Iraq-Syria Battlespace: October 2015

10 MINS READOct 27, 2015 | 21:59 GMT

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.

Oct. 27: The Islamic State Seizes an Opportunity in Syria


As Syrian rebels and loyalist forces continue to fight each other, the Islamic State is using the opportunity to make its own advances on the Syrian battlefield. Over the past few days, the group reportedly has managed to breach loyalist lines in southern Aleppo, penetrating the critical city of al-Safira and seizing a number of areas within it. Though the latest reports have yet to be confirmed, it is clear that the Islamic State has already seized considerable territory in the surrounding area, which is vital to the Syrian government's logistical lines.

So far, the group has gained control of approximately 10 loyalist checkpoints along the crucial supply line running from Hama through Salamiyeh, Ithriyah and Khanaser to Aleppo. Damascus and its allies have been forced to temporarily halt most of their offensive operations in Aleppo province as they scramble to secure the threatened corridor. The situation, already troubling for Syrian President Bashar al Assad, has only worsened with the rumors of the Islamic State's advances in al-Safira. If true, the group's latest push could threaten to cut supplies off from the large number of loyalist troops in Aleppo province. Though the troops could still receive deliveries flown in by aircraft, the loss of overland supply routes would be a heavy blow.

The Islamic State's advances also highlight a broader reality of the Syrian civil war: As the rebels and loyalists continue to devote the bulk of their resources to fighting each other, the Islamic State will have the chance to take advantage of weaknesses in both fronts. For instance, in the initial stages of the Syrian government's latest offensive campaign, rebel forces weakened their lines of contact with the Islamic State to send reinforcements to Hama, Idlib and southern Aleppo. This decision enabled the Islamic State to push forward and take considerable territory in northern Aleppo province. Similarly, loyalist troops have focused the bulk of their attention on launching offensive operations against the country's rebels, giving the Islamic State the opportunity to advance against weakly held loyalist positions.

Ultimately, al Assad's troops cannot allow their only supply line into Aleppo province to be closed off. If they did, they would risk the gradual weakening of their northern forces, dooming hopes of turning the tide of battle in their favor with the intervention of Russian troops. Their push to relieve besieged loyalist forces in Kweiris air base would also become much less significant if those troops were to be besieged once again within a larger loyalist pocket. Thus, reopening the supply lines into Aleppo will likely become the government's highest priority. Whether it is able to reopen those lines within a few days or its efforts stall in the face of the Islamic State's determined resistance will make the difference between temporary setback and potential catastrophe.

Russia, for its part, is maneuvering to negotiate a beneficial exit from the conflict. One of Moscow's primary strategies in pursuit of this goal was to divide the rebel landscape by raising the possibility of holding talks with the Free Syrian Army. The Russians even attempted to differentiate between Free Syrian Army units, appearing more conciliatory toward the Southern Front than the units Moscow is actively bombing in the country's north. Ultimately, Russia hopes to include some rebel groups in a deal with the al Assad government that favors the loyalist forces, undermining the remaining hard-line rebel groups in northern Syria. So far, though, the rebels have refused to let themselves be played by the Russians. The Southern Front has stood firm, saying it will negotiate with Moscow only if it ceases hostilities against all Free Syrian Army units.

Oct. 8: In Syria, the Loyalist Offensive Begins


The Syrian government's long-expected offensive against the country's rebel forces has begun. On Oct. 7, loyalist troops advanced against rebel-held positions in northern Hama with the support of numerous Russian airstrikes as well as both rocket and tube artillery fire. Initial reports from the battlefield suggest that the rebels, primarily the Free Syrian Army, are putting up an effective defense in spite of heavy shelling. The rebels' liberal use of improvised explosive devices and anti-tank guided missiles has taken a heavy toll on loyalist armor; several reports say rebels destroyed 17 armored fighting vehicles on the first day of the fight, and combat footage has confirmed the destruction of at least nine vehicles.
Despite the initial setback, the loyalists' Russian-backed offensive has only just begun. Already there have been heavy airstrikes in the Al-Ghab plain, signaling the spread of the offensive to other areas of Hama. Loyalists are also preparing to assault the northern Homs pocket and to push toward the Kweiris air base, where several allied groups are still engaged in fighting with Islamic State forces.
The rebels are at a disadvantage in the fight because they lack air defense weaponry. They also have few means with which to counter Russian or loyalist rocket and artillery fire. However, the rebels can continue to heavily rely on their anti-tank guided missiles and defensive acumen to slow down the loyalist forces in a battle of attrition. The rebels are also expecting further shipments of weapons and equipment from their foreign patrons, especially Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, and they may receive man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) that would prove useful against low-flying aircraft and helicopters.
One of the most interesting aspects of the conflict is Russia's weaponry. From Oct. 5-6, four vessels of the Russian Caspian Flotilla fired 26 land attack cruise missiles — 3M-14 Kalibr missiles, codenamed "Sizzler" by NATO, to be exact. It was Russia's first use of land attack cruise missiles fired from the sea in an active operational setting. Since Russian aircraft could have just as easily struck many of the targeted areas with less expense, the use of the land attack missiles was likely meant, at least in part, to be a symbolic demonstration of force to showcase Russia's military capabilities. Because the missiles traversed Iranian and Iraqi airspace, with their permission, before striking their targets in Syria, the attack also emphasizes the positive relationship Russia has established with some of Syria's neighbors.

