Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Sitrep - 30 March, 2016

Three explosions in the bureaucratic heart of the European Union killed 35 people on March 22. The attacks, later claimed by the Islamic State (IS), targeted the Brussels International Airport in Zaventem and the Maalbeek metro station. An unexploded device was located near the airport and Brussels security services have since conducted raids in adjacent suburbs against other suspected terrorists.

A handful of high-profile arrests were made in the weeks leading up to the attack – one of which nabbed the alleged mastermind of the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. The attacks and this arrest appear to be connected. The Brussels strikes were poorly planned and rushed, indicating the cell may have been spooked into a “use it or lose it” situation, deciding to conduct the attack at an inopportune time.

However, the type of explosives (triacetone triperoxide, or TATP) used indicates the terror cell has significant competence and a skilled bombmaker who is still at large. There is suspicion the same bombmaker was involved in the Paris attacks. TATP is a notoriously difficult explosive to synthesise, named “the mother of Satan” by Hamas. Brussels security services are hunting the remains of the cell.

Government troops loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad retook the UNESCO World Heritage city of Palmyra in southern Syria from the militant group IS. The militants had controlled the city since May 2015. The operation to reconquer the city took three weeks, hundreds of Russian airstrikes and reportedly killed dozens of loyalist troops and perhaps only a few hundred IS fighters.

The low number of IS deaths suggest the group strategically withdrew the bulk of its forces from the city, rather than staying to fight. The city was certainly more important for Damascus –proximate as it is to crucial regime supply lines – than it was for the militant group. Mr Assad’s forces were also bolstered by Russian Special Forces, Hezbollah fighters and a whole host of troops harking from Pakistan, Iraq and Iran.

Although pushing IS from Palmyra represents another very public loss of IS territory, it should not be seen as a strategic defeat for the group. Since it is unlikely loyalist forces will expand across the Syrian desert towards IS core territory, the group can fall back to conduct guerrilla and spoiling attacks to hassle regime supply lines without threatening its own strategic interests.

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