The Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project conducted an intensive multi-week exercise to frame, design, and evaluate potential courses of action that the United States could pursue to defeat the threat from ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. This first report examines America’s global grand strategic objectives as they relate to ISIS and al Qaeda and considers the nature of those enemy groups in depth and in their global context.
The Syrian regime and its allies launched a major, multi-pronged offensive in Aleppo Province on October 15 in order to bolster the regime's foothold in Aleppo City. Both Russia and Iran likely aim to enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to reassert control over Syria’s largest city given the heavy involvement of their military forces in these operations.
The U.S. is proceeding with an emergent strategy to retake ar-Raqqah City from ISIS. The composition of forces and the contours of future operations to clear ISIS from the city remain undecided, despite ongoing operations by the SDF to isolate the city. Both Turkey and the SDF continue to apply pressure on the U.S.-led coalition to exclude the other in any future capture and governance of ar-Raqqah City. The U.S. nonetheless moved forward with operations to isolate the city in early November to apply dual pressure to ISIS amidst an ongoing campaign to seize Mosul from ISIS in Iraq.
ISIS recaptured the historic city of Palmyra in Eastern Homs Province on December 11 following the withdrawal of pro-regime forces, marking the first seizure of a major urban center by ISIS in Iraq and Syria since ISIS
The U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign has inadvertently emboldened select factions of Kurds in Iraq and Syria in a manner that threatens to exacerbate preexisting political and ethnic divisions, stoke regional conflict, and disrupt current momentum against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. risks the long-term failure of its mission if the coalition proves unable to reduce tensions along these seams and rebalance its campaign to incorporate a wider variety of partner forces on the ground.
Pro-regime forces backed by heavy airstrikes seized the Masakin Hanano, Jabal Badro, Sakhur, and Haydariyah Districts of Eastern Aleppo City on November 26 - 27, recapturing nearly a third of the remaining urban pocket held by opposition forces.
The composition and behavior of the force that recaptures ar-Raqqah City will in part determine the long-term success of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign in Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is the U.S.’s most effective partner fighting ISIS in Syria, but it has limitations that risk undermining the gains it makes on the ground. The SDF, although dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), is not monolithic.
Key Takeaway: Russia is preparing to escalate its military operations in Syria in order to tout its standing as a great power, reinforce its claims to be a credible partner against violent extremism, and reinvigorate domestic support for its continued participation in the Syrian Civil War.