Category: Regions

Operation Nightfall: Israel’s Ultimate Strike Against Iran in Syria

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis,…

Creative Threatcasting Scenario (CTS) – CTS is a strategic foresight method, inspired by the work of the West Point Military Academy’s Threatcasting Lab. Based on current events and trend analysis, CTS develops creative narratives about possible futures. By creating tangible scenarios, CTS helps to anticipate watershed moments and prepare for upcoming threats.

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‘NIGHT OWLS’: MOSSAD MONITORS THE LOYALIST OFFENSIVE IN SOUTHERN SYRIA

(1) In late June 2018, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by Russian Aerospace Forces, private contractors, and – covertly – by militias affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has launched an offensive to recapture the Southern Syrian provinces (Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida) from the opposition/rebel forces. The offensive recently concluded with a decisive victory for the side of the Syrian regime, which will be referred to as THE LOYALISTS.

(2) Before commencing with the operation in Southern Syria, Russia secretly promised Israel that IRGC-backed militias will not partake in the offensive. In exchange, Jerusalem did not intervene. Israeli Intelligence (Mossad) and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have been tasked with monitoring the implementation of the secret deal with all available resources (code-name: OPERATION NIGHT OWLS).

(3) Counter to Russian statements, human intelligence reports from Southern Syria suggest that IRGC-backed militiamen swapped uniforms and blended into the ranks of the SAA to discreetly partake in the offensive. These elements were then tasked with assaulting key positions in Western Quneitra close to the slopes of the Golan plateau. The IRGC-backed militiamen are exclusively supplied through selected SAA infantry bases located in the wider Damascus region (code name: BREAD-BASKET), which have been known for hosting Iranian advisors and capabilities in the past.

(4) Reports furthermore suggest that the BREAD-BASKET receives supplies directly from Iran. In recent months, land-transports via Iraq and the Syrian border town of Abu Kamal (code-name: SHI’A CRESCENT) have hereby started to replace airlifts from Tehran to Al-Assad International Airport or Mezzeh Airport.

(5) Israeli intelligence is highly concerned by this trend, as land-transports allow for greater operational security (OPSEC) on the part of the Iranians. Since airlifts have precise origins and rely on predetermined landing zones, the IAF was able to identify and destroy high-value Iranian deliveries in the past. However, monitoring for intermediate missiles that are moved by truck through the SHI’A CRESCENT is like looking for a needle in the haystack.

(6) The findings of OPERATION NIGHT OWLS are dramatic. Mossad is in possession of indisputable evidence that the LOYALISTS currently positioned on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights are indeed IRGC-backed Shi’a militias. Moreover, the delivery of Iranian intermediate missile systems to these militias via the SHI’A CRESCENT land-route and the BREAD-BASKET distribution hubs appears to be imminent.

(7) The deployment of intermediate missiles near the Israeli border will weaken the Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) zone, which was established by the IDF on the Golan Heights from 9 May 2018 onward. It will also severely reduce the missile-interception window of the Patriot, Iron Dome and David’s Sling air defense systems. Israeli intelligence doubts that it can identify Iranian “care packages” for the IRGC-backed militias before they become operational on the frontline.

 

THE PRIME MINISTER AUTHORIZES OPERATION ‘NIGHTFALL’

(8) The findings of the NIGHT OWLS investigation have de-legitimized Russian guarantees. Prime Minister Netanyahu therefore authorizes the military to commence with OPERATION NIGHTFALL.

(9) The objectives of OPERATION NIGHTFALL are:

  • Create a 20km deep buffer zone (code name: SECTOR DAVID) below the Golan Heights, encompassing Quneitra province and parts of Da’ara. SECTOR DAVID will be placed under the control of Israeli-backed opposition groups such as the “Knights of Golan”, “Fursan al-Jawlan,” and other CIA-vetted Southern front groups.
  • Create a contestation area (code name: SECTOR GOLIATH) over the wider Damascus area, including the capital itself. Destroy the BREAD-BASKET, Syrian airfields, and the Syrian air defense infrastructure. The IRGC and affiliated militias will lose their safe haven for troop deployment, military posturing and logistics.

