ISIS Works to Merge its Northern Front across Iraq and Syria
Recent ISIS operations in Hasaka and Ninewa provinces indicate that ISIS has begun to further merge its northern battlefronts across the Syrian-Iraq border. ISIS is eradicating pockets of resistance that fall within the territory ISIS seeks to claim for its Caliphate, including the Iraqi city of Sinjar near the border in Ninewa province. ISIS seized the city of Sinjar on August 3, 2014 despite the protection of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces, roughly 100 km east of Hasaka city, the provincial capital of the adjacent Syrian province. ISIS operations in these Northern provinces are likely linked, and the recent ISIS offensive in northern Iraq must be evaluated through a cross-border lens. Since mid-July ISIS has seized control of the Regiment 121 Artillery Base in Hasaka Province in addition to the Division 17 and Brigade 93 Bases in ar-Raqqa Province. ISIS forces also appear to be mobilizing to seize the final base in ar-Raqqa, the Tabqa Military Airbase. Significantly, these operations have proceeded in tandem with a campaign to remove internal threats to the Caliphate posed by isolated Syrian regime bases in ar-Raqqa province, and it appears ISIS is quickly moving toward a successful consolidation and hardening of its exterior borders in Northern Syria.
Since ISIS seized control of Mosul on June 10, ISIS has successfully merged its southern Deir ez-Zour and Anbar systems. Syria’s northeastern Hasaka Province is becoming a primary battleground as ISIS continues to consolidate its gains in Iraq and Syria and begins to merge its Hasaka and Ninewa areas of operation. Hasaka hosts important logistical lines of communication that connect ISIS strongholds in ar-Raqqa to recent ISIS gains in Ninewa, making Hasaka a significant front for ISIS operational planning. The province is also home to a large portion of Syria’s oil fields, a valuable strategic asset that ISIS has fought to control elsewhere in Syria. The main body of the Syrian opposition is largely absent from the province, where a low regime footprint and a large Kurdish population render it an undesirable area for most counter-regime forces in the Syrian opposition. While Syrian Kurds in northern Syria declared their independence from the central government in the fall of 2013, they nonetheless cooperate at local levels with regime forces for purposes of social control.
The military arm of the de-facto independent Kurdish PYD party, the YPG, is in control of much of the province’s countryside and capitalizes on local support from Christian and Arab tribal elements to defend against ISIS incursions. The Kurdish Asayish security forces in charge of maintaining control inside city centers also coordinate locally with the regime’s NDF militias, which include units of Arab tribesmen from the al-Sharabiyin and al-Tay tribes in addition to elements of Christian militias. At the time of the fall of Mosul, the Syrian regime maintained control of the Qamishli airport and three hardened military bases throughout the province in addition to maintaining internal control within the major cities of Hasaka and Qamishli. The provincial capital of Hasaka City has remained under joint control between Syrian regime and Kurdish forces, each of which maintain control over different neighborhoods with coordination to ensure service provision and quality of life within the city.
Rather than targeting these regime enclaves, ISIS operations within the province throughout June and early July were largely directed against YPG forces in the countryside surrounding the cities of Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli on the Turkish border. In these zones, small units of ISIS fighters operating in strategically located villages regularly contested terrain held by Kurdish YPG forces in the countryside and maintained limited pressure on regime and YPG resupply lines to Hasaka city. ISIS forces also leveraged support from local Arab tribal elements, including the Sharabia tribe, a local rival to the YPG-allied Shaamar tribe. The most significant ISIS stronghold in the province’s northern countryside is located at Tel Hamis deep within the countryside northeast of Hasaka City, which ISIS assumed firm control after successfully repulsing an attempt by the YPG to seize the village in early January 2014. South of the city, it is assessed that the ISIS stronghold at ash-Shaddadi continues to serve as a command headquarters for ISIS forces throughout eastern Syria in addition to facilitating cross-border lines of communication and transit into Iraq’s Ninewa province.
