Friday, November 17, 2017

ISIS Plotting Attacks from Afghanistan

By: Jennifer Cafarella and Caitlin Forrest with Charles Aubin

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

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

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

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

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

Russia: Iran’s Air Force in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and Jackson Danbeck

Russia intensified its air campaign in early November 2017 in support of Iran’s strategic ground gains in Eastern Syria. Russian forces targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS)-held town of Abu Kamal in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province on the Syrian-Iraqi border with Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire-C’ strategic bombers and submarine launched ‘Kalibr’ cruise missiles between October 31 and November 3. The Russian military conducted these strikes in order to set conditions prior to the start of pro-Bashar al Assad regime operations to seize Abu Kamal on November 8. Russia later leveraged its unique air capabilities to provide direct support to pro-regime operations around Abu Kamal. Russia conducted multiple overnight and real-time interdiction strikes targeting ISIS fighters attempting to reinforce towns around Abu Kamal by crossing the Euphrates River. The forces targeting Abu Kamal included Iranian-directed fighters, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that entered Syria from Western Iraq. The PMF units included Kata’ib Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization and key Iranian proxy. ISIS nonetheless retains control over Abu Kamal as of November 12.

Russia is directly enabling Iran’s establishment of a land corridor running from Tehran to Beirut and Israel’s doorstep. Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and the Iranian proxy-dominated PMF likely coordinated the cross-border maneuvers against Abu Kamal through the so-called Quartet Mechanism in Baghdad established in May 2017. Russia and Iran likely intend to further deepen cooperation with the Iraqi government along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran thus stands to gain long-term influence along the Syrian-Iraqi border via Abu Kamal and nearby Al-Qa’im in Western Iraq. Iran will also enjoy significant freedom of movement along the Baghdad-Damascus Highway. Russia has simultaneously used its support to Iran to limit the freedom of action of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and its allied Syrian Democratic Forces along the Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria. Russia and Iran are setting conditions to try and expel the U.S. from Syria and Iraq.

The preceding graphic depicts ISW's assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia's air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Southern Syria Deal Fails to Constrain Iran, al Qaeda

By Genevieve Casagrande, Patrick Hamon, and Bryan Amoroso

Key Takeaway: The ‘de-escalation zone’ in Syria brokered by the U.S, Russia, and Jordan threatens the strategic interests of the U.S. and its allies. The deal fails to constrain Iran and al Qaeda despite the decreased violence in Southwest Syria. Iran continues to consolidate its presence along the Golan Heights through a network of proxy forces while retaining significant positions in Southern Syria. Russia remains both unwilling and unable to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent foothold in the south, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin's assurances. The failure to prevent Iran’s entrenchment threatens Israel, increasing the likelihood of further Israeli military intervention. Al Qaeda, meanwhile, has leveraged the ceasefire and diminishing support to non-jihadist opposition groups to deepen its presence along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The ‘de-escalation zone’ in Southern Syria will ultimately preserve rather than roll back Iran’s long-term position. The U.S., Russia, and Jordan agreed upon a Memorandum of Principles for Southern Syria on November 8. The deal includes an “exclusionary zone” that requires foreign forces – including Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah - to depart from a five-to-seven kilometer buffer zone along the agreed-upon line of contact. The buffer zone at its maximum extent places foreign forces up to thirty kilometers away from the Syrian-Jordanian border and Golan Heights. The exclusion zone seeks to complement the pre-existing ‘de-escalation zone’ in Southern Syria brokered on July 7. Iran has nonetheless set conditions to preserve its safe haven in Southern Syria. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah initially withdrew many of their foreign forces from areas along the Syrian-Jordanian border after the ‘de-escalation zone’ went into effect on July 9. However, Iran left behind friendly local paramilitary groups and a small number of foreign fighters to continue to cultivate and recruit local groups not covered by the exclusion zone but ultimately subordinate to Iran. Iran is also continuing its build-up on the outskirts of this zone, which places its forces less than an hour drive from the Golan Heights.