(10) SECTOR DAVID is key for Israel’s most vital security interests. Firstly, it will provide more missile-interception time for the Golan-based SEAD. This will increase anti-air efficiency and push enemy infantry away from the borderline. Secondly, it ensures that – if a war does break out –  it will not be fought on Israeli territory. SECTOR DAVID will also host the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP) looking for shelter after the LOYALISTS’ Southern Syria offensive.

(11) The Druze-majority villages and towns in SECTOR DAVID will be exempted from opposition control and will be placed under direct Israeli protection. This measure is important to avoid unrest among the Israeli Druze population, and to prevent the rekindling of LOYALIST sentiments among the Syrian Druze.

(12) The establishment of SECTOR GOLIATH serves to irreversibly degrade Iran’s military influence in Southern Syria and to consolidate SECTOR DAVID. Destroying the Syrian anti-air defense infrastructure will grant the IAF complete air superiority over Syria – if the Russian systems continue to be inactivated due to political considerations and technological secrecy. This would leave the IRGC, their clientele militias, and the SAA vulnerable to strategic strikes. The elimination of the BREAD-BASKET will furthermore ensure that IRGC-backed groups will lose their regional distribution hubs, further degrading their supply chains. This will force them to partially or fully withdraw from the Damascus area.

(13) A partial or full de-militarization of Damascus will likely force the Assad regime to seek refuge and establish a temporary government in the Russian-protected Latakia province. The Syrian President has sought sanctuary in the Russian-operated Khmeimim Air Base during past Israeli and U.S. attacks on Damascus.

(14) President Donald J. Trump, encouraged by anti-Iran hawk National Security Adviser John Bolton, can be expected to extend either political or (limited) military support to the Israeli operation, as the U.S. also seeks to roll back Iranian influence in the region. As it has occured in the past, Secretary of Defense James Mattis will likely attempt to minimize direct U.S. involvement in order to avoid backlash against the U.S. troops operating in Northern Syria. The White House could mandate the Department of Defense (DoD) to – covertly – aid OPERATION NIGHTFALL in the following ways:

  • Provide IAF fighter jets with Friend-or-Foe (FoF) codes to disguise them as Coalition aircrafts, as practiced in previous Israeli shadow-raids.
  • Engage Syrian targets with Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities that can jam or disrupt anti-aircraft radars and communications.
  • Supply the IDF with Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) data on LOYALIST movements, using RQ-4 “Global Hawk” drones operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

(15) Arab Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Kingdom of Jordan will potentially allow air passage for IAF jets conducting target re-attacks and aerial refueling.

(16) OPERATION NIGHTFALL requires the instatement of a commercial flight ban for at least 72 hours. While this may alert the LOYALISTS to the time-window of the attack, a commercial flight ban is necessary for the safety of civil aviation.

(17) The Russian response in those 72 hours will be key for enabling or disrupting Israel’s operational objectives. Russian intelligence will attempt to intercept Israel’s plan, while the IDF will engage in intense counter-surveillance methods to camouflage its operational preparations. Moscow will act in accordance with its intelligence on and estimates of Israel’s intentions.

 

THREE SCENARIOS: POSSIBLE OUTCOMES OF OPERATION NIGHTALL

(a) ‘LIGHTS OUT’ – THE OPTIMISTIC OUTCOME

(18) The IAF completes OPERATION NIGHTFALL in less than one week, leaving the LOYALISTS without any air defense systems in Quneitra, Suweida, Da’ara, Rural Damascus and Damascus. Key military locations are targeted and destroyed, including major infantry bases (battalion, regiment, brigade level), Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) strategic airfields (cargo warehouses and air strips) and anti-aircraft sites.

(19) The LOYALIST forces deployed in Southern Syria retreat to Damascus and – later – to Hama province. Israeli-backed opposition forces reassemble to take key villages and towns along the Israeli-Syrian border. SECTOR DAVID is secured.

(20) With air defenses disabled, and military supply routes blocked, the Assad regime evacuates for Russian-protected Latakia. A symbolic air strike hits the Presidential Palace in Damascus. Israel establishes full air dominance over the Damascus area. SECTOR GOLIATH is secured.

