Tag Archives: Syria

Spotlight on Iran

July 16 – 30, 2017 Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt
Qasem Soleimani speaking at the Imam Hossein University (Mehr, July 19, 2017).

Qasem Soleimani speaking at the Imam Hossein University (Mehr, July 19, 2017).

Ansari (left) meets with the Syrian president (Fars, July 20, 2017).

Ansari (left) meets with the Syrian president (Fars, July 20, 2017).

 The Iranian ambassador to Iraq (left) meets with the prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government (IRNA, July 17, 2017).

The Iranian ambassador to Iraq (left) meets with the prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government (IRNA, July 17, 2017).

Shamkhani meets with the PUK delegation (ISNA, July 17, 2017).

Shamkhani meets with the PUK delegation (ISNA, July 17, 2017).

The Iraqi (left) and Iranian ministers of defense (Asr-e Iran, July 23, 2017).

The Iraqi (left) and Iranian ministers of defense (Asr-e Iran, July 23, 2017).

Hossein Amir Abdollahian meets with Khaled Qaddoumi, Hamas representative in Tehran (Mehr, July 23, 2017).

Hossein Amir Abdollahian meets with Khaled Qaddoumi, Hamas representative in Tehran (Mehr, July 23, 2017).

Overview
  • Iran continues to react with restraint regarding the ceasefire in southern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia. The Iranian deputy foreign minister, who met with President Putin's special envoy for Syrian affairs, said the Iranian presence was upon the request of the Syrian government, and would not be affected by the Russian-American agreement..
  • Iran has increased pressure on the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq to prevent the referendum on regional independence scheduled for the coming September. Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, said holding the referendum would be unacceptable to the countries neighboring on Iraq. Similar themes were heard at a meeting of the Iranian ambassador to Iraq and the prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government, as well as at meetings of senior Iranian officials and a delegation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) visiting Tehran. The pressure was a reflection of the Iranian regime's strong objection to a referendum which might, in Iranian opinion, endanger Iraq's territorial integrity, undermine Iran's efforts to reinforce its influence in Iraq and strengthen separatist trends in Iran's own Kurdish minority.
  • Given the tension on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the Iranian regime issued an announcement condemning Israel's actions in Jerusalem. The secretary general of the International Committee in Support of the Palestinian Intifada, who is also special advisor to the speaker of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament), called for the international and Islamic communities to respond immediately to "the crimes of the Zionist regime," and said Iran was prepared to send medical help to wounded Palestinians. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) also issued a condemnation and called for support of the Palestinian "

 

General Information
  • Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, gave a speech at the Imam Hossein University in Tehran where he called the Syrian government the "bridge to the 'resistance front' in Lebanon and Palestine." Every rational person, he said, had to understand that defeat in the war in Syria meant defeat for Iran. He added that the United States and Israel imagined they could bring Iran to its knees by establishing ISIS, but their plan was foiled by Iraq's victory, won by virtue of high ranking Iraqi clerics, the Shi'ite popular militias and the Iraqi army (Mehr, July 18, 2017).
Iranian Intervention in Syria
  •  Hossein Jaberi Ansari, deputy foreign minister for Arab-African affairs, said Iran's presence in Syria did not depend on the agreement brokered by the United States and Russia. After meeting with Alexander Lavrentiev, President Putin's special envoy for Syrian affairs, Ansari said Iran maintained a limited presence in Syria upon the request of the Syrian government and bilateral Syrian-Iranian agreements. The Russian-American agreement, he said, would have no effective practical effect on the presence of Iranian forces in Syria (Fars, July 17, 2017).
  •  On July 19 and 20, 2017, Hossein Jaberi Ansari paid a visit to Syria, where he met with senior Syrian officials and leaders of the Palestinian factions in Damascus. Meeting with President Assad, he stressed Iran's ongoing support for restoring stability to Syria based on preserving its unity and territorial integrity. Assad thanked Iran for its support. Ansari also met with Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis and with Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem. They discussed regional developments and bilateral relations (Fars and Mehr, July 19 and 20, 2017). From Syria Ansari went to Iraq, where he met with senior Iraqi officials and participated in deliberations held by the joint Iran-Iraq political committee. Meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Ansari stressed that Iran would also continue its support for Iraq after the victory over ISIS in Mosul (ISNA, July 23, 2017).
Iranian Intervention in Iraq
  •  At a conference of IRGC ground force commanders held in the city of Mashhad on July 17, 2017, Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, said the planned referendum for the future of Iraqi Kurdistan was unacceptable to Iraq's neighbors and that preserving Iraq's unity and territorial integrity served the interests of all groups in Iraq (Fars, July 17, 2017).
  •  Nechervan Barzani prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government, meeting with Iraj Masjedi, the Iran ambassador to Iraq, said Iran played an important role in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. He said Iran could help by reducing the tension between the central government in Baghdad and the authorities of the Kurdish region. Masjedi stressed the importance of promoting relations between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, saying Iran was prepared to help Baghdad and Erbil resolve their differences (IRNA, July 17, 2017).
  •  On July 17, 2017, a delegation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Kosrat Rasoul Ali, the deputy secretary general of the PUK, and Mala Bakhtiar, head of the executive body of its political bureau, met with Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, and discussed developments in Iraqi Kurdistan and the region in general in the wake of the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. Shamkhani reiterated Iran's official position, which rejected holding a referendum regarding independence for the Kurdish region. He said it would lead to the isolation of the Kurds in Iraq, increase pressure on them, and weaken both Kurdistan and all of Iraq (Tasnim, July 17, 2017).
  •  On July 22, 2017, Iraqi Defense Minister Irfan al-Hayali arrived in Tehran for a visit at the invitation of Iran's Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan. While he was there a memorandum of understanding was signed for the increase of bilateral security cooperation. At a meeting of the two defense ministers, Dehqan said Iran and Iraq were united in the fight against regional terrorism, and that Iran would continue its support of Iraq after the victory over ISIS in Mosul (IRNA, July 22, 2017). Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, warned al-Hayali against "plots" and efforts for separatism intended to damage Iraq's territorial integrity and security, and to undermine its stability (Fars, July 23, 2017).
Iranian Intervention in the Palestinian Arena
  •  Reacting to the tension on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, special international affairs advisor to the speaker of the Majlis, called for an immediate, serious response from the international and Islamic communities to "the crimes of the Zionist regime." He said the demonstrations held by the Palestinians proved the Palestinian people were no longer willing to suffer the crimes carried out by the Zionists, and that limiting the entrance to al-Aqsa mosque would lead to a new intifada. He said Iran condemned the "Zionist crimes" and supported the Palestinian people and their resistance to the Zionists (Mehr, July 23, 2017). In the wake of the deteriorating situation in Jerusalem, Abdollahian, who is also the secretary general of the International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Intifada, met with Khaled Qaddoumi, Hamas representative in Tehran, and Nasser Abu-Sharif, Palestinian Islamic Jihad representative in Tehran. He told them Iran was prepared to send drugs and medical equipment for Palestinians who had been injured in clashes with the IDF in Jerusalem (Mehr, July 23 and 24, 2017).
  • Bahram Qasemi, spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, also condemned Israel's actions in Jerusalem, saying the UN had to act with determination to counteract the "Zionist regime's" policies of "racist, religious discrimination" (Fars, July 23, 2017).
  •  On July 24, 2017, the IRGC published a statement regarding the escalating crisis in Jerusalem. It condemned the "Zionist regime's attack on al-Aqsa mosque," the limitations Israel placed on Palestinians wanting to pray in the mosque, and the silence of the international community and leaders of some of the Arab states regarding "Zionist crimes." The IRGC warned that the consequences of Israel's actions would spread to those who have remained silent in Islamic countries and to those who pretend to protect human rights. It called for mobilization of support for "a new intifada" in Palestine and an Islamic resistance to the "Zionists" in order to keep Israel from carrying out its plans to Judaize Jerusalem. The IRGC stressed its support for jihad through the "liberation" of Jerusalem (Tasnim, July 24, 2017).
  • [*]Spotlight on Iran is an Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center bulletin illuminating Iran's activities to establish its influence in the Middle East and beyond. It is based on reports in the Iranian media and written for the ITIC by Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran's politics, society, foreign policy and social networks.

Spotlight on Global Jihad (July 20-26, 2017)

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Launching an anti-tank rocket at an SDF outpost in southwest Al-Raqqah.

Launching an anti-tank rocket at an SDF outpost in southwest Al-Raqqah.

ISIS operatives fire at the SDF forces on the outskirts of Al-Raqqah (Haqq, July 20, 2017)

ISIS operatives fire at the SDF forces on the outskirts of Al-Raqqah (Haqq, July 20, 2017)

ISIS operatives fighting against the Syrian forces in the area of Ithriya (Haqq, July 20, 2017)

ISIS operatives fighting against the Syrian forces in the area of Ithriya (Haqq, July 20, 2017)

The Bab Al-Hawa crossing (website of the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, July 25, 2017)

The Bab Al-Hawa crossing (website of the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, July 25, 2017)

Food warehouse in the Blue Factory compound near the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, which was set on fire by the Ahrar Al-Sham operatives before they had withdrawn, leaving the area for the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham operatives (Twitter account of Ibaa News Agency, July 21, 2017).

Food warehouse in the Blue Factory compound near the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, which was set on fire by the Ahrar Al-Sham operatives before they had withdrawn, leaving the area for the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham operatives (Twitter account of Ibaa News Agency, July 21, 2017).

Flag of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham flying in Idlib (Orient News, July 23, 2017).

Flag of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham flying in Idlib (Orient News, July 23, 2017).

The scene of the car bomb explosion in Idlib (Qasiyoun, July 24, 2017)

The scene of the car bomb explosion in Idlib (Qasiyoun, July 24, 2017)

Sheikh Abu al-Yakzan the Egyptian in the audiotape (GllMedia YouTube account, July 21, 2017)

Sheikh Abu al-Yakzan the Egyptian in the audiotape (GllMedia YouTube account, July 21, 2017)

: Gun mounted on a Hezbollah truck fires artillery at outposts of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the area of Arsal.

: Gun mounted on a Hezbollah truck fires artillery at outposts of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the area of Arsal.

Hezbollah operatives fighting in the Arsal area (Syrian Army Spokesperson’s Office; Al-Alam, July 24, 2017)

Hezbollah operatives fighting in the Arsal area (Syrian Army Spokesperson’s Office; Al-Alam, July 24, 2017)

Debris of a street in west Mosul.

Debris of a street in west Mosul.

Displaced residents return to their homes (Nineveh Information Center, July 22, 2017).

Displaced residents return to their homes (Nineveh Information Center, July 22, 2017).

