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Rapid conclusion of Tal Afar Operation, near-term considerations, and future operations

September 01, 2017  

On 31 August, Iraqi security forces liberated the town of Ayadiyah, which formed the last remaining IS stronghold in the Tal Afar District. These events occurred less than two weeks after the initiation of the Tal Afar Operation on 20 August, and the rapid liberation of the city just one week later on 27 August. While additional clashes involving pockets of insurgents continued to be noted over the course of initial consolidation efforts, Lieutenant General Yarallah, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, and Coalition officials each issued statements officially marking the completion of the liberation of Tal Afar and Nineveh Province over 10 months after related operations began on 16 October 2016.

The removal of the last major IS hub in Nineveh will undoubtedly have a very positive impact on the security of Kurdish and Iraqi government controlled areas of the province, with the coming months important to monitor as a baseline for future activity patterns. The rapid conduct of the Tal Afar Operation induces additional optimism with regards to the expected characteristics of future operations in Hawija and western Anbar. The upcoming month will form an important period as security forces refit and reposition, and as initial shaping operations are identified.

Broad advances exceeding all expectations:
It was understood that the Tal Afar Operation would be much less challenging than experiences in West Mosul due to the smaller size of Tal Afar, much more favorable terrain, lower population densities and risks of civilian casualties, and heavy strikes against the roughly 1,000-2,000 IS militants initially estimated to be active in the isolated Tal Afar – Kisik corridor in and around Tal Afar for weeks prior to the initiation of ground advances. Even with these factors taken into account, the significant achievements noted in just over one week of ground advances exceeded even the most optimistic initial expectations concerning this operation.

IS militants defending the large Tal Afar pocket against multiple axes of advance were simply unable to mass sufficient numbers of vehicle borne IEDs, snipers, IEDs, and other mobility killers that prolonged the Mosul Campaign. As a result of these broad pressures and low density of active fighters, the cohesion of IS defensive operations rapidly deteriorated, with heavy resistance only experienced as fighters made their last stand in Ayadhiyah. On 31 August, Operation Inherent Resolve Commander US Army Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend stated initial battle damage assessments indicated over 1,000 insurgents were killed or captured during the operation, including 500-700 in the vicinity of Tal Afar City, and 300-500 near Ayadhiyah.

On 2 September, Tal Afar Operations Commander Lt. Gen. Abdul Amir Yarallah claimed security forces killed 2,000 insurgents including 50 suicide bombers, and destroyed or cleared 77 vehicle borne IEDs, 71 booby-trapped buildings, and 990 IEDs. Total losses sustained by various security forces including Hashd al-Shaabi fighters were reportedly 115 killed and 679 wounded. The claim of 2,000 insurgents killed was likely partially inflated. The claimed casualty figures for security forces is very plausible, representing a fraction of the losses sustained during the liberation of Mosul as expected. However, nearly 800 casualties is not insignificant, representing roughly half a brigade’s worth of combat power in accordance with established Iraqi military manning levels during the current conflict of roughly between 1,000 – 2,000 soldiers per brigade.

Smoke billows from the village of al-Ayadieh, 28 August (AFP)

These developments reflected very positively on the performance of Iraqi security forces following the extremely hard-fought victory experienced in Mosul. While elite Counter-Terrorism Service and Emergency Response Division units were predictably the main effort in the most difficult fighting within the city, Iraqi Army and Hashd al-Shaabi units played very important supporting roles in and around the city. The sound performance demonstrated by elements of three Iraqi Army divisions partially absolved the setbacks they experienced during the Mosul Campaign, and underlined the proficiency of conventional Iraqi Army units conducting offensive operations in less challenging environments.

