Tag: YPG

Kobani Residents Protest Russian-Turkish Patrols, Coalition Secures Syrian Energy Infrastructure

Locals from Kobani (Aleppo province, Syria) threw stones and eggs at the joint Turkish-Russian patrols, videos show. The motorcade involved Russian military police “Tigr” armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel…

Locals from Kobani (Aleppo province, Syria) threw stones and eggs at the joint Turkish-Russian patrols, videos show. The motorcade involved Russian military police “Tigr” armored infantry vehicles and armored personnel carriers as well as Turkish army “Kipri” mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which patrolled along the frontier at the outskirts of Kobani. The crowd gathered in Alishar village to express their displeasure towards the Russian and Turkish presence in northern Syria and the agreement between the two countries. 

TURKISH-RUSSIAN JOINT PATROLS

The agreement brokered between Ankara and Moscow on October 23, 2019, recognizes Turkey’s 32-km deep “safe zone” between Tel Abyad and Serekanyie/Ras al Ayn and calls for joint military patrols along the Turkish-Syrian border 10 km outside the safe zone, with the exception of Qamishli city.

The Russian-Turkish agreement fills the security vacuum created by the departure of U.S. forces from northern Syria. Following the withdrawal of the nearly 1,000 U.S. forces from their bases in the area, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russian armored and mechanized columns moved towards the frontline positions in northern Syria to block the advance of Turkish-backed rebels.

ENHANCED FORCE PROTECTION FOR COALITION FORCES
Despite President Trump’s hasty pullout order, the U.S. will enhance the remaining forces to secure Syria’s petrochemical energy infrastructure along the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) and the Iraqi border. Amid concerns that the U.S. military forces in the area are inadequate to fend off major enemy assaults, the White House approved the deployment of a U.S. Army armoured brigade combat team (ABCT) battalion to eastern Syria.

The ABCT was supplied by assets from the U.S. Army’s Operation “Spartan Shield,” which are deployed in Camp Arifjan (Kuwait) for contingency operations. On November 1, 2019, the 30th ABCT, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” re-deployed with M2A2 “Bradley” fighting vehicles into eastern Syria to provide much needed force protection for the small U.S. contingent based in the remote “Green Village” housing complex and the Conoco oil field, Deir ez-Zor province.

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NE Syria: YPG and SNA Comply with Turkish-American Ceasefire

Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US and Turkey reached a deal to suspend the Turkish military offensive in Northeastern (NE) Syria. After tense negotiations in Ankara, Turkish President…

Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US and Turkey reached a deal to suspend the Turkish military offensive in Northeastern (NE) Syria. After tense negotiations in Ankara, Turkish President Erdogan agreed to a 120 hour long ceasefire on Thursday. The ceasefire grants the Kurdish “Peoples’ Protection Units” (or YPG) 120 hours to withdraw 32 km from the Turkish border. 

The YPG and the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), which is spearheading Turkey’s ground offensive in NE Syria, both stated that they will respect the agreement. James Jeffrey, the US Special Envoy for Syria, said that the agreement will be focused on “those areas where the Turks had penetrated into northeast Syria.” This suggests that the buffer zone will encompass the territory between Tel Abyad and the outskirts of (or the city of) Serekaniye on an east-west axis and reach 32 km south up to the M4 highway. President Erdogan has committed to stop the Turkish-Rebel incursion in NE Syria, after SNA forces will occupy this area.  



While the agreement brings a welcome pause to the violent clashes along the Turkish-Syrian border, it essentially validates most of Erdogan’s military objectives in the area. The aim of Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring” is to remove the YPG from the border area and to secure a buffer zone, where 3 million Syrian refugees will be relocated. Since the operation commenced a week ago, the SNA has struggled to break through YPG defenses. The agreed withdrawal of the Kurdish militia from the area will allow the SNA to make major advances without encountering heavy resistance. On the upside, YPG has a chance to safely evacuate Serekaniye, a border town besieged by Turkish artillery and SNA infantry. In the meanwhile, the Turkish Armed Forces will likely seek to further entrench themselves in the area by building combat outposts and defensive fortifications. 

The international community fears that the Turkish-backed SNA will commit war crimes and displace the Kurdish population in the area, as seen during Operation “Olive Branch” in northwestern Aleppo province. The SNA is coalition of Arab and Turkmen Sunni armed opposition groups that were in the past loosely known as the “Free Syrian Army.” Despite the re-branding, the SNA essentially remains a hotchpotch of hardline Islamist groups. 