ISIS operatives captured while attempting to flee Mosul, dressed in women’s clothes (Al-Aan Channel, July 23, 2017)

ISIS operatives captured while attempting to flee Mosul, dressed in women’s clothes (Al-Aan Channel, July 23, 2017)

Main events of the week

  • Following is an overview of the situation in Syria:
  • As part of the implementation of the de-escalation agreement, Russian military police arrived in southern Syria to serve as a separation force between the Syrian forces and the rebel organizations. In the meantime, an additional de-escalation agreement was reached in the area east of Damascus (eastern Ghouta).
  • In Al-Raqqah, fighting is proceeding slowly in view of ISIS’s persistent fighting. SDF forces are advancing slowly in the Old City but are still subject to attacks in neighborhoods that have ostensibly already been taken over.
  • In the Idlib area, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) has won a victory in the fighting against Ahrar al-Sham, the largest Islamic rebel organization. Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham operatives occupied two border crossings between Syria and Turkey and took control of the city of Idlib. Their victories position the Idlib area as the most significant territory under the control of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.This is liable to make it easier for Russia and the Syrian regime to exert massive pressure on it when the time comes (for the time being, other areas are strategic priorities for Syria and Russia).
  • In the Arsal ridges on the Lebanese-Syrian border, Hezbollah launched a campaign against the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. Hezbollah, which brought large-scale forces to the battle (some 5,000 fighters, according to the Lebanese media) recorded achievements and took over most of the areas that had been under the control of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. Hezbollah intends to continue mopping up the Lebanese-Syrian border towards the ISIS-controlled Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa ridges (north of Arsal).
  • Syrian forces continued to advance to the city of Sukhnah. In the ITIC’s assessment, this was done with the aim of proceeding towards Deir al-Zor, in the Euphrates Valley. Syrian forces under the command of Suheil Hassan are advancing to Sukhnah from Al-Rasafah (north of Sukhnah), while a Syrian force is advancing to the city from Palmyra (southeast of Sukhnah).
  • In Iraq, there is still no evidence of a significant Iraqi or international effort to rehabilitate the city of Mosul. The humanitarian situation in the city is difficult, especially in the western part. Meanwhile, there are clashes between ISIS and the Iraqi security forces in various parts of Iraq, at this stage at a low level of intensity. In the ITIC’s assessment, after a period of reorganization ISIS will intensify its attacks against Iraqi civilians (Shiites) and against the Iraqi security forces. Continuing difficulties in the rehabilitation of Mosul are also liable to increase support for ISIS among the Sunni Muslim population.

 

Russia and the United States

De-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria
  • The de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria, which went into effect on July 9, 2017, was maintained, with the exception of isolated violations on a daily basis. As part of the measures to implement the agreement, around 400 Russian MPs reportedly arrived in southern Syria and are staying in a base north of Daraa. The Russian MPs are supposed to serve as a separation force on the lines of contact between the Syrian forces and the rebel organizations. According to reports, the Russian separation force has already begun to patrol the area (Al-Arabiya al-Hadath, Orient, July 19, 2017).
  • At the same time, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that in the wake of the de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria, a de-escalation agreement had been reached in the area of eastern Ghouta (east of Damascus) as well. The agreement entered into effect on the afternoon of Saturday, July 22, 2017. The need for an agreement arose after recent clashes in the region between Syrian rebel groups and Islamist rebel groups, including the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). According to the agreement, the borders of the de-escalation zone will be determined and supervisory forces will be deployed in the area. In addition, routes were established to provide civilians with humanitarian aid and safe passage. According to the Russians, the first humanitarian aid convoy will be sent to the area in the next few days, and casualties will be evacuated (Russian Defense Ministry’s Facebook page, July 22, 2017).
  • Following are some Russian statements about the de-escalation agreements:
  • According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russians have managed to bring about an end to the hostilities between the Syrian government and the rebel groups (the so-called Patriotic Opposition) through talks with various parties. Thus, the Russians have enabled the Syrian forces to direct their efforts to fighting the terrorists. According to Lavrov, the Syrian government did not prevent Russia from taking this course of action, out of a general understanding that“the first priority is fighting against ISIS” (Russian Foreign Ministry website, July 21, 2017).
  • A senior Russian Foreign Ministry source told Izvestia that Washington had tried to protect Israeli interestsduring its consultations with Russia on the establishment of the de-escalation zone (in southwestern Syria). According to the same source, the main objective of the talks was to prevent the establishment of a Shiite foothold in the Syrian Golan Heights. The source added that Washington was also interested in preventing the transfer of weapons and ammunition along the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Beirut route (TASS News Agency, July 21, 2017).
  • A Russian military-diplomatic source told Izvestia that during the consultations between Russia, the United States and the Jordanian army, an agreement was reached regarding a de-escalation zone on the Syrian-Jordanian border. According to the agreement, all non-Syrian units would withdraw to a distance of 30 km from of the Syrian-Jordanian border. The non-Syrian units include Iraqi militias, Hezbollah, Iranian military personnel, and foreign fighters from several other countries (TASS News Agency, July 21, 2017).
Articles in the US media about the strategy towards ISIS
  • Following are the highlights of two articles published in the American media about the US strategy towards ISIS and towards US involvement in Syria:
  • The Daily Beast, an American news website, published an article revealing unclassified portions of a classified “strategy document” presenting the current strategy of the United States towards ISIS. According to the article, the current strategy is reminiscent of the policy adopted by the Obama administration, and the difference between them is “purely linguistic.” According to the article, the strategy preserves the policy of operating in conjunction with local allies. Some of goals that were set: to protect the U.S. homeland and Americans from ISIS attacks; defeat ISIS’s core in Iraq and Syria; degrade its branches globally; disrupt its networks; and neutralize its narrative. The American strategy now focuses on the presence of ISIS in Syria, and only as a secondary goal does it deal with ISIS’s branches in countries such as Libya and Afghanistan (The Daily Beast, July 18, 2017).
  • The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration had announced the end of the “covert program” led by the CIA to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. According to senior government officials, the decision was made about a month ago after President Trump consulted with the head of the CIA and with his national security advisor. After the termination of the program, US involvement in Syria will consist of carrying out airstrikes against ISIS and supplying weapons and arms to the Kurdish rebel force, which is advancing towards ISIS’s strongholds in Al-Raqqah and along the Euphrates River. It is estimated that this decision reflects President Trump’s desire to find ways to expand cooperation with Russia in Syria (The Washington Post, July 19, 2017).  The spokesmen for the National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment on the report.

Main developments in Syria

The campaign to take over Al-Raqqah
  • Fighting continues in Al-Raqqah between the SDF forces, with USand Coalition air support, and ISIS operatives. The SDF forces advance slowly in view ofthe attacks by ISIS, which continues to fight fiercely. This week, the fighting focused on the neighborhood of Al-Yarmouk, on the outskirts of southwest Al-Raqqah, and on two neighborhoods in the northwestern part of the city. The fighting to take over the Old City continued. The SDF forces reportedly took over 50% of its territory (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 22, 2017).

 

Mopping up the rural area northeast of Homs
  • Near the town of Ithriya and in the rural area northeast of Homs, there were clashes between the forces of the Syrian regime and militias supporting it, and ISIS. In an attack by ISIS against the Syrian forces east of Ithriya, Jawdat Ali Suleiman, a Syrian Army officer in the rank of Amid (Brigadier General), was reportedly killed (Twitter, July 22, 2017). There were also clashes in the area of Salamiyah, northeast of Homs.
The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham establishes its presence in the Idlib area
  • In the Idlib area, there were battles between operatives of Ahrar Al-Sham (the largest Islamic rebel organization) and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front).[1] The battles focused on the area of the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, north of Idlib, which until recently had been held by Ahrar Al-Sham. The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham drove Ahrar Al-Sham operatives out of the crossing, and the Turkish government closed it. On July 23, 2017, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham managed to take control of Idlib after the Ahrar Al-Sham operatives had withdrawn. According to a high-ranking source in the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, the organization intends to reinstate civilian administrationin Idlib in the next few days (Dimashq Al-Aan, July 24, 2017).

 

  • During the fighting, the Ahrar Al-Sham operatives lost control of the compound near the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, and their operatives in the area turned themselves in to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham(Khotwa, July 20, 2017). Following that, it was reported that an agreement had been reached to hand over the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing to the civilian authorities (Khotwa, July 20, 2017). Under the agreement, Ahrar Al-Sham evacuated its operatives from the border crossing. The Syrian media reported that 450 Ahrar Al-Sham operatives were transferred, through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, to the city of Jarabulus (Dimashq Al-Aan, July 24, 2017)[2].
  • On July 23, 2017, operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham took control of the unofficial border crossing of KhirbatAl-Joz, about 40 km west of Idlib. This border crossing was previously mannedby Ahrar Al-Sham operatives, who retreated from it (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 24, 2017). Following these incidents, the Turkish government closed the Bab Al-Hawa and Khirbat Al-Jozborder crossings (Al-Jisr Channel, July 24, 2017).
  • On July 23, 2017, a car bomb exploded in Idlib. As a result, over 15 civilians and operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham were killed and wounded. Many vehicles were burned, and buildings at the scene sustained heavy damage. The car bomb exploded at a staging area of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the city (Qasiyoun, July 24, 2017). On July 24, 2017, two people accused of being involved in the car bomb attack in Idlib were executed (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 25, 2017).
  • In view ofthe fighting in the area, an audiotape was releasedin the voice of Sheikh Mohammad Naji (Abu al-Yakzan al-Masri, i.e., the Egyptian), one of the senior clerics in the military wing of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. Sheikh Mohammad Naji says in the tape that in accordance with the decision of Hashem al-Sheikh(Abu Jaber), commander of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, killing the operatives of Ahrar Al-Sham is permitted. In his words, “If [the operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham] can receive from [the operatives of Ahrar Al-Sham] the control in the checkpoints only by killing them, then they should shoot them in the head” (Haqq, July 22, 2017; Andrew Cox YouTube account, July 21, 2017; GllMedia YouTube account, July 21, 2017).
  • In recent weeks, we have witnessed violent power struggles on the control of the Idlib area, where the main military power of the rebel organizations is concentrated(including local forceswhich were transferred there from other fighting zones, based on agreements with the Syrian regime). At this stage, it seems that the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham(a coalition led by operatives of the former Al-Nusra Front) is consolidating its presence in the areaand the other rebel organizations, mainly Ahrar Al-Sham, are becoming weaker. In the first stage, which began in the previous weeks, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham conducted a large-scale military operation against ISIS operatives in the Idlib area, which had ended successfully (many ISIS operatives were killed or detained). The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham now continues its military activity against the organization of Ahrar Al-Sham, which enjoys Turkish support. At this stage, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham enjoys successes in the Idlib area (in contrast to its setbacks in the other arenas, including the Arsal area, on the border between Lebanon and Syria, see below).
  • In the ITIC's assessment, if the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham succeeds in enforcing its rule over the other rebel organizations and consolidating its dominance in the Idlib area, this may eventually be a Pyrrhic victory.For this area will clearly become the most significant area controlled by the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria, and because of this the Syrian regime and Russia are liable to find it easier to concentrate massive military pressure against it when the time comes (today, there are other areas at the top of the strategic priority list of the Syrian regime and Russia, including the Damascus area, Deir ez-Zor and the area of the Syrian-Iraqi border, southern Syria, and the area of the Syrian-Lebanese border).