(21) The U.S. voices strong support for the operation and mandates the Central Command (CENTCOM) to covertly aid the military effort.  Sunni Arab states allow IAF jets to refuel in their airspace, leading to an unprecedented level of Israeli-Arab cooperation in face of the Iranian threat. The U.S-operated al-Tanf garrison in Syria is enforced with additional HIMARS batteries to deter LOYALIST retaliations against the Jordanian Kingdom.

(22) Russian intelligence was either unable to anticipate Israel’s intentions or the Russian government was unwilling to act. Israel negotiates a ceasefire with Russia, placing the now demilitarized Damascus area under Russian protection. Russian military police units are deployed in the capital and key surrounding locations. SECTOR GOLIATH becomes a Russian-protected area, free from IRGC-backed forces. The deal with Israel can be expected to amplify the already existing tensions between the Russian Armed Forces and Hezbollah.

(23) Iran has been successfully and indefinitely ousted from Southern Syria. The IRGC has lost all strategic hubs in Damascus, including the Al-Assad International and Mezzeh airports. Only selected bases in Hama and Aleppo remain as safe havens. Since air transport has become near impossible, Iran now fully relies on the SHI’A CRESCENT transport route. Neutralizing the SHI’A CRESCENT become Israel’s next strategic objective in order to consolidate SECTOR DAVID and SECTOR GOLIATH and to remove Iran from Syria once and for all.

CTS concept art: IAF air campaign over Damascus as seen through the thermographic camera of an F-16D.

(b) ‘GUARDIANS OF THE GOLAN’ – THE MODERATE OUTCOME

(24) Israel expels the LOYALIST forces from Southern Syria through repetitive surgical shadow raids and artillery strikes (surface-to-surface missiles) in Quneitra, Da’ara and Suweida. The remaining Israeli-backed opposition forces retake key positions. Further logistical and operational support from Israel allows the opposition groups to expand their territory and secure SECTOR DAVID. Israel recruits around 500 militiamen from the “Knights of the Golan,” establishing a border force that will patrol the demilitarized “Alpha” zone of the 1974 agreement.

(25) The IAF neutralizes selected anti-air artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites in Damascus in order to enable further air strikes on a limited number of BREAD-BASKET bases. The IAF will also seek to disproportionately retaliate against LOYALIST (accidental or intentional) provocations on the Southern Syrian front. The Israelis will use those incidents to cherry-pick Iranian-affiliated high-value targets (HVT) over the course of several weeks.

(26) Russian intelligence has uncovered IAF plans to wage a “Show and Awe” styled campaign over Damascus in advance. This has led to heightened tensions between Moscow and Jerusalem. Russia threatens to replace the SAA’s destroyed S-200s, Pantsirs (SA-75) and SA-8 Geckos’, with newer versions, including the S-300 systems. This forces Israel to abandon objective SECTOR GOLIATH.

(27) The Trump administration voices support for the operation, but does not mandate the DoD to provide military aid. Arab Sunni states fail to facilitate flight routes for the IAF’s bombing raids.

(28) The situation is bound to remain highly volatile, given the fragile and uncertain status quo. Israel indefinitely abandons plans for SECTOR GOLIATH. Instead, Jerusalem focuses on consolidating SECTOR DAVID by strengthening local opposition forces and obtaining security guarantees from local stakeholders. Iranian supply hubs have been severely damaged, but not completely removed. While IRGC-backed forces are significantly weakened, they remain a long-term threat to Israel. The IAF will continue to intercept key Iranian transports on the SHI’A CRESCENT route. Iran might seek to retaliate against OPERATION NIGHTFALL, by activating Hezbollah to mount missile attacks on Israeli soil from Southern Lebanon.

CTS concept art: IDF units in the Golan Heights fire SSMs on IRC-affiliated militias in the Sa’sa village (Southern Syria).

(c) ‘CHECKMATE’ – THE PESSIMISTIC OUTCOME

(29) OPERATION NIGHTFALL ends before it begins. An immediate and steadfast Russian response forces Israel to abort the mission.