Oct. 6: Syria Braces for New Offensives


As regional and global powers search for a solution to the Syrian civil war, fighting on the ground appears to be on the verge of worsening. Both loyalist and rebel forces are preparing for two new offensives within the coming months that will greatly influence the trajectory of the conflict ahead.

The first offensive stems from Russia and Iran's effort to stabilize Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces and to restore their advantage on the battlefield. If successful, the effort could put the Syrian government in a much more favorable position at the bargaining table when it comes to discussing a possible negotiated settlement to the conflict. The offensive will target three areas: the northern Homs pocket, the al-Ghab plain and its surrounding mountains in northwest Hama, and the Kweiris air base. The successful eradication of rebel forces in the northern Homs pocket would eliminate a dangerous rebel position close to the critical cities of Homs and Hama while freeing up a large number of loyalist troops for operations elsewhere. Meanwhile, an advance across the al-Ghab plain and the seizure of Jisr-al Shugour, though risky, would restore the loyalist lines in the aftermath of recent advances by Jaish al-Fatah and would further insulate Latakia and Hama from potential rebel offensives. Finally, the rescue of besieged loyalist forces at the Kweiris air base would represent a significant symbolic victory that would improve morale among other loyalist troops under siege around the country by demonstrating that the al Assad government has not forgotten them.

A multipronged campaign of this scale will require a significant amount of combat power, exceeding the current capacity of a weakened Damascus. It is not surprising, then, that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah already appear to be contributing a substantial number of fighters to support the loyalist troops. Russia has already triggered the first phase of the operation with airstrikes, which aim to soften rebel positions in areas that are likely to be targeted in the coming loyalist offensive. The latest reports also indicate that Russia is moving a considerable amount of tube and rocket artillery assets toward the front lines to bolster the supporting firepower behind loyalist attacks. In addition, Russian military advisers are embedded within Syrian units, and Moscow's special operations forces may very well be deployed to bolster al Assad's operations in general. At the same time, both Iran and Hezbollah reportedly are sending forces to northern Syria; Iran alone has deployed at least a few hundred troops, and Stratfor sources indicate their ranks will eventually reach some 2,000 personnel.

As Russia and Iran mobilize in support of the al Assad government, Turkey, Jordan, Gulf Arab states and the United States are preparing to bolster the Syrian rebels with further supplies of weaponry and equipment. Most notably, the United States has backed a new push against the Islamic State in Syria that aims to secure the remaining Islamic State-occupied areas on the Syria-Turkey border while threatening the group's de facto capital, Raqqa. Washington insists that these plans have been in the works since before Russia's latest intervention in Syria, but it is clear that Moscow's activities will only provide additional impetus for the U.S.-backed rebel offensive.

The rebel attack on Raqqa will rely heavily on the 20,000-strong Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northeastern Syria and on the 5,000 Syrian Arab fighters in the area, including those in the Euphrates Volcano group who have long fought alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State. By boosting its supplies to (and its support for) the Kurdish factions and their Arab allies, the United States risks alienating Turkey, which views the YPG with considerable animosity and suspicion. However, Ankara will be pleased with the second phase of the rebel offensive, which entails a combined U.S. and Turkish effort to back and supply a Syrian rebel push against the Islamic State's remaining positions on the Turkish border. While this part of the strategy has been planned for a long time, its execution is drawing near as the United States and Turkey finalize the details and recover from setbacks relating to the failure of the New Syrian Forces program

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