Category: Regions

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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IAF Raids Syrian Chemical Site in Hama

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

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


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

Presumed blast of the overnight air strike

Russian S-400: Idled

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

 

Growing anxiety at Jerusalem

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

 

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11 Days: The Liberation of Tel Afar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Other ISIS areas

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

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

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


UPDATE September 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

Photo of the ISIS members in the convoy

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

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

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


UPDATE September 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


UPDATE August 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

 


UPDATE August 30, 16:50 

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

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Last Stand: SDF to crush ISIS on the Valley of the Euphrates

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

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


Setting the Stage

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

 

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

 

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

Rush to Deir-Ezzor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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


Headhunting: HVTs for KIA

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

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

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

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

 

End Notes

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

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

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

Option 1: Fair-share.

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

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

In this hypothesis I can identify two weaknesses:

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

Option 2: All in.

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

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


UPDATE September 9th, 2017

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


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