The failure of the ‘de-escalation zone’ to meaningfully constrain Iran risks further intervention by Israel along the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have expressed concern with the terms of the exclusion zone in Southern Syria, stressing that the deal does not meet their “unequivocal demands” to bar Iran and its proxies from the Golan. The deal likewise will not prevent Iran from developing permanent military basing in Syria, another Israeli redline. Israel has likewise reiterated its continued freedom of action to confront Iran in Syria. Israeli officials have repeatedly said that Iran risks crossing a red line that could prompt further Israeli military action against Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. Lebanese Hezbollah has also signaled its readiness for a possible military escalation and is rumored to have begun deploying elite forces from Syria to Southern Lebanon. The failure of the U.S. to constrain Iran raises the possibility of a conflict between Iran and Israel in Southern Syria that could ultimately spread into Southern Lebanon, particularly given Lebanon’s worsening political crisis following the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri.

Al Qaeda has exploited the ‘de-escalation zone’ to develop a new durable safe haven along the Syrian-Jordanian border. Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) will capitalize on the diminishing external support to vetted anti-Bashar al Assad regime opposition groups to expand its footprint in Southern Syria. The Trump Administration issued orders that will reportedly end all covert support to opposition groups in Syria by December 2017. The cutoff will lead to the cancellation of salaries for thousands of rebel fighters even as opposition groups and affiliated governance structures are already struggling to maintain basic security and infrastructure - such as prisons and courthouses - across Southern Syria. HTS is positioning itself to fill this governance and military vacuum. HTS has also resumed offensive operations in Southern Syria in order to bolster its legitimacy within the opposition as the guarantor of the continued revolution against the Assad regime. HTS alongside other opposition factions temporarily relieved the pro-regime siege on the town of Beit Jinn in the Western Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus near the Golan Heights on November 3 after clashes that included at least one suicide bombing. The joint operations room leading the offensive urged opposition groups to disregard “international pressure” to adhere to the ‘de-escalation zone’ and instead “join [their] brothers” to continue the fight against Assad. Meanwhile, a recent spike in unclaimed assassinations of opposition commanders and governance officials could also indicate an active campaign by al Qaeda to marginalize opposition groups backed by the U.S. and Jordan in Southern Syria. HTS has employed similar tactics to eliminate potential competitors in Idlib Province since 2014. Al Qaeda ultimately seeks to leverage its role in joint military structures, support to local governance, and targeted violence against resistant opposition officials to further integrate itself within the opposition and establish a new safe haven for Salafi-Jihadism along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

