Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State in the city of Mosul today.Read More
Despite early successes, the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS is now encountering serious resistance.Read More
Live updates on all the latest developments in the battle to retake the city of Mosul in Northern Iraq from ISIS.Read More
The center of the Iraqi city of Fallujah has been recaptured by Iraqi forces following weeks of intense fighting and a months-long siege.Read More
As the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah from ISIS continues, the situation for approximately 50,000 civilians trapped in the city is going from bad to worse.Read More
This week the Iraqi Government announced with much fanfare the beginning of a large-scale operation to retake the city of Fallujah from ISIS.Read More
In early February 2016 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a shift in Canada’s strategy in its contribution to the fight against the Islamic State.Read More
While the war in Syria started as a traditional civil war, in recent years it has taken on a very international dimension. A wide variety of international countries are overtly or covertly supporting their favored groups and sides in the conflict. As well, some nations are now using air power and even limited ground troops in order to swing the war in their favor. Combined with this conflict spilling over into Iraq in 2014, the situation is very complicated indeed. The infographic below seeks to make sense of the tangled web of alliances and military support in Syria and Iraq, between local fighting groups and outside countries. Within the infographic, light green indicates diplomatic support and dark green indicates direct military support. On the other hand, orange indicates diplomatic opposition, and red represents direct aggressive military action.
As well, it is important to note that this graphic shows official diplomatic and military support rather than covert operations or unofficial military support.
The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been deteriorating for several years now, but has reached crisis point over the first weeks of 2016.Read More
While this year began with significant ISIS victories in Iraq’s Anbar Province and western Syria, it is ending with a number of significant defeats for the militant group.Read More
The involvement of Turkey in the war in Syria has been extensively covered, but now over the last week, it appears the country is also gearing up for a greater role in the neighbouring and connected war in Iraq. While talk of a Turkish ‘invasion’ of Iraq is somewhat overblown, the consequences of Turkish troops deploying to Iraq could have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
The current controversy between Iraq and Turkey began last week following the emergence of reports that Turkey had deployed a number of soldiers to Bashiqa, a small Peshmerga-held town around 15km away from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul in northern Iraq. While initial reports of the number of troops varied, the most credible information now has around several hundred troops and up to 25 associated vehicles deployed.
What is not yet clear is the mandate of these troops, and the role they will play in Iraq. According to Turkish statements, "the mandate of the Turkish elements in Bashiqa is to provide training to Iraqi volunteers within the scope of the fight against Daesh, and they have not been given combat duties and responsibilities". Nonetheless many still believe these troops may play a larger, and more direct combat role against ISIS into the future.
Whatever role Turkey intends for these troops, what is more important is the international (and intranational in the case of Iraq) response to their deployment. The Iraqi government of Al-Abadi has widely condemned this as a breach of Iraq sovereignty, with his government giving several deadlines for the Turkish troops to withdraw, before they faced retaliation. These deadlines were backed up by similar threats from Shia militia groups within the Popular Mobilisation Units which form a significant part of the Iraqi forces.
While these deadlines and threats may indeed be serious, the fact that they have passed without incident stands testament to the fact that it is actually very difficult for Iraqi government forces to attack the Turkish troops. Notwithstanding their much more critical war with ISIS, the Iraqi government/Shia militias would also have to attack through territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Given the good relations between Turkey and the KRG (in contrast to other Kurdish groups), and the fact that the Turkish deployment likely has the tacit approval of KRG leader Masoud Barzani, this is unlikely to happen without a fight. Furthermore, the relations between KRG Peshmerga forces and Shia militia have suffered a serious deterioration over recent months following clashes around the town of Tuz Khurmatu, making any deployments against Turkish forces likely to face Peshmerga resistance.
With all of this considered, Turkey’s deployment will have several geopolitical ramifications. Firstly, the KRG will become more deeply aligned with Turkey due to their hosting of Turkish troops, as well as their own Peshmerga troops receiving Turkish training and support. Secondly, the Iraqi government may be forced to align itself more with Russia, as the US is unable to prevent the erosion its of sovereignty by another NATO player. In the long-run these positions could serve to solidify a formal partition of Iraq following the defeat of ISIS as a major military force in the country.
