The Spectacular Rise, Fiery Fall…and Regrouping of the ISIS Terror State

In 2011 Obama completed the withdrawal of US forces in fulfillment of Bush’s 2008 Status of Forces Agreement treaty with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government that did not want a permanent US occupation of Iraq any more than the war weary American population did. But, in the aftermath of the US drawdown to bases and withdrawal, which was done in phases over the course of three years in coordination with the Iraqi government, Shiite Prime Minister Maliki terribly repressed Iraqi Sunnis. This gave the recently crushed Sunni ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ (formerly Al Qaeda in Iraq, which the CIA estimated had no more than 800 fighters in 2011 following the success of the 2007 anti-ISIS Sunni Anbar Awakening and General David Petraeus 30,000 troop surge) the opportunity to recruit disgruntled Sunnis in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Anbar Province. These Sunnis rebelled in the Anbar cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in 2013 under the leadership of Omar al Baghdadi, who also dispatched skilled fighters into strife torn Syria to create an Al Qaeda affiliate known as Al Nusra. Al Nusra was better trained and financed than other Sunni jihadi anti-Assad rebel groups and soon took control of much of northern and central Syria as the Alawite Shiite government of President Assad withdrew its troops from these regions to defend its most inhabited areas in the western coastal strip. In 2013 Nusra, however, broke away from Al Baghdadi’s newly proclaimed ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ which then brutally seized many lands formerly controlled by al Nusra and other groups, including the northeast Syrian city of Raqqa. Raqqa quickly became ISIS’s capital and, from this “heart of darkness” (where harsh Islamic law was enforced), ISIS spread its power up to the strategic Turkish border cities of Jarabulus and Tel Abyad and down the Euphrates River valley to the towns of Tabqa, Raqqa, Deir es Zor (a government city which it besieged for three years, but never conquered), Mayadin and Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border. It also had pockets in the west in Homs, Hama, Damascus suburbs like the Yarmouk Camp, and in the south on the Israeli border in Daraa, and was expanding at an alarming pace into the northern Kurdish-dominated northeastern provinces of Hasaka and Kobane.

        Meanwhile, in Iraq, ISIS gained control of Fallujah and much of Anbar Province by 2014 and then, in June of that year, launched a blitz raid on Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul. Remarkably, just 1,500 ISIS raiders defeated a 15,000 man, US trained and equipped Shiite Iraqi Army force guarding Iraq’s second largest city and made it the capital of the Iraqi half of the borderless dawla (theocracy) which was declared by Caliph al Baghdadi that summer. From Mosul, ISIS surged northwest to Sinjar declaring a genocidal war on the ancient Yazidi worshippers of Babylonian and Persian gods, punched eastward towards the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, Erbil, and moved south down the Tigris River capturing Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the oil producing town of Baiji, and almost seized the Shiite holy city of Samarra before being repulsed by Iranian-government trained and funded Shiite militias.

     In August 2014, an alarmed Obama, who had been elected on ending the highly unpopular war that had cost almost 4,500 Americans their lives, cost over a trillion dollars, and led to the jihadification of Sunni Baathist government and Iraqi Army members who were fired by governor Paul Bremer in 2003, decided to commence a bombing campaign on ISIS. His initial objectives were to save 50,000 Yazidis besieged by ISIS on their holy mountain of Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border and prevent the fall of the Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Erbil. But by September 2014, the Pentagon was given permission to commence Operation Inherent Resolve which came to include bombing of ISIS and Nusra targets across the border in Syria.  

      At roughly this time, Obama made the fateful decision to support outgunned Syrian Socialist Kurds from the PKK-trained YPG (People’s Protection Brigades) who were mounting a determined, but seemingly doomed, defense of their northern Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobane. With US close air support, the YPG defenders of Kobane, the “Kurdish Stalingrad,” surprised the world and repelled wave after wave of ISIS fighters who died in the thousands in the seesawing battle against the untried Kurds. The Pentagon now saw in the Syrian Kurds the perfect proxy warriors to “degrade and destroy” the ISIS state which was still expanding (it conquered Ramadi, Iraq in 2015), dispatching terror cells to wreak havoc in Turkey, France, Belgium, Spain and Russia, and acting as a magnet for tens of thousands of foreign fighters traveling to Syria via Turkey. With US close air support and the assistance of an initial 50 US Special Force dispatched to Syria in October 2015, the YPG Kurds expelled ISIS from Hasaka and Kobane provinces and, in the summer of 2016, moved westward beyond these two Kurdish dominated cantons, across the Euphrates River (which had been declared a do-not-cross ‘Red Line’ by the Turks) to cut off ISIS’s last remaining foreign outlet, the Turkish-Syrian border town of Jarabulus. 

