House GOP and Democrats find that CENTCOM manipulated intel on the US fight against ISIS, contradicting internal analysis, in reports released this week.Read More
A coup was launched last night against the Turkish Government, which appears to have failed, and left hundreds dead.Read More
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The UK is officially leaving the EU as a result of the Brexit referendum. What does this mean for NATO?Read More
The United States announced that it will only commit one battalion to the NATO mission against Russian influence in Eastern Europe, going against their previous promises to commit two battalions to the mission.Read More
This week the US Department of Defense announced that it would send an additional 250 troops to Syria to serve in non-combat support roles, marking the beginning of a deeper US involvement in country's ongoing civil war.Read More
The Russia enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea plays a key role in the country's military strategy within Eastern Europe, and is host to a number of high-tech weapons systems.Read More
Bombings and violence ramp up in Istanbul from Kurdish militants and terrorists, refugees are flowing over Turkey's borders, and President Erdogan is cracking down hard on dissent. A look into the different issues the country now faces.Read More
There has been a large amount of talk in recent days about the possibility of Saudi intervention in Syria, now however Turkey seems to also want to join in on the action.Read More
In the hours preceding Christmas Eve, Afghan forces were able to fend off Taliban sieges in the Sangin District, killing a “Taliban commander and 50 fighters.” Nonetheless, the district, located in Afghanistan's strategic Helmand Province, could not have been rid of Taliban presence without US and British airstrikes and air support backing Afghan reinforcements.
Since this incident in the Sangin District, and since the recent deaths of six Americans in an attack just outside of Bagram Air Base, President Obama’s vow to significantly reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan has again become a prominent component of US foreign policy--with 9,800 slated to stay in the region into most of 2016, and 5,500 to be deployed beyond the president’s departure from office.
U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations Michele Sison spoke at the Security Council on December 21st, reiterating the fact that while US forces will still be present, the primary focus is to establish Afghan forces to fight the Taliban.
“Our message to these forces is clear – there is only one path to peace, security, and stability in Afghanistan. And that path is not through military action – but through an Afghan-led reconciliation that builds upon the democratic and human rights gains the country has made since 2001. The Taliban’s attacks harm the Afghan people, destabilize the country, and betray the group’s disregard for the lives of the Afghan people. They must stop.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter also echoed sentiments of US-Afghan partnership in a December 18 press conference in Jalalabad, despite this being the longest war in American history:
“[...] as groups like ISIL emerge on the battlefield, or al-Qaeda seeks to reestablish a safe haven, we must be prepared to deter their growth and counter the threats they pose. We will be prepared to do that. They can never have a secure base here in Nangarhar or anywhere else in Afghanistan.”
Even with 14 years of United States support and backing for Afghan forces, there are still gaps in areas like intelligence, special forces, logistics, aviation, and “ministerial development.”
Part of the difficulty in regions like Afghanistan is that the battlefields are “dynamic,” in the sense that there are many emerging and reemerging groups in different areas of the country. From a US foreign policy perspective, a dynamic field just makes it more troublesome to pursue a troop withdrawal. Rather than focusing on properly training and equipping Afghan forces to be self-sustaining, we see constant shifts in aid and forces that follow the movements of enemies within the country.
“From al-Qaeda and various different parts of the Taliban movement to groups like the IMU that have been around for a long time, [...] these groups are constantly reconstituting themselves, reorganizing themselves, and accordingly, they show different behaviors and different -- attention at different times, different parts of the Afghan geography,” said Carter. “Therefore, Minister Stanekzai and I were talking about this today, the Afghan security forces with our help are getting more and more agile.”
Despite the fact that the president promised to end the Afghan war in 2014, it is clear that due to recent events, new developments in terror, and the progress of the Afghan forces, a complete US troop withdrawal in the near future is nothing but wishful thinking.
Following US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Moscow on Tuesday where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Kerry announced a critical shift in the US position on the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad: he can stay in power for a bit longer if Russia and America cooperate together in overseeing the transition from Assad's chaos to peace. ...What?
Assad is the very kind of "dictator" the US prides itself in fighting to remove. For the past four years, President Obama has called for Assad to step down. From Assad's alleged use of chemical gas to barrel bombs to ISIS overtaking Syrian territory, Assad attracts a very diverse response from world leaders on how to achieve peace because the situation in Syria is so complex.
Within the United States, where political debates are increasingly revolving around foreign policy -- especially to do with Assad and ISIS -- the presidential candidates (as well as politicians in general) find themselves equally divided on the Syrian solution. In fact, shifting positions on Assad seems to be the norm.