The city of Ramadi, Iraq was captured by ISIS in May this year. After encroaching on the city from several directions, the militant group managed to rout Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and inflict heavy casualties. In the time since this initial capture however, the Islamic State’s position within the city has become shakier. Following a counter attack by ISF and Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), the tables have been turned and now it is Iraqi forces which surround Ramadi, and are encroaching from several directions. Currently it is unclear if ISIS still has the ability to move supplies and fighters into or out of the city via the Euphrates River, however it is estimated that between 600-1000 ISIS fighters remain in the urban area.
In the last week, Iraqi forces have announced their intention of recapturing the city in one final push. They have warned civilians to evacuate ISIS-held areas, promising them a security corridor in the south of the city. Reports from civilians still inside however indicate that ISIS is preventing them from leaving, instead preferring to keep them as human shields.
While the ISF and PMU forces have large amounts of equipment at their disposal, including US-built M1 Abrams tanks and backing from Coalition air strikes, they will undoubtedly face stiff resistance. ISIS has reported created vast minefields of IEDs, and similar to their tactics elsewhere, will deploy a large number of suicidal VBIED (vehicle-born IED) counter-attacks.
This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on ISIS’s strategic evolution. Part 1 can be read here.
In the past month, ISIS, in collaboration with its regional affiliates has killed at least 400 civilians in a series of major attacks. On October 31, the group’s Sinai Province bombed a Russian passenger jet flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing 224. Then on November 10, a series of suicide bombers targeted a Shia neighborhood of Beirut killing at least 43. Finally on November 13, nine attackers conducted a Mumbai-style assault on several regions around Paris, killing at least 129 people.
Such attacks are both unprecedented in terms of scope and scale. So how do they fit into what we know about ISIS’s strategy of continuous theater-based offense?
The simple answer is they don’t. Rather, they prove that the group’s baseline strategy of responding to military defeats with counterattacks elsewhere in Syria and Iraq is no longer viable.
Recent defeats have shown that the militant group has reached a limit in its ability to mount counterattacks. Notwithstanding a theater-wide Tet-style offensive in Iraq or Syria, the forces arrayed against ISIS are now too large in number, and too well organised to suffer new, large-scale losses of land. So instead, in order to maintain an air of invincibility, and gain a propaganda victory, the group is now engaging in spectacular international attacks.
The Far Enemy
Into the future, fresh ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq are possible, if not probable, but are unlikely to have the same effect as those in the past. Furthermore, the rate of these offensives and their size will continue to decline as the group begins to feel the bite of continuous attrition from air-strikes and failed attacks. With the territory controlled by ISIS now in decline, the group is shifting more and more towards hitting soft international targets. This regression is in many ways similar to the focus Al Qaeda put on attacking the 'far enemy' (USA) over the 'near enemy' (Muslim countries) following the First Gulf War.
From a Western (and Russian) perspective, this is critically dangerous. With border security compromised due to large-scale arrival of refugees - the vast majority of which are legitimately fleeing the worsening regional conflict - security services have their work cut out for them. France alone has stated that it has a list of at least 10,000 “potential terror suspects”. Within such an environment, further attacks on soft targets are all but inevitable.
However, with each successive attack which ISIS carries out, they will also increase the number of foreign nations intent on destroying their core territories in Syria and Iraq. Already there is talk of a possible alliance between Russia and France, the two nations who have suffered the most from this recent wave of international terrorism, in order to defeat ISIS in Syria. With this taken into consideration, these attacks, while horrifying from a security perspective, also represent the beginning of the end of ISIS as a conventional military threat.
