September 20, 2017

Syrian and Iraqi coordinated operations against ISIS

Syrian, Iraqi and SDF operations against ISIS

Slowly but surely, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is being ejected from its remaining territory in eastern Syria and western Iraq. It has already been completely cleared from the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is almost completely defeated in the Syrian city of al-Raqqah. The two cities were ISIS's key geographic holdings.

The operations to eradicate ISIS's territorial presence are taking place simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the reconstituted Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) - that includes the Army, Federal Police, Counterterrorism Service, and various Iranian-trained (and led) Shi'a militias - and the Kurdish peshmerga forces spent over nine months removing ISIS fighters from the city of Mosul. Shortly after that, the ISF moved against the ISIS enclave in the Tal'afar area northwest of Mosul, eliminating that presence fairly quickly.

The Iraqis have now turned their attention to the two remaining ISIS-controlled areas in their country - the "Hawayjah pocket" southwest of Kirkuk, and the Euphrates Valley west to the Syrian border. The Huwayjah area is close to the main highway from Baghdad to Mosul, the main supply route and communications corridor for the country. I thought the Iraqis would have (should have) moved on this area immediately after liberating Mosul.

Removing ISIS from Huwayjah and the Euphrates Valley will virtually remove the group from the country. It is important to remember that the retaking of all Iraqi territory is not the same as defeating ISIS. ISIS, and its ideology will remain a threat to peace and stability in Iraq for some time to come.

With the intervention of the U.S.-led coalition in 2014 - assisted somewhat by the Russian intervention in 2015 aimed at keeping Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad in power - ISIS saw the handwriting on the wall (to borrow a Babylonian metaphor) that at some point they would lose their territories in Iraq and Syria.

For at least the last year, ISIS has been planning the transition from a geographic-based Islamist organization to what I will call a more "traditional" group, such as al-Qa'idah. The group has refocused its online recruiting efforts in Iraq, hoping to recruit Sunni Iraqis who can be convinced that they have been disenfranchised by an Iranian-influenced Shi'a government in Baghdad, a government that neither represents them nor promotes their welfare. Surprisingly, it resonates among many young Sunni Iraqis.

In a somewhat surprising change of tactics, the Iraqis have launched two operations simultaneously, one against the Huwayjah pocket and another focused on ejecting ISIS from al-Anbar province in the Euphrates Valley. (See the red arrows on the map indicating Iraqi moves.)

The Iraqi Air Force is conducting a rather impressive number of reconnaissance and attack sorties in al-Anbar, supporting two thrusts by the ISF to push ISIS into Syria, or destroy them in place. They will likely be successful on their side of the border before the Syrians can push ISIS to the Iraqi border.

Both sides know where this is headed - the Euphrates Valley in Syria, probably to the northwest of the city of Albu Kamal. While the Iraqis are pushing west, the various forces in Syria are slowly pushing ISIS east.

Syria, unlike Iraq, does not have a unified command structure. The main players, all nominally arrayed against ISIS, include the Syrian Army, supported by Russian airpower and the indispensable Iranian regulars and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and a variety of Shi'a militias from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan. A majority of the Syrian forces are actually from outside the country - without these foreign fighters, the Syrian Army, and likely the al-Asad government, would have collapsed years ago.

The other key player in Syria, in fact the group that has taken the fight to ISIS more than any other, is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). The SDF is made up of mostly Syrian Kurds from a group known as the YPG, along with Syrian Arabs and even an Assyrian Christian militia. This is the force that has besieged the city of al-Raqqah and is expected to have the city cleared of ISIS within a month, possibly sooner.

SDF forces are also fighting their way southeast along the Euphrates and are making thrusts near the regional population center of Dayr al-Zawr. Dayr al-Zawr and its adjacent airbase was a Syrian regime enclave under ISIS siege for over two years. Syrian forces have been remarkably successful in fighting across the central part of the country and relieving the siege earlier this month. I credit more direct Russian involvement.

At the same time, SDF forces have moved on Dayr al-Zawr from the north, almost in position to meet up with Syrian forces, creating one or two ISIS pockets northwest of the city. Once the forces have joined up and cut off ISIS forces, I expect a coordinated effort against ISIS, reducing those pockets before turning their attention to the Euphrates Valley southeast of Dayr al-Zawr. Looking at the map and the Syrian and SDF thrusts, it appears there is already coordination.

It will take time, but at some point - probably in a location in Syria - Iraqi, SDF and Syrian forces will have ISIS encircled and begin the task of eliminating whatever ISIS forces remain. A big question is how much coordination will occur between these forces. I suspect that at the tactical level, the commanders will coordinate, if not cooperate, their movements to make sure they are fighting ISIS and not each other.

A bigger question - how much coordination will there be between the two major powers? On the Syrian side, the Russians are the key interlocutor, while when dealing with the SDF and Iraqis, the United States is key.

Cooperation between the Russians and Americans, beyond the air deconfliction protocol, would be welcome and might just provide the basis for the political solution that will be required to end the bloodshed in Syria.

