The meeting between the Russian president and the Austrian chancellor.
The press conference held by the two heads of state after their meeting (Russian President’s website, October 3, 2018)
New operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham who finished their studies in the Sharia institute named after Ibn Taymiyyah in a mosque in the Idlib rural area (Ibaa News Agency affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, October 8, 2018)
Syrian Army rockets being launched at ISIS targets in the Al-Safa area (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, October 4, 2018)
Demonstration by the residents of As-Suwayda to release the women and children abducted by ISIS.
Column of Egyptian army armored vehicles during Operation Sinai 2018.
Main events of the week
- Operatives of the National Liberation Front (which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and operates under the protection of Turkey and with its support) began implementing the Russian-Turkish agreement and withdrawing heavy weapons from the Idlib area, which has been declared a demilitarized zone. Turkish patrol forces have begun to enter the area. At present, it is not clear whether the other opposition organizations are working to fulfill their part in the agreement and withdraw their forces. Under the agreement signed on September 17, 2018, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Russian city of Sochi, a demilitarized zone will be established along the line of contact between the forces of the Syrian regime and the opposition forces. According to the timetable set for the agreement, the “radical armed forces” will be withdrawn by October 10, 2018, and a demilitarized zone will be established by October 15, 2018.
- In the area to the north of Albukamal, SDF forces, with the help of International Coalition forces, continue to attack ISIS outposts. The center of the fighting was in the Al-Susah area. Coalition planes dropped leaflets calling on ISIS operatives to surrender. On October 6, 2018, it was reported that Russian forces had deployed in the rural area of Albukamal. This was for the first time since the Syrian army and the forces supporting it took over the west bank of the Euphrates River from ISIS.
- ISIS continues to threaten targets in European countries, this time focusing on concerts such as the May 2017 attack in Manchester, England.
Russian and US involvement in Syria
- At the International Russian Energy Forum (which was held in Moscow on October 3-6, 2018), Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the presence of US forces in Syria. He replied that by its very presence in Syria, the US is violating the UN Charter and international law. He said that the United States must obtain a mandate from the UN Security Council or receive an invitation from the Syrian government to deploy its forces in the country. Putin also noted that despite the illegal presence of the United States in Syria, Russia had cooperated with it in the fight against terrorism, particularly in the struggle against ISIS. However, according to him, ISIS is gradually ceasing to exist in Syria and therefore there is no justification for the US presence. Putin added that the aspiration is for no foreign forces to remain on Syrian soil, including the Russian forces (Russian President’s website, October 3, 2018).
Summary of Russian involvement in Syria
- Viktor Bondarev, Chairman of Russia’s Defense and Security Council and former Russian Air Force commander, said at a press conference that during the three years of Russia’s operation in Syria, it had lost 112 members of the Russian security forces. Russia also lost eight airplanes, seven helicopters, and one or two armored vehicles. Bondarev noted that Russia’s counterterrorism activities in Syria helped protect Russia from terrorists since many of them held Russian citizenship. He said that according to the Russian General Staff, around 4,000 fighters with Russian passports and around 5,000 citizens of the Soviet Republics fought alongside the Islamic State. He noted that these figures include only those fighters who were identified (TASS News Agency, September 30, 2018).
The United States
- According to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, despite the current tension between Turkey and the United States, the armies of the two countries will soon begin a series of joint patrols in the Manbij area and soldiers from both armies will soon carry out a joint exercise to prepare them for the mission (Reuters, October 2, 2018). Two days later, Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin claimed that the United States was delaying the start of the joint Turkish-US patrols in Manbij which were agreed upon by the two countries and that Turkey saw this as a growing problem (Reuters, October 4, 2018).
Implementing the agreement in the Idlib area
Statements made by the parties involved
- In a press conference held by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after their meeting in Saint Petersburg, Putin addressed the issue of establishing the demilitarized zone in Idlib, regarding which Russia reached an agreement with Turkey. According to Putin, “armed operatives” were brought to Idlib from all around Syria, including representatives of radical organizations such as ISIS and the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. These organizations often attack Syrian towns and villages (including Aleppo, the second largest city in the country), and more serious than that, the Idlib area is used as a base for attempted attacks against Russian military facilities (including the Hmeymim airbase). Putin noted that they were coordinated with Turkey on this issue and that the efforts taking place in Idlib at the present time would not have been possible without coordination with the Syrian authorities and without Iranian support. At the end of his statement, Putin expressed hope that based on the agreement, it would be possible to avoid a large-scale military operation in the area (Russian President’s website, October 3, 2018).
- According to a statement by Russian Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, the steps taken to implement the Russian-Turkish agreement on Idlib have a special impact on the situation in Syria. Zakharova stressed that Russia is committed to continue its relentless struggle against terrorism in Syria until its complete elimination (Russian Foreign Ministry website, October 4, 2018).
- Speaking at a meeting of the Baath Party’s Central Committee, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that hysteria could be felt among the Western countries in relation to the campaign in Idlib because, as he put it, this is a fateful campaign for them. Assad noted that a Syrian victory in the Idlib campaign would thwart the Western countries’ plans regarding Syria and serve as an example for the countries of the region and the entire world. Regarding the agreement in Idlib, Assad said that this region, like other Syrian territories controlled by terrorist operatives, would once again become part of the homeland (Syrian News Agency, October 7, 2018).
Implementing the arrangement
- On October 6, 2018, Naqib (Captain) Naji al-Mustafa, the National Liberation Front official spokesman, released a leaflet announcing that in accordance with the Sochi Agreement, they began to pull out the heavy weapons from the Idlib demilitarized zone (Radio Al-Kul, October 7, 2018). Using trucks, the Free Syrian Army reportedly began to withdraw heavy weapons, including field guns, rockets, rocket launchers, mortar shells and more. According to a source in the Free Syrian Army, for the time being, heavy weapons are mainly withdrawn from the rural area north of Hama and the southwestern fronts of the Idlib Province. According to a report of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights from October 9, 2018, most of the demilitarized zone is free of heavy weapons (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 9, 2018).
Right: Operatives of the National Liberation Front in an area controlled by the rebel forces (Radio Al-Kul, October 7, 2018). Left: The evacuation of a Free Syrian Army tank, with the organization flag waved on top (marked with a circle in the original) from the demilitarized zone in the Idlib area (Secular Syria Twitter account, October 8, 2018)
- Media outlets of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, the dominant jihadi organization in the Idlib area, have not released any official information on pulling out the weapons from the area. An opposition source said that over the past few days, operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham had pulled out a large portion of their light weapons from the demilitarized zone around Idlib (Al-Modon, October 9, 2018). At the same time, the organization operatives continued to report their activity for mobilizing new recruits in the area (Ibaa News Agency affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, October 8, 2018).
Propaganda activity by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham
- Shortly before the evacuation of the forces from the Idlib area, Balagh Media Foundation of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham released a video entitled Three Messages on behalf of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. The video shows an operative of the organization codenamed Abu Qutaiba al-Shami (i.e., the Syrian) addressing a threat to the Syrian regime, the Russian forces and the pro-Iranian forces operating in Syria. He warns them from entering the Idlib area. The operative concludes his message saying that “glory is in jihad and bearing arms” and cites a Quranic verse (Telegram, October 6, 2018).
Abu Qutaiba al-Shami (i.e., the Syrian) in the video (Telegram, October 6, 2018)
- Turkey sent armored vehicles to the areas which should be patrolled in the demilitarized zone (Enab Baladi, October 8, 2018). In this context, it was reported that on October 3, 2018, the Turkish parliament renewed the country’s authority to carry out operations across the border with Syria and Iraq. The renewal is for a period of one year (Daily Sabah, October 3, 2018).
- Shortly before the implementation of the agreement and the preparations for establishing the demilitarized zone, tension and clashes between the various elements operating in the area continued. Following are prominent events:
- On October 4, 2018, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham reported that a Syrian army tank had been hit by a rocket launched by the antitank unit of the organization in the Kurd Mountains northeast of Latakia (Ibaa News Agency affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, October 4, 2018).
The announcement of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham on hitting a Syrian army tank (Ibaa, News Agency affiliated with the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, October 4, 2018)
- Near the village of Taftanaz (about 14 km northeast of Idlib), the Free Syrian Army’s National Liberation Front halted an ISIS attack against one of the organization headquarters (National Liberation Front’s Twitter account, October 4, 2018).