Obviously, the defeat of ISIS’s conventional forces will not solve the root problems that lead to the group’s rise in the first place. But rather it will give international players and local partners the space to implement reconstruction and educational projects, in order to restore some level of order to the regions formerly occupied by the group. Should these steps not be taken, a tactically different ISIS will continue to wage an insurgency in the region, as well as presenting a continuing international threat.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series on the strategic evolution of ISIS. Last week, despite the headlines focusing on the Paris attack, ISIS suffered yet another serious defeat, this time in Sinjar, an Iraqi town which sits astride a major highway linking Raqqa and Mosul. A combined force of Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK and Ezidi militia commenced a massive assault on the city on November 13. Just over 24 hours later, at 10:20 local time, these forces entered the town, and rapidly captured all areas, facing only token ISIS resistance.
This defeat, which will severely limit the group’s ability to transfer materiel and fighters between its Syrian and Iraqi provinces, is just the latest in a string of losses for the group. Recent months have seen the so-called Caliphate lose control of the city of Baiji, the area surrounding Ramadi, as well as significant territory in Southern Aleppo. This is all despite the fact that ISIS, by all accounts maintains a large fighting force, which should be able (on paper) to offer greater levels of resistance, especially when defending urban or semi-urban areas.
With this considered, the question needs to be asked – why is ISIS so bad at defense?
Evolution and expansionism
One answer to this question comes in the way in which ISIS rose to power in large portions of Syria and Iraq. Following the collapse of the Syrian state in 2012, ISIS began to enter Syria, and rapidly began consolidating its presence in what were then ‘rebel-held’ areas. Over the course of the next year or so, through aggression, subversion and coercion, ISIS grew to dominate power structures in the west of Syria.
From this power base, the group engaged on a series of highly successful offensive operations. First in Syria, they captured almost the full length of the Euphrates River, driving out Kurdish, and moderate rebel forces. Then, they struck Iraq, taking advantage of internal instability to take control of Fallujah in early 2014, and then shocking the world with the capture of much of northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014. Finally, despite increased resistance and coalition airstrikes, the group managed to capture Ramadi and Palmyra in early 2015.
This history of victorious offensives used to expand their nascent ‘state’ likely cemented the idea in the militant group’s leadership that offensive operations were key to victory, while neglecting static defense.
Through this experience of continuously spearheading offensives, ISIS developed a strategy whereby defending territory was replaced with a different tactic altogether. Should an area come under serious attack, the group would merely try to stall the advance of the force with IEDs and a small number of near-suicidal troops, before mounting counteroffensives elsewhere.
Instead of committing seriously to defense, past battles have shown that ISIS prefers to keep the majority of its troops on reserve, and then mount counter-offensives against softer targets, taking advantage of the fact that their enemies concentrated their forces at the first point of attack. In this way, when attacked and defeated at point A, ISIS would counterattack at points B and C.
This kind of strategy has worked for ISIS several times over the past years. The most obvious example of this was following the defeats of ISIS in Kobane and Tikrit, the group launched simultaneous offensives against Palmyra and Ramadi. As well, the Iraqi city of Baiji has switched hands several times now between ISIS and government forces with ISIS mounting counter offensives only when opposing troops have been redeployed elsewhere in the theater.
Finally, ISIS not only implements these tactics on a theater-wide scale, but also on a more tactical level. Before assaulting a position, ISIS usually makes a number of small probing raids which despite causing losses for the group, helps them find and target weak spots in their opposition's defense. From there they mount a massive attack using VBIEDs, AFVs and infantry, as seen during the battles for Ramadi, North Aleppo and Palmyra.
Nonetheless, ISIS continues to lose ground across its core regions, proving that this strategy, while successful in the past is now a failing one. In part two of this article, released tomorrow, a new and dangerous ISIS strategy can seen to be emerging, which is turning it into a more global threat, while at the same time hastening its demise.
Over the course of the last week, the Turkish military and police forces have found themselves coming under increasingly deadly attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As well as continuing assassinations, gun, and missile attacks on their positions in Turkish Kurdistan, security forces are taking severe losses from the same technology which caused havoc for Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan: IEDs. On the 6th of September, two Turkish Army armoured vehicles were attacked by a PKK roadside bomb in Daglica, a remove village close to the southern border with Turkey. While the details of the incident are not yet fully clear, what is confirmed is that at least 16 Turkish soldiers were left dead (the PKK claims a higher toll) and several vehicles were destroyed. In response, the Turkish Air Force conducted massive air raids comprised of least 50 aircraft targeting PKK camps in Northern Iraq.
