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Starve, Surrender or Die: Eastern Damascus to Collapse

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

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

According to the United Nation, a score of  94 deaths (40 civilians) and 150 injured has been inflicted by Russian Aerospace Forces and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) has largely used its remaining helicopter fleet to drop cluster ammunition on the densely populated area.

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

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

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


Eastern Ghouta/ Damascus pocket

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

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

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

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


Starve-or-Surrender: Attrition curtain over Eastern Ghouta

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No end in sight

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

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

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

 

Acknowledged Hypothesis: 

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

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

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

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


1. 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.

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

3. A similar partnership was struck in late-March 2017. When following the end of the joint Turkish-Opposition 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. In response, U.S. troops were detached to parade with the national flag and send a message of deterrence to their NATO ally. 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.

5. Several days ago, the Kurds backed by the U.S. repealed a massive assault of the Russian-private contractor, Wagner Group and Syrian forces in the mid-Euphrates valley, resulting in hundreds of casualties for the Russian mercenaries. In northwestern 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, pro-governmental troops are ready to enter Afrin – a deal certified as 100% sure by Syrian media.

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

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

Another day in “Idlibistan”

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

8. In mid-February, HTS’s main competitor and old-traditional ally, Ahrar ash-Sham has merged 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 Opposition coalition into direct confrontation with the jihadists in western Aleppo and south-eastern Idlib.

More to follow

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

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Why and How Turkey is invading Afrin: Behind the Scenes of Operation “Olive Branch”

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…

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. 

ETNO-TRIBAL POLITICS

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.

FORCE PROTECTION 

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.

TURKEY AND RUSSIA NEGOTIATE 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.

SYRIANS, IRANIANS SABOTAGE TURKISH OFFENSIVE

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. This suggests that Iranian made weaponry has been transferred to the Kurdish forces in limited amounts. 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. 

ONGOING RENEGOTIATIONS 

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.

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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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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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Enhanced Pressure on North Korea: Clock is Ticking

Situation Report – Tensions between North Korea and the United States have reached a new boiling point in the past days. Uncertainty and hostilities have been spiked by the newest…

Situation Report – Tensions between North Korea and the United States have reached a new boiling point in the past days. Uncertainty and hostilities have been spiked by the newest statements and by an analysis composed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s intelligence service that indicate that Pyongyang is now capable to fully miniaturize the nuclear weapon in order to be mounted as a missile’s warhead. A similar conclusion has been reached by the Japanese as well. Furthermore, U.S. officials believe that North Korea now holds a stockpile of 60 nukes, more than previously estimated, while other independent experts believe the number is lower, but between 30-60.  Additional reports state that the CIA and the other intelligence agencies of the U.S. agree with the DIA’s assessment.

Over these infinitely tense environment, Pyongyang also issued a plan to fire an ICBM containing a war head into Guam, a U.S. island in the Pacific ocean and near the Sea of Philippines, of which trajectory will violate Japanese airspace. It is now clear that the ‘clock’ has reached an unprecedented moment, when North Korea not only has nuclear weapons but also holds that capacity necessary to deliver them against military targets, hence the rising deterrent factor that it applies.

It’s unclear what kind of missiles is the DIA report referring too, but if it can fit on the following missiles: Hwasong-14 (KN-20) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-12 (KN-17) intermediate-range ballistic missile, or Pukkuksong series (KN-11 or KN-15), then North Korea has indeed the operational readiness and technological know-how to strike South Korea, Japan and parts of the United States. The Hwasong-14 (KN-20)  ICBM for example, has been tested twice this year in July, following a new wave of high tensions that are better described for that context in this past analysis, including the Chinese pivot, hypothetical regime change and the military option.

In March 2017, Secretary of States Rex Tillerson announced the ‘end of strategic patience’, a North Korea policy followed by past Presidents attempting to cope with the North Korean issue, and instead adopted an ‘Enhance Pressure’ approach. The past strategy was founded on the belief that if enough pressure and isolation is applied, North Korea will eventually come to the negotiations table, in a way that worked, in theory for now, with Iran. The decades-long strategic patience instead resulted in a gradual increase of military capabilities, nuclear developments and missile tests that have paramounted in a functional cache of ICBMs and a significant stockpile of nukes. The perpetual bellicose attitude of Kim Jong-Un and his efforts driven to secure his throne also stirred anxiety at Beijing who were prospecting the idea of a regime change while not interrupting the dynasty, hence the assassination of Kim-Jong Nam by North Korean intelligence in Malaysia.

 

Enhanced Pressure

The new enhanced pressure approach is currently unclear and blurred, being still in application and sheltered under the fog of public vs. backchannel diplomacy. For now, it seems that the unprecedented increase in hostile declarations against Pyongyang has not deterred it from trying to pursue nuclear weapons and ballistics missile technology. It did however, secure China’s public disapproval of the Kim Jong-Un regime, even though that could be circumstantial given their separate bilateral dynamic and how that evolved since Jong-Un took power. Strategic Patience has become obsolete and even an anachronism.

The strategic environment has changed, shifting from a nuclear-aspiring North Korea to a nuclear armed and ICBM-ready one, capable of deterring its enemies. The U.S. is needed and willing to strike first in order to avoid letting itself vulnerable to the whims of a rogue nuclear state. And while diplomacy is still the first option, ‘Enhanced Pressure’ might be the last chapter in negotiations before bringing the military options upfront. 

This new dimension of American power projection towards the Korean Peninsula was needed, which as many other geopolitical disputes, are inter-winded with several other factors and inputs. Notably China, Russia or the Asia-Pacific order. ‘Enhanced pressure’ also implies, publicly made by Rex Tillerson, that all options are on the table, followed by President Trump’s ‘fire and furry’ comments and complemented by Secretary of Defense James Mattis declarations about the military options being prepared. The situations seems tense and critical, however, when speaking of the North Korea issue, hostile declarations or increased media coverage could easily fuel false and periodical alarmism which amounts to nothing. This is an occurring tendency for years, that could very well prove to be case now as well. However, given the new, earlier-argued context, there are reasons to believe this situation is different.

