This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 27 May 2016.
The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Popular Mobilization launched a major operation on May 23 to recapture Fallujah from ISIS. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced Operation Breaking Terrorism late on May 22 following weeks of force build-up in the area. The ISF and Anbar Sunni tribal fighters carried out shaping operations to the south of Fallujah in the weeks prior, recapturing al-Salaam Junction and moving along the southern road on May 7. Iranian proxy Shi’a militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba, deployed heavily to the vicinity of Fallujah beginning on May 17. Progress of the actual operation has been rapid, with the joint ISF-Popular Mobilization forces recapturing key locations within the first 24 hours. These included Garma sub-district, a small town northeast of Fallujah, and Naimiyah on the southern edge of Fallujah City on May 23. Even before ISIS, Sunni militants including Jaish al-Mujahideen, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandiyah (JRTN) used Garma as a support zone. As of May 26, security forces have captured much of the Garma area and have pressed on Fallujah’s northern, eastern, and southeastern flanks, though the progress of the ISF and Popular Mobilization in Albu Shajal and Saqlawiyah, on the northeastern axis, remains limited. These areas need to be controlled in order to complete the encirclement of Fallujah.
Operation Breaking Terrorism comes amid a period of instability for Baghdad and the Iraqi government. PM Abadi is weak, and the Council of Representatives has failed to make quorum due to boycotts by numerous parties, including the Kurdistan Alliance, the Reform Front, and the Sadrist Trend. Meanwhile, Sadrist demonstrators have threatened Baghdad security, breaking into the Green Zone and major government buildings first on April 30 and again on May 20, when protesters clashed with security forces. The demonstrations have exceeded the Interior Ministry’s security forces’ ability to provide basic protection in Baghdad; the increased instability caused by large-scale protests has required the deployment of additional forces to the capital, including members of the Golden Division, a unit within the elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), that closed the entrances of the Green Zone on May 20.
Aircraft Fighter Jet, courtesy mashleymorgan/flickr
This article was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 20 April 2016.
Russia remains a decisive actor in Syria despite announcing its limited drawdown on March 14. It has since reshaped the nature of its deployment and military operations in ways that continue to bolster the Assad regime’s position on the ground as well as at the negotiating table, while allowing Russia to maintain its strategic military foothold along the Eastern Mediterranean. Russian military contributions continue to shape the battlefield momentum of pro-regime operations through the deployment of alternative assets to theater such as advanced rotary wing attack aircraft. Russia retains the capacity to escalate its fixed-wing strikes to support pro-regime operations, as shown in operations against ISIS in Palmyra in late March and more recently against armed opposition forces in Aleppo.
Russian air operations pivoted once again to Aleppo as of April 6, following weeks of strikes primarily carried out in support of pro-regime ground operations against ISIS in central Homs Province. Pro-regime forces supported by Russian and regime airstrikes have resumed operations to encircle and besiege armed opposition forces in Aleppo City. Russian air operations have regularly targeted opposition-held terrain in Aleppo province throughout its air campaign in Syria, beginning condition-setting efforts for pro-regime operations to encircle and besiege Aleppo City as early as October 2015. Russian air support has been a pivotal component of pro-regime operations to encircle Aleppo City, bringing regime forces within five kilometers of besieging opposition forces inside the city as of February 2016.
Destruction in Baba Amr, Homs, Syria, courtesy Freedom House/flickr
This forecast was originally published by the Institute for the Study of War on 24 February 2016.
The expanded interventions of Russia and Iran into the Syrian Civil War have shifted the trajectory of the conflict in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, granting him the strongest position on the battlefield as of February 24, 2016. Regime forces bolstered by Iranian ground troops and Russian air support have achieved major gains against both the Syrian armed opposition and ISIS in Northern Syria since September 2015, marking a fundamental shift in battlefield momentum following a compounding series of regime losses in the first half of 2015. President Assad now sits within reach of several of his military objectives, including the encirclement and isolation of Aleppo City and the establishment of a secure defensive perimeter along the Syrian Coast. The regime and its allies will likely retain their battlefield gains if there is no intervention by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE. Russian campaign designers have clearly planned the ongoing operations in northern Syria, introducing to the Syrian battlefield signature Russian doctrinal concepts such as frontal aviation, cauldron battles, and multiple simultaneous and successive operations. These have made the joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian military operations more effective for a longer duration than previous operations. The offensive operations conducted by the regime and its allies may nevertheless culminate over the 90-day timeframe, as pro-regime forces attempt to advance deeper into core opposition-held terrain and take high casualties. Regular reinforcement of ground capabilities by Iran and Russia will therefore remain necessary over the next three months in order to maintain this level of momentum in the face of continued manpower shortages, attrition, and opposition military actions designed to slow and divert the campaign.
Although an uncontrolled collapse of the Syrian regime seemed feasible in June 2015, Russia’s intervention into the Syrian Civil War has ultimately reset the military balance in Syria. ISW published its last forecast in September 2015 based upon six fundamental assumptions, one of which did not hold for the entirety of the forecasting period. The forecast assumed that Russia would maintain a defensive posture in Syria in order to prevent regime collapse rather than prioritize offensive operations. This assumption remained true in the first few weeks after the start of the Russian air campaign on September 30, 2015. Russia later shifted its air campaign in mid-October 2015 in order to provide direct support to joint Iranian-Syrian counteroffensives on the ground. The aggressive operations undertaken by Russia and Iran in Syria have precluded many of the previously-forecasted courses of action by the regime, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra, and ISIS.
Destruction in Bab Dreeb area in Homs, Syria, courtesy Bo yaser/WikimediaCommons
This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 23 February 2016.
Last summer, the situation in the war-torn Syrian republic pointed towards entrenched fragmentation of the state. Different parties—including President Bashar al-Assad—controlled parts of the country, and neither seemed strong enough for military victory or significant advancements. Russia began air support to the Syrian Army to fight what they labeled terrorists last September, in hopes of tipping the scales.
Now in its fifth year, the war in Syria is particularly complex. What started as (and still is, to some degree) an uprising against a dictatorship has also developed into a sectarian battle between Syria’s Sunni majority and the Shia-Alawite minority; between moderate and extremist Sunnis; between the regime and the Kurdish pursuit for independence; and between regional interests where Sunni Turkey and Saudi Arabia are fighting for influence against Shia Iran by using the Syria war as a proxy. It is also providing the theater for a geopolitical challenge from Russia against the USA.
This article was originally published by the War on the Rocks on 9 February 2016.
Recent gains by the Assad regime in its ongoing northern offensive — in particular, the recapture of the Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra — pose a significant geostrategic threat to Turkey and the opposition groups based in and around Azaz. The regime and its allies are now in a favorable position to cut the lines of communication between the Turkish border areas and the rebel-held city of Aleppo. Such an outcome now seems inevitable given major Russian and Iranian support for regime forces. As a matter of fact, the regime, backed by the Russian air-ground campaign, has been successfully advancing towards the Turkish frontier areas at the time of writing. In this regard, it should be noted that the Russian air force detachment in Syria enjoys high sortie rates as a result of Hmeymim Airbase’s proximity and an effective sortie-to-strike ratio stemming from good intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB). An expansion of Russian military advisors on the ground has enabled efficient coordination between close air support platforms and advancing Syrian Arab Army units, while the elite Iranian Quds Forces and Lebanese Hezbollah drive forward fueled by sectarianism and experience in hybrid conflicts.