by ISW Iraq Team, Nichole Dicharry, and Isabel Nassief
Thursday, July 31, 2014
by Nate Petrocine
ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq has impacted the dynamics of the Syrian civil war, changing the strategic and operational calculus of regime, opposition, and ISIS forces fighting in Syria. In the late spring of 2014, regime forces concentrated efforts on Aleppo city and Deraa province leaving critical infrastructure in Idlib province unguarded and vulnerable. Rebel operations during this period demonstrate opposition forces’ ability to exploit regime weaknesses, and conduct coordinated offensives indicating organization above a tactical level. Opposition operations set a baseline for rebel activity against the regime. From this baseline, it will be important to assess how opposition groups in north-western Syria contend with the emerging three-front war in Syria.
In the spring and early summer of 2014, opposition forces targeted the regime’s logistics system and made significant advances in the province of Idlib. Rebel operations have continued to target the vital highways segmenting Idlib province, namely the M5 and the M4. The M5, which spans the wm5estern length of Syria from Damascus to Aleppo, is an essential supply route for both regime and opposition forces. Likewise the M4, which connects Aleppo and Idlib to the coast of Latakia, is indispensable for regime forces currently fighting in Aleppo City.
Shaping the assault on Khan Sheikhoun
Prior to the rebel offensive in Khan Sheikhoun, smaller shaping operations focused on liberating checkpoints along the M5 strip between Khan Sheikhoun and Ma’arat Nu’man. Checkpoints in the small town of Hesh and the Wadi al-Deif Military Complex in Ma’arat Nu’man remained obstacles to rebel operations. Seizing these key waypoints along the M5 strip allowed rebel forces significant freedom of movement along the route and prevented regime forces from reinforcing areas of Khan Sheikhoun.
On May 16, 2014, ten days before the final assault on Khan Sheikhoun, Suqour al-Sham and Sham Legion attacked the Wadi al-Deif military base located in the eastern outskirts of Ma’arat Nu’man with an impressive underground explosive. The tactic of using tunnels to emplace explosives under strategic regime positions has been utilized throughout the country to target hard-to-reach regime positions. On this occasion, fighters of Suquor al-Sham and Sham Legion dug an 850 meter tunnel leading to the western gate of the Wadi al-Deif military complex. Fighters then filled the cavern located under the base with what they claimed was 60 tons of homemade explosives. The successful detonation destroyed the western entrance of the base completely, and rebel fighters announced killing nearly one hundred regime soldiers.
On May 23, 2014, Sham Legion announced the “Battle of Trust in God” with the objective of liberating the town of Hesh and the sector of the M5 between Khan Sheikhoun and Ma’arat Nu’aman. Elements involved in the battle included the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood-linked Sham Legion, Suqour al-Ghab, the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF), and a number of smaller local groups.
Rebels seize stretch of M5 beginning in Khan Sheikhoun
As a large waypoint along the M5 highway between northern Hama and southern Idlib, Khan Sheikhoun is of strategic importance for both regime and rebel forces. The town has been the site of fierce clashes since the regime first drove rebels out of the town in the summer of 2012. Seizing Khan Sheikhoun allows the rebels to control a greater stretch of the M5 highway, further choking the regime’s ability to use the road as a supply route. It would also pave the way for an offensive to seize the major regime base at Wadi al-Deif, near Ma’arat al-Nu’man.
Although the assault on Khan Sheikhoun only gained social media prominence as it approached its culmination, the offensive began mid-Spring. Beginning on April 3, 2014, ten rebel groups including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Islamic Front member Suqour al-Sham, Sham Legion, and a number of smaller Free Syrian Army (FSA)-aligned groups announced the “Echo of the Spoils of War Battle” in an effort to capture Khan Sheikhoun and the surrounding strip of the M5 highway. Like the rebel offensive in Hesh led by the Islamic Front and Sham Legion, the “Echo of the Spoils of War Battle” was in part led by the Islamic Front’s Suqour al-Sham, as well as Sham Legion. This indicates that the “Battle of Trust in God” was likely a coordinated shaping operation ahead of the Khan Sheikhoun offensive meant to prevent regime reinforcements from reaching the town from the north.
The offensive targeted the 21 checkpoints and military bases dispersed throughout Khan Sheikhoun, including the Khazanat Military Base, which served as a refueling depot for regime forces as well as a checkpoint protecting access to the city of Khan Sheikhoun. By April 15, 2014, the groups participating in the offensive announced they had seized al-Busaliya, al-Siad, and al-Misbah checkpoints, located in the southwestern sector of Khan Sheikhoun.
More than a month later, on May 25, 2014, a new operations room including JN as well as Western-backed groups Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front also announced a major assault on the Khazanat Military Base, an objective included in the “Echo of the Spoils of War Battle.” This assault on Khazanat Military Base was initiated at around 12:00 pm on May 25 by what participants named the “Mutual Consultation” operations room. According to a detailed statement of the raid released by JN, fighters advanced from the north and east, taking up positions in a number of buildings dispersed among orchards 1 kilometer north of the base, while fighters made their way along the base’s access road to flank it from the west. Later in the afternoon, JN fighters detonated two Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs) that targeted regime positions around the perimeter of the base. Following the explosions, a raiding unit entered and eventually seized the base later that night. The following day, the “Echo of the Spoils of War Battle” achieved victory by seizing the large Salam Checkpoint, the last remaining regime position in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun city. Regime forces responded in the following days by dropping a number of barrel bombs on the Khazanat Military Base, as well as the Salam checkpoint. Activists on the ground believed a number of explosive barrels dropped on the area contained poisonous gas.
By the end of May 26, following the fall of both the Salam checkpoint and the Khazanat Military Base, Khan Sheikhoun was completely controlled by opposition groups, and activists uploaded multiple videos showing rebel convoys entering the city itself.
JN and IF attack Ariha on the M4 Highway
On May 25, the same day as the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, JN and Suqour al-Sham launched a two-pronged assault on the southern Ariha hills with the objective of seizing two military installations. The Fanar Restaurant Checkpoint and the Shami Military Installation sit atop two peaks in the area south of the town and control access to the southern neighborhoods of Ariha via two access roads. At 6 in the morning, JN with support from Suquor al-Sham detonated four SVBIEDs against regime infrastructure targets. All four SVBIEDs exploded in the Jabal al-Arbaeen area on the southern outskirts of Ariha. The first SVBIED, driven by Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, a 22-year-old American man from Florida, approached the Fanar Restaurant Checkpoint from the southwest along a dirt road. The 16 ton armored truck completely destroyed the checkpoint and caused it to crumble on itself, leaving only few survivors to defend it. Over the course of the battle, two more SVBIEDs exploded to the west of Fanar, targeting the Shami Military Complex. The first two SVBIEDs targeted the Commander’s building and Shami Checkpoint. One final VBIED targeted the Aram building, however the driver of the VBIED was able to park his vehicle and escape uninjured. The four explosions were followed by a barrage of artillery and gunfire. By the end of the day JN and Suquor al-Sham had seized both the Fanar and Shami Checkpoints in one of the largest coordinated SVBIED attacks since the beginning of 2014.