 

Palmyra area
  • During the passing week,the Syrian forces under Suheil Hassan’s command continued to advance towards the city of Sukhnah from the north. The Syrian troops are reportedly at a distance of about 10 km from the city, which is held by ISIS. The Syrian forces reportedly advance to Sukhnah from Rasafahand intend to encircle ISIS operatives in the area west of Sukhnah (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 15, 2017). This military effort is carried out at the same time with an effort from Palmyra, southeast of SukhnahThe takeover of Sukhnah will prepare the ground for the continued advance of the Syrian forces towards Deir ez-Zor.

 

  • In the meantime, fighting continues in the area of the Aarak and Al-Hail oil and gas fields (northeast of Palmyra). ISIS released a video showing its operatives firing artillery at a Syrian Army tent camp east of the Aarak oil and gas field. The video shows direct hits (Haqq, July 22, 2017).
Hezbollah campaign to mop up the ridges dominating Arsal
  • On July 21, 2017, Hezbollah launched a large-scale campaign against the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). The attack is carried out in the border area between Lebanon and Syria (the Qalamoun Mountains) and focuses on the ridges dominating the town of Arsal, in the northern Bekaa Valley. So far, Hezbollah has had achievements, and most of the territories held by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham were taken over by Hezbollah (without significant resistance by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham).

 

  • Hezbollah asserts that the campaign is being waged to defend the eastern border of Lebanon. According to Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy secretary general of Hezbollah, the campaign in the ridges of Arsal represents defense of the eastern border of Lebanon and is part of a sequence of attacks that began in the liberation of [the southern] Qalamoun [Mountains] (the border between Syria and Lebanon, northwest of Damascus) and continued in the liberation of Zabadani, northwest of Damascus (Al-Ahed, July 22, 2017).According to estimates, Hezbollah assigned about 5,000 fighters to the campaign. The Lebanese Army did not participate in the fighting, but the attack was carried out in coordination with it. The Lebanese Army closed all the crossings leading tothe town of Arsal to prevent terrorist operatives from fleeing to Lebanon (Al-Nashra, July 21, 2017).
  • After several days of fighting, Hezbollah seems to record successes in the campaign. According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Mayadeen affiliated with Hezbollah, Hezbollah has managed to liberate about 90% of the territories controlled by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (Al-Mayadeen, July 23, 2017). Operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham fled towards the contact lines of the area held by ISIS (Al-Nashra, July 24, 2017). Among the fleeing operatives was Abu Talha al-Ansari, a senior commander in the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham who fled together with thirty of his men (Al-Nashra, July 23, 2017).
  • Hezbollah reportedly uses drones in the fighting:The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that it had downed a Hezbollah drone on the western Qalamoun ridge (Khotwa News Agency, July 25, 2017). The Syrian media reported that the Hezbollah forces encircled the positions of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham in the Arsal ridges and took control of key areas along the supply line between Syria and the Arsal ridges (Syrian Army Spokesperson’s Office, July 23, 2017).
  • The Syrian and Lebanese media reported that Hezbollah decided to end the campaign by a decisive military victory, with no negotiations. Hezbollah operations headquarters reported that the campaign was close to its end and called on the armed operatives that remained in the Arsal ridges to lay down their arms and turn themselves in. At the same time, Hezbollah began preparations for press tours in the liberated areas. Later, Hezbollah intends to attack the areas controlled by ISIS in the ridges of Ras Baalbek and Al-Qaa (north of Arsal). Hezbollah expects the fighting in these areas to be easier since ISIS’s power is inferior to that of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (Al-Jumhuriya, July 25, 2017).

Main developments in Iraq

The situation in Mosul after its liberation
  • More than two weeks after the end of the campaign to liberate Mosul, no significant effort, either Iraqi or international, to rehabilitate the city and address its humanitarian predicament is evident. The humanitarian situation in Mosul is grave, especially in the western part of the city, which has been completely destroyed and there are neither infrastructuresnor any basic living conditions for the inhabitants. For the time being, residents of west Mosul, gradually returning there, try to find housing solutions in the eastern part. As the city bridges have been destroyed, moving between the two sides of the city is possible only by pontoon bridges set up by the Iraqi security forces (Nineveh Information Center, July 22, 2017).

 

  • Since the rehabilitation of Mosul has not begun yet, the Iraqi activity is currently focused on the attempt to raise funds from the international community for its rehabilitation. According to the announcement of Iranian Industry Minister Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh, Iran is ready to assist the Iraqi government to repair the water and electricity infrastructures and assist in the construction of public buildings (Al-Mayadeen, July 16, 2017). Germany announced that it would allocate €100 million for the rehabilitation of the city (Al-Aan Channel, July 25, 2017). Turkey expressed its willingness to assist in rebuilding the city without mentioning specifics (Al-Alam, July 20, 2017).
  • ISIS’s propaganda machine continues to present ISIS’s defeat in Mosul as an achievement. This week as well, ISIS released an infographic glorifying its achievements in the fighting against the Iraqi security forces. According to the infographic, during the nine months of fighting, over 11,700 fighters of the Iraqi security forces were killed, and more than 50,000 fighters were wounded (Haqq, July 22, 2017).
Fighting in other areas in Iraq
  • Even after the liberation of Mosul, fighting continued in various sites in Iraq, albeit at low intensity:
  • The environs of Mosul: Iraqi police announced that the Iraqi forces had taken over the village of Imam Gharbi, about 70 km south of Mosul, which was under ISIS control (Reuters, July 20, 2017).
  • Tal Afar: The Iraqi Air Force attacked ISIS’s ammunition depots west of Tal Afar (Al-Sumaria, July 22, 2017). An Iraqi Army officer reported that four Popular Mobilization fighters were killed and another was wounded in an attack carried out by dozens of ISIS operatives against a Popular Mobilization outpost near Tal Afar in northern Iraq (Anatolia, July 18, 2017).
  • Fallujah: A car bomb exploded at the western entrance to the city of Fallujah. At least three members of the Iraqi security forces were killed (Al-Sumaria, July 24, 2017).

Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula

The Sinai Peninsula
  • In the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian security forces’ activity against ISIS operatives continues. The Egyptian security forces reported that during their activity in North Sinai, thirty ISIS operatives were killed and five others were detained in Al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah. In addition, twelve off-road vehicles and four car bombs were destroyed, thirty IEDs planted on roads used by the Egyptian security forces were exposed and neutralized, and four depots of powerful explosives were destroyed (official Facebook account of the Spokesman of the Egyptian Armed Forces, July 21, 2017).

ISIS in other countries

The Philippines
  • Confrontations between ISIS operatives and Philippine Army forces continue in the city of Marawi, Mindanao Island, southern Philippines. ISIS announced that its snipers had killed six Philippine Army soldiers. Five additional soldiers were killed and four were wounded in clashes between the parties (Haqq, July 22, 2017). ISIS released a video showing the organization operatives fighting in Marawi (Haqq; Twitter account, July 20, 2017).
 

[1]The Ahrar Al-Sham movement was established in the beginning of the civil war in Syria, following the unification of several Islamic rebel organizations. The center of power of this organization is in the Idlib area, and therefore it competes there over control with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. Until recently, the organization controlled the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, which was a source of revenue and through which weapons were transferred to it.
[2]Jarabulus is situated near the Syrian-Turkish border, in the Turkish control zone west of the Euphrates River.

Iran’s interests and intent in Iraq and Syria reflected in statements by senior commanders of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the umbrella organization of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq handled by the Iranian Qods Force

Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the umbrella organization for the Shi'ite militias operating in Iraq, at a conference of the Union of Radio and Television in Mashhad, Iran (Sawt al-Ahwaz, July 2, 2017).

Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the umbrella organization for the Shi'ite militias operating in Iraq, at a conference of the Union of Radio and Television in Mashhad, Iran (Sawt al-Ahwaz, July 2, 2017).

The Popular Mobilization Committee logo. Its name is at the center, topped with

The Popular Mobilization Committee logo. Its name is at the center, topped with "Allahu akbar." Left and right are Iraqi flags inscribed "Republic of Iraq" (Popular Mobilization Committee website, July 10, 2017).

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) and Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force (left) in picture taken in eastern Iraq (Tehran Press, March 8, 2015).

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) and Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force (left) in picture taken in eastern Iraq (Tehran Press, March 8, 2015).

Overview

1.   Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Committee, the umbrella organization of the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, recently gave a speech at a conference in Mashhad, Iran. It deal with the trends the militias would take after the liberation of Mosul. Other Popular Mobilization Committee commanders have also made comments in recent months about the Shi'ite militias in the Middle East in general and Iraq and Syria in particular. In ITIC assessment they reflect the interests and intent of Iran, which handles the Popular Mobilization Committee according to its own local and regional interests (for the main points of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' speech at the conference, see Appendix A).

Statements made by Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis and other senior figures in the Popular Mobilization Committee indicate that Iran's interests in Iraq center on increasing Iranian influence, strengthening the Shi'ite sect, expelling American and Western influence, establishing Iranian influence along the Iraqi-Syrian border and opening an overland logistic route from Tehran via Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. Their statements also indicate the possibility of deploying Shi'ite militias in the Golan Heights, when circumstances become suitable. In all probability, following the liberation of Mosul, the Popular Mobilization Committee in Iraq will serve as an important Iranian proxy to promote its interests in Iraq and Syria, seriously challenging the United States and the pro-Western Arab states.

 

The Popular Mobilization Committee

2.   The Popular Mobilization Committee is an umbrella organization composed of about 40 Shi'ite militias operating in Iraq and sponsored by Iran. It was established in June 2014 when Mosul was occupied by ISIS, which was the high point of its achievements in Iraq, and posed a imminent danger to Baghdad. The Popular Mobilization Committee is based mainly on Shi'ite militias sponsored by Iran that in the past fought the American-led coalition in Iraq. Some of its commanders have extensive combat experience. In recent years the militias (whose strength has grown significantly) participated in the campaign against ISIS, directed by Iran and under the formal jurisdiction of the supreme command of the Iraqi army (for a profile of the Popular Mobilization Committee, see Appendix C).

