ISIS Sanctuary: January 29, 2016

ISW has updated its ISIS Sanctuary Map. ISIS continues to face military pressure on multiple fronts in Iraq and Syria. In response ISIS is heightening efforts to consolidate control along the Euphrates River Valley, and is also expanding its attack zones in western Syria and eastern Iraq. ISIS remains unchallenged in its core terrain across Iraq and Syria. The organization will likely retain this safe haven for the foreseeable future, allowing it to continue to resource and direct attacks on the West.

U.S.-backed forces are pressuring ISIS on the periphery of the organization’s areas of control. ISIS lost control of Ramadi, Anbar Province to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Sunni tribal fighters in early January. It still retains a residual presence in the city and continues to launch attacks on ISF north and east of the city. ISIS also lost the Tishreen Dam west of its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa City to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on December 26. This latter offensive severed one of ISIS’s last remaining supply lines between the Turkish border and Raqqa City, dealing a significant blow to ISIS’s ability to move fighters and materiel. The SDF is positioned to advance on the ISIS-held town on Manbij, a key hub for ISIS’s foreign fighters. Syrian Kurdish YPG forces also continue to advance on ISIS-held positions in northeastern Syria.

ISIS is responding to these losses at the northwest and southeast ends of the Euphrates River Valley by consolidating its control in Deir ez-Zour Province, eastern Syria. Deir ez-Zour lies in the middle of the Euphrates River Valley and serves as a vital transit route for ISIS forces moving between Iraq and Syria. ISIS launched a new offensive of remaining Syrian regime-held areas of Deir ez-Zour City on January 17, seizing northwestern suburbs. ISIS may attempt to consolidate full control of Deir ez-Zour City in order to buffer against the potential future loss of Raqqa.

ISIS continues to launch attacks in western Syria and eastern Iraq despite its overall defensive posture. The organization resurged in parts of Iraq’s Salah ah-Din Province in early January, attacking north and west of the ISF and Shi’a militia-held city of Samarra. ISIS also launched new attacks on the Alas and Ajil oil fields east of Tikrit on January 14. The attacks demonstrate that ISIS has maintained sustained capabilities in eastern Iraq despite ISF and militia clearing operations in Salah ad-Din and Diyala Provinces. Meanwhile ISIS is also launching attacks in the eastern Qalamoun Mountains, reflecting intent to push westwards from Palmyra to the Damascus-Homs highway. ISIS will likely continue to launch attacks outside its core areas of control in Iraq and Syria in order to divert Iraqi security forces and to set conditions for greater involvement in the Syrian Civil War, respectively.