Main events of the week
The ceasefire agreement
- The ceasefire set for the end of last week by the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), to allow the transfer of humanitarian aid to various distressed areas in Syria, has not taken effect within a week, as planned. The dispute between the parties to the agreement centered on Russia’s and the Syrian regime’s demand that the ceasefire not include the jihadi organizations, mainly the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS. On the other hand, the Syrian rebel organizations, some of which were represented in the negotiations, demanded that the ceasefire also apply to the Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria), which collaborates with the Islamic rebel organizations in various battle zones in Syria (including the area north of Aleppo).
- On February 22, 2016, after intensive negotiations, with the United States and Russia as the co-chairs of the ISSG, the two countries announced that an agreement had been reached for the Cessation of Hostilities in Syria. The agreement is scheduled to enter into force on February 27, 2016, at 00:00 Damascus time. Highlights of the agreement (based on the US Department of State website, February 22, 2016).
- The rebel organizations included in the agreement must undertake to stop fighting, refrain from attempting to take over new areas, allow the transfer of humanitarian aid to areas under their control, and implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (a resolution from December 18, 2015, which includes readiness to participate in political negotiations with the facilitation of the United Nations). These requirements also apply to the Syrian regime. The rebel organizations included in the agreement were required to give the United States or Syria their commitment to the cessation of hostilities no later than February 26 at 12:00.
- The agreement does not include ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front and other rebel organizations that have been designated as “terrorist organizations” by the UN Security Council. The agreement explicitly states that military operations against these organizations will continue, including airstrikes by the Syrian Army, Russia, and the US-led coalition.
- A Ceasefire Task Force will be established to supervise the ceasefire, based on the ISSG’s resolution of February 11, 2016. This task force will delineate the areas held by ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist organizations which are not included in the cessation of hostilities agreement (implicitly in order to be able to attack them without harming other rebel organizations). This force is supposed to handle any allegations of non-compliance with the ceasefire agreement.
- According to initial reports, the Syrian opposition and other organizations (including Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and the Free Syrian Army) have agreed on a temporary ceasefire. These organizations have made their agreement to the ceasefire conditional on receiving international guarantees, lifting the siege [on residential areas] and the release of detainees (Al-Durar al-Shamiya, February 20, 2016). At this stage, we do not know the formal response to the agreement on the part of ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, which are not included in it.
The failure to include jihadi organizations, including the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, in the ceasefire agreement is its salient weak point. In many cases, it is difficult to distinguish between the zones of deployment and activity of “terrorist organizations” and those of organizations included in the ceasefire. Moreover, the agreement does not apply to the jihadi organizations and therefore it may be expected that at least ISIS will work intensively to sabotage it.
- In the meantime, it was reported this week that the transfer of humanitarian aid to distressed areas in Syria had begun, under the supervision of the Red Cross and the United Nations (even before the cessation of hostilities agreement formally entered into effect). The US and the UN announced the entry of 114 trucks carrying aid for some 785,000 inhabitants in seven areas in Syria (Al-Mayadeen, Dimashq al-Aan, February 18, 2016). Aid is due to reach, inter alia, the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Al-Zabadani, northwest of Damascus (which are surrounded by the Syrian Army) and the Shiite towns of Kafraya and Fu’ah, in the Idlib region (which are surrounded by the rebels). Testifying before the Senate, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that 144 trucks carrying aid were allowed to enter Syria.
Main developments in Syria
While the US and Syria are negotiating over a ceasefire, ISIS carried out a number of attacks designed, among other things, to “signal” its opposition to the agreement being formulated and to demonstrate its ability to deal painful blows to the Syrian regime. These attacks included two multi-casualty suicide bombing attacks in Alawite and Shiite areas in Damascus and Homs (around 140 fatalities) and cutting off a supply route southeast of Aleppo. On the other hand, the Syrian Army continued to establish its control east of Aleppo, while in northeastern Syria (the Al-Hasakah Province), the Kurdish forces continued to expand their control at ISIS’s expense.
The battle for Aleppo
The area north of Aleppo
- This week, there were no significant changes in the reality that has developed on the ground in the area between the city of Aleppo and the Syrian border: the Syrian Army controls the area between Aleppo and the town of Nubl; the Kurdish forces (YPG) control the area of Tall Rifat, and the rebels, including the Al-Nusra Front, still hold the city of A’zaz. The Turks, who were quick to blame the Kurds for the deadly bombing attack in Istanbul, continued to provide indirect assistance to the rebel organizations in the area south of the Turkish-Syrian border. This assistance consisted of shelling areas controlled by the Kurdish forces. Turkey has also reportedly allowed the rebel organizations to send reinforcements through its territory to A’zaz.
The area east of Aleppo
- The Syrian Army continued to repel ISIS from the area between the Kuweyres military airbase and the city of Aleppo. On February 20, 2016, the Syrian Army took control of the Aleppo Thermal Power Plant, which supplies electricity to the city of Aleppo. The Syrian Army also took control of the industrial zone and four villages located east of Aleppo.
