The presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran at the Sochi Conference (Russian President’s Twitter account, February 14, 2019)
SDF fighters near the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani, ISIS’s last stronghold
Recoilless gun, rockets and ammunition crates of ISIS, found in searches carried out by the SDF forces in Al-Baghouz Fawqani (SDF Press, February 14, 2019)
Three cars burning at the scene of the car bomb explosion in Al-Raqqah (raedsyrian002@raedsyrian002 Twitter account, February 17, 2019)
The vehicle shot at north of Al-Mayadeen (Furat Post Facebook page, February 17, 2019)
Vehicle of the Iraqi security forces on fire after an IED was detonated against it (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019)
Mortar shells fired at a Shiite village northeast of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019)
Main events of the week
- The campaign waged by the SDF forces against the ISIS enclave, which has lasted for over five months, is drawing to a close. In the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani, east of Albukamal, several hundred ISIS operatives are still trapped in an area of about half a square kilometer in size. The SDF forces are encountering many difficulties as they advance in the village due to mines and sniper fire, and the use of tunnels and suicide bombers by ISIS. The forces are now preparing for an attack that will determine the battle, and will finally eliminate the “pocket” where ISIS operatives still remain. At the same time, the United States and the international community are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with the large number of prisoners who fell into the hands of the SDF, among them foreign fighters from dozens of countries, including Western European countries (see separate document on this issue).
- Following are the main developments during the past week in other confrontation and friction zones throughout Syria:
- Idlib and its environs: This week, the exchanges of artillery fire between the Syrian army and the rebel organizations continued, at a higher intensity than in the previous weeks. It was reported that at the Sochi Summit held last week, the Turks objected to a Syrian army operation aimed at restoring Syrian sovereignty. It was reported that Russia might give the Assad regime the green light to attack Idlib and its environs. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Idlib was a serious problem and that the Russian government’s patience with the situation in Idlib was running out.
- In the deserts in eastern and southern Syria, the Syrian army carried out offensive operations against ISIS operatives, who continued to conduct guerrilla warfare. This week, the Syrian army mounted an operation east of Palmyra. Syrian planes also attacked the remains of the ISIS enclave in Al-Safa, northeast of As-Suwayda. On the other hand, ISIS is conducting guerrilla warfare against the SDF forces in the Upper Euphrates Valley. This week, ISIS’s activity centered on attacks in Al-Raqqah and in the areas of Deir ez-Zor and Al-Mayadeen.
- While ISIS’s main control zone in the Lower Euphrates Valley is about to fall into the hands of the SDF, ISIS continued to fight in other arenas. Noteworthy incidents of the past week:
- ISIS’s Sinai Province – operatives of the province attacked an Egyptian army checkpoint near the Al-Arish Airport, killing 15 Egyptian soldiers. This multi-casualty attack shows that despite the ongoing campaign waged by the Egyptian security forces against the Sinai Province, they are having difficulty uprooting it. The attacks carried out by ISIS operatives continue, with an emphasis on the northern Sinai region.
- In Iraq, ISIS networks continue to carry out intensive military activity in the Sunni (and mixed Sunni-Shiite) provinces in northern Iraq. Noteworthy attacks in the past week include the detonation of IEDs, attacks on the Iraqi security forces and Shiite villages, and abductions of civilians (for ransom purposes or as bargaining chips for the release of prisoners). In addition, ISIS’s West Africa Province, whose activity has been increasing of late, carried out a large number of attacks this week.
Russia’s position on the issue of Idlib
- Concurrently with the Warsaw Conference, led by the United States (February 13-14, 2019), the second Sochi Conference (February 14, 2019) was held with the participation of the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran. The conference covered a range of issues related to Syria, including the issue of the Idlib and Manbij enclaves, a subject on which the participants do not agree. At this stage, it is not known whether accords were reached on the issue of Idlib and Manbij, and if so, what was agreed on. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan told journalists on his return from the summit that there might be joint operations (i.e., of Turkey with other countries) in Idlib against “extremist terrorist operatives” (Hürriyet Daily News, February 16, 2019).
The presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran at the Sochi Conference
(Russian President’s Twitter account, February 14, 2019)
- According to a report by the France 24 news channel, during a bilateral meeting between the presidents of Russia and Turkey before the Sochi Conference, differences of opinion arose over the Idlib issue. Russia is reportedly insisting on a military operation that would restore control of the province to the Syrian regime. However, the Turkish president objected because he wanted to topple Syrian President Assad, and therefore did not want to hand over the control of the Idlib Province to him. The Russians, on their part, made it clear that they supported the restoration of Syria’s sovereignty over all its territory, including the Idlib Province. Erdoğan backed down from his position but persisted in his refusal to have the Syrian army invade the Idlib Province. It was also reported that Russia would soon give the Syrian army the green light to attack the Idlib region (France 24, February 16, 2019).
- Russian Foreign Ministry officials discussed the Idlib issue during the security conference held in Munich. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said that 90% of the terrorists belonged to the Al-Nusra Front (i.e., the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham) and that Russia’s position is that it was impossible to reach an agreement with the terrorist organizations in Idlib (TASS News Agency, February 17, 2019). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Russian government’s patience with the situation in Idlib was running out. The Foreign Minister stressed the importance of eliminating all the terrorist elements in the region (AMN, February 17, 2019).
The Idlib region
Incidents continue between the Syrian army and the jihadi organizations
- Local incidents continued in the Idlib region between the Syrian army and the jihadi rebel organizations. It seems that this week, incidents have escalated. The Syrian army fired artillery at command posts, fortifications and staging zones of the rebel organizations in the rural area north of Hama. This included artillery fire at targets of the Turkestan Islamic Party (Uyghur operatives who came from China). Several of their command posts were destroyed and some of their operatives were killed or wounded (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, February 14, 2019). The Syrian army also fired artillery at positions of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham southeast of Idlib. At the same time, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham continues to kill high ranking ISIS operatives and vice versa.
The operative in charge of neutralizing mines in the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, Ziyad Abu Ahmad, who was killed by ISIS southeast of Idlib (Telegram, February 17, 2019)
- In this context, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Syrian army and the forces supporting it had fired over 600 rockets, gun and mortar shells. The artillery was fired at the rural areas south of Idlib and north and northwest of Hama. The sites which were attacked included the cities of Khan Shaykhun and Maarat Numan, south of Idlib (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 16, 2019). The Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that the Syrian army had fired 20-25 rockets at the city of Khan Shaykhun, south of Idlib.
- The rebel organizations fired artillery at areas under the Syrian army’s control west and south of Aleppo and north of Hama (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 16, 2019). The rebel organizations fired two rockets which hit the power station in Mahrada, about 19 km northwest of Hama. The power station sustained damage (Syrian@SyriawatanNews Twitter account, which is affiliated with the Syrian regime and operating from Latakia, February 16, 2019).
Right: Artillery fire of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it at the city of Khan Shaykhun, south of Idlib. Left: Buildings in the city which were hit by the artillery fire
(Ibaa videos, February 16, 2019)
- Due to the escalation, a delegation of council chairmen and local dignitaries from the Al-Ghab Plain (southwest of Idlib) met with Turkish officers and senior officials. The Turks made it clear to the delegation that Turkey was monitoring the situation and was putting pressure on Russia and Iran to stop the attacks. The Turks promised to the delegation that no Syrian military action was due for the near future and that control in the area would remain as it was (Khotwa, February 18, 2019).
Fighting against ISIS’s last stronghold around the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani
- The SDF campaign against the ISIS enclave in the Lower Euphrates Valley is nearing its end. According to media reports, around the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani (east of Albukamal), there are several hundred ISIS operatives trapped in an area of about half a square kilometer. The ISIS operatives remaining there reportedly refuse to surrender and are fiercely fighting against the SDF fighters. For the time being, there is a flimsy ceasefire, during which the Kurdish forces are preparing for an attack designed to finally terminate the ISIS “pocket.” Negotiations reportedly take place during the lull in order to achieve an agreement that will bring about the surrender of the last ISIS operatives (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 19, 2019).
The area of the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani (updated to February 16, 2019): The dotted area is the “pocket” remaining in the hands of ISIS; The SDF forces are marked in yellow; The Syrian army forces are marked in red (ISWN, February 16, 2019)
- According to several spokesmen on behalf of the SDF, their forces encounter many difficulties in their advance in the village of Al-Baghouz due to mines, sniper fire and ISIS tunnels. In addition, it was reported that ISIS was making use of suicide bombers. The SDF forces operating in Al-Baghouz took control of ISIS weapons and ammunition. Coalition planes carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets, in support of the SDF forces (Deir ez-Zor 24 Twitter account, February 15, 2019).