I hope that major power coordination is there, but I remain skeptical.

September 15, 2017

ISIS claims responsibility for London underground attack

As we have come to expect following terrorist attacks around the world, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for today's attack in London, via a statement from the 'Amaq Agency, its in-house propaganda arm.

My interpretation of the initial claim (posted above) reads:

‘Amaq Agency - 15 September 2017 - Urgent

A trusted source to ‘Amaq Agency: Explosion of an improvised explosive device in the London subway was carried out by a detachment of the Islamic State.


I have read a lot of these statements in the past, and pay careful attention to the Arabic words used in them. Normally, the statements claim that the attack was executed by a "soldier" or "soldiers" of the Islamic State, or of the Caliphate.

In this statement, however, they use the term that translates most accurately to "detachment." This gives the connotation of more than one perpetrator. I have seen other analysts translate the word as "cell," although there is a more precise word for cell that ISIS has used in the past.

'Amaq followed up the initial brief claim with a longer statement (posted below).

My interpretation of the statement:

Urgent – Upwards of 30 Crusaders injured in an improvised explosive device in a London underground station

Great Britain – 24 Thu al-Hijjah 1438 AH

Pleasing God and trusting in him, soldiers of the Caliphate were able to place a number of improvised explosive devices and detonate one near a group of Crusaders in the Parsons Green underground station in London, leading to the injury of nearly 30 Crusaders, as ordained by God, thanks be to God, lord of the universe.


This is the first indication of multiple IED's being placed in this attack. There is credence to this claim - Scotland Yard confirmed later that they have more than one suspect.

The claim about multiple IED's is interesting. If there were in fact more than one IED involved and the police had not made that public prior to the release of the statement, it may indicate that ISIS had prior knowledge of the attack. The fact that the United Kingdom has raised it threat warning level to critical lends credence to this theory.

That would tend to indicate an ISIS-directed attack rather than another of the ISIS-inspired attacks in the recent past.

If this is in fact an ISIS-directed attack, it would fit with the new direction of ISIS as it morphs into a more al-Qa'idah-like terrorist organization as it faces the eventual loss of it territory in Syria and Iraq.

September 13, 2017

The Syrian-SDF assault on Dayr al-Zawr - a cooperative effort?

The two-pronged assault on Dayr al-Zawr

Forces of the Syrian government and its allies have broken the siege on the eastern city of Dayr al-Zawr* and the adjacent air base, attacking the city along the south bank of the Euphrates River. Dayr al-Zawr has been under siege from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since May 2015.

The Syrian Army is supported by Russian airpower, Iranian regular troops and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces, as well as various Shi'a militias from Iran and Iraq. This coalition has been making steady progress in the operation to relieve the garrison at Dayr al-Zawr following a series of successful operations in Aleppo and in the Damascus area - some resolved by agreements with opposition forces.

At the same time, forces of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) - composed of Syrian Arabs, Kurds and Assyrians - are attacking ISIS along the north bank of the Euphrates River. Although there is no formal coordination protocol between the Syrian regime and the SDF, there is - and has been - informal cooperation in the fight against the common enemy that is ISIS.

Looking at the map and the operations mounted by the Syrian regime coalition and the SDF, it is hard to believe there is not some coordination occurring. While the Euphrates River is a logical boundary between the two commands, there are locations where the division is merely a line on a map.

While I suspect there is contact between Syrian Army commanders and SDF leaders at the tactical level to prevent unnecessary incidents that detract from the fight against ISIS, I hope there is operational and/or strategic level cooperation between the two major powers who are supporting the Syrians and the SDF - Russia and the United States, respectively.

I have been encouraging just this for months - see my earlier article, An alliance between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian government?

It appears that the Syrian government has decided to focus its current operations on taking Dayr al-Zawr, with or without the SDF's help. President (and nominal commander in chief) Bashar al-Asad evidently will leave the liberation of ISIS's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah to the SDF.

It is interesting that the SDF has moved forces towards the city of Dayr al-Zawr in an enveloping maneuver. This required the SDF to divert resources from the fighting in al-Raqqah either in a bid to seize and occupy territory in Dayr al-Zawr governorate, or in a coordinated operation with the Syrian government. I am hoping for the latter, but suspect the former.

Both the Syrian regime (and its allies) and the SDF are setting up the final battle with ISIS in Syria, or in a best-case scenario, the final battle between combined Iraqi and Syrian forces with ISIS in the border region along the Syria-Iraq border. ISIS media has referred to this as the "Battle of the Euphrates."

We know how the battle ends, we just do not know the exact venue or the human cost of the battle. For more on this, see my article: The fight against the Islamic State grinds on….

Make no mistake, this will not be the defeat of ISIS, but the end of its territorial presence in the Levant - the ideology, unfortunately, will continue. The organization will morph back into a more "traditional terrorist organization" along the lines of al-Qa'idah.

We're not there yet, however. The next steps are for the SDF to completely secure the city of al-Raqqah, while the Syrian coalition and the SDF create an ISIS pocket along the Euphrates northwest of the city of Dayr al-Zawr - that pocket will then be reduced.

