Category: Analysis

The Syria Strikes: Forecast Reflection and Damage Report of the Joint Air and Naval Operations

AFTER-ACTION REPORT – At 4:20 Damascus time, April 14, 2018, a joint Air and Naval operation of the United States of America (USA), Republic of France and the United Kingdom…

AFTER-ACTION REPORT – At 4:20 Damascus time, April 14, 2018, a joint Air and Naval operation of the United States of America (USA), Republic of France and the United Kingdom of Great Britain (UK) launched air strikes and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TALM) from assets present in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, as well as from the Arabic/ Persian Gulf towards Syria. The military action was a direct response to the Assad’s regime use of Chemical weapons against civilians and Opposition Forces in the Damascus city of Douma – the last pocket near Eastern Ghouta unconquered by the Loyalists at that time.  Days before the highly expected but unconfirmed strike, T-intelligence (Ti) has successfully forecasted the time-frame, targets and nature of the joint U.S., British and French response. In the two cables posted on the Facebook page on April 12 (Post 1, Post 2), Ti assessed the Trump administration’s intentions and unpeeled most of the operational timeline of the strike. The following assessment reflects on the analytical process and facts that weighted into the operation, as well as the outcome of the military engagement:

Intentions of the Trump administration: Reinstate Deterrence through Controlled Escalation

  1. Following the Douma gas attack and the immediate political messages sent from Washington, London and Paris, Ti judged that a military retaliation against the Bashar al-Assad regime is not only highly likely, but imminent. The judgement was also fueled by the 2017’s precedent set by Donald J. Trump, when he directed 59 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TALMs) to hit the Shayrat air base – the location used to deliver the chemical attack in Khan Sheykoun by the Assad regime. The Trump administrator drew a red line in the sand, Assad broke it, and retaliation swiftly followed. Ti was looking for the same formula but in a bigger, more punitive format.
  2. Ti assessed that the Trump administration did not take this decision lightly, as the President has earlier signaled plans to exit  the Syrian Civil War. He repeatedly stated that he intends to withdraw the almost 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria (mostly consisting of costly and limited Special Operations Forces) as major operations against ISIS/ DAESH are coming to an end. Allies and regional partners are attempting to backtrack this decision, with President Macron claiming success. Key Arab countries are pressured to make contribution that would maintain U.S. presence as a counter to Iranian hegemony in the region. Inherently, a military strike was to be politically-cautions enough that it would not drag the United States further into the civil war and the geopolitical confrontation that it involves. However, a large scale than last year’s attack was needed and expected for doubling-down on President Trump’s redline. 
  3. Ti looked for a larger military and logistical build-up in comparison to last year’s strike, as a way to validate and measure the likelihood of an attack. Subsequently, a more ambitious and larger target-list was expected. 
  4. With the use of military force, Allies sought to reinstate a credible deterrent against further use of Chemical weapons, and (b) to degrade the capabilities of the Assad regime, and subsequent Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from conducting similar attacks in the future. The thin line that curbed operational “creativity” was a possible escalation with Russian and Iranian forces embedded with their Syrian allies. Secretary of Defense James Mattis especially feared possible repercussions against the 2,000 U.S. troops operating against the remnants of ISIS/ DA’ESH in northern and eastern Syria within Operation “Inherent Resolve”.
  5. The Department of Defense worked in close coordination with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Central Command to carefully compile a shortlist of targets for President Donald J. Trump to pick from. They had several guidelines to respect in the process of target-acquisition and evaluation:
  • Connection to the Syrian regime’s Chemical and Biological Weapons program – facilities (storage, research) and delivery assets (fighter jets, helicopters);
  • Reduction and prevention of civilian casualties or collateral damage; and
  • Avoiding casualties among Russian and Iranian personnel present in Syria, operating in either solo or joint military compounds with their SAA counter-parts.
  1. The campaign’s philosophy was military-precise and politically-cautious. However, delays (due to political consultations in London, Paris) and premature twitter threats from President J. Trump have (possibility intentionally) complicated this process. The SAA began moving their air assets from major air fields to the Russian-owned Kheimeini Air Base in the coastline province of Latakia – a sanctuary from any possible U.S. strike. This rendered the Pentagon’s objective of striking WMDs means of delivery unreachable. The Department of Defense had to continuously re-evaluate the strike list in accordance to the developments on the ground and incoming intelligence.
  2. On Wednesday, U.S. officials suggested to commercial flight companies via Eurocontrol to avoid the Syrian airspace in the next 72 hours. While not very common, commercial no-fly zones have become a much more usual practice after the downing of flight Mh-17 by Russia in Eastern Ukraine. Ti judged with significant strength and confidence that this would be the window for the US, UK and FRA to get their house in order and commence with military operations.

CLAIM (Very Accurate): Inherently, the days suggested by Ti were Thursday, Friday and Saturday (12-14 April, 2018) – preferably at the crack of dawn (4-5 a.m. Damascus time).

OUTCOME: The operation commenced on Saturday pre-dawn 4:20 am Damascus time.


  1. Thursday afternoon saw a two-hour long meeting in the White House attended by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Halley, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice-President Mike Pence, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. No decision was made at that time due to reported disagreements between John Bolton and James Mattis regarding the targeting list. John Bolton, an ex-Bush administration official and a firebrand warhawk advocated towards a punitive strike against SAA installations, reportedly including air defense sites. James Mattis called for a proportionate response and related to the Syrian regime’s WMD program, arguing that striking air defenses would escalate tensions with Russia and Iran, which could retaliate on the U.S. troops operating northern and eastern Syria. Also, Theresa May only received the full backing of her Cabinet on Thursday evening. President Trump then had a phone call with Prime-Minister May and President Macron to further discuss the situation – rumors suggested that the topic was the continuously changing target-list and the possibility of breaking the decision-making deadlock in the following days.
  2. With the window of Thursday night/ Friday morning being missed, we assessed that the list of targets got shorter and weaker, but that a final line-up of locations was supplied to POTUS. The loss of military initiative severely weakened the potential impact of a campaign.  The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had taken all the necessary measures to mitigate or eliminate the projected damage on its air fields and military. We assessed that the operation would try to compensate the lack of substance with a higher number of targets. There is also indication that Israeli intelligence has played a role in checking and compiling the list of targets. As reflected by the disappointment expressed by Israeli officials regarding impact and effect of the strike, Mossad’s contribution did not make it in the final draft of the line-up. 

CLAIM (Relatively Accurate): Ti estimated that 4-8 targets would be hit, consisting of largely deserted air fields and facilities. They would have moderate military importance and would not cause casualties, especially not Russian or Iranian. Likewise, Ti noted with confidence that the US CENTCOM will maintain communications with their Russian counter-parts through the Qatar-based de-escalation, purposely to avoid unwanted incidents.

OUTCOME: The trilateral strike hit three targets (one military installation including an airfield, one WMD storage center, both in Homs; and a Chemical and Biological Weapons Research Center in Bazreh, Rural Damascus). The Joint Chief of Staff, General Joseph Dunford confirmed that the operation involved an exchange of communication with the Russian counter-parts regarding the de-escalation of certain parts in the Syrian airspace minutes before the missile were launched. Also, no human casualties (including Russian or Iranian) were reported due to the evacuation of personnel conducted by Damascus earlier that week.


 

Capabilities Employed: Tracking Assets and Flow of Logistics Surrounding Syria   

  1. Ti has been tracking logistics and civilian & military (available) air traffic that could indicate a build-up in the Eastern Mediterranean by the US, UK and France. Effort had two short-falls: an over-focus on that particular area, when there are hundreds of other assets already deployed in some framework or form through the region – which were ultimately activated for the operation. Which leads to the second issue: white noise of open-source data. The myriad of ongoing active deployment, engagements, schedules commissioning and circumstantial events (as military drills solo or joint) was nearly impossible to filter for a precise assessment. However, moderate judgments have been made. For example, we [continued]

CLAIM (Precise): [continued] rejected the idea that a military strike would be conducted by the Strike Group 8 (SG8) commissioned to the area from Norfok, Virginia on Wednesday. That deployment was planned months in advanced and while it could have been activated for the campaign, it would have represented a disproportionate use of military logistics and assets in relationship with the targets. The assets already scattered through the region would have sufficed for a limited military strike. The SG8 holds the potential, manpower and capabilities to annihilate the entire Armed Forces of the Assad regime. Ti was tracking assets for a limited campaign involving air strikes and cruise missiles, not regime change.

OUTCOME: SG8 played no role in the campaign against the Syrian regime, other than deterrence, power projection and cover (press-wise) for the actual assets.


  1. The transfer of air assets between U.S. regional basses, as Sigonella, Aviano (Italy) to Incirlik (Turkey) was eye-catching, but internal assessment dismissed the Incirlik Air Base as a possible launch site for the campaign given the political pivot between the Turkish Government, the Assad regime and Russia over the conflict in Syria.
  2. Deployment of fuel tankers towards the Mediterranean from the U.S. and the U.K. was a strong pre-strike logistical indicator. However, it was difficult to dismiss whether those assets were not actually commissioned to support fighter jets on active duty against ISIS/ DAESH within CJTF/OIR.
  3. Starting with Tuesday, the U.S. Air Force began flying 3-4 reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering sorties per day, using Boeing Poseidon P-8 planes in the Eastern Mediterranean and focusing on the Syrian coastline. Their path, runtime and some technical details were visible in a number of publicly available air traffic monitoring websites and apps. Deployment of those aircrafts came from the aforementioned U.S. air fields in Italy. UAVs (unmanned aerial-vehicles) as the RQ-4 (call sign “Forte 10”) were intensifying surveillance runs and ELINT/IMINT collection about Syrian coastal anti-air defenses. The ISR (Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance) efforts  were reportedly subjected to Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) jamming measures.
  4. Early last week, the USS Donald Cook has been dispatched to sail in the Eastern Mediterranean after completing a port-call in a Cypriot harbor. Its exact location was unknown due to OPSEC reasons but Ti assessed that its mere presence does not hold the potential for an escalatory capability-build-up in the region or to stage an attack. However, the warship was not ruled out of a possible engagement. Compared to 2017, two warships launched 59 TALMs against the Shayrat Air Base. Ti was looking for more regionally-deployed assets or/ and allied contributions to combine forces.
  5. News of British submarines being deployed in the area, alongside the French multi-class destroyer, Aquitaine, was a strong indication that a percentage of the expected force would be provide by Allies. Intensified activity at the British air base in Cyprus was another strong indication. The Aquitaine was repeatedly buzzed by Russian fighter jets throughout 11-13 April, 2018. 
  6. Ti was monitoring with caution and restraint. There is always the risk that logistical activity and capability deployment can be routine, circumstantial or related to other events: engagement against ISIS/ DAESH within OIR, military exercises with local allies, or troop rotation in U.S. basses in the region For example, a reported and growing U.S. military activity in Jordan was actually due to the upcoming international annually military drill with the Jordanian Army, and had little-to-no connection to a Syrian Strike – as assessed at that time. The evacuation of the Russian Mediterranean Task Force (part of the Black Sea Fleet) based in the Naval Facility in Tartus, was more related to the series of military drills in the Syrian waters (starting with April 11), than an imminent U.S. strike. Regardless that Russian officials had later used the exercises to keep the assets away from impeding danger.
  7. Monitoring a number of publicly available air traffic websites and apps, Ti noticed a complete reduction in commercial flights transiting Syrian airspace – with the exception of the Syrian state-owned ChamWings and affiliated jets, outbound to Tehran (Iran), Baghdad, and Najaf (Iraq). Flights towards the busy Beirut Airport (Lebanon) were re-routed either through Turkey, Egypt or Jordan (and Israel). Kuwait Air Ways cancelled all of their flights to Lebanon.
  8. The main and only shortfall of this assessment, is that Ti largely concentrated on the Eastern Mediterranean region for asset-deployment and build-up due to resource management and operational practicality. It made for sense for TALMs to be launched from the waters just hundreds of km away from the targets, rather than thousands of km. This was only partially fruitful as the following section will detail.

Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and Operational Layout

  1. On Saturday morning before dawn (April 14, 2018), the US, UK and France launched 105 missiles against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons development and storage assets. The military campaign was limited and sought to reinstate a credible deterrence against the Assad’s regime usage of WMDs after crossing the red-line instated by the U.S. unilateral strike from April 2017.
  2. The trilateral force consisting of the US, UK and France was integrated throughout the planning and execution of the operation and employed solely air and naval assets deployed in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. The U.S. fired:
  •  37 (30+7) TLAMs from the Red Sea (USS Monterey and USS Laboon);
  • 23 TLAMs from the Arab Gulf (USS Higgins);
  • 6 TLAMs from the secretive Virginia-class submarines John Warner operating from the eastern Mediterranean;
  • and 19 JSAAM-ER missiles by a B-1b Strategic bomber coming from Al-Udeid Air base (Qatar) via Jordan. The B-1b’s Defensive Counter Air (DCA) escort was provided by F-16Cs and F-15Cs armed with air-to-air missiles and the counter-EW capable EA-6B Prowler from the U.S. Marines Corps. This is the first time Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) were used in combat. 

