Author: HARM

Kurds Host Assad’s Forces to Defend Afrin: Turks Respond via “Idlibistan”

1. The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to enter Afrin, in a bid to deter…

1. The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to enter Afrin, in a bid to deter and counter further Turkish advancements. Reports claim that SAA elements have already entered Afrin canton and are establishing outposts.

2. Just a month ago, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and embedded Syrian Rebel groups have launched Operation Olive Branch with the objective of ousting the Kurds from Syria’s northwestern corner. This incursion was facilitated by the retreatment of the Russian military policemen stationed in Afrin’s airfield, in exchange of the Turkish cooperation of de-escalating Idlib province for the Loyalist offensive that was ongoing at that time. With both parties not keeping they’re side of the deal in the end, Idlb’s limits began to be fortified by Turkish Army observations posts and likewise, Russia closed the airspace for the Turkish jets over Afrin. With littile advances made on Syrian-Turkish borderlands, the Kurds engaged in a multilateral diplomacy with several parties involved in the war.

3. Afrin is not in the U.S.-led Coalition’s operational interest or reach, and Washington has been attempting to revigorated the strategic partnership with Turkey after years of degradation caused by U.S. assistance to Kurdish forces. While U.S. troops are stationed in Manbij, east of Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” safe-zone, they will not allocate deterring force for Afrin. Russia has already pulled-out, with no plans of re-deployment. The Syrian Forces remained more concerned regarding the Turkish intervention invoking sovereignty infringement and fearing that the territory will be de facto annexed or controlled by Ankara through a micro-governance of Rebel parties – as occurring in the Euphrates Shield area.

4. A similar partnership was struck in late-March 2017. When following the end of the Turkish-Rebel operation “Euphrates Shield” culminated with a pyrrhic victory over ISIS in al-Bab, Ankara was eyeing the YPG-led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) in Manbij. While U.S. troops were detached to parade with the national flag to send a message of deterrence; in addition, the Kurds also sought help from Damascus – which detached several forces near the Turkish positions in south-eastern al-Bab and cutting their frontline with ISIS at that time. It is also ironic, that just several days ago the Kurds backed by the U.S. repealed a massive assault of Russian-private contractor, Wagner Group and Syrian forces in the mid-Euphrates valley, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Loyalists; while in north-western Syria, the same Kurdish forces are accommodating Syrian troops as a deterrence measure against the Turks. Overall, the Kurds and the Assad government have divergent views over the future of Syria, but have traditionally avoided direct confrontations, with the exceptions of several isolated episodes. As of now, Loyalist troops are ready to enter Afrin – a deal certified as 100% sure by Syrian media. The Turkish government has a harsh response: “If the Syrian army is to enter Afrin to clear YPG/PKK, we don’t have a problem with that. But if they are to enter to protect YPG, no one can stop Turkish troops”

5. Operation Olive Branch forces have reportedly shelled the northern vicinity of the Nubl and Zahra villages in Aleppo, attempting to deter Syrian forces from crossing into Afrin. Kurdish volunteers from Aleppo city have also traveled to enforce YPG defensive positions within the canton.

6. The deployment of SAA forces into Afrin will have deterring effects on the Turkish-Rebel coalition, likely forcing them to halt operations in the region’s core – border securing efforts might still continue without targeting Afrin city or other large settlements. However, Ankara will respond by re-escalating the situation in Idlib. Not only will Rebel forces return to that front better armed and supplied, the battlefield itself will be more difficult.

Another day in “Idlibistan”

7. It is widely known that Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is the un-official affiliate of al-Qa’ida in Syria. However, a new faction emerged which claims direct affiliation with the Salafist terror group.  Jaysh al-Malaheem was formed in late-2017 following mass defections from the HTS after the former had a public break-up with AQ; but has grown as media footprint online. The Turkistan Islamic Party is another hardline jihadist group with direct links to AQ, and significant resources on the ground. Most of their recruits are battle-hardened Uygurs that fought against Chinese forces in the Xinjiang Islamic insurgency.

8. In mid-February, HTS’s main competitor and old-traditional ally, Ahrar ash-Sham has united with the Free Syrian Army-affiliate, Noor al-Din al-Zenki to form a new front – Jabhat Tahrir Souriya (the Front for the Liberation of Syria). This re-flamed the old tensions between Ahrar and HTS and brought the new Rebel Coalition into direct confrontation with the jihadists in western Aleppo and south-eastern Idlib.

More to follow

9. The developments in Afrin and Idlib are natural response, and sequel to the deadlock reached between Turkey and the Loyalists regarding the previous failed deal. The re-escalation of tensions in Idlib, and the Syrian-blockade over Afrin provides new incentives to negotiate an additional, improved deal between the Astana signatory-actors. If that does not occur, chances are that the Syrian regime forces will remain and annex Afrin canton from the Kurds themselves.