Rebels led by JN and Suquor al-Sham thus gained access to Ariha, a key town situated in the Jabal al-Arba’een region of Idlib which rebels briefly seized in the fall of 2013. The M4 passes through Ariha before connecting with the M5 in Saraqib. Controlling the section of the M4 in Ariha allows opposition forces to cut off regime ground supply leaving Latakia destined for Idlib or Aleppo cities. There is no clear evidence the two offensives were coordinated, however the presence of JN in both cases as well as the nearly simultaneous timing of the two operations strongly suggests a correlated effort.
The Battle Westward toward Jisr al-Shughour
Taking advantage of the recent momentum, JN, the Islamic Front, Sham Legion, and a number of local groups founded a new operations room on June 3, 2014, focusing on the area of Jisr al-Shughour. The operations room, formed to coordinate “The Battle to Respond to Injustices” also released a charter document containing a list of provisions to which all elements of the operations room were to adhere. Items include rules dictating the division of spoils through an Islamic court as well as strict guidelines for disseminating information about offensive. Despite the high profile of groups participating in the room and the existence of a charter document, as of mid-June little information had been disseminated about the group through its official Facebook page, either due to the strict operational security emphasized in the group’s charter, or simply due to their lack of engagement in operations.
While the largest effort on Jisr al-Shughour was directed through the “Battle to Respond to Injustices” operations room, other groups including the SRF and local group Jabhat al-Izz announced their own effort, perhaps to avoid association with JN. Initiated on May 31, 2014, “The Battle of the Passageway” had the objective of liberating Jisr al-Shughour and the surrounding area by destroying regime checkpoints positioned around the town. The battle began with rebels firing mortar rounds into Jisr al-Shughour city, some of which reportedly fell on the National Hospital checkpoint near the southern entrance of Jisr al-Shugour and injured a number of civilians.
The regime’s seizure of the Kassab border crossing in the end of April, a move that effectively ended the rebels’ offensive on the Latakia coast, appears to have also reversed rebel momentum around Jisr al-Shughour and the M4. On June 15, a statement purportedly from JN said that JN fighters would have to withdraw from the operations room entirely because they needed to allocate fighters to other higher priority areas. Moreover, due to alleged civilians casualties caused by rebel shelling, activists in Idlib have called on opposition fighters to end the Passageway offensive being waged by the SRF and Jabhat al-Izz.
Assault on the Hamidiyah Army Base
After a brief respite of intense clashes surrounding Ma’arat Nu’man, rebel progression in Idilb continued in early July focusing on the area surrounding the Hamidiyah Army Base, southwest of Ma’arat Nu’man. Tha Hamidiyah Army Base is located along the M5 highway, limiting access to and from Ma’arat Nu’man from southern Khan Sheikhoun. Immediately west of the army base are four checkpoints: Hanajak, Tafar, Dahman, and al-Midajin Checkpoints form an arc, insulating Hamadiyah Army Base from the west to the north.
On July 7, Islamic Front forces, supported by an SRF-aligned rebel group named Liwa al-Maghawir raided the Taraf Checkpoint southwest of the Hamadiyah Army Base as part of an operation entitled “The Battle of One Army.” After targeting a number of regime tanks with TOW missiles, opposition forces approached the checkpoint using the surrounding orchards to cover their advance. After navigating through minefields surrounding the checkpoints, fighters reached the checkpoint’s earthen walls. Following clashes with regime forces, fighters entered the position and seized a number of T-55 tanks. After seizing the checkpoint, opposition forces used it as a staging point to continue their offensive northwest toward the Dahman checkpoint, before completely razing the buildings within to prevent the regime from reoccupying them. Days after the fall of the checkpoint, opposition forces continued to target regime armor in the vicinity with TOW missiles.
Opposition forces continued 600 meters north towards the Dahman checkpoint located northwest of the Hamadiyah Army Base. Clashes between IF, Filq al-Sham, and other SRF-aligned brigades led to opposition fighters seizing the Dahman checkpoint from regime forces. After capturing the checkpoint and a quantity of supplies inside, fighters destroyed buildings inside, again in an attempt to prevent regime forces from reoccupying the position.
On July 16, JN, Filq al-Sham, as well as smaller SRF groups attacked the al-Midajin Checkpoint located north of the Hamadiyah Army Base and the smaller, Hanajak checkpoint located immediately west of the Hamadiyah Army Base. JN published an image showing the al-Midajin and Hanajak Checkpoints along the front lines of opposition force’s advance towards the Hamadiyah Army Base. Hanajak fell to opposition forces with little resistance. Clashes continue between opposition and regime forces as rebels attempt to continue their advance towards the Hamidiyah Army Base.
The late spring and early summer rebel advances in Idlib province indicate that opposition forces have the ability to coordinate large scale offenses over relatively large swaths of territory. The initial Idlib offensive on the M5 around Khan Sheikhoun began with a combined assault over a distance of 45km on a single day. Such an operational range demonstrates that opposition forces are able to coordinate effectively at above a tactical level.
In mid-July regime forces clashed violently with rebel groups in the town of Morek, located in northern Hama province, in an attempt to seize the town from rebel forces. Regime soldiers stormed the town under the cover of airstrikes and clashed violently with members of the Islamic Front, local opposition brigades, and Jabhat al-Nusra. The regime offensive is likely a move to reinforce strategic locations along the strip of highway that passes through Idilb province. As regime forces attempt to advance northward, rebels will also have to contend with the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, bearing down on them from parts of Aleppo province.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Monday, July 28, 2014
by Jenna Lefler
Over a month has passed since ISIS launched an operation that resulted in its seizure of Iraq’s northern capital of Mosul. In the wake of the offensive that led to the fall of Mosul and several other northern Iraqi cities, ISIS announced a new Islamic caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – styled as “Caliph Ibrahim.” Baghdadi later delivered a sermon in one of his first public appearances at Mosul’s Nur ad-Din al-Zengi Mosque. Although ISIS only recently exerted full control over the city of Mosul, the militant organization has had a palpable and steadily increasing presence in the city since its regeneration in 2010. Now operating as the legal, security, and judicial authority in one of Iraq’s largest cities, ISIS has begun imposing a particularly strict version of Shari’a law and crafting a society in Mosul modeled after the version of Islam that it envisions for its Islamic state. At the same time, it has been working to carry out basic government functions, such as collecting taxes, imposing security measures, and providing water, electricity, and social welfare services. However, ISIS is not operating in Mosul without opposition. Processes aimed at eliminating potential resistance movements in Ninewa have taken shape and they closely resemble ISIS activities in its neighboring Syria stronghold, ar-Raqqa. Recent developments in Mosul allow one to extract a picture of how life has changed or remained constant in Mosul under ISIS rule and to draw conclusions regarding ISIS’s plan to maintain control and crush its remaining opposition.