3.   One of the Popular Mobilization Committee's prominent commanders is Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, second in command to its commander, Falih al-Fayyadh. In 1983 al-Muhandis was involved in a series of terrorist attacks in Kuwait, among them attacks on the American and French embassies, acting as a an Iranian proxy in the service of Hezbollah in Lebanon. During the war in Iraq against the American-led coalition forces he headed a Shi'ite militia called the Hezbollah Battalions, which waged warfare and was handled by the Iranian Qods Force. In ITIC assessment, today Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is the dominant military personality in the Popular Mobilization Committee, while Falih al-Fayyadh, the commander, is a figurehead (for a profile of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, see Appendix B).

Insights gained from a speech given by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and statements by other senior Popular Mobilization Committee figures

4.   Various insights can be gained from a speech given by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and from statements made by other senior figures in the Popular Mobilization Committee. The insights relate to Iran's efforts to achieve influence in Iran and the Popular Mobilization Committee's role as a favored Iranian proxy organization:

A.   In Iranian perspective, the liberation of Mosul is likely to hasten the struggle with the United States for influence in Iraq. Iran aspires to advance its interests in Iraq and turn it, eventually, into a state sponsored by Iran, part of the so-called "Shi'ite crescent" which would include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen[1]. At the same time, Iran also seeks to reduce American influence in Iraq, which increased during the campaign against ISIS, especially in the fighting in Mosul.

B.   The importance of the Popular Mobilization Committee: The Popular Mobilization Committee is Iran's favored proxy in Iraq(comparable to Hezbollah in Lebanon). The Iranian Qods Force has many years of practical experience in directing the Shi'ite militias fight against the American army. Some of the top commanders of the Shi'ite militias were in the past, and in ITIC assessment, are still being handled directly by the Qods Force(despite the formal link between the Popular Mobilization Committee and the Iraqi regime). Evident in Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' speech was his determined rejection (supported by Iran) to any attempt the Iraqi government might attempt to dismantle the Popular Mobilization Committee.

C.  The significance of the Popular Mobilization Committee's growing strength: The existence and growth of the Shi'ite militias, well-armed and supported by Iran, may have a negative influence on the stability of Iraq's political and societal systems. The existence of Shi'ite militias with political influence and directed by Iran will pose a challenge to the Iraqi Sunnis and weaken the central Shi'ite government in Baghdad. The strengthening of the Shi'ites in Iraq with Iranian support is liable tocause a groundswell of Sunni unrest and push the Sunnis to support terrorist and guerilla organizations, including ISIS, even during the era after the liberation of Mosul.

5.   As to continuing the fight against ISIS, the following military insights can be gained from Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' speech:

A.   For Iran, importance of influence and control along the Iraqi-Syrian border: According to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' speech, Iran regards control of both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border as important, and views the Popular Mobilization Committee militias as the military force that will clear the border area of ISIS and promote Iranian interests. According to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, about 150 kilometers (almost 95 miles) along the border have been "liberated" from ISIS. Thus it can be assumed that after the liberation of Mosul, Iran will increase its efforts to control the border using Popular Mobilization Committee forces. [2]

Convoy of Popular Mobilization Committee militias which reached the Iraq-Syria border at the end of May 2017 (Twitter account of the military information unit of the Popular Mobilization Committee, May 30, 2017).
Convoy of Popular Mobilization Committee militias which reached the Iraq-Syria border at the end of May 2017 (Twitter account of the military information unit of the Popular Mobilization Committee, May 30, 2017).

B.   Importance for Iran in opening the main road linking Baghdad and Damascus: A key Iranian interest, as reflected in Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' speech, is opening the road linking Baghdad and Damascus. Iran is probably planning to use it for overland movement from Tehran to Syria and Lebanon through Baghdad[Note: Events on the ground in recent months indicate that the Iranians and the Syrian regime are currently engaged in an intensive drive to open and secure the road from Damascus to Baghdad, and make it passable][3].

Using the Damascus-Baghdad road. Left: Trucks en route from Iraq to Syria. Right: Three trucks on their way from Syria to Iraq at the improvised border crossing opened on the Syrian-Iraqi border northeast of the al-Waleed crossing (called al-Tanf on the Syrian side) (Syria TV Channel 7, June 12, 2017).
Using the Damascus-Baghdad road. Left: Trucks en route from Iraq to Syria. Right: Three trucks on their way from Syria to Iraq at the improvised border crossing opened on the Syrian-Iraqi border northeast of the al-Waleed crossing (called al-Tanf on the Syrian side) (Syria TV Channel 7, June 12, 2017).

6.   The Israeli aspect:

A.   Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis ended his speech by saying that "if Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah asks the Popular Mobilization Committee to turn towards with Israel if a confrontation breaks out, the request will be complied with immediately and [the Popular Mobilization Committee] will be there [to support Hezbollah]" (Shabakat Nahrain, June 3, 2017). He did not specify which Israeli front Popular Mobilization Committee operatives would be deployed to, but he apparently meant the Golan Heights. [Note: On March 8, 2017, Akram al-Kaabi, who heads the Iraq Shi'ite militia called The Movement of the NobleOnes, announced his operatives had established a so-called Brigade for the Liberation of the Golan.[4]]

B.   Deploying pro-Iranian Shi'ite operatives on the Golan Heights front would, in ITIC assessment, serve Iran's interest in turning the Golan Heights into a confrontation front against Israel. Iranian proxies may be deployed there, such as Lebanese Hezbollah and the Shi'ite militias from Iraq, directed Iran.

 

[1]Qais al-Kh'azali, the Iraqi Shi'ite leader of the militia calling itself the "League of Righteous People," gave a speech on May 10, 2017, to his operatives. He talked about the Shi'ite vision of spreading throughout the Middle East. He said, "...if in the past people used to talk about the 'Shi'ite crescent,' with the help of Allah we will have a 'Shi'ite full moon.' We will have all the land, from east to west. With the help of Allah and with the spirit of the last Shi'ite imam, the deployment of our fighting forces will be completed: from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Ansar al-Allah (the Houthi rebels) in Yemen, to the holy mobilization [i.e., Popular Mobilization Committee] in Iraq and the brothers of al-Zeynab [i.e., the Shi'ite operatives defending the shrine of Set al-Zeynab south of Damascus], your brothers [in Syria]..." (al-Jazeera, Kanat al-Iraq, May 10, 2017).
[2]At the end of May 2017 a Popular Mobilization Committee force arrived at the Syria-Iraq border west of Sinjar and began moving south towards the ISIS-controlled city of al-Qa'im. At the same time, a Popular Mobilization Committee force began moving northeast from the al-Waleed border crossing (according to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the force was located about 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) from the al-Waleed crossing.
[3]On June 14, 2017, an improvised border crossing was opened about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) northeast of the al-Tanf crossing (near the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle). Syrian TV broadcast pictures of trucks reportedly carrying merchandise crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border in both directions. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis' speech indicated that on the Iraqi side of the improvised crossing there were (an unknown number of) Popular Mobilization Committee operatives, who he claimed had joined the Syrian army forces and Hezbollah operatives on the Syrian side of the border.
[4]On March 8, 2017, Akram al-Ka'abi, who heads the Iraqi Shi'ite "Movement of the Noble Ones" (harakat al-nujaba) issued a recorded announcement in which he said his operatives had established the "Brigade for the Liberation of the Golan." He said its objective was to help the Syria "liberate" the Golan Heights when the campaign against "terrorism" ended (see Appendix C). Furthermore, on June 24, 2017, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's secretary general, said that tens of thousands of fighters might join a war against Israel, coming from countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Iran and others.

Spotlight on Iran

July 2 – 16, 2017 Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt
 Qasem Soleimani (mizanonline.ir, July 4, 2017).

Qasem Soleimani (mizanonline.ir, July 4, 2017).

Mehdi Joudi, Iranian army officer killed in Syria (Twitter, July 12, 2017).

Mehdi Joudi, Iranian army officer killed in Syria (Twitter, July 12, 2017).

The advisor to the speaker of the Majlis (right) meets with the Syrian ambassador to Tehran (Press TV, July 8, 2017).

The advisor to the speaker of the Majlis (right) meets with the Syrian ambassador to Tehran (Press TV, July 8, 2017).

 Soleimani (Sepah News, July 10, 2017).

Soleimani (Sepah News, July 10, 2017).

 Rouhani meets with al-Hakim (ISNA, July 4, 2017).

Rouhani meets with al-Hakim (ISNA, July 4, 2017).

Talabani meets with Ali Larijani, speaker of the Majlis (Asr-e Iran, July 12, 2017).

Talabani meets with Ali Larijani, speaker of the Majlis (Asr-e Iran, July 12, 2017).

Overview
  • In a first official Iranian response to the ceasefire in southern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia, Iran's foreign ministry's spokesman said the success of the agreement depended on extending it all over Syria. However, he said, such a possibility was doubtful because of the United States' recent actions in Syria.
  • An officer in the regular Iranian army's artillery corps was killed near Aleppo, Syria, on July 11, 2017.
  • The senior advisor to the speaker of the Iranian parliament (Majlis) met with the Syrian ambassador in Tehran to discuss developments in Syria. He said recent American policy in Syria reflected a change in its tactics but not in its objectives, adding that Syria was at the forefront of the "resistance" to the "Zionist regime."
  • Senior Iranian officials welcomed the liberation of the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS, emphasizing the role played by the Iraqi Shi'ite militias supported by the IRGC in the victory.
  • Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, related to the campaign against ISIS in two speeches, claiming that Iran's support for Iraq and Syria allowed it to deepen its regional influence. He noted the factors that had made it possible for liberate Mosul from ISIS, among them the fatwa issued by senior Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the actions of the Iraqi Shi'ite militias and the support Iran and Hezbollah gave the Shi'ite militias.
  •  At the beginning of July the IRGC launched an artillery attack on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. The commander of the IRGC's ground forces said the area attacked had been used by "terrorists" who had infiltrated into Iranian territory last month to carry out terrorist attacks during World Jerusalem Day rallies.

 

General Information
  • Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, gave a speech about regional developments at a conference held in Kerman Province in Iran. He said ISIS had hoped to establish an Islamic government in Syria and Iraq by taking over important areas and bring about capitulation. However, he said, Iran's might had become many times greater since ISIS's advance. He said Iran's support for Iraq and Syria had increased its own regional influence as well as regional and international support for it. Iran, he said, had increased its influence in Syria and today was in direct contact with hundreds of thousands of Syrians throughout the country, and relations between the people of Iran and Iraq had also strengthened. As to Iran's support for the Palestinians, he said it continued despite attempts to wrest the "flag of Palestine" from the hands of Iran (Fars, July 4, 2017).
  • At a conference held in Gilan Province in northern Iran, Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian Majlis, related to Iran's military involvement in Syria and Iraq. He said Iran's decision to establish itself as a presence in Iraq and Syria to suppress terrorists was the right thing to do and vital, because without it the streets of Iran would not be safe (Tasnim, July 7, 2017).