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Helping Out: NATO Expands Support for Iraq

1. NATO has agreed to organize a military training mission in Iraq to project stability in the Middle East – Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Thursday following the North Atlantic…

1. NATO has agreed to organize a military training mission in Iraq to project stability in the Middle East – Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Thursday following the North Atlantic Council (NAC) assembly of the Ministries of Defense gathered in Brussels. The project was considered the government from Baghdad and Prime-Minister Abadi sent an official request to NATO.

2. The mission will be non-combatant. It will seek to equip the Iraqis with the know-how needed to continue operating in the volatile national security environment, consolidate the Armed Forces, and help stabilize the country after a lengthy and costly war against ISIS. NATO’s involvement comes as Iraq faces a bill of more than $88 billion to rebuild the country, officials told a donor conference in Kuwait this week. Iraq declared victory over Islamic State in December, having taken back all the territory captured by the militants in 2014 and 2015.

3. The Alliance already has a small team of military and civilian personnel in Iraq and uses mobile teams to train national forces in de-mining, countering home-made bombs and dealing with explosives. Individual states have their own training missions ongoing together with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), namely the United States, France, Germany, Belgium, Norway and others. This enhancement of NATO presence could go up to 200 troops. The training would take place in the capital Baghdad, other Iraqi cities and even in neighboring countries like Jordan.

4. Germany’s defense minister mentioned the possibility that some might take place in the northern city of Erbil. Beyond tactical, organizational and technical traineeships for Iraqi servicemen, this commitment will open new academies and schools for the local forces.

5. A similar framework took place before, in 2004, when the Iraqi Interim Government invited NATO to train its new Armed Forces – a request backed by the U.N. Security Council resolution 1546. Titled NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I), the operation was also non-combatant and helped establish a sustainable and operational armed force. Primary NATO contributors to NTM-I were the U.S, Italy, Denmark, Holland, UK, later joined by Turkey, Romania, the Baltic states and Bulgaria. External partners were Jordan, which graduated up to 50,000 Iraqi troops, Egypt and Ukraine.


ANNEX: In December 2017, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) also completed a training with NATO hosted by the Serbian Armed Forces in the southern city of Nis.

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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.

(Electronic references are embedded in text via hyperlink)

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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NATO in Asia-Pacific: Temporary Deterrence or Forward Thinking?

Urgent Briefing – The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conducted a diplomatic tour to visit the two regional allies in Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and the Republic…

Urgent Briefing – The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conducted a diplomatic tour to visit the two regional allies in Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, ‘South Korea’). This raised a legitimate debate regarding NATO’s prospects in a region so far away from the Euro-Atlantic realm.

 

Visits to South Korea and Japan

Jens Stoltenberg arrived on October 30, 2017 in Tokyo for a three-day visit. Appointed in 2015 as Secretary General, this was his first tour in Asia-Pacific, throughout which he reinforced the Alliance’s partnership with Japan and South Korea. Having talked with the Japanese Defense Minister, the two agreed on the potential to expand cooperation in the areas of maritime security and cyber defense, additionally to the substantial efforts already undergone. On November 1st, he traveled to South Korea for a two-day trip to meet with the Foreign Minister, and to address the North Korean threat. He made bold comments about this issue, condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programs; Stoltenberg referred to them as a threat to ‘international and regional security’, calling on Kim Jong-Un to abandon this pursuit.

 

NATO’s Asia-Pacific policy

Sine the conclusion of the Cold War, the Alliance created a wide range of partnership options through which it pursued fostering good relations with states across the globe. The largest such framework is Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), a 50-nation multilateral forum that encompass diverse actors, from Russia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Ukraine, to Austria or Armenia. The Mediterranean Dialogue is eligible for states situated in Northern Africa or the Levant, as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) welcomes several Gulf states as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Additional to these frameworks, there are individual options that are loosely referred to as ‘Partners across the Globe’, and provides interested peers with tailored diplomatic protocols that facilitates a closer engagement to NATO. Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are one of those states. And following Washington’s model, they are NATO’s key partners in shaping an Asia-Pacific policy. Evidently, the United States has a leading role in applying and conceptualizing such a policy, but the other 28 states also have a decisive input. It is widely known that NATO has a history of conducting operations and crafting strategies in rapport with issues and regions outside the Euro-Atlantic space in the post-Cold War era. Operation Ocean Shield (Indian Ocean, Bab-el-Mandeb strait), ISAF (Afghanistan) or Iraq Training Mission have cemented the Alliance’s outlook towards the external space amid the 21st century security environment and emerging threats. The 2010 Lisbon Summit formally marked this transition by adding Crisis Management and Cooperative Security to NATO’s core values, in addition to the original task of Collective Defense. The 2010 New Strategic Concept is relevant in application to all issues and challenges, while keeping the focus on cooperative efforts with regional peers.

There has been no official military presence in the waters of Asia-Pacific before, nor substantial diplomatic effort in the region under a NATO framework. This marks Stoltenberg’s tour as a milestone in the Alliance’s ‘coming-of-age’ towards the region. The visits to Japan and South Korea can be regarded as a natural sign of solidarity towards NATO’s biggest financial contributor and strongest member, the United States. And that extensively, the effort was an additional deterrence tool in applying pressure towards the North Koreans.