The YPG is the military wing of the Syria-based Democratic Union Party (or PYD) and provided for the vast majority of fighters and the entire senior command of the U.S-trained and equipped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The PYD has undeniable links to the PKK, a Kuridish separatist and social-revolutionary militia engaged in a violent insurgency against the Turkish state. During the Coalition’s fight against ISIS, the YPG received sophisticated weapons and training from the US military. Ankara fears that these new capabilities could be used to attack Turkey. Due to this concern, it is unlikely that Turkey will put a stop to military action against the YPG after the agreement is implemented. 

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US Out, Assad In: Syrian Army to Enter Northern Syria

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According…

As part of an agreement between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Assad regime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will secure the cities along the Manbij-Malikyah line. According to multiple local reports, SAA soldiers have already moved from their positions in Al-Arimah into Manbij, after US troops vacated Aleppo province. If confirmed, the initial SAA presence in Manbij is likely residual and symbolic and therefore exposed to attacks from the Turkish-backed Syrian Armed Opposition (TSAO), which has gathered in Jarabulus north of the city. Online footage confirms that Syrian troops have taken defensive positions in Hasakah and Qamishli. 

Syrian Civil War map by T-Intelligence

The SDF finalised the deal with the Assad regime after US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the remaining US troops in Northern Syria will leave the area, following intelligence reports that Turkey will extend its incursion south and west of the agreed “security mechanism” safe area. 

All US forces in northern Syria are expected to retreat down the Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV) to eastern Syria (Deir ez-Zor and southern Hasakah province). Yesterday the TSAO seized central parts of the M4 highway, disrupting the critical road infrastructure between Manbij and the Iraqi border. The US forces were therefore increasingly isolated and exposed to attacks from the rebel groups. The US troops that were caught in “danger close” fire from Turksih artillery on Saturday have reportedly already withdrawn. 


Four days into the offensive, TSAO groups have posted photos proving the seizure of the border town of Tel Abyad from the Kurdish-led SDF. Sporadic air strikes and cross-border artillery attacks continue to indiscriminately pound the entire border region, targeting both rural and urban areas. 

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Turkish “Danger Close” Fire on US troops in Syria

US troops in the vicinity of Kobani (Ayn al Arab) came under artillery fire from Turkish positions around 9 AM (local time) on October 11, 2019.  Turkey used T-155 Firitna…

US troops in the vicinity of Kobani (Ayn al Arab) came under artillery fire from Turkish positions around 9 AM (local time) on October 11, 2019. 

Turkey used T-155 Firitna 155mm self-propelled howitzers and/or 120mm mortars to attack SDF/YPG positions on Mashtenour hill (SE Kobani), our assessment finds. The Turkish artillery fire fell several meters from a Forward Operating Base (FOB) that hosts US special forces. The incident was confirmed by the Department of Defense spokesperson, who said that Turkey has the exact grid coordinates (MLRS) of all US position in NE Syria. 

Ankara confirmed the shelling of the area, but firmly rejected any accusation of “danger close” fire on US positions. Turkish artillerymen have shelled Mashtenour hill in response to an YPG mortar attack on its military base in Mursitpinar (south of Suruc) on the Syrian border. 

As stated before, US forces have not withdrawn from NE Syria. Around 50 US troops retreated from four borderline observation posts between Tel Abyad and Seri Kane to larger bases further south. US forces remain in the immediate vicinity and (sometimes) in the line of fire of the Turkish-rebel operation #PeaceSpring. The sustained US presence ensures that the Turkish ground offensive will NOT EXTEND beyond the “security mechanism” area to encompass major locations such as Kobani, Manbij, Qamishli and Ain Issa. 

Tactical overview on the Kobani-Mursitpinar border area by T-Intelligence



It is highly unlikely that Turkey will be satisfied with the limited “security mechanism” area. Turkish forces will likely try to intimidate/harass US troops in NE to withdraw further south, clearing additional territory. President Erdogan envisions a buffer zone that stretches along the entire Turkish border.

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Turkey Begins Northern Syria Offensive

In preparation for a ground assault, Turkish F-16s and artillery units have attacked more than ten positions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on October 9,…

In preparation for a ground assault, Turkish F-16s and artillery units have attacked more than ten positions controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria on October 9, 2019. The SDF returned fire with rocket attacks on Turkish border towns. 

Despite international pressure, Turkish President Erdogan has announced that the Turkish military and the “Syrian National Army” (SNA)” will cross the Syrian border in the next hours. The SNA is a coalition of Turkish-backed Sunni-Arab and Turkmen rebel groups that already spearheaded Turkey’s previous military operations in Syria. 