This ISIS activity in the Hasaka countryside focused on maintaining lines of communication that traverse the province in addition to creating sufficient operating room for ISIS forces to mobilize on other fronts. However, ISIS forces also conducted initial shaping operations to isolate Hasaka city from its flow of supplies from Qamishli to the north. ISIS targeted the areas surrounding Qamishli Airport with Grad rockets and conducted kidnappings of several bus passengers on the Hasaka-Qamishli road in late June. ISIS forces also continued to contest the towns of Tal Ma’arof, Kharab al-A’skar, and Tel Alo in the YPG-controlled countryside south of Qamishli throughout July. Interdicting a second major supply line to Hasaka City, ISIS has pressured YPG forces along the Ras al-Ayn – Hasaka road, targeting YPG forces in the vicinity of Tel Tamir, a town strategically located at the junction of two of the province’s major highways. An IED detonated in a car along the road between Hasaka City and Tel Tamir on July 3, killing a PYD council member and a member of the town’s Popular Council. In addition, an ISIS SVBIED reportedly disguised as a truck bringing supplies to the area targeted a YPG camp just northwest of Tel Tamir on the road to Ras al-Ayn on July 13, killing eight. While limited in scope, these attacks in the weeks prior to the attack on Sinjar demonstrate the ability of ISIS to penetrate deep into YPG-controlled territory in zones likely marked for future incorporation into the Islamic State.
ISIS advances against critical regime installations
ISIS significantly escalated attacks against the Syrian regime throughout much of northeastern Syria beginning in mid-July. ISIS forces attacked regime positions in Deir ez-Zour city and launched a significant offensive against the al-Sha’er gas field in the Homs desert in central Syria on July 16. While the regime was ultimately able to recapture the gas field, the ISIS attack served to test regime responses and to force a regime deployment of significant reinforcements to an area highly isolated from other critical fronts. This feint by ISIS was likely calculated to soften regime targets elsewhere in Syria. Three days after the regime launched an offensive to regain control of the gas field, ISIS began a highly successful campaign against regime bases throughout Northern Syria. These include the Regiment 121 Artillery base in Hasaka Province in addition to the Division 17 and Brigade 93 bases in ar-Raqqa Province, with indicators of an upcoming ISIS attack to seize the Tabqa Military Airbase. The ISIS seizure of three regime military bases in Northern Syria serves to set the stage for ISIS forces in Hasaka and ar-Raqqa to achieve territorial continuity across northern Syria after the elimination of internal threats to the borders of the Caliphate.
ISIS forces launched an attack to seize control of the Division 17 base just north of ar-Raqqa city on July 23. Two SVBIEDs were detonated at the entrance to the base, allowing ISIS fighters to advance into southern portions of the base. While there were reports that these VBIEDs detonated shy of their targets, the ISIS advance was nonetheless successful, and ISIS fighters immediately posted a video from inside the military housing facility inside the base. After the initial advance, ISIS beheaded six regime soldiers and displayed their severed heads near the al-Na’im roundabout within ar-Raqqa city. ISIS’s Wilayat ar-Raqqa account announced a curfew in ar-Raqqa on July 24, allegedly so that ISIS could hunt down regime forces who had escaped into the city. Regime forces immediately launched over 14 airstrikes against ar-Raqqa and Tabqa cities as helicopter gunships targeted ISIS positions, likely to provide cover for a large-scale regime withdrawal. Regime forces withdrew northward toward the al-Rayhat village, however ISIS ambushed a contingent of the withdrawing forces in the town of Abu Sharib, capturing and executing 50 regime soldiers on July 25. A total of 300 soldiers are reported to have successfully withdrawn to al-Rayhat, while additional hundreds relocated to the Division 93 base in Ayn Isa, roughly 40 km south of Tel Abyad on the Turkish border. “Tens” of soldiers are also reported to have reached the Tabqa military airbase southwest of ar-Raqqa city. The regime also launched two scud missiles against ISIS positions in ar-Raqqa from the Brigade 155 base in Qalamoun, and SOHR reported that a regime convoy supported by both fixed and rotary wing aircraft was deployed from al-Salamia to ar-Raqqa on July 25.
ISIS fighters seized the entirety of ar-Raqqa’s 17th Division Base on July 25 following the full withdrawal of the regime forces that had remained to provide cover. ISIS social media accounts in ar-Raqqa posted dozens of pictures of seized equipment as well as pictures of fighters sleeping and praying inside the base. 105 regime fighters, including at least 19 officers, were reportedly killed during the assault, while more than 140 soldiers are still missing. General Salim Hassoun and General Jihad Habib al-Qadda are rumored to be among those killed. Following a short period of consolidation in ar-Raqqa, ISIS forces launched an offensive to capture the Brigade 93 base north of ar-Raqqa city near the village of Ayn Issa. ISIS reportedly ordered the residents of villages surrounding the base to evacuate the area on July 29. A full ISIS offensive against the base was declared by the ISIS Wilayat ar-Raqqa on August 5, immediately followed by the detonation of three SVBIEDs against the base and a swift ISIS seizure of much of the base. SOHR reported that 15 ISIS fighters and 36 regime soldiers were killed, some of which were symbolically beheaded by ISIS after the attack. By August 8, ISIS forces gained full control of the base and regime forces were reported to have pulled back towart the Tabqa military airport in addition to villages west of the fallen Brigade 93 base. At the time of writing, ISIS forces appear to be mobilizing its forces and equipment to storm the Taqba base, the last regime stronghold in ar-Raqqa province.