 

North Korea: a global problem

In a speech held at the National Press Club in Tokyo, October 31st, Jens Stoltenberg outlined the ‘new geography of danger’ emphasizing the global dimension of the North Korea threat and the necessity for a united, potentially stronger front, against Kim Jong-Un regime. Mr. Stoltenberg called on Pyongyang to “abandon its nuclear program once and for all”; to “suspend the development of ballistic missiles”; and to “refrain from further testing”. He also reiterated that “NATO strongly supports a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.” He also added that “achieve this, pressure is key”, before acknowledging that Japan is NATO’s “natural partner”. (read the entire speech here, as delivered)

Asked whether an North Korean attack on the island of Guam, a US territory, would trigger Article 5, he refused to respond. However, he did mention that NATO’s European Defense system is ready to counter any possible ballistic missile launched from the Korean peninsula.

 

Key Judgements

NATO is right to have concerns regarding the North Korean problem. The passive and impotent efforts throughout the past three decades have allowed the totalitarian regime from Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons, and now, even sophisticated means of transporting them towards enemy targets. The strike range of those ballistic missile do not only extend towards California, Alaska or some Pacific islands, but also over Europe. NATO’s concerns are legitimate and worthy of being shared at the strategic level by all 29 members. While the diplomatic tour in Japan and South Korea can well be accounted as a pressure force towards North Korea, and as a solidarity gesture towards the United States, there is the potential for more than just an episodic touch. Given the rise of China in the international stage and the risks it poses for global trade and regional stability, notably given the standoff in the South China Sea, it’s fair to assume that NATO is considering widening its projection. Benefiting from predictable and strategic partnerships with capable actors in the region, namely Australia, New Zeeland, Japan and South Korea, and its utmost important member in the driving seat, the United States, NATO holds the incentives for a long-term game in respect with the Asia-Pacific theater.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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Something to Fear: Iraqi Feds keep Kurds in line

Urgent Briefing – Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and unofficially, the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) spearheaded by Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shabbi have ousted the Kurdish forces from key areas that they’ve expanded to…

Urgent Briefing – Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), and unofficially, the Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) spearheaded by Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shabbi have ousted the Kurdish forces from key areas that they’ve expanded to throughout the anti-ISIS campaign: Kirkuk, Sinjar and the Nineveh plains. These events are relevant to comprehend the ongoing tensions within the anti-ISIS camp in Iraq, and subsequently Iran’s asserting geopolitical order. The Kurdish independence equation was faulty and overly optimistic, resetting Erbil’s territory and power to 2003 limits.

 

Kirkuk: The Red Line

Just three weeks after the Independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which announced a secession of the region for Iraq, the situation has dramatically shifted. Throughout the past 3 years, the Kurdish Pashmerga and other militias have liberated significant ground from ISIS north in the country, which they later seized to expand the KRG. The most important location taken under Kurdish authority is the city of Kirkuk and its oil rich surroundings.  Since June 2014, when the Iraqi army deserted positions around northern Iraq in face of ISIS attacks, the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Pashmerga assumed the administration of Kirkuk, triggering wild protests from both Ankara and Baghdad.

Kirkuk is an energy hub, the oil fields around it amount to 12% of Iraq’s potential, and it’s also well connected to export markets via the Ceyhan pipeline towards the city-port in Turkey with the same name. Taking into consideration that KRG accounts for 17% of Iraq’s oil deposits, seizing Kirkuk would almost double Erbil’s capacity on the energy market, and provide more revenue, badly needed for an emerging war-torn state.

This dispute is far from being new, Kirkuk is also considered as the “Kurdish Jerusalem”, and a symbol of resistance against the Ba’ath regime, that sought to social engineer the area. Between  1970 and 2003, hundreds of thousands of Kurds were expelled further north, making space for Arab Sunnis to take their place and change the local demographics.  The An-Anfal campaign of Hussein’s regime that killed around 182,000 Kurds is another brutal display of a perpetual persecution by the Baghdad establishment.

Due to the Arabization process, and the lack of credible public records during the Ba’ath regime, the census of 1957 is considered the least politicized which said that Kirkuk was 48.3 percent Kurdish, 28.2 percent Arab, and 21.4 percent Turkmen.

The Turkmen remained a persistent community that also pose an opportunity for Turkish ventures in the ex-Ottoman province of Nineveh, now part of Iraq. This serves as a useful premise for the government in Ankara to promote cultural diplomacy and apply its military leverage in Syria and Iraq, as seen in the past years.. The Kurdish community while more reduced in numbers that in 1957, is still assessed to be consistent, while some of the Arabs are believed to have successively left the city and region in the post-2003 era fearing persecution. However, this does not mean that the demography tilted into the Kurdish favor.

