Tag: US

Airborne ISR over Transnistria Monitors Russian Drills

A Beech 200T (BE20) Super King Air aircraft outbound from Constanta (Romania) is currently flying Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties near the Russia-backed separatist republic of Transnistria (Moldova). The 200T…

A Beech 200T (BE20) Super King Air aircraft outbound from Constanta (Romania) is currently flying Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sorties near the Russia-backed separatist republic of Transnistria (Moldova). The 200T variant of the twin-turboprop aircraft is configured with a surveillance radar pod and vertical photography systems for aerial surveillance and reconnaissance. Based on initial observations, the BE20 calibrated its flight profile at a low-altitude of 3,000 meters and commenced with “donut rounds,” after reaching Transnistria’s northern edge. A typical BE20 low-altitude ISR mission takes approximately 5 hours. 

BE20 Flight (and 3D view) screen-grab from a public flight tracker via T-Intelligence

The ISR sortie, likely conducted by the U.S. Navy/Army, suggests significant nefarious activity on part of Russia in the breakaway Transnistria region. Russia has maintained a 1,200 troop presence in Transnistria since the 1992 conflict with the Republic of Moldova.

ASSESSMENT

The ISR is most likely collecting imagery intelligence on the recent activities of the Operational Group of the Russian Forces in Transnistria (OGRF-T). Military drills have been vaguely announced for mid-February and on February 4, the Russian Defense Ministry informed the public that the OGRF-T has finalised preparations. U.S. ISR sorties have been spotted periodically in January and almost daily between February 4 and 7.  The Russian Ministry of Defense has confirmed that the OGRF-T has conducted high-calibre firing drills from late January to February 1. The drills are part of a series of exercises organized in the Western Military District. Overall, the OGRF-T have increased their activities in Transnistria in 2017 and 2018, causing the Moldovan government push for the removal of foreign forces at the United Nations.  


By HARM

Edited by Gecko

DISCLAIMER: As the BE20 appears on flight trackers, the sortie is an intentionally public maneuver.

This article has been updated.

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IS-K Diverted from Nangarhar Province, Takes Korengal Valley from Taliban (COIN/OPS-BRIEF)

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on…

As key IS-K territories are under pressure by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and the rival Taliban, the group is seeking to capture new high-ground sanctuaries on the border with Pakistan. After defeating the Taliban in a turf war, IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the Korengal valley. While the group’s overall lethality has decreased, IS-K remains a threat for Transatlantic security interests and regional security. Since 2015, IS-K has conducted at least 83 attacks on government and civilian targets in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.


1.Since its inception in January 2015, the “Islamic State – Khorasan province” (IS-K) has been engaged in a multi-front war against the rival Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government. IS-K largely consists of disenfranchised Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) splinter groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a small segment of foreign terrorist fighters (FTT) of other origin.

2. IS-K aims to establish an Islamic State in Central Asia (including, but not limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan), which would become a province of the wider global caliphate led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. IS-K is in contact and has received direct support from ISIS central. Furthermore, high-value individuals fleeing from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields have found shelter in Afghanistan.

3. To reach its objectives, IS-K is mobilizing hardcore Sunnis by escalating sectarian and takfiri violence, degrading trust in the Afghan government, and confronting local competitors. IS-K’s public communication efforts paint the Taliban as puppets of Islamabad, unwilling to enforce Salafi/Deobandi principles and unable to expel foreign military forces from Afghanistan. While IS-K uses coercion and forced recruitment for population control, the group also leverages local dynamics to gain legitimacy and enlist indigenous support.

4. In 2019, IS-K is less popular and under more pressured than ever before. The group has banned drug cultivation and trade, executed community elders, and imposed Sharia law on isolated tribes, causing unrest and uprisings. At the same time, joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raids have re-directed IS-K’s expansion from the Spin Ghar mountain range to borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two insurgent groups.   

5. IS-K has built its territorial foothold in the TPP’s and IMU’s areas of influence. While the group did not succeed in capturing urban centers or large rural areas, IS-K controlled a number of Uzbek-villages in Jowjzan province and continues to find sanctuary in key valleys in the N2KL area (Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman) on the border with Pakistan. IS-K also operates an unknown number of cells in more than ten other Afghan provinces, including Kabul and Herat. In Pakistan (PAK), IS-K is embedded with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tribal agencies.


ENVIRONMENTAL RECONNAISSANCE (RECCE)

6. N2KL is located in the Hindu Kush mountain range on the Afghan-Pakistani (AFG-PAK) border. The area is strategic, as insurgent groups are able to leverage the porous border area to establish sanctuaries and move supplies.

  • N2KL’s high, rugged, and mountainous terrain favors the defendant, as it is largely inaccessible by road and lacks landing zones for aircraft. Elevations range from 1,500 to 4,500 meters, with peaks of over 6,000 meters. The crests are sharp, slopes are steep, and the sparse mountain passes lie at an average elevation of 3,000 meters.
  • Like any other insurgent group active in the area, IS-K needs to control the narrow capillary valleys in order to exploit the N2KL area’s high-ground advantage. Some of the key valleys are Mohmand/Mahmud, Bagh Da’ara, and Takho (Nangarhar province), as well as Korengal and Pech (Kunar province).
  • The human terrain is even more challenging. The myriad of native tribes and ethnicities are hostile to foreign forces and prone to fratricide violence. Attempts to coerce the indigenous population into submission have traditionally led to violent uprisings.

7. Within the N2KL area, IS-K is currently the strongest in Nangarhar province. The group controls parts of the Spin Ghar mountain range in southern Nangarhar province and is highly active in the Mohmand and Takho river valleys in Achin district. Mohmand and Takho valley are inhabited by Mohmand Pashto tribesmen, whose settlement area extends across the AFG-PAK border into Tirrah valley. Deh Bala and Nazyan also experience significant IS-K activity. Over 60 percent of the provincial population is engaged in subsistence farming. Some inhabitants enjoy limited day-labor opportunities in Pakistan.

  • As IS-K is the direct successor of certain TPP groups, the group falls back on pre-established networks in Nangarhar. 90 percent of IS-K members are Sunni Pashto, mostly from the Orakzai and Afridi tribes native to the Orakzai, North Waziristan and Kurram tribal agencies in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas/ FATA).
  • TTP militants first arrived in Nangarhar province, after a Pakistani military offensive ousted them from FATA in 2010. As a tit-for-tat retaliation against Pakistan’s systemic support for the Taliban, the Afghan Government colluded with the TTP and Lashkar-e-Islam in Nangarhar for a brief period. Over time, almost 2,000 TTP militants settled in Nangarhar’s Mohmand valley, resulting in an open confrontation with the Taliban.  