In response to the initial ISIS escalation in Deir ez-Zour and the Homs Desert in mid-July, the Syrian regime increased its pressure against ISIS positions in Southern Hasaka Province, targeting areas controlled by ISIS south of Hasaka city, such as the al-Khair silos and the Karama village. Likely in retaliation for this increase in regime pressure on ISIS positions, two IEDs exploded in Hasaka City on July 22, one in a store near the al-Qahira Cinema and one targeting a store selling alcohol on al-Ahram street, killing a total of seven. These explosions were a notable departure from the city’s relative calm throughout the war and predicated a significant ISIS escalation against fortified regime infrastructure south of the city. Hours after launching a the offensive against the Division 17 military base north of ar-Raqqa City, ISIS fighters attacked the Regiment 121 artillery base in Malabiah south of Hasaka City. In response, the regime immediately closed all roads leading into the city, instituted a curfew, and conducted air raids around the base. However, regime forces were unable to repel the attacking ISIS forces, which received reinforcements on July 24.
Simultaneous attacks against other regime installations in the province neutralized the regime’s ability to reinforce the base and prevented an immediate counterattack against the ISIS rear. While also attacking the “Kawkab” military base east of the city, ISIS deployed three SVESTS against a military operations center within the city, reportedly by disguising the suicide bombers in NDF uniforms. A leading member of the Ba’ath party named Hanna Atalla was reportedly killed in the attack. Effectively severing the regime resupply line from Qamishli ISIS forces seized the town of Safiya, located 10 km north of Hasaka City at a critical juncture in the two Qamishli-Hasaka highways. Farther north, a number of explosions occurred in Qamishli city: first, a large explosion targeted the local headquarters of military intelligence on al-Wahda Street. Syrian state news outlet SANA also reported the detonation of second explosive device planted in the city’s southern al-Tay neighborhood, and ISIS reportedly targeted a bus transporting regime forces with a stun grenade.
Finally, as fighting in the Regiment 121 base continued, an ISIS SVBIED detonated at the Panorama checkpoint at the southern entrance to Hasaka city on July 26 amidst clashes in the area between ISIS and YPG fighters. The SVBIED is likely to have hindered the regime’s ability to reinforce the Regiment 121 base, and the ISIS Wilayat Baraka (Hasaka) twitter account subsequently claimed to have successfully halted a regime military convoy at the checkpoint. After three days of clashes, ISIS seized full control of the base on July 27. A prominent NDF commander named Abdul-Samad al-Nazzal was reportedly killed during the fighting in addition to General Miziad Salameh, the commander of Regiment 121. Following the full seizure of the base, ISIS released pictures purporting to document a large quantity of heavy weaponry seized from within the base, including at least four howitzers. ISIS social media accounts also released a video tour of the base and the captured military equipment.
While rumors initially emerged that regime forces withdrew from the city itself in order to reinforce key remaining military bases elsewhere in the province, it appears the regime instead consolidated control of its own critical infrastructure within the city, such as water pumping stations and jails, with the help of security forces and the NDF, while possibly transferring further control of certain neighborhoods to Kurdish forces. An official PYD account reassured civilians that Kurdish forces maintained full control over the administration of Kurdish areas of the city, and the YPG conducted a military parade in the Salhiya neighborhood in a show of strength on July 31. While fighting in the city’s southern countryside initially continued, regime forces claim to have consolidated control of the southern outskirts of the city amidst a reported ISIS withdrawal into its own territory deeper south of the city. Clashes between regime forces and ISIS in the village of Sabe Sekor southeast of the city on July 31 indicate that the ISIS forces that attacked the Kawkab military base likely withdrew southeast toward the Iraqi border. A primary transit route for ISIS fighters between Iraq and Syria, this zone is likely a staging area for ISIS forces operating in the Jazeera desert, and could have been the area from which ISIS forces mobilized in the August 3 attack on Sinjar.