- According to a report from February 21, 2016, the Syrian Army took over seven villages held by ISIS in the area northeast of the city of As-Safirah, southeast of Aleppo. The Syrian SANA news agency reported that dozens of ISIS operatives had retreated toward the city of Al-Bab, ISIS’s main remaining stronghold in the rural area of Aleppo (SANA News Agency, February 21, 2016).
The area southeast of Aleppo
- On February 22, 2016, ISIS took over a number of towns north of the town of Khanaser, 52 km southeast of Aleppo. As a result, the main road from Khanaser to Aleppo was cut off (Al-Mayadeen, February 22, 2016). ISIS announced that it had besieged the town of Khanaser. According to a report from February 23, 2016, ISIS took over strategically important territory in the area of Khanaser and its operatives bombarded the Syrian forces in the town.
- The significance of this military move on the part of ISIS is twofold: first, ISIS has managed to cut off (at least temporarily) an important supply route between Homs and Aleppo, which passes through the towns of Ithriyah and Khanaser. Second, this step addresses ISIS’s concern about the threat posed to the area of the Tabqa airbase, which is reached by the route from Ithriyah (see map).
- The Kurdish Forces (SDF) continue to repel ISIS from the city of Al-Hasakah and its surroundings, in northeastern Syria. On February 19, 2016, the Kurdish forces took over the ISIS-held city of Al-Shadadi, located near a large oil field, after clashes that lasted for three days. During the fighting, the Kurdish forces were supported by coalition airstrikes (The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), February 19, 2016). The importance of Al-Shadadi stems from its proximity to the Kabiba oil field, and its location near an important route leading from Al-Hasakah to Deir al-Zor and from Syria to Iraq.
- On February 16, 2016, the Kurdish forces took over the Kabiba oil field near Al-Shadadi. They also took over 22 villages and farms in the rural area south of Al-Hasakah (The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), February 18-19, 2016). On February 20, 2016, the Kurdish forces issued a video showing dozens of residents of Al-Shadadi greeting them (SDF’s YouTube channel, February 20, 2016).
- According to Arab media reports, ISIS managed to regain control of part of the city of Al-Shadadi. The Kurdish forces (SDF) denied these reports, saying that they continue to cleanse the city of the last remaining ISIS operatives (The Facebook page of the SDF, Enab Baladi, February 22, 2016).
- On February 21, 2016, two car bombs exploded on the Al-Siteen Street, in the Al-Zahra neighborhood of the city of Homs. This is a neighborhood with an Alawite majoritylocated northeast of the city center. This neighborhood was previously a target for ISIS’s terrorist attacks. The explosion killed nearly 60 people and wounded more than 100 others.Heavy damage was caused to houses and cars (SANA News Agency, February 21, 2016).ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack (Aamaq, February 21, 2016).
- On February 21, 2016, a combined car bomb attack was carried out in the town of Al-Set Zaynab, southeast of Damascus. The attack included a car bomb (minibus), followed by two suicide bombers with explosive belts who blew themselves up. The attack was carried out in an open market, near a hospital and schools. More than 80 people were killed and nearly 200 were injured. It also caused considerable damage (RT; Hussein Mortada’s Twitter account; SANA News Agency, February 21, 2016). Most of the casualties were civilians and some were members of Shiite militias. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack (Aamaq, February 21, 2016).
Main developments in Iraq
On February 17, 2016, Iraqi officials confirmed that in November 2015, a dangerous radioactive substance was stolen from an oil facility in the area of Basra, in the south of the country. The senior officials have expressed concern that the substance will be used as a weapon if it falls into the hands of ISIS. The stolen substance was inside a handbag (Reuters, February 17, 2016).
- The Iraqi Army continues to cleanse the city of Ramadi and its environs while ISIS continues to conduct guerrilla warfare against it. On February 18, 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack against an Iraqi Army headquarters to the west of the city of Ramadi. Ten operatives participated in the attack, blowing themselves up with explosive belts. According to ISIS, most of the soldiers at the headquarters were killed (Aamaq, February 18, 2016).
- On February 20, 2016, ISIS announced that its operatives had killed 10 Iraqi soldiers in the area of Al-Hamidhiyah, in northeastern Ramadi. According to ISIS, the soldiers were killed when an Iraqi Army tank and Humvee were hit (Aamaq, February 20, 2016). On the other hand, the Iraqi Army announced that it had expanded its control over this area after killing dozens of ISIS operatives there (Al-Jazeera, February 20, 2016).
- The Iraqi Army continues to surround the city of Fallujah, which is held by ISIS. In order to undermine ISIS’s control of the city, the Iraqi government is trying to provoke its residents to oppose ISIS: Sabah Karhut, chairman of the Anbar Provincial Council, said that the Iraqi government had a plan to provoke the tribes in the city of Fallujah to take military action against ISIS (Al-Arabiya, February 19, 2016). According to a report from February 20, 2016,the tribesmen in the city of Fallujah have begun to take action against ISIS in the city(Al-Hurra, February 20, 2016). One day later, a decline in the incidents in the city was reported, after ISIS detained about 110 residents who had participated in the clashes (Al-Sumaria, February 21, 2016).