Recce: Southern Achin District via T-Intelligence

  • American air strikes augmented by joint U.S.-Afghan special operations raids have denied IS-K most of the high ground, driving IS-K underground or across the border. In April 2017, the United States Air Force dropped the GBU-43 “Mother of All Bombs” on an IS-K cave network in Achin district, killing over 90 militants. The ANDSF evicted over 20 IS-K militants from the Tora Bora cave complex in Pachir Aw Agam District, after the militants took the White Mountain from the Taliban.  
  • The United States maintains at least two combat outposts (COP) in the Mohmand and Takho valleys, while the ANDSF operates a number of checkpoints throughout southern Nangarhar. As its territory was denied in southern Nangarhar, IS-K aims to expand elsewhere in the N2KL area.

8. In Kunar province, IS-K recently gained control of the strategic Korengal valley after months of fighting with the Taliban – this information was confirmed by Kunar Provincial Council member Abdul Latif Fazly. Together with Pech valley, Korengal forms a strategic corridor that stretches from the AFG-PAK border to Nuristan. With the Pech-Korengal corridor under its control, IS-K can now supply operations that reach deeper into Afghan territory. However, the valley remains virtually ungovernable and volatile for all parties involved.

Recce: Korengal, Kunar, Pech and Shuryek valleys (Kunar province) via T-Intelligence

  • The Korengalis are uniquely confrontational and hostile towards outsiders. The local population consists of isolated Durani Pashai-speakers and few Pashto Safi tribes, who have violently resisted all foreign forces entering the valley, including Soviet, American, Taliban, and al-Qa’ida forces. The local tribes are known for bad-blood violence against other tribes, particularly tribes in Pech valley and the eastern-dialect Pashai-speakers from Nangarhar. The Korengali Pashai are competing with the Pech valley Safi Pashto over timber trade in particular, while the Safi have a century-long feud with Korengali tribes that migrated from Nuristan.
  • While isolationist at heart, the Korengalis have increasingly come to accept anti-governmental insurgent groups.  The natives have been exposed to al-Qa’ida-associated Salafi/Deobandi preachers, TTP-established madrassas and foreign terrorist fighters over the past decades. The Taliban and now IS-K have managed to enlist the support of the local shura elders to legitimize their presence. The recent IS-K takeover of Korengal was enabled by the defection of an influential Taliban commander, who rallied local support for the group.

Recce: Korengal Valley (Kunar province) and past US/ISAF-Eastern Command (2006-2010) combat outposts via T-intelligence

  • The IS-K control over Korengal will likely be short-lived. The Taliban are aggressively contesting the valley, while the Korengalis can be expected to grow hostile to the totalitarian governance model of IS.   

9. Jowjzan became an IS-K territory when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) merged with IS-K in mid-2015. As Jowjzan is Afghanistan’s only Uzbek-majority province, it traditionally served as a sanctuary for IMU.

  • IS-K/IMU have been particularly active in the isolated Darzab and Qush Tepa districts. In Darzab, the group directly controlled the Mughul and Sar Darrah villages, while, in Qush Tepa, IS-K’s strongholds were the Khanaq, Beg Sar and Chakma Chaqur villages. In these areas IS-K was at liberty to conduct limited hisba policing.

Recce: SE Darzab district (Jowjzan province) via T-Intelligence

  • The founder of IS-K in Jowjzan is Qari Hekmat/Hekmatullah, a defecting Uzbek Taliban commander. Native to the area, he mobilized the local Turkic community and facilitated the group’s territorial grip. In 2016 and 2017, IS-K grew largely unopposed, as the local Taliban wanted to avoid bloodshed among fellow Uzbeks. When negotiations failed in early 2018, the Taliban launched a full-scale offensive from the neighboring Faryab province.
  • Around that same time, a series of Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and U.S. SOF operations focused on dismantling IS-K’s leadership. The high-value targeting campaign removed platoon leaders, shadow governors and the top emir from the battlefield. Qari Hekmat was killed in a U.S. strike in Qorogh village, Faryab, on 5 April 2018. Afterwards, the joint ASSF-U.S. operations advanced to night raids directly on Moghul and Darzab villages.
  • In mid-2018, IS-K in Jowzjan collapsed in the face of accelerated Taliban offensives. Mawlawi Habib Rahman, the new emir, and 230 IS-K fighters surrendered to the ANDSF in order to avoid the Taliban. The ANDSF airlifted the desperate fighters from their falling stronghold Moghul to Sheberghan. The IS-K fighters have joined the reconciliation process, which could potentially involve amnesty. Other IS-K fighters who evaded the Taliban fled to the neighboring Sar-e-Pol province.

10. In northwestern Afghanistan, IS-K seeks to exploit the growing ethnic tensions between Turkic, Pashtun and nomadic populations and leverage sectarian rifts with the Shia Hazara. The IS-K presence in the Northwest coincides with the Taliban’s attempt to contest government control in Faryab, Badghis and Herat province. Increased activities among Turkic populations could also increase the group’s reach into Central Asian states such as Tajikistan.


MASS-CASUALTY CAPABILITY (ATTACK MAP)

11. IS-K remains capable of conducting mass-casualty attacks against government and sectarian (mostly Shi’a Hazara) targets on a transnational scale. As our data analysis shows, Kabul and Jalalabad are particularly vulnerable to IS-K violence.

IS-K Attack map (2015-2018) via T-Intelligence

12. The data set consists of 83 attacks claimed by IS-K in Afghanistan and Pakistan from January 2015 to December 2018. Most attacks took place last year (48), followed by 2017 (20) and 2015-2016 (13). The lethality of attacks has gradually decreased, with a major drop in May 2018. Since then, the vast majority of IS-K attacks resulted in less than 20 casualties per attack. This coincides with IS-K’s territorial loss in Jowjzan and Nangarhar provinces. Out of IS-K’s top 10 most lethal attacks, only two were conducted in 2018:

  • Quetta, PAK – 94 killed, almost 150 injured (August, 2016)
  • Sehwan, PAK – 88 killed, 250 injured (February, 2017)
  • Kabul, AFG – 84 killed, 250 injured (July, 2016)
  • Kabul, AFG – 70 killed (April, 2018)
  • Quetta, PAK – 61 killed (October, 2016)
  • Kuzhdar, PAK – 56 killed (November, 2016)
  • Kabul, AFG – 51 killed (November, 2017)
  • Kabul, AFG – 49 killed (March, 2017)
  • Gardez, AFG – 48 killed (August, 2018)
  • Karachi, PAK – 46 killed (May, 2015)

13. Approximately 72 percent of the IS-K attacks targeted Kabul (39 percent) or locations in Nangarhar province (33 percent), primarily Jalalabad. Approximately 75 percent of IS-K targets were government sites, embassies or civilians, followed by 20 percent Shi’a gatherings or mosques. Overall, IS-K prefers suicide attacks augmented by small arms fire.