U.S. Ceding Syria to Russian Designs

By Christopher Kozak

The U.S. is abdicating its role as a diplomatic powerbroker to Russia in Syria. The U.S. is ultimately empowering a political process driven by Russia that will not secure America’s strategic objectives in Syria. Those objectives include the Trump Administration’s focus on “neutralizing” Iran’s influence and “constraining its aggression” as well the lasting defeat of Salafi-Jihadists such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held an informal meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam on November 11. The two leaders later released a joint statement that ostensibly reiterated their commitment to previous agreements on the Syrian Civil War, including bilateral military de-confliction, de-escalation zones, and a negotiated settlement through the UN Geneva Process. The statement nonetheless reinforces a number of persistent fallacies regarding the interests of Russia in Syria.
  • Fallacy #1: “Russia intends to conduct a serious anti-ISIS campaign.” The U.S. and Russia praised “successful…enhanced de-confliction efforts” that “dramatically accelerated” the defeat of ISIS in Eastern Syria. President Trump also noted that the “successful implementation” of the deal will “save thousands of lives” in the Syrian Civil War. This statement reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the tactics used by Russia in Syria. Russia has waged a violent and indiscriminate air campaign against civilian infrastructure in opposition-held regions of Western Syria as well as areas governed by ISIS in Eastern Syria. The Russo-Iranian Coalition intends to soon redirect this brutal campaign against Idlib Province in Northern Syria. The U.S. risks legitimizing current and future crimes against humanity conducted by Russia and Iran on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – thereby fulfilling the narratives of global oppression promulgated by ISIS and Al-Qaeda across Iraq and Syria.
  • Fallacy #2: “Russia intends to counter Iran in Syria.” The U.S. and Russia reaffirmed their support for an ongoing ‘de-escalation zone’ in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces in Southern Syria brokered on July 7. The statement noted further progress under a recent Memorandum of Principles signed by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan on November 8 that called for the “reduction and ultimate elimination of foreign forces” – particularly Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah - from Southern Syria. Russia nonetheless remains unlikely to effectively enforce any such agreement against Iran and Syria. Russia shares fundamental and enduring strategic interests with Iran, starting with a mutual desire to expel the U.S. from the Middle East. The current ‘de-escalation zone’ has preserved – rather than limited – the freedom of movement of Iran and Hezbollah along the Golan Heights and Syrian-Jordanian Border.
  • Fallacy #3: “Russia intends to deliver a meaningful political settlement in Syria.” The U.S. and Russia stressed their support for constitutional reforms and internationally-monitored elections under a political settlement via the UN Geneva Process. Russia has nonetheless taken active steps to subvert and co-opt the Geneva Process through the rival Astana Talks hosted by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as its plans for an upcoming ‘Syrian Congress on National Dialogue’. Russia and Assad remain unlikely to concede to free and fair elections or reforms that meaningfully constrain the power of the regime. Assad leveraged legal and authoritarian means to dominate similar ‘democratic elections’ in Syria in 2014. Any faux political settlement that fails to address the legitimate grievances that sparked the Syrian Revolution will only perpetuate the conditions that fuel ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Syria.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Iran’s Proxies Authorized to Compete in Iraq’s 2018 Election

By: Omer Kassim

Iran’s proxies in Iraq have a green light to parlay their military gains into political power in Iraq’s May 2018 elections.

Iranian proxies dominate Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The Iranian proxy-dominated PMF institution has expanded its reach and popularity through a heavy involvement in recent operations against ISIS and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi government’s Popular Mobilization Commission Law prohibits individuals associated with the PMF from running for political office unless they leave the force. The law is an attempt to constrain the political influence of Iran’s powerful military proxies. Yet those Iranian proxies are shifting members into new political parties and setting conditions to extend their influence in the forthcoming Iraqi elections.

Iraq’s High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has authorized two more Iranian proxy political parties to run candidates in Iraq’s next parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for May 2018. IHEC must grant Iraqi political parties a new license each election in order to allow that party to compete. IHEC has been licensing political parties for the 2018 elections intermittently since January 2017. It licensed the Badr Organization’s political wing in February 2017. The Iraqi Parliament voted in a new IHEC on October 23 after the end of the previous commission’s term. The new IHEC granted an additional six licenses to smaller political parties on November 6, including the political arm of Iran’s elite proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, the Sadiqoon Movement. The Sadiqoon Movement won its first seat in the Iraqi Parliament in 2014. IHEC also granted a license to al Tayyar al Risali al Iraqi al Jadid­, the political arm of the Iranian-backed Kata’ib al Tayyar al Risali. The party is within the State of Law Coalition aligned with Vice President Nouri al Maliki, whose post-2011 sectarian campaign as prime minister enabled ISIS’ rise.

The Badr Organization and Iran’s smaller proxies will exploit the popular support they gained among Iraq's Shi'a – by supporting Prime Minister Haider al Abadi's campaign against Iraqi Kurdistan – to increase their own political power in provincial governments and in Baghdad. These groups will likely outcompete candidates favorable to U.S. interests – those working toward a sovereign, representative, and unitary Iraq that Iran’s proxies do not dominate.

Syria Situation Report: October 24 - November 9, 2017

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct 

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from October 24 – November 9, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of November 9, 2017. 