(30) After acquiring critical early-warning intelligence on Israel’s objectives, Russia moves S-300s to Damascus during the 72-hour civilian airline ban. The Latakia-based S-400 Triumph system is activated to intercept incoming attacks on LOYALIST positions. Moreover, a significant number of Russian Aerospace Forces are mobilized to conduct air policing missions in the skies of Southern Syria, using a variety of advanced assets, including four Su-35s (air-defense fighter jet) and six Su-34s (air superiority fighter jet).

(31) Israeli intelligence furthermore reports the violation of Lebanese airspace by Russian fighter jets. This is interpreted as an attempt of the Russian Aerospace Forces to block the traditional flight path used by the IAF to strike Damascus.

(32) The Trump administration is hesitant whether to support Israel. President Trump pays lip service to OPERATION NIGHTFALL in order to increase pressure on Iran in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) re-negotiations. Yet, the overall objective of the Trump administration is the withdrawal from the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. is focused on securing its gains in Northern and Eastern Syria and remains unwilling to re-enter the Southern Syrian war theater. Israeli Intelligence believes that it cannot rely on support from the U.S.

(33) In consequence, IRGC-backed militias reinforce their positions on the Israeli border. With the SHI’A CRESCENT corridor and the BREAD-BASKET installations untouched, the delivery of intermediate-range missiles to the frontline is weeks, if not days away.

(34) The Assad regime intensifies revisionist claims for the Golan plateau. The IDF increases its troop readiness and capabilities in the Northern Military District. Israeli security and emergency services conduct multiple mass-casualty exercises in order to prepare the population for upcoming missile attacks.


by “Harbinger” and “Gecko”

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Israel Shadow-Raids Syria: Preempting Iranian Retaliation (an OSINT P-BDA)

Preliminary – Battle Damage Assessment (P-BDA) –  On April 29, 2018, 2230 local time, a round of unclaimed military strikes pounded locations jointly operated by the Bashar al-Assad regime and…

Preliminary – Battle Damage Assessment (P-BDA) –  On April 29, 2018, 2230 local time, a round of unclaimed military strikes pounded locations jointly operated by the Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran in Syria. The targeted sites are: the 47th Brigade Military Base in Hama province (Objective-Alpha/ O-A) and the Zeido Auto Test Center near Aleppo Airport (Objective-Bravo/ O-B). The Syrian government and its allies are accusing the United States and Israel for being behind the strike. The following P-BDA assessed by T-intelligence (Ti) outlines the nature of the targets acquired for striking, and determines why the Israeli Air Force (IAF) was most likely behind the attack – with limited U.S. support or knowledge. 


Target-Acquisition Process

(1) The first target (Objective Alpha/ O-A) is located near the village of al-Safira (10 km south of Hama city) and is a key military barracks and logistics hub for operations ongoing in the Hama war room. The facility hosts a personnel housing center, various command & control compounds and many weapons storage bunkers. It also sits next to a major (officially) porcelain factory, rumored to be used for weapons manufacturing. The base is jointly operated by the Syrians and Iranian elements: both Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and affiliated indigenous paramilitary units. 

Satellite imagery analysis highlights various compounds and buildings that compose the 47th Brigade Military Base, but also the exact sites that were pounded. (T-intelligence)

(2) The second target (Objective Bravo/ O-B) is a warehouse in the Malikiyah industrial area next to the Aleppo Airport (Aleppo province). There is little information available about this location, except that it was not a military facility, but civilian. Given its proximity to the Aleppo International Airport, Ti assesses that the buildings might have been used as a clandestine weapons storage center for fresh deliveries landing in Aleppo from Iran, before being distributed to other regional war-room hubs. This is would be a rational increase in tradecraft and counter-surveillance methods to avoid Israeli Intelligence efforts of monitoring hangars and warehouses in the Airport itself for target-acquisition – since the IAF managed to succefully identify and strike all of Iran’s favorite hangars in the Al-Assad International Airport in Damascus (for example). 