By HARM

Editing by Gecko 

The cover photo shows the GBU-43 (MOAB) detonation in Mohmand valley, Nangarhar Province in April 13, 2017.

Mohmand valley is also known as Mamand and continues into Pakistan’s Anbar Mohmand tribal agency.

A small dissident segment of the IMU retained its allegiance to al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. The splinter group, which was announced on June 10 2016, denounced IS-K and claims the IMU brand.

Our data analysis encompasses the majority, but not all of IS-K attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, not all attacks have been precisely pint-pointed, some are estimated (district, city, neighborhood), given the sparse information released in the media.

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USAF F-22A Raptors Could Ground Venezuela’s Su-30MK2s and Establish No-Fly Zone

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment. (a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish…

The following analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.


(a) If the situation in Venezuela escalates and Russia moves forward with its plans to establish a strategic bomber presence in the Caribbeans, it is not out of the question that the United States will step up its opposition to the Maduro government. The Trump administration, alongside the European Union and the large majority of Latin American states, already provide political support to the Juan Guaidó interim presidency. Currently, the rift between factions of Venezuela’s armed forces and the Maduro government are growing. Suspicious of his own security forces, Maduro reportedly hired Russian private contractors to provide additional VIP protection.  Should the conflict turn into a civil war, the United States will likely support neighbouring allied countries such as Columbia. While National Security Advisor John Bolton is suggesting the idea of deploying 5,000 troops to Columbia, it is unlikely that such a plan is anything more than a psychological operation against Maduro and the Kremlin.

(b) Overall, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will venture into regime change operations. Any hypothetical U.S.-led military engagement against the Venezuelan regime will likely be limited, as seen in the previous strikes against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airfield and chemical weapons sites. The most likely of the unlikely military engagements will be an air interdiction operation, aimed at reducing the government’s capability of inflicting mass-casualties on opposition targets. Also known as a No-Fly Zone (NFZ), the U.S. could ground the Venezuelan Air Force’s (VAF) aircrafts and suppress its air defences.

(c) The United States has never conducted air interdiction missions in an environment contested by fourth generation aircraft and advanced anti-access surface-to-air missile (SAMs) systems such as Venezuela’s Su-30MK2 and S-300VM SAM system respectively. While sidelined in the last NFZ operation in Libya, the F-22A could however take a control role in such a hypothetical engagement.


The Su-30MK2/ Flanker-C Threat

1. While overall modest, the Venezuelan Air Force (VAF) is regionally superior in terms of aircraft and air defense systems. The VAF’s combat aircraft inventory is particularly interesting, as it sports a combination of 20 unmodernized F-16 Fighting Falcons (A/B configuration) and 23 fourth generation “plus” Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK2 (NATO Reporting name: Flanker-C).

Four Su-30Mk2 VAF formation via Sergio j. Padrón (One Big Photo)

2. Like the Su-33 (Flanker-D) and Su-35 (Flanker-E), the Su-30MK2 Flanker-C is an evolution of the Su-27 family (Flanker-A/B). This variant was designed in particular to outmatch its American counterpart, the F-15 Eagle, in air superiority battles. While the United States stopped investing in the F-15 family (except for export) when transitioning to the F-22A Raptor as the nation’s air superiority aircraft, the Russians continued to enhance the Flanker-family. The limited number of Flanker-C aircraft in the VAF’s inventory will likely be a strong incentive for the U.S. to deploy the F-22A for air-to-air combat, at least in addition to the more equal F-15 or F-18 aircraft.

3. As in all fighter jet comparisons, there is much controversy about the balance of power between the F-22A and Russia’s Flanker-family. While the F-22A very low-observable (VLO) classified radar-cross section (RCS), supercruise speed and standoff sensors render it superior, some estimates claim that the Flanker-C/D/E is closing the gap in terms of avionics, maneuverability and armament.

4. In a hypothetical air combat maneuver (ACM) or dogfight, the F-22A Raptor could detect the Flanker-C using the APG-77, a long-range (160 to 250 km) low-probability of intercept radar, and engage it with standoff munition from beyond-visual range (BVR) without being detected. This is called the first look, first shot, first kill doctrine and its central to the F-22A engagement tactic.

5. The Flanker-C’s own active-electronic scanner array (AESA) radar, called IRBIS-E, is the most advanced Russian-made airborne sensor and has a claimed detection range of over 300 km. The F-22’s VLO RCS, while classified, is believed to be between 0.0001 and 0.0003 square meters, with the frontal aspect performing better. Within this parameters, it is estimated that the IRBIS-E could detect the F-22A at a distance of 90 km.

6. Should the F-22 be drawn into a medium-range fight or acquire a horizontal ACM pattern, the Flanker-C becomes a challenging adversary. In visual range direct engagement, the F-22A major weakness is its smaller number of electronic warfare (EW) vulnerable air-to-air missiles that it can carry in comparison to the Flanker-C. However, the inclusion of the AIM-120 AMRAAM blocks C-D allows for a 120 to 160 km operational range with increased EW resilience. While the F-22’s VLO-nature mandates a limited and concealed payload, the jet can compensate the limited munnition number by participating in a combined strike force with the “missile truck” F-15 or other aircraft (tasked with targeting the VAF’s F-16s), even relaying targeting data via data link.

An F-22 flies over Andrews Air Force Base in 2008

7. The VAF lacks BVR standoff munition equivalent to the AIM-120 AMRAAM block C/D as well as the training and combat experience of American and Russian pilots. Furthermore, such direct comparisons are ineffective when applied to real combat scenarios. In a NFZ operation, the F-22A Raptors will likely be supported by AWACS, Electronic Attack (EA) aircraft and naval assets. At the same time, the VAF will seek to draw the ACM in the engagement range of its SAM batteries.  However, as the F-22As ACM tactics rely on standoff BVR combat, the air superiority jet will avoid medium-range fights at all costs and even disengage when necessary. In a 2017 joint aviation exercise, the F-22A exercised ACM against Malaysian Royal Air Force Su-30MKK (Flanker-G).

8. Besides ACM, a hypothetical U.S. NFZ over Venezuela would also involve massive ship- and air-launched cruise missile attacks on the VAF’s airfields and logistics (fuel storage, hangers, etc.). This would reduce the number of fighter jets that the Venezuelans could get airborne in the first place. However, that would bring surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems into the equation.


Confronting the S-300VM/ SA-23?