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Iran’s Role in the Kirkuk Operation in Iraq

By Jennifer Cafarella with Omer Kassim

Key Takeaway: Iran provided decisive military support to compel Iraqi Kurds to surrender in Kirkuk, Iraq, on October 16, 2017. Military forces from three major Iranian proxies participated in the operation: Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asa'ib Ahl al Haq, and the Badr Organization. Iran did not attempt to outshine Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in public. Iran instead allowed Abadi to take credit, while quietly positioning its proxies to influence Kirkuk in the future. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) conducted a rigorous study of social media activity and other reporting of troop movements in Iraq in order to assess the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk and across Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries.

Iranian military proxies in Iraq supported Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s retaking of Kirkuk by compelling Iraq’s Kurds to withdraw from their positions on October 16. ISW assesses that forces from three major Iranian proxies helped compel the Kurdish surrender in Kirkuk: Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH), Asa'ib Ahl al Haq (AAH), and the Badr Organization, as this report will detail. The Kurdish collapse in Kirkuk was a turning point in the conflict between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi Government. Iran and Abadi are now exploiting their success in Kirkuk and expanding their operations against Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran’s proxies continue to play a central role. 


The evidence of Iran’s involvement in the initial confrontation in Kirkuk requires careful analysis of openly available sources. Official media channels of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) released little information about which units participated in the initial military operations in Kirkuk on October 16. ISW assesses that the PMF imposed a media blackout, since they went dark for an abnormal duration. One Facebook page affiliated with an Iranian proxy militia took down photos and videos about its involvement in Kirkuk that it posted from October 13-16. Social media outlets that normally report on PMF units were also unusually quiet. This media blackout may have extended to Iraqi press, which also did not report details on PMF units. Iraqi sources also rarely reported on Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) unit numbers in Kirkuk, referring instead to general “Iraqi forces.” The media blackout and some retrospective removal of materials posted on unofficial social media links suggest that some authorities within the PMF, Iraq, or Iran wished to conceal evidence that the PMF participated.

Furthermore, some Kurdish press and social media sources published old, recycled imagery to argue that the Iranian-backed proxies were present, undermining the credibility of the official Iraqi Kurdish case. U.S. uniformed military spokesmen, senior general officers, and State Department officials have added to the confusion by dodging press questions about the involvement of PMF forces.

ISW conducted a rigorous study of the available evidence in social media and other reporting of troop movements in Kirkuk and across the disputed internal boundaries in order to assess which units comprised the PMF forces whose involvement Iraqi sources generally reported. Forces from three major Iranian proxies were present south of Kirkuk before the operation and advanced along with Iraqi forces: the 43rd and 42nd AAH Brigades and a Badr Organization unit also known as the PMF 24th Brigade. ISW has provided a list of indicators of the presence of these units below. ISW cannot assess the specific KH unit with confidence at the time of publication. KH, AAH, and the Badr Organization are lethal Iranian proxies that attacked U.S. forces in Iraq, particularly between 2006 and 2008.

Iranian Proxy Leadership in Kirkuk

  • Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri met with Federal Police (FP) commander Raed Jawat and the deputy head of the PMF and leader of KH Abu Mehdi al Muhandis in Bashir. An official Badr Organization media site provided pictures of this meeting on Facebook on October 15.* 
Hadi al Ameri, Abu Mehdi al Muhandis, and Raed Jawat near Bashir on or around October 15, 2017.
  • Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mehdi al Muhandis attended the flag raising in Kirkuk City along with Iraq’s Counterterrorism Services (CTS) commander General Yarallah. The Iraqi Army’s Twitter account posted a photo of the flag raising, showing all three in attendance. Facebook accounts affiliated with the Badr Organization also posted photos and videos showing the flag raising.* The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman said that he had not seen” the photos in response to a reporter’s inquiry during a press briefing on October 17.
Hadi al Ameri, Abu Mehdi al Muhandis, and General Yarallah in Kirkuk City on October 16, 2017.
  • Hadi al Ameri toured the Bai Hasan oil field on October 16 after Peshmerga forces withdrew. A Facebook account linked to the Badr Organization posted a video of Hadi al Ameri touring the Bai Hasan oil field. Ameri, during an interview from the field, thanked the Peshmegra for not clashing with the ISF. An Emergency Response Division (ERD) officer was standing next to Ameri. When asked if there were oil fields under PMF control, Ameri stuttered, saying that “oil fields… I don’t think so except for Daybaka oil field which is important to control. Besides that, I don’t think we have a problem.” *
Hadi al Ameri tours the Bai Hasan oil field on October 16, 2017.
  • Additional photos and videos that circulated on social media also show Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mehdi al Muhandis touring sites in Kirkuk Province.