  • The British Typhoon and Tornado fighter jets fired 8 Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles into the Homs facility, alongside the French Rafale/ Mirage jets that activated 9 SCALP missiles. British and French jets flew from the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Akrotiri, Cyprus;  
  • The French Navy also fired a number of their indigenous equivalent of the TLAM, namely the Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN);
  • From the total of 105 strikes, 76 missiles were concentrated fire on the Barzeh Scientific Research Center.

  1. The targets that were struck and destroyed were specifically associated with the Syrian regime’s chemical and biological weapons program. The targets were also selected to minimize and reduce risk of civilian and foreign (Russia, Iran) losses. The first target was the Barzeh Scientific Research Center (Rural Damascus province) that developed, produced and tested biological and chemical weapons technology. The second and third targets were both located in Him Shinshar, Homs province – consisting in a command & control center that contained a Chemical Weapons (CW) storage site and bunker. All of the targets have been successfully and accurately destroyed. The military operation was a success.
  2. The only retaliatory fire came from the Syrian regime’s anti-air defenses which fired around 40 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at the incoming strikes. Russia had not activated its military infrastructure deployed in Syria due to technological secrecy and political reasons. US, British and French delivery assets didn’t require entering Syrian airspace as the missiles have a generous range that allowed them to be launched from hundreds of km away. Therefore, fighter jets, ships and bombers were not subjected to Syrian counter-measures. The Syrian regime and Russia claim to have shot down a number of TLAMs.

  1. Despite Russian and Syrian claims, it is highly unlikely that Syrian anti-air defense were able to shot down the incoming missiles. Neither Damascus nor Moscow, either officially or via disinformation campaign did not present prove of wreckage, debris or remnants of TLAMs. The significant gap in Syrian S-200 capabilities and Western technology is irreconcilable. The TALMs can change course and speed in mid-air being able to easily evade Soviet-era defense systems, and its size and nature make it difficult for even advanced anti-air weapons to track and intercept them. On the other hand, as the Syrian SAMs were fired but did not hit their targets, there is no information on where those SAMs have fallen. Their impact is worrying given the highly-populated areas of Damascus. There is also no confirmation of the reported use of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities nor of their potential impact on the joint American-British-French operation. 
  2. Time will tell whether the limited retaliatory strike on Syria manages to completely deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons in the future. The military operation was a success, but Ti assess that the losses and damage inflicted on the CW infrastructure were too superficial and came too late for them to degrade these kinds of Syrian capabilities. Damascus had almost a week to conduct pre-damage control and evacuate assets, personnel and data. Employment of SAMs still suggest that targets were relevant enough to (try to) defend, but far from having any strategic impact. The tactical scratches inflicted were solely purposed to echo a strong political message to the Assad regime, and not to severely inflict military losses as a way of containing conflict escalation.
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Why and How Turkey is invading Afrin: Behind the Scenes of Operation “Olive Branch”

Strategic Analysis (10 min read) – The Turkish military intervention to clear Afrin has stagnated in the past weeks. Spearheaded by Syrian Rebels, operation Olive Branch failed to capture more than…

Strategic Analysis (10 min read) – The Turkish military intervention to clear Afrin has stagnated in the past weeks. Spearheaded by Syrian Rebels, operation Olive Branch failed to capture more than a few pockets of lands on the borderlands. While the Kurdish defenses played a role, the key input in this deceleration can only be found in Idlib province. Russia and the Loyalists were the ones that greenlighted operation Olive Branch after striking a deal with Turkey. But they are also the ones to sabotage it. In response, Ankara is enhancing pressure in the Rebel fronts of Idlib complicating the Regime’s advances. The following analysis will detail why Turkey intervened in Afrin, how the operation was planned behind-the-scenes, and how did it came to near failure.

Crowdsourced by Wikipedia’s thread.

The Federation of Northern Syria, or the Kurdish Rojava?

The Afrin canton is a patch of mostly rural hilly lands rich with olive trees, located in north-western Aleppo governorate. This has been the most tranquil sector in Syria throughout the eight-year old civil war. It came under the control of the Kurdish militia YPG and its political wing, the PYD – Democratic Union Party – that provided self-governance in the area following the erosion of Bashar al-Assad’s control over various peripheral provinces of the country in the opening stages of the war. Throughout the fight against ISIS, the U.S-led Coalition enlisted the help of the YPG and several Arab Sunni, Syriac and Turkmen militias to form a multi-ethnic alliance under the direct support and aid of the Department of Defense. The alliance, called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was a sequel to the joint Kurdish-Arab Euphrates Volcano war room that inflicted a turning-point defeat to ISIS in Kobani (2014). Under close U.S. air support and tactical guidance, they came to liberate nearly the entirety of northern Syria: Raqqa (province and city) and the eastern banks of the mid-Euphrates river valley up until the Iraqi border. This vast territory came under the administration of the 2016-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria to which the SDF serves as an official army. The federation could as easily be called “Rojava” suggesting the western lands of the Kurds.  Throughout this, the administration based in Qamishli (north-eastern Syria) split the territory into four regions subsequently composed by sub-provinces taking after the Kurdish canton system:

  • Afrin region: Afrin province (Afrin, Jandaris and Rajo), Shahba region (Tel Rifat and Manbij),
  • Euphrates region: Kobani province (Kobani and Sarrin) and Tel Abyad province.
  • Jazzira region: Hasakha province (Hasakha, Tell Tamer, Serekaniye and Derbasiyah) and Qamishli province (Qamislhi and Derik).
  • The mid-Euphrates river valley has not been yet distributed within an existent region nor has the SDF created one. The cities of Raqqa and Tabqa have been placed under a civil council, while the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) of the SDF is still conducting anti-ISIS raids in the far east corner – an entirely Arab Sunni territory.

 

Ankara perceives the Federation of Northern Syria as a Kurdish state that would embolden the decades-long insurgency in southeastern Turkey to manage a breakaway – starting a domino effect in its path to a greater unified Kurdistan. Despite the resemblance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from northern Iraq, this entity cannot be controlled or curbed through soft power tools. The Assembly from Qamishlo is dominated by the PYD, and the Kurds outnumber other militiamen, despite US efforts to enlist more Arab fighters. There is no political counter-weight to the YPG/PYD hegemony that Turkey can use to its advantage. As opposed to northern Iraq where Ankara would traditionally ally with the Barzani clan and the KDP to counter PKK or PUK.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they gain autonomy, in a form of federalism, that is at odds with Assad’s determination to control all of Syria. And given their far-left ideology they try to mitigate an inclusive policy of uniformity in an attempt to include the diverse ethnic-groups and confessions in northern Syria – which is fairly unrealistic given the reality on the ground.  Many reports even indicate that the PYD is suppressing opposition parties or that it even displaced Arab villagers from their homes. While there are instances of harmonious Arab-Kurdish cohabitation within the tribes of Syria’s northeastern provice of Hasakha, exporting that model in others parts – including Arab majority regions – has poor chances of succeeding. And parading with the imprisoned PKK leader’s portrait, Abdullah Ocalan, in the center of Raqqa is not sending a good post-conflict message. 

Ethnopolitics and Military might

Several swats of land controlled by the Federation of Northern Syria are either dominated by Arabs or Turkmen – two ethnicities that Ankara is trying to weaponize against the Kurds. It follows the classical and almost cliché divide et imperia strategy of sectarianism.  That is namely the case of Raqqa governorate and the territory from northern Aleppo province already controlled by Turkey and embedded Rebel groups through operation Euphrates Shield. In early 2017, Raqqa province almost followed the same route. Ankara offered Washington the alternative of using Turkish-backed Islamist groups as Ahrar ash-Sham or the Syrian Turkmen Brigades instead of the Kurdish-dominated SDF to capture Raqqa. That offer was rejected by the Trump administration that then proceeded to arm directly the Kurdish elements of the SDF – a premier for the U.S. strategy in Syria. As a result, the self-proclaimed capital of ISIS, Raqqa, was successfully liberated between June and October 2017. Powerless and outmaneuvered, Turkey had to come to terms with the reality on the ground. However, the U.S. guaranteed that the weapons will be retrieved afterwards. That process never occurred as the anti-ISIS operations were later extended down the eastern banks of mid-Euphrates river valley – a process still ongoing.

SDF is here to stay

In January 2018, The United States announced plans to further enhance the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Pentagon attempts to transforme the SDF from an alliance of armed tribesmen and rigid militias to a quasi-professional regular armed force. This plan is vital for security and stability in the liberated territories. It will also serve as a lethal and deterring counter-insurgency “silver bullet” against the displaced, fleeing or hidden jihadists plotting to revive the destroyed “Caliphate”. Presumably, it would also serve the geopolitical role of countering Iranian hegemony developing the region. On the other hand, it suggests that the Kurdish elements will not be de-armed or abandoned by the United States.

Another Turkish-Russian gamble: The Afrin-for-Idlib Deal

Turkey decided to act on the only Kurdish-controlled land that is out of the U.S-led Coalition’s operational interest, protection or reach: the Afrin canton. To achieve this, it had to turn to Russia who provided geopolitical protection for that area. The Kurds (YPG) knew that Afrin was uncovered in face of Turkish hostilities as it lacked U.S. troop presence that would deter them – as they did in Manbij. Inherently, the YPG had to look for another “guarding angel”.

Moscow had a major interest in gaining leverage over Ankara as it was preparing to initiate an offensive against the Turkish-backed Rebels from Idlib. Gaining control of Afrin would draw Ankara back to the negotiations table in that matter. Accordingly, YPG secured the protection of the Russian Federation.

In mid-2017, Moscow deployed military policemen in Afrin to setup an observation outpost flying the Russian flag. That checked Turkey’s move in the region for a while. However, the circumstances on the battlefield changed. The Loyalist camp could not penetrate Idlib province, the largest Rebel-stronghold. Furthermore, the (unofficial) al-Qa’ida franchise there, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had unleashed a major crackdown on other Rebel fronts, further polarizing the Opposition between Islamists and hardline Salafist jihadists. Fighters defected from other militias to join HTS, which emboldened the group to prey on territories controlled by the weakened Rebel groups. As it seized key routes and cities, most of the Syrian Rebels were subdued under HTS’s command. Throughout this quagmire, in November 2017, the Turkish Armed Forces managed to establish a military outpost in Mount Sheikh Barakatwestern Aleppo countryside, near Idlib.  The province was becoming an impossible nut to crack without Turkish endorsement or cooperation. 

A deal was struck: Afrin for Idlib. Russia pulls its soldiers from Afirn, essentially opening the airspace for Turkish jets and operations, if Turkey intervenes to soften the situation in Idlib. Ankara began pulling Rebel fighters from Idlib and positioning them on Turkish borderland with Afrin. Military convoys of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were spotted entering Idlib province. Moscow expected them to put the jihadists from HTS back in line, but instead the Turkish Army took positions on the mountains overlooking Afrin from northern Idlib. It became clear that Turkey was laying a siege on the Kurds.

In sync, the Loyalist camp, namely Russian, Assad’s forces and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias accelerated their offensive in south-western Idlib taking advantage on the lower Rebel numbers there – transferred by Turkey on the Afrin front. A deal is a deal, so Russia also evacuated its soldiers from Afrin essentially OKing Ankara to commence with the offensive.

Operation Olive Branch

On January 20th, The Turkish Air Force (TAF) began pounding villages in the canton and Afrin city. Rebel light infantry units were formed on the Syrian borderlands embedded with entire mechanized units of the Turkish Armed Forces. A bridge was built from Turkey’s Hatay province for military vehicles to cross the Karasu river into Qara Baba, a village in Afrin, Syria. At the end of the day, over 108 sorties were launched by Turkish F-16s. It kicked-off a slow-moving offensive that made headlines more because of the indiscriminately air strikes than ground achievements. On the same date, the Loyalist managed to capture the strategic al-Duhur air base in western Idlib province – a precious victory against the Rebels that was facilitated or at least accelerated by the Turkish operation. Immediately afterwards, the situation started to suspiciously erode for Ankara.

The Saboteurs

The next day, the Syrian government publicly condemned the Turkish intervention invoking a sovereignty infringement. Pro-government forces even opened Aleppo for YPG to move militiamen and logistics to Afrin. In exchange, the Kurds will trade grain and oil from areas controlled in northeast Syria (Hasakha and Deir ez-Zor), a source said to Al Jazeera. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that close to 50% of Kurdish militiamen are now shifting from active front with ISIS to fight-off the Turkish intervention. The international community, including the United States, the European Union, France and Germany condemned the operation in harsh terms.

In Idlib, the situation was also worsening for the Turkish-backed Rebels. The loss of al-Duhur air base was a defeat too great to ignore. Many of the Rebels transferred to Afrin returned to keep the line against Syrian, Russian and Iranian-backed troops.

On February 3rd, the Opposition Forces downed a Russian Su-25 fighter jet in skies of Idlib. The weapon used was a Russian-made Man-portable air-defense (MANPAD), Sa-18 Igla, that the Rebels captured only days ago from the Kurdish YPG in Afrin. This complicated the relationship between Ankara and Moscow. It is reported that Russia consequently re-closed the airspace over Afrin. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ denied the claims. But security sources told Cumhuriyet that Turkish warplanes and helicopters had only been patrolling the Turkish side of the Syrian border and not crossing since then. Banned from flying over Afrin, the Turks were also not welcomed in Idlib.