Even from the earlier boiling point in March 2017:

  • China has moved thousands of troops on the border city of Dandong,
  • Russia has also closed its airspace in March, in southern Prymorskyie Oblast and around Vladivostok by moving S-300s in the area. Now, the Kremlin put their air defense infrastructure on high alert,
  • while the U.S. increased its naval presence in the water around South Korea and Japan, while also equipping its regional allies with THAAD and Patriot (PAC-3) missile defense systems. THAAD guards Seoul from the border while reports suggest that the Japanese owned PAC-3’s have been detached in Hiroshima, Shimane and Kochi, shielding Tokyo from a feared course change.

The two traditional U.S. allies are firmly against a preemptive campaign that has been rumored for the past months, since it would be impossible to stop all the small arms fire, rogue missile or rockets fired in Japan or South Korea. As James Mattis presented, such an options would imply a massive shelling of Seoul and the border area, that would cost thousands of allied lives. A war with North Korea is unwanted given the consequences and after effects it will produce, but it may become a reality, if theoretical, that is the next step after ‘Enhanced Pressure’ fails – if it does. Accordingly, a military campaign against North Korea’s nuclear program, which would be the best and more limited scenario, is more difficult than most think. Pyongyong’s key facilities are spread to all over the country and are protected by significant coastal early-warning systems (be they outdated and rudimentary) that could buy enough time for North Korea to do enough harm to its neighbors.

Therefore, an escalating path to to war has several potential weaknesses for American strategy: allied disapproval. Notably, South Korea could be so desperate in avoiding a war that it could accept to rollback U.S. presence in the peninsula, appeasing their northern neighbors and their interests. While appeasement is a proven strategy for failure and would actually fuel expansionist prospects, it may be an mirage-option for Seoul. Therefor Washington needs to play this card very close to the chest, striking a balance between deterring North Korea and not alarming the South.

L.E: Just one day after writing this assessment, President Moon Jae-In of South Korea issued a statement saying: ‘There will be no war repeated on the Korean Peninsula […] Military action against North Korea should be decided by ourselves and not by anyone else‘, further confirming our hypothesis that Seoul could block or temper US pressure on North Korea, if it considers that the situation reaches a critical boiling point.

Open in ‘view image’ for a larger picture.

Camouflaged Negotiations: Threats, Statements and Remarks

Transylvania Intelligence recommends that the recent bellicose rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea is actually a prelude to negotiations and not to war. If in March, Rex Tillerson stated that there will be no negotiations for the nuclear weapons, now he expressed openness for dialogue with Pyongyang if its halts missile tests. North Korea responded by saying that nukes are off the negotiations table, the United States needs to leave the Korean peninsula. Both actors publicly presented their interests: U.S. wants to de-nuclearize the peninsula, North Korea wants the American presence there gone or reduced to a sterile level. Convergence is very little if none at all, the situation is too black and white to find a middle ground. And that is exactly why they are now leveraging each other. General Kim Rak Gyom, chief of the Strategic Forces of North Korea presented on live television the fly path of Hwasong-2 rockets that sees the bogeys crossing through Japanese airspace and landing in the waters of Guam, a Pacific territory that hosts a strategic U.S. base. It is obvious that no country would publish its ‘going-to-war’ moment before it does, especially when only 50% of ICBM tests have been successful. This is actually Pyongyang’s way of deterring the United States, showing that it now has leverage through striking capability, informing their counterparts that the stakes have changed and that they are not the only ones holding a joker card. While the overall sentiment is that Pyongyong is bluffing with its Guam threat.

L.E: The next day after writing this assessment, state news agency KNSA reported that Kim Jong-Un reviewed plans to fire a ICBM towards Guam but has now decided to post-pone the decision, awaiting Washington’s move. This also confirms our judgement that the Guam threat was a useful bluff for providing additional leverage in the negotiations.

As of now, the United States does not have enough assets in the Korean Peninsula to fight an all out war with North Korea, it does have, however, strategic bombers in place capable of conducting preemptive sorties, recon and sabotage ops. While there are still enough ways to build-up forces in South Korea and Japan capable of going unnoticed by the press or observers, there would still be several weeks needed for a march towards a conventional conflict that would involve the overthrow of a government, securing nukes, dog fights, naval warfare (including aircraft escorts, counter-submarine ops), neutralizing enemy forces and occupying the country through massive numbers of U.S. Army assets and personnel.

Anxious and nervous of the verbal war drums of the dispute, China and Russia have presented Tuesday a plan for de-escalating the tensions. They suggest that Pyongyang declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while the United States and South Korea refrain from large-scale military exercises. This way, North Korea does not continue to enhance its nuclear and ICBM features while the United States would not conduct a build-up of forces in the South Korea under the disguise of military drills. There are enough reasons to doubt the reason and prospects of this proposal. For one, there is no guaranteeing body or force that could oversee a halt in North Korea’s nuclear program, nor is it feasible anymore, the nukes are produced, some ICBMs work, this is not an Iraqi or Iran situation where this late-stage can be prevented – what’s done it’s done. Chinese and Russian interests, although weakened and compromised by Kim Jung Un’s way of leading the country, still uplift the containment of Washington in Asia-Pacific as their utmost strategic aim.

Even though many argue that a fragile management of nuclear North Korea should be the option of choice, being the lesser evil of the other scarier methods, Transylvania Intelligence considers that the volatile, unprecedented nature of an ICBM-ready and nuke-rich North Korea is too unpredictable and hostile to sleep safely at night for decision makers at Washington. While I do not consider that the Kim regime is irrational or ‘crazy’, there is a precedent and history of rogue states going out of their way in face of enhanced pressure and anxiety in order to secure their survival.

However, America’s first options continues to be the diplomatic one, motioned by Rex Tillerson and Nikkey Halley that work around the clock behind the international stage’s curtain to negotiate a deal. A key would be bypassing Chinese mediation between the two and actually be able to establish a direct line of communication, something that Beijing might be opposed to, dully because that would cut China’s importance in the diplomatic dialogue and ignore it’s power-broker role in the region. And while diplomacy is in motion, Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford recently met with South Korean President in order to discuss military coordination and strategic issues in regards to this threat. It’s safe to assume, that contingency plans are planned and negotiated as never before, hence the after statement of ‘military action is our last resort’.

