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.