 

Kurds lose everything

Beyond the historical disputed character of the Kirkuk area, it was the Independence referendum vote organized by the authorities in Erbil that prompted a steadfast counter-reaction. Recent diplomatic threats, and military drills (some of them with Turkey) set the stage for a full-on intervention on October 16th, by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shia’s militias (Popular Mobilization Units/ PMUs) sponsored and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to storm the city. In a desperate attempt to withhold, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, and the Pashmerga allowed the outlawed terror separatist terror group, PKK, to assert a public, frontline position in a bid to defend it. While reports and photos confirm the premise, Pashmerga’s official position is contrary, mentioning that the embedded and mentioned fighters are merely ‘PKK sympathizers”. Regardless of that, it was a dangerous gamble, since Turkmen officials and militias called upon Turkey to intervene and protect the community for PKK. Inherently, it was only the Iraqi intervention that stopped a potential Turkish one.

With few shots fired, and even less casualties inflicted on both sides, the Pashmerga and PKK retreated to the outskirts of the city, while ISF and allied militias were sweeping Kirkuk and taking down billboards of Masoud Barzani and burning KRG flags. Many Kurds took the road of exile towards Erbil or Suleymaniah blocking the main highways, as the Pashmerga watched powerlessly and shocked how they lost their crown jewel in under 24 hours. CENTCOM managed to ground Iraqi air assets, by scrambling jets that patrolled the skies of Kirkuk, and almost instating an unofficial no-fly zone. Moreover, the U.S.-led Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ called on all parties to avoid escalation.

The political establishment in Erbil held the PUK leaders on the ground responsible for this disaster after ordering the Pashmerga to stand down and evacuate the city. To make things even worst, the ISF, PMU cohort took and are currently still taking, the rest of the expanded KRG territory during the past years in the anti-ISIS campaign, namely: the self-proclaimed autonomous Yazidi Shengal (mount Sinjar), Mosul Dam, Bashiqa (where Turkey hosted a training camp) and other locations around the Nineveh plains. But this is not only a disaster for the Kurds, but for the U.S. as well.

 

In the shadow of Washington and Tehran

According to source close to Al Monitor, the quasi non-combat setting in Kirkuk was also a result of negotiations in the city between Iranian military advisers from the elite al-Quods of the IRGC, and Pashmerga. Eqbalpour, an Iranian officer who works closely with Qasem Soleimani offered a chance to the Kurds to give up the city. He took out a map of the area and spread it out in front of his Kurdish counterparts. “This is our military plan. We will hit you tonight from three points — here, here and here,” he said, and then left the meeting with his entourage. US personnel was just outside Kirkuk at the K-1 air base, and played no role in these event.

First of all, Washington failed to contain the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil; the failure extends both as not managing to block the independence referendum, and by not being able to keep the Iraqi Security Forces, or even better, the Iranian-backed militias from humiliating the Pashmerga.  Whether this is the result of an intelligence failure, of bad decision making, or simply due to the situation’s constraints, it is unknown. Accordingly, Baghdad forced the Kurds into an agreement to withdraw back to the 2003 agreed borders, basically nullifying their efforts in the past 3-4 years. This is a success for the Iraqi establishment in recovering their lands, no doubt, but Tehran is also enjoying the development. The Shi’a militias are attempting to expel Kurdish and Kurdish-backed forces around the Syrian border, creating a logistical gap between the two Kurdish entities, containing both the U.S.-backed Federation in Northern Syria, and Barzani’s KRG. Many political opponents in Erbil pressure Masoud Barzani to resign after plunging the government into a disaster, by organizing the referendum, expanding the voting ballots to the expanded regions, and then the for badly managing the geopolitical consequences that followed shortly afterwards.

Iraqi Security Forces in Kirkuk’s governor office.

The lack of a major Turkish intervention is at least surprising, especially given the symphony of common military drills held with the Iraqi Security Forces at the border. Even though limited elements did cross the border in anti-PKK operations in northern Iraq.

Any time stall is a direct benefit for ISIS. The terror group still controls several villages, and small to medium cities along the Euphrates River Valley in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, Iraq’s Anbar region, several disperse pockets in Hama (central Syria), and holds informal control over directly linked Salafist groups operating in Rural Damascus (Yarmouk camp), or Quneitra, near Israel.

 

Something to Fear: End Notes

Conclusively, the Kurdish independence dream in Iraq crumbled before it even began. Surrounded by hostile and anxious opponents, and supported by pragmatic overseas allies, the Kurds didn’t stand a chance. More so given the naïve and hasty referendum, that had no chance to stand without military backing. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) gave the Pashmerga something to fear, taking great care that they will keep in line and know their place. Turkey and Syria hope, that their own Kurds also learned a lesson. The United States, unable to contain its two divergent allies was completely isolated in the process, and witnessed again the extent of Iranian dominance in Iraq. Many critics argue that Washington intentionally stood idle and left the Shi’a militias steal the show.

Iraqis tear down Barzani’s independence billboard in Kirkuk city.