Right: SDF fighters near the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani, ISIS’s last stronghold. Left: Al-Baghouz Fawqani (Syria TV, February 18, 2019)
- According to Mostafa Bali, the head of the SDF Press Center, ISIS is holding civilians hostage in Al-Baghouz Fawqani and refuses to let them go (Mostafa Bali’s Twitter account, February 16, 2019). On the ground, there are reportedly about 2,000 residents who are prevented from departing by the ISIS operatives (Asharq Al-Awsat, February 18, 2019). According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, trucks arrived in the ISIS “pocket” in order to evacuate local residents and possibly also families of ISIS operatives. At this stage, it is unclear whether the attempt to rescue the civilians was successful (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 20, 2019).
Dozens of tons of gold and huge amounts of money held by ISIS operatives reportedly seized
- According to a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on February 16, 2019, helicopters of the International Coalition landed near the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani. They transferred crates taken by the SDF from ISIS’s depots and brought them to an unknown place. It is estimated that the crates contained about 40 tons of gold and tens of millions of dollars (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 16, 2019). The ITIC has no verification for this information.
Syrian army campaign against ISIS in the deserts east of Palmyra
- While fighting against the ISIS enclave east of the Euphrates is nearing its end, the Syrian army launched a campaign against ISIS operatives in the deserts east of the city of Palmyra. The Syrian News Agency reported that the Syrian army had managed to seize large amounts of weapons and ammunition, including explosive belts, and a lot of military equipment (SANA, February 14, 2019).
ISIS weapons, ammunition and military equipment seized by the Syrian army
(SANA, February 14, 2019)
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity in the Al-Raqqah region continues
- ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla operations in Al-Raqqah (ISIS’s former “capital” in Syria) continue:
- According to the ISIS-affiliated Mu’ta News Agency, in the city of Al-Raqqah, two bodies of SDF fighters were found with marks of gunshots (Drexl Spivey@RisboLensky Twitter account, February 15, 2019).
- On February 17, 2019, a car bomb exploded in Al-Raqqah. Damage was caused to property but there were no reports of casualties (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 18, 2019). So far, no claim of responsibility was found, but it is reasonable to assume that ISIS was behind the attack.
ISIS’s guerrilla activity around Al-Mayadeen in the Euphrates Valley
- ISIS operatives carry out guerrilla activity against the SDF forces around the city of Al-Mayadeen (southeast of Deir ez-Zor) and the city of Deir ez-Zor. These two cities are outside the ISIS enclave which mostly fell into the hands of the SDF. It appears that behind those ISIS attacks are ISIS networks operating in the area, which is yet to be mopped up thoroughly.
- Following are reports of attacks carried out in the past week:
- On February 16, 2019, ISIS operatives attacked the SDF forces in a village about 14 km north of Al-Mayadeen. The SDF spokesman announced that three members of an ISIS sleeper cell who had carried out the attack were killed. During searches conducted by the SDF, two foreign fighters were apprehended (Mostafa Bali’s Twitter account, February 16, 2019).
- On February 17, 2019, two persons unknown (in the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS operatives) mounted on motorcycles had shot at a van with an SDF fighter about 9 km north of Al-Mayadeen. Two civilians were wounded and the fighter fled the scene (Furat Post Facebook page, February 17, 2019).
- On February 17, 2019, persons unknown (possibly ISIS operatives) shot at an SDF fighter in a village about 5 km north of Deir ez-Zor. The shots were fired from the east bank of the Euphrates. The fighter was wounded (Deir ez-Zor 24 Twitter account, February 17, 2019). So far, no claim of responsibility was found, but it may be assumed that ISIS operatives were behind the attack.
Fighting continues against the last remaining operatives in the ISIS enclave northeast of As-Suwayda
- In the Al-Safa area northeast of As-Suwayda, there are still ISIS operatives remaining even after the Syrian army had ostensibly finished mopping up the area. This week it was reported that following the reappearance of ISIS operatives, the Syrian Air Force had resumed its airstrikes against the Al-Safa area. It is estimated that about 200 ISIS operatives are in the area, some of them locals and others foreign fighters (Al-Modon, February 14, 2019).