- On October 5, 2018, the Syrian army attacked in the south of the rebel enclave in Idlib, in an area supposed to be part of the demilitarized zone according to the Russian-Turkish agreement (Qasiyoun, October 5, 2018).
The area attacked by the Syrian army (Qasiyoun, October 5, 2018)
- In the village of Halab (about 26 km southwest of Aleppo), operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham attacked operatives of the Nur al-Din al-Zenki Movement, which is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army’s National Liberation Front. According to the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, the attack was carried out due to the “Nur al-Din al-Zenki Movement’s inclination to reach reconciliation arrangements with the Syrian regime” (Khotwa, October 5, 2018). After 36 hours of clashes and several fatalities, a lull agreement was reached between the sides (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 6, 2018).
- Operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham attacked in the village of Marat Masri (about 8 km north of Idlib) an ISIS headquarters. Six ISIS operatives were killed in the attack, and two prisoners held by the organization were released (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 7, 2018).
- Syrian army units fired artillery at operatives of the Turkestan Islamic Party (Uygur operatives of Chinese descent) who tried to infiltrate into the Syrian army positions in the area of the village of Mansoura, the southwestern part of the Idlib Province. Many operatives were killed, and others retreated (SANA, October 7, 2018).
The Deir ez-Zor-Albukamal area
The Kurdish forces (in yellow) continue to advance northward and repel ISIS operatives (in black) (Twitter, October 5, 2018)
- On October 5, 2018, the International Coalition forces situated around the village of Al-Baghouz Fawqani fired mortar shells and artillery at areas held by ISIS in the village of Muzan, east of Al-Susah and on the outskirts of the village of Al-Susah (Furat Post Facebook page, October 6, 2018).
SDF fighters in the area of Al-Baghouz Fawqani (Ivan Hassib YouTube channel, October 6, 2018)
- In the ISIS-controlled Hajin area, there were clashes between the Kurdish forces and ISIS operatives. Several ISIS operatives were reportedly killed (SDF Media Center, October 4, 2018). The International Coalition forces deployed in the military base of the Al-Omar oil field, north of Al-Mayadeen, fired several surface-to-surface missiles at the city of Hajin (Furat Post, October 5, 2018).
- In the city of Al-Busayrah (about 15 km north of Al-Mayadeen), two ISIS operatives on a motorcycle threw IEDs, killing four SDF fighters (Furat Post Twitter account, October 4, 2018).
- On October 3, 2018, ISIS detonated a car bomb against a vehicle of the SDF forces in the village of Gharanij, about 38 km north of Albukamal. Four SDF fighters were killed and several others were wounded (Furat Post Facebook page, October 3, 2018).
- ISIS announced that its operatives had made SDF fighters enter a minefield around the village of Al-Baghouz. As a result, several SDF fighters were killed and wounded (Twitter, October 6, 2018).
Russian forces deployed in the Albukamal rural area
- On October 6, 2018, Russian forces reportedly deployed in the Albukamal rural area for the first time since the Syrian army and the forces supporting it took over the west bank of the Euphrates River from ISIS. According to the report, Russia is interested in having a presence in the region, which is controlled by Iranian militias and whose airspace is controlled by the International Coalition planes. In addition, it may have the intention of setting up a military airfield in the Deir ez-Zor Province, its second in Syria, after the Hmeymim airfield (Syria TV, October 6, 2018).
Presence of Russian soldiers in the Albukamal area on the west bank of the Euphrates River (Syria TV, October 6, 2018)
The campaign in the area of As-Suwayda
- In the area of As-Suwayda, the Syrian army continued its advance in the eastern part of the As-Suwayda Desert and is working to reinforce its hold on the areas that it has liberated from ISIS. The Syrian regime’s media reported that the Syrian army and the forces supporting it had advanced in the area northwest of ISIS’s stronghold Al-Safa, taking over several sites in the area (SANA News Agency, October 5, 2018). It was also reported that the Syrian army had foiled an attempt by ISIS operatives to infiltrate into one of its positions along one of Al-Safa’s routes. Some of the ISIS operatives, including snipers wearing explosive belts, were killed (SANA News Agency, October 7, 2018).