This massive aerial response however does not seem to have impacted the PKK’s operational capabilities or indeed its will to fight, for it was followed by yet another bloody day for Turkey. This morning, 12 police were killed and 4 more injured when their bus stuck an IED in the country’s north-eastern province of Iğdır. Then, this afternoon, news emerged of another PKK attack, this time in the southern city of Cizre, where 3 more police were killed in an RPG attack.
With airstrikes not enough to dislodge the PKK, the Turkish military then made decision to strike back against the militants and send ground forces across the border into Iraq. Reports emerged in the wake of today’s attacks that the Turkish Army had sent a battalion of at least 1000 troops and vehicles into Iraq in order to “pursue” PKK attackers.
This amounts to a large-scale escalation of the conflict and represents a further undermining of the sovereignty of Iraq, already weakened by the advance of ISIS. This being said, it is not unprecedented, with a similar incursion being undertaken by Turkey in 2008. Drawing a parallel with this event, it seems unlikely that Turkey’s armed forces will be able to uproot the PKK from this region, and indeed this cross-border attack may serve to even further inflame the fighting.
The nature of the PKK and the terrain in which it fights gives it a massive advantage over time. Distributed across tens of thousands of sq. km of mountainous terrain, their fighters are able to rely on guerrilla tactics, picking when and where to fight Turkey’s military. As well, many PKK fighters are battle hardened through years fighting both Turkey as well as ISIS, while many within the Turkish military are young conscripts with understandably low morale.
Giving that these are not difficult observations, thought needs to be put into why Turkey has even chosen to fight the PKK at this stage?
To answer this question, one only needs to take a look at the political situation within Turkey. In the recent general elections incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party (AKP) failed to gain the necessary 50% it needed to form a majority government. Instead, the pro-Kurdish HDP performed surprisingly well, blocking the AKP’s chances, and forcing a number of rounds of (failed) coalition government negotiations.
Seeing the writing on the wall and imminent snap elections, Erdogan likely believes that through a resumption of hostilities with the PKK, he can gain politically. AKP supporters have ramped-up allegations that the HDP is a political wing of the PKK and state-run media has become increasingly hostile towards the party. By linking it with the PKK who are very unpopular in the majority of Turkey, Erdogan hopes that he can reduce the HDP vote in upcoming elections to below the 10% threshold needed to enter parliament, and thus lead the AKP to a majority victory.
Nonetheless, if polling is to be believed the HDP has not seen a significant fall in support within Turkey, meaning that Erdogan is playing a very dangerous game politically and with the lives of his soldiers. This conflict with the PKK is continuing to escalate and the body count climbs higher with each passing day. He can either decide to de-escalate with the PKK and return attempt to return to earlier peace talks or he can continue to up the ante with addition cross border attacks and a further crackdown in Kurdish areas of Turkey, in an attempt to intimidate potential HDP voters.
Both strategies are incredibly risky from a domestic politics and regional security standpoint. All eyes will be on Erdogan and the AKP for what stance they take in the run up to snap elections called for Novemeber 1. Unlike most conflicts however, this latest PKK-Turkey struggle will not revolve around the success and failure of a military campaign, but rather an electoral one.
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In this month’s issue of ISIS’s glitzy ‘Dabiq’ magazine, an article attributed to high-profile hostage and former journalist John Cantile claims that ISIS has the ability to purchase a nuclear weapon. It could allegedly do this in Pakistan with its “billions of dollars in the bank” using “weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region”. While there are very real reasons why people concern themselves about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, the likelihood that one could be sold to ISIS is laughably small. Pakistan currently has an arsenal of approximately 120 nuclear warheads, many of which are attached to ballistic missile delivery systems. This stockpile of weapons which was developed in order to counter a similar nuclear weapons program in India continues to grow and become more sophisticated.