On February 5th, The Syrian Arab Army or allied Iranian-backed paramilitary groups have reportedly started shelling the freshly established positions of Turkish forces in the southern countryside of Aleppo province – according to both opposition and pro-government sources. The Turkish Army arrived there from Idlib to establish observation posts as agreed in the Astana de-escalation accords. It is known that non-Syrian Army pro-government units based opposite the Al-Eis area are mostly Iranian-linked or Iranian (proper) forces. The Turkish Army has apparently responded to the attacks with a rocket artillery salvo against pro-governmental positions near Shugheydilah. Casualties were reported on both sides but the incident was buried under the rug. It appears that Russia is willing to push forward the Syrian regime, or even encourage Iran to take more central stage in dealing with Turkey. 

On February 10th, a Turkish T-129 attack chopper was downed by Kurdish anti-aircraft fire originating from Afrin. The helicopter crashed in Turkey’s Hatay province resulting in the death of both pilots. Further, a photo surfaced online showing Kurdish YPG militiamen operating an Iranian-made infantry vehicle armed with an 106mm mounted anti-tank cannon. In response, new Turkish military convoys entered Idlib to establish more observation posts near Loyalist-held positions in Aleppo and Hama. This move enforces the Astana de-escalation accord, essentially blocking the Loyalist offensive in the area.

As of February 12, more than 20 Turkish soldiers and 150 YPG fighters have been killed since the military offensive began. 

 

Back to Renegotiating: To Be Continue

Seemingly, Moscow only struck the deal with Turkey to facilitate further gains against the Rebels in Idlib. As soon as victory was achieved in al-Duhur, it began to backpaddle on endorsing Operation Olive Branch. This is not to say that Afrin is safe from further airstrikes or land incursions. The combined forces of Turkish and Syrian Rebels will move forward with the ground operation regardless of the great costs awaiting them. It is already reported that TAF air strikes have restarted.

The Afrin and Idlib provinces are uniquely interconnected in this late stage of the Syrian Civil War. Likewise, the Ankara-Moscow dynamic has proven to be one of the most creative and unlikely relations. It would be no surprise if the parties managed to compromise and outmaneuver each other again; and again, and again

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New Tide in the Eastern Mediterranean: Radiography of Russia’s Permanent Military Build-up on the Syrian Coast

Strategic Analysis (20 min read) – The Syrian quagmire is nearing the end. The Assad regime is quasi-victorious with more than half of the national territory regained and over 75%…

Strategic Analysis (20 min read) – The Syrian quagmire is nearing the end. The Assad regime is quasi-victorious with more than half of the national territory regained and over 75% of the Syrian population under its control. The Opposition forces are utterly degraded and boxed into a few isolated patches of land in the western parts of Syria. The Russian Armed Forces as the Iranian-backed Shi’a paramilitary groups have played a key role in this effort. The military intervention launched in 2015 was mostly motivated by long-term strategic goals that seek to undermine NATO’s southern flank and push forward the agenda of resurgence. Inherently, the Russian Federation will maintain a permanent military presence in the Mediterranean Sea and the Levant amid the end of the Syrian Civil War. The Latakia Air field will continue to host dozens of fighter jets and bombers, while the Naval Facility of Tartus will be enhanced to form a Mediterranean Fleet consisting of a nuclear submarine and 11 warships. Guarded by the S-400 system, the Russian military-assets on the Syrian coastline form a new Anti-Access Area Denial Zone (A2AD). The strategic ramifications of these actions are to vanguard the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, challenge NATO’s freedom of maneuver on its southern flank and enhance Russia’s geopolitical posture and security needs throughout the region and the world.

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Little Green Men in Syria: Context, Origins and Developments:

The Russia State Duma authorized in mid-2015 the deployment of troops in Syria. The Regime of Bashar al-Assad submitted an official request to Moscow for military support. Weakened by defections and casualties, the largely conscripted and weary Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was close to collapse. This would have been catastrophic to Russia’s long-term strategic plans and shorter-term goals.

The military intervention to support the Assad regime and decisively aid the Loyalist war effort was motivated by several factors:

Grand Strategy of Resurgence. Vladimir Putin continues to see the relationship with the West as a zero-sum game, that can be leveraged to assert the strategy of reviving the Soviet-era influence and posture. The West had little-to-no appetite for a new intervention in a Middle Eastern quagmire, however, Russia still tried to deny Syria for the U.S. or the Sunni-block (aligned with the West). In the process, the Kremlin sought to use Syria to establish an active operational presence in the Middle East. This required the construction or enhancement of military installations (ex: Latakia Air Field & Tartous Naval Facility), the deployment of significant troop numbers and advanced hardware (ex: S-400, Iskander). On one hand, the establishment of such a persistent active force also provided Moscow with the opportunity to battle-test its troops and showcase new technology; essentially using the Syrian theater of War as both a battleground and a showroom. On the other hand, it allowed Russia to transform its initial “expeditionary” posture into a permanent-strategic one. This resulted in the creation of a new Anti-Access Denial Area (A2/AD) and laid the foundation for a future Mediterranean Fleet, targeting NATO and the U.S. The confrontation with the West remains an influential mindset in contemporary Russian strategic culture and planning.

Russian soldiers doing target practice in the Mediterranean Sea from the Tartus port, Syria.

Domestic affairs. The internal context in 2015 was defined by the negative impact of the Western-sanctions imposed to Russia. The economy was  taking hits in trade, inflation was on the rise subsequent with the devaluation of the Ruble. The few opposition parties began capitalizing on the huge costs of the illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin’s popular perception spikes in the opinion polls when he confronts the West. Inherently, Syria was yet another opportunity for exactly that.

Historical heritage. Since 1971 when Bashar’s father, Hafeez al-Assad seized power in the government and the Ba’ath Party through a coupe d’état, Syria immediately became an accommodating ally for Russia. In 1971, the Syrian Government leased the port of Tartus to the Russian Navy, developing a naval maintenance facility to support incursions in the Mediterranean Sea against NATO. The single-party system ran at Damascus took inspiration from the Soviet Union and sought to remain affiliated with the satellite system of the Eastern bloc, and its military aid. Together with Nasser’s Egypt, Syria was Moscow’s backbone in the Middle East. The contemporary Syrian-Russian alliance has its roots in the Soviet-era foreign policy.

Geo-economics. Syria has remained the top buyer of Russian/Soviet-made weapons and military technology. This amounts to a considerable fraction of Moscow’s revenue from a strategic economic sector: weapons trade.

Energy Security. The energy potential is significant for a top player on the market such as Russia. Leaving aside the fertile lands of eastern and central Syria, Damascus promised to outsource the exploitation of off-shore gas deposits to Russian companies. These enterprises have already enlarged their market share in the region due access to northern Iraqi oil & gas deposits, and could potentially link their assets into a robust energy network in the Middle East. This will allow Russia to further control production, transportation hubs and deepen its monopoly of supply to the European market.

National Security and Counter-terrorism. Attempting to draw thousands of extra-national Muslims into their ranks and aid their respective cause, several groups emphasized the Islamic component of the war and called for a mobilization of the Ummah. The main beneficiary were the Salafist groups affiliated with al-Qai’da:  Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/ HTS) and the splinter group, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (Da’esh/ ISIS). Spearheaded in Syrian and Iraq,  the Global Jihad 2.0 promised by ISIS emerged as a major threat for the West and the entire world. This renewed menace promised deadly attacks overseas and mass-radicalization and recruitment of Western-born Muslims; and not only.

According to Vladimir Putin, 5,000-7,000 people from Russia and Central Asia are fighting on the side of ISIS. A study by the International Center for International Security found that half of those originated directly from Russia, while the rest were recruited through Russian jihadi networks. Another investigation, this time done by Reuters found that the Russian authorities softened the fight against domestic Islamic militants, allowing some to leave for Syria.  According to the Syrian Opposition, Chechens are the second-largest ethnic group fighting Assad. It is assumed that thousands also joined the al-Qa’ida (AQ) affiliated groups in Syria as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) due to the historical ties it had with the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate. The previously mentioned group is the largest jihadi movement active in Chechnya and Dagestan. The front encompasses many factions that have later switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Beyond all doubt, Russia has a major terror problem. This will only amplify if the jihadist propaganda outreach is efficient, and when/ if battle-tested fighters return to their home country to plot attacks and enhance local insurgencies. In this regard, the military intervention of 2015 was largely branded as an anti-ISIS operation. However, studies as the ones conducted by the Institute for the Study of War have proven that “the Russian air campaign in Syria appears to be largely focused on supporting the Syrian regime and its fight against the Syrian opposition, rather than combatting ISIS.” This observation is also backed by a Reuters analysis showing that 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in the first months of intervention in 2015 have been in areas not held by Da’esh. These studies are also enforced by own data analysis based on official and reported air strikes and their location. Undoubtedly, a significant portion of the Opposition is represented by AQ-affiliated jihadi groups of which termination is beneficial. However, this does not take from the fact that the campaign was miss-advertised and has systemically ignored ISIS (the recruiter of thousands of Russian citizens) until the 2017 Astana Accords that brokered a cease-fire with the Opposition groups. Nor does it excuse that Russian air strikes also targeted vetted and legitimate Opposition groups that disavowed or fought their radical peers.

Legitimate and factual as the counter-terrorism concern may be, it was merely used as a P.R. tool to falsely-advertise what it was a genuine geopolitical move directed against the West, and in facilitation of the Kremlin’s goal of  regaining some of its lost influence.

“Listening-in”

The Kremlin’s asset-building started long before its formal combatant intervention in the Syrian Civil War in September 2015. The first conflict-related installations were Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) outposts:

(1) One, located on the coastline of Latakia, was considered to be the largest external intelligence collection facility that the Kremlin operated.

(2) Another base, presumed to be titled “Center S” was located in al-Hara, Da’ara governorate in Syria’s deep south. The facility was jointly operated between the radio-electronic unit of the Russian Foreign Military Intelligence (GRU) and their Syrian counter-parts. Their efforts were directed at recording and decrypting radio communications of the Syrian Opposition groups. The revolution began in Da’ara province, therefore key influencers and leaders were to be tracked and neutralized in that area. The Belingcat determines that this facility is at least partially responsible for high-value target (HVT) acquisition and neutralization of Opposition commanders, rendering it strategically important for the Assad regime. The Northern Military District of the Israeli Armed Forces based in the Golan Heights was also the target of communications interception. This suggests that the installation might have pre-dated the Syrian Civil War, and that the initial purpose was more related with the Israeli-Arab confrontation, than counter-insurgency efforts. This hunch is also backed by a disclosure made by the Debka File as appeared in the Washington Times. The private-Israeli intelligence firm revealed in 2012 that Russia expanded and upgraded the radars used at the surveillance station. The range was reportedly extended to all parts of Israel and Jordan and as far south as the northern Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that Iranian concerns of a regime change at Damascus was key in enhancing the outpost’s capabilities. Various photos pinned to walls show visits from top-ranking senior military officers of the Russian Armed Forces or from Kudelina L.K., Counselor to the Minister of Defence of Russia. (translation provided by Belingcat and Oryx Blog).

Satellite photo of ”Center S” found by the Oryx Blog.

The outpost was abandoned when Opposition groups stormed it in October 2014. Rebel commanders later issued videos and photos of the sensitive information found inside the facility. The raw data was exploited by the public sphere and open-source analysts to determine the scope and scale of this facility. The network of SIGINT stations used to spy on Israel and later, on the Opposition groups is believed to be wider and concentrated in Da’ara province.

 

Active Operational Presence (AOP):

Logistics and hardware are key in assuring functionality and efficiency in military operations. In order to accommodate the thousands of troops, dozens of mechanized assets and fightersjets, the Russian Armed Forces relied on self-built facilities (some known, some rumored) and shared-bases with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The Khmeimim Air Base (Latakia province) and 1971-established Tartus Naval Facility (Tartus province) demands the most of our attention. They were built and enhanced on the Syrian coastline, a region largely inhabited by the governmental-loyalist and dominant, the Allawites. This region is a stronghold for the Bashar al-Assad regime (an Allawite himself) due to the sectarian history that promoted Allawites into top military and political positions following the instatement of the Assad dynasty in 1971.

“Bunk buddies”

There are also known joint military installations with the Syrians and Iranian. These most likely serve as a temporary accommodation for the Russian Armed Forces, respective of their ongoing operations:

Tiyas (T4) Air Base (Tadmur/ Palmyra, Homs province) – largely used for the three battles of recapturing and defending Palmyra/Tadmur from ISIS.

Shayrat Air Base (Homs province) – The presumed air base used for launching the chemical strike against Rebels and civilians in Khan Shaikhoun (April 2017). The military base was hit by the U.S. with 59 tomahawk cruise missiles in retaliation, damaging hangars and fighter jets. This is the last remaining major air field operated by the Syrian forces.

Shayrat Airbase (photo source: iSi)

Deir ez-Zor Air Base (Deir ez-Zor province) – under siege between 2012-2017, it was exclusively supplied through an air bridge. Russian assets were only deployed there in late-2017 when the area was liberated. This base served in support of expeditionary operations on the mid-Euphrates valley and all the way to Abu Kamal.

