On May 21st, the Lead Inspector General for Operation Inherent Resolve released the quarterly report to the US Congress.
The period covers the period between January 1st and March 31st, 2020 of the fight against ISIS.
The entire report can be found and read online. [pdf]
Similarly, to everything else around the world, COVID-19 disrupted even the fight against terrorism.
On March 20th, the Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) announced that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) suspended training in Iraq to prevent the potential spread of COVID-19.2 The Department of Defense Office of the Undersecretary for Policy, International Security Affairs, (OUSD(P)/ISA) reported that it was unlikely Coalition training activities would resume until after Ramadan, which ends on May 23, 2020th.
Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom announced the temporary withdrawal of forces, according to government statements and press reports.
In Syria, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) leaders suspended military operations temporarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and urged all actors in the country to “refrain from military actions and make an immediate commitment to a humanitarian truce” in late March.
In addition, likely due to the US’ actions in assassinating Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and attacking positions of Kata’ib Hezbollah, which is part of the Iraqi Security Forces, some consolidation of positions was required, as it was unfeasible to attempt and defend every base throughout Iraq from the occasional missile strikes they were subject to.
“This quarter, the Coalition began consolidating forces to fewer bases in Iraq, which the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) stated was part of a long-term plan. This base transfer occurred amid force protection concerns sparked by escalating tensions between the United States and Iran and its proxy militias, which CJTF-OIR said led to an acceleration of the long-term transfer plan.”
As such, it was allegedly planned to do so, anyway, but the tensions between Washington and Tehran forced the timeline.
Four bases were vacated in March, and more is being prepared for withdrawal:
- March 17: CJTF-OIR transferred control of the Al Qaim military base, located on the Iraq-Syria border, to the ISF.
- March 26: CJTF-OIR handed control of Qayyarah Airfield–West (Q West), located near Mosul, to Iraqi forces.
- March 29: The Coalition handed K-1 base located near Kirkuk City over to the ISF.
- March 30: The Coalition transferred Ninewa Operation Center–East to the ISF.
- As the quarter ended, CJTF-OIR was preparing to transfer the Taqaddum Air Base, located west of Baghdad.
This was possible because the Iraqi Security Forces increasingly became capable of carrying out their independent operations against ISIS, and the US presence wasn’t needed in such numbers. Operation Inherent Resolve’s fight against terrorism moved into its third, of four, phases.
In Phase III, the Coalition sought to liberate Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria, capitals of ISIS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate,” eliminate ISIS’s “physical means and psychological will” to fight, and support partner forces through training, advising, equipping, and assisting. In Phase IV, the Coalition would provide security, planning, and required support to the Iraqi government and “appropriate authorities” in Syria to stabilize the region.
The operations against continued at a low level, since terrorist presence remained at remote areas.
CJTF-OIR reported that ISIS remains largely relegated to remote areas and is unable to recruit from, or gain control over, local populations.
However, it said that ISIS is more successful in recruiting small numbers of people in displacement camps, particularly in the Al Hol camp in Syria.
“The DIA, citing open-source reporting, said ISIS is able to conduct localized recruiting in Iraq. CJTF-OIR said that it expects ISIS to focus on preserving its logistic and staging areas, and to take defensive measures to prevent security forces from disrupting activity in those areas. However, those actions are limited in scope, duration, and the number of fighters involved, indicating that ISIS lacks the resources to conduct an attack campaign, according to CJTF-OIR.”
Pressure on ISIS, however, needs to remain, otherwise there would be a quick and complete resurgence.
USCENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. reported to Congress in March that the opinion among most of the U.S. intelligence community is that “without sustained pressure levied against it, ISIS has the potential to reconstitute in Iraq and Syria in short order, beyond the current capabilities of the United Sates to neutralize it without a capable, partnered ground force.”
Iran remained a big threat:
“Media reports, think tank analyses, and DoD statements indicate that the threat from Iran and Iranian-backed militias continued throughout the quarter. According to analysts, Iran intensified its political and military pressure in order to compel the United States to withdraw forces from Iraq.27 Iranian officials and Iranian-backed actors vowed to avenge the deaths of Iranian Qods Force Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, killed by a U.S. aerial strike at the Baghdad International Airport on January 3, 2020.28 Iranian-aligned factions within the Iraqi government also sought to evict U.S. forces from Iraq over the strike, but these efforts appear to have stalled due to Iraq’s ongoing political crisis. Iranian proxies continued launching indirect fire attacks against Coalition forces after the deaths of Soleimani and al Muhandis, resulting in Coalition casualties.29 Most recently, on March 11, a rocket attack on Camp Taji killed two U.S. and one British service members, according to a DoD press release.”
Russia, too, was causing problem, primarily in Northeastern Syria:
Media reporting from January 2020 stated that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights observed that the overlapping and shifting lines of control in northeastern Syria were producing friction among actors operating in the region. Due to this friction, tensions were increasing in the oil-rich Hasakah province where Coalition forces, the Russian military, and PRF held positions.
“CJTF-OIR reported to the DoD OIG that it continued to address the Russian military presence in Syria, deemed a tactical challenge, by working through established deconfliction channels. As reported last quarter, the Coalition amended deconfliction protocols due to changes in Coalition force posture in northeastern Syria and establishment of the ESSA. In late January 2020, a CJTF-OIR spokesperson stated that Coalition forces and the Russian military were continuing to deconflict movements through “pre-existing communication channels and interlocutors, in order to prevent unnecessary and unplanned military interactions, and de-escalate between forces when necessary.””
The media reported on numerous confrontations among Coalition forces, the Russian military, the PRF (Syrian Arab Army, or as the US calls them “Pro-Regime Forces”), and Iranian proxies that occurred in January and February 2020, including the following incidents:
- January 16:S. personnel prevented Russian soldiers heading to the Rumeylan oil field from passing through the city of Qamishli in Hasakah province;
- January 18:S. personnel stopped a Russian convoy heading to the Rumeylan oil field;
- January 23:S. forces intercepted an unidentified Russian general in northern Syria during deconfliction operations;
- January 25:S. personnel intercepted a group of Russian military police;
- January 28: Russian helicopters flew very low over a U.S. checkpoint;
- February 4: A Russian patrol circumvented a U.S. checkpoint;
- February 16: The Mughawir al Thawra reported exchanging fire with the PRF and Iranian proxies in the deconfliction zone around Tanf.
- February 19:S. forces escorted a Russian patrol out of an area near eastern Qamishli after it violated deconfliction protocols; and
- February 22:S. personnel blocked the passing of a Russian patrol on the M4 Highway near Amuda.
A mention is also made of Russia and Turkey somewhat clashing in Idlib and the resulting negotiations and agreements.
In conclusion, the report essentially presents a picture in which, ISIS is still somewhat of a threat and needs pressure, but Iran is much more dangerous, and Russia simply presents a “tactical challenge” since open confrontation with its forces is out of the question.
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