        After three years of seemingly tolerating ISIS on their southern border, Turkey, however, intervened in Syria at this time to prevent the Kurds from seizing Jarabulus and uniting their eastern provinces of Hasaka and Kobane with their western province of Afrin via their conquest of the heavily defended ISIS-held town Manbij (ISIS’s primary launching pad for terror attacks abroad).  But the Syrian Kurds westward movement had nonetheless finally prodded the Turks to join the war on ISIS and capture Jarabulus and the ISIS-controlled city of al Bab. Thus ISIS’s “terror corridor” via Jarabulus to the world was finally closed and it was completely isolated. It was now time for the Syrian Kurds, whose forces snowballed as they absorbed local Arabs, Armenians, Circassians and Assyrian Christians, to pivot southeast to conquer ISIS’s capital of Raqqa in the MERV (Middle Euphrates River Valley). 

        In the meantime, across the border, in 2015 and 2016, the Pentagon was methodically continuing its UCW (Unconventional Warfare) approach in Iraq and assisting the regrouped Iraqi Army (especially its elite Golden Division Special Forces) and, at times, Iranian-backed militias in retaking Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit, Tikrit, and Qayyarah. To the north, the regrouped Kurds also captured Makhmur district east of Mosul, Sinjar to the northwest, and the border crossing and strategic road to Syria in 2016. Qayyarah West airbase became a staging ground for many of the estimated 5,000 US troops deployed to Iraq and their local Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga allies to retake ISIS’s prize, Mosul, a heavily defended city of two million inhabitants (many of whom were being held against their will by ISIS as human shields). 

        In the fall of 2016, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and Hash’d al Shaabi Iranian-backed Shiite militias launched an invasion of modern, eastern Mosul and fought street by street against ISIS suicide bombers, quadraptor drones dropping IEDs, and fanatical fighters who had warrened the city with tunnels, IEDs and gun emplacements. But, despite the heavy toll the entrenched defenders took on the attackers, the US-backed Iraqi Army forces were able to push to the Tigris River (which bisected the town) by January 2017.  Progress in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, as in Syria, was facilitated by ground spotters from the US, France, Canada and Britain as well as local Iraqis and Kurds who acted as combat controllers to call in airstrikes and strikes by HIMARS (small satellite guided munitions) and howitzers being fired from Qayyarah West airbase to the south of Mosul and HIMARS from a US base in Kobane.       

      By January 2017, the Pentagon estimated that 50 percent of ISIS’s self proclaimed “lasting and expanding” caliphate had been recaptured as the fast advancing allied forces crossed into west Mosul and moved to take Tabqa dam on the Euphrates, the key to Raqqa, via a heliborne assault. Momentum was now clearly with the US and its “boots on the ground” allies and ISIS had had its oil production and export cut off by 2015’s Operation Tidal Wave II bombing campaign, its international borders at Tel Abyad and Jarabulus sealed (thus insuring no more foreign volunteers and weapons imports or oil exports), its leadership largely wiped out, and tens of thousands of fighters killed. Morale was low, salaries for soldiers were drying up, and the caliphate that its fanatical believers believed would be triumphant had begun to collapse. At this stage (January 20, 2017), Trump took over the war and, despite calling for a completely new style of warfare, followed the same UCW “by with and through” proxy blueprint given to him by the departing Obama administration. There was, however, an upsurge in bombings in Syria as the Kurds and Pentagon and prepared to breach Raqqa, which was a 10th the size of Mosul, but defended with the same fanaticism as the Iraqi metropolis. 

        By this time, the number of US support troops (Army Rangers, Marine artillerymen, Green Berets, Air Force combat controllers and SEALs, based in 22 ad hoc support outposts strung out across the northern Kurdish lands of Rojava) in Syria had risen to 2,000, much as it had previously risen to 5,000 to support the reconquest of Mosul. Trump at this time infuriated the already upset Turks, who were furious at the Kurdish YPG/SDF conquest of Manbij, by allowing the Pentagon to send heavier weapons to support the Syrian Kurds and their Arab, Armenian, Assyrian Christian and Circassian allies (who now made up half of the fighters in their new umbrella force known as the Syrian Defense Forces) instead of the light infantry weapons airlifted to them by the more diplomatically cautious Obama administration. 

