jaysh al-Muhammad is known to have cooperated with ISIS in Azaz prior to the expulsion of ISIS in February 2014, and it is possible its subsequent marginalization was in part a result of fear of latent ISIS influence. A number of rebel raids against suspected ISIS sympathizers within Aleppo is further testament to this concern. While anti-ISIS raids are likely to have occurred without the shift of JN posturing, the targeted groups have in many cases been component elements of groups that work in close proximity to JN. The purging of disloyal elements from within these groups is likely to have been a priority concern for JN in the aftermath of ISIS’s push into Northern Aleppo.
As JN continues to consolidate strength in Northwestern Syria, a recent weakening of the Islamic Front may allow JN further room within which to exert influence amidst rebel ranks. The deaths of HASI leader Hassan Abboud and military commander Abu Talha in an explosion on September 9th crippled the group, a severe blow to the strength of the IF in Northern Syria. JN and HASI forces fight closely against the regime on numerous battlefronts across Syria, and are natural allies as a result of their shared leadership corps with ties to al-Qaeda. Testament to their close relationship, in the aftermath of the explosion JN released a statement lamenting the HASI deaths as a “wound that will not heal” and imploring HASI members to be patient, endure, and hold their positions. While the full effect of the loss of HASI’s founding leadership will take time to unfold, it is possible that local JN commanders will step in and provide command and control for HASI fighters deployed on the front lines. Combined with JN’s increased exertion of control throughout Idlib, an effective absorption of HASI elements could further bolster JN’s ability to consolidate its forces and reassert dominance on the Syrian battlefield.
JN activities in Idlib and Aleppo in the aftermath of the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS are indicative of a strategic realignment in the wake of the ISIS advance. The shift in JN’s disposition in Idlib and Aleppo, featuring prominently a shift in its approach to governance, is a solution to JN’s immediate need to quickly and efficiently establish a new center of gravity after surrendering Deir ez-Zour. It is likely that through these recent initiatives JN seeks to acquire a depth of control in a critical area within the rebel presence in northwestern Syria from which to regroup free from the threat of immediate ISIS incursion. Furthermore, the scope of JN’s consolidation in Idlib indicates the possibility that JN seeks to adjust to the rise of western-backed groups that have been recipients of TOW missile shipments. JN’s repositioning appears to have been largely successful, and is likely to enable JN forces to reinvigorate their campaign within Syria from a strengthened force posture centered in a critical rebel center of gravity.
However, the ideological foundation of JN’s long-term strategy of governance makes it unlikely JN will divert from its desired end state of an Islamic State in a post-Assad Syria that JN can quietly control. The societal engagement that underpinned JN’s previous strategy of Shari’a Court cooptation remains a primary JN concern. Testament to this continued priority, JN released assurances that its Shari’a authorities would continue their work in Aleppo despite its formal withdrawal from the ASC “until the completion of the issues entrusted to us in order to preserve the interests of the Muslims.” JN continues to exhibit proficiency in adapting to its current environment, and is likely to undertake another strategic shift within Syria if and when the ISIS rise in Syria is forced to culminate.
**Coming in October**: ISW Syria analyst and Evans Hanson Fellow, Jennifer Cafarella, will release a comprehensive report next month on Jabhat al Nusra, an 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 the Syrian context.
On September 15, Iraqi Shi’a militias issued statements concerning any further involvement by U.S. military personnel in Iraq or neighboring countries. The groups included the Sadrist Trend, which has fully reactivated its Mahdi Army under the banner of the “Peace Brigades,” Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Katai’b Hizballah (KH). Both AAH and KH are supported by the Iranian government while the Sadrists have had more complex relations with the Iranian government. The three groups, along with the Badr organization, have also had a forward-deploying role in the Iraqi government’s ground campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The role of KH and AAH has been coordinated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force (QF). The Peace Brigades have avoided public association with the Iranian government and may be coordinating with QF to a lesser extent in comparison to AAH and KH.
In his statement, leader of the Sadrist Trend Moqtada al-Sadr stated that the Iraqi government should not call on assistance from the “occupier,” A reference to the U.S. Sadr added that “as we made you taste the heat of our fire and [power] in the past, we will make you taste the scourge of your decision.” Sadr ordered his forces state to withdraw from the frontlines if “U.S. forces or others [forces] intervened through land or sea, directly or indirectly.” KH also stated that its elements will withdraw from the frontline against ISIS due to the U.S. role in Iraq. KH also attributed this decision to its belief that if “we and America are in one place, we have to be in a fighting situation not cooperation and peace.” AAH also stated that it will attack the U.S. embassy with its “Avenger” rocket if it thought about “sending its soldiers to Iraq.”
These statements are a reaction to President Barack Obama’s speech last week announcing the U.S. effort to counter ISIS. Furthermore, they represent an Iranian government position against the anti-ISIS coalition that the Administration is consolidating, which has not included the Iranian government. In short, the Iranian government is replicating its strategy before the withdrawal of U.S. Forces in 2011 by directing the militias to attack U.S. forces and presence in Iraq. Furthermore, the Iraqi Shi’a militias want to maintain their influence, and the presence of U.S. forces will result in limiting their influence.
