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.
Since 2014, ISW has been tracking Jabhat al- Nusra, the official al- Qaeda affiliate in Syria. ISW believes that Jabhat al- Nusra poses one of the most significant long-term threats of any Salafi- jihadi group. ISW recognizes ISIS and al Qaeda are Salafi- jihadi military organizations with distinct sources of strength and maintains that U.S. strategy must operate against both ISIS and Jabhat al- Nusra simultaneously. Focusing on an "ISIS first" strategy will result in Nusra continuing to grow stronger.
ISW has produced nearly 60 maps on Russian airstrikes in Syria since they first began on September 30, 2015. The first map appeared less than 24 hours after the Russians began strikes and they continue today as do the strikes despite a declared "cessation of hostilities" and an alleged Russian withdrawal.
Russia continues to pressure the U.S. and regional actors into closer cooperation through its military intervention in Syria. Russia ultimately seeks to supplant the U.S. as a security guarantor in the Middle East and has used its air campaign in Syria to galvanize its demands for greater coordination in the theater.
ISIS currently faces an unprecedented threat to its core terrain in Northern Syria from an array of competing actors. Nonetheless, the degrading position of ISIS in Northern Syria is poised to ignite further conflict. The terrain vacated by ISIS will likely host renewed competition between Syrian Kurds, opposition groups, and pro-regime forces as well as a geopolitical struggle involving Turkey, Syria, Russia, and the U.S. These conflicts could stall further progress against ISIS in Syria.
The tempo of Russian air operations has dramatically escalated in Syria. The rate and breadth of Russian airstrikes nearly tripled from May 29 – June 2 in comparison to the previous five day period. ISW was able to assess a total of 29 Russian airstrikes with low and high confidence beginning on May 29 and only 10 locations from May 24 -28.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has mounted a major offensive against opposition groups in Northern Aleppo Province, threatening the total collapse of the last pocket of opposition-held terrain along the Syrian-Turkish Border. The looming defeat of the opposition on the Mare'a Line poses a significant risk to the long-term success of the anti-ISIS campaign by foreclosing future partnership with Sunni Arabs in Northern Syria and deepening U.S. overreliance on the Syrian Kurdish YPG