Previous presence in Mosul
Since August of 2013, ISIS has carried out precisely targeted assassinations in Mosul against government employees, particularly Sunnis, members of the Iraqi Army (IA), Iraqi Police (IP), and Sahwa (“Awakening” members that work with the government), as well as against tribal leaders and religious figures. ISIS also launched small-scale attacks on civilians using Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and small-to-medium arms during the same time period. The strategy at this point was for ISIS to conduct enough attacks to generate fear and undermine public confidence in Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) ability to provide security. ISIS simultaneously worked to cut off Mosul from Baghdad by targeting ISF along the northern portion of the Mosul-Baghdad highway in Sharqat, Shura, and Qayara in early August 2013. The fighting force that was present in Mosul prior to June 10th was also responsible for the extortion of businessmen and others who appeared to be wealthy enough to pay for “protection money.” Before ISIS took full control of Mosul, the commander of Ninewa Operations Command (NOC), Lieutenant General Mahdi Gharrawi, said that the Second Infantry Division arrested eighteen “terror” suspects some of whom belong to ISIS and were responsible for collecting “royalties” from Mosul residents. During this time period ISIS effectively drove a wedge between the ISF and Mosul’s inhabitants.
Response of Mosul Citizenry
Mosul’s populace is exceptionally wary of Iraqi Security Forces. This is because many of Mosul’s majority Sunni population sees the IA as a sectarian force representing Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia led government in Baghdad. After clashes in Mosul turned into full ISIS control of the city, residents reported that ISIS has created a semblance of security and some even indicated that they would rather live under ISIS and Shari’a law than under the IA. Photos even show Mosul residence showing up to watch ISIS parades celebrating their military victory in Mosul. In fact, ISIS-linked Twitter accounts published photos of scores of men lining up to turn over weapons and offer repentances to ISIS, who appeared to be documenting the identities and confiscating the weapons of those repenting. ISIS has also attempted to forge hospitable relations with local clans in Ninewa province. For instance, on July 1st, ISIS published images on the photo sharing site JustPaste.it of them serving lunch to tribal elements. The Governor of Ninewa, Atheel Nujaifi, also estimated that 2,000 residents of Ninewa have joined ISIS since the fall of Mosul. Moreover, on July 20th, ISIS posted images on JustPaste.it of a militant training camp. Interestingly, these photos clearly show the participation of children in the training exercise, representing ISIS’ first publicized event to reach out to children in Mosul.
Meanwhile, over three hundred thousand residents of Mosul and the surrounding area, most of whom are non-Sunni, have fled since the ISIS offensive. However, there has been a limited amount of anti-ISIS activity, including the formation of the Revolutionaries for the Liberation of Mosul Brigade though this group’s reported activity is limited to an operation in which they killed “terrorist” Bashar Aqidi, also known as Abu Ahmed on the west side of Mosul and is insufficient to pose a formidable threat to ISIS control. However, ISIS’s recent targeting of former Ba’athist leaders indicates that they are countering any potential resistance that may arise from these groups.
General Governance and Government Functions and Services:
Crafting an Islamic State
ISIS has tried to shape Mosul in accordance with its Caliphate vision. A major step for establishing this type of society in Mosul was the implementation of the Madina Document on June 12th, which calls for the strict implementation of Shari’a law.
On June 18th several sources inside of Mosul reported that ISIS repealed the document for the city because it angered local residents. These reports were likely inaccurate, as evidenced by a subsequent ISIS crackdown on cafes and casinos, forbidding gambling, dominoes, board games, playing cards, non-Islamic music, movies and cartoons, and the use of tobacco and hookah products. ISIS also published images on July 2nd of Mosul residence lining up to offer repentances to ISIS. On July 19th, ISIS again stepped up its efforts at exerting full societal control, forbidding marriages outside of its courts, and prohibiting clothing stores from selling women’s gowns that are “tight, transparent or embroidered.”
ISIS has also established Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the religious authority for its new Islamic caliphate. ISIS released a video in which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivers a sermon at the al-Nouri mosque in Mosul in which he spoke about general religious topics including the importance of Ramadan, Tawhid (monotheism), Jihad, and Shari’a. ISIS also published images of religious study sessions during Ramadan in Mosul as part of its religious outreach strategy.
Aside from constructing a society in accordance with strict Shari’a law, ISIS must carry out basic government functions ranging from tax collection to street cleaning if it wishes to appear as a viable alternative to the government in Baghdad. Some of the government services that ISIS has made a concerted effort to establish in Mosul include taxation, provision of medical services, electricity, security, and relief aid.
During the contest for Mosul, medical services were the first of the aid components to be established, which occurred almost immediately. On June 9th, a day before ISIS established full control of Mosul, ISIS converted a house to a hospital west of Mosul in Meshirifa when a medical complex in western Mosul was evacuated because of the security situation. ISIS made an announcement to residents that the new “hospital” was providing medical services. However, ISIS experienced more of a struggle establishing water, electric, and internet services, with one source reporting that those services had been out of commission for 72 hours on June 17th and that the cost of fuel and food had skyrocketed. However, on July 14th sources claimed that ISIS has allegedly been buying gas from Turkey to supply Mosul with oil.
Enforcing security in Mosul has been a challenge for ISIS. On July 3rd, a human rights activist in Mosul reported that many members of wealthy families are being kidnapped in Mosul due to a financial crisis occurring in the city since government employees in Mosul are not receiving their salaries. This may also be a revenue source for militant groups who can no longer extort businessmen due to the economic stagnation occurring because of the current crisis. The source also stated that insurgents are posted throughout the city, but that citizens feel as though there is a large security vacuum. However, on July 12th Shafaq News reported that ISIS opened a police department in the city of Mosul and is now accepting volunteers to the department, known as the “Islamic Police.” The reports added that ISIS is offering a monthly salary to its new police force estimated at over 400 USD. The new police force also came at a time when locals were frustrated with high unemployment and Baghdad’s withholding of salaries for government employees in Mosul after its fall to ISIS. ISIS has similarly established Shari’a courts in Mosul. On July 15th, a security source reported that ISIS had opened two Shari’a courts, one in the east in the Mosul municipal building and the other in the west, in the Ninewa governor’s guesthouse.
One method that ISIS uses to try and win over the “hearts and minds” of its subjects is through distribution of relief aid. These activities are highly publicized on ISIS twitter pages and ISIS has consistently distributed aid to the people of Ninewa. For example, on July 8th ISIS tweeted a link of pictures of them distributing meat to the poor during Ramadan. A similar batch of aid distribution photos were also posted on July 15th. On July 19th, ISIS religious and judicial bodies also reportedly cut rents to approximately 85 USD in Mosul city, though the economic justification behind this decision was not articulated beyond the reasoning that it was dictated by the Quran. However, not all ethno-religious groups are eligible to receive ISIS aid. Also on July 15th, a Shabak activist in Ninewa province stated that employees of the Ministry of Commerce in Mosul told residents that food rations will not be distributed to Christian, Shabak, and Yezidi religious minorities. The source added that gunmen told the employees not to deliver the aid and the “Ministry of Supply of the Islamic State.” Furthermore, a report stated that health care personnel of Iraqi Christian and Shabak backgrounds were told not to report to work because their services are no longer needed.