Iranian Intervention in Syria and Lebanon

  • In a first official Iranian response to the ceasefire in southern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia, Bahram Qasemi, spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, said it was doubtful whether the agreement could be extended to the rest of the country because of the recent measures taken by the United States and Syria. He said Iran supported Syria's territorial integrity and the calling of a ceasefire throughout the country, not only in a limited area. No agreement, he said, could succeed without taking the realities on the ground into account.
  • Mehdi Joudi, an officer in the regular Iranian army's artillery corps, was killed near Aleppo, Syria, on July 11, 2017.
  • On July 5, 2017, the website of Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, published information about his meeting with high-ranking IRGC officers held a few hours after an Iranian missile launch on ISIS targets in eastern Syria on June 18, 2017. A video of Ali Khamenei showed him praising the IRGC for its "excellent" action and encouraging its high-ranking officers to continue exerting themselves to develop Iran's missile program in view of the enemy's "sensitivity" to missile attacks.
  • On July 4, 2017, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, spoke on the phone with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia's national security council. They discussed the continuing of bilateral cooperation in Syria. Shamkhani noted that promoting coordination between Iran and Russia would prevent America's illegal interference in Syria and keep Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty from being warped (Tasnim, July 4, 2017).7. On July 8, 2017, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, special international affairs advisor to the speaker of the Majlis, met with Adnan Mahmoud, the Syrian ambassador to Tehran, to discuss developments in Syria. Abdollahian said United States policy in Syria did not reflect a change in its objectives, but rather in its tactics, adding that since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Syria's enemies had been trying to oust President Assad. He said Syria was at the forefront of the "resistance" to the "Zionist regime" and of the fight against terrorism. He also stressed the importance of the strategic ties between Iran and Syria and the continuation of their cooperation with Russia. The Syrian ambassador said Iran played a leading and vital regional role and that the United States and its allies were trying to undermine Iran's regional influence. He stressed that Iran, Syria and Russia had to continue consultations in order to support Syria and resolve the ongoing crisis (Fars, July 8, 2017).
Iranian Intervention in Iraq
  • Senior Iranian officials welcomed the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme Council for National Security, sent Iraq his felicitations on the occasion of its victory, saying Iran would continue providing its full support for the Iraqi government and people. In separate messages to Iraqi PM Haydar al-Abadi and top Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani, he wrote that the victory over ISIS had been achieved thanks to the Iraqi government, senior Shi'ite clerics, the Iraqi army and the popular Iraqi militias. He voiced Iran's readiness to help Iraqis displaced by the war, and help reconstruct cities and infrastructure throughout Iraq (ISNA, July 9, 2017).
  • Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff for the Iranian armed forces, also congratulated the Iraqi armed forces on the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. In separate messages to the Iraqi PM, defense minister and senior Iraqi Shi'ite militia commanders he noted that the victory over ISIS was the manifestation of Iraq's national unity and resistance, and showed how important it was to strengthen the Shi'ite militias and assure them of a role in the country's future (IRNA, July 10, 2017).
  • Qasem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC's Qods Force, in a memorial speech for an IRGC officer killed in Mosul at the end of May 2017, laid out the factors that had made it possible to defeat ISIS in Mosul. Among them he included the fatwa issued by senior Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani calling on the Iraqi people to mobilize in the campaign against ISIS; the roles played by the Iraqi government, parliament and political parties directing the campaign; and the support Hassan Nasrallah's Lebanese Hezbollah gave to the Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Soleimani also mentioned the large quantities of weapons Iran supplied to the Shi'ite militias for the anti-ISIS campaign, and praised the IRGC fighters killed in battle. He said there were problems that could not be solved with diplomacy, only with the blood of fighters (Tasnim, July 10, 2017).
  • At the beginning of July 2017 Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, paid a visit to Iran where he met with senior Iranian government officials. He met with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister, to discuss political and security developments in Iraq and bilateral relations. He also met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said he welcomed the liberation of Mosul, emphasizing the need to maintain Iraq's territorial integrity after the victory over ISIS. Rouhani said Iran wanted stable relations with its neighbors, especially Iraq. While in Tehran al-Hakim said that once ISIS had finally been defeated, not a single foreign soldier or military base would remain on Iraqi soil (IRNA and Fars, July 3 and 4, 2017).
  • On July 5, 2017, Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the IRGC ground forces, confirmed that IRGC forces had launched an artillery attack on Kurdish targets located near the Iranian border in northern Iraq. He claimed Iran had the right to attack "terrorists and counterrevolutionaries" planning to threaten security in Iran, and that the artillery had attacked the area where a team of "terrorists" had infiltrated into Iranian territory to carry out an attack in the city of Sanandaj (northwestern Iran) during World Jerusalem Day rallies. The terrorist team was disbanded by the Iranian security forces (Mashreq News, July 5, 2017). Following the Iranian attack the authorities of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq summoned the Iranian consul-general in the city of Erbil to lodge its formal protest (Fars, July 4, 2017).
  • Jalal Talabani, chairman of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and former Iraqi president, arrived in Tehran for a visit at the invitation of Iranian officials (Tasnim, July 10, 2017). The visit came amid objections voiced by senior Iranian officials as to the intention of the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq to hold a referendum in September on the independence of the Kurdish region.

[*]Spotlight on Iran is an Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center bulletin illuminating Iran's activities to establish its influence in the Middle East and beyond. It is based on reports in the Iranian media and written for the ITIC by Dr. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran's politics, society, foreign policy and social networks.

Spotlight on Global Jihad (July 6-12, 2017)

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Spotlight on Global Jihad

Meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, during which they agreed on the de-escalation agreement (The Russian President’s website, July 7, 2017)

Meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg, during which they agreed on the de-escalation agreement (The Russian President’s website, July 7, 2017)

SDF operatives making their way through the debris in Al-Raqqah (Orient News, July 4, 2017)

SDF operatives making their way through the debris in Al-Raqqah (Orient News, July 4, 2017)

SDF fighters in Al-Raqqah (Orient News, July 4, 2017)

SDF fighters in Al-Raqqah (Orient News, July 4, 2017)

Explosive vests found during the detention campaign (Orient News, July 10, 2017)

Explosive vests found during the detention campaign (Orient News, July 10, 2017)

Qassem Soleimani (left, wearing a hat) visiting near the Syrian-Iraqi border, south of Deir ez-Zor. Next to him is Khaled al-Marei, commander of the Al-Baqer Brigade, a Shiite militia from the Aleppo area supprting the Syrian regime (Qasiyoun, July 8, 2017).

Qassem Soleimani (left, wearing a hat) visiting near the Syrian-Iraqi border, south of Deir ez-Zor. Next to him is Khaled al-Marei, commander of the Al-Baqer Brigade, a Shiite militia from the Aleppo area supprting the Syrian regime (Qasiyoun, July 8, 2017).

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi (center) in Mosul (Al-Sumaria, July 9, 2017).

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi (center) in Mosul (Al-Sumaria, July 9, 2017).

Soldiers celebrating the liberation of the city (Nineveh Information Center, July 9, 2017)

Soldiers celebrating the liberation of the city (Nineveh Information Center, July 9, 2017)

Devastation in the city of Mosul (Al-Alam, July 10, 2017)

Devastation in the city of Mosul (Al-Alam, July 10, 2017)

Scenes of destruction in Mosul

Scenes of destruction in Mosul

Photos from the video released by ISIS (YouTube, July 3, 2017)

Photos from the video released by ISIS (YouTube, July 3, 2017)

Photos from the video released by ISIS (YouTube, July 3, 2017)

Photos from the video released by ISIS (YouTube, July 3, 2017)

The Australian doctor in a previous ISIS video from 2015 (YouTube, April 24, 2015)

The Australian doctor in a previous ISIS video from 2015 (YouTube, April 24, 2015)

Main events of the week

  • About three years after ISIS declared the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Mosul, and after around nine months of persistent fighting, the city of Mosul fell into the hands of the Iraqi forces. The Iraqi prime minister arrived in Mosul on July 9, 2017, and declared its complete liberation. The commander of the International Coalition against ISIS declared that the Iraqi forces had complete control of Mosul. However, it is apparently still necessary to remove the IEDs planted in the city by ISIS and complete the mopping up of the city from ISIS operatives, who are liable to hide among the residents.
  • Mosul has been taken over. What next?Following are some initial implications and insights in the wake of the takeover of Mosul:
  • The concept of the Islamic State with its jihadi nature based on territorial areas of control has suffered a severe symbolic and practical blow.This blow is expected to increase with the takeover of the city of Al-Raqqah, ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. In light of this, in the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS is expected to switch to a modus operandi of a terrorist and guerilla organization that carries out terrorist attacks and hit-and-run operations, as it did in the past. It should be noted that ISIS still retains areas of control throughout Iraq that it could use for launching large-scale operations.It can be assumed that the main targets of these operations will be the capital Baghdad, the Iraqi security forces, and Shiite population centers, with the aim of harming the Iraqi regime and provoking inter-ethnic tension in the country.
  • The most significant challenge facing the Iraqi regime and the international community is the rehabilitation of Mosul, where about 700,000 residents have become displaced persons. This rehabilitation is expected to be protracted and costly, in view of the extensive damage caused to the city’s homes and infrastructure (water systems, schools, hospitals, bridges). Any failure or delay in the rehabilitation process could intensify inter-ethnic tension and play into the hands of ISIS, which will make an effort to renew its activity among the Sunni population in the liberated areas. The experience accumulated to date with regard to the speed of rehabilitation of the Sunni cities liberated from the hands of ISIS does not bode well.
  • ISIS still has areas of control in northern Iraq, along the Syrian-Iraqi border, and in the northern Euphrates Valley.These are areas that are disconnected from each other without a prominent center of gravity, as was the case during ISIS’s control of Mosul. It appears that the cities of Tal Afar in northern Iraq and Al-Qaim in the Euphrates Valley, near the Iraqi-Syrian border, may serve as ISIS’s new control centers in Iraq. If the momentum of the Iraqi forces in the campaign against ISIS is not maintained, and these centers of gravity continue to exist, ISIS is liable to regain strength once it has regrouped following the fall of Mosul.
  • A struggle for control and influence in the liberated areas, and in Iraq in general, is expected to develop between Iran, on the one hand, and the United States and the West on the other. Iran aspires to prevent the US from advancing in Iraq, take control of the Iraqi-Syrian border area, and create a logistical route from Damascus to Baghdad (which will enable land traffic from Iran to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq). The Americans want to retain their influence in Iraq, but without massive involvement on the ground, and this places them in a position of weakness vis-à-vis Iran. The main proxy through which Iran is expected to realize its interests in Iraq is the Popular Mobilization, an umbrella framework of Shiite militias handled by Iran.