The Turkish-SNA operation “Peace Spring” aims to establish a 30 km deep “safe zone” at the Turkish-Syrian border, where millions of Syrian refugees could be repatriated. The initial stage of the advance will, however, only encompass the stretch of Syrian land between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, up until the M4 highway, as US forces still remain outside this area. The US military has only vacated four observation posts on the borderline and withdrawn to bases south of the M4 highway. 

Approximate tactical situation in northern Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, Syria via T-intelligence



In the past 72 hours, Turkey has amassed hundreds of SNA militiamen from Northern Aleppo and deployed artillery units to the Turkish border towns of Akçakale and Ceylanpınar but also reinforced their positions in Jarabulus, Azzaz and northern Manbij (Syria). The Tel-Abyad-Ras-al-Ayn line will likely prove to be an easy capture, since the Kurdish YPG has demilitarized the area under the US-Turkish “security mechanism” (SM) that was recently negotiated. The SM calls for the establishment of a limited 15 km deep buffer zone policed by combined American-Turkish military patrols. 

Commander-in-chief and President Donald Trump has ordered the 2,500 US troops in Syria not to intervene on behalf of any side.  While the US military will not defend the SDF, the Department of Defense has disconnected the Turkish military from their ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) feed and Air Tasking Order to make sure that the TSNA will not profit from US intelligence. 



Due to the rapidly deteriorating security environment in northeastern Syria, the Department of Defense will likely recommend to withdraw US troops further down the Middle Euphrates River Valley. In this case, the YPG/SDF will likely make a stance along the M4 highway, leading to a heads-on confrontation with TSNA forces. 

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U.S.-led Coalition & SDF Terminate ISIS’ Physical Caliphate, COINOPS to Follow

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley…

On March 23, 2019 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the liberation of Baghuz al-Fawqani, the “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq’s” (ISIS/Da’esh) last stronghold in Syria’s Mid-Euphrates River Valley (MERV). The victory marks the end of the terror group’s physical caliphate, which once stretched from central Iraq to northwestern Syria and encompassed almost 10 million people. The remaining Da’esh fighters (Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign terrorist fighters/FTFs) made their last stand in a in a pocket of four square kilometers, consisting of a makeshift tent camp, desolated houses, and underground tunnels.

As the conventional campaign ends, the post-physical-caliphate era begins with 10,000-20,000 Da’esh fighters on the loose across Syria and Iraq, ready to resurge at the right time, while their wives and children guarantee a transgenerational survival of the jihadist struggle.


OPERATIONAL LAYOUT

1. The battle for Baghuz al-Fawqani began in late December 2018. The offensive marked the last phase of Operation Roundup (OR), a joint effort of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to clear the MERV and the Syrian-Iraqi border from Da’esh remnants.

2. OR was spearheaded by the SDF’s Deir ez-Zor and al-Hasakah local Arab Sunni affiliates, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC). When the offensive stagnated in late 2018, the SDF was forced to deploy the battle-hardened Manbij Military Council (MMC) and the Kurdish YPG militia – the PKK’s Syrian affiliate – from Raqqa and the Kabur valley to finish the job. YPG-led operations were however repeatedly halted due to Turkish cross-border attacks in northern Syria.

3. The U.S.-led Coalition/CJTF-OIR continued to assist the SDF with advisors, special operations forces (SOF), artillery and air support. The Coalition’s Combined Air Operation Center (COAC) based in al-Udeid air base (Qatar) employed a variety of aircraft for close air support (CAS), based on targeting data from SDF-embedded forward air traffic controllers/SOFs. While CJTF-OIR statements only mention the F-15C*, IMINT shared by twitter user @obretix and SOCMINT reports also indicate the presence of the following aircraft:

  • B1b Bomber, AC-130 Spectre gunship, Apache attack helicopters, U28A tactical ISR, MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (United States Air Force);
  • Beechcraft 350 ISTAR and Tornado fighter jet (British Royal Air Force);
  • Rafale F4 (French Air Force).  

4. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), U.S. and French infantrymen furthermore assisted the SDF with cross-border artillery fire from Fire Base Shaham (near al-Qa’im, Iraq) and other combat outposts in the MERV. ISF and select Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deployed on the Iraqi-Syrian border to prevent Da’esh fighters from escaping to Iraq.

5. Pro-government forces stationed in Al Abukamal blocked the western escape route from Baghuz. While it is unknown whether the Syrian Arab Army coordinated with the Coalition or the SDF, the pro-government forces engaged Da’esh fighters who attempted to cross the Euphrates river and escape into the desert.


INTELLIGENCE FAILURE?

6. Despite the high-number of airborne ISR platforms and intense SIGINT and GEOINT collection efforts, the CJTF-OIR and SDF have consistently been mistaken about the enemy and civilian presence in the Baghuz pocket.