ISIS has taken careful measures to target possible sources of rebellion and opposition. While ISIS will frequently form alliances with other militant or tribal groups to accomplish a military objective, to negotiate entry into an area, or gain legitimacy with local populations, these allies are often subsequently threatened into submission once ISIS is able to consolidate power and begins to see the allied group as a potential source of opposition. This phenomenon has been clearly demonstrated in Mosul. On June 18th, ISIS warned allied groups not to declare control over areas in Mosul and said that defiance would result in death for such groups. ISIS allows activity by other groups only after they have sworn allegiance to ISIS and that the group turns over its weapons to ISIS. Reports also began to emerge on July 7th of ISIS rounding up former military officers from Saddam’s army in Mosul, indicating a rift in the Sunni alliance that participated in the seizure of Mosul. The militant organization Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) is very closely affiliated with the former Ba’athist party and assisted ISIS as it seized northern Iraqi cities in the June offensive. A leading Shi’a member of the Council of Representatives, Haidar Abadi, claimed that Ba’athists helped ISIS when they were asked to do so, but now those who refuse to swear allegiance will be executed. Another source in Ninewa province reported that ISIS detained 30 senior officers from around Mosul on July 10th. These officers are likely former Ba’athists as well.
Beyond managing and dominating strategic alliances, ISIS also uses intimidation tactics to scare former government forces and non-Sunni groups into compliance. For instance, on July 11th ISIS militants demolished ten homes belonging to IP members in Hammam al-Alil, south of Mosul, after they refused to repent. ISIS has also worked to minimize or eliminate non-Sunni influences in and around Mosul through fear and intimidation. The most obvious example can be seen on ISIS’s Ninewa twitter page showing the demolition of a large number of Shi’a mosques and shrines in Ninewa province.
ISIS has scared, threatened, and marginalized non-Sunni ethno-religious groups in and around Mosul, leading to the groups’ rapid exodus to other parts of Iraq and neighboring countries. In addition to the destruction of Shi’a, Turkmen, and Christian religious sites, reports indicate that the lives, homes, and property of Shabak Shi’a, Christians, and Turkmen have been threatened or destroyed as well. Initial targeting of these groups had economic objectives. On June 20th, an anonymous source stated that ISIS imposed the jizya (taxes on non-Muslims) on Christians ranging from $250 to “large sums.” ISIS threatened to kill Christians or seize their property if they fail to comply with the newly imposed fee. As of July 14th, local Christians reported that ISIS began marking Christian homes with the letter “N,” to denote a piece of property belonging to a “Nasrani,” or “Nazarene,” a derogatory Arabic word for Christian. ISIS also painted the words “Properties of the Islamic State” on the properties. The letter “R” for “Rafidah” was similarly marked on Shi’a Turkmen and Shabak homes. ISIS later forbade Christians from receiving food rations in Mosul. However, ISIS recently increased its efforts to rid Mosul of these distinct ethnic groups when on July 18th, ISIS told Iraqi Christian families that they have until noon on July 20 to leave the city or face “an unknown fate.” This announcement prompted a flood of Christian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) fleeing Mosul. ISIS reportedly told Iraqi Christians in Mosul that their property now belonged to the “state.” Additional sources say that ISIS threatened death for Christians who declined to leave Mosul. Also on July 18th, a representative in the State of Law Alliance (SLA), Hanin Qadu, said that ISIS arrested 107 Shabak Shias from the village of Bazwaya, located near Mosul. Qadu added that ISIS stole the possessions of those who were arrested. Unconfirmed reports indicate that ISIS intends to move 500 families of “terrorists” and foreign nationals who fought in Syria into the homes of minority families who fled Mosul, demonstrating ISIS’ pursuit of population control Mosul’s.
The Raqqa Comparison
As the most developed region under ISIS control, the ar-Raqqa province of Syria offers a model for what to expect for newly acquired ISIS territories. Like in Mosul, ISIS’s establishment of full control of Raqqa was also not a sudden occurrence, but rather was the culmination of a months-long process to systematically intimidate and marginalize rival groups. Many similarities in governance and control have been visible in Mosul. As was seen in Raqqa, religious outreach was among ISIS’s first objectives following the Mosul takeover. Specifically during Ramadan, ISIS conducted what it called missionary lectures in Mosul. In Syria, da‘wa events generally involve the provision of food and drink to the local population, similar to the lunch shared with local tribes from Ninewa province.
ISIS also quickly started targeting any potential opposition in Raqqa through raids, arrests, and executions. Execution of those who refuse to pledge allegiance to ISIS has been common across Iraq and Syria. The isolation of non-Sunni religious groups and a jizya tax on Christians is also a common feature of ISIS rule in both locations.
There have not yet been reports of ISIS proselytizing their Islamic beliefs by setting up religious schools, as is seen in areas of Syria where ISIS has invested in establishing Quranic schools for children and adults. Something else yet to be seen in Mosul is the formation of a religious police force. In Syria two distinct police forces exist; one for security and another to impose Sharia law. However, the security focused police force regularly patrols inside towns, as was reported in Mosul as of July 15th. The establishment of both religious schools and a police force to impose Shari’a law are two governance structures to look out for as ISIS continues to rapidly expand its governance activities. ISW will describe ISIS governance structures as they appear in Syria in a forthcoming report.
The story of ISIS governance that has unfolded in Mosul since June 10th shows a militant organization that is also capable of implementing basic government functions but does not yet demonstrate how durable that governance structure is. Alongside ISIS’s implementation of Shari’a law, ISIS provides food rations and a form of rent control to try and appease residents; while Christians, Shabak, Shi’a and Turkmen flee Mosul under fear of execution, other residents feel that ISIS has implemented a semblance of security that they say was lacking in Mosul under the ISF. These harsh measures towards minorities may be an attempt by ISIS to rid themselves of residents that may be more difficult for them to govern – in a sense, selecting their own population to rule. However, as electricity and fuel shortages continue and the economy stagnates without government salaries, the Mosul merchant class will likely become increasingly frustrated with daily life. While distributing food aid and providing basic economic subsidies, ISIS in Mosul has not demonstrated that it is capable of sustaining a local economy beyond the short term. Further, the level of Shari’a law under which Mosul’s populace is willing to live remains unclear. However, it is evident that the more time that ISIS has to consolidate its governance and military gains in places like Mosul, the more unlikely it becomes that they can be dislodged from their territories.
Sunday, July 27, 2014
Saturday, July 26, 2014
Friday, July 25, 2014
Thursday, July 24, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, ISW Iraq Team, and Lauren Squires
Ahmed Ali is the Iraq Team Lead and senior Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
by Ahmed Ali and Heather L. PickerellAhmed Ali is the Iraq Team Lead and senior Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
by Ahmed Ali, Iraq Team, and Nichole Dicharry
Ahmed Ali is the Iraq Team Lead and senior Iraq analyst at the Institute for the study of war.
by Lauren Squires, Jessica Lewis, and ISW Iraq Team
Key Takeaway: ISW has observed a step change in ISIS’s activity in Baghdad and its environs that represents an escalated threat. ISW remains vigilant in light of this change with the expectation that ISIS will attempt a main effort before the end of Ramadan on 28 July 2014. ISW is therefore issuing a warning intelligence update for Baghdad. This essay explains the indicators that triggered this warning by reviewing Baghdad attacks over the last month.