The prospect of Hashd al-Shaabi involvement in Tal Afar City was previously feared to be associated significant Turkish opposition in this predominantly Turkmen population center. When asked about the extent of the involvement of Hashd al-Shaabi forces during a press conference on 23 August, British Army Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones stated to the effect that the Iraqi government decided that instead of giving the Hashd al-Shaabi their own separate axis of advance, it was decided to integrate them with other security forces in what was likely a negotiated settlement. Hashd al-Shaabi propaganda reporting greatly embellished their accomplishments in accordance with established patterns, while limited reporting of abuses against the local populace has begun to surface.

Initial consolidation efforts:
Significant consolidation efforts are being undertaken in Tal Afar and surrounding areas, including the reactivation of local police stations, basic services, and other government functions needed to support the return of thousands of individuals displaced by the operation. Iraqi officials claimed 18,822 civilians were evacuated prior to 20 August, while 21,936 others were evacuated over the course of the operation, totaling 40,758 individuals. Only a handful of Yezidis have been freed over the course of this operation, contrasting with original estimates that as many as 500 Yezidis were suspected of being held captive in and around Tal Afar.

In related developments, large numbers of IDPs and suspected insurgents attempting to blend in with IDPs were encountered in Peshmerga-controlled frontlines outside Tal Afar. Some incidents involved multiple insurgents armed with various weapons including explosive vests clashing with Peshmerga forces in frontline areas, though only light casualties were reported. Peshmerga officials claimed hundreds of suspected insurgents surrendered to their forces or were otherwise detained, along with a number of alleged IS families. Peshmerga officials also claimed to have killed over 130 insurgents in the vicinity of Ayadiyah during a three-day period in an assessed embellishment.

It is initially unclear how many IS fighters were detained, with it also likely a large proportion of military-age males were arrested on a precautionary basis as well as alleged IS families as claimed. An influx of IS families and other Sunni individuals attempting to enter Peshmerga lines is certainly understandable. Although such individuals will very likely face a prolonged incarceration process under poor conditions, the alternative is facing predominantly Shi’a security forces in Iraqi government controlled areas. Such forces, particularly the Emergency Response Division, were accused of prevalent extrajudicial killings and other atrocities over the course of the Mosul Campaign.

29 Aug 2017 IS militants after surrendering to Peshmerga forces (unconfirmed, social media sources)

Near-term threat considerations:
Concerns related to known and suspected IS fighters attempting to escape the Tal Afar District with IDPs or under other conditions will remain a factor for the near-term. However, once initial consolidation efforts are completed, IS-related threats facing Kurdish-controlled areas are understandably expected to be greatly reduced. A growing consideration will be the interaction between Kurdish and Iraqi government hold forces on respective sides of these disputed territories, particularly given the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi forces in this sector. Nevertheless, as with other fault lines in Nineveh, any incidents that develop are expected to be relatively minor.

In conjunction with the previous loss of Mosul, and the towns of Baaj, and Hatra, IS has now lost its last main hub in Nineveh through the liberation of Tal Afar. However, despite somewhat embellished claims that Nineveh is now liberated, it is important to note that a vast region of thinly populated areas in rural areas of southern and southwestern Nineveh is not under government control. Upticks in frontline attacks in western Nineveh facilitated by IS support zones in western Anbar and Syria remains possible over the near-term.

However, the loss of Tal Afar will undoubtedly significantly degrade IS attack capabilities in many government held areas of the province that were previously susceptible to infiltration efforts from the Tal Afar pocket. Following the liberation of Mosul, the stability of the security environment in the city has exceeded the expectations of Coalition advisors. Similar optimism is in play that the Tal Afar District will also be relatively stable following initial consolidation efforts, though sporadic small-scale attacks form a routine expectation. The coming months will remain important for gauging the capabilities of underground IS cells in recently liberated areas and government-held areas of the province as a whole.

The obscured bodies of two would-be suicide bombers who were killed by Kurdish Peshmerga on the West Tigris front on August 22. (Duhok Command)

Possible cause for optimism in Hawija:
Following the substantial challenges experienced in Mosul, the rapid conduct of the Tal Afar Operation induces additional optimism with respects to the expected characteristics of future operations in Hawija and western Anbar. The timing of the initiation of the Tal Afar Operation was consistent with previous operational patterns, with a roughly one month long refit and preparatory period taking place after major operations came to a close in Mosul. A similar refit period is generally likely prior to the onset of the next major set of operations.