In addition, some ISIS forces withdrew west of the city, forcing a civilian relocation from the western al-Neshwa area of the city due to heavy ISIS bombardment to cover its retreating forces. Further clashes erupted on August 5 between gunmen and YPG fighters near al-Bairuti Bridge at the northern entrance to the southern Gweran neighborhood of Hasaka city after a military convoy of YPG fighters attempted to enter the neighborhood and make arrests. It is possible this altercation was the result of the distribution of an August 4 ISIS statement that called for residents in Syria’s northeast region to halt their support for the YPG and foreshadowed an impending ISIS assault upon Hasaka city. Reports have emerged that the regime is considering relocating the official administration of Hasaka province to the city of Qamishli amidst fears of a full ISIS offensive against the city, and negotiations are reportedly ongoing over the formation of a joint Governing Council for the city that could facilitate a regime drawdown.
The ISIS main effort against the Regiment 121 Artillery Base is likely to have deployed from the ISIS stronghold of al-Shadadi in southern Hasaka Province, however the supporting efforts in the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli were likely staged from elsewhere within the province, possibly the ISIS stronghold in Tel Hamis. Pro-ISIS activists posted on Twitter that the combined offensives in ar-Raqqa and Hasaka involved a total of 1,400 fighters: 600 in ar-Raqqa and 800 in Hasaka, although this is impossible to verify. An ISIS mobilization near Ras al-Ayn was reported by SOHR on July 17, and it is possible that these forces were integrated into the offensive against Hasaka City. The requirements for consolidating control in Deir ez-Zour in addition to the simultaneous escalation in ar-Raqqa province makes it unlikely that the ISIS force in Hasaka drew manpower from elsewhere within Syria. It is equally unlikely that ISIS forces were reallocated from Iraq, due to the requirements to mount the significant escalation against the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga on August 3. Therefore, it is assessed that ISIS did not relieve other positions within either theatre in order to conduct this operation.
The seizure of these three regime bases removed obstacles for ISIS freedom of movement within the areas of operation south of Hasaka city and north of ar-Raqqa city. ISIS will likely attempt to seize the city of Hasaka itself in order to successfully link these two systems, as the major highways that allow for transit northwest into ar-Raqqa province pass through the city’s outskirts. While ISIS will likely continue to pressure regime and YPG supply lines through Qamishli, an attack against the city itself is unlikely in the near term. The city’s distance from current ISIS lines of communication makes it an less likely objective, and its importance to both the YPG and the regime will ensure stiff resistance and provide a strong deterrence against an ISIS attack.
While shifting to a consolidation phase in Hasaka, ISIS forces in Iraq’s Ninewa province attacked the isolated Kurdish stronghold of Sinjar on August 3, successfully forcing a tactical retreat by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The assault appears to have been conducted by the ISIS Wilayat Ninewa force, likely the same force that seized the city of Mosul on June 10. However, testament to the cross-border nature of the full ISIS force in this area, ISIS’s Syrian Wilayat al-Baraka (Hasaka) claimed to have sent fighters to participate in a subsequent attack against the village of Khan Suwwar north of the Sinjar mountains. The seizure of Sinjar represents a linked effort to neutralize threats to the ISIS interior, successfully removing a key obstacle to the territorial integrity linking its Hasaka and Ninewa Wilayats. If ISIS continues to expand in northern Iraq, ISIS forces may turn northward to the oil fields in Syria’s Hasaka province after securing and hardening the current borders of its Caliphate. The fields remain under YPG control, and are likely to be heavily defended by both YPG and local tribal elements. ISIS forces to date have largely refrained from mounting a meaningful challenge to this control, as the fields present a hardened target with less immediate implications for the consolidation of the Caliphate. However, a two-front offensive against Hasaka’s northeast launched from the ISIS stronghold of Tel Hamis in Hasaka and ISIS positions within Ninewa province may have sufficient momentum to meaningfully challenge the YPG for control of the oil infrastructure. As such, a campaign into northeastern Hasaka is a possible future course of action if ISIS is able to secure and harden the current borders of its Caliphate.
