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.
ISIS has established a stable territorial base in the mountainous regions of the Central Syrian Desert and has begun to overtake pro-Assad regime forces in the area. ISIS is waging a coordinated campaign to draw pro-regime forces into an untenable security posture in defense of energy and oil assets threatened by ISIS. Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers have attempted to contain ISIS’s insurgency but are unwilling to commit force at the scale necessary to succeed. ISIS is already using its territorial base to destabilize other parts of Syria. ISIS could attempt to seize new territory or financial assets in central Syria during its Ramadan campaign beginning in April 2021.
Russia may deploy conventional ground forces to Syria to gain leverage in negotiations with Turkey and possibly participate in a pro-Assad regime offensive. Russia and Turkey are pressing one another for concessions in negotiations concerning opposition-held Idlib Province. A Russian conventional military deployment remains unlikely, but various indicators have tripped in the past few weeks suggesting that Moscow could be preparing for one. Such a deployment would mark an inflection in Russia’s participation in Syria and an escalation in the conflict between Russia and Turkey.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US partner force in Syria, plans to release up to 25,000 Syrian women and children from the al Hawl internally displaced persons camp. The al Hawl camp absorbed an overwhelming wave of internally displaced persons and combatants after the SDF seized the last ISIS physical stronghold in Baghuz in March 2019. The camp’s horrendous conditions presented a humanitarian and security challenge for the SDF, the United States, and the international community. The mass release of these displaced persons risks providing new opportunities to ISIS by dispersing a vulnerable population into areas where ISIS is active. ISIS will capitalize on the mass release of Syrians to increase recruitment efforts and intimidation campaigns against these returnees, who may also face retributive violence within their own communities. The SDF is not adequately resourced to monitor or protect returnees unless the United States and the international community increase their support.
Key Takeaway: Events since ISW assessed that Turkey and Russia may have reached a deal on September 16 indicate negotiations faltered. Turkish forces are reinforcing their military positions in opposition-held Idlib as means of exerting pressure on Russia in order to obtain a favorable negotiated settlement. Turkey and Russia will likely continue to escalate while avoiding direct military confrontation in an attempt to gain leverage in future negotiations.
Key Takeaway: Pro-regime actors may be preparing for an offensive in Greater Idlib Province. Russia and the regime have recently increased their bombardment and infiltration attempts in the Jabal Zawiya and Sahl al-Ghab areas. Russia is diplomatically pressuring Turkey to fulfill its commitments to counterterrorism likely to justify a pro-regime offensive against areas primarily controlled by al Qaeda-aligned factions if Turkey does not conduct operations against these groups. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, an al Qaeda-linked faction, is likely attempting to brand itself as moderate by conducting anti-ISIS operations to weaken the Russian narrative that terrorist organizations control Idlib Province and potentially to secure the support of Turkey in repelling a pro-regime offensive.
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.