I would say that the US did not react in Iraq because it wanted to be on good terms with Baghdad, to avoid further alienating the Iraqis, which would have surrendered completely the country to Iran. Furthermore, the ISF/PMU operation in Kirkuk did not pose an existential threat to the KRG, but only to its peripheral holdings that were gained the past years despite the constitutional belonging of those turfs. Furthermore, as long as the Iraqis and PMUs don’t decide to attack Erbil, or Suleymaniah, or attempt to subjugate the entirety of the KRG, then a U.S. intervention is highly unlikely and unnecessary, to put it on realist terms. But if the showdown continues, Iran and Da’esh (ISIS) will be the main beneficiaries.

If the Kurdish commanders want to avoid repeating the mistakes of Kirkuk, they should work towards unifying their command & control structures, and modernizing their still-militia-like structure.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

Further reading on topics mentioned in the text and directly relevant to the situation at hand: ‘For Dust and Rubble: Iranian ambitions on the Syrian-Iraqi border’; and ‘Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar declares autonomy amid Kurdish Independence vote’.

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Rush to Deir Ez-Zor: Operation “Jazzira Storm”

Situation Report – On September 9, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have announced the start of Operation “Storm of Jazzira/ Cizre” or “Jazzira Storm” to…

Situation Report – On September 9, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have announced the start of Operation “Storm of Jazzira/ Cizre” or “Jazzira Storm” to liberate eastern Syria and Deir ez-Zor province from ISIS. This offensive was rumored to be under wraps for several months but it became an urgent priority after the Loyalist camp (Syrian Arab Army, Iran and Russia) managed to carve a land bridge through ISIS-held territory and relieve the siege on Deir ez-Zor city, where contingencies of the Syrian forces remained from 2013 surrounded by the jihadists. This page will be updated in accordance with the events unfolding.

There is an extended strategic analysis on the matter here, that includes all the necessary data, details, hypothesis and maps to explain the competitive rush to liberate Deir ez-Zor. It’s about energy security, border control, geopolitical features and counter-terrorism, boiled around the mid-Euphrates river valley.

While the battle hardened and experienced Kurdish militia YPG, as the whole SDF, is concentrating on cleansing Raqqa from the remaining ISIS fighters, the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) and several local Sunni Arab Tribes (as the Al-Sanaadid Forces) from Hasakhe and Deir ez-Zor will spearhead the offensive.

On the other side, after the Loyalists manged to randezvous with the Syrian Arab Army elements from the provincial capital, they are now heading towards south of mount Tharda and of the airbase.

As of now, the SDF has reached the eastern outskirts of Deir ez-Zor city including the industrial area. The Spokesperson for the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS ‘Inherent Resolve’ said that around 250 km2 were liberated by the SDF along the Khabur river valley.

The race revolves around the strategic question of who liberates the oil-rich region first? The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) backed by Russian and Iran.

Click “View Image” for a larger format.


Danger Close #1

September 16, 2017

As seen in the map above, the U.S.-backed SDF has come dangerously close to the Russia/Iran backed Syrian Arab Army (SAA). As a consequence on September 16th presumed fighters jets of the Russian Aerospace Forces or of the Syrian Air Force hit the positions of SDF north of Deir ez-Zor City where U.S. Special Operations Forces were also present. Six fighters were wounded in the attack. In order to de-escalate the tensions, the U.S. Coalition announced that there are now intentions for the SDF to enter the provincial capital itself, while the SDF has warned their counterparts not to cross the Euphrates.


Syrians, Russian cross the Euphrates

September 17, 2017

Despite efforts to de-escalate the situation through the Qatar-based communication lines, the Loyalist camp did cross the Euphrates using the cover of the air strikes on September 17th. They attempted to cut the SDF’s frontline with ISIS therefore blocking their advance alongside the Euphrates towards the Iraqi border.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced that they are ready to drive them back, while maintaining their focus on ISIS.


Danger Close #2

September 24, 2017 

On September 24th, SDF managed to catch-up with the Loyalist advance down the river valley, capturing the Koniko oil fields and near Kusham, where Loyalist forces attempt to defend the village from surrounding Da’esh fighters. But fearing a by-pass from the SDF, Russian Aerospace Forces acted and bombed the positions of SDF again, casualties have been reported. More information is expected to debut soon. SDF press release confirms that casualties have been inflicted by the air strikes and that they will use legitimate self-defense in response to these attacks, while also urging Russia to maintain focus on ISIS.

Also, US forces in Syria have increased surveillance of Russian troop locations following Moscow’s suggestion that US troops could get caught in Russian military operations.


Deir ez-Zor Civil Council in the works

September 23, 2017

The establishment of a Civil Council to rule Deir ez-Zor in afiliation to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Federation of Northern Syria is now underway following a meeting with local representatives. The same model has been applied in the major locations liberated by the SDF, such as Manbij, Tabqa and now Raqqa.


Reinforcements T.B.A. 

September 24, 2017

While the SDF operation “Cizre/ Jazzira Storm” is spearheaded by endemic, native ethnic, religious and tribal forces, they still need the aid of the battle-hardened and experience core of the organization: the Kurdish YPG militia. Now that the battle in Raqqa is coming to an end (up to 80% of the city is liberated), reinforcements are expected to arrive in Deir ez-Zor in the following two months.