Iraq’s Shi’a militias will have to acknowledge the active involvement of U.S. and other western countries in breaking the siege of Amerli. They will also have to contend with expanded U.S. air support that has included areas south of Baghdad on September 14-15, both of which support the Iraqi government against the threat of ISIS. It will be important to watch how the Badr organization will react to these statements given its close ties to the Iranian government and Badr’s desire to occupy one of Iraq’s security portfolio ministries of either Defense or Interior.
Ahmed Ali is a Senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead.
ISW has updated its ISIS Sanctuary map in advance of President Obama’s speech on a strategy to confront ISIS. This map, covering both Iraq and Syria, shows the extent of ISIS zones of control, attack, and support throughout both countries.
ISW has updated its ISIS Sanctuary map in advance of President Obama’s speech on a strategy to confront ISIS. This map, covering both Iraq and Syria, shows the extent of ISIS zones of control, attack, and support throughout both countries.
The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) has voted to install a new cabinet to form the government of new Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi. The new cabinet will face the challenges of altering a deteriorating security situation and overcoming the mistrust created by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's years in office. Crucially, the government will also have to reverse the gains made by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, the vote for the new cabinet did not include the important positions of minister of defense or minister of interior. These positions will for now rest with PM Abadi, as former Prime Minister Maliki had occupied the positions previously. Hadi al-Ameri, of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization, has been floated as a candidate for both positions, and it is likely that political wrangling over these positions has delayed their appointment. Such an appointment would be alarming to the United States and other Iraqi allies. Iraqi Sunnis are likely to receive the Ministry of Defense, which may help instill confidence in renewed military efforts against ISIS. Much rests on the timely filling of these positions, which PM Abadi has promised this week.
Important Cabinet Positions
Iraq's government will be led by newly elected Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, a member of the Iraqi Shi’a Dawa Party. He came to office after former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down from running for a third term in the office. Today’s voting included twenty-four ministries, excluding the important security portfolio ministries of Defense and Interior. In addition to the cabinet positions, the CoR voted on three vice presidents. All three are leaders of political groups that competed in the 2014 elections: former Prime Ministers Ayad Allawi and Nouri al-Maliki and former Speaker of the CoR Osama al-Nujaifi. The Vice Presidency is more of a ceremonial position and does not have specific political powers. With former Prime Minister Maliki remaining in a political role, it remains to be seen how other political players will react.
The cabinet also maintained other well-known politicians in other positions, including the ministries known as the “sovereignty ministries:” Defense, Interior, Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Oil. Adel Abdul Mahdi from the Iraqi Shi’a Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) will be the Oil Minister, former prime minister and Iraqi Shi’a politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari will be Foreign Affairs Minister, and former deputy prime minister from the Kurdistani Alliance Rozh Nouri Shawes will be the Finance Minister. The Defense and Interior ministries remain pending.
Immediate Challenges Ahead The cabinet and Prime Minister Abadi will face immediate challenges including:
Filling the positions of Defense and Interior Ministries. According to Abadi, he will seek to fill these positions by next week. Previous minister of transportation and leader of the Iranian-backed Badr Organization, Hadi al-Ameri, has controversially been reported as a candidate for the Defense Minister position but later leaks and unofficial cabinet lists showed him to be the candidate for the Interior Ministry. It is likely that the delay in filling both positions is the result of al-Ameri’s history as an ally of the Iranian government.
Iraqi Sunnis and Security Positions. During the formation of the government in 2010, the Iraqi Sunnis were supposed to receive positions within the Defense Ministry. Former Prime Minister Maliki, however, withheld these positions and occupied them himself. Leaks from the government formation process again indicate that Iraqi Sunni political groups be granted positions in the Ministry of Defense.
The Iraqi Kurdish Position. The Iraqi Kurds conditioned their participation in the government on six conditions that have to be fulfilled within three months. The conditions include addressing outstanding oil and gas issues, Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of the federal government budget, Article 140 (pertaining to disputed internal boundaries), further discussion of the government program put forward by Prime Minister Abadi, and issues related to governance in Iraq. Some of these issues will be difficult to address in three months and indeed have been outstanding for years. But releasing salaries for KRG employees can happen quickly as a confidence-building measure.
It is an important political development that Iraq’s cabinet was formed before the September 11, 2014 deadline passed. This will allow for an opportunity to re-inject legitimacy into the political process. It is further important that this government was formed while ISIS still controls significant urban areas in Iraq such as Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah. Nevertheless, the formation of the government also poses difficult challenges, particularly given Ameri’s candidacy for either the defense or interior ministry. Ameri’s assumption of either position will provide the Iranian government with greater access into Iraq’s formal security structures.
Moving ahead, it will be vital for Iraqi Sunnis in ISIS-held areas to perceive the government as representative. This dynamic, coupled with a revamped military and security strategy, can provide an opportunity to weaken ISIS. It is still early to see how this new government will be received, and ISW will continue to up-to-date analysis of the challenges facing Iraq’s new government.
Ahmed Ali is a senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead.