Syrian army tanks during the attack in eastern Al-Ghouta (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, March 11, 2018; SANA’s YouTube channel, March 12, 2018)
Syrian army tanks during the attack in eastern Al-Ghouta (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, March 11, 2018; SANA’s YouTube channel, March 12, 2018)
Iraqi army during a security activity (Iraqi News Agency, March 11, 2018)
Grad rockets found by the Egyptian army during security activity.
Ahram antitank missiles, the Egyptian version of the Russian Sagger antitank missile (official Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces, March 10, 2018)
Suicide bomber Hamza al-Muhajir, who blew up the car bomb in Aden.
Main events of the week
- This week, the fighting in Syria was concentrated in eastern Al-Ghouta, where the Syrian forces managed to divide the area controlled by the rebel organizations into three parts. The Syrian forces continue their ground fighting with air support, while the local residents are in severe distress. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 1,170 people were killed in eastern Al-Ghouta in 23 days of airstrikes and artillery shelling by the Syrian army.
- South of the city of Damascus, ISIS, which controls most of the area of the Yarmouk refugee camp, is preparing for the possibility that the Syrian effort will be directed against it after the fall of eastern Al-Ghouta. The other rebel organizations operating in the area prefer evacuation over cooperation with ISIS. This week, an agreement was reached in which some 1,800 militants and their families were evacuated from the Al-Qadam neighborhood (west of the Yarmouk refugee camp) to the Idlib area. ISIS accused the rebel organizations of having agreed to give their positions in Al-Qadam to the Syrian army in exchange for evacuation from the neighborhood.
- Another site of fighting is the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria. This week, the Turkish army announced that, together with the Free Syrian Army, it had completed the encirclement of Afrin as part of Operation Olive Leaf. According to the Turkish media, an agreement has been reached between Turkey and the United States, under which Turkey and the United States will observe the withdrawal of the YPG operatives (the Kurdish forces in Syria) from the city of Manbij (the city west of the Euphrates River, which is held by the Kurdish forces under the protection of the US).
- The Egyptian security forces, which are carrying out intensive security operations against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula, continue to report on their successes against ISIS (see video). ISIS, on its part, has warned the Egyptians to stay away from the election centers during the Egyptian presidential elections (March 28-26, 2018). In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS will try to back up this warning with terrorist attacks during or shortly before the elections.
Russian and American involvement
Putin’s remarks on the threats that led to Russia’s decision to join the war in Syria
- In an interview (to a documentary film entitled “World Order 2018”), Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the decision to send Russian forces to Syria was made in the wake of information indicating that there were around 2,000 Russian citizens in Syria and around 4,500 citizens of Central Asian countries, thousands of whom were fighting in the ranks of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front. These operatives, he said, posed a threat to Russia, since they could easily infiltrate its territory (and carry out attacks there). Putin also noted that the collapse of the Syrian regime could have turned the region into a large-scale arena used by terrorist elements for decades to come (RIA; RT, March 7, 2018).
The United States
Statements by senior US officials regarding the policy in Syria
- In his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee (February 27, 2018), Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), reviewed the challenges facing the US Army in the Middle East. Referring to the struggle against ISIS, Gen. Votel said that after the intensive activity of the Coalition forces, the end of the Caliphate was near. According to him, the Iraqi security forces and the SDF (Kurdish) forces have liberated more than 98% of the territory that ISIS had held in Iraq and Syria. He called on the United States to take advantage of the momentum and maintain its success by investing in the local population in order to motivate it to prevent the resurgence of ISIS.
- Gen. Votel also noted that the challenge the US will now have to face is the return of hundreds of foreign fighters who fought in the ranks of ISIS to their home countries. According to him, the SDF forces and the Iraqi security forces are holding hundreds of foreign fighters in their detention facilities. He added that the longer these fighters remain together in detention, the greater the risk that they will form new relationships, share the lessons that they have learned and organize themselves for their release or escape. These issues, he said, require international efforts, including law enforcement, intelligence cooperation, and diplomatic arrangements (docs.house.gov, February 27, 2018).
- According to Col. Ryan Dillon, Spokesman for the US-led Coalition against ISIS, the fight against ISIS is now focused mainly on stabilizing the areas that have been taken over and identifying foreign fighters who are planning to return to their home countries. According to him, the SDF forces are now taking steps to combat the worrisome phenomenon of ISIS foreign fighters trying to flee back to the West via the neighboring countries. According to Terry Wolff, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, the Coalition is now trying to set up an international mechanism for systematic assessment and updates on the situation of returning operatives. According to him, they are encouraging and even obligating countries to share information on foreign fighters, including biometric information, and to create an international list of these operatives (AFP, March 8, 2018).
Main developments in Syria
- According to Syrian army and Syrian media reports, the Syrian forces took over 60% of the territory of eastern Al-Ghouta and managed to split the area into three parts (updated to March 12, 2018). The northern part controlled by the rebel forces includes Al-Qteifa and Al-Rahiba; The southern part controlled by the rebel forces includes Duma, Harasta, and Abrin. They are separated by a “corridor” which was taken over by the Syrian regime forces, including the village of Adra (about 25 km northeast of Damascus). North of the corridor between these two enclaves there is another small enclave controlled by the Syrian army, near the main road (M-5) leading from Damascus northward (see map).
Deployment of the forces in eastern Al-Ghouta (updated to March 12, 2018): The Syrian army and the forces supporting it are marked in red; Areas recently taken over by them are marked in blue; Rebel enclaves are marked in green (Murassiloun, March 13, 2018)
- According to the Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Russia has formulated a military plan to take over eastern Al-Ghouta. As part of this plan, eastern Al-Ghouta will be divided into two parts: a southern area and a northern area. The northern area will include Jaysh Al-Islam operatives and will be designated as an area of lesser violence. The southern area will include the Al-Rahman Corps, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, and Ahrar Al-Sham, and attacks on this area will be increased in order to drive these organizations away. Russia relies in its plan on the UN Security Council Resolution 2041, which called for a ceasefire but did not include cessation of fighting against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or related elements (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 9, 2018).
South of Damascus
- ISIS is concerned that following the fall of eastern Al-Ghouta, the Syrian forces will operate against its control area south of Damascus (mainly against the Yarmouk refugee camp). ISIS has fortified the entrance to Lubia Street, in central Yarmouk refugee camp. The operatives put metal barrels full of sand and erected sheets over the streets to hide targets and protect the area against airstrikes (Qalb al-Hadith, March 8, 2018).
- In the meantime, an agreement was reached between the Syrian forces and the rebel organizations on the evacuation of civilians and armed operatives from the neighborhood of Al-Qadam, west of the Yarmouk refugee camp. About 1,800 armed operatives and their families reportedly left on March 13, 2018, towards the Idlib area, under the supervision of the Red Crescent (Khotwa; Sama, March 12 and 13, 2018). ISIS on its part claimed that the Syrian regime formulated an agreement with the rebel organizations, under which rebel positions in the neighborhood of Al-Qadam will be handed over to the Syrian army. In return, the regime forces agreed to allow 500 armed operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and other rebel organizations to leave towards the Idlib area. In response, ISIS attacked Syrian army positions in the neighborhood of Al-Qadam. ISIS claimed that ten Syrian soldiers had been killed in the attack (Haqq; Akhbar Al-Muslimeen, March 13, 2018).
The neighborhood of Al-Qadam (in red) west of the Yarmouk refugee camp (Google Maps)
ISIS operatives advancing towards Syrian army positions in the neighborhood of Al-Qadam (Nasher, March 13, 2018)
- Several ISIS operatives were killed in airstrikes by the International Coalition planes near the Bir al-Malah oil field, east of the village of Al-Sha’fah, about 10 km north of Albukamal (Deir Ez-Zor 24 Facebook page, March 11, 2018). ISIS’s Al-Furat Province reported that its operatives fired anti-tank rockets at Syrian army positions on the outskirts of Albukamal (Nasher, March 11, 2018).
- In the Yarmouk Basin, local clashes continue between operatives of the Khaled bin Al-Waleed Army (affiliated with ISIS) and the rebel organizations. According to Arab media reports, the Syrian regime, with Russian support, intends to launch a military operation in the Daraa area (designated for the time being as an area of lesser violence), and the rebel forces are preparing for the attack (Al-Durar Al-Shamiya; al-Arabiya Al-Hadath, March 12, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
Mopping up the Kirkuk area from ISIS presence
- Iraqi security forces’ activity against local ISIS networks continued this week throughout Iraq. ISIS operatives were killed or arrested, and many weapons were seized. This week, the activity of the Iraqi forces and that of the Popular Mobilization (the Shiite militias) focused on the Kirkuk area. A security official reported on the beginning of a large-scale operation to mop up villages southwest of Kirkuk from the presence of ISIS networks and operatives (Iraqi News Agency, March 11, 2018).
- Following are several incidents in the Kirkuk Province:
- A security source reported that eight ISIS operatives had been killed in clashes with forces of the Popular Mobilization (Shiite militias) about 55 km west of Kirkuk (Al-Sumaria News, March 9, 2018).
- Iraqi federal police announced that it had destroyed dozens of tunnels and hiding places of ISIS operatives in the Hawija District, about 53 km west of Kirkuk (Al-Sumaria News, March 11, 2018).
- Popular Mobilization forces neutralized dozens of mines and IEDs in villages situated about 40 km southwest of Kirkuk (Iraqi News Agency, March 11, 2018).
- Following are incidents from other provinces:
- Iraqi Military Intelligence Directorate announced that an ISIS weapons cache was found in southwest Mosul. The cache contained, among other things, self-manufactured rockets, mortar shells of various types, pressure-sensitive bars, rocket launchers, gun shells and an explosive belt (Iraqi News Agency, March 9, 2018).
- Popular Mobilization forces found a workshop for making IEDs near the Iraqi-Syrian border (Iraqi News Agency, March 10, 2018).
- Sadeq al-Husseini, chairman of the security committee in the Diyala Province council, reported that an ISIS commander and one of his escorts had been killed in an airstrike. The attack was carried out in an area where ISIS operatives were deployed, in the mountains northeast of the province (Iraqi News Agency, March 9, 2018).
- ISIS finds it difficult to adequately respond to the Iraqi activity, settling for local guerrilla operations against members of the Iraqi security forces. According to Iraqi security sources, since Mosul was liberated, ISIS has been sending instructions to regroup to its operatives who remained in Iraq. Surveillance by the Iraqi security forces reveals that ISIS is trying to establish small terrorist cells comprising up to seven operatives in areas south and west of Mosul. ISIS operatives reportedly find refuge in tunnels hidden in the deserts northwest of Al-Anbar and south of Mosul (Akhbar Al-Aan, March 9, 2018).
The Sinai Peninsula
Interim Summary of Operation Sinai 2018
- Egyptian Armed Forces Spokesman Aqid (Colonel) Tamer al-Refai held a press conference in which he reported on the results of Operation Sinai 2018. He noted that during the operation, 16 members of the Egyptian security forces were killed and 19 others were wounded. According to him, the operation will continue until all objectives are met. The Egyptian armed forces spokesman enumerated the achievements of the operation so far: 105 ISIS operatives were apprehended; 1,907 depots containing weapons, ammunition, mines and materials for making IEDs were destroyed; two communications centers and two media centers were destroyed; 471 IEDs and large amounts of explosives of various types were exposed and destroyed; 157 cars, 387 motorcycles, and 41 off-road vehicles were seized (Al-Jazeera, March 8, 2018).
Right: Computers, drives and a computer screen, which were part of the equipment of a media center belonging to ISIS’s Sinai Province. Left: Issues and pages from ISIS’s Nabā’ weekly, found at the media center (official Facebook page of the Egyptian Armed Forces, March 10, 2018).
- According to Al-Ahram reporter Mohammad Hassan, who visited in the area as part of a tour arranged for media personnel and reporters, Sinai Peninsula tribesmen assist the Egyptian security forces. Many of them supply the forces with information which helps them to apprehend operatives or lead them to places where there are jihadists, in return for food provided by the army troops to the tribes (Al-Ahram, March 9, 2018).