Below is a brief timeline of major American politicians on their stances regarding Assad and Syria, especially in relations to Putin and Russia.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tells the press "it's not going to be any news if the United States says, 'Assad needs to go.'"
A week later, US President Barack Obama announces for the first time -- after weeks of political pressure -- that Assad "must step down".
The American announcement happened in coordination with key allies' announcements: Germany, France, and the UK, amongst others, also called for Assad's departure from his presidency position around this time.
Western powers reportedly ignore a Russian proposal to securely remove Assad from his position, as the US, French, and British leaders believe the Syrian president would not last much longer in power.
President Obama addresses the nation, detailing the brutalities of the Assad regime and announces the US will strike Assad's forces to deter the regime from the use of chemical weapons.
The US and Russia then pushed for Syria to become party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which banned the use of chemical and biological weaponry in warfare.
President Obama states at the G20 press conference that "there’s no expectation that we are going to in some ways enter an alliance with Assad. He is not credible in that country."
The US president continues on to say that "we are looking for a political solution eventually within Syria that is inclusive of all the groups who live there -- the Alawite, the Sunni, Christians. And at some point, the people of Syria and the various players involved, as well as the regional players -- Turkey, Iran, Assad’s patrons like Russia -- are going to have to engage in a political conversation."
When that point would be, though, was never clear. He then ended the Assad discussion with this:
Four years later, increased diplomacy between major powers -- especially the US and Russia -- start to cause US leaders to soften their "Assad must go" position.
The New York Times quotes an unnamed senior American official as saying, "It’s encouraging, but we’re still a long ways off [on a solution for Assad]."
Donald Trump tells Americans to let Russia take care of Assad and ISIS.
"Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care? Let ISIS and Syria fight. And let Russia, they're in Syria already, let them fight ISIS. Look, I don't want ISIS. ISIS is bad. They are evil. When they start doing with a head chopping … these are really bad dudes. … Let Russia take care of ISIS. How many places can we be? … Russia likes Assad seemingly a lot. Let them worry about ISIS. Let them fight it out."
Hillary Clinton, now a presidential candidate and no longer Secretary of State (since 2013), states removing Assad is America's top priority, four years after she said it wouldn't make US news.
A month after the Paris attacks, a week after the San Bernardino attack, the day Los Angeles shut down its public schools due to a bomb threat, and the last Republican debate of the year before the holidays. Also the day Kerry meets Putin and Lavrov in Moscow.
The Secretary of State officially reverses the position of the US on Assad, while Republican contenders for the 2016 election spar over what to do. The more memorable quotes are are anti-Russian and anti-intervention.
Donald Trump: "Spend the money [used in striking in the Middle East] in the US... It's a tremendous disservice to humanity, and for what? [The Middle East is] a mess, [a] total and complete mess."
John Kasich: "In regard to Syria, understand that Assad is an ally of Iran who wants to extend that Shi’i radicalism all the way across the Middle East. He has to go. And for the Russians, frankly, it's time to punch the Russians in the nose. They’ve gotten away with too much in this world, and we need to stand up against them, not just there, but also in Eastern Europe where they threaten some of our most precious allies."
Rand Paul: "We need to confront Russia from a position of strength."
Chris Christie: "Reckless was inviting Russia into Syria."
As of posting, President Obama has yet to make an official statement confirming Kerry's comments in Moscow. Kerry maintained that it is in the best interest for the world when Russia and the US cooperate, and that this cooperation is "a sign of maturity" between the two presidents.
While it's great for the US and Russia to be on slightly better terms again, time will only tell if this rekindling of relations will bring Assad to justice and peace to the Syrian people.
The involvement of Turkey in the war in Syria has been extensively covered, but now over the last week, it appears the country is also gearing up for a greater role in the neighbouring and connected war in Iraq. While talk of a Turkish ‘invasion’ of Iraq is somewhat overblown, the consequences of Turkish troops deploying to Iraq could have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
The current controversy between Iraq and Turkey began last week following the emergence of reports that Turkey had deployed a number of soldiers to Bashiqa, a small Peshmerga-held town around 15km away from the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul in northern Iraq. While initial reports of the number of troops varied, the most credible information now has around several hundred troops and up to 25 associated vehicles deployed.
What is not yet clear is the mandate of these troops, and the role they will play in Iraq. According to Turkish statements, "the mandate of the Turkish elements in Bashiqa is to provide training to Iraqi volunteers within the scope of the fight against Daesh, and they have not been given combat duties and responsibilities". Nonetheless many still believe these troops may play a larger, and more direct combat role against ISIS into the future.