Iranian Proxy Militia Deployments to Kirkuk

Asa'ib Ahl al Haq (AAH)
  • Photos and videos taken in the vicinity of Kirkuk City that circulated on social media included AAH flags. Western reporters also cited examples of AAH flags raised near Kirkuk. 
  •  A Facebook page affiliated with the AAH 42nd PMF Brigade shared photos with a caption stating that the 42nd Brigade led by Haj Abu Bakr Jubouri was deploying to Daquq for further movement to Kirkuk, and included a photo of a fighter with an AAH flag.
Photo of Asa'ib Ahl al Haq fighter either on the way to or near Kirkuk City.
  • A Facebook page affiliated with AAH’s 42nd PMF Brigade posted photos on October 16 of fighters holding an AAH flag with a caption stating the photo was taken at a Peshmerga position in central Kirkuk.*
  • ISW assessed on October 19 that the AAH 43rd PMF Brigade was also present within proximity of Kirkuk as of at least October 15. The 43rd PMF Brigade was deployed in Salah al Din province before the Kirkuk operation.* A Facebook page affiliated with AAH’s 43rd PMF Brigade published information, including photos and videos, that supported ISW’s assessment that fighters from the Brigade deployed close to Kirkuk in early October.* Screenshots from the AAH 43rd Brigade’s Facebook page are included below.

Badr Organization
  • The Badr Organization’s Turkmen brigade, also known as the 16th PMF Brigade, was already stationed near Bashir and may have received reinforcement from 16th PMF Brigade units in the vicinity of Hamrin and Qara Tapa.*
  • An Iraqi news outlet shared a video from September 18 that shows a column of fighters from the 24th Badr Brigade arriving near southern Kikuk with Abu Mehdi al Muhandis.
Abu Mehdi al Muhandis arrives close to southern Kirkuk and sits in an apparent Badr Organization office on September 18, 2017.
  • A Facebook account affiliated with Ansar Allah al-Awfiya posted a photo from IVO Bashir showing civilians offering food to the PMF and security forces.* The post included photos from al-Ghadeer channel (affiliated with the Badr Organization).
  • The communications directorate of the PMF announced that its force,s along with ISF, control Bai Hasan oil fields in Kirkuk. The PMF in Bai Hasan most likely included a Badr Organization unit, given Hadi al Ameri’s visit.

Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH)
  • Al Arabiya published a video on October 16 from a location near Kirkuk City showing two trucks laden with fighters carrying KH flags, in addition to fighters carrying KH flags stationed at a checkpoint. 
Al Arabiya video on October 16, 2017 shows Kata'ib Hezbollah fighters near Kirkuk.
These units joined the local Iranian-backed forces stationed south of Kirkuk, which included: Kita’ib Jund al Imam, Liwa Kirkuk al Thani, and Firqat Imam Ali al Qitaliya. Qiyadat Quwat Abu Fadl al Abbas and a Hawza-affiliated PMF unit named Firqat al Abbas al Qitaliya may also have been present.

Iran’s proxies joined an Iraqi force including the CTS and units from the 9th Iraqi Armored Division. It is unclear from publicly available information which specific CTS and 9th Iraqi Armored Division units participated. The deployment of elite Iraqi units supported by armored artillery indicates Abadi intended both to deter the Peshmerga from fighting and to prepare for that possibility. Abadi also deployed troops from the FP and ERD, which constituted the only government-controlled infantry force. The FP and ERD likely included units penetrated by Iran. These combined forces staged south of Kirkuk city in order to allow an avenue for retreat for Kurdish forces to the north. 