7. The initial estimate of the enemy’s order of the battle (January 2019) was between 600 and 1,400 fighters, shielded by over 2,500 civilians. After the evacuation of the Baghuz pocket, the SDF nevertheless estimated that 1,600 Da’esh fighter were killed and 25,000 civilians left the enclave. The intelligence failure repeatedly delayed the ground assault and allowed Da’esh to go on the offensive:

a. Da’esh exploited the considerable civilian presence to complicate and deter air strikes.

  • The CJTF-OIR reported only 97 strikes between February 24 and March 9 2019, resulting in 137 engagements that targeted 228 Daesh tactical units and destroyed 71 tactical vehicles, 35 vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, 17 supply routes, 11 fighting positions, 10 weapons caches, eight staging areas, four command and control nodes, two tunnels, two heavy machine guns, one anti-aircraft gun, one fuel tanker, and one boat.
  • In the previous months, the number of engagements was significantly higher (646 strikes between January 13 and 26, 179 strikes between January 27 and February 9, and 186 strikes between February 10 and 23).

b. Starting in mid-February, the SDF and Da’esh struck a number of deals that facilitated the exit of non-combatants (wounded fighters, spouses, children and captives) from Baghuz. This forced the SDF to pause the military offensive and organize the flow of refugees to the al-Hawl internal displaced people (IDP) camp (Hasakah province). The main screening points were established east of the riverside tent camp on the SDF-held Jabal Baghuz, a 240 m high cliff. Testimonies from aid workers suggest that no party was expecting or prepared to face such a challenge.

8. A second CJTF-OIR/SDF intelligence failure was to believe that the besieged Da’esh fighters would quickly surrender to avoid a “bloodbath.” To keep their own losses to a minimum, the CJTF and SDF pursued a strategy of “bombing Da’esh into surrendering.” However, this expectation was not only unrealistic (based on previous battles and lessons learned), but also counterproductive, as it provided Da’esh with immense propaganda potential to divinize their “last stand.”

9. When the SDF resumed ground operations on March 11, Da’esh met the advancing force with rocket-propelled grenades, mortar attacks, sniper fire and suicide vehicle-borne  improvised explosive device (VBIED). A number of female fighters/Da’esh wives engaged in firefights with the SDF. Even when the SDF was “in the wire,” the jihadists barricaded themselves in tunnels and continued with suicide attacks on the surface.


DA’ESH IS NOT DEFEATED

10. Although the physical caliphate has been 100% liberated, Da’esh still poses a lasting threat to regional and international security. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimates that absent counterinsurgency pressure, Da’esh will likely resurge in Syria within six to twelve months and regain limited territory in the MERV.

a. Da’esh maintains a residual presence of over 20,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq. Da’esh still controls remote and sparsely populated areas both states. The jihadist ranks consist of senior leaders, fighters and facilitators. The group also operates sleeper cells in cities, which are capable of conducting targeted assassinations and mass casualty attacks. Ultimately, the dispersed Da’esh fighters are working towards overhauling their transnational networks and regaining an offensive military capacity.

  • In Syria, Da’esh maintains a heavy presence in the Markaz al-Mayadin subdistrict (Deir ez-Zor province) and the oil-rich al-Sukhnah subdistrict (central Homs province). The pro-government camp, which controls this territory, has not taken adequate measures to limit the group’s freedom of movement such as airborne patrols or 24/7 checkpoints. As a result, Da’esh cells have already conducted attacks and will likely increase efforts to disrupt traffic on the Palmyra/Tadmur-Deir ez-Zor highway and seize oil pumping stations in central Syria. Da’esh cells also conducted several IED and suicide attacks in Manbij, Raqqa and Tabqa, which resulted in civilian and Coalition casualties, in the last year. The MERV area is equally challenging to stabilize, as the territory is sparsely populated, porous and dominated by local tribal dynamics. The SDF will need approximately 30,000 local Arab Sunni recruits to conduct indigenous-led stabilization operations in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa province.
  • In Iraq, Da’esh is mostly active in Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salah ad-Din province. Da’esh fighters are regularly conducting night raids, kidnappings and assassinations. The joint CJTF-OIR-ISF Operation Last Warning (OLW) targets the remaining Da’esh pockets where they are most likely to resurgence (Anbar desert, Wadi Hauran, and southern Nineveh). However, the Iraqi Security Forces are years, if not decades, away from operating without CJTF-OIR support. The NATO Training Mission-Iraq remains vital for local capacity building.