9. Venezuela has the most the most robust air defense in the region. The Air Defense Command under the VAF fields two long-range S-300VM (SA-23 Gladiator) SAM systems used for area air defense (AAD) and several mid-range Buk M-2 for point air defense (PAD). Most assets are deployed to provide overlapping and saturated coverage over key governmental and military sites in Caracas.

Venezuela’s S-300VM (SA-23) via Defesanet

10. The SA-23 is a capable anti-access asset, threatening ballistic missiles, fighter jets, heavy lifters and even unmanned aerial vehicles. U.S. AWACS, AEW and ISR platforms would be at the highest risk, even at the SAM’s 200 km range edge. The U.S. operates its own S-300, acquired in the 1990s from Belarus that it uses for defense research and development purposes and for pilots to test ways to defeat the system. Likewise, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) has likely acquired critical intelligence on how the system functions from allied S-300 operators such as Slovakia, Greece and Bulgaria, and Ukraine.

11. Theoretically, a F-22A or F-35B can enter a S-300 denied airspace and strike the battery or guide external-launched standoff and loitering munition to the target. Such a penetration would require a massive electronic attack support from airborne platforms, such as the E/A-8 Growlers, and a small payload for the F-22/F-35.  

12. The VAF uses the highly-mobile self-propelled Buk M-2 (SA-17 Grizzly) SAM to counter air-breathing threats. As the SA-23’s long-range high-altitude coverage would push aircraft to fly low and use terrain to hide from radars, the Buk M-2 would have a greater opportunity to intercept missile attacks. Some analysts estimate that the SA-17 is performing better than the Pantsir S-1 (SA-20 Greyhound).

13. The VAF also operates SA-2 and SA-3 SAMs. However, NATO does not consider these systems as anti-access capabilities, given how inefficient they are in the face of current technology.

14. Should the unlikely NFZ operation also contain a suppression/ destruction of enemy air defense (S/DEAD) element, the U.S. would likely conduct multi-platform air-naval saturation strikes, which would overwhelm the VAF’s SAMs and subsequent radars. As seen in recent SEAD engagements, air defense unit cannot maintain a 24/7 high readiness. SAM systems can be caught off guard, the personnel can be unprepared or give in to psychological pressure. Overall, Venezuela will not be able to protect its airspace if the United States takes out its Flanker-Cs. Follow-up S/DEAD sorties might not even be needed.

15. In past NFZ operations, adversaries regularly complied to the new operational environment after the “first day of war”. The defenders chose to ground their aircraft and switch the SAM radars off to increase survivability of their armed forces, when attacking forces were reported in the area. In other engagements, such as the air campaigns in Yugoslavia and Vietnam, defending SAM personnel caused major surprises. While we cannot estimate how a hypothetical NFZ operation in Venezuela will turn out, it would certainly be the most contested airspace that U.S. forces experienced in the past decades.


By HARM

This analysis is neither news nor a forecast, but a purely hypothetical assessment.  

VAF’s official name is the Venezuelan National Bolivarian Military Aviation (VNBMA).

VAF placed an order for 12 more Su-30MK2 from Russia, rising the overall inventory number to 35, however a delivery or initial operational capability date has not been estimated or announced.

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Hunting AQAP in Yemen: Joint UAE-US Special Operations Base in Mukalla (IMINT)

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in…

(1) The number of U.S. operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has drastically increased under the Trump administration. The U.S. has established its primary base of operations in the city-port of Mukalla (Southern Yemen), which was liberated from AQAP by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its local allies. The cooperation with the UAE enables the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Forces Command (JSOC) to target AQAP’s strongest cells in Yemen.

(2) Southern and Central Yemen are important recruitment and training grounds for AQAP. The rough, remote and hostile terrain provides sanctuary for high-value targets (HVTs) that have planned and continue to plan major attacks on American citizens and the U.S. homeland.

(3) AQAP’s power in Southern and Central Yemen has increased considerably during the Yemeni Civil War. The central government’s collapse allowed AQAP to establish large urban strongholds. AQAP dominates the Hadramawt, Mahrah and Shabwa provinces, and exerts significant control in Abyan and Bayda. AQAP cells have conducted attacks in major cities such as Aden, Hudayah and Sana’a. AQAP is currently estimated to have between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters in Yemen.

(4) In 2015, AQAP seized control of Mukalla (Hadramawt province), proclaiming it the capital of the Yemeni “wilayat.” As Mukalla is Yemen’s second largest city-port on the Southern seaboard after Aden, the city became an important revenue and recruitment source for AQAP.

(5) In mid 2016, AQAP was ousted from Mukalla by the UAE and an allied coalition of local tribesmen and secessionist militias that later formed the Southern Transnational Council (STC). The ground offensive was backed by limited U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) elements as well as by U.S. airborne and maritime intelligence support. The UAE claims that it has neutralized over 500 AQAP militants, however, media sources suggest that the Emiratis also bribed a number of jihadists to withdraw from the area.

(6) In 2017, the new U.S. Presidential administration authorized the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD) to accelerate and expand operations against AQAP. Mukalla, now under UAE/STC control, has become America’s largest covert forward operating base (FOB) in Yemen.

(7) The SOFs deployed in Mukalla are drawn from all JSOC special mission units, but mostly the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (known as DEVGRU or Navy SEAL Team Six). The SOFs get airlifted from the U.S. Naval Expeditionary Base “Camp Lemonnier” in Djibouti to Riyan Airport in Mukalla. Camp Lemonnier is a hub for special operations in the Horn of Africa area and the most important launching pad for drone/unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes outside of Afghanistan.

(8) Flight traffic monitors show undesignated Dornier 328-110 turboprop commuter aircrafts departing Camp Lemonnier and “disappearing” over Mukalla after descending for landing. The Dornier 328 is the civilian version of the C-146A Wolfhound – the primary SOF air asset used to airlift fireteams or small cargo loads into semi-prepared airfields. JSOC is known to use the civilian version of the Wolfhound for SOF deployment in order to maintain operations security (OPSEC) standards.

Sample of D328 flights observed by T-Intelligence

(9) Image Intelligence (IMINT) based on commercial satellite imagery furthermore reveals a significant military expansion of Riyan Airport since it was liberated from AQAP. UAE/STC forces have built or considerably expanded at least 10 sites in vicinity to the runway, including observation posts, warehouses, fortified sites, patrol routes, a small seashore construction, and a number of unidentified buildings. A militarized checkpoint replaces the civilian airport entrance, which was closed in mid 2016. The main apron hosts military attack and transport helicopters, which can be used to forward deploy SOFs into combat areas.