ISW mapped these forces on October 19 and updated that assessment on October 29. ISW will continue updating its assessment and map if and when new information becomes available.


Iran’s role in Kirkuk was decisive. The leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Qassem Suleimani traveled to Iraq on October 14 to convey Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s support for Abadi’s response to the referendum. He also issued an ultimatum to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and possibly to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Leader of the Badr Organization, Hadi al Ameri, also threatened “internal war” if the Peshmerga did not withdraw from Kirkuk. The deployment of Iran’s proxies to Kirkuk tipped the scales against Iraqi Kurdistan enough to compel it to withdraw from Kirkuk and large portions of Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries. 

Iran achieved a second goal through its support in Kirkuk: to further legitimize its proxies in Iraq while sidelining the United States. Iran seeks to subordinate the Iraqi government from within, and was careful to frame the Kirkuk operation as a sovereign Iraqi action. Iran quietly provided critical support that ensured Abadi’s success while positioning its proxies to have influence in Kirkuk moving forward. Iran also took action to keep the U.S. on the sidelines by deploying an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) against U.S. forces in early October. The Kirkuk operation thus bears signs of Iraq’s most likely future on current trajectory: Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi notionally in control, Iran’s proxies acting on Tehran’s orders but as legitimate arms of the Iraqi state, and the U.S. on the sidelines.

Iran’s proxies will capitalize politically and militarily on their role in Kirkuk and across Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBS). The battlefield circulations of major proxy leaders around Kirkuk bolstered their public image ahead of Iraq’s elections scheduled for early 2018. Their subordinates may compete in local Kirkuk politics. Their forces will likely control or contest Iraqi government control of Kirkuk’s military infrastructure and oil installations. Prime Minister Abadi placed an Iranian client, Ali Fadhil Imran, at the head of a new Kirkuk Operations command on October 28. Imran is the former head of the Iranian-influenced 5th Iraqi Army Division. Unconfirmed reports indicate Abadi also appointed an Iranian client, Abdul-Amir al-Zaydi, as the head of “redeployment operations” across Iraq’s DIBS and border crossings on November 5. Zaydi is the former head of the Iranian-influenced Dijla Operations Command. These appointments enable Iran’s proxies to consolidate militarily in Kirkuk and across the DIBS. 

The U.S. remains multiple steps behind Iran. President Donald Trump rolled out a new anti-Iran strategy days before the Kirkuk operation, without specifying prescriptions for containing and reversing the strength of Iran’s proxy networks. The Trump Administration’s initial apathy toward Iran’s role in the Kirkuk operation appeared to indicate the U.S. will not meaningfully push back against Iran in Iraq. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson provided a more forceful, but still sluggish, U.S. response to Iran’s role in Kirkuk in a subsequent trip to the Middle East from October 22-23. Tillerson said “Iranian militias that are in Iraq…need to go home” during a press conference with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir on October 22. Secretary Tillerson’s statement recognizes the threat Iran’s proxies in Iraq pose, but rolling back their influence is not achievable through rhetoric alone. Abadi reportedly responded to Secretary Tillerson by stating the PMF “defended their country and made the sacrifices that contributed to the victory over ISIS. Abadi subsequently stated that he will disarm Iran’s proxies if they refuse to submit to his control, in an effort to reaffirm his intent to remain aligned with U.S. policy. He does not have the capability to do so without direct American military support, however. Only a serious change in U.S. policy in Iraq can save Abadi from de facto cooptation by Iran. 

* Please contact ISW directly to request citations for these data. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Post-ISIS Insurgency Looms in Northern Syria

By Genevieve Casagrande and the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: Resistance to the Kurdish political project in northern Syria is increasing the risk of an insurgency that would reverse U.S. gains against ISIS and facilitate the return of Salafi-jihadi groups to the area. Turkey and ISIS are exacerbating tensions between local Sunni Arabs and the Syrian Kurdish YPG, which dominates the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkish support to anti-Kurdish insurgent groups in SDF-held areas may support the reemergence of Al Qaeda, which also seeks to exploit ethnic strife and hostility toward the SDF, in northern Syria.