Main developments in Iraq
ISIS’s terrorist and guerrilla activity
- Following are the highlights of ISIS’s activity in the past week (according to ISIS’s reports):
- Salah al-Din Province: An IED was detonated against a vehicle belonging to the Iraqi security forces east of Tikrit (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019).
- Diyala Province: Mortar shells were fired at a Shiite village some 70 km northeast of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 14, 2019).Diyala Province: A rocket was fired at the Iraqi security forces in the area of the village of Qara Tapa, some 112 km east of Baqubah (Shabakat Shumukh, February 16, 2019).
- The Iraqi-Saudi border: According to an Iraqi security source, ISIS abducted seven residents some 100 km north of the Iraqi-Saudi border. Three days previously, three civilians were abducted in the city of Rawa, in Al-Anbar Province (Al-Sumaria, February 18, 2019). These abductions may indicate a modus operandi aimed at obtaining bargaining chips for the release of prisoners or for collecting a ransom.
Counterterrorist activities by the Iraqi security forces
- Following are the main counterterrorist activities carried out by the Iraqi security forces:
- Al-Anbar Province: A force of the 7th Division (Iraqi Army) and the Tribal Mobilization (Sunni militias loyal to the Iraqi regime) rescued two residents of Haditha who had been abducted by ISIS (Iraqi News Agency, February 16, 2019).
- Al-Anbar Province: The Iraqi security forces detained a senior ISIS commander at a checkpoint in the city of Ramadi. The commander was taken for questioning (Iraqi News Agency, February 18, 2019).
- Nineveh Province: An Iraqi intelligence force blew up a car bomb driven by a suicide bomber about 10 km northwest of Mosul (Al-Sumaria News, February 17, 2019).
- Nineveh Province: A police force detained three ISIS operatives in eastern Mosul. The three were active in ISIS’s ministry of the army during the period when ISIS controlled the city. One of them was a senior commander (Iraqi News Agency, February 18, 2019).
- Popular Mobilization sappers found ammunition and dozens of IEDs belonging to ISIS during searches carried out some 36 km southeast of Mosul. They were detonated in a controlled manner (al-hashed.net, February 17, 2019).
EFPs, shells and pressure-sensitive bars found by a Popular Mobilization force southeast of Mosul (al-hashed.net, February 17, 2019)
- Karbala Province: Acting on intelligence, the Intelligence and Counterterrorism Directorate of the Karbala Province found an arsenal of weapons and equipment belonging to ISIS (Al-Sumaria, February 15, 2019).
The Sinai Peninsula and Egypt
Attack on an Egyptian checkpoint near Al-Arish Airport
- On the morning of February 16, 2019, ISIS operatives attacked an Egyptian army checkpoint in the Al-Safa neighborhood near Al-Arish Airport. There were exchanges of fire between the sides, in which 15 Egyptian soldiers were killed (including the checkpoint commander, an officer with the rank of lieutenant). According to the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman, a manhunt for the ISIS operatives was underway south of Al-Arish (Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman, August 16, 2019).
ISIS attack against the Egyptian army checkpoint
(Shabakat Shumukh, February 19, 2019)
Egyptian army weapons that fell into the hands of ISIS
(Shabakat Shumukh, February 19, 2019)
Right: Coffins of soldiers killed in the ISIS attack, draped with Egyptian flags (Kekoo@kariiimahmeeed Twitter account, February 17, 2019). Left: Lieutenant Abd al-Rahman Ali Mohammad, the officer who was killed in the attack (Egypt’s Military News@Egy_military Twitter account, February 16, 2019)
- ISIS’s Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility, ISIS’s operatives attacked an Egyptian army post near Al-Arish Airport and 20 soldiers were killed in the attack. The rest of the soldiers at the post fled the scene. ISIS operatives took control of the post and seized weapons and booty (Shabakat Shumukh, February 16, 2019).
 The power station in Mahrada was inaugurated in April 1979. It has four units for producing electricity with a capacity of 660 mW (Syrian Ministry of Electricity, June 16, 2009). In 2016, the power station was attacked by the rebel organizations many times. It went up in flames and was put out of commission. In 2017, it underwent maintenance and was connected once again to the Syrian power grid (Al-Khabar, a Syrian news website, May 4, 2017). ↑