 

Contingency plans

If everything fails, then it’s better to attack now than later. Time is not on Washington’s side. Every missile test, every ICBM production or uranium enrichment means more nukes, better capabilities and an overall tougher North Korean defense posture.  And while China continues to re-assert itself as being the bridge between Pyongyang and the intentional community, the bilateral interaction with the U.S. is complex and ambivalent, crafted by other inputs as their competitive nature in international affairs, Asia-Pacific geopolitics, and some rare episodic convergences. Regardless of perception, the North Korea regime acts from a rational motivation: ready-to-launch nukes secure the continuity of the regime and therefor, deter outside attacks. Washington may now be opened for clear negotiations but this position is fragile. An over aggressive misstep from Pyongyang, as enforcing their Guam threat,  would put the Trump administration in a very though spot, prompting it to reinforce its red line. However, we should also bear in mind that preemptive action could actually be synonym to preventive war, there is not guarantee that targeted strikes on nuke sites would reduce a hypothetical conflict to just a limited campaign.

This is not a time for missteps and anxious moves. Another War in Korea would be the battle of a generation of Americans and a first when two nuclear powers engage in direct combat; the lack of historical precedent is enough to make anyone feel nervous, even if, pragmatically thinking, the option would be preferable now then later. The level of urgency has obviously spiked, and time should be judged as a resource for all strategic thinkers observing these events unfold.

 

 

 

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White House cancels CIA Covert Program aiding anti-Assad Syrian Rebels

Situation Report – Starting from the unconfirmed reports that have surfaced today that a month ago, the Trump administration has decided to cancel the CIA covert program through which various Syrian…

Situation Report – Starting from the unconfirmed reports that have surfaced today that a month ago, the Trump administration has decided to cancel the CIA covert program through which various Syrian Rebel groups were provided with weapons, ammo and aid in order to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Reportedly, the decision has been taken after President Donald Trump consulted with National Security Advisor MacMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The story is taken by the public as another piece of the ‘Russian collusion’ puzzle and creates additional pressure on the White House and the Campaign team that is now under scrutiny for its undeclared discussions with individuals from Russia. However, this memo will express the background and incentives of the covert program in order to clarify the situation from a technical point of view: retrospective summary, consequences/ benefits and it’s overall projection.

The first things which should be clarified through the complex and entangled U.S. covert plans in Syria is that there were three such initiatives, the early one, run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) included the transfer of weapons, ammo and aid to the Rebels fighting Assad, and two sanctioned by the Department of Defense (Pentagon) that foresaw an ambitious  but failed approach of training 5,000 vetted and hand-picked Rebel fighters per year, and the successful revamped version, through which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were born, set exclusively in combating ISIS, benefiting from U.S. air support . The one reported to have been canceled by the Trump administration is the CIA-sanctioned one.

Summary

The program has been theorized by the Obama Administration in 2013 when aiding Syrian Rebels was a more practical, credible and efficient solution that would be now. The context of 2013-2014 Syria War is fully opposite to today’s situation. Just until mid-2015, the Assad government had yet to receive direct military support from the Kremlin while Iranian aid consisted mostly in weapons, ammo and a small contingency of Shi’a militias from Iraq, leaving the weary Syrian Arab Army opened to defections and an overwhelming assaults of various opposition forces. Following Washington’s policy throughout the Arab Spring and reflecting on its resolve to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya through an extensive air campaign, the context was there for a regime change and state building option in Damascus. But as the situation in Syria grew intensively complex and given the commitment of ‘no boots on the ground’ from the Obama administration, the American strategists faced a difficult task ahead. Moreover, the configuration of the combatant forces was largely ambiguous, and their ideologies or allegiance were at least blurred, bringing an additional layer of difficulty in identifying a compatible native force.

In 2013 the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to arm selected Syrian Rebel groups against the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The beginnings of the initative four years ago were officially a secret, authorized by President Barack Obama through a “finding” that permitted the C.I.A. to conduct a deniable program through-which opposition fighters received weapons, ammo and aid, fueling the war against Assad while not committing the U.S. politically against a single-handed overthrow of the dictatorial regime. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) identified friendly assets that would act as liaisons for the United States and which received a constant flow of logistics through Turkey and Jordan, both countries that supported such programs and had similar arrangements with own assets themselves. But given the rise of ISIS, that threatened Euro-Atlantic security interests, and the overall polarization of the opposition camp, that left merely a few ‘moderate’ Rebel groups in play in stark contrast to the powerful, well funded and armed Salafists or political islamists, Washington’s priorities changed.

In this context, the Department of Defense was authorized to develop a ‘train and equip’ program that would build a new opposition army from scratch that will focus on combating ISIS and other terrorist groups.

In 2014, Congress for the first time provided the President with authority and funds to overtly train and lethally equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition for select purposes. These objectives include supporting U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.  The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, P.L. 113-291) and FY2015 Consolidated and Further Continuing Apropriations Act, 2015 (P.L. 113-235) provided that up to $500 million could be transferred from the newly-established Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) to train and equip such native forces. Therefore, the covert program did not just refer to training and aiding indigenous elements, but also to undertake the human resources pre-selected, through a strict screening process that would eventually leave only the most ‘moderate’ fighters, in terms of ideology, to receive Washington’s ‘carepack’. This incentive produced two consequences: the recruitment of a small contingency of rebels, and a time-spawn until the force was operational and battle-ready. The training took place on the territory of two regional allies, Turkey and Jordan, which were also the staging areas of detachement of deployment until these new forces set-up forward operating bases (FOBs) in Syria by themselves.

The plan was to train 5,000 such troops, per year. On June 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s testimony in front of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee expressed that at that time, only 60 Syrian Rebel fighters have been trained. As expressed above, the vetting and screening process makes it extremely difficult to identify compatible peers.

On July 2015, the first batch of Syrian Rebels trained called ‘Division 30’ numbered around 200 fighters of Sunni Turkmen or Arabic background, were deployed over the Turkish border. As soon as they steeped in Syria they were violently ambushed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. As a result, their weapons were stolen, some of them got killed and their field commander was kidnapped. As Asmed Shaheed, an Al-Nusra jihadi that posted a photo with his recently capture M-16, many boasted only about their ‘war spoils’ online. The U.S. air cover failed to protect the Rebels, as a retaliatory strike only came the day after. The operational disaster draw comparison between the ‘Divison 30’ episode the massacre of the ‘Bay of Pigs’, Cuba 1961.