    With US and French support and heavier weapons (including anti-tank weapons), the SDF plunged into Raqqa and fought a bloody battle to dislodge ISIS from its capital in June 2017, even as Mosul fell to the Iraqi Army in the summer of 2017. Following the fall of rubbleized Mosul in in July 2017 and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi Army soldiers, ISIS fighters and civilians, the Iraqi Security Forces and Peshmerga Kurds went with the momentum and took the Sunni ISIS stronghold of Hawija to the southeast of Mosul, the Turkmen border town of Tel Afar to the northwest, and the Iraqi Army took the western, Euphrates River towns of Qaim and Rawa in the south, where the fleeing ISIS leader Al Baghdadi was last seen in a yellow taxi, in the fall of 2017. 

          Meanwhile in Syria, the Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian-backed Syrian Arab Army transitioned from fighting Sunni rebels in the west and moved east, captured, lost, and then definitively recaptured the central Syrian historic desert city of Palmyra from ISIS by 2017. Their joint forces also crushed ISIS pockets in the western provinces of Homs and Hama, and began to attack ISIS southwest of the Euphrates River “de-confliction zone” with the US-led Coalition and an ISIS pocket in the south at Daraa. Their joint forces, which were essentially “drafting” on the US-led Coalition’s successful campaign against ISIS’s two capitals of Raqqa and Mosul and larger population centers to the north and east of the Euphrates, succeeded in lifting the three year siege of the Syrian-government, Euphrates River city of Deir es Zor in the fall of 2017. This came only after the SDF had weakened ISIS by defeating it in Raqqa in October 2017, forcing its leaders to flee south to the Iraqi border towns of Mayadin and Abu Kamal. The Syrian government’s Tiger Corps then raced the Kurdish-led SDF to successfully  capture the Euphrates River city of Mayadin and the strategic border city of Abu Kamal in the fall of 2017.

 This left only a small pocket of approximately 3,000 ISIS diehard fighters holding turf in the town of Hajin and surrounding areas in the northeast of the Euphrates near Abu Kamal. In the fall of 2018, the SDF attacked this last bastion and, after suffering almost 500 deaths in VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) attacks and ambushes which took place during shamal sand storms (that denied them crucial Coalition air support), took the town center. This historic event took place on December 13th, less than a week before Trump stunned this still hard-fighting, allied proxy force (which sacrificed 8,000 fighters to defeat ISIS) by giving their Turkish enemies a green light to attack them, via a December 19th impulsive tweet, in which he falsely claimed that the war was over and ISIS was defeated. 

     As of the winter of 2019, the SDF, Iraqi Shiite militias, and Syrian Arab Army continue to sustain heavy losses at the hands of a surprisingly resilient ISIS insurgency which, despite Trump’s hubristic claims that “we have won,” still has an estimated 30,000 fighters remaining according to the UN and Pentagon. ISIS if far from defeated and has reverted to a Taliban style war of attrition known as nakiyah and continues to kill hundreds in the vastness of a war-torn, impoverished region the Pentagon calls “Syraq” (a region that Trump has decided to deny $200 million in rebuilding/stabilization funds). Meanwhile, Turkey, which has NATO’s second largest army, is preparing to invade the Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian Christian North Syrian Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and has promised to bury the Kurds “in their ditches,” even as their forces continue to fight and sustain casualties against ISIS diehards in villages around Hajin. 

        In Iraq, ISIS insurgents have also regrouped in the remote Hamrin Mountains east of Mosul and are waging an increasingly deadly insurgency campaign that has involved ambushes, landmine attacks, killing pro-government mukhtars (elders) and bombings. ISIS is still a dangerous force in Iraq’s Diyala and Nineveh provinces in particular and regularly sets up checkpoints to kill pro-government fighters and officials. History has shown that ISIS rose like a Phoenix from the ashes from having just 800 fighters at the time of the Obama troop withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 (which Trump widely criticized as “announcing withdrawal” to the enemy and “cutting and running”) to regenerate an army of as many as 80,000 fighters. 