Syria and Iraq Situation map as of March, 2019 via T-Intelligence

  • In Afghanistan, joint U.S.-Afghan SOF and air operations redirected the expansion of IS-Khorasan (IS-K) from the Spin Ghar mountain range (southern Nangarhar province) to the Pakistani borderlands controlled by the Taliban, resulting in escalating violence between the two groups. IS-K is currently entrenching positions in the infamous Korengal valley (Kunar province), while losing the Darzab enclave in the Uzbek-majority Jowjan province [MORE ON IS-K IN AFGHANISTAN].

b. The situation in Al Hawl IDP camp poses a critical threat for post-caliphate stabilization efforts. Al-Hawl has been overwhelmed by the influx of non-combatants from Baghuz. The 25,000 new inhabitants mostly consist of Da’esh fighters and their families, who remain unrepentant and radicalized. As assessed by U.S. CENTCOM General Joseph Votel, the large-scale surrender in Baghuz “is not the surrender of ISIS as an organization but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and the preservation of their capabilities by taking their chances in camps for internally displaced persons and going to ground in remote areas and waiting for the right time to resurge.” Like its predecessor organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Da’esh will likely attempt to destabilize or attack camps and prisons in order to replenish its ranks with battle hardened fighters. Da’esh-affiliated media are already calling for attacks on SDF positions all over Syria.

c. Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) have proven to be the group’s die-hard element in the battle for Baghuz. If allowed to return to Europe/North America, they will pose an immediate threat to their home countries. However, due to the lack of evidence necessary for valid convictions, Western governments prefer to leave FTFs in SDF custody (short-term solution) or have them transferred to the Iraqi authorities (for conviction).

11. CJTF-OIR will gradually disengage from major military operations and reduce the troop count from 2,200 to 400 in Syria. In this last operational phase, CJTF-OIR will provide security, planning and support to the Iraqi government and appropriate authorities in Syria to prevent Da’esh from resurging. CJTF-OIR can be expected to keep air-land ISR and CAS assets in Iraq and prosecute high-value targets using SOFs and UAVs.


By HARM and Gecko

Due to operations security (OPSEC) CJTF-OIR does not report the number or type of aircraft employed in operations, the number of munitions dropped in each strike, or the number of individual munition impact points against a target.

YPG social media accounts refer to the battle for Baghuz as Operation Fight Terrorism and to the MERV offensive as Operation Jazzira Storm.

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

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

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


Setting the Stage

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

 

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

 

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

Rush to Deir-Ezzor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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


Headhunting: HVTs for KIA

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

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

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

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

 

End Notes

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

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

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

Option 1: Fair-share.

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

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

In this hypothesis I can identify two weaknesses:

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

Option 2: All in.

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

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


UPDATE September 9th, 2017

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


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Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar Declares Autonomy amid Kurdish Independence Vote

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety…

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety at Erbil that has an independence referendum scheduled for this Autumn. There is an utmost potential that the tinderbox of ethnic, sectarian and regional rivalries of Sinjar could escalate in a battlefield orchestrated by regional stakeholders intending to prevent the independence referendum from taking place.

 

The Declaration of Shengal/ Sinjar

The declaration came at a press conference attended by Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly Co-chairs Hisên Hecî Nefso and Rîham Hıço, Democratic Administration Board Co-chairs Hecî Hesen Pîso and Nehlê Yusif Hefsun, Deputy Co-chair Yardımcısı Kurdê Elî Ezîz, YBŞ (Shengal Resistance Units) Commander Seîd Hesen Seîd, Êzîdxan Asayish member Faris Herbo Xidir and Shengal Youth’s Assembly Co-Spokesperson Îbrahîm Omer, according to ANF (you can find the full communique here).

Press conference held by the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly through which autonomy was proclaimed for Sinjar/ Shengal.

The declaration invoked the right of the Yezidi/ Êzidîs people for self-determination, mentioning their “most ancient faith and cultural society in history” because of which they “have suffered repeated genocides”, especially mentioning the ethnic cleansing, forced conversion, sex slavery and mass killing at the hands of Da’esh (ISIS). The tragedy began in early 2014 when ISIS was emerging in both Iraq and Syria; in March 2014, the jihadists captured the town of Sinjar administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) but majority populated by Yazidis. The later, took shelter on the near-by Sinjar mountain, becoming encircled and under siege from the terror group. ISIS and its radical and puritarian interpretation of Islam  considers the Yazidis as being “devil worshipers” and therefor legitimizes, in their insane and made-up jurisprudence, to brutalize them as they chose to: from mass-killing to sex enslavement. The tragedy was designated as a genocide by the United Nations, the United States (by both Trump and Obama administrations) and many other countries.