Due to its complete failure and its inefficient spending of 500$ million of the taxpayer’s money, the program was suspended in October 2015. This was also regarded at that time as a sign of weakness towards the recent intervention of Russia’s aerospatial forces and expeditionary units in support of Bashar al-Assad. In reality, the suspension of the program was followed by a rational course of events.

In 2016, the White House asked Congress for an additional ‘train and equip’ program, enforced by the same Department of Defense.“This is part of our adjustments to the train and equip program built on prior lessons learned,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad. Starting from early 2015, The United States managed to gain a major ally, the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ – a joint war room formed by Kurdish militias as YPG/ YPJ and several Sunni Arab groups in order to coordinate in their fight against ISIS in Tel Abyad after relieving the siege of Kobane. By late-2015, these groups united their efforts in a framework called ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF). Both DoD and the White House believed that this was a group that deserved their support in order to combat ISIS, given their eficiency and numbers, already proven in previous battle in the region, so that in June 2016 the ‘Train and Equip’ Program was rebooted. U.S. Special Operators, present in Syria since 2015, continued their efforts to train and equip them from Jordan and northern Syria. These now embedded forces would also act as a compact outsourced infantry of the Pentagon’s air campaign.

 

Quality-test

Through this US-SDF partnership, ISIS has lost every battle against them in the past 2 years. The terrorist saw their caliphate shrink into a besieged enclave ‘capital’ of Raqqa, and sparsely spread in villages and towns around the Euphrates Valley. This cooperation has also given the US the chance to build military bases in northern Syria, the largest ones being in Sarrin, near Kobani and Rmelah, near Qamishli. But for reasons of operational secrecy, Transylvania Intelligence chose not to disclose their complete locations.

Just to clarify as an end note: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the entire anti-ISIS effort has nothing to do with the CIA cover program that was canceled.

However, the Rebels have been sequentially losing ground in face of the Loyalist offensives, and became dominated by the Salafist segment, as the ex-al-Nusra, now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic Turkistan Party, Ahrar ah-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam, that have share the Idlib governorate into sectors of influence, setting checkpoints, imposing their own social judiciary based on Sharia Law and even fighting each other – as the current Ahrar vs. HTS clash in east Idlib. Other small pockets of Rebels still survive around Damascus in East Ghouta, Da’ara and Quneitra, but are critically besieged and weakened under a constant rain of barrel bombs and mechanized attacks.

 

The Rebels that Matter:

1. The only part were Rebel fighters that bear a strategic importance to American security interests is the desert area around the tri-border of Syria-Iraq-Jordan, notably around the al-Tanf crossing. The area was seized in March 2017 by Sunni Arab Rebels from the Amman-based Meghawir al-Thawra group, trained, armed and assisted by U.S. forces in camps built in Jordan. The role of this American-Rebel contingency on the border is to block Iran’s geopolitical gamble and deny Tehran a ground supply line for Hezbollah and Shi’a militias operating in Syria. In early June, given the relative cease-fire produced by the Astana Agreements, Loyalist forces spearheaded an operation through the Syrian desert and captured the territory north of al-Tanf, therefor blocking the frontline that the al-Tanf based Rebels had with ISIS, consequently denying their official purpose of their presence. Some strategist could consider that the border territory is now lost to Iran, due to the blockade imposed north of al-Tanf and because the Syrian Democratic Forces firstly need to liberate Raqqa before commencing on the Euphrates Valley and on the border – which could take too long, time in which the Syrians and Iranians could have already secured the frontier. It is also publicly known that President Trump and Putin negotiated a truce, a cease-fire between Loyalist forces and Rebels in that area. Which could equal in an abandonment of support for the al-Tanf contingency, that just months ago, was defended by  bombing the Iraqi Shi’a militias backed by Iran, and that were threatening the local U.S. presence.

A contingent of Sunni Arab Rebels and U.S. forces at the al-Tanf border checkpoint to Iraq.

However, it is not clear whether the southern Rebels are  part of the ‘Train and Equip’-Pentagon sanctioned program, or of the CIA’s covert action?

(a) In the case of the later, and their presence or functionality are affected by the cancellation of the CIA’s covert program, than the White House is making a serious mistake, with potential strategic dangers.

(b) On the other hand, the Jordanian-based Rebels have been used to fight ISIS, notably on the Syrian-Iraqi border and hopefully through Abu Kamal, Mayadin the the Euphrates Valley, and benefited from a close coordination with the U.S. Special Operators. It is highly possible that given the level of support and the stated objectives, these Rebels were trained under the Pentagon-backed ‘Train and Equip’ Program, thus being sheltered from any potential damage that the recent decision could have projected. Whereas the CIA convert operation only provided weapons and ammo to Rebels notably fighting Assad.

2. The Rebels from Quneitra also have a distinctive feature. They act as buffer elements between Israel and Hezbollah, that operates near-by. A defeat for the Rebels based there could trigger an Israeli intervention in the conflict and could upper the demands of Jerusalem for ‘safe-zone’ in the area, similar to what Turkey did in northern Aleppo governorate, even through direct action. A weakening of the Rebels fighting in the area could expose Israel’s Golan Heights to Iran’s proxy’s. However, Israel unveiled it’s massive humanitarian operation, code-named Operation ‘Good Neighbor’ through which the IDF provides health care, food and fuel for the Syrians.