Satellite imagery shows the location raided near Aleppo Airport. (T-intelligence)

3) O-A saw a round of successive explosions that amplified under a chain of secondaries (detonation of weapons, ammunition and ordinance deposited there).  The European-Mediterranean Seismological Center recorded a disturbance registering 2.6 Richter magnitude scale caused by the blast in the area. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) notes that at least 26 people have been killed, and around 60 have been injured – most of them Iranian, and a few (confirmed) Syrian soldiers.

4) O-B was hit around the same time but the target and ordinance employed was far limited and reduced. No casualties reported from this site. Reports indicate that it was emptied. 

Maintaining Military Initiative: Preempting Retaliation


Since the Syrian Civil War boosted Iranian activity inside Syria, Lebanon and around Israel’s borders, Jerusalem sought to balance its security needs and military interventions. Besides clandestine and limited supported for a few selected Opposition groups operating near the Golan Heights, Israeli opted for intelligence-based targeted air strikes on key Iranian facilities that proliferate advanced weapons transfers to Hezbollah – most concerning, long-range missiles. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has conducted dozens of clandestine air raids against such objectives throughout Syria – the usual targets being in the wider Damascus area, Hama and Homs. The IAF’s policy is to not comment on external engagements in synchrony with Jerusalem’s policy of deniability. Based on the following findings Ti believes that this was another such shadow raid. However, this raised the stakes the highest at a time when Israeli-Iranian tensions are critical.  


(5) Hours before the 22:30 strikes, a phone call was made between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Israeli Prime-Minister B. Netanyahu. They spoke about the deteriorating situation in the region and about Iranian activity in Syria. The conversation most certainly revolved around the upcoming strikes, with President Trump being either informed or coordinated with. We cannot rule out the possibility that the U.S. has supported the shadow-raid at least politically. 

(6) The Israeli Government was anxiously anticipating a military retaliation after its shadow air operation against Iran at the strategic T-4 airbase near Palmyra/ Tadmur, Homs province, Syria. The attack was conducted in March 2018 and destroyed several hangars, warehouses, while killing four Iranian soldiers. This base was a strategic hub linking Iranian-affiliated personnel and assets flowing from Iraq and Syria for combat operations. The Iranian Government delegated its in-field “mastermind” Qasim Soleimani of the IRGC to draft and plan a military response against Israel. This also led to the IAF canceling its participation in a joint exercise with the U.S. in Alaska – all assets were needed home. Ti judges that Israel was monitoring consistent military logistics arriving into Syria to conduct or support that strike.

Satellite imagery shows aftermath of the April 29th clandestine raid (iSi) over the 47th Brigade Military Base – locations can be seen in the wider visual context on previous map sourced by Ti.

(7) The data of a civilian airline monitoring app shows that on April 29, a Syrian Arab Air Force 585th Transport Squadron (of the 29th Air Brigade’s four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter Ilyushin Il-76T YK-ATD) flew from Tehran Mehrabad (Iran) to -most likely – Hama Airport (Syria). After a short stop there, probably to unload and distribute some of the cargo to O-A (located just 10 km from Hama City), the plane flew to Damascus International Airport. It is highly likely that the cargo contained important capabilities, such as medium-to-long range missiles, purposely deployed to take-part in the Iranian-planned retaliation against Israel for the T-4 raid. [Added: Intelligence from on May 2nd, 2018 suggests that the cargo contained anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles (SAM)]. Ti determined that even without this circumstantial evidence, O-A was an important enough target to tempt Jerusalem to strike. Yet, no photographs of ordinance remnants have surfaced online yet to assess whether it was an airstrike or a surface-to-surface attack from a missile battery. OSINT reports claim that around 200 Iranian missiles were destroyed by the raid. 

Path of flight number RB9236 from Tehran to unknown (most certainly Hama) and then to Damascus. (Social Media source)

(8) O-B’s importance comes from the cargo it was believed to be sheltering – however, there is no indication that weapons or missiles were there during the strike. But in this case, photos from the blast site were issued on Social Media. They show remnants of the missile dropped on the target. Crowdsourcing efforts identified the ordinance as being the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. This is a GPS-aided and high-accuracy ordinance produced by Boeing to strike fixed targets (depots, bunkers, storage buildings). It is currently in use by the U.S., Israel, Italy and Saudi Arabia, and it can be launched by a number of widely used fighter jets and bombers, such as the F-15E (in use by both IAF and USAF), Tornado, Gripen, F-16 (in use by both IAF and USAF), and AC-130. 