Advances continue

September 24, 2017

SDF arrived on the outskirts of al-Suwar and have launched operations to liberate the city. However, ISIS managed to pull a successful ambush on one of their convoys leaving several fighters dead.

Loyalists ahead

October 15, 2017:

While the Syrian Arab Army and Tiger Forces have not failed to gain more ground on the northern banks of the Euphrates river, they did expand their control consistently south of it. Forces of the Loyalist camp are currently liberating the city of Mayadin, one of the lost small-to-medium strongholds controlled by ISIS in Syria, besides Abu Kamal.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have managed to liberate As Suwar, but failed to advance more towards the Iraqi border. Moreover, a mobile ISIS counter-attack stormed one of their tent outposts in the desert, inflicting significant casualties, and exposing worrying weaknesses in the SDF outpost system; relatively isolated in the desert.

Iranian-backed militias also push forwards on the Syrian-Iraqi border north of the T2 Pumping station.


Double wins: Mayadin and Omar Oil Fields

October 23, 2017

Today, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have liberated Syria’s largest oil fields from Da’esh after a surprise frontal offensive in eastern Deir ez-Zor province, the Spokesperson for the US-led Coalition confirmed this development.

The main source of ISIS oil trafficking has been completely cut after in the past year, the jihadists’ entire oil production has fallen from almost 30,000 barrels/day in 2014, to almost zero as of today. Complementary to the Coalition’s efforts to track, identify and disrupt terrorism financing, the closure of Turkey’s border and the gradual loss of oil-vital territories of ISIS, as Kirkuk, Niniveh plains, and now Deir ez-Zor has put the final nail in the terror group’s coffin. Without an economy or a source of revenue, and with fighters in complete disarray, entrapped and suffocated on all fronts, the terror group will be annihilated in the Syrian desert.

The Omar oil fields in Deir ez-Zor province amount to 43% of Syria’s energy deposits, and is also perceived as being a strategic blow to the Bashar al-Assad Regime and the Loyalist camp as a whole. This issue remains to be disputed in the immediate post-ISIS period between the SDF and their political establishment, the self-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria, and the Assad regime in Damascus.

The Syrian Arab Army and its allies from Russia, as well as the Iranian-backed militias are closing on the last cities on the southern banks of mid-Euphrates river valley. After the liberation of Mayadin, the Loyalists captured the small city of Al-Qaryatayn where Da’esh recently executed 128 innocent civilians. One vital, and potentially end-destination on the river valley will be border city of Abu Kamal. Although the Loyalists control small and isolated pockets of land on the northern shores in order to cut the SDF’s frontline with ISIS, and therefore to curb their advancements, that tactic has proven to be unsuccessful. Not only did the SDF managed to keep up with Loyalists movements, but the later was not fast enough to install the long-needed pontoons that would have allowed tanks and technical vehicles to cross the river in decisive locations (as to the Omar oil fields). And as the battle-hardened and experienced Kurdish militia, YPG, concluded its operations in Raqqa, the window of outracing the SDF into defeating ISIS in Deir ez-Zor has closed for the Loyalists.

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IAF Raids Syrian Chemical Site in Hama

Urgent Briefing – The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted another Shadow-raid on the Syrian regime’s positions. The target was a chemical site in Hama province. It has been announced by the…

Urgent Briefing – The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted another Shadow-raid on the Syrian regime’s positions. The target was a chemical site in Hama province.


  • It has been announced by the Bashar al-Assad Regime that the Israeli Air Force conducted air strikes from the Lebanese airspace on a military objective in eastern Masyaf, Hama province.
  • While not acknowledging the chemical production nature of the site, there is enough data to suggest that the al-Tala’i facility hosts significant plants tasked to enhance the Regime’s CBRN potential.
  • Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) is hosted in the al-Tala’i facility and is believed to be the site of WMD production that also made the compounds used in the Khan Sheykoun attack.
  • The Israeli government did not comment on is involved in the air strike as it is the State’s policy not to discuss these issues.
  • However, the Israeli Air Force has conducted dozens of clandestine air raids into Syrian territory in an attempt to stop the transfer of advanced weapons for Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to the Lebanese Hezbollah, and to also curb the militia’s influence near the border area of Golan Heights. The most frequent location striked in the past by the IAF is the Al-Assad International Airport in Damascus – some of the hangars being traditionally used to unload and deposit military cargo delivered from Iran using civilian transporters. 
  • Hezbollah’s growing power in Syrian is also embedded in Iran’s influence over Damascus at a strategic level which posses an existential threat for the Israeli state.
  • A former head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, tweeted that Thursday’s strike on Masyaf was “not routine” and targeted a “Syrian military-scientific centre for the development and manufacture of, among other things, precision missiles”. 