In a perfect world, the Iraqis will have eliminated the Huwayjah pocket (far right of above map) and concentrate their efforts on al-Anbar province and the Euphrates Valley, pressuring ISIS towards the Syrian border.

The final battle will take place somewhere around Albu-Kamal, Syria / al-Qa'im, Iraq.

Then the problem of Syria must be addressed. While Iraq has its own issues for the future - dealing with the Sunni-Shi'a split, the Kurds and other ethnic groups - it has a chance of recreating a stable nation.

Syria, in the throes of a civil war and the venue for competing foreign interests - Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States to name a few - has a long road of reconciliation ahead of it.

Cooperation between the major powers - Russia and the United States - would be useful. Hopefully, the coordination/deconfliction line between American and Russian forces in the region is busy.
* Personal note: I have only fond memories of Dayr al-Zawr. It was a drive from Damascus, but well worth the effort. It was - and hopefully will be again - a beautiful city on the Euphrates, with great history and an ambiance of a gentler Middle East. I miss it.

September 1, 2017

IAEA access to Iranian military sites - nuclear deal breaker?

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

The above photograph was taken in 2015 during the final negotiations that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or more commonly, the "Iranian nuclear deal." I hesitate to call these talks negotiations - the American discussant was the ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry who agreed to virtually everything his Iranian counterpart wanted.

The key issue during this particular session was United Nations (UN) inspectors' ability to interview Iranian scientists and to inspect military facilities suspected of being involved in Iran's nuclear research and development program. At that time, senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi stated flatly, "Interviews with scientists are completely out of the question, and so is the inspection of military sites."

In response, the director of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, reiterated the requirement that any deal with Iran include the authority to inspect any sites suspected of being a venue for nuclear-related activity, including military sites. In the end, the distinct wording of the signed JCPOA does not differentiate between military and non-military sites.

That said, it is impossible to know if there was a secret understanding between the Obama Administration and the Iranian government to not demand inspections of Iranian military sites, given the previous Administration's overarching desire to reach an agreement, any agreement, with the Iranians. If that was indeed the case, the Trump Administration has demonstrated that its stance toward what it calls "the worst deal" will be much stricter and less tolerant of Iranian deceptive tactics.

The issue of access to Iranian military sites is not yet resolved. A full two years later, IAEA Director Amano is still trading words with Iranian officials over access to these sites. Last week, an Iranian government spokesman said that any chance Iran would allow inspections of any of its military facilities was "a dream."

Director Amano rejected Iran's claim that its military sites were off-limits to inspection, declaring that military sites could be considered "relevant locations" if the IAEA believes there are nuclear activities at the sites. He again made the point that in the agreement signed by Iran, the IAEA "has access to (all) locations without making distinctions between military and civilian locations."

Iran's stance is not surprising. During the negotiations between Iran on one side, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany (P5+1) and the European Union on the other, the primary negotiators were Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif.

To ensure that the Obama Administration was able to reach an agreement with Iran, Secretary Kerry acceded to almost every Iranian demand, including a word change in an existing UNSC resolution on Iranian missile tests, from "shall not" develop ballistic missiles to "is called upon not to" develop.* Zarif and the Iranians grew so used to having their own way during the Obama Administration, they are likely surprised that they are not being coddled by the Trump Administration as well.

The fact that Iran is so sensitive about access to these military sites only arouses more suspicion. If I was part of the IAEA monitoring effort, it is probably the first place I would want to inspect. Given Iran's belief that these sites are exempt from inspection, it makes sense that any undeclared facilities, materials or equipment would be secreted at these locations.

As an example of Iran's sensitivity, there was one inspection conducted at Parchin, a military site where it was believed some nuclear activity had taken place. Normally, IAEA inspectors take air and soil samples, as well as swabbing equipment at suspect sites. In this case, the IAEA allowed Iranian personnel to take the samples - not exactly instilling confidence in the integrity of the verification protocol.

Per the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, the President must certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA every 90 days - the next certification is due in mid-September. For its part, the IAEA last week declared that it had noted no violations by Iran in its latest quarterly Iran monitoring report, although the agency was still searching for "undeclared nuclear material and activities."

Director Amano, here's a hint: look at the military sites. If there are "undeclared nuclear material and activities," - and knowing the Iranians, I believe there are - that's where it will be found.

If the IAEA does not inspect suspect Iranian military sites, how can they - or for that matter the President - certify that Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA? Well, technically, the IAEA is not stating that Iran is in compliance. What they said is that they "had noted no violations...."

Of course, if you don't look, you can't "note."


* For more on this fiasco, see my earlier article: Iran's ballistic missile program - more fallout from the "Kerry Collapse"

Middle East Perspectives named one of the Top 100 Middle East Blogs

Middle East Perspectives by Rick Francona has been named as one of the Top 100 Middle East Blogs and Websites on the Web by the news aggregator Feedspot.

You can see the entire list of 100 here. This blog is number 11 on the list.

It is an impressive list, and I am honored to be listed among them.