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. cannot drive a wedge between Russia and Iran in the near term. Tehran and Moscow share regional and global interests across the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Their common interests and overarching objective of expelling the U.S. from the Middle East will likely bind Iran and Russia together into an enduring partnership.
The Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized the majority of ISIS-held territory in the eastern countryside of ar-Raqqah and is positioned to complete the isolation of the city in coming months. The U.S.’s main partners in Syria, the SDF and Turkey, are competing to lead the next phase of operations to seize ar-Raqqah City and thereby solidify their influence over post-ISIS governance.
The U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Syria is in jeopardy as Turkey threatens an offensive against the U.S.’s primary partner force on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey has stated its intent to shift its focus from ISIS to the Syrian Kurds after the seizure of the ISIS-held town of al Bab in Northern Aleppo Province, which ISW forecasts is likely in the coming weeks.
Russia resumed its aggressive air campaign in northern Syria in a renewed attempt to defeat the acceptable opposition and coerce the integration of its remaining fighters into Salafi-jihadi groups, demonstrating its unfitness to serve as a U.S. counter-terrorism partner.
Russia shifted the focus of its air campaign to Eastern Syria from January 14 – 25 in order to counter a major offensive by ISIS in Deir ez-Zour City. Nonetheless, the dramatic surge in strikes against ISIS in Syria represents an attempt by Russia to maintain its strategic interest in bolstering the claim of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to all of Syria rather than an opportunity to serve as a reliable counter-terrorism partner.
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