 

Russia and the Coalition countries

Announcement of a de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria
  • On July 9, 2017, a de-escalation agreement between the US, Russia and Jordan entered into effect in southwestern Syria.As at July 10, 2017, there were six violations of the agreement by the Syrian Army, which attacked targets of the rebel organizations in the areas of Quneitra and Daraa.

The agreement on de-escalation in southwestern Syria was announced by the US and Russia on July 7, 2017(after Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump met on the occasion of the G20 summit in Hamburg). Jordan is also a party to the agreement. The agreement includes a cessation of hostilities between the forces of the Syrian regime and the rebel groups in southwestern Syria in the areas of Daraa, As-Suwayda and Quneitra.

 

  • Following are the principal statements about the agreement made by the US and Russia:
  • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the agreement was aimed at curbing the violence on the Syrian-Jordanian border. He added that the details of the implementation of the agreement were now being discussed between Jordan, the United States and Russia and that the United States hoped to expand the agreement to additional areas in Syria. Rex Tillerson also noted that this agreement is different from previous agreements because this time Russia has displayed a new level of commitment. He also noted that the ceasefire agreement with Russia is the first indication that the United States and Russia are capable of working together in Syria (The Washington Post, July 7, 2017).
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the agreement would be monitored by the Russian military police, which would be deployed in the region and would be responsible for the security of the areas, in coordination with the United States and Jordan (AP, July 7, 2017). Lavrov also stressed the importance of the fact that the agreement affirms the commitment of Russia, Jordan and the United States to Syria’s territorial sovereignty and territorial integrity, in accordance with UN resolutions (Russian Foreign Ministry website, July 7, 2017).
  • Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian president’s special envoy to Syria, said that the establishment of safe areas in Syria would begin within two to three weeks after the signing of the relevant documents. He noted that a key aspect of the Astana talks would be the establishment of a joint coordination headquarters that would monitor the safe areas (TASS News Agency, July 4, 2017). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia, the United States and Jordan had agreed to establish a control center in Amman that would monitor the ceasefire in southwestern Syria and would maintain direct contact with representatives of the opposition and government groups (Sputnik, July 10, 2017).

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel welcomes a genuine ceasefire in Syria. He noted, however, that such a ceasefire must not enable the consolidation of Iran and its satellites in Syria in general, and in southern Syria in particular.He said that he had discussed the issue with the US Secretary of State and with President Putin and that they understood Israel’s positions. According to him, Israel would continue to monitor the activity across its borders and would prevent the Hezbollah forces and the Iranian forces from establishing a presence near its border (Israeli Prime Minister’s Office website, July 9, 2017).

 

Main developments in Syria

The campaign to take over Al-Raqqah
  • The fighting in Al-Raqqah’s Old City still continues.  According to Luqman Khalil, an SDF commander, ISIS has so far lost about half of the Old City’s territory (Akhbar Al-Aan, July 8, 2017). Fighting also continued in several sites in west and south Al-Raqqah and on the city’s outskirts. The SDF forces received air support from the US-led Coalition aircraft, which carried out airstrikes against ISIS-controlled targets.

 

  • ISIS operatives continue to detonate car bombs (as they have done in Mosul) and attack the SDF forces. On July 7, 2017, ISIS operatives detonated a car bomb near the SDF outposts in east Al-Raqqah. There were reports on fatalities among the SDF forces (Sham Network, July 7, 2017). In the western part of the city, ISIS operatives planted an IED in an SDF vehicle. Several fighters were killed and wounded (Khotwa, July 5, 2017). Also, SDF forces reportedly downed an ISIS drone in Al-Raqqah’s neighborhood of Al-Sina’ah (Khotwa, July 5, 2017).
Idlib Province
  • The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, a coalition of several organizations led by the Fateh al-Sham Front (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda branch in Syria), launched a large-scale operation against ISIS due to the numerous attacks by ISIS operatives against organizations which are party to the coalition. During their activity, they exposed a large network of ISIS operatives which had operated in the western area of the Idlib Province. The network commander and eight operatives were detained. Weapons and car bombs were found in the possession of the detainees. Their interrogation revealed that the network was directly handled by ISIS. The network operatives admitted to carrying out over twenty terrorist attacks against military and civilian targets.
  • Following the exposure of the network, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham began a large-scale detention campaign in the Idlib Province, during which they detained over a hundred ISIS operatives. Among the detainees are Abu Suleiman the Russian, ISIS governor in northern Syria; Abu al-Qa’qa al-Janubi, the ISIS official in charge of Sharia in northern Syria; and Abu al-Sawda al-Masri (i.e., the Egyptian). Several operatives who were to serve as suicide bombers were also detained in the campaign (Ibaa News Agency, the news agency of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, July 10, 2017).
Palmyra
  • Fighting continues between the Syrian Army and ISIS in the area of the Aarak and Al-Hail oil and gas fields, northeast of Palmyra. The Syrian forces advanced toward the city of Sukhnah (northeast of Palmyra) and reached a distance of about 10 km from the city (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 8, 2017). The Syrian forces were supported by airstrikes against ISIS targets in the area of Sukhnah and the desert area (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, July 9, 2017).
  • According to media reports, Qassem Soleimani, Qods Force commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, recently visited the area south of Deir ez-Zor, near the border between Syria and Iraq. There are also photos testifying to his presence there. Qassem Soleimani was there apparently in order to monitor closely the military activity of the Syrian forces and the Shiite militias in the Syrian Desert (Qasiyoun, July 8, 2017).
  • The city of Sukhnah, which has about 22,000 inhabitants (updated to 2004), is on the highway from Homs to Deir ez-Zor, about 125 km from Deir ez-Zor. The advance of the Syrian Army towards this city may indicate that the city of Deir ez-Zor (where a Syrian Army force is besieged by ISIS) is targeted by the Syrian forces, as part of the Syrian forces’ advance in several sectors eastward, towards the Euphrates Valley and the Syrian-Iraqi border. The fact that Qassem Soleimani is present south of Deir ez-Zor may also indicate the importance attributed to this area by the Iranians, as well as the Syrians (Qassem Soleimani customarily appears and has his picture taken at important fighting zones).

 

Southern Syria
  • A little while after the announcement on the de-escalation agreement in the provinces of Al-Suwayda, Daraa and Quneitra, six violations were recorded as the Syrian regime forces attacked rebel organizations in several villages in the Quneitra and Daraa areas (All4Syria, July 10, 2017).
  • “Syrian political sources” told a correspondent of the Al-Quds al-Arabi daily that Syria would not agree to include villages in the area of Quneitra, near the border with Israel, in the de-escalation agreement. According to these sources, this is because it may help the rebel organizations settle and control the villages in the Quneitra area and create a “security zone” for Israel. The sources said that the objective of the Syrian Army in its fighting there was to regain control of the villages in the Quneitra area. According to the sources, the purpose of the airstrikes carried out by Israel against the Syrian Army outposts in the Quneitra area is to prevent the Syrian Army from reaching the border. According to the sources, Russia agrees with Syria on this issue, and it will not pressure Syria to accept Israel’s position regarding the front in the Quneitra area (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, July 8, 2017).

Main developments in Iraq

The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
  • After nine months of fighting, and at the end of a fierce fighting in the Old City, the campaign for the takeover of Mosul ended. The Iraqi forces reportedly finished mopping up sporadic pockets of resistance in Mosul’s Old City (Nineveh Information Center, July 10, 2017). Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi arrived in the city on July 9, 2017, and announced its complete liberation from ISIS (Al-Sumaria, July 9, 2017; Nineveh Information Center, July 9, 2017). According to an announcement by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the International Coalition against ISIS, the Iraqi forces are in full control of the city (AP, July 10, 2017).

 

  • According to Iraqi police,over one thousand ISIS operatives were killed in the Old City, having fought their last battle after the rest of the city neighborhoods had fallen in the hands of the Iraqi forces. Dozens of armed operatives who tried to flee the city through the Tigris River were shot and killed. In addition, 65 vehicles carrying arms, twenty car bombs, a total of 24 motorcycles that served ISIS and 28 buildings used by the organization operatives were destroyed. Moreover, eight tunnels were uncovered (Al-Sumaria, July 9, 2017). However, the Iraqi security forces still need to complete the removal of IEDs from the city and searching for armed operatives that may have remained there.
  • Before the beginning of the campaign to liberate Mosul, the city had about 1.5 million inhabitants. According to UN data, about 920,000 inhabitants became displaced persons since the beginning of the campaign. About 220,000 have already returned, so about 700,000 remain displaced persons. The western neighborhoods of the city sustained the most damage, mainly the Old City, where persistent fighting took place, while in the east part of the city, life has begun to return to normal. According to UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande, “fighting in the city did end, but not the humanitarian crisis, as many of the displaced persons have lost all their property and they need a place for living, food, medical treatment, water and medical supplies. The levels of mental suffering are extremely high. One cannot imagine what these people have gone through” (Al-Ghad Channel, July 10, 2017).
  • There are still more and more reports of senior ISIS operatives being killed in the campaign for Mosul, including the head of ISIS’s health department, codenamed Dr. Abdallah and his deputy Dr. Khaled Qardash (Al-Naba, July 6, 2017); and Abu Yahya al-Iraqi, who served as ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s senior aide (Al-Mayadeen, July 6, 2017).Iraqi and Syrian sources keep releasing news of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death, but so far there is no reliable proof for that.
  • The UN Secretary-General declared that the rehabilitation of Mosul is a significant step in the fighting against terror and extremism. According to him, the UN is willing to support the Iraqi government in the rehabilitation of territories taken over from ISIS (the UN website, July 10, 2017). A report released by the UN assesses that the rehabilitation of the city of Mosul will cost over USD 1 billion (Al-Rafidayn, July 6, 2017).
ISIS attacks in other fighting zones in Iraq
  • Before the announcement on the completion of the takeover of Mosul, ISIS operatives attacked the Iraqi security forces in the area south of the city. On July 5, 2017, the Iraqi Army announced that it had repelled a massive attack by ISIS operatives in the area of Shirqat, about 90 km south of Mosul. According to the report, a total of 43 ISIS operatives were killed in the attack (Iraq Times, July 5, 2017).
  • On July 5, 2017, ISIS operatives carried out an attack in the village of Imam Gharbi, about 70 km south of Mosul, where several suicide bombers took part. Three operatives of the Tribal Mobilization (Al-Hashed Al-Ashaeri), a tribal force operating in support of the Iraqi government, were killed and 14 others were wounded (Shafaq News, July 5, 2017). ISIS released a message claiming responsibility for the attack (Sawarim, July 8, 2017).

Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula

The Sinai Peninsula

The Egyptian security forces reported that they had foiled a large-scale attack by operatives of ISIS’s Sinai Province against an Egyptian Army outpost in the village of Al-Barth, south of Rafah. During the attack, a car bomb reportedly exploded, killing 23 soldiers and wounding 33 others. The commander of the 103th Battalion was among those killed (Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces, July 7, 2017). According to Egyptian sources, about forty ISIS operatives were killed in the attack, and six vehicles were destroyed.

 

  • The attack started when a suicide bomber drove a car bomb toward a checkpoint near the village of Al-Barth. This is a village of Tarabin tribesmen, who have been in an ongoing violent confrontation with ISIS’s Sinai branch. The village is situated on an important junction connecting central Sinai to the area of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid. Other vehicles, with dozens of ISIS operatives, including another suicide bomber, also attacked the Egyptian security forces.
  • ISIS’s Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the announcement, the attack was carried out by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up with car bombs. Several other ISIS operatives also participated in the attack, storming the Egyptian forces and their collaborators (i.e., Tarabin tribesmen) who had been staying in a building there.
  • Following the terrorist attack, the Egyptian forces carried out airstrikes against ISIS targets in the Sinai Peninsula. In addition, the Egyptian security forces reinforced their presence on the ground, set up numerous roadblocks and carried out searches in vast areas in order to round up ISIS operatives. They raided ISIS operatives’ hidings places and detained operatives (Al-Youm Al-Sabea, July 8, 2017; Al-Akhbar, July 9, 2017).

In view of the many casualties in the terrorist attack in the village of Al-Barth, the Egyptian Information Authority issued an announcement in several languages, according to which the Egyptian Army forces had managed during the first half of 2017 to drastically decrease the number of terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula and in Egypt proper. They said that six terrorist attacks had been carried out in Sinai and 25 in Egypt proper during that time, whereas 120 terrorist attacks had been carried out in Sinai and 532 in Egypt proper during the corresponding period last year. According to the announcement, the number of terrorist attacks decreased thanks to the intense activity of the Egyptian security forces (Al-Youm Al-Sabea, July 8, 2017). In spite of the optimistic figures, the Egyptian Army finds it difficult to subdue the operatives of ISIS’s Sinai Province. The Al-Barth terrorist attack proved once again that those operatives are capable of carrying out complex attacks, causing many losses to the Egyptian security forces.

 

 

Thwarting activity in Egypt proper
  • The Egyptian Interior Ministry announced that 14 ISIS operatives had been killed in clashes with the police in Alexandria. This happened after the police had detained, based on prior information, a group belonging to ISIS operatives in the Sinai Peninsula, which was engaged in training operatives in a training camp. The purpose of the camp was to receive new operatives from various provinces in Egypt, have them undergo military training, and put them in courses whose purpose, among other things, was to train suicide bombers. The police reportedly found seven automatic guns, a machine gun, a pistol, military equipment, and propaganda materials in the possession of the operatives in Alexandria (Al-Watan, July 8, 2017).

The conduct of the Islamic State

The weakening of ISIS
  • According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), three years after ISIS announced the establishment of the Islamic State, there is now evidence of the significant weakening of the Islamic State in all areas - economic, military and social. The Islamic State, which managed to establish eight provinces in Syria in its first year, and whose territory amounted to half of the territory of Syria, lost extensive territory in its third year. Moreover, after Turkey joined Operation Euphrates Shield, the Islamic State lost its remaining last gateway to the world outside Syria.
  • The loss of its territory has transformed ISIS from an offensive, unbridled force into a defensive force that relies on counter-reactions, lone-wolf terrorism and assassinations. All the elements fighting against ISIS also tried to compromise its economic ability. As a result, its financial resources dropped by 80%.In order to compensate for its financial losses, ISIS began to take over merchants’ money, imposed fines and even minted new coins.
  • At the same time, ISIS suffered from a drop in the number of fighters joining its ranks.This drop caused ISIS to recruit Syrian adolescents and men and even children. The SOHR documented the recruitment of some 5,000 children to the Lion Cubs of the Caliphate. These children took part in suicide bombing attacks, fighting, and executions. Calls for general mobilization by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also failed to improve the situation. At the same time, the number of detainees held by ISIS also dropped. Some were executed, some were released in exchange for fighting in the ranks of ISIS, and some were released in prisoner exchanges. The SOHR estimates that ISIS still holds around 4,000 detainees and abductees (SOHR, June 29, 2017).
Turkey
  • Turkey recently carried out a series of detentions of persons suspected of activity and ties with ISIS. According to the Turkish security forces, several dozen people were detained throughout the country (Al-Arabiya; Anatolia News Agency, July 5, 2017). In Istanbul, Turkish police detained 29 people suspected of activity in ISIS. Most of the detainees are foreign nationals (Hürriyet Daily News, July 7, 2017).

The battle for hearts and minds

  • ISIS’s Al-Raqqah Province released a video in English featuring an Australian doctor. The doctor criticizes the Western countries for the aggressiveness of the Coalition airstrikes and the damage and injustice that they cause. He calls on ISIS operatives to remain strong and carry out attacks in the West (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, July 3, 2017).
The same Australian doctor also appeared in a video released by ISIS in April 2015, showing the advanced medical services that it provided to the residents of the Al-Raqqah Province after taking control of the city. A number of foreign doctors were featured in the video, including the Australian doctor, codenamed Abu Yusuf the Australian. In the video, Abu Yusuf says that he works in the department of pediatrics at the hospital in Al-Raqqah and perceives his work at the hospital as part of jihad which is intended to help the Islamic nation. He also calls on Muslim doctors in the West to join the Islamic State (Daily Mail, April 26, 2015; YouTube, April 24, 2015).

 

Spotlight on Global Jihad (June 29 – July 5, 2017)

Main events of the week

  • The campaign for the takeover of Mosul is coming to its end. This week, the Iraqi prime minister announced “the elimination of the imaginary state of ISIS.”  However, the end of the campaign is being delayed due to the persistent fighting in the Old City by ISIS operatives, even in view of their desperate situation. A series of terrorist attacks carried out this week by ISIS operatives throughout Iraq demonstrates (once again) that ISIS has considerable operational capabilities in the western and northern parts of Iraq (mainly in the Sunni provinces). Therefore, ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity throughout Iraq is expected to continue even after the takeover of Mosul, although there will be changes in the organization’s modus operandi.
  • This week, Syrian forces took over the area of Khanaser, southeast of Aleppo, ISIS’s last stronghold in the Aleppo Province. The Syrian forces continue to advance eastward, with the aim of threatening ISIS’s strongholds in the Euphrates Valley. In Al-Raqqah, SDF forces with Coalition air support managed to enter the Old City through the ancient wall surrounding the city after destroying the wall in two places. Persistent fighting is going on at the site. In the area of Quneitra in the Syrian Golan Heights, clashes continued between the rebel organizations (dominated by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front) and the Syrian forces, without significant changes on the ground. Once again, Israel responded to the spilling over of shells into Israel by attacking Syrian Army targets.

 

Russia and the Coalition countries

Coalition aircraft attack on an ISIS prison
  • According to a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), aircraft apparently belonging to the Coalition forces attacked a building that served as an ISIS prison in the city of Al-Mayadeen, in the lower Euphrates Valley. According to the report, the prison was divided into two parts. One part contained civilian inmates, and the other – ISIS inmates. In total, there were 100 inmates in the prison. The airstrike killed 42 civilian inmates and 15 ISIS inmates and prison guards. The number of fatalities will apparently rise, because some people are still missing, and some of the wounded are in critical condition (SOHR, June 27, 2017).
  • In response to allegations made against the US that civilians were harmedin the prison, Colonel Joe Scrocca, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman, said that at the time in question, Coalition aircraft had indeed carried out airstrikes against ISIS’s command and control facilities in Al-Mayadeen. According to him, the operation was carefully planned and carried out so that the chances of harming civilians would be low. However, he added that the allegations that civilians were harmed in the airstrike would be examined(Reuters, June 27, 2017).
Statement by the Russian defense minister regarding the actions of the Coalition against ISIS
  • In a conference call held at the Russian Federation’s National Defense Management Center between Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and the Russian military command, the defense minister discussed the situation in Syria. According to him, the “provocation” by the Coalition against ISIS in Syria has led to an expansion of the activity of the terrorist organizations in the country. The defense minister also mentioned that after the interception of the Syrian aircraft by the Coalition forces, Russia stopped coordinating with the US regarding air safety in Syria. He noted that the Coalition’s activity is now limited to agreed areas in the Al-Tanf region in southern Syria and east of the Euphrates River.
  • The Russian defense minister noted that in the past month, the Syrian regime forces with Russian air support recorded successes, northeast of the Aleppo Province, in the Palmyra area, and in southern Syria. According to him, the forces liberated 69 population centers and 12,177 square kilometers from ISIS in June, and are now advancing along the Syrian-Jordanian border and the Syrian-Iraqi border (Facebook page of the Russian Ministry of Defense, June 30, 2017).

Main developments in Syria

The campaign to take over Al-Raqqah
  • On July 3, 2017, the SDF forces fighting in Al-Raqqah entered Al-Raqqah’s Old City, with Coalition air support. Thisoccurred after two weeks of the forces being bogged down due to ISIS operatives’ persistent fighting, which caused them casualties and slowed down their advance.

 

  • The spokesman for the US-led Coalition announced that on July 3, 2017, the SDF forces entered the Old City of Al-Raqqah. The forces, which ran into persistent ISIS resistance, enjoyed Coalition air support (Twitter page of the spokesman for the International Coalition, July 4, 2017).
  • The Coalition spokesman said that the SDF forces managed to break through the ancient wall surrounding Al-Raqqah in two places.[1] The attacking forces overcame ISIS resistance, which had fighting positions on the wall and used heavy machine guns, mortar fire, rocket launchers, sniper fire and car bombs in the fighting.
  • Concurrently with the face-to-face fighting, ISIS operatives continued their suicide bombing attacks against the SDF forces. Five SDF commanders were reportedly killed by an explosion of a car bomb detonated by ISIS operatives in the town of Al-Mansura, west of Al-Raqqah (Khotwa, June 29, 2017). On June 28, 2017, there were reports on 11 fatalities among the SDF forces following the detonation of an IED in the village of Hamra Nasser, east of Al-Raqqah (Dimashq Al-Aan, June 28, 2017).
Syrian regime achievements in eastern Syria
  • The Syrian forces continue to record successes in their efforts to clear vast areas in eastern Syria from ISIS presence. This week, they have taken over the area of Khanaser, southeast of Aleppo, thereby completing the removal of ISIS operatives from the Aleppo area. They also completed their takeover of the Ithriya-Al-Rasafah road, after putting an end to ISIS’s threat on the main supply route to Aleppo (Aleppo-Ithriya-Hama). In the ITIC's assessment, their objective now is to advance eastward, toward the Euphrates Valley, where they will threaten ISIS’s strongholds (as a counter-balance to the campaign for Al-Raqqah, conducted by the SDF forces and the Coalition countries).