        ISIS’s current estimated number of 30,000 fighters is far higher than their small force in 2011 at the time of Obama’s withdrawal. These resilient fighters are as eager for US troops (especially ground-spotters) to be precipitously withdrawn from Syria by Trump as are the brutal Assad regime, which has killed tens of thousands of civilians with indiscriminate bombings, death squads, and banned gases, the Iranians, who have built bases across Syria which threaten Israel to the south, the Turks ,who have brutally invaded the Syrian Kurds’ western canton of Afrin to punish them for working with the Pentagon, and Hezbollah, who have extended their influence in the region as allied fighters of Assad, and Russia which seeks to supplant retreating US influence in the Middle East.  

Rojava Embattled and the War to Destroy ISIS, 2014-2018

In 2012 ISIS began to expand in Syria as that country was gripped by a war between the brutal Alawite (a syncretic Shiite offshoot) regime of President Bashar al Assad and a complex array of Sunni rebel groups. Hardened ISI fighters (Islamic State in Iraq, formerly an anti-US insurgent group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq) who had years of fighting Shiites in Iraq crossed the border during the chaos and eventually created a trans-border group known as ISIS. Sunni ISIS then conquered territory stretching from two border crossings with Turkey at Jarabulus (in the northwest) and Tel Abyad (in the northeast) and the Aleppo region down along the Euphrates River towns of Tabqa and Raqqa, to the Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal.

In August 2014 the US declared war on ISIS and by September of that year had begun bombing ISIS targets in Syria. But ISIS could not be “degraded and destroyed,” as Obama put it, without “boots on the ground.” US Central Command found those boots in the form of an untried Socialist Kurdish militia in northern Syria that was facing an ISIS offensive against their town of Kobane. The Obama administration decided to arm and provide close air support to the Kurdish defenders of this northern border town with Turkey in the fall of 2014. In a see-sawing battle watched by the world, this UCW (Unconventional Warfare) approach to war prevailed and the Kurds were able finally stop ISIS’s self proclaimed policy of “existing and expanding.”

With 500 initial US special forces ground-spotters calling in airstrikes for their increasingly confident forces who absorbed thousands of local Arabs the Syrian Democratic Forces (as the Kurdish- led fighters now called themselves) liberated most of the Euphrates River towns and in long bloody siege retook the “heart of darkness,” ISIS’s capital of Raqqa. Meanwhile, the Syrian government that had been forced back to the western coastal strip where most of the population lived, went on the offensive with Russian air support and Hezbollah and Iranian troop support. The Syrian Army crushed the Sunni rebels in the west (except in Idblib Province) and pushed ISIS out of Palmyra, Deir es Zor and parts of Damascus.

Afrin. The 2018 Turkish Invasion of Kurdish Syria
Turkey considers all Kurdish fighting forces, who are America’s main “boots on the ground” ally in Syria against ISIS, to be “terrorists” with links to Turkey’s domestic enemy, the Kurdish PKK separatists. When the Trump administration declared in January 2018 that it would arm and train a Syrian Kurdish border patrol of 30,000 to permanently suppress ISIS in their eastern deserts holdouts, the Turks were furious. To punish the Syrian Kurds, who primarily fight for a US backed fighting force known as the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in January 2018. This invasion was against the exposed province of Afrin where no US troops had been deployed, as there was no ISIS presence there.

This massive campaign, involving approximately 6,400 Turkish and 15-25,000 allied Sunni Arab rebel fighters, had the objective of conquering one of the Syrian Kurds’ three northern provinces, Afrin. Turkish artillery, drones, and F-16 jets carried out heavy, precision strikes on Kurdish SDF positions in this area without fear of hitting US troops like the ones deployed with the SDF in the eastern Kurdish provinces.