 

Key Judgement:

  • Decision to end CIA covert program was most likely taken from a technical point of view, but could have been capitalized in the Trump-Putin negotiations on Syria in Hamburg.
  • In a stark paradox, the Trump administration campaigned that it will renounce state building and regime change activities. Translated in Syria, this is a result to the fact that since 2013, there is no viable and legitimate alternative to Assad at the moment, nor there is one proposed by the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, not even as an interim figure; and as the Rebels are on the imminent brink of defeat, democratic elections are no longer a viable or possible option.
  • The impact of the decision to cancel the CIA covert program is currently difficult to asses. The framework has been loose in its technicalities and details, dully in order to arm Syrian Rebels wherever and whenever needed. Moreover, given the clandestine and potentially classified nature of the program, it is highly unlikely to perceive the effects on the short-term.
  • Syrian Rebels from Maghawir al-Thawra stationed in al-Tanf to guard the border crossing from Iranian elements and launch an offensive against ISIS, are most probably funded and protected under the Department of Defense framework.
  • Rebel factions from the radical ‘safe haven’ of Idlib, the de facto buffer zone of Quneitra, Da’ara, or the suburbs of Damascus as East Ghouta, could potentially face significant challenges given the cancellation. However, given Israel’s escalation of aid (even publicly) to Syrians (even under the auspice of humanitarian aid) and taking into consideration that most of these Rebel groups have been formed and initially funded by the rich Gulf States, it is also safe to assume that the financial gap could easily be filled by the other external backers.
  • On the other hand, the Rebels based in Jordan have been promoted as being
  • In contrast, the cease-fire in south-western Syria brokered between Trump and Putin is difficult to interpret as a strategic action. One significant fear is that the White House won’t fall for Moscow’s apparently but questionable good-will to appease its concerns in regards to Iranian activities on the border. Notably given the lack of leverage that Russia has above Iran in the first place.
  • Abandoning the support for anti-Assad efforts of the Syrian Rebels could make sense from a technical point of view given the current context, however, it does not hold significant benefits for the U.S., other than facilitating a closer cooperation with the Loyalist Coalition, and implicitly, with Russia.
  • The cancellation of this program also strips the White House from a low-to-medium leverage over the Assad regime, which should have been kept.

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

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

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

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

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

General Considerations

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

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Towards a New Strategy for Afghanistan: ISIS-K, Taliban Resurgence and Geopolitical Competition

(1) The security landscape in South Asia and the Far East is continuously degrading under transnational militant activity and competing geopolitical Chinese and Russian ambitions. (2) The fugitive US pull-out has…

(1) The security landscape in South Asia and the Far East is continuously degrading under transnational militant activity and competing geopolitical Chinese and Russian ambitions.

(2) The fugitive US pull-out has accelerated the Taliban’s resurgence and has fertilized the ground for other third parties to enter the stage. Some of these parties is the local franchise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), additionally named “Khorasan Province” or generally addressed in the Euro-Atlantic community as “ISIS-K”. Khorasan is the historical generic term that refers to the region of western Iran to Eastern Afghanistan and holds great value for the Islamic civilization both historical and dogmatic, as Khorasan is subjected in several Hadiths as where the “black flags rise” to establish the Calipath, a prophecy largely capitalized for PR purposes by many militant Salafist groups.

(3) The Trump presidential administration will attempt to address these issues within the upcoming South Asia strategy. While previous administrations have promised new directions, there are several key problems that distinguishes the current Afghan security dynamic as opposed to the previous years:

  • The rise of ISIS-K on the regional jihadi scene and its competing nature with the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan;
  • The increased and looming Russian and Chinese interests over South Asia;
  • The current Transatlantic vital security interests in the regard to the Afghan war.

THE RISE OF ISIS-K IS IN DIRECT COMPETITION WITH THE TALIBAN RESURGENCE 

The first sights of ISIS emergence in Afghanistan have been noticed since 2014 yet the official semi-consolidated structure only appeared in 2015, in a time of weakness and infightings within the Taliban. Consequently, ISIS-K is strongly linked to the Taliban struggle in Afghanistan, as even Hafiz Saeed Khan the founder of the local ISIS franchise was a senior member of this group. Born and raised in the Pashtun dominated FATA region of Pakistan, Saeed traveled after the 9/11 attacks to join the Afghan Taliban in the fight against the United States. Being a Pakistani himself, Saeed did not hesitate to join the Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban or TTP) upon its founding, gradually working his way up to the upper ranks. Following the death of Baitullah Mahsud the founding mullah of whom Saeed Khan was an apprentice, he grew entangled into the internal in-fights and became dramatically alienated from the group when in 2013 he was denied the leadership position by the Shura. In effect, the boisterous rift materialized in a splinter group led by Khan himself and joined by TTP’s former spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, Gul Zaman (Chief of Khaibar), Mufti Hassan (Chief of Peshawar), Hafiz Quran Daulat (Chief of Kurram), and Khalid Mansoor (Chief of Hangu). Based on their vast cross-border networks stretching from major Pakistani city of Peshawar to all over Afghanistan, the group grew and eventually declared allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a bid to potentiate competition with the Taliban and establish its own hegemony. The declaration came on January 11th 2015 through a video released by the group where they explicitly announced their allegiance to ISIS and outlined their plans towards Khorasan, similar to those of al-Qaeda in the past: extending a jihadi network with transnational ambitious from Afghanistan, Pakistan to the Indian Subcontinent; the confirmation followed on January 16th 2015 through an interview with the alienated ex-Pakistani Taliban, now named Emir of ISIS “Khorasan Province”,  in the 13th issue of Dabiq (ISIS magazine), titled “The Rafidah from Ibn Saba’ to the Dajjal”. In the interview he goes on to speak about his regional ambitions and to calls out his enemies:

“It had once been under the authority of Muslims, along with the regions surrounding it. Afterwards, the secularist…the cow-worshiping Hindus and atheist Chinese conquered other nearby regions, as is the case in parts of Kashmir and Turkistan,” In addition he offers a sneak peak to the growing Taliban-ISIS tensions in the area, considering the Pakistani Intelligence manipulators of Islamists and the Taliban’s as an obstruction to the a Caliphate in Afghanistan. Throughout the years we will come to learn extensively of how ISIS perceives the Taliban, namely as a “nationalist jihad” – Inherently due of their ancestral Pashto tribal code of conduct known as Pashtunwali, prioritized over the confessional one of Sharia Law, and also due to their lack of expansionist ambitions to India, China and the surroundings.  Accurately described, the Taliban settled for a national liberation movement throughout Afghanistan with limited engagements in Pakistan that in effect had more to do with the first objective rather than a regional outlook, while being deeply rooted in local tribal affairs and catalyzed within the societal layers through their ancestral customs, identity and configuration.  In effect, ISIS-K has shown great hostility towards the tribal system throughout the Afghan mountains which indirectly fueled the population’s dependency on the Taliban for security yet again. Tribal leaders were beheaded and villages were terrorized if they didn’t submit to Da’esh. This is a practice that ISIS-K has continued to echo regardless of its lack of pragmatism or rationally notably given the context of the human deficit that the local branch faces. 

