President Trump meeting with US troops during his visit to Iraq (US Department of Defense, December 26, 2018).
US forces in Manbij (Al-Jazeera Channel, based on the Syrian SMART News Agency, December 28, 2018).
Turkish army forces en route to Manbij (Orient News, December 30, 2018)
Marwan al-Fatih, a member of the Democratic Council of Syria, who was shot to death by ISIS (Zaman al-Wasl, December 30, 2018)
The tourist bus being removed from the scene of the attack (www.yawmiyetna.com, December 31, 2018)
Main events of the week
- Around two weeks after President Trump announced the pull-out of the American soldiers from Syria, the attention of the key players in the Syrian arena was diverted to eastern and northern Syria. Following is an overview of the situation on the ground:
- In the city of Hajin and its environs, the SDF campaign against ISIS continues, with air support from the US and Coalition countries. The SDF forces have apparently taken control of the city. According to a media report (which requires verification), they have begun to advance southwards, towards the town of Al-Kashmah, south of Hajin. By doing so, the SDF threatens to take control of the northern part of the enclave controlled by ISIS. This week, the Iraqi Air Force also attacked ISIS targets in the southern part of the enclave.
- The Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij, located to the west of the Euphrates River, is attracting considerable political and military attention in the wake of the Trump statement. The Kurds, fearful of a Turkish military move against them, reached an agreement with the Syrian regime whereby the Syrian army will enter the city and the Kurdish forces will withdraw from it. A Syrian army force reached one of the suburbs of the city and waved the Syrian flag, but contrary to the announcement by the Syrian army spokesman, the city is still controlled by the Kurds (and the Americans continue to maintain a presence there). According to Arab media reports, a Russian-Turkish agreement had been reached whereby the Syrian army will not enter the city, and control over it will be transferred to a civil administration that is not affiliated with the Kurdish forces (these reports require verification).
- In the Idlib area, incidents between the Syrian army and jihadi organizations continue, but their intensity has declined (temporarily?). The intensity declined in light of the shift of Syrian (and Russian) attention to eastern Syria (the Euphrates Valley) and to the area west of the Euphrates River (the city of Manbij). This week, Russian aircraft carried out unusual airstrikes against jihadi targets southwest of Idlib, following a series of attacks against the Syrian army.
- According to Arab media, the Americans have begun to evacuate their soldiers from Syria to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The US President and American spokesmen conveyed some reassuring messages this week. The messages stress that that the pull-out will take place slowly, in a controlled and coordinated manner (four months according to The New York Times, which relies on information from government officials). During his visit to Iraq, the US President announced that after the pull-out from Syria, a US military presence would remain in Iraq, noting that the US Air Force may operate from Iraq if it is decided to attack in Syria. Reuters reported that the US Department of Defense was considering using Special Forces based in Iraq to attack ISIS operatives in Syria.
- ISIS continues its threat campaign calling on its supporters abroad, especially Western countries, to carry out attacks during the holiday season. A stabbing attack was indeed carried out (Manchester, Britain) that may be interpreted as an ISIS-inspired attack whose perpetrator assented to ISIS’s calls (although ISIS has not yet claimed responsibility for the attack). In addition, two other terrorist attacks were carried out, for which ISIS has not claimed responsibility: the detonation of an IED against a tourist bus in the area of the Pyramids in Egypt (two dead and 10 wounded); and the detonation of an IED in a shopping center in the southern Philippines (two dead and 28 wounded).
President Trump’s statement on the pull-out of the US forces from Syria (update)
- During a visit to US troops stationed in Iraq (December 26, 2018), President Trump referred to his decision to pull the US military personnel out of Syria. Speaking with reporters at Al-Assad Air Force Base, west of Baghdad, President Trump said that the United States would remain in Iraq. He added that if the United States decided to operate in Syria, it would make use of the airbase where he was visiting. Reuters reported that a complete pull-out of US troops from Syria would leave 5,200 US military personnel in Iraq. Reuters also reported that the US Department of Defense was considering using Special Forces based in Iraq to attack ISIS targets in Syria (Reuters, December 26, 2018).
- Another issue discussed by the US Department of Defense is the weapons used by US military personnel in Syria. Army commanders have recommended that the Kurdish forces fighting against ISIS should be allowed to retain the American weapons in Syria. According to one of the commanders, it would be impossible to collect all the weapons and therefore they should be left in the hands of the Kurdish fighters. This recommendation is part of the Syrian pull-out plan currently under discussion by the US Department of Defense. President Trump is expected to receive recommendations from the Department of Defense in a matter of days (Reuters, December 29, 2018).