Observation Post in the SDF-held Afrin canton (Aleppo province) – the Afrin canton is isolated from the rest of the Federation in Northern Syria. It is an enclave between Turkey and the Turkish-controlled northern Aleppo. It is administered by the U.S-backed and YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The YPG brokered an uneasy deal with Russia to shelter it from Turkish attacks. Russian forces were deployed in the area in mid-2017 and established a small observation post to monitor the tensions. In December 2017, reports suggested that the Kremlin was pulling-out its troops, accommodating the Turkish plans of besieging and liberating the area, in exchange of handing Idlib province to Russia.

Khmeimim/Hmeimim Air Base, in Latakia

In mid-2015 Russia began establishing an air base in extension of the International Bassil al-Assad Airport in Latakia, on the Syrian coastline. Advertised as Russia’s strategic center for combating ISIS, the base was leased by Damascus free of charge and for an undefined limit of time as signed by a bilateral accord in August 2015. New amendments have been brought to the treaty in January 2017 that leases the Hmeimim aerodrome for 49 years to the Russian Armed Forces with subsequent extensions over 25-year periods. The same deal applies for the Tartus Naval Facility. The external perimeter of the base has Syrian military protection, while the inside is bound to Moscow’s jurisdiction, embedded personnel and their family receiving diplomatic immunity and privileges.

Russian military engineers repaired and extended the runaways to suit fighters jets, troop carriers and heavy transport cargo plans to land and take-off. RT was granted exclusive access to the Air Field in October 2015, when the facility was still under works. They showcased air-conditioned and white-painted living quarters that could host over 1,000 personnel, in addition to aircraft hangars, field kitchens and even saunas.

The circumstantial purpose of this Air Base is to serve as a nerve-center for Russia’s operations in Syria. Serving as a launching pad for the vitally-needed airstrikes supporting the Syrian government. When the air campaign started in mid-2015 in Syria, about a dozen Su-25 ground-attack jets were stationed at the Air Field according to Washington Post’s estimates. Throughout the years, the number of fighter jets has varied and remained largely unknown. However, own estimates based on satellite imagery obtained by independent Twitter analysts and Jane’s intelligence via Airbus Defence & Space, showcase an average number of 23-26 jets.

A line-up of aircrafts from July 15, 2017 show: 11 Su-24s, 3 Su-25s, 10 Su-27s or 35s, 4 Su-3 and 6 Su-34, amounting to a record-high of 33 jets on the ground at once. The surplus of aircrafts came after a Russian MiG-29K from the sole Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov crashed in the Mediterranean on November 14, 2016 following a problem with one of the arrestor cables. The Kuznetsov does not have a catapult to launch its aircraft and it relies on a ramped deck to get the jets aloft. Although the problems were known for the outdated Cold War-era ship, its deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean was more of a (failed) show of force attempting to replicate a modern U.S. Naval Task Force. Following the incident, the aircraft carrier was returned to the naval base in Sevastopol, Crimea, while the nine fighter jets (8 Su-33s and one Mig-29k) have been transferred to the Latakia Air Field – as revealed by Jane’s Intelligence satellite imagery analysis. This upped the number of fighter jets for a period of time, boosting the intense air campaign that besieged Aleppo until December 2016.

Afterwards, Vladimir Putin announced a partial withdraw of its aircraft and troops in early 2017. However, the number hardly decreased. Satellite images from May 2017 still showed around 26 fighter jets stationed on Latakia’s runway. And even though the Kremlin announced a third withdrawal of forces from Latakia, satellite imagery posted by Qalaat Mudiq Twitter shows a remaining air fleet of 17 jets. Other air assets such as helicopters (attack or transport) or surveillance planes have not been included in this analysis, although they have been spotted in large numbers on the Latakian runaways.

The following slideshow contains most of the visual proof supplied through satellite imagery, supporting the analysis of the aerodrome:

A2/AD– Closing the Southern Airspace?

In order to safeguard such a robust deployment, Russia made efforts to build an enhanced anti-air posture.

In the Mediterranean, the Kremlin followed the same recipe of creating A2/AD “bubbles” as in Kaliningrad, northern Kola peninsula and Crimea. Through its key military deployments, Russia established a combination of integrated strategically-important anti-air defense systems and tactical nuclear-capable offensive missile batteries, covered by Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) counter-measures. In Syria, such a robust posture is mostly hosted by the Air Field in Latakia. The purpose of an Area-Denial Access Zone (A2AD) is to deny NATO air superiority or presence in selected areas. This is also one of the most constant practices in Russia’s resurgence strategy. Anti-access capabilities are used to prevent or constrain the deployment of opposing forces into a theatre of operations, whereas area denial capabilities are used to reduce their freedom of maneuver once in a theater (Luis Simon; 2017).  Russia attempts to prevent its opponents from establishing air supremacy in strategically significant regions.

Most probably, the Russian always had in plan to protect their vast military build-up by deploying advanced air-defence systems in Syria. But following the downing of a Mig-29 by a Turkish F-16 in November 2015, Moscow accelerated the deployment of the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile system at the Khmeimim Air Base. The S-300 was also commissioned to guard the Naval Facility in Tartous, alongside a network of vessels equipped with mobile anti-air and anti-missile interceptors. The naval assets continue to patrol the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria’s shores.

On September 2017, Jane’s Intelligence reported the deployment of a second S-400 system in Syria. The claim was confirmed by satellite imagery provided by Airbus Defense & Space. The anti-air hardware was placed near Maysaf, a small city located in north-western Homs province. The move further enhances Russia’s overall anti-air denial zone doubling-down on the strategically important shore but also widening its reach over the central Syrian airbases in Shayrat and Tyras (Homs province). Combined with defensive hardware, Russia also deployed its utmost offensive arsenal.

In December 2016, the private satellite imagery company ISI confirmed the presence of two Iskander batteries at the Khmeimim Air Base. Additional photos acquired and analyzed by ISIS on January 2017 confirm the reports that Russia used the batteries to strike ISIS positions in Deir ez-Zor all the way from Latakia. This was most probably a show of force after their attempts to camouflage the ballistic system were unfolded by private satellites and was showcased all over the news. The presence of the Iskander in Syria was rumored since early 2016.

The Iskander-M is a tactical (short-range) ballistic missile system. According to CSIS’s Missile Defence Project the Iskander-M (extended-range) has a 400-500 km striking range. Due to its operational mobility, launch weight and payload, the weapon system can strike both stationary and moving targets, including SAM sites and hardened defense installations. It was purposely built to overwhelm enemy anti-air missile defenses in a flexible and timely manner. Most importantly, the Iskander-M is also capable of firing nuclear warheads. This is one of the strongest and accurate weapons in Russia’s anti-access strategy.

Further image analysis show that the Iskanders have their own launch pad in Latakia Air Base. Suggesting that the hardware is also in Moscow’s plan for the 49-year long presence there.  Both the Iskander strike ranger and the S-400 cover zone encompasses the NATO strategic Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, the British bases in Cyprus, Israel, Jordan and parts of Saudi Arabia. Without a doubt, the Russians created a AD/2D bubble in NATO’s southern flank.

A Mediterranean Fleet

Russia seeks to further contest NATO’s control of the southern flank by introducing a permanent Mediterranean fleet that would extend its military might in the Middle East and further enforce the A2/AD established in the area. These plans would add an element of strategic nuclear deterrence, and will seek to influence the geopolitical order in the Mediterranean basin. The long-forgotten port of Tartus plays the key role in this endeavor.

Since its foundation in 1971, Tartus was never considered to be a real military base. Officially registered as a Material-Technical Support Point (MTSP), the port was solely used as a local repair shop for Russian warships, sparing them from a trip way back to Sevastopol, Crimea in case of malfunctions.

Model of Tartus Naval Facility

Starting with the Syrian Civil War, this was used as a cargo hub for weapons transfers to the Loyalist camp. It later supported Russia’s war efforts against Opposition groups and ISIS. The port helped re-establish the 1992-dissolved Rusian 5th Operational Squadron that was purposed to counter the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Cold War, and extend Russia’s sea power into the Mediterranean.

But as the conflict nears its closing fights, Moscow and Damascus signed a treaty extending the lease of the port for an additional 49-years. According to the TASS news agency, the deal, signed in early 2017 will expand the Tartus naval facility, Russia’s only naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and grant Russian warships access to Syrian waters and ports. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister stated that the structures built in Latakia and Tartus have begun forming a permanent presence in the region. The later will host a naval strike group consisting of a nuclear submarine and 11 warships. Everything except an aircraft carrier can be docked there. This will attract additional coastal missile defence deployments and anti-submarine measures.  The Tartus build-up represent the bedrock of an upcoming Mediterranean Fleet armed with a strategic nuclear deterrent – escalating Russia’s posture from the tactical-limited Iskander.

Part of the strategy of recovering its lost power, Russia seeks to project trust into regional stakeholders. It hopes that as the West grows weary of further interventions, destabilized states as Libya and Egypt will seek Moscow’s help for combating terrorism. This will open the door for further weapons trade, military deployments (extension of power projection) and energy opportunities. However, Russia lacks both the intent and the capacity to do a better job at counter-terrorism than the West. As Chatam House notes, The real driving forces behind Russian involvement in the region are a mixture of ambition, opportunism and anti-Western sentiment.

In early 2017, Russia was believed to have deployed Special Operations Forces in an Egyptian army base near the Libyan border. US and diplomatic officials said that any such Russian involvement might be part of an attempt to support the Libyan military commander, Khalifa Haftar, who suffered a setback on oil ports controlled by his forces.

Overview of the Tartus Naval Facility

In Cairo, the Egyptian and Russian ministers signed a $21 billion deal to start work on Egypt’s Dabaa nuclear power plant. While just in November 2017, Egypt has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use its airspace and bases. Egypt is the second largest recipient of U.S. aid from the Middle East, a country firmly aligned with the Sunni-block, and holds the naval access point for European energy and maritime trade.

Black Swans: Seafaring unpredictable waters

In such long-term and comprehensive strategic planning, unpredictability is a key input. In this case, the unknown knows are plenty enough. Russia vision for the Eastern Mediterranean is primarily marked be three main (but not limited to) wildcards:

  • Long-term efficiency of the AD/2D;
  • The geopolitical context of the region;
  • Capability to secure its assets in Syria.

To echo Admiral Richardson the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, what Russia is doing is more of a wishful projection than actual “denying” adversaries. If the AD/2D bubble did control the Syrian airspace, then the United States would have been deterred from launching 59 tomahawk cruise missiles from the Eastern Mediterranean into a joint Syrian-Russian air base in Shayrat. It is true that Russian Command was notified beforehand in order to avoid unwanted escalation. The U.S. Navy was only targeting the Syrian Regime for its use of chemical weapons (CW) in Khan Sheykoun. But it is also true that Moscow could have operated its anti-air defense system (if it didn’t at that time) and (attempt to) intercept the ordinance – at least to send a message, if not to protect the air field. The notification came through the Qatar-based de-confliction line. That channel is used by US CENTCOM and the Russian Aerospace Command to conduct joint air control and avoid unwanted incidents. While rational from both parts to maintain a dialogue in such a crowded airspace, it is possible that Moscow would have imposed a complete no-fly zone if it had the power or the leverage to do so. Notably when competing in close operations room as the Raqqa province or the mid-Euphrates valley in Deir ez-Zor.  Russia’s resurgence is real, the AD/2D is palpable and threatening, but it still cannot top Western technology and strategic planning.

On the long-run, the creation of AD/2D bubbles is counter-productive for the Kremlin. Moving advanced air defense and tactical nukes on NATO’s borders will only urge its richer and more capable Western adversaries to further proliferate precision-strike missile systems. A tech-race that Moscow cannot keep-up with, chiefly given its worsening economy. The United States will maintain its naval supremacy for the next decades despite any attempt from foes to compete.

In the current geopolitical environment, Russia’s plans are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Kremlin is playing Russian roulette in the Israeli-Iranian divergence. It simultaneously attempts to maintain its military cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian militias, Iraqi PMUs and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and to pivot with Jerusalem. A gamble that has proven dangerous and inefficient. Russia failed to enforce its guarantees made to the Israelis, that Iranian-backed elements would not take positions near the Golan Heights or build military bases in southern Syria. In fact, the situation is worsening as Hezbollah and Iraqi PMUs have seized the Damascus-Baghdad highway, establishing a direct supply line between Lebanon, Syria and Iran. We can expect an increase in the number of IAF clandestine air raids tasked to neutralize Hezbollah HVTs and weapons transfers. This will render the Russian multilateral diplomatic engagement as a missed opportunity in a changing Middle Eastern order.

Recent Rebel attacks on the Latakia Air Base only shows that Russia and the Regime are still unable of fully securing vital and strategic assets from unsophisticated acts of aggression. Further, troop movements and hardware deployment have been poorly camouflaged by traditional or electronic means. In contrast, U.S. Special Operations Force in Syria enjoy far better operations security/ operational secrecy (OPSEC) than Russia’s. And this given the fact that the Western press is larger, more resourceful and freer to conduct such investigations.