In the beginning ISIS-K quickly gained support among other disenfranchised Taliban (especially Pakistani) fighters as the founders themselves, intrigued by the allure and successive victories of Da’esh in the Middle East. However ISIS-K remained in the eyes of the locals as a foreign construct with no presence in Afghan history and huge hostility towards local customs and affairs. Per contra, ISIS-K manages to win the alliance and partnerships of other “underground” Islamists groups that were looking for a way to challenge the Taliban’s hegemony, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The malign, mosaic and fast-shifting expansion of ISIS-K on Afghan territory was based on the established militant cross border networks stretching from the Afghan eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, where many T.T.P. militants had settled following Pakistani military operations in North Waziristan Agency, all the war through north-eastern FATA and Peshawar. While the Afghan Taliban resurfaced in the traditional Pashtun areas, far from the country’s center but concentrated on periphery, mountains and border crossings.

White = Taliban, al-Qaeda and allies / Red = Afghan Government / Dark = ISIS-K

ISIS-K Emir Hafiz Saeed Khan and his associates utilized this model that established ISIS-K as worrying presence on the war map, securing a presence in over 11 provinces, even if those had little significance on the ground. As a guerilla structure based on a asymmetrical nature,  ISIS-K could not survive long enough to develop hybrid characteristics as the central branch in Syria & Iraq, surely due to the lack of local support and rival clashes. ISIS-K has continuously faced these major operational obstacles that have proven to be more damaging than any conventional military campaign. In addition, unable to effectively blend within the societal fabric, ISIS-K members became much more easily to track, both for the Taliban and the United States/ Afghans. A mentionable influx of Pakistani Taliban came in middle-2015 due to several offensives launched by the Pakistani Armed Forces in the bordering area of FATA. In face of the aggressively growing foothold of ISIS-K, the Afghan Talibans sent their best fighters in the eastern mountains of Nangarhar that waged long and violent military campaigns.

U.S. Secretary of  Defence at that time, Ash Carter described IS presence as ‘little nests, of small rural isolated and dispersed incubators, that could flourish towards urban settlements, as Kabul and Jalalabad. According to former commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, IS was acting on a strategy to “move into the city of Jalalabad, expand to neighboring Kunar Province and eventually establish control of a region they call Khorasan.” Those being the exact provinces were ISIS-K still holds a consistent presence.

However, starting with 2015 we see an intensified US air campaign in the region that “decapitated” the senior leadership of this new and fragile jihadi force, which effectively weakened the group’s web of network and strategic thinking:

Because of their brutality and anti-tribal approach, a consistent force of fighters defected back to the Talibans which led us to believe that the actual number of ISIS-K fighters, not sympathizers or supporters, dropped to several hundred. In addition, the enhanced US presence in the area has also forced many of the jihadists to move back over the border in Pakistan. However given the

Opium cultivation map

complex relation between Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban, the future of ISIS-K allegiance towards the later is open for speculation, even though that implies to move under Pakistan’s Deep State, were a vast array of security institutions and actors would provide a constant flow of logistics and a stable sanctuary in the area, with the price of submission and surveillance.

The territory controlled by ISIS-K is strategically located and agriculturally self-sufficient, consisting of a complex web of caves, passes, villages, and routes stretching from Khost, Paktia, and Logar provinces via Nangarhar to Kunar and Nuristan. It is easily accessible from the already-established proxy routes across the Durand Line. Pachir wa Agam district of Nangarhar province borders the infamous Tora Bora mountains and cave complexes, which have proven to be the perfect sanctuaries for militants and jihadi elements. Second, Pachir wa Agam serves as a vantage point to reach Achin and Nazyan districts to its east, Surkhrod district and Jalalabad city to its north, and Sherzad and Khogyani districts to its west. The Afghan Armed Forces do not have the capacity to fully exercise control over these regions and it is unlikely that the United States will launch new infantry-centered operations that cleared the area in 2001. (Further reading on ISIS-K in Afghanistan at this Middle East Institute Report from 2016)

 

As expected in face of diminishing control and presence, ISIS-K launched a series of attacks against Afghan, US installations and civilian targets throughout the country; actions rivaled by similar Taliban operations in order to maintain the relevancy in terrorism practices and project power. On March 8th 2017, gunmen dressed in white hospital robes stormed the Sardar Daud Khan Military Hospital in Kabul, killing over 100 people. ISIS-K indirectly claimed the attack through the Amaq Agency but Government officials had reasons to suspect the Afghan Taliban Haqqani Network instead. Throughout 2016 to 2017 Afghanistan began to be hit weekly if not daily with low-level attacks against civilian and military targets alike. According to US watchdog SIGAR, casualties among Afghan security forces rose by 35 percent in 2016, with 6,800 soldiers and police killed. With a slighter less robust counter-insurgency approach, the United States has actively tasked Special Operators to capture or kill leading high value targets (HVTs) in the area. In March, one such operation in Nangarhar ended with the death of a Green Beret. However, his death was not in vain; thanks to the human intelligence collected through a deep-behind-enemy-lines reconnaissance they have discovered a vast network of underground tunnels going through a mountain in Nangarhal; through this cave-system ISIS-K hosted dozens of fighters and maintained a regional control & command outpost.

The US CENTCOM (Central Command) determined that the mountain was too dangerous for an infantry-based sweep & clean mission that would put in additional American lives in harm’s way, therefore the operational solution remained an air force one. On April 13th 2017 CENTCOM announced that they have dropped for the first time their biggest non-nuclear weapon in the arsenal, generically named “MOAB – Mother of All Bombs”, the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb was the most suitable choice, being developed exactly to destroy underground facilities such as missile-silos, bunkers, or tunnels in this case. According to Afghan officials the blast neutralized 94 ISIS-K fighters and destroyed most of the tunnel network. Going beyond the strike’s operational role for the Afghan theater, this action was undoubtedly an embedding geopolitical power projection with international ramifications: in the context of US-North Korean tensions, but also for other actors lined up for opportunities in Afghanistan.