To their defense came the United States that deployed in August 2014 Special Forces and advisors, alongside the British Special Air Service (SAS) to asses options and plan an evacuation of the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, sparking the first air strikes conducted by the Pentagon against ISIS.  On the ground, salvation came through the Kurdish factions as the KRG’s rulling party KDP, and its military force, the Pashmerga but also rival Marxist guerilla and outlawed PKK-backed by the PUK – the opposition party. Sinjar was liberated in October 2015, lifting the siege on the Yazidi population and also cutting a major supply route from Raqqa (ISIS’s capital) to Mosul (ISIS’s largest city). Since then, both Pashmerga and PKK began contesting the turf. The fighters of PKK backed the formation of the Sinjar Alliance, a joint command room between the the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), the Êzîdxan Women’s Units (YJÊ) – the two Yazidi militas formed in 2007 after the exact model of the Syrian Kurdish YPG/ YPJ groups – and themselves. While the Pashmerga inflicted political pressure backed by their military foothold in the area, somewhat also enforcing Ankara’s protests regarding PKK’s presence in the area. There have been times when the two camps clashed in the Sinjar area, forcing additional displacement from the Yazidis.

Close to 10,000 Yazidis have been killed, kidnapped  by ISIS, even more than this have been also affected or displaced. A study published in academic journal PLOS Medicine found that 3,100 were murdered, with almost half executed by gunshot, beheading or being burned alive, while the rest died from starvation, dehydration or injuries during the Da’esh siege on Mount Sinjar. While 6,800 of them have been kidnapped, most of them (women) being forced into sex slavery.  The same studies suggest that over 2,5% of the estimated 400,000 population of Yazidi has been exterminated by ISIS.

Map of the situation in Mount Sinjar (2014). Source: unknown

 

Sinjar: A Second ‘Qandil’ in the Eyes of Turkey

Turkey fears that a Sinjar controlled by the PKK could become a strategic node for a permanent logistics and paramilitary corridor from the PKK’s homebase in the Qandil mountains (north-eastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan bordering Iran) all the way to the Syrian boundary, providing the outlawed group with a superior capacity to move and assert its interest against Turkish national security concerns and in regards to the Kurdish population in northern Syria, where they benefit from an allegiance and organizational link with the YPG, Iraq and overall the entire region coordinated through KCK format established as of 2004.

Ankara is also pitted in a difficult situation, as their primary partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has not backed down in face of pressure from holding the announced independence referendum. This ballot will also involve Sinjar, regardless of its disputed status in relation with the Iraqi government from Baghdad, therefore the KDP needs a sensitive approach towards the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly in order to secure their cooperation in the interest of expanding the referendum. On the other hand, both President Erdogan and Prime-Minister Yildirim announced that Turkey will not let Sinjar become “a second Qandil” referring to the safe-heaven held by the PKK on the Iraqi-Iranian border from which the outlawed group has launched repeated attacks in Turkey’s southeastern province for the past decades. They are currently awaiting for the KDP to solve the issue as promised, while not resisting to tease that a second, military option also exists.

Worth to mention that KDP hosts a significant amount of Turkish troops in the area and that Ankara has a training camp at Bashiqa where hundreds of Sunni tribesmen and Pashmerga soldiers have been trained. In a bid to prevent further Turkish actions, the KDP and its Syrian Kurdish allies sought in March to dislodge the PKK from Khanasor by entering YBS controlled area, but failed. Later on in April 2017, Turkish fighter jets targeted PKK and YBS militants in the area, but ended up killing 6 KDP Peshmerga instead.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted n August 21st that his government is considering joint military action with Iran against the PKK. “[The] PKK terror organization has a foot in Iran,” Erdogan said, speaking to reporters ahead of an official visit to Jordan. “They always cause harm to Iran and us. … We believe if the two countries cooperate, we can reach a conclusion in a much shorter period of time.” Iranian-backed PMU’s are kilometers away in northern Iraq, both at the Syrian border after they secured the Umm Jaris crossing, and at Tel Afar, where together with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have just launched an offensive to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Tel Afar, as the post-Mosul nexus. More on the situation post-Mosul in this analysis.

On August 24th, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli issued two major threats in regards to the situation in Northern Iraq“Turkey should cooperate with Iran to destroy PKK terrorists located in Northern Iraq,” In relation to the upcoming referendum which will be held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, Bahçeli said that it is unacceptable and that it should be considered as a cause of war for Turkey.

Brief Geopolitics of Kurdistan: Can It Break Free of the Constraint Theory?