Analysis of a Social Media source compares ordinance wreckage with the GBU-39.

(9) Syrian-affiliated media claims that the U.S hit its base in Hama using assets in northern Jordan. While it is highly unlikely that the Kingdom of Jordan would have approved such an act to be committed from its soil, the U.S. does have an active military deployment in the country. It also controls a large swat of land around the al-Tanf area (Syria) through friendly Opposition groups operating there. The military deployment also contains an ingredient that might fit the description – the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). That is a light-truck mounted long-range rocket system. Not only it is deployed in Jordan, but since early-2017, sources in the Pentagon confirmed for CNN that it was moved over the border in south-eastern Syria. The purpose was to support the Opposition groups operating around the al-Tanf garrison in deterring regime attacks and in launching strikes against ISIS. The HIMARS can strike targets up to 400 km distance, which also includes O-A in Hama, but not O-B in Aleppo.  

(10) It is highly likely that the explosions at O-A and O-B were caused by a round of Israeli Air Force (IAF) “shadow” preemptive strikes purposed to degrade capabilities deployed by Iran to support a military retaliation against Israel. The United States was certainly informed beforehand, but it is unlikely that it played any role in the military operation despite key assets being in place. Back in April 21st, John Bolton pitched  President Trump to include a list of Iranian-operated targets in the line-up of possible strike locations for his retaliation on the Assad’s regime use of Chemical Weapons in Douma. President Trump refused and bowed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ more-proportionate options. Both of the targets were a concern for Israeli national security, which would not mandate the President to change his mind over such a sensitive issue so fast and in such an offensive manner. This does not mean that the administration did not seek to embolden and encourage Jerusalem to conduct the strikes it saw adequate. 

One sample from the Social Media source that shows the RQ-4 Global Hawk west of the Syrian coastline around 00:12 local time.

(11) The U.S. was certainly informed about the operation and had unmanned aerial surveillance assets (UAV) active to provide Intelligence, Surveillance and Recoinassance (ISR) of the IAF strikes. A reputable Social Media source with access to civil and military air traffic data had noticed a U.S. Air Force (USAF)-operated RQ-4 Global Hawk drone conducting IMINT sorties over western Syria. Call sign UAVGH 0000, probably outbound from Sigonela or Aviano, regularly conducts such runs in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, on April 29, 1900 hours (local time) it was spotted turning back towards the Syrian coastline after completing the Levant-Sinai flight route. At 1943 hours the drone was already near Haifa (northern Israel). In that evening, UAVGH0000 assumed 54,000 feet altitude. The drone re-appeared several hours later that night after the IAF strikes. On April 30, 0012 hours the drone continued circling the same position. For almost three hours, the drone was most probably conducting a post-operation BDA before heading back to base. Whatever happened that night in Hama and Aleppo, the USAF Global Hawk drone was watching.

(12) Syrian anti-air defense systems – as the S-200 – were successfully by-passed again. There are no reports of retaliatory fire neither on the delivery systems (batteries or fighter jets) nor on the missiles themselves. Russian assets were still not activate. 

(13) Israeli-Iranian tensions continue to boil as no external power manages to contain the situation from escalating into an open war. Following an almost two-hour ministerial meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu informed the U.S. and Russia that if Tehran strikes back, then Israel will “got to town” on all Iranian bases in Syria. The Government in Tehran issued more threats indicating an imminent retaliation of some sort.

(14) The shadow-raid came in a sensitive context, as the Trump administration is expected to decided on whether to keep the U.S. in the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCAP) or the “Iranian nuclear deal” by May 12, 2018. The Israelis and President Trump have stepped up criticism of the deal and of Iran’s activities in Syria.