The Idlib area
Incidents in the Idlib area continue, albeit in lower intensity
- This week as well, incidents in the Idlib area continued between the Syrian army and the jihadi organizations. However, in the ITIC’s assessment, their intensity decreased as the Syrian regime’s attention has shifted to the east and north (the area of the city of Manbij), following President Trump’s announcement.
- Following are prominent incidents:
- On December 26, 2018, operatives of the operations room called “Awaken the Believers” (affiliated with Al-Qaeda) attacked several Syrian army positions in the area of the Kurd Mountains (northeast of Latakia). Over 30 Syrian army soldiers were reportedly killed and many others wounded (“Awaken the Believers” operations room, December 26, 2018).
- The Syrian army fired artillery at positions of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham around the town of Mawrak, about 25 km north of Hama. Many operatives were killed and wounded, and fortified positions of the organization were destroyed (SANA, December 30, 2018).
- On December 31, 2018, the “Awaken the Believers” operations room fired Katyusha rockets at positions and command posts of the Syrian army 22 km south of the city of Jisr Al-Shughur.
- The Russian media reported that on December 30, 2018, Russian fighter planes had carried out unusual airstrikes against targets in two towns west of the city of Jisr Al-Shughur (about 30 km southwest of Idlib). The airstrikes took place after a series of attacks by jihadi organizations in the rural area north of Latakia against positions of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it. After the airstrikes, the Syrian army reportedly fired rockets at the area west of Jisr Al-Shughur and at roads in the Kurd Mountains (Enab Baladi, December 31, 2018).
The campaign over Hajin (updated to January 1, 2019)
- This week, fighting continued between ISIS and the SDF forces in the city of Hajin and its environs, with President Trump’s announcement on pulling out American soldiers from Syria in the background. On December 30, 2018, it was reported that the SDF forces had taken over all of Hajin (Al-Durar Al-Shamiya, December 30, 2018). The SDF repelled ISIS counterattacks. It was reported that at the same time, fierce battles were taking place around the town of Al-Kashmah, 11 km southeast of Hajin. Thus, the SDF forces threaten to take over the northern part of the ISIS-controlled enclave and push ISIS southward, towards Albukamal. The Coalition planes still provide the Kurdish forces with air support, playing an important role in the SDF campaign. In addition, the Iraqi Air Force continues to attack ISIS targets in the Albukamal area.
- On December 28 and 30, 2018, the SDF forces attacked ISIS positions in the city of Hajin and its environs. Clashes between the two sides lasted for several hours. Several ISIS operatives were killed and wounded, and the others fled. ISIS carried out counterattacks but was halted. Its operatives responded with sniper fire and mortar shells. The SDF forces reported that dozens of ISIS operatives were killed and many others were wounded. SDF sapper teams deactivated mines planted by ISIS in Hajin and its environs. Coalition aircraft carried out intensive airstrikes against ISIS positions (SDF Press, December 28 and 30, 2018). On December 31, 2018, ISIS carried out counterattacks against SDF positions southeast of Hajin. It was reported that four ISIS operatives were killed (ANHA; Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, December 31, 2018).
SDF fighter fires a mortar shell at ISIS positions in the Hajin area (SDF Press, December 30, 2018)
- According to a Syrian news website specializing in reports on the Deir ez-Zor area, the SDF forces started to advance from the city of Hajin southward. They reportedly took over from ISIS the villages of Abu Al-Khater (about 2 km southeast of Hajin) and Abu Al-Hassan (about 6 km southeast of Hajin) and they now advance towards the town of Al-Kashmah (11 km southeast of Hajin). The advance of the SDF forces southward is carried out with Coalition air support and artillery fire (Deir ez-Zor 24, December 29, 2018). On December 31, 2018, there were reports of fierce battles between ISIS and the SDF forces in the town of Al-Kashmah (Deir ez-Zor 24 Twitter account, December 31, 2018).
Iraqi Air Force airstrikes
- On December 31, 2018, Iraqi fighter planes carried out several airstrikes against ISIS positions and buildings in the village of Al-Susah, about 7 km northeast of Albukamal (Deir ez-Zor 24 Twitter account; Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath TV, December 31, 2018). A day earlier, on December 30, 2018, it was reported that Coalition planes also carried out several airstrikes against ISIS operatives in the village (Deir ez-Zor 24 Twitter account, December 30, 2018).
Losses sustained by ISIS and the SDF
- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that since the beginning of the attack on the ISIS enclave on September 10, 2018, a total of 1,050 ISIS operatives and 565 SDF fighters had been killed (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, December 30, 2018).