ISIS seeks to break down political boundaries in the Middle East by cultivating conditions for governmental failure, especially in Iraq. Baghdad represents an important location for ISIS to target. ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani stated on 11 June that ISIS’s intent to attack Baghdad and toppling the standing Iraqi government. Consistent, coordinated, and overwhelming attacks in Baghdad proper might sufficiently address the organization’s political strategic objectives. ISIS has apparently altered its military posture in Baghdad Province from that which had been witnessed since the fall of Mosul, possibly indicating a new move in this direction. Multiple attacks including SVESTs, coordinated VBIEDs, and indirect fire have occurred along avenues of approach to the capital and also within Baghdad proper. Most significantly, ISIS conducted a VBIED wave on 19 July. A VBIED wave is ISIS’s signature attack pattern and features six or more VBIEDs in a single day.
The VBIED wave on 19 July was the first ISIS has conducted since 13 May, representing the most dangerous element of the observed step change. The VBIED wave demonstrates ISIS’s high level of inter-cell coordination, its reach into Baghdad proper, and its ability for multiple teams to communicate, even in the context of Baghdad’s heightened security posture since the fall of Mosul. ISW assesses that ISIS is testing ISF and Shi‘a militia responses to ISIS attacks in order to determine how to develop an attack plan that considers how opposing forces react and move. ISW also assesses that ISIS is reallocating resources in preparation for an ISIS main offensive in Baghdad.
ISIS may be pursuing its Baghdad campaign both inside the city and from the Baghdad Belts, the areas surrounding the city that have traditionally functioned as support zones for ISIS and its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq. Previous ISW assessments hold that ISIS has robust presence and access to the northern, western, and southern Baghdad Belts. It is also possible that ISIS established sleeper cells Baghdad prior to or during the current northern offensive that have not yet activated. It is important to consider whether recent events in Baghdad illustrate how ISIS may be preparing to attack.
ISIS is still attacking deep into Shi’a strongholds within Baghdad, especially Kadhimiyah and Sadr City. The defenses of these areas should have increased to new levels since the fall of Mosul given the full mobilization of volunteer and Shi’a militia-led forces. However, ISIS has been attacking these areas, and at an increasing rate recently. ISIS attacked near the Kadhimiyah shrine in northern Baghdad on 26 June, and on 2 July detonated another SVEST at the al-Mustaf Husseiniyah, a Shi‘a religious center in the al-Jihad neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad. The Kadhimiyah shrine is a hardened target and a top protection priority for both Iranian forces and Shi‘a militias. The attacks using SVESTs in the vicinity of these two mosques demonstrates ISIS’s ability to conduct successful attacks in Baghdad city’s Shi’a neighborhoods despite the increased security presence of pro-government forces. ISIS may be targeting these neighborhoods in order to test these defenses or simply to demonstrate their inefficacy to the population.
These attacks also show that ISIS retains its ability to maneuver throughout Baghdad. ISIS has easier access to neighborhoods on the west side of Baghdad along main highways from its positions in the southwestern and northwestern Baghdad Belts. ISIS conducted a mortar attack in Shula District, a Shi’a neighborhood abutting Kadhimiyah in northwest Baghdad, on 14 July, likely launched from firing positions in the Thar Thar region, an assessed ISIS stronghold. This mortar attack signifies the potential testing of ISIS’s ability to conduct precise fires in the vicinity of Baghdad city, and particularly near the shrine.
Twelve of the fifteen ISIS attacks in Baghdad during this time period involved VBIEDs. ISIS has consistently used VBIED waves in Baghdad to target Shi‘a civilians over the last two years. ISIS used six VBIEDs to conduct a wave of attacks on 19 July, reviving its previous pattern. One VBIED targeted a checkpoint in a predominantly Shi‘a neighborhood of Abu Dashir in southern Baghdad, where the Iranian-backed Shi'a militia group Asai’b Ahl al-Haq has long had a presence. ISIS detonated three VBIEDs in the span of 10 minutes in the predominantly Shi’a areas of Bayaa and Jihad located southwestern Baghdad, and in the northeastern part of the city Kadhimiyah, later that day. ISIS also attacked a bus stop in Kadhimiyah, the neighborhood that contains al-Kadhimiyah shrine, with an additional VBIED that day. Finally, ISIS detonated a VBIED in the Shi’a neighborhood of Saydiyah neighborhood of southwestern Baghdad, along the southwest approach to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) from the city center. ISW assesses that VBIEDs are entering Baghdad along permissive avenues of approach from the Northern, Western, and possibly Southern Baghdad Belts. It is also possible that ISIS had staged VBIEDs inside Baghdad prior to the fall of Mosul, in anticipation that security measures in Baghdad would be heightened after Mosul’s fall.
This wave of VBIED attacks is the first wave ISIS has conducted since the beginning of the Mosul offensive. In fact, the last VBIED wave witnessed in Baghdad occurred on 13 May 2014. This uptick in VBIEDs within Baghdad city is significant because it demonstrates that the reason for the break in the previously regular VBIED wave pattern may not have been the effective defense of Baghdad by the ISF and Shi’a militias. It may instead indicate that ISIS has been holding its VBIEDs in reserve, most likely to determine an effective way to implement them in support of a broader offensive that takes Baghdad’s new defenses into consideration.
The VBIED wave on 19 July was also preceded by a series of smaller VBIED attacks over the previous week. VBIED attacks were conducted in al-Alawi an area of central Baghdad and al-Bayaa, in southwestern Baghdad on 14 July. Dual simultaneous VBIEDs exploded in Sadr City on 16 July, proving ISIS’s ability to conduct attacks in an area heavily fortified by Shi‘a militia. While Sadr City had been a frequent ISIS target prior to the fall of Mosul, attacks there are more significant now, not only because Sadr city is likely heavily defended, but also because it is in eastern Baghdad, which is likely harder for ISIS to access along main roads. ISIS detonated another SVBIED in Kadhimiyah against a police checkpoint, killing 23 people and is therefore ongoing.
ISW assesses that ISIS has identified specific locations as key terrain within Baghdad proper. First, Baghdad’s Green Zone houses many government buildings that, if attacked, would deny the seat of government as a means of overcoming Iraq permanently. Second, Baghdad International Airport is located on the southwest corner of Baghdad proper and represents a strategic element of Baghdad’s defense. Neutralizing BIAP could serve as a supporting effort to make Baghdad more vulnerable. Third, it is possible that ISIS might target the Kadhimiyah shrine. ISIS attacked al-Kadhimiyah shrine on 26 June with an SVEST, but this did not result in the shrine itself incurring structural damage. If ISIS destroyed the shrine, the Shi‘a backlash would likely result in sectarian war and increased Iranian involvement. ISIS has SVESTS, VBIEDs, and IDF at its disposal to attack fixed sites.
South of Baghdad including Mahmudiyah, Latifiyah, and Yusifiyah
The step change in ISIS activity near Baghdad has also reflected in the southwestern Baghdad Belts. The southwestern zone provides multiple avenues of approach for ISIS to enter southwest Baghdad. The key terrain that ISIS may seek to target in southwest Baghdad is BIAP. Greater Mahmudiyah, located directly south of Baghdad and known as the “Gateway to Baghdad” has experienced few and simple attacks in the past 6 months; however this past month there were two separate attacks in Mahmudiyah. First, ISIS conducted a complex attack in the Mahmudiyah market incorporating an IED, SVEST, and mortars, on 26 June. Then, ISIS detonated an IED in a market in Mahmudiyah killing one and wounding 4 people, on 2 July. ISIS and ISF have clashed in the regions surrounding Latifiyah and Yusifiyah, but after the fall of Mosul there have been reduced reporting of attacks in this area. ISIS published images of them attacking ISF using direct and IDF in the past two weeks. The resumption of attacks upon Mahmudiyah represents a step change since the area has most likely witnessed an increased deployment of Iraqi Shi‘a militias and ISF after the fall of Mosul in order to protect Baghdad’s southern front from a potential ISIS attack. Also the minimum rate of reporting on kinetic engagements in Yusifiyah and Latifiyah in the local Iraqi media is a dangerous indicator that has been observed similarly before the fall of Mosul.