- On October 7, 2018, the Syrian army, with Russian air support, took over several ISIS positions in the area of the tomb of Sheikh Hussein (located in the western part of Al-Safa). Over 10 ISIS operatives were killed (Al-Masdar News, October 7, 2018).
Druze hostage executed by ISIS
- On October 2, 2018, ISIS announced that it had executed Thuraya Abu Amar, one of the Druze hostages, who had been in the hands of the organization since July 30, 2018. This led to demonstrations by dozens of residents of As-Suwayda. The demonstrators protested the execution and the fact that the Syrian and Russian authorities failed to find a way to release the hostages held by ISIS. As part of the protests, the demonstrators blocked the building which serves as the seat of the provincial governor on behalf of the Syrian regime, and the road leading to the city center (Syria.net, October 2, 2018; As-Suwayda 24 Facebook page, October 6, 2018). Following the demonstrations, the regime forces blocked most of the roads leading to the As-Suwayda city center (Syria.net, October 9, 2018).
Right: Demonstration by the residents of As-Suwayda to release the women and children abducted by ISIS. Left: Photos of the hostages (As-Suwayda 24 Facebook page, October 5, 2018)
- On October 7, 2018, it was reported that in order to promote the deal for the release of the male and female hostages, the Syrian regime had agreed to release 38 female detainees (family members of ISIS commanders) held by it (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 7, 2018). In addition to the release of the detainees, ISIS is demanding a $1 million ransom for each of the 27 hostages (Rusiya Al-Youm, October 4, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
The activity of the Iraqi security forces
- The Iraqi security forces continue their intensive activities to foil ISIS’s activity in Iraq. Following are the main operations carried out by the Iraqi security forces this past week:
- The Rutba area:
- A senior ISIS operative who was in charge of the organization south of Rutba, and two of his escorts, were arrested and their vehicles destroyed by the Iraqi army in the western Al-Anbar Province. It was reported that the detained official was responsible for planting IEDs targeting Iraqi security forces and civilians (Iraqi News, October 3, 2018).
- An Iraqi army force detained four ISIS operatives in the Al-Wadi area, in the Rutba District, in the western part of the Al-Anbar Province. In addition, three ISIS hiding places were destroyed, seven IEDs were detonated in a controlled manner, and an anti-tank missile launching pad was discovered (Iraqi News Agency, October 4, 2018).
- The Mosul area: An Iraqi army force arrested members of an ISIS sleeper squad in the Al-Sahaji area, about 13 km west of Mosul (Iraqi News Agency, October 5, 2018).
- The Rutba area:
A column of Iraqi army vehicles during activity against ISIS (Iraqi News Agency, October 4, 2018)
- The Kirkuk area: Between the Tigris River and the village of Al-Hawaij, some 84 km southwest of Kirkuk, an Iraqi army force found a tunnel that was used as a hiding place for ISIS operatives. The tunnel contained 15 kg of C4 plastic explosives, a solar panel for generating electricity, clothing and other equipment (Iraqi News Agency, October 5, 2018).
- The Baghdad area: An Iraqi army force, operating on the basis of intelligence, surrounded and killed three ISIS suicide bombers in the Al-Islah area, about 6 km southwest of Baghdad (Iraqi News Agency, October 7, 2018).
Due to the intensive counterterrorism activities of the Iraqi security forces, with the assistance of the International Coalition forces, it appears that despite their efforts, ISIS operatives who remain in Iraq are having difficulty operating and carrying out attacks. Rifts seem to have appeared within the leadership of ISIS in Iraq. In this context, it was reported that Abu Uthman al-Iraqi, the organization’s financial chief (Amir al-Mal), was executed on the orders of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Iraqi was accused of embezzling the organization’s funds and had intended to flee Iraq when he was arrested (Iraqi News Agency, October 4, 2018).
The Sinai Peninsula and Egypt
Senior ISIS official in the Sinai Peninsula killed by the Egyptian army
- On October 2, 2018, the Egyptian army announced that Abu Hamza al-Maqdisi, the most senior commander of ISIS’s Sinai Province, had been killed in an airstrike carried out by the Egyptian forces. Al-Maqdisi, a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip, was responsible for training ISIS operatives and planning and carrying out attacks (Al-Jazeera, October 2, 2018; Facebook page and website of the Sinai Tribal Union, October 3, 2018).