Before the invasion, the Turks secured an agreement with Vladimir Putin that would allow Turkish jets to carry out strikes in northwestern Syria. US Central Command, which had a close working relationship with its Kurdish SDF allies–that had been forged in their joint battles to defeat ISIS,–was dismayed by this rear attack by NATO ally Turkey. It came as no surprise that the Kurdish SDF forces–that had been so essential in defeating the remnants of ISIS in the eastern Syrian desert–were subsequently diverted from the campaign against ISIS remnants in order to assist their fellow Kurds in their westernmost province. In three months, however, Turkey’s proxy Sunni Arab rebel forces, backed by the Turkish military, successfully captured the city and canton of Afrin. By invading Afrin, Turkey was effectively able to drive the Kurdish forces out of this area and establish a contiguous, Arab-dominated rebel control zone that stretched from Idlib province in the west, through northern Aleppo province to the Turkish border town of Jarabulus. This disrupted the Syrian Kurds’ dream of uniting their two million oppressed people into a contiguous homeland to be known as Rojava, The Land of the Setting Sun. Turkey subsequently vowed to take the Kurdish SDF-held, strategic town of Manbij where U.S. Special Forces had been deployed since 2015. Turkey’s goal was to prevent the Kurds from absorbing this Arab town into Rojava and uniting their homeland with Afrin. The U.S. has heavily capitalized on Kurdish fighters to fight and defeat ISIS. US commanders in Syria have vowed to defend their forces in Manbij if they are attacked by Turkey. In April 2018, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. troops were building new military positions near Syrian-Turkish border. This was aimed at deterring advancing Turkish-backed rebel groups and preventing a Turkish conquest of Manbij where the SDF have created a democratic local leadership based on the model they have established throughout their territories.

ISIS Terror Threats to the FIFA Soccer World Cup in Russia June-July 2018

On the eve of hosting the FIFA World Cup in soccer, the most widely viewed sports event in the world, the Russian Federation is facing a surge in the terror threats linked to Vladimir Putin’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. There is increasing concern that terrorists linked to the Islamic State and other jihadi groups will seek to use the month-long global spectator event, kicking off June 14, to carry out high-profile terror attacks. Pro-Islamic State media platforms have launched an unprecedented social media campaign calling for attacks on the tournament. In just the past few years, there have been numerous successful terror attacks and thwarted plots in Russia by terrorists linked to or inspired by the Islamic State. This suggests the group may have the capacity to launch attacks in Russia during the World Cup.

Russian officials have assured sports journalists that “Russia, by comparison with other championships, will guarantee one of the highest levels of security. In view of the measures taken and the experience of other major championships we will be able 100pc [percent] to ensure order in the stadiums and fan safety.”

Russia has had almost three decades of experience in counterterrorism operations, but such bold promises of 100-percent security would appear difficult to keep in light of the recent Islamic State-inspired attacks that have taken place since 2015 in retaliation of Russia’s military campaign against Sunni rebels in Syria. As the World Cup approaches, pro-Islamic State media platforms have launched an unprecedented media campaign designed to galvanize “lone wolves” or “wolf pack” cells to carry out the sort of self-starter, do-it-yourself attacks that have increasingly become the group’s trademark. There is also the possibility that hundreds of battle-hardened Russian fighters from Dagestan, Chechnya, Tatarstan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia could return to Russia following the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, seeking vengeance. Furthermore, there is concern Russians recruited locally into the Islamic State-aligned Kavkaz Velayet (Caucasus Province) could carry out terror attacks during the World Cup.

In response to these threats, Russian security forces have launched a series of raids in the Caucasus region over the course of the last year and have arrested cells throughout Russia. Stringent security measures have also been put in place to protect the World Cup, but it will be difficult to maintain security of the sort achieved during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as the matches will be held across Russia in 11 cities that are connected by vulnerable travel networks.

Foreign fighters joining ISIS from Russia and Central Asian Republics

What made the ISIS a sizable, lethal force was its ability to attract and recruit foreign fighters abroad. Indeed, the existence of the newly established self-proclaimed caliphate depended on a steady flow of incoming foreign fighters.

Through a manipulation of religious texts and historical events, ISIS’ manifesto-type propaganda materials were notoriously effective in convicting vulnerable youth to conduct hijrah. Hijrah refers to a sacred migration from danger to a safer zone. ISIS’ exclusive framing of hijrah as a migration from Darul-Kufr (land of infidels) to Darul-Islam (land of Islam) was highly inaccurate that inventively exploited the authentic application of hijrah in Islam.