Military enhancements of Riyan Airport near Mukalla, Yemen: July 1, 2016 (post-AQAP liberation) vs. June 23, 2018 (last available satellite imagery)

Military aircraft activity on the main apron and minimal enhancements around the taxiway: July 18, 2017 vs. June 23, 2018

Seashore constructions: July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

Logistics site “Delta” (West of the runway): July 1, 2016 vs. June 23, 2018

(8) Reports also suggest that a covert detention and interrogation center – run by local authorities and exploited by the UAE and U.S. for intelligence collection – has been established on the grounds of Riyan Airport. We assess that all of the airport enhancements serve military purposes. In 2018, enlargement and enhancement efforts continue.

(9) The mission profile of JSOC SOFs deployed in Yemen is to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and HVT-execution, including support for kinetic UAV strikes. They frequently liaise and coordinate with Emirati commandos and enlist the help of local STC-aligned tribesmen and militias.

(10) The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) also assists the U.S. counter-terrorism effort. The KSA commands a network of human intelligence assets that has infiltrated AQAP’s ranks. These assets provide critical intelligence and plant signal beacons on HVTs for UAV targeting missions. AQAP is trying combat the KSA-infiltration through strict counterintelligence measures, as announced in a propaganda video issued in early September 2018.   

(11) The unprecedented surge in SOF missions has produced valuable intelligence and eliminated several AQAP HVTs in Yemen. According to CENTCOM datasets assessed by The Long War Journal, the U.S. conducted 125 UAV kinetic strikes in 2017 – more than in the previous four years combined. With 33 strikes by September 2018, the U.S. is again on track to surpass the pre-2017 years. The SOF/UAV strikes have targeted AQAP training camps, checkpoints, safe-houses, and tactical positions in Abuan, Bayda, Mahraw, Shabwa and Northern Hadramawt – Northern Hadramawt hereby received the largest share of attention.  

(12) A U.S. UAV strike in the second half of 2017 reportedly killed Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, AQAPs most talented bombmaker. Al-Asiri was known for disguising bombs as printer cartridges, cell phones, and other devices or planting them in human bodies to bypass airport security. The UAE played a major role in the target-acquisition process, as Emirati commandos captured al-Asiri’s wife for interrogation. Al-Asiri’s death represents a crucial blow for AQAP’s capabilities.

(13) At the moment, the primary target of U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen is AQAP emir Qasim al-Raymi, who is closely associated with Ayman al-Zawahiri, AQ’s top commander. In the past eight years, al-Raymi was unsuccessfully targeted by the U.S. at least three times. The last attempt took place in 2017, when a controversial DEVGRU-led raid on al-Raymi’s safe house in Yalka (Bayda province) failed to kill the target.

(14) It is highly likely that U.S. SOF/UAV operations in Yemen will intensify in the next years. The U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is currently looking to contract private operators for airborne casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) in Yemen and the Horn of Africa area. According to the draft performance work statement published online, the Special Operations Command Center will be the beneficiary of these services. The call specifies that the private contractors have to be able to operate fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft on unprepared runways as small as 900 m, use night-vision goggles, carry no less than eight men or almost 2 tons of cargo, and refuel with running engines. Aircrafts need to be armored with lightweight, Level III (7.62 mm and 5.56 mm) Ballistic Protection Systems.

(15) The details of this commercial listing suggest a sustained expansion of the current SOF activities in and around Yemen. We asses that U.S. SOFs have moved further in AQAP-held territory and are building/planning to build FOBs with coaxial dirt runways to receive supplies and evacuate personnel. As these FOB postings are highly dangerous, the SOFs require MEDEVAC/CASEVAC assets that are available 24/7 and can work under heavy enemy fire.


DISCLAIMER: Some IMINT materials have been excluded from the analysis in order to safeguard U.S. OPSEC, as SOF missions in Yemen are ongoing.  

by HARM and Gecko

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

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

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


Target-Acquisition Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maintaining Military Initiative: Preempting Retaliation


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


by HARM

 

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

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

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

Intentions of the Trump administration: Reinstate Deterrence through Controlled Escalation

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

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

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


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

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

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


 

Capabilities Employed: Tracking Assets and Flow of Logistics Surrounding Syria   

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

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

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


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

Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) and Operational Layout

  1. On Saturday morning before dawn (April 14, 2018), the US, UK and France launched 105 missiles against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons development and storage assets. The military campaign was limited and sought to reinstate a credible deterrence against the Assad’s regime usage of WMDs after crossing the red-line instated by the U.S. unilateral strike from April 2017.
  2. The trilateral force consisting of the US, UK and France was integrated throughout the planning and execution of the operation and employed solely air and naval assets deployed in the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East. The U.S. fired:
  •  37 (30+7) TLAMs from the Red Sea (USS Monterey and USS Laboon);
  • 23 TLAMs from the Arab Gulf (USS Higgins);
  • 6 TLAMs from the secretive Virginia-class submarines John Warner operating from the eastern Mediterranean;
  • and 19 JSAAM-ER missiles by a B-1b Strategic bomber coming from Al-Udeid Air base (Qatar) via Jordan. The B-1b’s Defensive Counter Air (DCA) escort was provided by F-16Cs, F-15Cs  and advanced F-22 Raptors armed with air-to-air missiles and the counter-EW capable EA-6B Prowler from the U.S. Marines Corps. This marked the first use of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) in combat. 

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

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

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

by HARM

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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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Something to Fear: Iraqi Feds keep Kurds in line

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have ousted the Kurdish Pashmerga forces from key areas that they have expanded to throughout the anti-ISIS campaign: Mosul Dam, Kirkuk, Sinjar and…

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) have ousted the Kurdish Pashmerga forces from key areas that they have expanded to throughout the anti-ISIS campaign: Mosul Dam, Kirkuk, Sinjar and the Nineveh plains. These events are relevant to comprehend the ongoing tensions within the anti-ISIS camp in Iraq, and subsequently Iran’s asserting geopolitical order. Erbil’s push for Kurdish independence was overly optimistic and led to the reversal of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) extent to 2003 limits.


KIRKUK: A RED LINE 

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE KURDS OVERPLAYED THEIR CARD

7. Beyond the historical disputed character of the Kirkuk area, it was the Independence referendum vote organized by the authorities in Erbil that prompted a steadfast counter-reaction. Recent diplomatic threats, and military drills (some of them with Turkey) set the stage for a full-on intervention on October 16th, by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Shia’s militias (Popular Mobilization Units/ PMUs) sponsored and trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to storm the city.