On June 7th, 2017, after high-level consultations between political factions, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani announced that a date has been set for the Independence referendum to take place: 25th of September. KRG already enjoys a large extent of self-governing features such as an own parliament, armed forces and jurisdiction, however the relations with the central government with Baghdad has always been sour.

(a) The rule of Saddam Hussein threatened the mere existence of the Kurds in northern Iraq, exacerbating armed conflicts and insurgencies in face of chemical attacks and attempted genocides by the Ba’ath authority. The conflict was in a dead-end as the many negotiations between KDP, PUK and Ba’ath failed to produce anything than temporary ceasefires. The situation only improved after the United States launched Operation ‘Provide Comfort’  in 1991 which sought to deter Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish population by implementing a no-fly interdiction in the airspace and a safe-zone on the ground which at the mission’s end in 1996, fully established today’s self-ruling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

  • In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the divisive Maliki government challenged the economical and political structures and functionality of KRG through its policies. The Maliki cabinet refused to send the block grants that pay for the salaries of the region’s civil servants, or have boiled tensions over the city of Kirkuk at a near-war level, especially since the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) abandoned their positions when ISIS stormed Northern Iraq, creating a vacuum,that in Kurdish eyes, served the area on a plate to the jihadists while the Iraqis were making a run for it. Although deployment of the Pashmerga and the appointment of the comprise government of Abadi loosened up the situation, disagreements remained due to the Kurdish advancement outside the territory of KRG essentially annexing new turf under their jurisdiction, and in regards to the oil exports and revenue.
  • Of course, most of Baghdad’s hostility towards the KRG post-2003 came from the oil disputes, which is also strongly related with the status of Kirkuk. As the central government applies ultra-centralized policies in regards to oil production and exports, the KRG tried to by-pass the Constitution and independently sell oil through separate deals (as with Turkey, for example) while not returning any taxes or revenues to Baghdad, as long as possible. This stirs a never-ending line of blames and justifications between the two intra-state actors heavily dependent on oil exports. In reality, Article 111 and 112 from the Iraqi Constitution related to energy issues clearly states that ‘oil and gas shall be propriety of all Iraqi people in all regions and provinces’ […] ‘The Federal Government should jointly manage oil and from current fields with the governments of the producing regions and provinces, provided that the proceeds from these shall be allocated fairly and proportionately with the population distribution throughout the country’. KRG is entitled to 17% of these revenues.

(b) Iraq’s oil politics is a decisive input in understanding the state of affairs within and around the country. In 2003 the estimated capacity would have put Iraq in equal terms with Saudi Arabia, or even past it taking into account the vast potential of unexplored reserves. This Brooking analysis lists some of those statistics: the Petroleum Economist Magazine estimates that there were as many as 200 bbl of oil in Iraq; the Federation of American Scientists estimates 215 bbl; a study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University claimed that Iraq has 220 bbl of undiscovered oil; and another study by the Center for Global Energy Studies and Petrolog & Associates offered an even more optimistic estimate of 300 bbl. Fellow partners from OPEC fell threatened by Iraq’s vast potential and they have good reasons to be so.

(c) World Oil informed two months ago that Iraq was the top crude supplier to India for a third month in May, shipping 1 MMbpd. Iraqi supplies accounted for 23% of India’s purchases last month, up from an average 19% in the previous four months, while Saudi Arabia’s share fell by 1% to 17%, the data showed. Oil producers are facing increasing competition in major markets like China and India as OPEC as those are the fastest-growing and potentially-largest consumer markets. India’s $2-trillion economy imports more than 80% of its crude requirement and the IEA expects it to be the fastest-growing consumer through 2040.

view of Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, as seen from Hotel Divan, a popular spot for the Kurdish elite and foreign businessmen. In the foreground is the long-stalled development Empire World, a casualty of the economic crisis now facing the region. (Jake Naughton/GlobalPost Investigations)

(d) Deepening our understanding of the oil problem, it should be mentioned that a significant part of Iraq’s wealth and deposits are also situated in the North, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the ‘territorial belt’ disputed with Baghdad. According a highly-insightful analysis from the Revenue Watch Institute, the southern-most region of Basra accounts for 59% of Iraqi oil reserves (65 bbl), Kirkuk comes second with 12% (13 bbl), while KRG’s total is only 3%, including the oil fields in Erbil, Dohuk and Suleymaniyah. Looking in stark contrast, northern Iraq did not enjoy the same stability as the southern lands, namely Basra where skyscrapers and luxurious malls are being built, a significant portion of the oil fields in Kirkuk are damaged or outdated and only operate at half their capacity. Kirkuk’s joker card its the undiscovered/ unexploited deposits which maintain optimism and attract investments from international energy giants.