The continued dominance of the Syrian Kurdish YPG and its political project in northern Syria is driving local hostility toward the anti-ISIS Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Locals held demonstrations and closed shops to protest a recent SDF conscription law in Manbij City and neighboring towns in Eastern Aleppo Province from November 3 - 5. Turkish-backed rebels also held demonstrations in solidarity with Manbij in Jarablus in Northern Aleppo and areas west of Manbij. The SDF sent reinforcements from Ayn al Arab to Manbij, reportedly to force store owners to reopen their shops. The SDF Legislative Council and local tribal leaders agreed to the conscription law on November 2.  However, some local Arab tribal leaders reportedly refused to attend the discussions, one of whom SDF-affiliated security forces temporarily arrested. The conscription law will reportedly begin in early 2018 and calls for mandatory “self-defense” service for Manbij residents between the ages of 18 and 30.  The protests follow reports of the arrests of “dozens” of civilians in Manbij over recent months for forced military service. The demonstrations threaten to exacerbate grievances between Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Manbij that could facilitate the return of ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

Post-ISIS tensions between the SDF and local Sunni Arabs have also escalated in areas of ar-Raqqah City, where SDF fighters fired upon a civilian protest demanding re-entry to their homes in the Mashlab District on October 26. Residents of Mashlab were later allowed to return to the district on November 5. The incident will nonetheless deepen the pre-existing tensions between the mostly Arab residents of Ar-Raqqa City and the SDF, particularly after the YPG displayed in public a large photo of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Turkish- and U.S.-designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), on October 20. Continued YPG prominence in the city will likely inflame tensions and may lead to insurgent violence against the SDF in Ar-Raqqa City.

Turkey and allied militant organizations seek to further fuel instability in SDF-held areas by supporting targeted violence and protests against the SDF. Anti-YPG insurgent group Harakat al Qiyam released a statement in solidarity with ongoing demonstrations against the Syrian Kurdish YPG and SDF in Manbij City on November 5. Harakat al Qiyam is likely backed by Turkey and is active in SDF-held areas of Eastern Aleppo and Raqqa Provinces. The group appears relatively small in size, but has carried out a series of targeted attacks against the YPG, primarily via motorcycle, since early October 2017. Harakat al Qiyam claimed an attempted assassination of Manbij Military Council leader Mohammad Abu Adel in Manbij on November 1, for example. Turkey, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda all likely intend to support or form militant groups similar to Harakat al Qiyam to undermine security in SDF-held areas in Northern Syria. Small insurgent groups like Harakat al Qiyam could be directed by Al-Qaeda or ISIS or facilitate their return to ar-Raqqa.

ISIS likewise seeks to drive further hostility between local Arabs and Syrian Kurds through spectacular attacks against civilians. ISIS detonated an SVBIED near a makeshift IDP camp near the SDF-held Conoco and Al Isbah gas fields east of Deir ez Zour City on November 4, killing 75 and wounding over 140 others. ISIS had previously launched a joint SVBIED-SVEST attack against another SDF-held IDP camp in Southern Hasakah Province on October 12, killing over 50. ISIS may seek to leverage spectacular attacks against these IDP camps to demonstrate that the SDF is either unable or unwilling to provide security for Arabs in Kurdish-held terrain.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Further Military Escalation Remains Likely in Iraqi Kurdistan

Jennifer Cafarella and Omer Kassim

America’s Ambassador to Iraq is attempting to restart negotiations between Iraq’s Kurds and the Iraqi Government. The U.S. is hoping the resignation of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani on November 1, 2017 will incentivize the Iraqi Government to accept a compromise with Iraq’s Kurds. Masoud Barzani was the driving force behind the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25th, which provoked the ongoing retaliation by the Iraqi Government and Iran. The US state department is attempting to unite Iraq’s Kurds behind the region’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy Qubad Talabani in order to resolve the dispute with Baghdad ahead of the 2018 elections. U.S ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman met with them in Arbil on November 2nd. He relayed the US position that the long term stability of Iraqi Kurdistan depends on a unified and federal Iraq, and that the two sides must find a “peaceful resolution of disputes under the Iraqi constitution.”

