ISW-CTP Intelligence Estimate and Forecast: The United States will continue to risk its vital strategic interests in the Middle East unless it changes its policies in Syria and Iraq. The U.S. must apply meaningful pressure against the Assad-Russia-Iran axis and regain leverage over it rather than accommodate it.

This fourth report in a series recommends a course of action that represents the best possible path forward for the U.S. that the ISW-CTP team could identify based on an evaluation of American interests, the current political-security dynamics, and forecasts of various actors’ plans. The ISW-CTP team tested 15 different courses of action to destroy both ISIS and al Qaeda without jeopardizing wider American interests or accepting undue cost or risk.

The U.S. cannot drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in the near term. Tehran and Moscow share an overarching objective to expel the U.S. from the Middle East which will likely bind Iran and Russia together into an enduring partnership.

Iranian military cooperation with Russia in Syria is dramatically increasing Tehran’s ability to plan and conduct complex conventional operations.

The ISF slowed its advance into western Mosul on March 26 in order to regroup and prepare for an assault on the Old City. The ISF has also slowed its operation out of continued concerns of civilian casualties throughout the western Mosul operation.

Latest from ISW

Iraqi Security Forces and Popular Mobilization Forces: Orders of Battle

Any U.S. strategy relying on a partnered force must proceed from a realistic assessment of its capabili­ties and intentions. The Institute for the Study of War completed an Order of Battle study to evalu­ate the capabilities and disposition of the ISF. This study also presents an Order of Battle of the PMF to help U.S. decision makers and forces on the ground recognize and remediate the presence of Iranian-backed militias within the ISF.

Al Qaeda Clearing the Path to Dominance in Southern Syria

Al Qaeda is growing stronger in Southern Syria. An assassination campaign targeting mainstream opposition commanders and governance officials is facilitating al Qaeda’s consolidation of power along the borders of Jordan and Israel. Southern Syria stands at increasing risk of becoming a second Idlib Province, which currently serves as a formidable safe haven for al Qaeda.

ISIS Plotting Attacks from Afghanistan

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.

Iran’s Role in the Kirkuk Operation in Iraq

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: Katai’b Hezbollah, Asai’b 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.