The Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project conducted an intensive multi-week exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. This first report examines America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to ISIS and al Qaeda and considers the nature of those enemy groups in depth and in their global context.
The Syrian regime and its allies launched a major, multi-pronged offensive in Aleppo Province on October 15 in order to bolster the regime's foothold in Aleppo City. Both Russia and Iran likely aim to enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reassert control over Syria’s largest city given the heavy involvement of their military forces in these operations.
Russia is scaling up pressure against US forces in eastern Syria. Russia invigorated its effort to provoke fractures within the US local partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in early August through information operations tailored to sow doubt about the SDF’s reliability and the United States’ commitment to Syria. Russia and other pro-regime actors simultaneously scaled up a campaign of harassment of US forces, including rocket attacks on facilities housing US forces and a confrontation with a US patrol on August 25 that concussed four US soldiers. These incidents could indicate that Russia is using kinetic activity to bolster the effect of its information operations in accordance with emerging Russian hybrid warfare doctrine, which ISW will examine in depth in a forthcoming report. The intended target of Russia’s information operation, local tribal elements loosely aligned with the SDF, could perceive the United States’ inability to prevent such attacks as a sign of weakness. In one of the most dangerous scenarios, Russia may further escalate kinetically to provoke a crisis that causes local tribal elements to desert the SDF with the eventual objective of forcing US policymakers to reconsider the US commitment to Syria.
Mounting internal and external pressures threaten the stability and territorial integrity of opposition-held Idlib Province, where nearly 1 million internally displaced persons are concentrated without access to basic necessities. The Assad regime and Russia are deliberately exacerbating the mounting humanitarian crisis in Idlib and applying renewed military pressure as COVID-19 cases surge in the province. Rising tensions between jihadist groups in Idlib are driving further instability. These circumstances could enable pro-regime advances in the coming months by weakening anti-Assad forces.
US and Russian forces are engaged in a competition for influence and control of the major roads in northeast Syria, threatening the safety of US personnel. Russia seeks to expand its presence toward the Syria-Iraq border in the far northeast corner of Hasakah Province to cut off key US ground supply lines between Iraq and Syria. US and Russian forces routinely disrupt each other’s patrols, leading to confrontations and risking escalation between the forces. A recent confrontation in the far northeast corner of Hasakah Province resulted in several US injuries after US and Russian vehicles collided. Russian helicopters also flew over US vehicles in an attempt to disperse them. Russia will continue its efforts to pressure the US presence through confrontations like these, while also threatening the security of US ground supply lines connecting US forces in Syria to Iraq.
Major tribal leaders in eastern Syria may break away from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which would severely jeopardize the anti-ISIS mission by fracturing the US partner force in Syria. Leaders of the largest Arab tribal confederation in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zour Province have demanded that the SDF yield administrative control of that province to local tribal leadership before September 11, 2020. Tribal animosity toward the SDF has been building since mid-2019 due to the combined pressures of overlapping ISIS and pro-regime insurgencies as well as the SDF’s weak and under-resourced governance. The continued presence of SDF and coalition forces in Deir ez-Zour could become untenable if the SDF fails to find a compromise with increasingly fractured tribal elements.
Russia and a group of reconciled former opposition fighters under its patronage are taking advantage of growing anti-Assad and anti-Iran sentiment to forcibly expand their influence in southern Syria independent of the regime in Damascus. A prominent Russian-backed former opposition commander announced the formation of a new “army” that plans to centralize forces across much of the province under his control. A newly established Russian-backed political body will likely parallel this new force. The creation of this new army and political body will likely increase Russian influence and could threaten the ability of the Assad regime and Iran to impose their will in this key region bordering US allies Israel and Jordan.
The ceasefire in Greater Idlib remains tenuous. Recent force disposition indicates that the Syrian Regime is preparing for a renewed offensive in Southern Idlib Province should the ceasefire break down, but both the timing and likelihood of the offensive’s success remain uncertain and conditions dependent. A renewed regime offensive will require Russian support to sustainably seize territory from anti-Assad forces. However, Russian support will likely be contingent on a new negotiated agreement between Russia and Turkey, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay such negotiations. The Syrian regime may attempt an offensive without Russian support despite the likelihood that it will be unsuccessful. Any regime offensive, whether Russian-backed or unilateral, will exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Greater Idlib.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed roughly a division (over 20,000 soldiers) to Greater Idlib Province between February 1 and March 31, 2020. This map provides a partial assessment of which types of units Turkey deployed to each location based on publicly available information.
The U.S. has an opportunity in Idlib to exploit the largest rift between Turkey and Russia in Syria to date while addressing a grave and dangerous humanitarian crisis, which will worsen in coming months without a robust international response. Turkey’s intervention in Idlib Province changed the military balance in northwest Syria and created an opportunity for the U.S. and Europe to engage at relatively low cost.