 

  • On June 29 and July 1, 2017, the Syrian Army announced that it had taken over a series of villages east and northeast of Khanaser (north of the town of Ithriya). Thus, the Syrian Army completed its takeover of the entire area southeast of Aleppo (Turan Syrian strategic research institute, July 1, 2017). The Syrian Army is now mopping up the seized area from IEDs and looking for weapons left on the ground (Al-Mayadeen, July 4, 2017). ISIS operatives retreated from the area towards territories under their control in the Syrian Desert (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, June 30, 2017).
  • The Syrian forces also announced that they had taken over villages, farms and other key sites along the Ithriya-Al-Rasafah road, thereby completing the takeover of the road southwest of the Euphrates River. According to the announcement, the Syrian forces are now in complete control of the Aleppo-Khanaser-Ithriya road (Sham Network, June 30, 2017; Syrian TV, July 1, 2017).
Palmyra
  • Fighting continues between the Syrian Army and ISIS in the area of the Aarak oil and gas field, northeast of Palmyra. The Syrian forces announced that they had taken over an area three kilometers northeast of the oil field (Sham Network, June 30, 2017).
Deir ez-Zor
  • ISIS announced that it had forbidden entry to the area leading from Deir ez-Zor to the Syrian Desert and that all the roads leading to it had been booby-trapped. The terrorist organization warned the inhabitants of the villages and cities not to leave their homes (Khotwa, June 29, 2017).
  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least twenty ISIS operatives had been killed in an airstrike against an ISIS convoy in the area of the Conoco gas field, northeast of Deir ez-Zor. Several ISIS vehicles were destroyed in the airstrike. So far, it is unknown whether it was carried out by the International Coalition forces or by any other party (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, June 30, 2017).
Clashes between the Syrian Army and the rebel organizations in the Golan Heights
  • Fighting continues in Madinat Al-Baath between the Syrian forces and the rebel organizations, including the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front). The Syrian Army reported that it had managed to regain control of two outposts infiltrated by operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham west of Madinat Al-Baath (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, July 2, 2017). Apart from that, there were no other significant changes on the ground this week.
  • During the fighting, several shells fired by the Syrian forcesfell once again in Israeli territory. In response, Israel attacked several Syrian Army targets in the area. According to Syrian media, the IDF attacked Syrian regime outposts in the area of the 90th Brigade, near the village of Al-Samdaniya (Al-Durar Al-Shamiya, July 1, 2017). No casualties were reported (Dimashq Al-Aan, July 1, 2017).
Appointments in the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army (ISIS’s branch in the Yarmouk Basin)
  • On June 29, 2017, it was reported that Wael Fa’our al-Eid, codenamed Abu Taym Inkhil, was appointed as the new emir of the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army, ISIS’s branch in the Yarmouk Basin. This was after Abu Hashem al-Rifai, the previous commander, appointed on June 6, 2017, was killed (Enab Baladi, June 29, 2017). Wael Fa’our al-Eid is from the town of Inkhil, north of Daraa (hence his codename). He served as a senior commander in the Free Syrian Army. Two years ago, due to his contacts with ISIS, he left and joined a jihadi framework called Jaysh Al-Jihad (The Jihad Army). After this framework was dismantled, Al-Eid served as a commander in the Shuhada Al-Yarmouk Brigade, which subsequently merged with the Al-Muthanna movement and became part of the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army (Enab Baladi, June 29, 2017).
  • At the same time, Karem al-Masri, codenamed Abu Osama, was appointed the general military commander of the Khaled bin Al-Walid Army. Al-Masri is from the village of Abedin, in the southern Golan Heights (the Yarmouk Basin). He served in the past as a commander in Jaysh Al-Mu’taz bi-Allah, a network which operated as part of the Free Syrian Army west of Daraa (Enab Baladi, June 29, 2017).

Main developments in Iraq

The campaign for the takeover of Mosul
  • The campaign for the takeover of Mosul is nearing its end. On June 29, 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that the Nuri Mosque in the Old City of Mosul had been liberated from ISIS and that “ISIS’s imaginary state was eliminated” (Al-Sumaria, June 30, 2017).[2] The Iraqi government’s Counter-terrorism Service announced that only about 400 meters were separating between its troops and the Tigris bank in the Old City and that the complete liberation of the Old City was imminent (Al-Sumaria, July 2, 2017). On July 3, 2017, the Iraqi Army announced that it was still waging a persistent battle against ISIS operatives remaining in the Old City (Al-Sumaria, July 3, 2017). This fierce fighting delays the completion of the campaign for Mosul.

 

Interview with the commander of ISIS’s military bureau in Mosul
  • ISIS’s propaganda machine, which during the fighting for Mosul focused on disseminating unfounded propaganda messages, released an unusual interview with the commander of the military bureau in Mosul, describing ISIS’s fighting methods (Al-Naba, June 28, 2017). In the interview, the commander avoids addressing ISIS’s desperate situation in Mosul.
  • In the interview, ISIS’s military bureau commander noted that the campaign conducted by ISIS in Mosul is of a clear defensive nature, even though it includes offensive tactics. According to him, ISIS’s fighting plan was based on wearing down the enemy in several stages: first, ISIS focused on wearing down the enemy by hitting its weapons with various kinds of armor-piercing weapons, suicide bombing attacks, and laying mines in vast areas. Afterwards, when the Iraqi forces entered the city, ISIS operatives began face-to-face fights, including sniper shooting, planting IEDs, suicide bombing attacks, and attacking Iraqi soldiers. The campaign was planned and overseen from a central war room set up by ISIS, where sector commanders, military experts and decision makers were present.  ISIS’s military bureau commander added that the other provinces in Iraq also played a role in the campaign by engaging and wearing down Shiite fighters. He added that ISIS would adopt these tactics in additional fighting zones (Al-Naba, June 28, 2017).
ISIS’s actions in other fighting zones in Iraq
  • Following are actions carried out by ISIS in other areas throughout Iraq:
  • Al-Waleed crossing: ISIS announced on July 1, 2017, that it had killed 28 Iraqi Army soldiers and members of the Popular Mobilization Units (Iranian-affiliated Shiite militias), in an attack carried out by its operatives against an Iraqi Army outpost in the area of the Al-Waleed crossing along the Iraqi-Syrian border (on the Iraqi side of the Al-Tanf crossing) (Haqq, July 1, 2017).
  • Diyala Province (northeast of Baghdad): The Iraqi Army carried out a military operation in the area of the town of Naft Khaneh, near the border between Iraq and Iran. The purpose of the operation was to eliminate ISIS operatives present there (Al-Sumaria, July 3, 2017). The Iraqis announced that their troops had finished the operation, during which seven ISIS hostels were destroyed(Al-Sumaria, July 3, 2017). The Iraqi Army also announced that a weapons cache was found in the area of the city of Mandali, in the Diyala Province, not far from the border between Iran and Iraq (Al-Iraqiyya, July 3, 2017).
  • Ramadi area: In an ISIS suicide bombing attack carried out on July 2, 2017, in the displaced persons camp “the 60th kilometer” west of the city of Ramadi, a total of 14 people were killed and 13 others wounded, mostly women and children. A suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt blew himself up among the displaced persons.ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and noted that the suicide bomber had blown himself up among soldiers in an Iraqi Army roadblock in the camp area (Mujaz Al-Iraq, July 2, 2017; Al-Sumaria, July 2, 2017; Haqq, July 3, 2017).
  • Baiji area: On July 2, 2017, the Iraqi Air Force attacked an ISIS car bomb workshop in the town of Safra, about 35 km northeast of Baiji. Four ISIS operatives were killed in the attack, one of them a regional commander (Al-Sumaria, July 3, 2017).

The conduct of the Islamic State

Drop in ISIS’s revenues
  • Researchers and security experts at HIS Markit estimate that after the loss of its territory in Syria and Iraq (an estimated 60% of territory), ISIS’s revenues have dropped significantly.  The authors of the report estimate that ISIS’s revenues have dropped by 80% over the past two years. For example, in the second quarter of 2017, ISIS’s revenues totaled a mere $16 million a month, compared to $81 million in the corresponding period of 2015.
  • The researchers noted that most of the loss of income was from profits on oil and oil products (since 2015, the average income from oil and oil products has dropped by 88%). Thiswas compounded by the loss of control over the population in Mosul, Iraq, and in both the Al-Raqqah region and Homs, Syria, leading to a significant 79% drop in ISIS’s revenues from taxes and from the confiscation of assets. However, the authors of the report claim that there is still evidence of some economic activity by ISIS, especially in the field of oil production. There are indications that ISIS is trying to increase its financial reserves by transitioning from a centralistic bureaucratic economy to a “war economy” (CNN Money, June 29, 2017).

The battle for hearts and minds

  • On July 1, 2017, ISIS published an infographic summing up its activity during the month of Ramadan (May 26 to June 24, 2017). According to the infographic, 3,150 Christians, Jews and Sunnis who had deviated from the path of Islam were killed and wounded in ISIS’s operations during the month of Ramadan. In addition, 280 military vehicles were destroyed. ISIS listed its most prominent operations in the month of Ramadan: the attack on a bus of Coptic Christians in Egypt; combined attacks in London, Tehran and Manila; and four attacks in Iraq (two suicide bombing attacks in Babel and Karbala, an attack in Baqubah, and a suicide bombing attack in the city of Hit) (Haqq, July 1, 2017).
The operations carried out by ISIS in the month of Ramadan caused many casualties and received extensive media coverage. However, they had no significant effect from a strategic perspective, since they did not divert attention and resources from the battle for Mosul and the battle for Al-Raqqah, and did not change the process of ISIS losing territories and becoming weaker in Syria and Iraq.

 

[1]A wall built in the period of the Abbasid Caliphate, during the 8thcentury.
[2]Before the Iraqi Army forces took over the Al-Nuri Mosque, ISIS’s operatives blew up the mosque where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in 2014. The mosque was blown up apparently in order not to provide the Iraqi Army with a “Victory photo.”