Editor's Note: Stratfor closely monitors conflict zones from a geopolitical perspective. What is perhaps the most volatile conflict today can be found in the territories of Iraq and Syria that are controlled by the Islamic State. Though these areas are cartographically distinct, they are functionally linked: Sunni tribal structures, rebel operations, Kurdish interests, external influences and the suzerainty of the Islamic State bind them together as a single, coherent theater.
The Islamic State capitalized on the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the inadequacy of Iraqi security forces to take over a large swath of the Middle East. After making some impressive gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamic State has lost some momentum, and an array of opponents have aligned against it. Nonetheless, the group is uniquely resilient and remains extremely dangerous and unpredictable.
In addition to examining the combatants inside the Syria-Iraq battlespace, Stratfor also tracks the political machinations, negotiations and goals of those outside the battlespace, including Iran, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and the United States. For the first time, in one place, Stratfor is providing routine updates covering the gains, losses and extent of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate.
Nov. 24: In Syria, Mission Creep Sets In
Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict is growing, to the advantage of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces. Over the past few days, Russian heavy bombers have continued to launch airstrikes against Syrian rebel units in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, as well as Islamic State forces in Raqqa and Deir el-Zour. Russians reportedly have also been spotted in new locations held by the Syrian government, including Sweida and the recently besieged Kweiris air base in eastern Aleppo. Meanwhile, Russian artillery units have assisted a loyalist offensive against Mahin, a town in central Syria that troops recaptured from the Islamic State on Nov. 23, and a Russian infantry unit allegedly has been directly involved in attempts to seize the Latakia province town of Jabal Zuwayk.
All of these factors point to Russian mission creep in Syria as Moscow becomes increasingly invested in and committed to sustaining al Assad's forces in the conflict. Russia's expanded presence, coupled with Iran's continued support, has improved the performance of loyalist troops on the ground. In the past few weeks, al Assad's forces have made especially considerable progress in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, even as they suffered setbacks in northern Hama.
All the while, the United States and Turkey have been setting the stage for further advances against the Islamic State, which has found itself increasingly pressed on multiple fronts. The U.S.-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces has made considerable progress in al-Hasaka province — success that bodes well for its upcoming offensive against Raqqa from Ain Issa. The United States, pleased with the rebel group's performance, has already airlifted in a second batch of weapons and ammunition to the Syrian Arab Coalition, which, along with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, makes up the Syrian Democratic Forces.
To the west of the Euphrates River, predominantly Turkmen rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army successfully carried out an operation on Nov. 21-22 to seize two Islamic State-held villages close to Azaz, near the Turkish border. This effort could be a preliminary step in the lead-up to a second rebel campaign against the Islamic State coordinated by Turkey and the United States. Its objective: to drive the Islamic State from the Turkey-Syria border.
Nov. 12: Severing the Islamic State's Supply Lines
Kurdish forces are moving to strike at a critical Islamic State supply line in Iraq, which could cause trouble for the jihadist group down the road. On Nov. 12, Kurdish peshmerga fighters backed by U.S. firepower launched a major offensive against the Islamic State-held town of Sinjar, which lies along the Route 47 highway running from Mosul to the Syrian border. According to the Kurdistan Region Security Council, 7,500 peshmerga fighters are participating in the operation, facing off against anywhere from 200 to 600 Islamic State militants in the city. However, the Islamic State's forces have been expecting the Kurdish attack for some time now (the operation was allegedly delayed by weather conditions) and are heavily dug in, portending a protracted fight ahead.
Even though the battle for Sinjar will not be easy, the Kurds have already managed to achieve some of the larger strategic goals driving the operation. Beyond the town's potential as a launch pad for operations to seize other local road connections to the south, the bigger prize is the highway that it sits on. Over the past year, Kurdish forces have seized several locations along the Iraqi stretch of Route 47, while the Syrian Democratic Forces — an alliance of Kurdish People's Protection Units, Syrian Arab Coalition, Assyrian and Turkmen fighters supported by significant U.S. air support and weapons deliveries — has wrested a number of positions from the Islamic State along the road's Syrian leg.
Kurdish forces are moving to strike at a critical Islamic State supply line in Iraq, which could cause trouble for the jihadist group down the road.
The Nov. 12 offensive comes on the heels of a Syrian Democratic Forces operation with a similar aim. On Oct. 31, the Syrian alliance began an offensive that stretched along the Syria-Iraq border, toward the town of al-Hawl. Over the past two weeks, the alliance has made considerable headway, taking more than 36 villages and six border posts and partially surrounding al-Hawl. The push toward al-Hawl, like the operation against Sinjar, is part of a broader attempt by U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led forces to squeeze the Islamic State out of large swaths of the border region and reduce the number of border crossings in the group's control. If successful, the effort will complicate Islamic State logistics and force the group to funnel its supplies through fewer avenues. This will make it easier for air interdiction missions to target the Islamic State's remaining supply routes.
The Sinjar assault is merely one component of a broader strategy that has already gained considerable traction. In addition to the reversals in Sinjar and al-Hawl, the Islamic State is under significant pressure on other key fronts in both Syria and Iraq. On Nov. 11, the Syrian government and its allies broke the Islamic State's siege against the Kweiris air base in eastern Aleppo. Elsewhere in Syria, a U.S.-supported offensive east of the Euphrates River toward Raqqa and a joint Turkish-U.S. operation west of the Euphrates appear increasingly imminent, adding to the Islamic State's concerns. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces have pushed back Islamic State fighters in Beiji and are slowly encroaching on Ramadi. And so as 2015 comes to an end, the Islamic State, though far from defeated, will find itself facing a difficult year ahead.
Nov. 6: The Limits of Foreign Military Support
Rebels from the Free Syrian Army and from various Islamist groups recently defeated an offensive conducted by loyalist forces backed by Iran and Russia in Hama province. Rebels have since launched a counteroffensive, during which they seized important territory in the northern part of the province, including the town of Morek. In light of their losses, loyalists are now marshaling their forces in the city of Hama to repel further rebel advances.
The events in Hama province are revelatory, for they show the limits of Russian and Iranian support. Critical though that support may be, it is not robust enough to comprehensively turn the tide in favor of forces loyal to the President Bashar al Assad. Russia is primarily providing air support and materiel, but it is not providing what the loyalists need most: reliable manpower. Iran has helped to establish the National Defense Forces as an auxiliary force and has dispatched several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units and third-country militia forces, but even these cannot replace the tens of thousands of troops the regime has already lost.
It is little surprise, then, that the success of the loyalists has been uneven at best. They have pushed rebels back in places in southern Aleppo province, but they have been less successful in the provinces of Latakia and Homs. Clearly, the swift victory pro-government forces had hoped would accompany increased foreign backing is not in the offing.
The rebels' success in Hama will pressure Russia and Iran to commit even more forces to the conflict. Moscow and Tehran will probably give in to this pressure — even if outright victory is not possible, improving the lot of loyalist soldiers improves their bargaining positions if and when powers convene to negotiate a settlement. Indeed, Russia has already increased its presence in Syria from 2,000 personnel to 4,000. It has also established three forward operating bases beyond its airfield in Latakia, has sent additional surface-to-air missile systems, and has increasingly involved its own artillery units in support of the loyalists.
But therein lies the inherent danger of mission creep. Given how dim the prospects are for negotiating a settlement to the conflict, Russia and Iran could find themselves involved in a difficult war without a clear end in sight.