The biggest foreign fighter migration joining ISIS occurred from the former Soviet Union (FSU) republics. Russian is the third most common language of ISIS after Arabic and English. This map illustrates the inflow of foreign fighters coming from each FSU country. Although the numbers vary, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that roughly 8,500 individuals from Russia and the Central Asian states traveled to join ISIS and other jihadi factions. The ISIS’ intelligence apparatus – the Emni – acted as the main recruiting mechanism both through its affiliates on the ground and online. Distinctively, the highest number of fighters, both men and women, came from Russian Federation (3,417), followed by Uzbekistan (1,500) and Tajikistan (1,500). Not coincidentally, the level of religious radicalization has been traditionally higher in these two Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) compared with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Economic incentives (monthly fighter salaries) offered by ISIS was also instrumental in process. Once arrived in Syria, Central Asian fighters were generally distributed into two main frontlines: Aleppo (northern Syria) and Raqqah/Mousul lines. For instance, one of the largest fighting factions is known as the “Aleppo Uzbeks” that comprised several smaller brigades in northern Syria. Other prominent FSU brigades include Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (aka Katibat al-Imam Bukhari) and Jaish al Muhajireen (JMA). Fighters also joined al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al Nusra faction in Syria. Similarly, female Central Asian fighters were heavily recruited into the Al-Khansaa Brigade that routinely patrolled the streets of Raqqa to enforce strict dress code. The largest inflow of fighters from FSU, however, was observed from Russian Federation. See URL (link to other map) MAP for Russian foreign fighter inflows to Iraq/Syria. Sources: USAIAD, The Soufan Group, The Center for Strategic and International Studies Foreign fighters joining ISIS from Russia and Central Asian Republics

Northern Caucasus Fighters in Syria and Iraq

Russian is the third most common spoken language of ISIS after Arabic and English. This map illustrates the inflow of foreign fighters coming from Russia’s turbulent north Caucasus region. Although the numbers vary, the Atlantic Council estimates suggest that nearly ~4,500 fighters from the Caucasus or Caucasian diaspora (mainly Chechens in Europe) traveled through Turkey, largely undetected or with the quiet consent of Turkey, to join ISIS and other jihadi factions in Syria and Iraq. Many were encouraged to emigrate by Russian authorities who have been fighting secessionist and jihadi Chechen and Dagestani boyeviki (fighters), rebels, and terrorists in the north Caucasus since the 1990s. The ISIS intelligence apparatus, the Emni, acted as the main recruiting mechanism, both through its affiliates and extensive networks in the former Soviet Union Republics and online. Social media communication platforms, such as two-way encrypted Telegram and WhatsApp, played a prominent role in ISIS communications that facilitated the fighter emigration. Many fighters from the war-torn were moved to fight in Syria to defend Sunnis from the Alawite (syncretic Shiite splinter group) massacres of Sunnis (the North Caucasian Muslims are primarily Sunni)

By far, the largest number of fighters came from the restless republic of Chechnya and Chechen-diaspora regions in Europe (~3,000) followed by the multi-ethnic republic of Dagestan (~1,200), the Kabardino-Balkaria (~145) and Ingushetia (100). ISIS regards the North Caucasus region as its own Kavkaz Velayet (Caucasus Province). Despite their relative small numbers, Northern Caucasus fighters gained a prominent reputation for fighting skills and became a formidable, lethal force among the various Sunni rebel factions in Syria, including ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Some of the Chechen fighters came with battlefield experience in asymmetric and insurgent warfare from their involvement in the first and second Chechen wars of independence against the Russian military (1994-6 and 1999-2007).

Some of the Northern Caucasus militant leaders, such as Muslim Shishani and Abdulhakim Shishani, remain active to date. Incoming fighters often joined the militant brigades and factions led by Chechen commanders (or emirs). The Chechens were legendary for having defeated the Russian Federation in the 1994-96 war for independence and often acted as “force multipliers” in Syria, due to their battle skills earned in fighting in the mountains and towns of Chechnya against much larger Russian Federal forces. Their most prominent Chechen fighting unit was the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of the Immigrant Supporters). It should also be noted that a famed, red-bearded Chechen fighter from the Pankisiki in northern Georgia (where there is a small Chechen community) named Omar al “Shishani” (‘The Chechen,’ in Arabic) was the overall commander of the ISIS army until his death in a US airstrike on July 12, 2016.

Other North Caucasian fighting units included the Ajnad al Kavkaz, Jaish al –Fatah, and Jaish al-Usro, and the world’s first jihadi Russian-speaking private military contractor, Malhama Tactical

After the fall of ISIS’s capital of Raqqa in October, 2017, the bulk of Russian-speaking (Former Soviet Union) fighters has reportedly returned home or have settled in parts of Turkey. Numerous cases of intra-rebel infighting among Arabs, Turks and North Caucasians have been reported. however, some of the smaller fighting factions remain active today in Syria.