Whatever role Turkey intends for these troops, what is more important is the international (and intranational in the case of Iraq) response to their deployment. The Iraqi government of Al-Abadi has widely condemned this as a breach of Iraq sovereignty, with his government giving several deadlines for the Turkish troops to withdraw, before they faced retaliation. These deadlines were backed up by similar threats from Shia militia groups within the Popular Mobilisation Units which form a significant part of the Iraqi forces.
While these deadlines and threats may indeed be serious, the fact that they have passed without incident stands testament to the fact that it is actually very difficult for Iraqi government forces to attack the Turkish troops. Notwithstanding their much more critical war with ISIS, the Iraqi government/Shia militias would also have to attack through territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Given the good relations between Turkey and the KRG (in contrast to other Kurdish groups), and the fact that the Turkish deployment likely has the tacit approval of KRG leader Masoud Barzani, this is unlikely to happen without a fight. Furthermore, the relations between KRG Peshmerga forces and Shia militia have suffered a serious deterioration over recent months following clashes around the town of Tuz Khurmatu, making any deployments against Turkish forces likely to face Peshmerga resistance.
With all of this considered, Turkey’s deployment will have several geopolitical ramifications. Firstly, the KRG will become more deeply aligned with Turkey due to their hosting of Turkish troops, as well as their own Peshmerga troops receiving Turkish training and support. Secondly, the Iraqi government may be forced to align itself more with Russia, as the US is unable to prevent the erosion its of sovereignty by another NATO player. In the long-run these positions could serve to solidify a formal partition of Iraq following the defeat of ISIS as a major military force in the country.
While Turkey has a very controversial relationship with the Syrian conflict through its support and alleged military aid for various Islamist rebel factions, over the past few months it has talked about establishing what it calls a ‘safe zone’ in Northern Syria. Turkish President Erdogan has many times threatened to create such a zone, however has remained rather vague about how it could be established. The zone itself would stretch over much of the north of Aleppo Governorate in Syria, in a roughly 45km strip between the Euphrates River and the YPG/SDF controlled Afrin Canton. Many have suggested part of Turkey’s reason for establishing the zone is to prevent a contiguous Kurdish controlled territory across all of Northern Syria.
Originally it was thought that this would be established through a deployment of Turkish ground forces, however this failed to transpire. Then, rhetoric from Turkey suggested that its proxy militias would establish the zone themselves in areas captured for ISIS with air support from Turkish and Coalition jets. This too has yet to see any real success.
Following the shoot-down of a Russian jet by Turkish forces, and Russian bombing of Turkey rebels along the border area, Erdogan has once again revived rhetoric of establishing this safe zone as a way to protect ethnic Turkmen rebels.
Today may turn out to be a critical day for the course of the Syria Civil War. While the exact details are still far from clear, for the first time in 50 years a NATO country has shot down a Russian jet in air-to-air combat. Turkey, in shooting down a Russian jet has ratcheted up the tension over Syria to its greatest level in the four and a half year long war. But what is confirmed so far about what happened?
At around 09:00 local time this morning, Turkish F-16 fighter jets intercepted a Russian Su-24 ‘Flanker’ jet. Turkey claims this jet had breached its airspace, while Russia claims that it was 4km within Syrian airspace. According to radar tracking information released by Turkey, even in their version of the story, the jet only was in Turkish airspace for a matter of seconds.
Following a number of (alleged) warnings, an F-16 jet fired an air-to-air missile at the Russian Su-24, destroying it and forcing its two pilots to eject. While this ejection was successful, the pilots fell towards rebel-controlled territory in Latakia Governorate in Syria. Video footage from a rebel group on the ground then showed fighters firing at the descending pilots, before another video showed at least one pilot dead on the ground with wounds consistent from small-arms fire. The second pilot was also reported dead by these rebels, however this has yet to be confirmed via photographs or other means.
Following the shoot-down, the Russian Air Force deployed a number of rescue helicopters to retrieve the downed pilots. These attempts were unsuccessful, and one Mi-8 helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing for an unknown reason. While on the ground, this helicopter was targeted by Abu Hamza of the FSA 1st Coastal Division, who destroyed it with a US supplied TOW missile. The Russian Ministry of Defence later confirmed that one Russian marine was killed in this incident. The fate of the rest of the crew is currently unclear.
Aftermath and Political Fallout
This event marked the first time a NATO member has ever shot down a Russian jet. The initial response by Russia was rather muted, likely due to their leadership trying to ascertain the specifics of what happened. Several hours later, Putin responded to the shoot-down, calling it a “stab in the back" committed by "accomplices of terrorists". The Russian Ministry of Defence also characterised the shoot-down as an “unfriendly act”, and promised a series of measures in response.