On the other hand, the prospects of KRG-based oil looked fairly pessimistic for investors in the past years, as revisions over some oil fields found more water than oil, reducing the deposit’s projected potential. Consequently, decision makers at Erbil decided to maintain the massive oil fields located in Kirkuk in the post-liberation period. And while energy-reasons are not the most PR-friendly justification, the historical ones are. Kirkuk was a Kurdish majority city up to the rule of Saddam Hussein who forcefully displace them and encourage Sunni Arabs to populate the region instead. Over the course of dozens of years, this social engineering still casts a shadow over Kurdish-Arab Sunni relations.

(e) Geoeconomic-wise, the KRG’s oil potential and independent dealings are conditioned by two complex actors, Turkey and the Iraq.  While Ankara holds the soul pipeline towards its industrial port in Ceyhan used as a hub for further exports and transports, benefiting from a somewhat dependency of the Kurds towards their transitional posture, Baghdad controls the roads and pipelines capable of transporting the products to other regional markets or integrated networks of roads. In an exclusive Reuters article, the region’s minister for natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, said that to avoid detection Kurdish oil was often funneled through Israel, transferred directly between Greek commercial ships off the coast of Malta, and decoy ships used to make it harder for Baghdad to track. However Baghdad did fill a lawsuit against Greek company Marine Management Services over its involvement in these dealings. But even to by-pass Baghdad, KRG needed to help of Turkey.

(f) Looking at trade figures, Kurdistan’s Board of Investments informs that imports account for 85% of the estimated US$5.0–5.5 billion of annual external trade in the Kurdistan Region.  Most imported goods are consumed in the Region and are not re-exported as value-added products. The largest external trading partner for KRG is Turkey and most of products consists in food and consumables.

(g) Translating this data over the disputed areas and into demographics, the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) in Kurdistan reports that:

  • 6 million people in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed territories such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin have the right to vote in the referendum.
  • 48% of the Kurdistan Region’s land is still disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, and some 2.7 million people live in the disputed territories.

 

End Notes

(1) Looking at these figures we can conclude that for an independent Kurdistan the possession of Kirkuk, Sinjar and other disputed areas is key. However, given Iraq’s and Turkey’s disapproval towards the vote, and subsequently, leverage over Erbil (trade, energy, infrastructure) the referendum could simply result into a sterile non-actionable outcome if the expected “Yes” camp will win. Both Ankara and Baghdad can simply block Kurdish oil exports and isolate the region as wanted, even before talking about a military solution. Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak already said that the referendum would harm energy cooperation with the KRG, which pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day to Turkey’s Ceyhan export terminal.

According to the constraint theory, there are a number of clear geographical, statistical inputs that can predict an actor’s behavior, there have been enough cases (example: Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015) that ignored strong trade ties, energy dependency or political comfort, on the grounds that third effects could overthrow the second ones, and unlock a better prospect. In this logic, while Erbil knows that the referendum could be disastrous for the country’s trade and economics due to geopolitical constraints as immediate secondary effects, it could also judge the long-term prospects as being an opportunity of emergence which is nothing short or rational thinking however dangerous would it be to roam through an adverse Middle Eastern quagmire.

(2) It is not clear if PKK’s influence over the Sinjar Council that recently proclaimed autonomy will exercise any kind of negative effect over the referendum. It may be the case that PKK wants to assert itself in the region before an independent Kurdistan emerges, in a bid to softly challenge KDP’s authority. However, this uncontrolled enthusiasm could actually put in danger the referendum by attracting a Turkish economic boycott against the KRG, or military intervention targeting the Sinjar Alliance, which is exactly the scenario that Masoud Barzani, KDP President, fears and tries to prevent through a combination of military pressure, shuttle diplomacy and effectively, stalling time. Ankara might not see the proclamation of autonomy in Sinjar as an organic right to self-determination of persecuted Yazidis, but a political instrumentation from the PKK to achieve influence in the area.

(3) Secretary of Defense James Mattis signaled Washington’s nuanced stance on this matter by announcing on August 23rd at Baghdad that they are committed to preserve the unity of Iraq, while the later meeting at Erbil with President Masoud Barzani he only suggested that the dialogue with the Iraqi government should continue on that matter. In addition to this, Iran and Syria also oppose a Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq fearing that a domino effect could vacuum their Kurdish-populated territories as well – also a vital concern of Turkey.

The unanimous decision taken by all Kurdish parties to support the referendum shows a rare moment of Kurdish unity throughout history, which could cancel any external soft-or-smart power effort to disrupt KRG’s affairs.

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