(Source : Quarterly Lead IG Report to the US Congress) – OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE LEAD INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT TO THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS / APRIL 1, 2019‒JUNE 30, 2019
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY (ABSTRACTS)
IRAQI AND U.S.-BACKED SYRIAN FORCES STRUGGLE TO CONTAIN THE ISIS INSURGENCY
Despite losing its territorial “caliphate,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria this quarter.1 The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the military command established in 2014 by U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), reported to the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (DoD OIG) that ISIS is able to operate as an insurgency in Iraq and Syria in part because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants.
CJTF-OIR said that in Iraq the ISF often lacks the ability to maintain hold forces in cleared territory. In Syria, according to CJTF-OIR, the SDF was “initially limited” in personnel, equipment, and intelligence to confront resurgent cells that ISIS fighters established in the northeast as they fled fighting in the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV). CJTF-OIR said that, in response, the SDF sought “every opportunity to continue to train and equip their forces” this quarter and frequently requested training, equipment, and assistance from U.S. and Coalition forces to confront ISIS’s “resurgent cells.”
USCENTCOM reported that ISIS militants in both countries employed similar tactics of targeted assassinations, ambushes, suicide bombings, and the burning of crops, but thisquarter did not carry out large-scale conventional attacks or attempt to take and hold territory for more than brief periods.5 According to the Office of the DoD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counternarcotics and Global Threats (CN>), ISIS is likely reestablishing financial networks in both countries.
CJTF-OIR reported based on open source data that ISIS likely retains between 14,000 and 18,000 “members” in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners. However, the DoD Office of the Undersecretary for Policy/International Security Affairs (OUSD(P)/ISA) said that estimates of ISIS numbers from agencies and experts both inside and outside the U.S. government varied greatly. Although ISIS has moved underground in Iraq and Syria, CJTFOIR said that it maintains an extensive worldwide social media effort to recruit fighters.
CJTF-OIR said that ISIS in Iraq was able to establish a more stable command and control node and a logistics node for coordination of attacks, particularly after the arrival of ISIS fighters from Syria following the fall of the last ISIS stronghold in the MERV in March 2019. ISIS remains capable of conducting “asymmetric operations” and exploiting tension between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities and popular discontent over the perceived failures of the Iraqi government.12
In Syria, USCENTCOM reported to the DoD OIG that ISIS has activated resurgent cells in areas controlled by the SDF and this quarter used these cells to conduct attacks in northeastern Syria and other areas of the MERV. ISIS also conducted multiple attacks against the Syrian regime and pro-regime forces, including an attack in Dara’a province for the first time since August 2018. USCENTCOM said that ISIS’s strategy in Syria is to create turmoil in territory that it has lost to challenge ruling authorities and assert its power. As in Iraq, ISIS tactics in Syria focused on assassinations and the burning of fields of crops.
The SDF carried out broad clearance operations across northeastern Syria this quarter, and focused on clearing resurgent cells in population centers in the MERV and in Manbij west of the Euphrates River. CJTF-OIR reported that the SDF also focused on establishing intelligence centers at its headquarters to gather information for clearance operations, reduce threats from homemade bombs and unexploded ordnance, and capture or kill ISIS cell members. In addition to conducting clearing operations, the SDF this quarter continued to hold about 10,000 ISIS fighters in what CJTF-OIR described as “prisons/pop-up prisons” in northeastern Syria. About 2,000 of the detainees are foreign fighters, and the remainder are Iraqi and Syrian nationals. (…)
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Photo © Spanish soldiers fire a machine gun during a training exercise at the Besmaya Range Complex, Iraq, U.S. Army (as published in ibid, page 13)