Presumed blast of the overnight air strike

Russian S-400: Idled

  • The presence of the advanced S-400 missile defense system operated by the Russian Federation at Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia has not deterred nor stopped the Israeli Air Force from striking the location.
  • Given the open Moscow-Jerusalem channel, the Russians are  compromising and tolerating strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons plant.
  • Israel has made its intentions clear from the get-go. It has drawn its “red lines” in regards to Hezbollah and Iranian activities on the border, notwithstanding the country’s readiness to take action if certain sensitive factors align.

 

Growing anxiety at Jerusalem

  • Given the winning streak of the Syrian Regime coordinated and aided by Iranian elements it is expected for Tehran to gain a significant grip on the country and move advanced weapons and funds more easily to support Hezbollah’s operations against the Israeli Defense Forces.
  • The border province of Quneitra is still disputed between the Regime, several Rebel factions and the ISIS-affiliated ibn-Khalid Army, therefore time is still on the table in regards to Israel’s national security concerns in Syria.

 

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11 Days: The Liberation of Tel Afar

Situation Report – According the Press Release, the global Coalition to defeat ISIS congratulates Prime Minister Al-Abadi and all Iraqi Security Forces on their stunning victory in Tal Afar and…

Situation Report – According the Press Release, the global Coalition to defeat ISIS congratulates Prime Minister Al-Abadi and all Iraqi Security Forces on their stunning victory in Tal Afar and Northern Ninewah Province, Aug. 31. The offensive to liberate Tel Afar was launched on August 20 after necessary assets and personnel were redirected from Mosul, upon the finalizing the liberation there, to the near-by region. Tel Afar, a Shiite enclave in the predominantly Sunni-Niniveh province, was captured by the jihadists in June 2014, bringing death and suffering to the local population, also comprised of a significant Turkmen and Yazidi population.

Under the command of Prime Minister al-Abadi, all branches of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) took part in the liberation of Tal Afar – the 9th, 15th and 16th Iraqi Army Divisions, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division, Iraqi Local Police, the Popular Mobilization Forces as well as the Kurdish Regional Government Peshmerga.

While the city and critical infrastructure are under ISF control, dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future.

“Following their historic liberation of Mosul and now a swift and decisive victory in Tal Afar, the ISF have shown, once again, they are an increasingly capable force that can protect the Iraqi people, defeat ISIS within Iraq and secure the country’s borders,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. “This is yet another significant achievement for the Iraqi Security Forces and the government and people of Iraq.”

Before declaring complete victory, the Iraqi forces had been waiting to clear the small town of al-‘Ayadiya, 11km northwest of Tal Afar. Da’esh militants had retreated to the town and put up a heavy resistance. The victory in Tel Afar essentially brings ISIS to an end in northern Iraq and almost cleared-out of the Niniveh province – that held a dual important, symbolic (declaration of the Caliphate) and strategic (border area + source of oil revenue).

The Coalition contributes to the defeat of ISIS by providing Iraqi forces with equipment, training, intelligence, precision fire support and military advice to leaders. By working by, with, and through the government of Iraq and the ISF, the Coalition has enabled the Iraqi Security Forces to reclaim 90% of their land from ISIS. The Coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces as they fight on to defeat ISIS in Western Anbar province and Hawijah.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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Deal with the Devil: ISIS Allowed to Evacuate from Syrian-Lebanese border (Updated)

Situation Report – Da’esh (ISIS/ ISIL) jihadists and their families were evacuated from Qara, western Qalamun, on the border with Lebanon, on Monday for the border city of Abu Kamal,…

Situation Report – Da’esh (ISIS/ ISIL) jihadists and their families were evacuated from Qara, western Qalamun, on the border with Lebanon, on Monday for the border city of Abu Kamal, Deir ez-Zor governorate, near Iraq.  According to reports around 308 ISIS militants  and 331 civilians were evacuated. This comes after a deal was struck between the stranded fighters on the Lebanese-Syrian pocket, extended from Western Qalamun of in-between Syria’s Homs and Rural Damascus provinces to the Lebanese towns of Afat and Ras Belbek, with Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Regime forces.

Video of the evacuation of ISIS fighters, issued by Ruptly (Russia Today/ RT):


First reports came in during the days of Friday and Saturday (26th August) in regards to a ceasefire being in place to facilitate evacuation talks resulted after a weeks-long drive by the Lebanese Army in the near-by mountains, parallel with an offensive led by Hezbollah and auxiliary Syrian Regime forces that saw a massive bombardment of Halimah Qaarrah, highest peak in ISIS control. Regime sources suggested that both sides were opened to negotiations, but chances were low to succeed as ISIS fighters never agreed before towards such an arrangement; while the Syrian forces frequently evacuated Rebels with the famous ‘green buses’ from disputed areas under different truces.

In retrospective, on July 31st 2017, around 8,000 fighters of the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were evacuated from Arsal mountains (same area) under an agreement with the Lebanese militia. Based on that move, Hezbollah was able to move and take control of those abandoned points that later on served as a staging area for the recent offensive on ISIS in western Qalamoun that led to the same ending.