- ISIS announced the death of Al-Maqdisi on social media as part of its publications entitled “The Caravan of Shahids” (Twitter, October 2, 2018).
ISIS announcement distributed on social media (Twitter, October 2, 2018)
- In Announcement No. 28 issued by the Egyptian General Staff, the Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman summarized the achievements of the forces in the fight against terror in the Sinai Peninsula to date (Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman, October 8, 2018). In the wake of the announcement, an editorial in Al-Ahram stresses that the operation has realized its objectives of making it impossible for terrorist organizations to operate in the Sinai Peninsula after destroying all of their heavy weapons. The forces also managed to secure the border and prevent the infiltration of any terrorist organizations into Egypt. According to the editorial, the proof of success is the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks in recent months (Al-Ahram, October 9, 2018).
Counterterrorism and preventive activity
- The Libyan army announced that it had arrested ISIS’s leader (Emir) in Derna (Akhbar Libya, October 8, 2018). ISIS’s Emir Hisham Ali Ashmawi Masad was a 43-year-old Egyptian who served in the Egyptian army and the Egyptian Special Forces as a security officer, reaching the rank of ra’ed (major). In 2011, he was dismissed from military service following many instances of incitement against the Egyptian regime (Akhbar Libya, October 8, 2018; Masrawy, October 8, 2018).
- On April 27, 2013, he flew to Turkey and from there he infiltrated into Syria, where he underwent military training and learned how to make explosives. Upon his return to Egypt, he joined terrorist organizations. He took part in a number of terrorist attacks in Egypt, most notably the attempted assassination of former interior minister Liwa (General) Mohammad Ibrahim in 2013, the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat and the murder of 22 Egyptian soldiers in Wadi al-Farafrah in southwestern Egypt in 2014. Ashmawi was also one of the planners of the raid on the complex of Egyptian army Battalion 101 in 2015, in which 29 soldiers were killed. He was wounded in the attack in Wadi Al-Farafrah in 2014, but managed to cross the border from Egypt to Libya and made his way to the city of Derna (Akhbar Libya, October 8, 2018).
Card identifying Ra’ed (Major) Hisham Ali Ashmawi Masad as a retired Egyptian army officer (Sinai Tribal Union website, October 8, 2018)
The United States
- US President Donald Trump published the new US counterterrorism strategy, which stresses the Trump administration’s approach to prevention and eradication of terrorism. The strategy emphasizes that most of the counterterrorism infrastructure will be focused on the war on terrorism directed against the United States. Following are a number of key points (White House website, October 4, 2018):
- Muslim terrorist operatives, led by ISIS, pose the greatest threat to the United States. Despite the successful efforts of the United States and the Coalition countries in Syria and Iraq, ISIS continues to disseminate terrorism in the West. ISIS and Al-Qaeda are also trying to expand their influence and presence in Syria once again.
- In order to defeat Islamic terrorism, the destructive nature of its ideology must be exposed, and their use of the Internet to recruit operatives and carry out attacks must be thwarted.
- Iran is still the world’s most prominent supporter of terrorism. Terrorist organizations operate as its proxies, the most prominent being Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which possess strong military and intelligence forces. They pose a threat to the United States and the entire world.
- The strategy emphasizes the importance of using non-military means to fight terrorism, such as law enforcement, intelligence, diplomacy, and economic measures.
- In the Nangarhar Province of eastern Afghanistan, Afghan forces, with US support, carried out several airstrikes using drones against ISIS infrastructure and operatives. A few dozen ISIS operatives were reportedly killed and wounded in the airstrikes. ISIS training camps were also reportedly destroyed (www.khaama.com, October 7, 2018).
The battle for hearts and minds
ISIS is threatening to carry out more attacks at concerts around the world
- The Twitter account of ISIS’s Rimah Media Foundation posted a picture showing a man in a suit holding a knife behind his back, against the background of a concert. ISIS declares in the posting that it intends to “surprise” and attack at concerts in Europe. The last time a similar poster was published was in May 2017, after a terrorist attack in Manchester, England, in which many people were killed and wounded. The poster published at the time showed a bearded man and a wounded woman on a street corner in Manchester, near the scene of the attack. Next to the picture was an inscription reading, “We will keep our promise” (The Sun, October 6, 2018; PJ Media, October 5, 2018).