The uptick of attacks in Mahmudiyah and on the ISF in Latifiyah and Yusifiyah indicate an ISIS contingent operates beyond the ISIS and ISF/Iraqi Shi militias’ front line in vicinity of Jurf al-Sakhar in northern Babil. ISIS also has freedom of movement in this area, considered an ISIS stronghold, representing a major part of the ISIS governorate in the area, which it calls Wilayat al-Janub. This ISIS system extends from northern Babil to south of Baghdad and south east of Fallujah. Jurf al-Sakhar connects the northern Babil ISIS system and the Anbar ISIS system, and therefore ISIS will most likely continue to defend it from attempts by the ISF and Shi‘a militias attempts to clear it. The ISF and Iraqi Shi‘a militias are likely disrupting ISIS efforts in the area, but ISIS could still operate.
Another indicator of ISIS presence south of Baghdad was the discovery of an IED manufacturing workshop by the FP on 17 July, in the area of Kwerish, located 2.5 miles from Dora where AQI had a strong hold in 2006-2007. An IED targeted Sahwa force in the Albu Aitha area, close to Dora in southern Baghdad, on the same day. This suggests the presence of ISIS cells near Baghdad and IED-making capabilities in rural areas where ISIS has traditionally used as havens and preparation grounds. These small attacks effectively soften the regime and Shi‘a defenses.
North of Baghdad including Taji, Tarmiyah, Balad, and Samarra
ISW observed an increase in ISIS activity closing in on Baghdad Province from the north in the past three weeks, especially from Taji and Mashada. Taji is a rural district with a Shi’a population on the northern avenue of approach to Baghdad. The Iraqi government acknowledged the northern belt as an area from where ISIS might launch an attack, and created obstacles such as sand berms on 27 June to block possible avenues of approach from Taji into the Baghdad proper. Shi‘a volunteers and ISIS members clashed in the area of Mashahda, northwest of camp Taji, resulting in two volunteers killed, five volunteers injured, and three ISIS members injured on 1 July. The northwestern corridor also includes Taji base, a strategic ISF facility that houses an IA depot and Taji prison, which was attacked by ISIS on 21 July 2013 in a dual prison attack along with Abu Ghraib. Since the fall of Mosul, Taji has begun to witness direct attacks again. An IED detonated in Taji, resulting in the death and injury of eight individuals on 14 July 2014. A SVBIED targeted a security checkpoint between Baghdad and Taji and resulted in the death of three individuals and injured seven others on 17 July.
ISIS shot mortars into the Shi’a dominated area of Sabaa al-Bour in Taji District on 23 July. This mortar attack signifies the potential testing of ISIS’s ability to conduct mortar fire in the vicinity of northern Baghdad Shi’a neighborhoods. Sabaa al-Bour saw some of the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War. ISIS could be conducting these attacks to foment sectarian violence in northern Baghdad as unrest will delegitimize the Iraqi government.
The corridors north and northwest comprising Taji, Mashahda and Tarmiyah have historically been areas where ISIS and its predecessor AQI thrived and are currently part of the named ISIS Wilayat Northern Baghdad system. These areas have witnessed increased kinetic ISIS activities since late 2013 but have been quiet since the fall of Mosul. It is possible that the deployment of Shi‘a volunteers, militias, and ISF to the northern Baghdad Belts has disrupted ISIS, it is also possible that ISIS forces there remain in reserve. ISW had assessed previously that VBIEDs may be manufactured in Tarmiyah for deployment in Baghdad.
West of Baghdad including Abu Ghraib, Zaidan
There has also been a reverse step change west of Baghdad, in that areas that had previously seen much activity have become quiet since the fall of Mosul. The contingent of ISIS between Fallujah and Baghdad clashed often with Iraqi Shi‘a militias and the ISF since the beginning of the Fallujah crisis in the Spring of 2014. Clashes intensified in April 2014 in Zaidan, a predominantly Sunni neighborhood on western outskirts of Baghdad, and Abu Ghraib, immediately north of Zaidan. ISF control in these two areas deteriorated to the point where the government evacuated all the prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison and closed the prison by 15 April. Reports of clashes and other kinetic engagements from the western Baghdad Belts have seldom been reported since. ISW assesses the ISIS contingent in western Baghdad Province may be fixed due to the increased presence of Iraqi Shi‘a militias and ISF in the area; however, this is another location where ISIS forces may still be postured in reserve. Abu Ghraib is the Western gateway to Baghdad, adjacent to BIAP and near to Fallujah, an ISIS stronghold. The imminent threat to Abu Ghraib and the possible advance of ISIS from the West should not be ignored.
East of Baghdad including Mada’in, Arab Jubur, and Nahrawan
While the ISF orients its defenses against likely avenues of approach by ISIS, it is important to consider that ISIS may also be approaching from the southeast. Reporting on ISIS kinetic activity east of Baghdad has been limited. Still, it is important to recognize that not only does the eastern corridor present a large Shi’a target for ISIS, but that the east serves as another available avenue of approach towards Baghdad. The southeast was an active zone for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s predecessor. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense seized shells, explosive material, and bomb-making material in the Arab Jubur area in southeastern Baghdad on 12 July, a historical support zone for AQI. ISIS detonated an IED in the southeastern corridor of Mada’in, an area just east of the Tigris River on 20 July and a historic AQI attack zone. This activity may indicate that ISIS has support zones on the southeastern approach into Baghdad city. A VBIED also detonated in Nahrawan, an area directly east of Baghdad on 22 July, resulting in at least three individuals killed and eight others injured. This is the first major attack in the eastern area around Baghdad since the start of 2014. The area of Nahrawan is not an historic attack zone for ISIS, but it is an historic area of operation for Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, the likely target of the attacks. The key Iranian infrastructure in the eastern corridor is Rasheed Airbase located adjacent to Baghdad proper in the city’s southeastern corner. ISIS could impede the Iranian resupply of the Iraqi pro-government forces and obstruct their offensive air capabilities by seizing the airbase and wresting control of the eastern Baghdad Belts.