- On March 9, 2018, an IED exploded near an Egyptian army armored vehicle near Jabal Al-Halal in central Sinai. As a result, four soldiers were killed and eleven others were wounded. According to a tribal source, the soldiers ran into an ambush of ISIS armed operatives, who made them enter a booby-trapped area (Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, March 10, 2018).
ISIS warns Egyptians to stay away from the election centers during the Egyptian presidential elections
- In March 2018, ISIS began to publish prominent announcements on its leading website, Akhbar al-Muslimeen, warning Egyptian residents to stay away from the election centers during the Egyptian presidential elections (March 26-28, 2018). In order to increase the dissemination of the warning, ISIS added it to its previous publications on the website (as of August 2014).
ISIS’s warning to Muslims in Egypt to stay away from the polling stations during the Egyptian presidential elections (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 13, 2018)
ISIS activity in other countries
Suicide bombing attack in Libya
- ISIS’s Barqa Province announced that a suicide bomber codenamed Abd al-Hamid al-Muhajir had detonated a car bomb against a checkpoint of the Haftar forces in the southern part of the city of Ajdabiya, some 140 km south of Benghazi. The personnel manning the checkpoint were killed or wounded in the car bomb explosion and four vehicles were damaged (Nasher, March 10, 2018).
- A Libyan engineering officer reported that a Toyota ATV carrying approximately one ton of explosives, howitzer shells and aircraft bombs was used as the car bomb in the suicide bombing attack in south Ajdabiya. The car bomb was escorted by two other vehicles, which were supposed to protect it. After the explosion of the car bomb, the two escort vehicles left the scene (Akhbar Libya, March 11, 2018).
Suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan
- On March 9, 2018, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in the capital, Kabul. At least 10 people were killed and more than 20 were wounded. The attack took place near a gathering that was held in memory of Abd al-Ali al-Mazari, leader of the Hazara Shiite minority. According to the police, the suicide bomber was stopped at the checkpoint and then blew himself up (NPR News, March 9, 2018).
- ISIS’s Khorasan Province published an announcement claiming responsibility for the attack. According to the claim of responsibility, the suicide bomber, codenamed Uthman al-Khorasani [i.e., the Khorasani] carried out the attack with an explosive vest. It states that the attack was directed against a gathering of (Shiite) worshipers near the Hussainiya of Al Zahra, southwest of Kabul. According to ISIS, more than 200 people were killed and several hundred others were wounded in the attack (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 9, 2018).
ISIS suicide bombing attack in Aden
- On March 13, 2018, a car bomb was reportedly detonated in northern Aden. The explosion took place in a military field kitchen where food was prepared for the Yemeni forces trained and supported by the United Arab Emirates. The attack killed at least four people (Reuters, March 13, 2018).
- ISIS’s Aden Abyan Province announced that a suicide bomber codenamed Hamza al-Muhajir, around 16 years old, had detonated a car bomb against a supply and food headquarters in Aden. According to ISIS, more than 30 UAE soldiers were killed and wounded, and several vehicles went up in flames (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 13, 2018).
Right: Suicide bomber Hamza al-Muhajir, who blew up the car bomb in Aden. Left: The moment of the explosion of the car bomb (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 13, 2018)
 Citizens of some Central Asian countries can enter Russia without a visa. ↑
 According to Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath channel, about 2,000 residents left the neighborhood of Al-Qadam, including 600 armed operatives (Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath, March 13, 2018). ↑
 On March 8, 2018, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi reportedly issued a directive regulating the formal status of the Popular Mobilization by making them part of the country’s security establishment. The directive makes their rights and duties equal to those of the rest of the security forces personnel, to allow paying them equal wages and entitle them to participate in army training. On the other hand, laws applying to army personnel will also apply to them. ↑
 @Egy_military Twitter account speculates about how Egyptian army’s Ahram missiles (the Egyptian version of the Russian Sagger missile) found their way to an underground depot in the Sinai Peninsula. One possibility is that they were smuggled from Libya (Egypt supplied this type of missile to the Qaddafi regime) to Sinai after the revolution. Another possibility is that they were smuggled through the Gaza Strip (March 12, 2018). ↑