As previously discussed, various estimates of between 1,000-2,000 fighters are said to be active in the Hawija pocket, along with roughly 80,000 civilians according to the UN. Having initially seized Hawija in 2014, these militants have had a significant amount of time to construct defensive preparations in this major support zone. The terrain is also expected to prove very challenging, with mountains and the Tigris River running along the southwestern border, and large agricultural areas compartmentalized by a number of rivers and streams in central Hawija. Each of these terrain features pose natural chokepoints for advancing forces, and will form related challenges for logistical support.

Based on the relative performance of Iraqi security forces and IS militants in the Tal Afar Operation, it is somewhat possible that the Hawija Operation could be concluded within a several week period once the ground assault begins as opposed to a multi-month campaign as initially assessed. However, this is only possible if a significant number of joint security forces are committed to broad-based simultaneous advances such as what was seen during the Tal Afar Operation. The availability of a significant number of forces along these lines is similarly conditional to a major commitment prior to major operations developing in western Anbar, or alternatively during a pause between related operations.

Related frustrations likely manifested with concerted Coalition demands calling for the 25 September Kurdish independence referendum to be postponed. On 28 August, former Parliamentary Speaker and current senior Peshmerga Commander Kamal Kirkuki claimed the offensive will likely be launched after the 25 September Kurdish independence referendum. This forms an understandable precaution to reassess the situation until after the referendum vote is either held or postponed. It will be very important to monitor both these political events and indicators of intensifying shaping operations in the Hawija pocket, with it growing increasingly likely that the Hawija Operation will be launched prior to the Western Anbar Campaign if a difficult set of conditions are met.

Lengthy operations expected in Western Anbar:
Following the liberation of Mosul and the intensification of the Raqqa Campaign, a corridor along the Middle Euphrates River Valley between Deir ez-Zour and al-Qaim has been promoted as the new core IS support zones, hosting between 5,000-10,000 fighters, leadership personnel, and key support personnel. On 22 August, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described insurgents concentrated in the Middle Euphrates River Valley between Der ez-Zour in Syria and Al Qaim in Iraq as being trapped in a vise by military forces on both sides of the border. As an indicator of timing, Mattis acknowledged, “So ISIS’s days are certainly numbered, but it’s not over yet and it’s not going to be over any time soon.”

Securing large portions of Anbar province formed a major focus in 2015 and 2016, including the turning point of the conflict with the Ramadi Campaign, as well as the liberation of Hit, Fallujah, and Rutbah. However, through the entirety of the Mosul Campaign, security forces in Anbar conducted few further significant offensive operations. Overstretched security forces largely maintained an active-defensive posture, economizing their commitments. Meanwhile, IS continues to demonstrate the ability to conducted disruptive attacks in frontline areas, and intermittent high-impact attacks in the vicinity of major population centers.

The Western Anbar Campaign is expected to take a considerable period, and will likely involve multiple operations separated by distinct refit periods intended to incrementally isolate and seize the major population centers of Anah, Rawah, and eventually Al Qaim. IS militants are understandably expected to commit a substantial amount of resources to protect these core remaining support zones, with unexpectedly significant setbacks possible. Nevertheless, IS as an organization continues to be greatly weakened by both the Mosul and the Raqqa campaign, adding some additional elements of optimism.

Despite the significant political challenges hampering preparations for the Hawija Operation noted above, it is has grown increasingly likely the next set of major operations will take place in Hawija. While certainly capable of executing such an approach, it would also essentially divide the availability of forces and supporting assets, prolonging the respective endeavors. As with Hawija, it will be important to monitor indicators of intensifying shaping operations in western Anbar as a further indicator of timing.

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