- In response, ISIS issued a video from the city of Fallujah, claiming that it shows routine daily life in the city. The video, which was shot in the marketplace, shows that there is food in the stalls, albeit not in abundant quantities. Civilians are shown riding bicycles, probably due to the inability to use cars. There is sparse pedestrian traffic in the city streets, and the presence of ISIS operatives is evident (Aamaq, February 21, 2016).
The Sinjar area
- According to a report by the director of the Azadi hospital in the city of Duhok (in Iraqi Kurdistan), about a week ago ISIS operatives fired mortars containing chlorine gas at the Peshmerga forces in the area of Sinjar. According to the hospital director, nine Peshmerga fighters who were exposed to the mortar shells suffered side effects typical of these cases (vomiting, fainting and difficulty breathing) (Al-Watan al-Arabi, February 19, 2016).
- There have been previous reports of ISIS making use of chemical weapons, including chlorine gas, against the Kurdish forces in several locations in Syria and Iraq (including in the battles that took place in the city of Kobani, near the Syrian-Turkish border).
Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula
- During the week, the Egyptian security forces continued their activity against ISIS’s Sinai Province, mainly in the areas of Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish and Rafa. The Egyptian security forces carried out arrests, burned huts used by terrorist operatives, seized weapons and destroyed motorcycles. On the other hand, operatives of ISIS’s Sinai Province continued to carry out guerrilla activity against the Egyptian forces, mainly planting roadside IEDs.
- ISIS’s Sinai Province executed a man accused of spying for the Egyptian Military Intelligence. On February 18, 2016, ISIS’s Sinai Province published photos of Walid Ahmed Amer Abu Zureiq, who was accused by ISIS of spying for Egyptian Army intelligence. Abu Zureiq was beheaded by a knife-wielding ISIS operative (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, February 18, 2016).
The global jihad in other countries
US policy toward ISIS’s threat in Libya
- According to US defense officials quoted on the American website The Daily Beast, the Obama administration has rejected a military plan for attacking ISIS in Libya. This despite the great threat arising from ISIS’s establishment in Libya. According to these sources, American operations against ISIS will continue to consist of occasional attacks against“high-value leaders” (such as the November 2015 attack that caused the death of Abu Nabil al-Anbari, a senior ISIS official in Libya).
- According to US Army sources there are around 5,000 ISIS operatives in Libya, compared with a mere 1,000 or so a few months ago. Some US Army officers believe that President Obama feels that France and Italy, which are threatened due to the establishment of ISIS in Libya, are the ones that should take the lead in any military effort to be carried out in Libya (The Daily Beast, February 18, 2016).
- American fighter planes attacked a Tunisian ISIS operative named Aladdin Shushan.The Tunisian authorities are charging him with planning the attacks at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis (March 18, 2015) and in the resort town of Sousse (June 26, 2015). The operative was staying at the ISIS training camp near the city of Sabratah. According to the Pentagon spokesman, the attack was carried out in the wake of the conclusion that Shushan and ISIS operatives at the training facility were planning attacks against US and Western interests in the region. US sources estimated that Shushan was killed in the attack(Reuters, February 19, 2016; the Tunisian Al-Shorouk, February 20, 2016; Akhbar Libya 24, February 19, 2016).
The ISIS operatives who carried out the attacks at the Bardo Museum and resort town of Sousse were trained at training camps in Libya. According to reports at the time, Sayf al-Din al-Rizqi, who carried out the shooting attack against Western tourists in the resort town of Sousse, trained for three months at the training camp outside the city of Sabratah. The two terrorists who carried out the attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis reportedly trained at the same camp. The attack on an ISIS operative (or operatives) at the training camp in Sabratah reflects the US policy of targeted killings of “high-value” senior ISIS operatives in Libya or operatives planning attacks against the US and its allies.
- According to Libyan sources, ISIS operatives in Sirte received a shipment of weapons via the Port of Sirte. The shipment arrived in large rubber boats. Two large containers were reportedly seen transferring the weapons from the port. The port was reportedly attacked by unidentified planes on February 15, 2016. The weapons shipment was apparently the target of the attack (alarabiya.net, February 15, 17, 2016).
- Fighting continued in and around the city of Benghazi between the Libyan Army and ISIS and other jihadi and Islamic organizations. On February 20, 2016, the Libyan Army reported that it had advanced in several neighborhoods in eastern Benghazi, where ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks against the Libyan Army in recent weeks. The next day, the Army announced that it had taken over the port of Marisa (about 25 km southwest of Benghazi), along with a few places in its vicinity (Libyan News Agency, February 21, 2016). According to the commander of the Libyan Air Force, the port of Marisa was used for supplying weapons and ammunition to terrorists in Benghazi. The weapons arrived from Misrata, and originated in Turkey (Libyan News Agency, February 21, 2016).