Lebanese President, Michael Oun officially declared Lebanon free of ISIS, after his country was the scene of a potential-catastrophic spill-over from the Syrian Civil War, hosting battles between ISIS,  Jabhat al-Nusra and other Rebels on the border mountains that cost the lives of civilians and soldiers. While this move does indeed free a patch of land from ISIS control, it simply snoozes a larger military effort by transporting them in Deir ez-Zor, where two competitive offensives are expected to set the stage for the terror group’s end in Syria. Read an extensive analysis on the subject here.

Special Presidential Envoy to the U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS, Bret McGurk condemned the Regime’s deal with ISIS to evacuate the terrorists to Abu Kamal, Deir ez-Zor, saying that “ISIS fighters should be killed on the battlefield”. Iraqi Prime-Minister Abadi also expressed great concern that a wave of ISIS fighters is allowed to move freely to the Iraqi border.  He said  that the deal was “unacceptable” and an “insult to the Iraqi people”.

U.S.-led Coalition threatened to bomb the convoy but are still assessing whether there are a civilians present.  Islamic State fighters were believed to be accompanied by family members in 17 buses and 11 ambulances, and at least 25 of them were wounded, according to statements by Hezbollah officials in Lebanon.

We’ve seen ISIS use protective sites like hospitals and mosques, seen them drive in ambulances,” Colonel Ryan said. “So if we do identify and find ISIS fighters who have weapons — and like I said, we can discriminate between civilians and ISIS fighters — we will strike when we can. If we are able to do so, we will.”

Other ISIS areas

Outside Deir ez-Zor, ISIS controls small pockets in:

  • Rural Quneitra Province near Israel’s border in the Golan Heights,
  • and in Yormouk, a district of Damascus that hosts a significant Palestinian refugee camp.

Should be noted that the mentioned turfs are not directly controlled by ISIS but by affiliated groups, such as Khalid ibn al-Walid; a Salafist Jihadist faction formed in 2016 after the merger of Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, Mutha’ana Movement and the Army of Jihad.


UPDATE September 5, 2017

According to the US-led Global anti-ISIS Coalition:

“Today is the seventh day ISIS fighters and their families have spent with a bus convoy now stalled in the Syrian Desert east of As Sukhnah.

The convoy, initially consisting of 17 buses and other support vehicles, was halted in its move toward Iraq on Aug. 29 by Coalition strikes that prevented its movement to the east.

The Coalition and our Iraqi partners were not a party to the agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS to allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border. The Coalition has been clear, that in support of our Iraqi partners, we will not allow the movement of ISIS fighters near the border or onto sovereign Iraqi soil.

Photo of the ISIS members in the convoy

The Coalition has never struck the convoy, and has allowed food and water deliveries to reach the stranded women and children. The Coalition will continue to take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able without harming non-combatants.

Coalition leaders have communicated a course of action to the Russians, providing the Syrian regime an opportunity to remove the women and children from this situation. “The Syrian regime is letting women and children suffer in the desert. This situation is completely on them,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.

Over the past week, 6 of the 17 buses have returned westward toward Palmyra, back in Syrian regime territory, unimpeded by any Coalition action. The Coalition continues to monitor the remaining 11 buses and communicate with Russian officials who advise the Syrian regime.”


UPDATE September 2, 2017

The Coalition issued updates on the status of the ISIS convoy:

“After turning around and heading back west from the Abul Kamal area, the convoy of 17 buses containing hundreds of armed ISIS fighters and their families remains in the Syrian Desert between Humayma and As Sukhnah.

The Coalition has not struck the convoy. In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition has struck ISIS fighters and vehicles, including a tank, armed technical vehicles, and transport vehicles seeking to facilitate the movement of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners. Food and water have been provided to the convoy.

The Coalition has communicated to the Russians, to deliver a message to the Syrian regime, that the Coalition will not condone ISIS fighters moving further east to the Iraqi border. The Coalition values human life and has offered suggestions on a course of action to save the women and children from any further suffering as a result of the Syrian regime’s agreement.

The Coalition and our Iraqi partners were not a party to the agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS to allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under the Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border. ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution.

In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition will continue take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able to without harming civilians.”


UPDATE August 31, 2017

Press Release – The Coalition was not a party to any agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS. Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they cut deals with and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control.

ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution. This is just further evidence of why Coalition military action is necessary to defeat ISIS in Syria.

The Coalition has not struck the convoy. In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition cratered the road heading east between Hamaymah and Abul Kamal to prevent the further transport of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners and struck individual vehicles and fighters that were clearly identified as ISIS.

In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition will take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able to without harming civilians, according the Coalition’s press release.

 


UPDATE August 30, 16:50 

According to the Associated Press, the U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS “Inherent Resolve” struck the route of the ISIS convoy heading from the Syrian-Lebanese border area of western Qalamoun to Deir ez-Zor. Air strikes destroyed the road and a small bridge, entrapping the militants. The Coalition still has not ruled out the possibility to hit the convoy itself. 

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