Given the increase in kinetic activity within Baghdad city, and specifically the renewal of VBIED attacks, it is important to remain vigilant against the threat of an ISIS offensive in the capital, especially before the end of Ramadan on 28 July. ISIS may have positions inside Baghdad city, and ISIS likely retains extensive freedom of maneuver throughout the Baghdad Belts. The defense of Baghdad must take into consideration the possible operational targets of ISIS, as well as its ability to conduct a range of attacks that include mortars and complex attacks upon fixed sites. The military bases within and surrounding Baghdad must also remain prepared to withstand an attack. ISW assesses that BIAP is particularly vulnerable at this time.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, ISW Iraq Team and Jennifer Cafarella
Ahmed Ali is the Iraq Team Lead and senior Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
Monday, July 21, 2014
Sunday, July 20, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, Kimberly Kagan, and Aaron Reese
Saturday, July 19, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, Kimberly Kagan, Jessica D. Lewis, and Nichole Dicharry
Ahmed Ali is the Iraq Team Lead and senior Iraq analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
by Jennifer Cafarella
ISIS has successfully linked its territorial control between its ar-Raqqa stronghold and Deir ez-Zour city, solidifying an ISIS control zone that stretches from ar-Raqqa into Iraq’s al-Anbar province. ISIS seized control of eight towns located northwest of Deir ez-Zour city from the al-Bosarya tribe on July 18 likely after a set of negotiations over the terms of the tribe’s surrender concluded. This advance comes as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and Ahrar al-Sham forces surrendered control of the towns of as-Shametia and Jabal Kabous to ISIS, abandoning their local headquarters and withdrawing from the province. According to SOHR ISIS now controls 35% of Syrian territory. Interestingly, ISIS repulsed a subsequent regime attempt at reinforcement northwest out of the city with cooperation from local fighters. The terms of the al-Bosarya tribe surrender were likely those reported earlier in western DeZ province but not directly attributed to the tribe, namely, that the terms of surrender must include ISIS fighting alongside rebels against the regime. In response to ISIS’s gains, regime forces deployed military convoys from its positions near Deir ez-Zour city into the western outskirts of the city and are reported to have set up checkpoints in the al-Bo Jem’a area. However, ISIS seized control of al-Bo Jem’a following clashes between ISIS backed by fighters from local allied brigades against regime forces, which withdrew back the outskirts of Ayyash town near Deir ez-Zour city. The regime has therefore been unable to meaningfully challenge the ISIS advance, and can be expected to concentrate on consolidation of its fallback positions near the city itself.
On July 19 the regime launched a counterattack against the al-Sha’er oil field outside of Palmyra. Clashes are reportedly ongoing, with 51 regime fighters and 40 ISIS fighters killed.
Friday, July 18, 2014
Thursday, July 17, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, ISW Iraq Team, and Heather L. Pickerell
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
by Ahmed Ali, ISW Iraq Team, and Aaron Reese
by Jennifer Cafarella
Following the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a cascade of surrenders by rebel and tribal brigades in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province conferred large swaths of territorial control to ISIS. Beginning on July 2, these advances dramatically changed the balance of power within the province and provided ISIS the opportunity to achieve territorial continuity along the Euphrates River into Iraq’s al-Anbar. However, local resistance has since emerged to challenge full ISIS control within Syria’s Deir ez-Zour. While this resistance is currently too localized to meaningfully challenge the ISIS advance, it nonetheless highlights the existence of groups willing to serve as counter-ISIS forces within the ISIS Euphrates system. As ISIS continues to harden its defenses across its newly integrated Iraq and Syria theaters, the continued existence of local opposition will remain a crucial indicator of opportunities to disrupt ISIS control.
The surrender of a large number of local rebel and tribal brigades to ISIS in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province was not a spontaneous event. Rather, it was the outcome of individual settlements between ISIS and local leaders regarding the terms of a peaceful ISIS occupation. Driven by apprehension in the wake of ISIS’s success in Iraq, a number of local leaders sought to avoid an armed takeover by reinvigorated ISIS forces and agreed to a set of ISIS-imposed conditions for the peaceful surrender of rebel forces. These terms included the repentance of residents and fighters, the relinquishment of personal weapons, and a full civilian evacuation of surrendered towns for a period of 10 days. While resulting in a temporary humanitarian crisis within the province due to the creation of tens of thousands of displaced persons, these agreements allowed ISIS to quickly and efficiently assert full control over a large swath of territory whose armed takeover would have otherwise required a significant and costly ISIS ground offensive. Critically, further surrenders have occurred as ISIS began to consolidate. In the border town of Abu Kamal, the small local FSA brigades Ahl al-Athar, Ibn al-Qa'im, and Aisha pledged allegiance to Baghdadi on July 7, solidifying ISIS control over the town and neighboring countryside. In Subaykhan and neighboring towns, twelve rebel and tribal brigades announced their surrender to ISIS on July 8 and pledged bay’ah to Baghdadi. From the town of al-Tiana, fighters from localized Ahrar al-Sham- and JN-affiliated brigades declared their allegiance to ISIS on July 10. Finally, the al-Mujahideen and Bani Zaid batallions are reported to have begun to deliver their weapons to ISIS in the first step of their full surrender. In addition to providing an additional windfall of small arms, these surrenders have expanded ISIS’s zones of control on the western bank of the Euphrates River and sustained the current ISIS momentum within the province.
ISIS mobilization to solidify control and institute governance in newly acquired territory is underway as ISIS negotiators pursue further surrenders. Using the operating space provided by the temporary evacuation of civilian populations, ISIS cleared and secured recently surrendered towns, removing symbols of past rebel control as it begins to impose its governance. Following the civilian evacuation from as-Shahil, ISIS destroyed the home of a leader of the local Liwa al-Taliban al-Islamiyya on July 5 and vacated homes of two JN commanders and a number of other houses in the town. Seven houses that had belonged to JN commanders were also destroyed in the village of al-Dahla. In consolidating its control over returning civilian populations, ISIS has instituted a central repentance office in the Islamic Court in the town of al-Mayadin and demanded that all fighters and civilians present themselves to the office with two forms of identification in order to formalize their repentance. This demand extends even to those who had repented to an ISIS authority in the past, who must now take their proof of repentance to the al-Mayadin Islamic Court for renewal. Internal policing has also begun, with ISIS executing three men on July 13 under the accusation that they had been creating counter-ISIS cells. In addition to raiding shops, homes, and vehicles for contraband, ISIS has begun to institute service provision by distributing gasoline to civilians under its control. After seizing control of nearly all Deir ez-Zour’s oil fields, ISIS distributed gasoline in its northeastern stronghold of as-Shaddadi, and reportedly intends to conduct such distributions in all areas under its control, from Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border to Northern Aleppo, as well as its tiny enclaves in the countryside of Hama and Homs. ISIS also significantly reduced the price of oil to civilians under its control and capped the maximum price traders can impose on other groups. These measures are the first stages of the full imposition of ISIS state governance, which will continue to unfold in secured territory according to the model visible in the ISIS capital of ar-Raqqa.