End Notes

While a new tide is announced in the Eastern Mediterranean, the West is still able to operate in Russia-made A2/ADs. There is little to nothing that the Kremlin can do to compete with U.S. military superiority. However, given the sensitive emerging context in the Middle East, the build-up in Syria holds great potential for regional ambitions. This will provide the Russians with more opportunities to challenge NATO’s southern flank. Moscow’s new permanent fleet escalates tensions with the West, and raises key questions in regards to the freedom of navigation/trade and maritime security in the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Non-hyperlink embedded References:

Charles K. Bartles (2017) Russian Threat Perception and the Ballistic Missile Defense System, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 30:2, 152-169

Luis Simón (2017) Preparing NATO for the Future – Operating in an Increasingly Contested Environment, The International Spectator, 52:3, 121-135

Strategic Comments(2017) TLAMs in Syria, 23:3, iii-v
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Last Stand: SDF to crush ISIS on the Valley of the Euphrates

Strategic analysis – The following assessment outlines the current competitive military efforts underway against ISIS in Deir-Ezzor (also known as Deir ez-Zor, Dayr al-Zawr etc.), the last area of dominance for…

Strategic analysis – The following assessment outlines the current competitive military efforts underway against ISIS in Deir-Ezzor (also known as Deir ez-Zor, Dayr al-Zawr etc.), the last area of dominance for the terror group, and consequently, the place where they will make their last stand. Furthermore, that ‘last push’ on ISIS will also gain a significant geopolitical element as divergent external actors plan and execute their own version of liberation. While this adds an additional layer of complexity, it will also increase the chances that the remaining senior leadership, sheltered into these desert lands will be annihilated together with the whole network in Syria.


Setting the Stage

  • Deir-Ezzor is one of the 14 Governorates of Syria, numbering around 600,000 people, largely Arab Sunnis, most of them condensed in the administrative capital of Deir-Ezzor City, Maya’din, Abu Kamal etc.
  • Deir-Ezzor City numbered 204,000 people (2012 census) and is nicknamed “the pearl of the desert”.
  • Deir-Ezzor Province is an arid area with sparsely populated perimeters that are also part of the Syrian Desert.
  • Geographically, the province is cut in half by the Euphrates River in its way towards Iraq.
  • Inhabitans of the province took advantage of the fertile grounds around the Euphrates Valley and developed a major agricultural hub with well developed cattle herding, cotton cultivation, and other plant cultures as grain production.
  • It is Syria’s foremost oil extraction center: al-Omar is the country’s largest oil and gas deposits while the Al-Tanak oil fields yielded up to 12,000 barrels/day of top-quality crude oil.
  • This oil is easily used in the production of gasoline and liquid fuel.
  • As of this reason, Deir-Ezzor was vital for Da’esh’s income, industry and oil trade.
  • Oil fields, pumping stations and the overall infrastructure was heavily damaged throughout the war by airstrikes from the U.S.-led Coalition and Russia Aerospace Forces. The damage in many cases is irreparable or totaled.

 

  • Starting with 2011, the province saw its first protests demanding Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, additional Regime troops were deployed and violence erupted shortly afterwards.
  • By the fall of 2012, the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra controlled almost the entire province.
  • In the summer of 2013, Rebels already secured the rural outskirts and expanded in Hasakhe Province and ousted most of the Regime’s forces from Deir-Ezzor city. Internal tensions began to boil in the Rebel camp.
  • Around 2014, Rebels already controlled all of the oil fields but were deepening their in-fights that weakened them in face of AQI’s resurgence through ISIS coming from Iraq.
  • ISIS was concentrated on Raqqa and Hasakha Provinces, but saw an immediate opportunity in June 2014 to launch an offensive that cleared Deir-Ezzor of Rebels.
  • Consequently, the jihadists turned towards Deir-Ezzor Airport where contingencies of Regime forces were still stationed.
  • Capitalizing on their success in Iraq, ISIS also took control of the major oil fields of the province, while gradually boxing the Regime forces more and more into the city.
  • The first ISIS siege on the Syrian troops was fully established in Autumn 2014.
  • Garrisons of the Regime managed to keep control of the provincial capital and the airport, where they remain surrounded and under siege until today.
  • Deir-Ezzor city is supplied through an ‘air bridge’ by the Regime and the United Nations that deliver aid and goods through the Airport located at 4-6 km from the city, also in Regime control.

 

  • The iconic Siyasiyeh bridge was destroyed in mid-2015 as a result of the battle between ISIS and the Regime.
  • The jihadists have named the province “Wilayat Deir-Ezzor” in attempting to imitate the “mythology” of the Caliphate.
  • In January 2016, ISIS throttled a new offensive from all sourouding parts but further deployments of Regime and Russian troops helped the stationed garrisons to protect the provincial-capital.
  • In January 2017, seeing the fall of Mosul and the approach towards Raqqa, jihadists were pulled from Niniveh province (Iraq) to aid their fellow-fighters from eastern Syria, trying to take Deir-Ezzor city and move their capital there.
  • In June 19th, 2017, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) fired six medium-range ballistic missiles at Daesh targets in Syria’s Deir-Ezzor in response to a June 7 attack by Da’esh against two locations in  Tehran, which killed 18 people.
  • As of now, Deir-Ezzor province remains the sole ISIS stronghold in Syria, and that is still connected to the Iraqi territories of Anbar and Niniveh, partially still under Da’esh control.
  • It is the location where most of the terror group’s leadership figures took refuge when the siege of Mosul, and the later battle of Raqqa began.
  • In accordance to the development of the war, Deir-Ezzor province will be the scene of the terror group’s last stand in Syria.

Rush to Deir-Ezzor

The governorate of Deir-Ezzor is the last remaining territory dominated by ISIS in Syria. There are currently two competitive efforts to drive the terror group out:

(1) The first one, spearheaded by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Tiger Forces of the Assad Regime, alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Russian Expeditionary and Aerospace forces, is under an advance stage.

The military effort came as a direct result of the near-successful implementation of de-escalation zones in the Rebel-held areas accordingly with the Astana Accords, that granted the Loyalists the liberty to move assets (manpower, resources etc.) to concentrate on a combatant that they have overall avoided in the past 3-4 years: ISIS. The supreme objective of the Loyalists: to form a land bridge capable of lifting the 3 years siege imposed by ISIS on the Regime-held enclave of Deir-Ezzor (the City); later on, to clear the whole area, re-establish order and take control of the border with Iraq.

(a) The offensive was launched around early-to-mid April when resources from western Homs and eastern Aleppo were directed towards south-west Raqqa governorate, around the time the SDF was securing the Tabqa Triangle near Lake Assad.

(b) Their offensive saw a swift liberation of the rural area of southern Raqqa governorate, all the way through the territory between Lake Assad and Lake Jamil, towards western Homs governorate and eastern Hama.

(c) The ISIS territory in Hama and Homs was effectively cut into three pockets isolated from one another using synchronized assaults by Loyalists forces coming from Raqqa gov, Homs gov, and around the area of Palmyra (Tadmur). On March 17th, SAA elements from Jabal al-Shaer meet with those coming from Jabal Sawwanah, their rendezvous completed the siege in the eastend of Hama province.

(d) The ISIS pocket in western Homs province towards Deir-Ezzor was completely shut on August 25th when SAA forces that liberated Palmyra (in March) came from al-Shuknah and met with their allies just 10 km north that before making the juncture liberated Jabal al-Dahiq mountain. After uniting the two expeditionary efforts, the Loyalists also penetrated the east of Deir-Ezzor province.

(e) Loyalists elements have been on stand-by in the northwest corner of Deir-Ezzor province after the Tiger Forces captured several villages on July 29. Later on, their further advancement in the area has been mild, however, it is unclear if that is due to the reasons of postponing until the Homs front was dealt with, or because of ISIS resistance in the area.

(f) On August 25th, ISIS launched a desperate counter-attack using tanks, technical vehicles and SVBIEDs, retaking some of the initial lost turf in northwestern Deir-Ezzor. The result of this blitz effort is expected to be temporary as the terror group will sharply decrease in intensity and fatigue. There are even reports of a 500-men supported by tanks, gathering in Madan to counter the Syrian Army’s assault.

(g) Additional ISIS troops will be directed from Western Qalamoun and from the Lebanese border after Syrian sources confirm that a deal was struck with the jihadists to be evacuated from the are to Deir ez-Zor. Information requires additional confirmation to be validated in my analysis, however, negotiations for such a deal have been acknowledged and reported even by Reuters, likewise a cease-fire was in effect to facilitate such discussions. It is also the case that the joint effort by the Lebanese Army, Syrian forces and Hezbollah defeated the terror group’s last stand in that area after 100 of them surrendered.

 

(2) The other military operation was announced by the U.S.-led Coalition and the SDF, but is currently under intense planning.

As of now, the offensive is pending several key elements: a reliable and willing indigenous force to spearhead it, timing and additional resources needed, depending if the operation will be successive or parallel to the Battle of Raqqa. Also, it is unclear if a geopolitical deal has been struck in regards to the sphere of influence regarding the province of Deir-Ezzor.

The Arab indigenous elements of SDF were in low numbers at the foundation of the ‘umbrella’ organization in October 2015, withal Arab-men gradually joined the group as the YPG/ YPJ elements managed to liberate Manbij and then head south towards Raqqa in mid-to-late 2016. The Raqqa Governorate is overwhelmingly majority Arab, thus local tribes are key to obtaining a successful post-conflict resolution. Following negotiations and successful agreements, local tribes agreed to conscript into the SDF, thus balancing the Kurdish vs. Arabs proportion within the member groups of the SDF.

Deir-Ezzor is also an Arab province, by also one of the least multi-ethnic or culturally diverse area of Syria, therefore the recipe stays the same: Arab fighters need to led the way. However, this province is an ISIS stronghold for more than three years, the most hardened and experienced fighters of SDF, namely the Kurds, cannot be sidelined just because of cultural sensibilities, being vital for the expected tactical success. 

(a) When the U.S.-led Coalition announced its political intention to organize and support such a move, the Kurds (which make roughly 60% of the SDF) were not eager to engage in a parallel offensive while their resources, manpower and dedication is towards the battle of Raqqa.

(b) The first temptation was for Washington to await their victory in Raqqa in order to hand the YPG/YPJ elements of SDF the keys for Deir-Ezzor. That equation was troubled by the unexpected half-success of the Astana Accords that saw a significant de-escalation in the Rebel-Regime fight, which in turn allowed the Regime, Russia and Iran to move their assets towards other fronts, namely Homs, rural southern Raqqa and now Deir-Ezzor. Inadvertently, time came into question as a consuming resource for the Coalition’s strategic thinkers, and an immediate partner force was now needed.

(c) An option was the Maghawir al-Thawrah (ex-New Syrian Army) faction based in Amman, Jordan operating under British-American guardianship in Eastern Homs, around the border crossing to Iraq in al-Tanf. They were trained and equipped to seal the border with Jordan and then move up towards the Iraqi one, purposely to disrupt the Iranian-sanctioned Tehran-Mediterranean Sea ‘land bridge’, by capturing strategic border crossings that could deny the free movement of Shi’a militias from southern and central Iraq towards Syria and direct land-based arms transfer from Iran to Hezbollah.

The Maghawir al-Thawrah did not show the same effectiveness and discipline as the Kurdish YPG/YPJ. In many instances, the U.S. SOF’s based in Jordan were needed to come to their aid in face of ISIS mobile attacks in the area. Later on, the frontline with ISIS (which would have justified their advancement along the border with Iraq) was cut by the Loyalists, that avoided engaging the Rebels directly, bypassing them in order to land to their north. This Loyalists move came only after Iraqi Shi’a militias operating on behalf of Iran tried to approach and contest the Rebel garrison at the al-Tanf border crossing, but were met with lethal air strikes from the U.S.-led Coalition.

Afterwards, there was the possibility to airlift the Maghawir al-Thawrah fighters in front of the Loyalists in order to regain the frontline with ISIS towards Deir-Ezzor, but that plan was likely scrapped; or maybe it is still under wraps (?) but I doubt that hypothesis. Facing the operational limitations of the Maghawir al-Thawrah fighters and the uneasy context around the al-Tanf area, Washington and CENTCOM looked towards other available partners.

(d) Constrained by the advanced Loyalist offensive, the U.S-led Coalition green-light two factions of the SDF to detach from the Battle for Raqqa and prepare for the Deir-Ezzor operation. The al-Saanadid Forces and the Deir-Ezzor Military Council are the two leading combatants of this expeditionary corps tasked to beat the Loyalists to Deir-Ezzor.

Annex 1: The al-Sanadid are a Sunni Arab militia part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), formed in 2014 on tribal grounds. The founding figures and most of the members come from the Hasakha province branch of the Shammar tribe. As any sociopolitical unit based upon extended families living in a defined territory, usually entire towns and city neighborhoods, the Shammar tribe took arms in the eve of the revolution-turned-war.  And originating from the Kurdish-majority province, they hailed the Kurds as being historical neighbors and allies, not enemies, which is a rare attitude given the history of Arab-Kurdish relations in the Middle East. In 2004, the Shammar were the only tribe in Hasakha that did not attack the Kurds during the Kurdish Uprisings of Qamishlo. Over the past decades and starting with Hafeez al-Assad, the Regime managed to develop an intricate relation with tribal leaders, naming them de facto intermediaries between local communities and the State. This dialogue extended even east of the Euphrates (historical Jazzira/ now Hasakhe and Deir-Ezzor province), in the lands considered during the French Mandate as being Syria’s most wildest part; French garrisons were stationed there to maintain order and assert the political authority with force, even more than in other provinces.