Sources: Brian Glyn Williams Inferno in Chechnya. The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Al Qaeda Myth (Dartmouth 2016), The Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy, The Center for Strategic and International Studies,

The Race for Bases in Syria (2017-2018)

This map illustrates the strategic complexity of post-ISIS race for the military bases by Russian and American forces from a bird’s-eye view.

American Bases
The U.S. ground war began in 2015 with only ~50 special forces in limited “train and advice” capacity to rebel Arab Syrian forces (aka Free Syrian Army), followed by small bases built primarily in Kurdish lands in northeastern Syria. These ad hoc bases were used by a contingent of 500 US Green Beret special forces approved by Obama administration to train local Kurdish and Arab rebels to fight ISIS and for US ground spotters to assist them initially with air strikes. Later in the 2017 campaign for the ISIS capital of Raqqa the US assisted the Kurds with artillery strikes and the number of US troops in Syria supporting the Kurdish led ground campaign rose to 2,000.

As illustrated on the map, the U.S. is operating at least 8 military installations (among them 3 air bases) in Northern Syria. The US has begun to make two of the bases in strategic locations more permanent. The first is in Tabqa on the Euphrates River near Syria’s largest dam, the second is far to the south on the border with Iraq at al-Tanf. This remote base, which is located in Arab lands, controls a major road leading from Iraq to Syria and controls this strategic border as well. The US has used this base to arm local Arab forces to fight ISIS, just as it did the Kurds in the north. This base serves another purpose of preventing Iran from creating direct links through Shiite-dominated Iraq to Damascus and down to its clients in the south, Hezbollah. There have been several attacks on this base by Syrian Arab Army forces.

The presence of US bases that serve to train Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces fighters has alarmed Turkey which is at war with Kurds in its own lands and they have threatened to attack US troops based in the flashpoint city of Manbij. On July 18, 2017, Turkish state news agency (Anadolu Agency) published the locations of US military bases that largely exposed the U.S. positions inside Syria to ISIS and pro-Assad forces. This was an unprecedented move by a key NATO ally. Turkey has long been upset by increased U.S.-Kurdish strategic cooperation in the region. Criticizing Turkey, U.S. Defense Department issued a statement that “the release of sensitive military information exposes Coalition forces to unnecessary risk and has the potential to disrupt ongoing operations to defeat ISIS.” On the other hand, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russia’s prominent long-range, surface-to-air (S-400) missiles only added insult to the injury of US-Turkey relations. While Trump administration’s Syria’s comprehensive strategy is vague and confusing at best, there are no indications that U.S. will be moving out of Syria any time soon.

Russian Bases
In contrast to America’s newly established ad hoc bases, Russia has much larger, older, more established bases in Syria. Most of these Russian bases were previous Syrian Arab Army bases complete with runways, hangers, barracks, anti-aircraft defenses, flight towers, perimeter defenses etc. The Russians also have official treaties with Syria that give them a so-called “permanent grouping rights.”

In 2017, Moscow and Damascus signed a bilateral agreement that granted Russia the right to build and maintain permanent naval and air bases in Syria. The deal allows the expansion of Tartus navel base (built by the Soviet Union and Russia’s only naval base abroad) that permits Russia to keep 11 warships, including nuclear capable vessels. Russia currently operates five air bases, from which it continues to launch surgical air strikes inside Syria. Among them, the Khmeimim air base has been instrumental for aerial operations by Russian air force. At the end of 2017, Russia said it had decided to turn the Khmeimim base into a component of its permanent military contingent stationed in Syria. Although the bilateral agreement term is for 49 years, it could be extended further. This deal essentially makes Russia a permanent player on the increasingly complex Syrian quagmire.

Several Russian runways are capable of supporting a large range of advanced Soviet fixed wing aircraft and helicopters including large Antonov and Ilyushin transport planes, a variety of MiG and Sukhoi fighter bombers, Mil 24 gunships, as well as T-90 main battle tanks and BTR 82 armored vehicles. The newly developed Tiyas Military Airbase (also known as T-4) in the Homs Governorate has the largest runway in Syria. The Russians are massively converting it into their main center of aerial operations in Syria. The Russians have deployed advanced S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Syria to protect their assets.