 

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

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

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

Intentions of the Trump administration: Reinstate Deterrence through Controlled Escalation

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

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

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


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

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

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


 

Capabilities Employed: Tracking Assets and Flow of Logistics Surrounding Syria   

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

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

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


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

Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and Operational Layout

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

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

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

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

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – A small pocket of land in eastern Damascus (also known as “Eastern Ghouta” is now the scene of the newest humanitarian catastrophy and intense military assault…

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – A small pocket of land in eastern Damascus (also known as “Eastern Ghouta” is now the scene of the newest humanitarian catastrophy and intense military assault in Syria. In mid-February, the Loyalists forces composed of the Iranian and Russian-backed Syrian governmental troops have moved armed divisions and infantrymen from Idlib province to the exclave of Eastern Ghouta, near the capital. The scope of the military deployments confirmed by visual data and social-media imagery suggested that a renewed offensive is imminent.

Just 24 hours after that build-up, a score of 94 deaths (40 civilians) and 150 injured has been inflicted by Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrians, according to the United Nations. Assad has largely used its remaining helicopter fleet to drop cluster ammunition on the densely populated area.

Airstrike persisted throughout 20-21 February. Casualties spiked to 310 people killed and over 1,500 injured – many of them civilians. Thermobaric ordinance was also seen to be parachuted by Loyalists air raids in the adiacent neighborhoods. Most of the attacks took place at night, and included artillery shelling. Opposition forces responded with surface-to-surface rounds in governmental-held position in Damascus that also made civilian casualties.

The increased shelling and air campaign is just a preparatory phase of a yet-to-come ground incursion, taking after the Aleppo example (the largest humanitarian disaster throughout this war). This was also suggest by Russian Foreign Ministry Sergey Lavrov.

Location of Loyalist air strikes in Eastern Ghouta pocket – assessed by T-Intelligence utilizing online conflict crowdsourcing platforms and based on Microsoft’s Bing mapping suite. (data is approximate and refers to 18-21 February, 2018)

Background on Eastern Ghouta/ Damascus pocket

Controlled by Opposition Forces since 2013, Eastern Ghouta is a densely populated agricultural district on the outskirts of Damascus – together with quarters of Yarmouk camp, this is the last major area near the capital still under Rebel dominance. Home to 400,000 people, the region has been inherently under tight attrition and siege.

The forces that dominate the area are equally controversial to the ruthless air campaign of their enemies. Dominance in the pocket is split between Ahrar ash-Sham, the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam and al-Rahman Legion. The later allied with al-Qa’ida affiliate, Hay’at Tahrri al-Sham (HTS) in early 2017 to combat the former two, that we’re plotting to oust the jihadists. Fights broke out in the Summer of 2017 but quickly came to an end following an intra-Rebel ceasefire seeking to mutually-respect the areas of influence and subsequent checkpoints. However, while some more extreme than others, the majority of these groups are largely Islamist with profound puritarian feelings, and even Salafist traits that also view Western interests with hostility.

Jaysh al-Islam is dominating the largest piece of the pocket : Stretching from Douma in the north to the south-eastern corner of Nashabiyeh. Ahrar ash-Sham controls a small corner in the north-west encompassing Harasta, while Failaq al-Raham holds the remaining south-west. Movement between the three areas is also highly difficult due to the polarized and volatile tensions between the factions involved – this being also consequential to the hardened lives of the local inhabitants, periodically resulting in deaths and injuries.

The renewed Loyalist offensive of February 2018, is a direct violation of the ceasefire struck between Russia and Opposition forces in August 18th, 2017 in Geneva. To be fair, the truce was fragile to begin with – governmental pressure was enhanced immediately after its signing. Shelling and air rads re-occurred in September and October 2017, and we’re continued by an intensified attrition that suffocated the almost 400,000 people that inhabit the area. The “starve-and-surrender” tactics, so commonly used by the Loyalists through the conflict, have brought the pocket into a horrific state.

 

Starve-or-Surrender: Attrition curtain over Eastern Ghouta

Besieged from 2013, the population of Eastern Ghouta always had limited access to supplies. Now, that window is fully closed. In the early years of the war, many people were able to obtain essential supplies via informal dealing networks passing through tunnels connecting Eastern Ghouta with governmental-controlled districts in the vicinity. Many of those traders bribed Syrian soldiers to grant them passageway.