The rise of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical factions was a devise element among many tribes, prompting members to fight each other in accordance to their allegiance, the Shammar tribe managed to maintain a unique solidarity. They did not support the revolution as a group but armed themselves as self-protection units (similar to the Turkmens in northern Latakia and Aleppo), but later went after ISIS when the terror group came after their land. “Marchers of the Red Death” as they call themselves, asserted from 2015 as loyal fighters to the YPG/ YPJ saying that they will follow the Kurdish groups wherever they go. They are also considered as being a bridge for moderation and cooperating between Arabs and Kurds in the SDF-formed Federation of Northern Syria.

It was announced since February 2017 that the al-Sanadid Forces together with SDF will take on Deir-Ezzor. The announcement was reconfirmed (reportedly) in August 4th, when an SDF source informed that they have refused the deployment of of Magawir al-Tahwar from al-Tanf, and that instead, the al-Sanadid will led the offensive in Deir-Ezzor.

Annex 2: The Deir-Ezzor Military Council was announced on December 8th, 2016 during a press conference held in Hasakhe province. Their members are mostly remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters that remained after ISIS took over Deir-Ezzor governorate in 2014, and local men that joined them in the last year and a half. After their foundation, the DMC (Deir-Ezzor Military Council) participated under the SDF banner in the operations targeting the northern countryside of Raqqa province that cut major supply lines of the terror group towards the Turkish border.

Later on, the DMC began a massive recruitment process in order to boost their ranks and numbers by appealing to all the youth from Syria and Turkey regardless of their military background promising that they will not be punished”. Consequently, they were an integral part of the 3rd phase of the SDF’s Operation “Wrath of Euphrates” that saw to isolate ISIS in Raqqa before taking on the city itself. The DMC was tasked to securing 20-30 km east of Raqqa down the Valley of the Euphrates thus cutting a major supply road from the terror group’s “capital” to the rural strongholds in Deir-Ezzor province. On June 2017, the DMC announced its commitment towards an Deir-Ezzor offensive is opportunity of operation arises. According to Reuters, the DMC has around 4,000 fighters.

 

(e) On August 25th, Abu Khawla Al-Diri, Chairman of the SDF-formed Deir-Ezzor Military Council (DMC) announced that the offensive to liberate Deir-Ezzor will commence soon. There are several battalions of Al-Shaitat and Al-Baggara Arab Sunni tribesmen that recently incorporated directly into the SDF and DMC, awaiting orders in the Shaddadah district in southern Hasakha province.

Abu Kawla al-Diri has been accused by the local press that years ago he supplied intelligence to the Regime’s Brigade 113 about the Free Syrian Army, while he rallied manpower to operate a checkpoint on the highway between Hasakhe and Deir-Ezzor to disrupt ISIS activities, while his brother, pretended to be an ISIS fighter in order to loot and steal from the local population. The same source says that when ISIS took control of the entire area, he fled to Turkey and has lived in the border town of Tel Abyad for the past months, before enrolling into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to led the military council of Deir-Ezzor.

 

An original map; click „view image” for a larger format.


Headhunting: HVTs for KIA

Before and during the assault on Mosul and in the eve of Raqqa’s encirclement, significant senior members of Da’esh leadership have taken refuge in a number of rural, more secure areas as Tel Afar, the Niniveh plains and consequently, the mid-Euphrates valley in Deir-Ezzor province, but also stretching to Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Iraqi-Syrian border essentially vanished after 2014 so the cities of Maya’din, Abu Kamal and al-Qa’im (Iraqi border with Syria) became major hiding spots for families of fighters and senior members embeded in the terror group’s movement patterns. Inadvertently, a large kill count of High-Value Targets (HVTs) was reported in this area. Here’s a kill list of some of those individuals killed during their 2017 exodus on the valley:

  • Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, a foreign fighter and external terror attack facilitator, was killed on April 6, 2017, near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria by the Coalition. He was a close associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and helped facilitate the high profile attack which murdered 39 people on New Year’s Eve at the Reina night club in Istanbul. U.S. Central Command announced his death on April 21, 2017.
  • Mustafa Gunes, a Syria-based ISIS external operations facilitator from Turkey, was killed by a coalition airstrike near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, 27 April. He was identified as an ISIS recruiter in the central Turkish city of Konya. Gunes was linked to facilitating financial support for planning attacks outside Syria and Iraq against the West.
  • Abu Asim al-Jazaeri, an ISIS external operations planner and a Syria-based French-Algerian ISIS fighter, was killed by a Coalition airstrike near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, May 11. Al-Jazaeri was involved in training a new generation of ISIS youths, called the Cubs of the Caliphate, a high priority training program sanctioned by ISIS leadership.
  • 13 ISIS senior members killed during a meeting in al-Qa’im, Anbar Province, Iraq by the Iraqi Air Force on May 14th.
  • Abu-Khattab al-Rawi, a senior ISIS military official, was killed during an operation near Al-Qa’im in Iraq, 18 May. Al-Rawi was killed along with three other terrorists. Al-Rawi was an ISIS military official who operated in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province and provided direct support to ISIS leadership. Al-Rawi was responsible for coordinating UAV operations and procurement in Al Anbar Province in Iraq
  • Orhan Ramadani, was killed by a Coalition airstrike on May 21 near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria.  Ramadani was responsible for actively planning external terror attacks from Syria.
  • Bara Kadek a.k.a. Rayan Meshaal, the founder of ISIS propaganda agency Amaq was killed a Coalition air strike in his home in Mayadin, (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, on May 31st.
  • Ayad al-Jumaili, ISIS deputy leader and chief of the group’s internal security, responsible for public executions and other atrocities served as punishments or sentences. He was killed by an Iraqi Air Force strike in al-Qa’im, Anbar Province, Iraq on April 1st.
  • Samir Idris, a key ISIS financial facilitator for external terror attacks and an international money launderer, was killed June 7, 2017, near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria by a Coalition bombardment. He was trusted by senior ISIS leadership to move funds across borders to pay for external terror attacks.
  • Lavdrim Muhaxheri was killed by a Coalition airstrike June 7, 2017, near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. Muhaxheri was an ethnic Albanian from Kacanc, Kosovo, and a self-proclaimed leader of ISIS foreign fighters from Kosovo. He was known as the most prominent and radical ethnic Albanian fighter in Syria and was directly responsible for inciting jihadist ideology within European communities and encouraging foreign fighters to travel to ISIS-controlled territory. He was also responsible for planning numerous terrorist attacks, including the failed plot to bomb the 2016 Israel-Albania soccer match in Albania.
  • Irfan Hafiqi, a fellow ethnic Albanian and deputy to Muhaxheri, was killed by a Coalition airstrike on June 7 near Qayira (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. Haqifi was involved in plotting terror attacks abroad, and was responsible for recruiting ISIS fighters from Southeast Europe and facilitating their movements to Syria.
  • Fawaz Muhammad Jubayr al-Rawi, a key ISIS financial facilitator, was killed by a Coalition in Abu Kamal (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, June 16, 2017. , a Syrian native and an experienced terrorist financial facilitator, moved millions of dollars for the terror organization’s attack and logistics network. He owned the Hanifa Currency Exchange in Abu-Kamal, which he used along with a network of global financial contacts to move money into and out of ISIS-controlled territory and across borders on behalf of the group.
  • Razim Kastrati, an ISIS external terror attack coordinator, was killed along with five other ISIS fighters by a Coalition airstrike on June 16 near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. Kastrati moved and trained foreign fighters from southeast Europe to Syria and was involved in plotting external attacks.
  • Abd al-Ghafur, a Syria-based ISIS external operations official, and one associate were killed in a Coalition airstrike on July 24 near Albu Kamal, (Deir ez-Zor), Syria.
  • His assistant, Abu Hammam, and three other ISIS members were killed by a Coalition airstrike July 16 near Deir ez-Zor (city), Syria. They coordinated and linked networks tasked to conduct attacks against Middle Eastern and Western targets.
  • Abu Futtum, an ISIS explosives specialist, and one associate were killed in a Coalition airstrike on July 13 near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. As a bomb maker, Futtum was a part of ISIS’ network that instructs and incites others to take the same destructive actions, encouraging lone wolf attacks across the globe using homemade explosives.

Throughout the kill releases issued by the U.S.-led Global Coalition in the past 5-6 months in regards to ISIS senior leaders neutralized, nearly 99% of the targeted HVTs were based in the middle-Valley of the Euphrates river, mostly in Deir ez-Zor province of Syria, notably in the city of Mayadin, or in Iraq’s Anbar province, notably al-Qa’im.

One of the rare pictures available online showing the city of Mayadin.

 

End Notes

General considerations of the dual effort to clean the province from ISIS:

  • The offensives will pour sharply and in an accelerated manner, using the fast & light motorized infantry tactics, essentially technical vehicles with mounted machine guns preferable for desert warfare and swift maneuvers in open field, aided by transport and attack helicopters from the air.
  • Both Russian Aerospace Forces and United States Navy or Air Force are expected to play significant roles. Close coordination using the Qatar-based de-confliction line is vital in avoiding unwanted or unnecessary incidents.
  • I am skeptical on the efficiency and numbers and of the Arab elements within the SDF, which leads me to believe that they would kick-start the offensive but would need the YPG/YPJ factions pending availability (if willing) upon closing the battle for Raqqa, to sustain the military effort. While not undermining their contribution to their anti-ISIS campaign, it should be acknowledged that all the major battle were planned and coordinated by the Kurdish factions of YPG/ YPJ. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Arab elements of SDF.
  • A high kill count of Da’esh leadership figures is expected.
  • Deir-Ezzor province and its neighboring Iraqi districts of Anbar, or even others parts, could serve as the setting for a further Sunni extremist insurgency given the geographical and administrative conditions (hard to govern) of the areas.

From my judgement, the tactical and operational features of the competing expeditionary efforts can be offset by two main hypothesis for strategies:

Option 1: Fair-share.

Taking into consideration the geostrategic placement of both actors, the Loyalists and the US-backed SDF, they stand on different banks of the Euphrates thrusting in their opposite anti-ISIS efforts. We may consider that discussions have been held at a political level in regards to their local postures from which a de-escalation protocol focused on the region has been drawn, in addition to the general Qatar-based line. Although this is not a forecast, my projection leds me to believe that both offensive will develop side-by-side without a formal or intentional coordination, that will split Deir-Ezzor in half accordingly with the Euphrates river valley. In other words:

The Euphrates river valley will serve the role of a geographic “Berlin Wall” between the Government-liberated area on the west, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured ones, in its east. Both actors will thereafter assume security and border policing towards the Iraqi boundary. I am confident that in this equation, the Regime will retain Deir-Ezzor city and regain other more mentionable urban settlements as Abu Kamal and Mayadin, located on western banks of the river; while SDF will try to develop and uplift the more modest towns in the eastern banks, but of which lands are the most fertile in energy deposits, capturing Syria’s largest deposit: Omar oil fields.

In this hypothesis I can identify two weaknesses:

  • The United State might not accept to share the border with Iraq and could try to secure it by itself, thwarting Iranian ambitions of forming a direct land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon and Syria, that could threaten North Atlantic interests in the East Mediterranean and Israel’s national security.
  • The Syrian Government and its backers might not agree to give up the country’s most energy-fertile lands, eastern Deir-Ezzor, just for the essence of a peaceful geopolitical bargain. However, challenging such an arrangement would involve two elements: time and force. If Assad’s forces reach those parts first, then no one can contest them without direct military engagement, if they don’t, then they will be needed to engaged U.S.-backed forces in order to contest their positions and gains; a move that would guarantee (as shown before) a U.S. retaliation. But given Assad’s focus on the province and SDF’s attention towards Raqqa, they could try the “all in” card.

Option 2: All in.

  • Governmental Forces of Bashar al-Assad will go “all in” and attempt to secure the entire Deir-Ezzor province. Such an equation will imply massive military support from Russia and further detachments of Syrian troops from other fronts, which would expose them in those regions.
  • Tactical airlifts behind enemy lines are the most effective ways to secure a presence in other parts and open new fronts and were used in the past weeks when the Loyalists fought against ISIS in Homs province.
  • Mobile light infantry tactics supported by long-staying air elements have been successfully in the Homs theater, allowing the Loyalists to capture wide patches of land in a short amount of time; it remains to be seen if they can sustain the speed in Deir ez-Zor as well.
  • For the sake of this hypothesis, we can guess that in anticipation of such a move from Damascus, the SDF will commence its own offensive from two or three positions to secure more than the eastern banks: one, led by indigenous elements of al-Sanaadid Forces and DMC will start from Hasakhe’s Shaddaday which could towards the city of Deir-Ezzor without the objective of liberating the city itself but the road and the rural outskirts.
  • Additionally, this route would also split the ISIS-held areas in the eastern banks in two pockets.
  • Complementary to this effort, SDF elements stationed in Raqqa governorate’s southern edge to Deir ez-Zor could active that frontline and move along the river to form a junction with the SDF’s Arab elements that already reached the outskirts of the provincial capital.