However, while the ability of ISIS to negotiate the wholesale surrender of rebel and tribal forces within the province has been staggering, resistance has nonetheless emerged in a number of key areas. In immediate defiance of the caliphate, the FSA-affiliated Liwa Jund al-Rahman put out a statement rejecting ISIS and declaring its commitment to continue to fight. In the towns of Abu Hamam and al-Jorzi on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, the local Ibn al-Qayyem Brigade and al-Hamza Battalion attacked the homes of ISIS fighters and other ISIS positions on July 5 and 6. Demonstrations also occurred in the towns of al-Qureyyi and al-Ashara, where an unknown explosion targeted the agricultural bank on July 7. Finally, the resistance of the Jafar al-Tiyar brigade has precluded full control over Deir ez-Zour’s oil wells by keeping the al-Ward oil field momentarily outside of ISIS control. In the stronghold of al-Mayadin, a suicide car bomb (SVBIED) targeted a public market on July 13, killing 13 including 5 non-Syrian ISIS fighters. The attack remains unclaimed. The defiance of these individual rebel brigades constitutes a critical resistance to ISIS within the province. However, in the absence of outside support it is one that is likely to succumb once ISIS completes its consolidation and reinitiates offensive operations. For this reason, these brigades may continue to resist only so long as the terms of the negotiated surrender remain as severe as those imposed on the initial wave of surrenders. Testament to this possibility, a temporary surge in resistance against ISIS forces in the town of Khosham emerged after initial negotiations with local brigades failed but immediately dissipated once a settlement was reached. Upon the breakdown of talks, fighters from the Abdullah ibn al-Zobayr battalion attacked ISIS positions within the town, killing three fighters and burning the house of a fighter from the town who had defected to ISIS. An agreement was reached on July 10 in which civilians that had fled the town would be allowed to return so long as each family repented and delivered a Kalashnikov to ISIS. While it remains unclear whether the terms of this agreement also mandated a demobilization of the ibn al-Zobayr battalion, attacks appear to have been discontinued. The ability of ISIS to negotiate a settlement within actively resisting localities is a critical indicator of its strength within the province and highlights the likely inability of local groups to maintain resistance even in the medium term.
Two additional sets of negotiations are ongoing, and their outcome is likely to have significant implications for the continued existence of a moderate Syrian opposition within Deir ez-Zour Province. On the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the al-She’tat tribe remains a primary source of resistance to ISIS. The towns of Granij, Abu Hamam, and Keshkeyyi all remain under the control of the tribe, with a total population reportedly near 83,000. Fighters and civilians from al-She’tat continue to resist through demonstrations against ISIS and participation in attacks alongside local rebel brigades, however the tribe’s leadership has nonetheless continued to negotiate with ISIS regarding the terms of its surrender. In addition, other remaining local rebel and tribal brigades in the western countryside of Deir ez-Zour are reportedly also engaged in ongoing negotiations with ISIS and have declared their own set of terms. These include the stipulations that ISIS: (1) enter their towns with only non-Syrian fighters, (2) refrain from carrying out arrests or weapons confiscations, (3) cooperate in fighting against regime forces within the province, and (4) establish a joint Sharia body consisting of both local leaders and ISIS religious officials. While it is unclear whether these terms are congruent with those demanded by the al-She’tat tribe, in both cases ISIS appears to be maintaining its demand for the handover of all rebel weapons as a prerequisite for surrender. As a result, negotiations remain in a stalemate. If ISIS submits to these demands in order to neutralize these remaining pockets of resistance, it will have obtained effective control over nearly the entirety of Deir ez-Zour province. It will also have engaged in a significant step change within its Syria theatre, as direct confrontation against the regime has not yet manifested to a meaningful degree. If such an agreement occurs, an attack on regime positions in Deir ez-Zour city is likely to follow, a departure from historic ISIS trajectory that would likely have repercussions in other provinces, as rebel brigades may recalculate their opposition to ISIS in favor of bringing its force to bear against the regime. However, the ability of JN to consolidate its own ranks will also be a significant factor influencing the strategic calculus of remaining rebel forces, and may encourage increased rebel participation on either side in a further entrenchment of the ongoing JN-ISIS feud. Thus both the ISIS expansion and a reactionary JN consolidation are equally grave for the moderate Syrian opposition, whose relative influence continues to dwindle proportionate to the growing strength of these Jihadi elements.
Deir ez-Zour City
The ISIS momentum in the province has also translated into an ISIS foothold deep within Deir ez-Zour city. While not directly attributed to ISIS, pressure has increased on rebels within the city: an unknown explosion occurred in al-Jebelia neighborhood on July 11 and an IED detonated inside a JN HQ on the Fo’ad cinema street on July 12 alongside another IED detonation in the area. Combined with the strain of the ongoing siege, this pressure prompted JN and Ahrar al-Sham to abandon their headquarters inside the city on July 13 after a failed attempt to negotiate with ISIS. Following this withdrawal, ISIS fighters entered the city and seized control of a number of neighborhoods and the Sharia court while maintaining firm control of the al-Siyasa bridge. It is unclear how the JN and Ahrar al-Sham retreat was conducted, however it is likely these forces executed a tactical withdrawal from a number of locations in order to fortify their presence deeper within the city. There has been no indication that ISIS allowed rebel forces to withdraw across the al-Siyasa bridge, and it is equally unlikely these forces were allowed to exit the city through regime territory. According to official ISIS social media, JN emir Abu Hazem attempted to escape the city across the bridge and was shot at an ISIS checkpoint as he attempted to detonate a suicide belt following the discovery of his identity at the checkpoint. Within the city, ISIS arrested fighters from JN who reportedly hid inside a house as ISIS moved in to consolidate control, indicating that the tactical withdrawal may not have been fully disclosed or executed across rebel ranks. In response to the ISIS advance, a demonstration occurred in the remaining rebel-held areas in which demonstrators rejected an allegiance with ISIS. However, following the loss of territory within the city the now-isolated pockets of rebel fighters remain under a two-front siege by the regime and ISIS, and it is unlikely they will be able to mount a significant counterattack against ISIS within the city.
ISIS has not yet launched an assault against regime positions in or near Deir ez-Zour city. However, in addition to achieving a new proximity to regime forces within the city’s contested neighborhoods, ISIS is now in control of positions that may enable it to directly assault the Deir ez-Zour military airport from two fronts. Prior to the incursion into the city, ISIS fighters seized the town of al-Mar’iya directly to the east of the airport on July 7. While rumors immediately surfaced that the Syrian regime began to withdraw from the Deir ez-Zour military airport, this appears to have been small tactical withdrawal of non-critical elements rather than a full retreat. Regime forces were subsequently videotaped establishing barricades on the mountain overlooking the city and have since mobilized on the western side of the al-Hawiqa neighborhood in the north western corner of the city. Following the ISIS incursion, regime forces reinforced their checkpoints and set up new barriers within their areas of control and are likely to continue their holding pattern in the absence of a significant ISIS offensive operation against the military airbase or the remaining regime-held neighborhoods.
If ISIS is able to finish its consolidation along the Euphrates and to secure and expand its foothold within Deir ez-Zour city it will have obtained a strategic depth across the Jazeera desert that is likely to render a successful routing of its presence from Iraq’s Anbar both a pitched fight and a necessary but insufficient measure in order to secure the control and integrity of Iraq’s sovereign borders. Its implications for the Syrian civil war are equally severe, as a consolidated ISIS in Deir ez-Zour is unlikely to be unseated by existing rebel forces. While the opportunity exists to subvert ISIS control by strengthening local rebel and tribal groups that have or would be willing to resist, this window of opportunity as ISIS remains in its consolidation phase is likely to be fleeting. A rebel alignment with JN as a bulwark against increasingly strong ISIS forces should be viewed as a dangerous course of action, yet it becomes increasingly likely as ISIS expansion continues to go unchecked.