Thermobaric bombs dropped over Eastern Ghouta pokcet – sourced by Qalaat al-Mudiq user.

Last year, the government closed the tunnels and limited trade. From September to November (when shelling and airstrike re-commenced regardless of the cease-fire), no commercial vehicles were permitted to enter the pocket at all. Limited deliveries resumed in December, but those we’re quickly ceased again.

That led to the exhaustion of food supplied, dramatic price inflation, and deaths resulting from starvation. And with dealers unable to move outside the pocket, the last avenue of basic goods as sugar, flour and rice was cut-off.

Today, a bundle of bread costs close to 22 times the national average, according to U.N. Inherently, malnutrition rates have reached unprecedented level, with 11.9% of children under five years old acutely malnourished. The last convoy to enter Eastern Ghouta was on February 14, and only delivered care packages enough for 7,200 of the 394,000 inhabitants besieged there. This was the sole supply-run in over two months.

Furthermore, medical and emergency services are close to seize operating at all. Only since Sunday, when the Loyalist offensive re-commenced, 14 medical facilities have been taken out of service, according to Dr. Ahmad Dbis of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which operates hospital there. Over 10 medical staff and volunteers have also been killed, while 20 were injured by the recent campaign.

 

No end in sight

The situation will continue to degrade. The Russian military said that talks to peacefully resolve the situation in Eastern Ghouta had broken down and that Rebels there had ignored calls to cease resistance and lay down their arms. Opposition forces are accusing their opponents of forbidding humanitarian aid and food to enter the enclave, subsquentley using it as a negotiating leverage to re-shape a better deal that the already agreed de-escalation cease-fire signed in 2017. While local Opposition forces have not driven out AQ-affiliated elements from the pocket – which is a must. The dramatic humanitarian situation is the work of both parties involved in the war, but the malign presence of Salafists in the area and the Russian response to it are only making things worst.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes. The international arena continues to pressure Moscow, Tehran and Damascus with little chance of success. Ground elements continue to take positions on the northern and eastern axis around the pocket, while artillery rounds pound Rebel positions.

Parallel talks between Russia, Syria and Egypt are also reportedly taking place. Akhbar newspaper reports that the Egyptians are pressuring Jaysh al-Islam to push out HTS-affiliated groups (Rahman) out of the pocket.

 

Acknowledged Hypothesis: 

Possible developments are the following (but not limited to):

  1. Ceasefire to snooze the pocket’s fate;
  2. A military-politically costly and humanitarian-catastrophic Loyalist attempt of liberating Eastern Ghouta/ Damascus – Aleppo style;
  3. Deal to evacuate Opposition fighters to Idlib;
  4. A successive combination of the options previously stated.
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Kurds Host Assad’s Forces to Defend Afrin: Turks Respond via “Idlibistan”

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of Bashar…

Urgent Briefing (4 min read) – The faith of Afrin remains in the balance. The Kurdish militia, YPG, has struck a deal with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to enter Afrin, in a bid of deterring further Turkish advancements. Reports claim that forces loyal to Assad have already entered Afrin canton and are establishing outposts.

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.

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 so many years of degradation because of the Syrian Civil War. While U.S. troops are stationed in Manbij, east of the 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.

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”

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.

Most probably, the deployment of Syrian Army forces into Afrin will have deterring effects on the Turkish-Rebel coalition 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”

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.

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

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

Briefing (2 min read) – NATO has agreed to organize a military training mission in Iraq to project stability in the Middle East – Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on…

Briefing (2 min read) – 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Former NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Reuters that NATO’s reluctance to do more in the Middle East until now had been bad for the alliance’s image. He proposed a $1 billion fund to support the training efforts, although financing the new mission needs to be discussed by allied governments. This measure alongside past efforts reflect NATO’s steadfast commitment to combating Terrorism, and like-wise to reinforce one the three core tasks of the Alliance: Cooperative Security.

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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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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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