Struggle over the control of Manbij, west of the Euphrates
- This week, attention was shifted to the struggle over control in the city of Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, in what seems the beginning of a race to take over the Kurdish-controlled territories west of the Euphrates. Following President Trump’s statement, and in view of President Erdoğan’s threats, the Kurds approached the Syrian regime and reached an agreement with it, according to which the Syrian army would enter Manbij and the Kurdish forces would withdraw from it. In addition, it was reported that as part of the arrangement reached, the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River would be handed over to the Syrian regime.
- However, the situation on the ground is still unclear: a spokesman for the Syrian army stated that the army had entered Manbij and waved the Syrian flag. However, it seems that the flag was actually waved in one of the suburbs of Manbij and the city is still not under the control of the Syrian regime. In addition, US forces are still present in the city and the Kurdish forces haven’t been evacuated from it yet. In the background, there are reports that a Turkish-Russian agreement has been reached, according to which the control over the city will be handed over to a civil administration which is not affiliated with the Kurdish forces.
The Syrian army advances towards Manbij and the Tishreen Dam. The Turkish forces (in green) advance towards Manbij from the north (abduljabbar1612 Twitter account, December 30, 2018)
- A spokesman for the Syrian Armed Forces announced that the Syrian army had entered the city of Manbij and waved the Syrian flag. Russia and Iran welcomed the Syrian announcement. On the other hand, Turkish President Erdoğan maintained that the Syrian regime’s announcement was nothing but psychological warfare devoid of truth, and threatened “to teach the Kurdish militants a lesson” (SANA, December 28, 2018; Syria TV, December 28, 2018; Sputnik, December 30, 2018). Western media reported that the Syrian army was on the outskirts of Manbij, but there was no photographed evidence indicating that it had entered the city (The Guardian, December 28, 2018). There was another report on the presence of a Russian force near Manbij (Al-Akhbar, December 28, 2018). Sputnik News Agency released a photo showing the Syrian flag waving on the Tishreen Dam (Sputnik, December 30, 2018).
Right: The Syrian flag being waved by the Syrian army. According to the Al-Mayadeen Channel, the photos were taken inside the city of Manbij but it seems that it is on the outskirts of the city (Al-Mayadeen, December 28, 2018). Left: Turkish forces carrying the Turkish flag across the Syrian border, not far from Manbij (Syria TV, December 28, 2018)
Reports of an agreement between Russia and Turkey on the issue of Manbij
- On December 28, 2018, Reuters reported that a Turkish force and Turkish-backed rebel organizations were moving towards Manbij with the objective of “liberating it.” According to reports, in the Manbij area, there are some 8,000 fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, which is supported by Turkey (Syria TV, December 31, 2018; Orient News, December 30-31, 2018). However, according to a Khotwa News Agency report from December 30, 2018, Turkey ordered the rebel organizations affiliated with it to pull out from the vicinity of the city of Manbij. According to the report, following a meeting between Russian and Turkish representatives, it was agreed that Turkey would not launch a military operation in the eastern Euphrates Valley. According to reports on Al-Jazeera, at the meeting, the Russians and Turks reached an agreement on how to deal with the situation in Manbij. According to the agreement, the Syrian army will not enter the city, and control over it will be transferred to a civil administration that is not affiliated with any Kurdish military entity. According to the agreement, the Syrian opposition which is supported by Turkey (i.e., the rebel organizations affiliated with Turkey) will present candidates to the city administration (Al-Jazeera, December 31, 2018).
- In the ITIC’s assessment, it is possible that the agreement in question was reached at a meeting held in Russia on December 29, 2018, between Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The Russian Defense Ministry announced that the two ministers had discussed issues related to the situation in Syria, including the withdrawal of US forces from Syria and the situation in Idlib. The Russian minister of defense said at the start of the meeting that “this is a great opportunity to discuss the situation in Idlib, the non-escalation zones, the agreements reached in Istanbul, the steps taken in the wake of the agreements, and the situation east of the Euphrates River” (Russian Ministry of Defense website, December 29, 2018).
The killing of a senior Kurdish operative by ISIS
- ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of Marwan al-Fatih, a senior commander in the SDF (Al-Sham – Al-Hasakah Province, December 30, 2018). According to Kurdish sources, he was shot and killed while driving on the road between Deir ez-Zor and Al-Hasakah (Kurdistan 24, December 24, 2018). He was a member of the Democratic Council of Syria, the political arm of the SDF. Marwan al-Fatih held other senior positions in the institutions of the Kurds in northeastern Syria (Zaman al-Wasl, December 30, 2018).