A clear forecast of the prospective scenarios is not possible as of yet, underlining that even the sketched options are just the tip of the iceberg, and that strategic planning and military implementation, notably in a battlefield as in Syria, can differ and provide a new set of outcomes in stark contrast with the planned blueprints. However, it was important to gain a comprehensive overview of the situation of Deir-Ezzor which is vital towards the political settlement of the Syrian Civil War and of the war against ISIS, notwithstanding the important energy deposits and key routes towards Iraq.


UPDATE September 9th, 2017

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the start of operation “Storm Island” to expel ISIS from Deir ez-Zor and the eastern parts of Syria. This comes just days after the Syrian Arab Army and the Loyalist Coalition managed to punch through ISIS defensive lines and form a land bridge to Deir ez-Zor, the provincial capital, therefor relieving the 4 years-long siege on it.


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A ‘Swift Response’ from the ‘Saber Guardian’: Recognizing the Strategic Importance of the Black Sea Region

Strategic Analysis – Saber Guardian 2017 (SG17) is an annual, multinational exercise held in the Black Sea region as pat of the U.S. European Command Joint Exercise Program. This year’s…

Strategic Analysis – Saber Guardian 2017 (SG17) is an annual, multinational exercise held in the Black Sea region as pat of the U.S. European Command Joint Exercise Program. This year’s iteration took place between July 11 – 20. The exercise’s aim was to assure allies and partners of the enduring U.S. commitment to the collective defense at the Black Sea region, to enable the Alliance’s command and control functions, and to reinforce deterrence measures agreed to by NATO  allies at the Warsaw Summit in 2016. The exercise was organized by the U.S. Army Europe and co-hosted by Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, that saw numerous drills and simulations taking place all over these countries.

Approximate 25,000 troops participated in the exercise, while 14,000 of them being U.S.forces; the rest coming from member or partners countries of NATO: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czechia, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, FYRO Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Throughout this analysis we explore the Saber Guardian exercise through the ‘Swift Response’ mission that took place at the 71st ‘Emanoil Ionescu’ Air Base in the village of Luna, near Campia Turzii town, Cluj county (Romania), where Transylvania Intelligence was present obtain exclusive footage and information. Moreover, the massive military effort will later in this article be explained through the geopolitical lens as it relates to the Black Sea, as ‘Saber Guardian’ upholds its exclusive dedicated nature for this expanded region.

 

‘Swift Response’: a ‘Saber Guardian’ exercise

Swift Response is a series of airborne operations and joint force entries that functions within the framework of ‘Saber Guardian’ and took place in Papa Airbase (Hungary), Bezmer & Shabia (Bulgaria) and Campia Turzii-Luna & Cincu (Romania).

The mission that Transylvania Intelligence had the chance to assist to, took place from the 21st to the 22nd of July, 2017 in Luna, near Campia Turzii, Cluj county, Romania, at the 71st ‘Emanoil Ionescu’ Airbase of the Romanian Air Force. The employed scenario foresaw an Allied operation to attack and capture the airbase that was occupied by enemy forces. The operation involved 800 U.S. Troops from the 143rd Texas Regiment and the 2nd Cavarly Regiment, and it stretched on three main phases, the first two referring to the ‘Joint Forcible Entry’ while the last to the ‘Airfield Seizure’ objective:

1.For 3-minutes, eight AC-130’s parachuted  hardware, supplies and logistics at 11.00 A.M., July 21st on a plain-field near the Airbase. These resources were to be collected by units already on the ground and be used in the airfield seizure.

2.Later that day, a night airborne operation took place around 23.00 A.M, that saw 500 paratroopers insert the area previously used to deploy the supplies. These forces regrouped with friendly troops on the ground and used the collected logistics to prepare and later execute the main objective: ‘Airfield Seizure’

3.Around 4.00 AM, July 22nd, the joint Romanian-US force conducted a dawn raid on the airbase that lasted 4 hours and saw the capture of strategic 71st Base.

The exercise was deemed as a huge success in regards to accomplishing the planned timeline, maneuvers and tactics. This scenario was one of the vastly different and creative operations sketched throughout the ‘Saber Guardian’ framework. Other missions that enabled or took place within ‘Saber Guardian were:

  • Szentes Axe, Danube crossing in Gyor, Hungary, U.S. and Hungarian troops;
  • Olt crossing in Bordusani, Romania U.S. and Romanian troops;
  • Night crossing of Olt, Valcea, Romania, U.S. and Romanian troops;
  • Live Fire Exercise at Novo Selo training field, Bulgaria;
  • A Mass Casualty and Air Defense exercise at Mihail Kogalniceanul Airfield, Romania.

Other parallel exercises that enabled and supported ‘Saber Guardian’ as presented by the U.S. Army Europe – see the last map.

Black Sea Region: An emerging strategic vector? 

The Black Sea region has a unique tradition and history as a geopolitical entity. It was in the 18th Century when the Ottoman Empire lost its hegemony over this sea as a direct result of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774) that gave the Russian Empire access to its first warm water port in the Black Sea, and the status of protector of the Orthodox Christians living under the Sublime Porte. The Ottoman-Russian rivalry is directly linked to these area , and spilled-over to the Balkans and to the Caucasus, attracting external inputs that tried to maintain a balance of power in the region, or internal elements that marched to form their own states and movements. As it was the case of the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when France and the United Kingdom intervened in favor of the Ottoman Empire in order to defeat Russia and avoid a hegemony over the region by Sankt-Petersburg.

The Black Sea was also a significant front in the First World War when the Ottoman Navy engaged the Russian ships stationed in Sevastopol. But while witnessing a declining importance in the Second World War, the Black Sea region essentially vanished as a geopolitical entity in the Cold War. The traditional Turkish-Russian balance of power disappeared and instead, a Soviet and Warsaw Pact hegemony was installed. However, the situation changed when the URSS collapsed, despite the Russian Federation’s desperate attempts to conduct damage control over its ex-territories. One one hand, Moscow saw how its strategic territories as Crimea taken away, how ex-Soviet Republics, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or ex-Warsaw Pact allies, notably Poland, Romania, became hardened Euro-Atlantists that integrated in NATO, the European Union and called for a significant increase of U.S. troops on the Eastern Flank.

The critical ‘belt’ that Moscow looked after was its ex-Soviet Republics. While enjoying a friendly government in Kiev and Minsk for most of the time, the Romanian sentiment swiftly grew in Moldova upon assuming its independence in 1991, which triggered an immediate Russian invasion. While not managing to fully subdue Chisinau, a breakaway region was created east of the Dnister that would hold a perpetual leverage over the country. The Republic of Transnistira still hosts today thousands of Russian troops from the 14th Army. Similar interventions also took place in Azerbaijan (much more indirectly) or Georgia, a conventional invasion that sought to cripple the small republic’s future of joining NATO. After the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, two breakaway republics were formed under Moscow’s direct military and political foothold: South Ossetia and Abkhazia; these regions still host a number of Russian basses and thousands of troops eyeing Tbilisi.  Then, came the 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia that crippled the country’s infrastructure.

However, the Black Sea began to fully resurface as a geopolitical battleground when Russia lost Ukraine. After the radical decision by the Yanukovitch government to go ahead with the E.U. association protocol, protests from Moscow made the government reverse the decision, but instead stirred massive street movements in Kiev and all over the country. The crisis of 2014 escalated when the government began shooting at the over 1 million demonstrators in the main square of the capital. In support of the ‘Euromaidan’ movement came opposition parties, the United States and the European Union. And as Yanukovitch flew to Russia in an attempt to escape the angry population, it became clear the Ukraine was now radically driving out of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and into the Euro-Atlantic one.

Vladimir Putin ordered a seizure of Crimea in yet another attempt of damage control of it’s weakening influence. Under a strict political deniability complemented by an ambiguous informational campaign, topped by targeted cyber and electronic warfare, Russian forces stationed in Sevastopol alongside incoming troops from the mainland managed to encircle Ukraine bases in the peninsula. And under a mock-referendum guarded by the Russian troops and local separatist groups, the population of Crimea, indeed overwhelmingly ethnic Russian, voted in favor of uniting with the Russian Federation.

A similar strategy was applied in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but given the immense Euro-Atlantic support for the Ukrainian Army, and without a doubt, the fierce resistance put by the National Guard and Armed Forces at Mariupol, Ukraine managed to keep the Kremlin in check, and contain the malign separatist conflict. Through the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and the LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) Russian attempted to create a land bridge to Crimea. And from there, according the Vladirim Putin’s speech, to form a New Russia (Novorossyia) for all the Russian speaking people in Ukraine – from Harkov, through the Black Sea littoral (Prychornomoria) and that of the Azov Sea (Pryazovia), including Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts, all the way to Odessa Oblast.The two hybrid republics, LPR and DPR formally formed the Federation of Novorossyia in 2014; this ended in January 2015 after it failed to expand the project. Attempts of Russian separatist movements were made in Odessa (strategic to this plan) and all over the Russian-speaking regions, however, those have failed to escalate and evolve in armed uprisings similar to what caused the crisis and the de facto succession in Eastern Ukraine

The combination of international pressure and fierce resistance from Kiev, managed to cancel Novorossiya; at least for now. The self-declaration of ‘Little Russia’ (Malorossyia) as an independent state, made by the leader of DPR, Alexander Zakharchenko, draw hostilities (at least publicly) from the LPR and Moscow, dully because it might have been a sign of abandonment of the larger, grand project for a patch of stable influence. Althought Kiev is still facing with a fragile and status quo-friendly treaty, the Minsk Agreement 2, and a potential volatile breakaway territory in the east, it’s maintaining its path of Euro-Atlantisism; with U.S. forces regularly conducting joint drills in the western region and on the seaboard, while cooperation with the E.U. is unprecedented.

The Black Sea region has recently emerged as a potential energy hub in regards to natural gas and even oil. The underwater deep shells have attracted interests from the biggest energy investors as Lukoil, OMV and Exxon Mobil to contract the licenses. After years of research and drilling, Romania’s maritime shell was confirmed and estimated at around 20 billion metric cubes of gas, enough to make the already energy sufficient country, a gas exporter. Together with Exxon Mobil, Bucharest will begin to exploit the deposit as of 2018. On the other side, Russian companies are already drilling into the shells near Crimea, and could have extended more if Odessa entered the separatist project, and would have changed the Black Sea’s exclusive economic zones in Moscow’s favor. Such a move would have offered Russia the opportunity to contest Romania’s maritime exclusivity and  claim the deep water gas deposits thanks to an island, the Snake’s Island, that sits within the Romanian EEZ and next to XXI Pelican shell, but belongs to Ukraine.

Additional military moves from Moscow are expected in NATO’s maritime perimeter. And as both Bulgaria and Romania suffer from an outdated, weakened and underwhelming military force, a stronger NATO presence is needed in the area. Romania’s sole objective at the 2016’s Warsaw Summit was to receive support for a Black Sea Fleet framework to be formed within the Alliance. Given Bulgaria’s opposition, skeptical of military build-ups in the area, Bucharest only received a multinational battlegroup in Craiova, formed by American, British, Polish and Bulgarian troops. But Washington’s aid had doubled in size in regards to military and political cooperation. Furthermore, the latest two National Security Strategies of Romania named as an objective for the country to become ‘a strategic vector of the Black Sea’.

Black Sea region exercises; source: U.S. Army Europe press kit

Saber Guardian, the largest exercise ever held in the Black Sea area was organized by U.S. Army Europe and co-hosted by Hungary (logistic hub for south-east Europe), Romania and Bulgaria. It massed 25,000 troops in additional to the already many ongoing exercises by NATO in the area. All the simulated scenarios tested,  subjected crisis situations and responsive actions to aggression emanating from the Black Sea. It simulated how logistics could be swiftly transferred from the main U.S. military hubs in Germany, to coordination centers in Hungary and then to the hypothetical frontlines of Romania and Bulgaria. It tested and exercised inter-operability and battle-space versatility, in critical and diverse missions as: air defense operations, mass casualty situations, seizures and counter-offensives; taking place in diverse regional realms, from the Hungarian Danube, to the Romanian plains or Carpathian mountains, to the Black Sea’s ports or waters.

Black Sea Area Support Team (ex- Joint Task Force-East), the operational unit within U.S. Army Europe, that deals with Romania and Bulgaria, had its most busy days from its founding in 2007. Together with local allies, it attempts to stop the maritime area from becoming a ‘Russian Lake’, as an ex-Romanian President once referred to Russia’s resurgent posture in the Black Sea. The region is one of the few that indeed resurfaced after decades of strategic ‘sterilization’ into a vital geopolitical vector.

 

 

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The Three Seas Initiative: Towards an ‘Intermarium’ under Anglo-Saxon protectorate?

‘I’m thrilled to join you today, and I want everyone to know that the United States supports your bold efforts. […] America will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner…

‘I’m thrilled to join you today, and I want everyone to know that the United States supports your bold efforts. […] America will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner in this truly historic initiative.’ Donald J. Trump, opening remarks at the Three Seas Initiative Summit, Warsaw, Poland on July 6th, 2017.