8. In a desperate attempt to withhold, the President of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, and the Pashmerga allowed the outlawed terror separatist terror group, PKK, to assert a public, frontline position in a bid to defend it. While reports and photos confirm the premise, Pashmerga’s official position is contrary, mentioning that the embedded and mentioned fighters are merely ‘PKK sympathizers”. Regardless of that, it was a dangerous gamble, since Turkmen officials and militias called upon Turkey to intervene and protect the community for PKK. Inherently, it was only the Iraqi intervention that stopped a potential Turkish one.

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

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

 

BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

11. The near non-combat setting in Kirkuk was also a result of negotiations in the city between IRGC’s al-Quods branch and the Pashmerga. Eqbalpour, an Iranian officer who works closely with Qasem Soleimani (al-Quds commander) offered Pashmerga a chance to surrender. He took out a map of the area and spread it out in front of his Kurdish counterparts. “This is our military plan. We will hit you tonight from three points — here, here and here,” he said, and then left the meeting with his entourage.

12. U.S. forces were based outside Kirkuk at the K-1 air base, and played no role in these event. Washington failed to contain the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil and limiting Iran’s involvement in Iraqi affairs. Whether this is the result of an intelligence failure, of bad decision making, or simply due to the situational constraints, it is unknown.

13. Accordingly, Baghdad forced the Kurds into an agreement to withdraw back to the 2003 agreed borders, basically nullifying their efforts in the past 3-4 years. The effort was a success for both Baghdad, which projected sovereignty and force over the entire Iraqi territory, and Iran, which prevented the disintegration of its neighboring state.

Iraqi Security Forces in Kirkuk’s governor office.

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

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

 

A CREDIBLE DETERRENT

16. The Kurdish independence dream in Iraq crumbled before it even began. Surrounded by hostile and anxious opponents, and supported by pragmatic overseas allies, the Kurds didn’t stand a chance. More so given the naïve and hasty referendum, that had no chance to stand without military backing. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) gave the Pashmerga something to fear, a credible deterrent aimed at prevent similar outbursts in the future .

17. Turkey and Syria hope, that their own Kurds also learned a lesson. The United States, unable to contain its two divergent allies was completely isolated in the process, and witnessed again the extent of Iranian dominance in Iraq. Many critics argue that Washington intentionally stood idle and left the Shi’a militias steal the show.

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

18. We assess that U.S. constraint was aimed at maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and at appeasing Baghdad’s demands. Furthermore, the ISF/PMU operation in Kirkuk did not pose an existential threat to the KRG and only affected the disputed peripheral territories. As long as the Iraqis and PMUs don’t decide to attack Erbil, or Suleymaniah, or attempt to subjugate the entirety of the KRG as a whole, then a U.S. intervention is highly unlikely and unnecessary. Should the showdown continue, Iran and Da’esh (ISIS) will be the main beneficiaries.

19. If the Kurdish commanders want to avoid repeating the mistakes from Kirkuk, they should work towards unifying their command & control structures, improve capabilities and modernize their quasi-militia-like structure.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click “View Image” for a larger format.


Danger Close #1

September 16, 2017

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


Syrians, Russian cross the Euphrates

September 17, 2017

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

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


Danger Close #2

September 24, 2017 

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

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


Deir ez-Zor Civil Council in the works

September 23, 2017

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


Reinforcements T.B.A. 

September 24, 2017

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


Advances continue

September 24, 2017

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

Loyalists ahead

October 15, 2017:

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

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

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


Double wins: Mayadin and Omar Oil Fields

October 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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Iraq after Mosul: Coping with a Difficult Diagnosis

Situation Report – After 3 years of ISIS occupation, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been completely liberated. The 9-months long battle saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alongside allies, Shi’a…

Situation Report – After 3 years of ISIS occupation, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been completely liberated. The 9-months long battle saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alongside allies, Shi’a PMU and the U.S.-led Coalition fighting their way block-to-block from the rigged, mined bridges of East Mosul, to the Euphrates river crossing of early 2017, liberation of the International Airport and the later fully encirclement of the remaining ISIS fighters in the Rafidyian, Sheik abu al Ula neighborhoods that form the city’s Old Town in the West.

With the city’s homecoming, inevitable strategic questions were raised in regards to the situation in Mosul, Niniveh and in whole of Iraq: Where is the state going? Can the society recover? And where to defeat ISIS next? Overall, the main questions is: What to expect next? I hope that this analysis can answer some of those questions.

 

Context: ISIS falls in Mosul

This was one of the largest urban battles in modern history, stretching from the ‘traditional’ urban guerrilla type of warfare to conventional, systemic tactics. Although asymmetric elements dominated the battlefront, such as the hostile informational environment perpetuated by ISIS, bomb drones or SVBIEDs, that slowed down and even halted at times the operations. I have extensively covered the tactics employed by ISIS in West Mosul in the anaylsis ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t: Radiography of ISIS’s Desperate Tactics in Mosul’s Operational Playground’.

Between 400,000 and 1,000,000 civilians are estimated are believed to have been displaced by the battles, and lower than 400,000 to have been remained within the city. The dense urban setting used by the jihadists as fortifications and the many innocent people as human shields, made it impossible to fully contain collateral damage and minimize the destruction brought to the city itself, although in West Mosul and notably in the Old Town, few structures have remained in place, leaving just dust and rubble behind. The Governor of Niniveh said for Rudaw: “The damage in the right bank[west Mosul], compared to the left bank is 30 times more. […] I mean here the destruction of the city’s infrastructure, the houses of the people, and the government offices.” In addition, Mahdi al-Alaq, chief of staff at the Iraqi Prime Minister also told reporters that their estimates of rebuilding Mosul stands at 50$ billions.

The battle gathered around 100,000 anti-ISIS forces, stretching from Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Pashmerga militiamen and Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) fighters to form an unlikely but temporary alliance in order to combat the jihadists. They suffered at least 770 casualties (some say even above 1,000) in the whole battle while combating several thousands of ISIS fighters (reports indicate around 10-12,000) which are considered to have been entirely neutralized.

This truly was one of the largest urban battles in modern history.

Damage in Mosul’s Old Town (source: AFP)

 

Short Retrospective:

In 2014 ISIS was on the offensive, spearheading attacks as close as Baghdad’s airport, after consolidating control in cities as Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditah and almost completely controlling the border with Syria and Jordan, while also retaining a minimal foothold on the Saudi boundary as well.

On June 9th, 2014, around 75,000 Iraqi Security Forces and Federal Police mass deserted and abandoned their posts to the jihadist offensive in Mosul, leaving over 1,000,000 people under a brutal Salafist apparatus that self-proclaimed itself as a ‘Caliphate’. From the stronghold established in Mosul, the terrorists expanded through the multi-ethnic governorate of Niniveh, shared for hundreds of years by Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmens, Sunni and Shi’a. With Anbar province already subdued, the fall of Mosul proceeded the capture of Tikrit (capital of Salah ad-Din) and parts of Kirkuk by ISIS, moving later south-east to Diyala; gradually surrounding Baghdad.