Senior member of the Guardians of Religion Organization (affiliated with al-Qaeda) killed in the Daraa area
- A senior jihadi operative codenamed Abu Julaybib al-Urduni (i.e., the Jordanian; his real name is Iyad al-Tubasi) was recently killed in the Daraa area while trying to illegally cross the border into Jordan. He was accompanied by three other operatives. Abu Julaybib the Jordanian was one of the senior commanders of the Guardians of Religion Organization, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and was originally part of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. He came to the Daraa area from the Idlib area, the central area of the Guardians of Religion Organization. The Guardians of Religion Organization published a death notice.
Abu Julaybib, senior operative in the Guardians of Religion Organization, who was killed while trying to infiltrate from Daraa to Jordan (ISIS-affiliated Mu’ta News Agency, December 28, 2018)
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activities
- Following are the main terrorist and guerrilla activities carried out by ISIS this past week (based on ISIS’s claim of responsibility):
- Diyala Province:
- ISIS operatives attacked an Iraqi police outpost west of the city of Khanaqin (December 28, 2018). According to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, one policeman was killed and another was wounded. The outpost was set on fire and ammunition and equipment were destroyed (Iraq – Diyala Province, December 29, 2018).
- On December 28, 2018, ISIS operatives fired mortar shells at an Iraqi army position about 60 km north of Baqubah. No casualties were reported (Iraq – Diyala Province, December 29, 2018).
- Salah al-Din Province: ISIS announced that its operatives had attacked two houses of “agents” of the Iraqi government affiliated with the Popular Mobilization, east of the city Samarra. Two “agents” were killed (Iraq – Diyala Province, December 29, 2018).
- Diyala Province:
The activity of the Iraqi security forces
- Following are the main activities carried out by the Iraqi security forces this past week (according to the Iraqi media):
- The Iraqi Army Intelligence Directorate uncovered a workshop for manufacturing guided missiles in Al-Qaim, Al-Anbar Province (near the Iraqi-Syrian border). The army reportedly found there 13 guided missiles, 13 oxygen canisters, three missile launching pads, and explosives. Sapper teams blew up the weapons (Al-Sumaria, December 27, 2018).
- The Iraqi security forces located and destroyed six hideouts of ISIS operatives in the Al-Hawija District, 51 km west of Kirkuk (Iraqi News Agency, December 31, 2018).
- The Iraqi security forces launched an operation to locate ISIS squads in northeastern Diyala Province (about 78 km northeast of Baghdad). Those squads are responsible for detonating IEDs and carrying out terrorist attacks in the area (Iraqi News Agency, December 31, 2018).
- The Coalition planes carried out an airstrike against an ISIS hideout about 45 km southwest of Kirkuk, based on intelligence provided by the Iraqi security forces. Six ISIS operatives were killed (Iraqi News Agency, December 30, 2018).
- The Iraqi security forces located a hideout containing dozens of IEDs about 12 km northeast of Fallujah, in the Al-Anbar Province. The IEDs were detonated in a controlled manner (Iraqi News Agency, December 30, 2018).
- The Popular Mobilization (Shiite militias affiliated with Iran) and the Iraqi security forces launched an operation to locate ISIS operatives in the area of Tikrit, Salah al-Din Province (Al-Hashed.net, December 30, 2018).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
Detonation of an IED against a tourist bus in Giza
- On December 28, 2018, an IED was activated in Giza, about 5 km southwest of Cairo (in the area of the Pyramids). A tourist bus passing there was hit. Two Vietnamese tourists were killed and ten were wounded. The bus driver and a representative of the tourism company, both local residents, were among the wounded (Egyptian Interior Ministry’s Twitter account, December 28, 2018). So far, no claim of responsibility by ISIS was found.
ISIS’s attacks in northern Sinai
- ISIS’s Sinai Province claimed responsibility for destroying a military vehicle at an Egyptian army checkpoint south of Sheikh Zuweid. According to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, all the passengers of the vehicle were either killed or wounded (ISIS’s Sinai Province, December 29, 2018). The Egyptian Army spokesman denied that such an incident had taken place (Al-Masry Al-Youm, December 29, 2018).
Summary of the security forces’ campaign against ISIS in 2018
- The inter-Arab website Bawabat al-Ain released an infographic based on the Egyptian army’s announcements on its achievements in the war against ISIS’s Sinai Province during the first 11 months of 2018. According to the Egyptian army, 530 “terrorist operatives” were killed and 1,000 “terrorist operatives” and suspects of terrorist activity were apprehended. In addition, the Egyptian security forces hit ISIS’s infrastructure by locating explosives, motorcycles, weapons, destroying positions, and seizing drugs, which apparently finance ISIS’s activity (Bawabat al-Ain, December 28, 2018). In spite of that, ISIS’s Sinai Province keeps surviving and carrying out terrorist and guerrilla activity against the Egyptian security forces, mainly in northern Sinai.