Following the fall of Sinjar, Syrian Kurdish YPG forces moved in to control the Iraqi side of the Yarubiya border crossing and to counter an ISIS advance against the nearby Iraqi town of Rabia. According to a statement released by the YPG General Command, 700 Peshmerga fighters initially retreated into Syrian territory following the ISIS assault on Sinjar, where some are reported to have received medical treatment by Kurdish doctors. In the statement the YPG also committed to cooperating at the “highest levels” with the Peshmerga in order to counter the ISIS assault. In addition, YPG forces have opened routes into Kurdish territory in Hasaka Province for refugees fleeing from Sinjar. Co-chairman of the PYD Salih Muslim confirmed YPG involvement in Iraq, stating during a telephone interview that the forced withdrawal of the Peshmerga from Sinjar prompted the YPG to cross the border “to support and assist” the Peshmerga forces. He also stated that YPG forces crossed the border from several locations, likely in the effort to manage the flow of refugees. On August 4, a redeployment of Peshmerga forces to the border allowed the combined Kurdish forces to successfully regain control of the border crossing after clashes with ISIS. In addition, YPG and Peshmerga forces continue to contest ISIS positions on the nearby outskirts of Rabia. According to the head of the YPG’s information center, YPG forces have conducted five successful operations against ISIS forces in Ninewa province and participated in attacks by the Peshmerga against ISIS forces in Zumar and Kaskie in addition to Rabia.
The YPG defense of Iraqi Kurds and Yezidis against ISIS is the first case of YPG deployment outside of Syrian territory. The Syrian PYD had previously attempted and failed to reach an agreement with the Iraqi Kurdish National Council (KNC) to create joint de-facto administrations in northern Syria that could have provided for military cooperation between the two bodies. Without the support of the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq Mahmoud Barzani, the PYD was forced to negotiate local settlements with Christian and Arab groups in order to secure its territory. This balancing within northern Syria is unlikely to change in the wake of the fall of Sinjar and the deployment of the YPG into Iraqi territory. While local support to the Peshmerga near the Syrian-Iraqi border to deter further ISIS advances in this zone is in the interest of the YPG, Syria will undoubtedly remain its primary focus.
Further, sources of local support to the YPG within Syria will prove increasingly crucial if ISIS continues to advance within Hasaka province. Testament to the importance of local relationships for continued YPG control in the province, in late July the PYD appointed Humaydi Dahmam al-Assi al Jarba, a member of the Shammar tribe and a cousin of former Syrian Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba, as co-governor of Hasaka Province. The Shammar tribe has historically facilitated YPG operations against ISIS, and was instrumental in the YPG’s ability to reinforce the Yarubiya border crossing and to secure YPG control of Hasaka’s oil fields after the fall of Mosul. The deepening of these ties is an indicator of the continued importance of local Syrian alliances within the Kurdish war effort against ISIS. As ISIS continues to push forward with its campaign in Northern Iraq and Syria, the continued ability of the YPG and the Peshmerga to continue mount successful resistance will be a limiting factor in the ISIS advance.
Through a significant escalation against the Syrian regime and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga beginning in mid-July, ISIS forces have made large advances in a campaign to consolidate internal control within the Caliphate. The Syrian regime’s Regiment 121, Division 17, and Brigade 93 military bases have fallen to ISIS, and indicators have emerged of an upcoming ISIS attack against the Tabqa military airbase southwest of ar-Raqqa City. ISIS has also seized the Peshmerga stronghold at Sinjar in the west of Iraq’s Ninewa Province, successfully consolidating its internal line of control across the Jazeera desert into Syria. The breath of these linked offensives across Iraq and Syria illustrate the ISIS priority objective of establishing territorial integrity for the Caliphate, and are evidence of the large military capacity ISIS still possesses nearly two months after the fall of Mosul.
In order to achieve its goal of establishing a functional, viable state ISIS must continue to leverage its military capabilities to consolidate its interior lines across Iraq and Syria and form a set of identifiable and defensible borders. Eliminating interior vulnerabilities is a key component of this effort and is likely to remain a primary objective for the ISIS military campaign in ensuing weeks. The victories in ar-Raqqa, Hasaka, and Ninewa suggests that ISIS operational objectives prioritize setting the stage for the consolidation of control over logistical lines of communication from the Iraqi border and the current operational zone in southern Hasaka to strongholds in ar-Raqqa province in order to secure freedom of movement between currently separate systems. As continued military successes from increasingly unified theatres of operation fuel the ISIS war machine, a hardened ISIS exterior line is likely to allow ISIS forces to pursue further expansion.