On April 22nd 2017, The Taliban attack an Afghan Army bases in Balkh province killing 140 fighters and wounding 160 others. On May 3rd, ISIS suicide car hits a military convoy killing 8 Afghan soldiers and wounding 3 US soldiers. On April 29th 2017, ISIS has claimed the assassination of a senior Afghan Taliban individual in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, escalating the jihadi war between the two. May has been no different, new suicide attacks or convoy ambushes have resulted in casualties for Afghan soldiers or US personnel alike. It is clearly that the competition of “who’s hitting more” between Taliban and ISIS has lost balance in face of ground loss for the later. After several offensives launched from early 2016 to recapture land, on April 28th 2017 they announced a country-wide spring offensive named operation ‘Mansoori’ organized in two phases:

  1. a civilian phase to provide good administration and support to the civilians in areas under their control;
  2. the military phase would focus on seizing more areas and carrying more attacks in the form of coordinated attacks, guerilla attacks, suicide bombings, insider attacks and target killings.

An additional problem in the Afghan situation is the external now-found openness towards the Taliban. Russia, Pakistan and China are actively attempting to legitimate the movement and bring it to the negotiations table. Beijing’s geo-economic “Silk Road” project and Russia’s resurgence attempting to erode US influence will continue to have an impact on the transnational stage of the Far East.

 

COMPETING CHINESE AND RUSSIAN INTERESTS IN THE REGION

In February 2017, Russia, Pakistan and China agreed to start an outreach for reconciliation with the Taliban. New Delhi and Kabul registered their protest with Moscow, which led to an invite to the conference for the two countries, along with Iran held in Moscow. India and Afghanistan wanted these countries to respect the provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution on terrorist groups. Russia, Iran and Pakistan agreed to respect the international red lines but refused to end the ongoing channels of talks with the Taliban. The United States, which was no invited to the conference, has reasons to believe that Russia manifests interest in the Taliban in order to harm the US effort in Afghanistan, camouflaged under the standard of “combating ISIS”.  Chinese, Pakistani and Iranian interests align in context of Beijing’s ‘One Belt, One Road/ Silk Road’ initiative that would not only traverse their respective countries, but the Taliban-held territories as well – reason for stimulating communication channels with the jihadists. In 2016 a delegation led by Abbas Stanakzai, head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, visited Beijing on July 18-22 at the invitation of the Chinese government, a senior member of the Taliban said. In addition to the prospective geo-economic interest, the Chinese government is faced with its own Islamic insurgency in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where a strong jihadist movement blessed by both al-Qaeda and ISIS is continuously aided by transnational and regional militant groups some of who are also rooted in Afghanistan.

The Beijing-Islamabad bond is even stronger on the regional issue, where besides the historical military alliance in the context of Cold War and Pakistan-India rivalry; they share a common strategic project. In an effort to diversify the “Silk Road” project, China has crafted several visions that include the usage of maritime ways and accessing major ports located in proximity of relevant regions. The China–Pakistan Economic Corridor or OPEC is the embodiment of this doctrine being estimated at 62$ billion. China is working to boost Pakistani road and railway infrastructure traversing the country’s territory from the northern common border to the southern port of Gwadar whilst expanding it to host and sharply export large volumes of goods and merchandise. It goes without saying that such a massive investment needs protecting and given Pakistan’s security environment, the Taliban’s are a key player to the development of this project. Beijing hopes to secure their non-aggression via Islamabad; we have reason to speculate that as rumored even during the US War from 2001 onwards, the Chinese will intensify ammunition and weapons transfer in exchange for security and non-aggression. Nonetheless, the project also traverses the southern region of Baluchistan were militant activity is not only high but densely fragmented and out-of-state control. In addition, the geopolitical balance of the Pakistani-Indian equation is as needy as ever for Beijing, as New Delhi can stir turmoil at the border area and in Kashmir, which would again threaten Chinese infrastructure. Whether this context and dynamic will prove to be deal-breaker or a challenge for Chinese strategic ambitions it remains to be seen, what’s clear is that Beijing is looking into risky options to contain the threats and facilitate a fragile geo-economic-oriented stability.        

In a similar mindset, the Kremlin is attempting to secure a seat at the Near East table by exaggerating their regional and international power and impact in order to erode US strategic interests and to possibly develop energy projects for to the gas-rich markets of South Asia. Once again, Afghanistan and Pakistan represent a quick route towards the large populations in the Indian Subcontinent: India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. They believe that supporting the Taliban would serve best their interests: degrading the US-backed political establishment in Kabul, combat ISIS and secure at seat at the regional table. Yet, Russia of 2017 is not the same with the Russian Empire in the 19th Century where similar arrangements were being done against the British nor the USSR in the Cold War where a large military intervention could be accomplished to overthrow the establishment. As history showed, a soft power approach to the barely governable, tribal lands of Afghanistan is a zero-sum game, notably when it involves supporting radical factions as proxies or elements of stability. On the outlook, Russia will fail in its strategic objective; however the short-term effect generated by the Kremlin aid for the Taliban will have tactical consequences meaning more targets for the Pentagon and a higher risk for governance over Afghanistan.

 

THE TRANSATLANTIC SECURITY INTEREST

The Pentagon is expected to submit a new strategy for Afghanistan surgically planned by the incumbent Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Without a doubt Washington is faced with a crossroads of global engagement that has great ramifications for this region as well. Up to now, the Trump administration has proven to be more interventionist and inserting than the past one, being close to the Bush era course of action. Therefore we have reason to think that this new strategy will follow the newly established line of doing whatever it takes to counter-balance regional adversaries trying to conventionally or subversively assert themselves in Afghanistan, but also to defeat ISIS in the region an additionally erode the Taliban’s resurgence. In Afghanistan as in Iraq the ‘blitz’ retreat and the signs of global disengagement of the Obama administration crafted a vacuum that proved to be fertile enough for degraded foes to quickly arise and challenge the US constructions. Another dramatic consequence of the US pull-out was the loss of trust from local allies that risked so much to support Washington’s projects and lost so much when they left, leaving them exposed to Taliban revenge. Similar to how the post-2012 situation developed for the Sunni tribes that raised against al-Qaeda in Anbar, and that were later left alone and exposed to AQI retaliation and Baghdad’s Shi’a persecution.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis in recent visit in Afghanistan

T-Intelligence has identified several overall guidelines that it recommends as actionable security solutions for the region in regards to the Euro-Atlantic interest:

 (1) The United States needs to maintain Afghanistan as a strategic outpost in the War on Terror, even if that means launching a medium troop surge (3,000 – 6,000) to conduct surgical operations in needed regions and on tailored objectives, which could go beyond JSOC boundaries and expand to more regular infantry corps to project presence and re-assert the US military in the area. These troops could continue the mandate’s tradition and be largely provided by NATO countries.