It should be acknowledged that Shi’a militias played a decisive role in protecting the capital and the ‘urban belt’ surrounding it, when the Iraqi Army either mass-deserted from cities, or were weakened, weary to be successful enough.

Both Iraq’s capital and KRG’s (Kurdistan Regional Government) capital (Erbil) were within a comfortable reach of ‘Islamic State’s’ fighters, whilst also establishing a foothold on the Iranian border. The United States faced a dramatically degraded security environment than it left that was quickly leveraged in regional geopolitical ambitions. First came Malaki’s demise, followed by the United States led-Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ and Iran’s own anti-ISIS campaign that got involved to cleanse Iraq from ISIS;  both powers competing to become the main backer of Baghdad’s new installed ‘compromise’ government of Abadi. While in the north, CENTCOM began exclusively coordinating with KRG’s Pashmerga militia and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

First step was to relieve pressure on Baghdad through targeted campaigns that challenged the terror organization’s consolidated postures in Ramadi and Falluajh, but also against possible sleeper cells within the capital. Due to the continued sectarian tensions and tribal politics that catalyzed the rift in 2012 in the first place stirring anti-governmental protests and anti-Shi’a sentiments, this endeavor was a challenge for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as well.  

Throughout 2015 and up to mid-2016, the ISF concentrated on (a) liberating the main cities of Anbar that could threaten the capital and (b) prevented the terrorist elements from keeping their ‘safe haven’ in the ‘Sunni Triangle’ (Baqubah-Ramadi-Tikrit). Aided by Shi’a militias they continued their path up north, through the multi-ethnic Niniveh region. Having the Kurdish Pashmerga already cut off the main supply route (via Sinjar) of Mosul with Raqqa in November 2015, by mid-2016, when ISFs and allies spearheaded their way to Mosul, ISIS was dramatically on the defensive not even managing to pull off counter-attacks. Therefore in late-October/ early-November ISF stormed East Mosul starting off the battle.

The United States refurbished and repaired the trashed Qayyarah West Air Base, just 60 km south of Mosul, so that air assets could be stationed there in order to provide sharp and around-the-clock air sorties. Throughout the fight, attack helicopters, drones and fighter jets have been employed by the US-led Coalition and by the Iraqi Air Force.

East Mosul was liberated by late-January 2017 so that on February-March 2017, ISF could cross the Tigris into the western banks, and managing to capture the International Airport. Within that time frame, they did not only manage to consolidate ground in the western districts, but also managed to close the last supply corridors and avenues of escape, through the countryside and suburbs of West Mosul. This encirclement came late, which also added to the slow progress registered by the ISF, only after did ISIS became increasingly entangled and asphyxiated, sheltering into the Old Town, which they transformed into ‘no man’s land’.

 

The Final Push for Victory

After a steadfast last push by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that lasted for the past six weeks and basically crumbled their hideouts, ISIS had nowhere else to hide or flee. The remaining hundreds of fighters (200-300) have been mostly neutralized. On July 9th, 2017, ISF liberated the Old Town, and ISIS lost its last foothold in Mosul. Many fighters tried to escape by swimming through the Tigris River, but Prime-Minister Abadi assured us that his men had shot at them. He personally came by a helicopter to announce the end of the Caliphate while his soldiers planted the Iraqi flag on the western banks of the Tigris river through the dust of what only suggest was the Old Town.

Civilians and soldiers alike celebrated throughout the country, from Mosul to Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad. However, the most symbolic gesture was when ISIS blew up the al-Nuri mosque in an attempt to frame the Coalition for it and to disseminate propaganda. That was the exact place where on June 29th, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the ‘Caliphate’. He was filmed, at that time, showing abandoned Iraqi army badges and vehicles left by fleeing soldiers, as he added: “There is no army in the world that can withstand the soldiers of Islam,”.

Defeat and move to Tel Afar

Now, ISIS acknowledged its defeat, while also suggesting that the Turkmen-Arab town of Tel Afar is their next HQ. In accordance to this policy, their online and social media propaganda focused on the ‘irrelevance of losing land’, which I can say from an empirical perspective by identifying a significant influx of ISIS propaganda on Twitter focusing on these kind of messages.

 

Diagnosis:

 (1) The liberation of Mosul does not guarantee peace in Mosul. For now, it is impossible to even estimate how many sleeper cells have remained in the city, posing an unpredictable and constant danger capable of taking several forms: from a trimmed and washed ex-‘mujahidin’ to an elderly woman holding a baby (recent case) or a radicalized wife of an ISIS fighter, deeming to commit attacks. The stabilization and pacification process will prove to be as difficult and tricky as the actual liberation was. In addition, the city is yet to be cleaned of mines or IED’s, which is a critical condition for the returning of refugees and internal displaced people back home, but also for the government to safely operate the reconstruction process. The population will face a housing problem, taking into consideration the level of damage inflicted throughout the whole city, a illiteracy one (being 3 years since schools have been closed) and ultimately, an economic issue; which could potentially spark a second wave of migration (internal or external).

(2) Iraq is still a fractured state with a divided society, fears and uncertainty will dominate. Iraq needs national-wide reconciliation process as its main strategic objective. As vaguely, cliché and ‘utopist’ as it sounds, that’s the only way Iraq can become ISIS-proof. Ultimately, Da’esh is simply a name, a placeholder, the ideology/ mentality is the real enemy that can shape-shift, as it did, from Al Qaeda in Iraq to ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ and later to ISIS. Such organizations emulate radical ideas as militant Salafism when they are given (unintentional) the chance to capitalize on the political-societal environment. For example (as June Cole competently points out), some of the Sunni press in Iraq has extensively focused on the damage that he ISF has done in Mosul, rather than on the victory achieved; collateral damage was the central theme for ISIS propaganda as well in the eve of Mosul’s liberation. For Baghdad, prevention and risk reduction is key, while for the Iraqis, societal resilience is the path. Easier said than done, especially since the local regional customs puts the family, the clan or tribe above the State. Subsequently, we can conceptualize the framework from a theoretical standpoint whereas the application remains under the volatile auspicious of the ‘trial and error’ methodology.

(3) There is still work to be done military-wise. The jihadists still have several strongholds in northern Iraq (Tel Afar and Hawja) and on the Euphrates River valley (al-Qa’im); the later still being directly linked with ‘safe havens’ in Syria, consolidated in Abu Kamal, Mayadin and Deir-Ezzor’s countryside. That effort will require a joint, synchronized venture with willing parties operating in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, that even if executed by the book, still could not guarantee the prevention of a long-term ISIS insurgency around the border.