Iraq’s Kurds have thus farrefused to negotiate on Baghdad’s terms. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al Abadi demanded the handover of the Fishkhabur and Ibrahim Khalil border crossings on October 26th. The Kurds instead continue to appeal for a ceasefire and return to political negotiations. Barzani’s resignation does not appear to have seriously changed Kurdish calculus.The KRG reiterated its appeal for “constructive and genuine negotiations to reach a comprehensive agreement” on November 1st after the Iraqi Government rejected a Kurdish proposal for the U.S. – led anti-ISIS coalition to deploy observers to the Fishkhabur area in order to enforce joint Iraqi Government-Peshmerga control. The KRG also called for joint control over disputed territories until their final status is determined through a three step process outlined in article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.[1]

Iraq and Iran’s proxies are poised to take new military action against Iraqi Kurdistan if the US diplomatic effort fails,as ISW initially warned on October 30th. The combined force positioned near the Fishkhabur crossing include elements of the 15th Iraqi Army division, the Emergency Response Division (ERD) and a considerable deployment of Iranian proxies including forces from three brigades of the Badr Organization as well as units from Asai’b Ahl al Haq, Katai’b Sayyid al Shuhada, and Harakat al-Nujaba. Iranian proxy leaders are coordinating with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) commanders and may even direct the military operation. 

[1] Article 140 calls for 1) rectifying the demographic changes that took place in disputed territories; 2) conducting a census; 3) holding referendum on whether to integrate these territories into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Russia Unfazed in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and the ISW Syria Team

Russia has continued facilitating Iran's expansion in Syria following President Donald Trump's new Iran strategy rollout. Russia sustained its air campaign in October 2017 to support ground operations led by pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces, including Iran and its proxies. Russian forces conducted this campaign across two fronts, targeting anti-regime opposition forces in Western Syria as well as ISIS in Eastern Syria.

Russia continued airstrikes across opposition-held terrain in Idlib and Hama Provinces that it began after an offensive launched by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria – in Northern Hama Province on September 19. Russia also supported pro-regime forces in a major offensive along the Euphrates River Valley towards the Syrian-Iraqi Border that included the seizure of Mayadin on 14 October. Russia forward-deployed Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ close-air-support aircraft to T4 (Tiyas) Airbase in Central Homs Province in order to support its operations in Eastern Syria. Pro-regime forces later seized multiple districts in Deir ez-Zour City with significant air support from Russia on October 25 - 30. Pro-regime forces likely intend to advance upon the key border town of Albu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi Border. ISIS reportedly relocated a significant portion of its leadership, media, and external attack cells to Mayadin and Albu Kamal in response to the successful offensives by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition against Mosul and Ar-Raqqa City.

Russia continued to masquerade as a legitimate counter-terrorism actor while prosecuting an aggressive campaign against vulnerable civilian populations in Hama, Idlib, and Deir ez-Zour Provinces. Russia simultaneously targeted both legitimate military targets and illegitimate civilian targets in order to obscure the real nature of its air campaign in Syria. Russia targeted key civilian infrastructure in regions held by ISIS in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province including multiple civilian ferries fleeing the fighting in Mayadin on October 10 -12. Russia also expanded its air campaign beyond strikes against HTS in Idlib Province. Russia targeted a headquarters belonging to Islamist group Faylaq al-Sham – an opposition group formerly backed by the U.S. – on October 13. Russia also conducted airstrikes targeting at least two schools and three internally displaced persons’ camps in Idlib Province from October 9 – 20. Russia will continue to publicize its strikes against Salafi-Jihadi groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda in order to distract from its wider punitive campaign against civilians in opposition-held regions of Western Syria.

The preceding graphic depicts ISW's assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia's air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.