Jihadi activity in other countries
Stabbing attack in Manchester, England
- On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2018, a man carried out a stabbing attack with a large kitchen knife at Victoria Railway Station in Manchester. Three people, including a policeman, were wounded. According to a video posted in the Snapchat messaging app, the attacker shouted “Allah Akbar” when he was put into the police car (The Mirror, January 1, 2019). He apparently also shouted “Allah Akbar” during the attack. According to BBC producer Sam Clack, who was present at the railway station during the stabbing attack, the stabber said “As long as you continue to bomb these countries, this will continue to happen” (Reuters; CNN, January 1, 2019). ISIS’s claim of responsibility for the attack has not yet been found, but it is possible that the attack was inspired by ISIS.
IED detonated at the entrance to a shopping center in the southern Philippines
- On December 31, 2018, an IED was detonated at the entrance to a shopping center in Cotabato City, in the southern Philippines. As a result, two people were killed and 28 were wounded. Philippine Army Division Commander Major General Cirilito Sobejana said that the IED “bears a signature characteristic of activity inspired by ISIS” (Reuters, December 31, 2018). To date, no claim of responsibility by ISIS has been found.
The scene of the attack (syria.news website, December 31, 2018)
The activity of ISIS’s various provinces around the world
- ISIS’s Al-Hayat Media Foundation recently published a weekly summary of the number of dead and wounded caused by the ISIS provinces to their enemies around the world (the summary pertains to the period between December 20 and 26, 2018). The numbers of losses published by ISIS are exaggerated and intended for propaganda purposes, but they provide a good indication of the scope of activity in ISIS’s provinces around the world.
- According to the report, most of the losses were in Iraq (61). This is in line with the ITIC’s findings, whereby ISIS recently increased its terrorist and guerrilla attacks in Iraq. In second place is Syria (50), where ISIS is fighting against the SDF in the area north of Albukamal, followed by Libya (31), West Africa (20), Sinai (8), Khorasan (3) and Somalia (2).
Summary of the activity of ISIS’s provinces around the world between December 20 and 26, 2018 (ISIS’s Al-Hayat Media Foundation, December 27, 2018)
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
- A German news website reported the arrest of an 18-year-old German citizen in Hamburg. According to the local police, he served as a recruiter for ISIS. He operated on social media, which he also used to encourage acts of violence against police officers. The local authorities confirmed that additional incriminating evidence was found during a search carried out in the suspect’s apartment, but refused to disclose details (Deutsche Welle, December 23, 2018).
The battle for hearts and minds
The ISIS campaign encouraging its supporters to carry out attacks during the Christmas season continues
- ISIS and its supporters continue to wage a campaign calling on ISIS’s supporters to carry out attacks during the Christmas season. The main target audience for the calls is ISIS supporters in the West, to which Russia and Turkey have been added.
Right: Poster calling on ISIS’s supporters to carry out attacks during the Christmas season (Telegram, December 29, 2018). Left: ISIS poster addressing the “Soldiers of the Caliphate” in the West and calling on them to carry out attacks during the Christmas season. The poster includes a list of important churches in Spain, Russia, France, Belgium, Turkey, Australia and elsewhere (Telegram, December 30, 2018).
Right: Poster calling on the Muwahideen (“people of the oneness of Allah,” i.e., ISIS’s supporters and operatives) to carry out attacks against the “infidels” on New Year’s Eve, against a background of fireworks and an ISIS operative throwing a Molotov cocktail at the celebrators (Telegram, December 31, 2018). Left: Encouraging attacks in Spain by supporters of ISIS (Telegram, December 30, 2018)
 According to Saudi media reports, relying on “sources in the eastern part of the Euphrates,” the US army has already begun to evacuate its bases from various locations east of the Euphrates. According to these sources, the US is not expected to leave its heavy weapons in the hands of the Kurdish forces (Okaz, December 31, 2018). ↑
 The Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River was built in 1999 for the production of electricity. A power station which is the source of the main power supply to the city of Aleppo is situated nearby. The SDF forces took control of the dam on December 16, 2015. ↑
 There is another version based on Syrian media sources. According to this version, Abu Julaybib was killed in an ambush by the Syrian army security service, while attempting to return to Daraa in order to renew the operation of the Guardians of Religion Organization in the area (Syria TV website, December 29, 2018). ↑
 For details see the ITIC’s Information Bulletin from December 6, 2017: “Fierce dispute between the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and Al-Qaeda.” ↑
 Around 75% of the residents of Cotabato City are Sunni Muslims. ↑