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For Dust and Rubble: Iranian Ambitions at the Syrian-Iraqi Border

General Considerations (a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan,…

General Considerations

(a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan, the impact of the civil war has been relatively moderate with rare high-intensity waves generated by intertwined moments or actions from other battlefronts. The area was sharply captured by ISIS since late 2014 in order to secure the supply lines from the loyal Iraqi region of Anbar in order to fuel military operations in Homs and Rural Damascus.

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The Day Will Come When You Won’t: Radiography of ISIS’s Desperate Tactics in Mosul’s Operational Playground

Situation Report and Tactical Annexes  – The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have issued an updated battle war suggesting a finalized phase for the months-long battle.  The last western neighborhoods controlled by ISIS…

Situation Report and Tactical Annexes  – The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have issued an updated battle war suggesting a finalized phase for the months-long battle.  The last western neighborhoods controlled by ISIS are equated by Bagdad’s estimates at 10% of the city.

Operation “We Are Coming, Nineveh” (قادمون يا نينوى; Qadimun Ya Naynawais) is a joint ISF (Iraqi Security Forces)-KRG’s Pashmerga (Kurdistan Regional Government)  effort supported by the US-led International Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ against Da’esh/ ISIS/ ISIL/ IS. The current developments where proceeded by Operation ‘Fatah’ that consisted in a series of missions that took place in mid-2016 with the purpose of clearing the way to Nineveh province (north-western Iraq). The actual assault on the city came around October 2016,and only after key operational assets have been seized (as the Qayyarah/Q West Air Base) in the Nineveh region, as well as having secured a southern supply line towards Baghdad. Co-extensively from late 2015 to late 2016 the Kurdish factions attributed to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, such as the Pashmerga have cut the main supply lines from Mosul to the self-declared capital of ISIS, Raqqa, through the border crossings, but namely via the Sinjar Mountain. Given these multilateral and key military achievements, which are expanded and explained in-depth in the video below this text, we have reached a crucial moment in the fight against ISIS.

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ISIS(K) in Afghanistan: Pentagon’s COIN throughout Far East Geopolitics and Taliban Resurgence

STRATEGIC ANALYSIS – The situation in the Far East is degrading in face of the volatile geopolitical context provided by the regional Far East rivalry and by being under a…

STRATEGIC ANALYSIS – The situation in the Far East is degrading in face of the volatile geopolitical context provided by the regional Far East rivalry and by being under a perpetual chronicle havoc by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, topped by the “Islamic State’s” gamble to win land in the area. Given the current situation, the United States Armed Forces, as well as the Afghan Army are faced with rising threats that deem operational maturity and strategic action in order to contain and deconstruct the rising transnational instability. In order to comprehensively understand the issues facing the region we need to acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan has never ended, neither the internal turmoil based on tribal, clan and political leit-motives nor the more conventional one between the US, NATO and radical elements. The fugitive US pull-out has accelerated the Taliban’s resurgence and has fertilized the ground for other third parties to enter the stage. Some of these parties is the local franchise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), additionally named “Khorasan Province” or generally addressed in the Euro-Atlantic community as “ISIS-K”. Khorasan is the historical generic term that refers to the region of western Iran to Eastern Afghanistan and holds great value for the Islamic civilization both historical and dogmatic, as Khorasan is subjected in several Hadiths as where the “black flags rise” to establish the Calipath, a prophecy largely capitalized for PR purposes by many Salafist jihadists including ISIS. 

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Acordul de la Astana: Maculatură diplomatică sau „Peace for Syria”?

Câteva cuvinte despre Memorandumul de la Astana într-un cadru analitic dar infinit mai informal decât am obișnuit pe această platformă și pentru prima dată în limba română, tocmai pentru că…

Câteva cuvinte despre Memorandumul de la Astana într-un cadru analitic dar infinit mai informal decât am obișnuit pe această platformă și pentru prima dată în limba română, tocmai pentru că acest text l-am redactat original pentru o simplă postare de facebook:

Cei trei „garantori” și anume Rusia, Iran, respectiv Turcia, se angajează să implementeze un armistițiu în patru zone desemnate ca fiind de „de-escaladare” în teritorile vestice ale rebelilor, mai exact: Idlib (+ câteva fâșii din Alep, Latakia), nordul Homs (inclusiv Rastan), Ghouta de est (o zonă rurală a Damascului + cartierele estice din capitală) și sudul Siriei (cu referire la spațiul controlat de rebeli în Quneitra, Daraa și Suweida). În teritorile menționate, acordul prevede încetarea totală a ostilitățiilor dintre Guvernul Assad și opoziția rebelă, referindu-se inclusiv la forțe aeriene, pentru a permite (de aici începe partea amuzantă) acordarea de ajutor medical și implicit întoarcerea voluntară a refugiaților… Implementarea acestor măsuri revine în responsabilitatea țărilor garantoare ce prin comisii de observare și puncte de supraveghere comune vor monitoriza situația, concomitent cu asigurarea liberei circulații pentru populația civilă. Personalul militar însărcinat cu monitorizarea desfășurării prin procedura menționată, va proveni din țările garantoare sau dintr-o parte terță, în conformitate cu consensul semnatarilor. Totodată, acordul menționează importanța luptei împotriva terorismului numind ISIS și al-Qaeada (Hayrat Tahrir al-Sham sau HTS) ca fiind componente direct vizate, deci (goes without saying) nu intră sub incidența acestui acord; adițional se dorește separarea opoziției rebele de elementele radicale, anexate taberei. În două săptămâni de la semnare se vor înființa „Joint Working Group” prin care Turcia, Iran și Rusia vor coopera pentru implementarea acordului printr-un framework formal. Acestea au fost clauzele operative, cele „preambulatory” sunt tipicare unui draft resolution, deci teoretic nu total relevante, însă de menționat e referirea la „integritatea teritorială a Republicii Arabe Siriene” – sigur, o formulare croită pentru acomodarea părții guvernamentale.

Acordul a intrat în vigoare de ieri și se desfășoară pe o perioadă de șase luni, cu posibilitatea de extindere la discreția părților semnatare. Dacă s-ar fi respectat și precedentele zeci de acorduri, războiul era într-o pauză continuă, HTS ar fi fost complet separat de rebeli, iar energia forțelor combatante ar fi concentrată pe ISIS. Acordul deși are un context diferit, în fond este tot un „sweet-talk” cu puține prezumții realiste de implementare. Răspunsul U.S. Department of State ironizează aspectele de bază, sancționând rolul de garator al Iranului (o perpetuă sursă de violență sectantă) și modul necenzurat, prin care Turcia susține toți rebelii (referire și la Tahrir). Iar deși Washington este în principiu de acord cu memorandumul, rămâne sceptic cu privire la materializarea sa și nu și-a asumat vreun angajament, cu toate că propaganda rusă tinde să exagereze „convergența” internațională cu privire la acordul propus de Kremlin… În aceeași idee, nici kurzii prin Partidul Uniunii Democratice (PYD) nu aderă la acord considerând că propunerea e o partiție pe criterii sectante, (puțin ironic) însă marea lor grijă este că s-ar putea să fie trași de mânecă pentru a-i preda lui Bashar al-Asssad auto-proclamata Federație din Nordul Siriei (Rojava).

De menționat este stagnarea taberei loialiste în zonele rebele, cu precădere pe Idlib, Hama sau chiar vestul Alepului și progresul kurzilor susținuți de SUA spre Raqqa, implicit asediul Deir-Ezzorului de către forțele ISIS, tot mai coagulate pe coridorul inferior al Eufratului, sau consolidarea prezenței rebeliilor antrenați în Iordania asupra deșertului estic și zona vamală cu Irak. Notabil este și faptul că opoziția rebelă nu a acceptat formal acordul, tocmai pe fondul rolului de „garantor” deținut de Teheran, doar că Turcia are – practic – responsabilitatea de a-i obliga să adere la condiții.Revenind la Statele Unite, neparticiparea acestei părți la acord slăbește șansele de implementare dar și de solidificare a acestui tratat ca și fundament pentru pace în întregul teritoriu sirian, tocmai pentru că nu acomodează doleanțele unei tabere ce conduce lupta împotriva ISIS și deține un însemnat teritoriu geografic și demografic. Iar pe deasupra, sugestile indirect ale Kremlinului cum că un „no-fly zone” axiomatic asupra zonelor de „de-escaladare” ar restricționat până și campania Coaliției Inherent Resolve condusă de SUA împotriva ISIS, este un exemplu compatibil cu privire la unilateralismul Kremlinului în acord. Implicit, Pentangonul a confirmat că nu va sista eventuale misiuni  împotriva facțiunilor teroriste în spațiul convenit; cu toate că ISIS are o prezență slabă în respectivele zone însă HTS domină porțiuni menționabile, iar împotriva lor operează SUA o campanie discretă de drone.


Scuzați chirilicele, dar am ales harta prezentată de MApN-ul rusesc, tocmai pentru că este varianta oficială a zonelor de „de-escaladare” sub acordul de la Astana, pe baza căreia am operat o serie de modificări: am adăugat teritoriul SDF/YPG, ES+Turcia și cel al rebelilor din deșert (New Syrian Army). În sfârșit, am creionat ipotetice, posibile, speculative căi de acțiune ale loialiștiilor pornind de la anunțul făcut de MApN-ul rus, prin care anunțau operațiuni militare în centrul și estul Siriei.

Să trecem la partea prospectivă:

i. Tendențial, astfel de acorduri au fost creionate în situații de stagnare a luptei Guvern-Opoziție prin care forțele loialiste beneficiau de un repaus tactic dar totuși păstrând un tir de artilerie și bombardamente asupra „buzunarelor” rebele; cei din urmă, primeau o doză continuă de legitimizare prin participarea la astfel de conferințe internaționale, plus că deseori respectau înțelegerea – spre nenorocul lor. Astfel că pe bază istorică suntem îndreptățiți să credem că și în acest caz este vorba de un „time-out” tactic fără intenție și mici șanse de implementare pe termen mediu sau lung.

ii. Contextual, observăm o serie de evoluții în alte teatre de operațiuni, precum guvernoratele Raqqa și Deir-Ezzor, care deși nu sunt la îndemâna logistică sau militară a taberei loialiste, fragmentează ideea de integritate și „atotsuveranitate” a Siriei sub guvernul Assad. Anume, Federația din Nordul Sirie se maturizează politic iar SDF-ul susținut de SUA înregistrează o serie de victorii succesive, ce în puține luni îi va aduce în poziția de a lua cu asalt Raqqa. Pe urmă, retragerea tactică a ISIS în Deir-Ezzor este condiționată de cucerirea orașului cu același nume, aflat sub control assadist încă de la izbucnirea conflictului. Totodată, expansiunea rebeliilor pe granița iordaniană și irakiană este sursa unei noi îngrijorări pentru Damasc-Moscova-Teheran. În consecință, loialiștii ar putea respecta parțial armistițiul pentru a-și comasa forțele în operațiuni îndreptate împotriva ISIS – scenariu de servit cu multă sare – sau împotriva rebelilor din sud-est, a căror izolare de zona vamală spre Iordania ar genera o criză logistică ce inevitabil va slăbi și degrada capacitatea de operare militară.

iii. Acordul poate fi un catalizator pentru alimentarea tensiunilor interne din tabăra rebelă aflate la un nou punct de fierbere în urma ciocnirilor cu Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, de această dată Jaysh al-Islam, în trecut Ahrar ash-Sham. Continua diviziune a rebelilor e marcată de două consecințe: (1) excluderea segmentului militant salafist, anume jihadiștii, care este (nu întâmplător) și cel mai puternic – fapt ce ar legitimiza și curăța imaginea opoziție – dar pe de altă parte (2) ar slăbi per total capacitatea lor de a ține piept regimului.

Nu este necesar ca ipotezele creionate să se respingă reciproc sau să se afle într-un raport competitiv. Principalul marker de prognoză cu privire la o posibilă ofensivă spre Deir-Ezzor, deșertul sud-estic sau spre centrul țării, este comasarea unor forțe semnificative în Palmyra – un realment „cap de pod” în interes operațional. Primele indicii le avem deja, astăzi s-a constatat faptul că rușii au mutat lansatoare de rachete-multiple (sisteme mobil) TOS în Palmyra. Ipoteza s-ar solidifica dacă vedem mai multe divizii mecanizate sau unități ale Tiger Force detașate în zonă. Un astfel de demers alternativ chiar și în fondul unei reale intenții depinde de stabilitatea zonelor convenite în acord, iar observând re-intensificarea luptelor în estul Damascului și în coridorul Hama-Homs, avem un „input” adițional de scepticism. De urmărit…

Cu toate acestea nu avem motive solide să credem că memorandumul de la Astana va fi mai însemnat decât precedentele colecții de maculatură semnate la Geneva sau Viena, poate nici nu merita efortul unei postări atât de lungi, însă contextul enunțat la paragraful „ii” generează posibilitatea unei însemnate schimbări de direcție. Totuși, bombardamentele continuă în regiunile controlate de rebeli, chiar și în acele „de-escalation zones” și mă îndoiesc că toate sunt îndreptate împotriva Hayat Tahrir al-Sham… În sfârșit, nu avem motive nici pentru a ne încredere în „buna-inteție” a demersurilor diplomatice rusești, deci inevitabil războiul își va urma cursul natural din teren.

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