(4) Given the geopolitical value that the border area provides, it is expected that the race for the border to intensify, consequently creating additional friction between the U.S. and Iran around the Syrian Civil War and the War against ISIS in Iraq. Both external powers have already under control a border checkpoint each, the Washington backed-Rebels control al-Tanf crossing, on the Syrian side of al-Waleed, while Teheran coordinated the liberation of al-Jaris crossing, west of Sinjar which has access to the Syrian Democratic Forces (U.S. backed)-controlled Hasakha province of Syria. Let’s call it a draw, for now, but the region is gradually intensifying in this high-stakes strategic game.

(5) Northern Iraq is a heated intersection of stakeholders and their competing objectives. This could potentially errupt in the upcoming battle for Tel Afar. The Kurdish Pashmerga dreams of expanding Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders, even publicly admitting that it will not cede back to Baghdad some of the liberate villages in the area; the Shia’s militias & Iranian advisers aspire for the border while Baghdad wishes to expand and project its sovereignty throughout all of its  territory. Above this entanglement comes the aspirations of secondary players, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its ally PKK, wishing to expand its own influence over mount Sinjar, replicating a ‘second Qandil’ (as Erdogan described it) and establishing a ‘safe haven’ stretching from north-west Iraq to its east; which inadvertently would trigger a larger Turkish involvement (Ankara is still sour over being sidelined for the battle for Mosul) via allied Kurdish factions, as Pashmerga, Turkmen or Sunni militias trained at Turkey’s camp Bashiqa in northern Iraq. Tensions have already boiled in Sinjar between the KDP Pashmerga and PUK/PKK, that were also fueled by Turkey.  Also, Niniveh governorate is one of the main oil-rich territories of Iraq, therefor being a prospected region of economy, energy and commerce. This situation has the potential to play out in regards to who liberates Tel Afar and how; beyond the official narrative. 

 

Further Prospects:

While the Islamic State’s four main wilayats in Iraq are regressing and shrinking, notably: Wilayat al-Furat (western Anbar), Wilayat al-Jazzira (north-west of Niniveh), Wilayat al-Karkuk (parts of Tamim governorate) and Wilayat Dijlah (western Tamim, around Hawija), the ISF, Pashmerga and PMU’s are expected to concentrate firstly on two main strongholds: Hawija and Tel Afar.

Hawija: a medium sized town of around 500,000 inhabitants, mostly Arab Sunnis, located in the Tamim Governorate’s plains south of the Zagros mountains, east of the Tigris river and northeast of Baghdad, is the Islamic State’s most eastern territory. Together with several rural locations south of the governorate’s capital, Kirkuk, this ISIS-held pocket is completely surrounded by ISF and Coalition forces. 

Military sources from the Joint Operations Command told Al-Monitor that Hawija will be next after the fall of Mosul, but due to continued disagreements between ISF and Kurdish Pashmerga on a timelines and territory-control, the assault has been postponed several times. Similar to the whole ‘Sunni Triangle’ Hawija was both a Saddam Hussein loyalist stronghold and later an ISIS bastion, being the scene of the violent and deadly clashes between protestors and government forces in 2013. The city and its rural pockets became isolated from the rest of ISIS-held territory in mid-2016, when ISF cut-through Salah ad-Din in their way to establish a corridor from Baghdad to besiege Mosul.

The Kurds have the primary interest to push for the offensive to happen sooner than later, due to Hawija’s strategic node linking Mosul and Kirkuk and directly affecting the security in the KRG’s limits. In early 2017, Iraqi Police arrested several ISIS sleeper cells planted in the liberated city of Kirkuk and coordinated from Hawija, plotting to retake the city.

Tel Afar: Just 63 km west of Mosul and 52 km east of Sinjar, Tel Afar is another isolated pocket of the jihadists. The city itself numbers 200,000 people of Sunni Arabs but also a significant Turkmen population, or Shias.  The city and its rural outskirts have been surrounded by Iraq’s 9th and 15th Divisions in partnership with Popular Mobilization Units and Katib Hezbollah for several months, awaiting the approval for an assault. The situation in Tel Afar is somewhat more complex politically as the local militants have a autonomous drive or even aspirations to succeed from ISIS, as a rumors puts it.

During the Department of Defense Press Briefing held on July 13th, attended by Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, Spokesperson for Joint Operations Command; Brigadier General Halgwrd Hikman Ali, Spokesperson for the Peshmerga Forces, and Brigadier General Saad Maan, Iraqi Ministry Of Interior Spokesman, the Iraqi officials avoided to name the exact next target.

However, Transylvania Intelligence has reasons to believe the Tel Afar will be the focus of whatever combined or centered mission will proceed the liberation of Mosul.

 

End Notes:

  • Iraq needs a national wide, versatile, top-to-bottom reconciliation process if it wants to survive and evolve as a prosperous nation and as a secure state.
  • Building societal resilience while managing crisis from expanding are main components in order to prevent new Salafist-Jihadist shape-shifters to form from local gangs or rogue tribes.
  • The outcomes of the battle for Mosul will still pose significant security problems for the inhabitants. Such issues are: ISIS sleeper cells, left-behind IED’s & mines, extreme poverty, housing problems (at least half of the city is destroyed) and a perpetual hostile informational environment.
  • The surgical-military component needs to continue in order to vanquish ISIS from northern Iraq, namely from Tal Afar and Hawja but also to,
  • fully degrade and annihilate the ‘safe haven’ from the Euphrates Valley acting on a transnational-operational approach that will liberate al-Qa’im (Iraq), in a joint effort with whoever clears the Syrian side of Abu Kamal, Mayadin, rural Deir-Ezzor and most importantly for now, Raqqa.
  • The geopolitical race for the border, which pits the United States against Iran for a struggle to control the major border outposts and crossings, posses a significant strategic risk for the Iraq, duly because it would accentuate ethnic and political discrepancies within the society; notably if used by these external parties as local proxies.
  • The strategic steak of northern Iraq raises mentionable worries over the stability of the region. ISF’s, PMU’s, Kurds and Turks have consistent motivations and plans for the Niniveh governorate, which could threaten to raise a certain alarming level of insecurity.
  • Prepare for the high-possibility – high-impact hypothesis that a long-term insurgency will reinstate in Anbar (Iraq) and Deir-Ezzor (Syria) perpetuating the anarchy of the border area and that will pose a chronic threat to Baghdad.

Commander of the US-led Coalition, Joseph Dunford, and two Iraqi officers hold an ISIS flag upside down, in a symbolic gesture signaling triumph.

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