(2)The NATO Resolute Support mission should consequently be extended and expanded in a framework where a great emphasize is put on developing the Afghan’s Army logistical capabilities, notably strengthening the Afghan Air Force. A powerful and robust Afghan Air Force will have a strategic impact for Kabul to expand their power projection and governance-reach in tribal lands and mountains. Such an asset will also provide them with the position to be first responders and to assert itself as a security provider and not just as a receiver.

(3) In face of growing geopolitical challenges from competitive states, the United States should go beyond a friendly partnership with Islamabad and alter the regional dynamic will attempting the long awaited ‘Indian pivot’. While not abandoning Pakistan as the major Afghan partner, the ambivalent and deceiving nature of their Deep State security apparatus needs to be addressed in a resolute manner. Consequences should be inflicted.  

Additionally, it is important to resurface the Bush era partnerships with Central Asian countries which are needed as buffer zones to contain Russian or Chinese ambitions

(4) The ‘winning the hearts and souls’ protocol should remain the main population-based COIN correlated in contrast to the military solution as an integrated asymmetric response. Because a guerilla group cannot survive without support from the population, counterinsurgencies are as much about winning over local populations as they are about the military defeat of insurgents.

(5) The financial aid should be maintained; notably referring to the NATO-run Afghanistan National Army (ANA) Trust Fund, the UN-run Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan (LOTFA), and the US-run Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF).

(6) The overall Afghan infrastructure needs to be extended as another soft power element of COIN. The country only has about 7,500 miles of paved road. Given the vastness of the country, this is a tiny number. Since 2002, the U.S. military and other NATO donors have built around 2,000 of these miles. U.S. military leaders considered roads so significant to their fight against the Taliban that local commanders spent the vast majority of their emergency funds (nearly $900 million out of a total of $1.3 billion) on road construction. In many instances, these roads are either continuations or restorations of routes originally built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s (as Cold War infrastructure) or extended by the Soviets after the 1980 invasion. The new roads paid for by the U.S. connect the largest cities to supply routes within Afghanistan. As Dave Kilcullen wrote in the Small Wars Journal blog in 2008 (further reading):

Like the Romans, counter-insurgents through history have engaged in road-building as a tool for projecting military force, extending governance and the rule of law, enhancing political communication, and bringing economic development, health, and education to the population. Clearly, roads that are patrolled by friendly forces or secured by local allies also have the tactical benefit of channeling and restricting insurgent movement and compartmenting terrain across which guerrillas could otherwise move freely. But the political impact of road-building is even more striking than its tactical effect.”

Another great further reading on counter-insurgency through infrastructure we recommend this paper from ETH Zurich.

(7) Continue a HVT-centered campaign against Taliban and ISIS-K leadership; while many see this as un-effective given a guerilla’s flexibility on the “top-to-bottom” chain of command, there have been proven instances where the KIA of HVTs resulted in a direct weakening of the entire structure: see Osama Bin Laden-Al-Qaeda or even the Taliban after Mullah Omar’s death in 2013. In effect, a permanent drone campaign operated by the CIA should not only be maintained but boosted.

 (8) Necessity of re-assessing the US counter-narcotics strategy towards Afghanistan in a bid to degrade the Taliban’s financial income from opium trade. 92% of the world’s opium demand comes from Afghanistan, and with the topple of the Taliban government, the market was consequently opened for a mosaic of militant or mob-like groups ready to capitalize on the Taiban’s loss of control over most of the fields and consequently the erosion on the Taliban’s harsh rules over the trade. Still, they managed to regain the opium-rich regions of southern and eastern Afghanistan, which in correlation with control of the border crossing also makes the Taliban an intricate network of drug-trafficking, both as production and as protection of trade routes – corroborated by Ann Patterson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement, an Kabul Police Anti-Criminal Branch report and by Muhammad Daud, former governor of Helmand Province. However, until the civilian population is not faced with an actionable alternative source of income they will continue with poppy trade that finances terrorist activities and the Taliban will remain the main “job creator” for the Afghans. And at this stage, the narcotic issue cannot be simply solved through law enforcement or border control. More about the US counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan and the opium trade in the region at this analysis from the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College.

(9) The border issue remains one of the largest source of insecurity, remaining largely ungovernable and tribalized, militants can cross between jurisdictions easily while Coalition forces are faced with a sovereignty blockade that stalls and slows the process of targeting them. Un-sanctioned intrusions in Pakistani air space and territory remains a bed-rock of the black operations launched by JSOC or CIA, yet the overall situation still orbits around the unrestricted cross-border flow of jihadists and the Pakistani national restriction.

While in the past it was needed to keep the border open for NATO supply lines coming for Pakistani port and airports, at the current troop numbers in Afghanistan logistics could probably be provided solely through local airfields? – Open question – if so, a “closing the border” strategy could become realistic in planning, even though the implementation remains largely difficult.  

 

END NOTES

It goes without saying that the list goes on, these guidelines barely being the top of the iceberg in regards to the regional situation. However given the public’s growing interest in the ISIS-K activity in Afghanistan rivaled by the Taliban’s resurgence but also of the geopolitical game, Transylvania Intelligence considered such an analysis as being suitable for presenting an Euro-Atlantic strategic paper on Afghanistan and the Far East.

We shall now wait for the Pentagon’s new Afghan strategy, largely expected and realistically needed to call for a troop surge and an advancement of US/NATO operations in the area. The loss of US presence and influence throughout the world is the strategic tendency that the Trump administration has inherited, and in order to preserve the American Century and to promote the Euro-Atlantic interests, a strong tendency-reversal is inevitable and needed.

 

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