These systems have not made the Russian immune to rocket attacks by rebels or strikes by US Tomahawk cruise missiles like the ones in April 2018 and April 2017 to punish Assad for deploying chemical weapons against civilians. While Putin called for removing Russian troops from Syria as the war on ISIS wound down at the end of 2017, this has not been followed through. Like the US, Russia is making its bases more permanent so it can protect its Syrian client state, square of with the US in the northeast and exert its influence in this divided land.

In addition to the airbases in Syria, Russia has a primitive “docking facility” on the coast of Syria that has been leased to them since 1970. This is Russia’s only external warm water port but it is currently not large enough to handle large naval vessels. It is currently being enlarged. Relatedly, Russia also deployed a rather outdated aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov to support air operations primarily against Sunni rebels in the west who threatened the Alawite Assad regime and later against ISIS forces. Overall, increasingly intense involvement of two major powers raises serious questions about the conflict’s long-term implications on (post-ISIS) Syria as well as the Middle East as a whole.

Mystery of the February 7, 2018 Khasham Offensive

This map illustrates the Khasham offensive (aka Battle of Khasham) that occurred on February 7, 2018, between the US-led coalition (SDF and US special forces) with Russian-Iranian-backed pro-regime forces in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. On this day, US-led coalition forces conducted massive airstrikes, along with artillery shelling, on pro-Assad/regime forces near the town of Khasham (part of Deir ez-Zor governorate) in response to an unprovoked attack against the SDF military bases, which also housed the US special forces units.

According to the US military officials, the pro-Assad forces had attacked the US and SDF military base, located 8 kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-conflicting line, with tanks and mortars by crossing the Euphrates river. In an act of self-defense, the US coalition forces fired back by deploying aircraft, combat helicopters, AC-130 gunships, artillery, and armed drones that led to the killing of ~ 100 of the pro-regime fighters.

Overall, there were two attempts to cross the Euphrates river by the pro-Assad forces using military platoon bridges. The first attempt occurred on February 7, 2018, at around 5 am in the south of Deir ez-Zor that involved ~250 fighters from the Iran-backed units consisting of the Bekara and Albo Hamad militia tribes as well as the Fatimiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades (all under Iranian command). Reportedly, no Russian mercenaries participated in this initial crossing. However, this attempted crossing was detected by the US/SDF forces and warning shots were fired. The attacking pro-regimes forces decided to retreat as their initial attempt had been comprised. No fatalities nor injuries were reported.

Undeterred, the pro-regime forces did not give up and instead launched their second attempt from a few kilometers north of the Euphrates close to the Deir ez-Zor military airport, this time with ~500 fighters. Undetected by the US/SDF surveillance, the Iran-backed pro-Assad fighters managed to make as far as the village of Marrat en-route to engage the SDF/US special forces headquarters in Khasham. Simultaneously, another group of Syrian tribal militia fighters from Al-Tabiyeh attacked the Khasham base in a seemingly coordinated attacak. The US/SDF forces reacted with lethal force, both from air and the ground, that killed ~200 attackers, including 10-20 Russian mercenaries who were reportedly stationed near Al-Tabia. By contrast, some of the Russian media outlets, including the Reuters, reported that about 80-100 Russian fighters had died that day.

The Syrian government accused the US of carrying out a “brutal massacre” against Syrian people in Deir ez-Zor province. The Russian defense ministry stated that “no Russian military servicemen were present or ever deployed in Deir ez-Zor.” While there were no official Russian soldiers on the ground in the valley, the presence of Russian mercenary fighters station near Al-Tabiyeh were confirmed. The number of privately contracted Russian mercenary forces are estimated to be at ~2,000 in Syria.

The extent and the scale of Russian mercenary force involvement in the Khasham offensive, whether deliberately or not, is not clear. The Der Spiegel’s independent investigation found no evidence that confirmed “Russian mercenary participation in the attack or even that they joined the fighting at all.” Hence, it is possible that a small contingent of Russian mercenary fighters stationed at Al-Tabiyeh might have been caught in-between and inadvertently hit by US-coalition forces.

Sources: US Military, official “Operation Inherent Resolve” briefings, BBC News, Reuters, Der Spiegel, RIA Novosti (Russian news agency).