Later in the evening, the MoD also announced a significant tightening of its air support in Syria. All operations would now reportedly fly with a fighter escort and “dangers” to Russian aircraft would be "destroyed” with support from ship-based anti-aircraft systems.
For its part, Turkey has defended its actions, with President Erdogan claiming that “we did our best to prevent this outcome”. As well, Erdogan claimed that Turkey’s actions were in some part driven by the desire to protect ethnic Turkmen in Syria from Russian bombing saying: “Russia is bombing Bayirbucak Turkmens and claiming they are targeting ISIS.” As well, in a leaked letter to NATO his government referred to repeated breaches of its airspace over the last few years as a further pretext for its actions.
No WWIII, But More Room for Escalation
While there will likely be no further escalation or direct reprisals from either party following this incident, there is now a much greater risk of escalation. With both sides taking aggressive postures to defend their aircraft and strategic interests, mistakes and miscalculations are possible, if not probable. As has become the norm over the previous years, Syria is becoming an even more dangerous flashpoint.
Several major developments happened last month in the Syrian Civil War. While the nascent Russian intervention in support of the Assad regime got most of the media attention, a similarly significant development was happening in North-East Syria. Here, in the Kurdish YPG-controlled area of Rojava, a new coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces -- called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) -- was announced. This coalition is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious group made up of the Kurdish YPG/J, the Syriac Christian MFS, and Muslim Arab groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), including Euphrates Volcano and Jaish Al-Thuwar. The Syrian Democratic Forces, as suggested by their name, are committed to a “democratic, inclusive and self-governing Syria”.
While many of these groups have cooperated in the past, the formation of this new entity has been likely brought about by US influence. Wary of Turkish concerns of Kurdish expansion in Northern Syria, the SDF put a new face on any further anti-ISIS advances and gives the US more freedom in its support for these groups. Indeed not long after the announcement of the formation of the SDF, the US announced that it would send up to 50 Special Forces to this region to support the SDF, which is the first official American deployment of ground troops in Syria.
Advance on Al-Hawl
The reason that the US has invested into the creation of and support for the SDF is to aid it in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Effectively blocked by Turkey from attacking ISIS in the town of Jarablus west of Kobane, the SDF has instead turned its attention towards the town of Al-Hawl in the far east of Syria. Over the last few days this medium-sized town has become the objective and the first real test for this new grouping.
Al-Hawl itself sits astride a major roadway connecting ISIS holdings in Syria, including its self-declared capital Ar-Raqqa, with its areas in northern Iraq. As such, capturing this town would be a significant victory in the fight against ISIS. The position of this town and its surroundings can be seen on the map below:
Fighting has been ongoing now for several days. While the town itself has not been captured, the US has announced preliminary success for the operation, taking over 250 square kilometers of ISIS-controlled countryside.
“It was a fairly straightforward, conventional offensive operation, where we estimated … several hundred enemy [fighters] were located in that vicinity. There was a substantial friendly force -- well over 1,000 participated in the offensive part of this operation. And they were able to very deliberately execute the plan that they had made themselves,” said US Army Colonel Steve Warren in a statement to the White House press.
The US also confirmed that fighters in this operation were backed by significant US air assets. These assets include A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft and an AC-130H Spectre gunship, both of which carry heavy on-board cannons, as well as bombs and other munitions.
Additionally, the US confirmed that these operations were also at least partially supplied by an earlier material airdrop, which was announced last month.
“The Syrian Arab Coalition, or SAC, was able to conduct the assault as part of the Syrian Defense Force, he added, “because we supplied the vetted … SAC with [50 tons of] ammunition on Oct. 12. This is important because [Hawl] is predominantly an Arab area and the SAC is the Arab component of the SDF,” Warren stated.
“We believe that the … 200-plus kilometers of ground that the Syrian-Arab coalition has managed to take, to some extent validates this program. … So I think you will see continued resupply of these forces [to] … reinforce the successes we've already seen.”
YPG role in offensive
One question remains regarding the ongoing offensive against Al-Hawl: to what extent is the YPG/J playing in these operations? While the US is talking up the role of Syrian Arab fighters in this offensive, videos of these operations have shown a large number of Kurdish fighters also taking part. It is likely that the YPG will continue to benefit from the sharing of munitions supplied by further US airdrops in Rojava as well.
The participation of the YPG as part of the SDF is indeed predictable. The group represents the strongest and most numerous military grouping in North-Eastern Syria, and it has years of experience fighting against ISIS. Furthermore, its fighters have worked in close coordination with US airstrikes during the Battle of Kobane, as well as the Tel Abyad offensive.
The US also likely knows (and has no problem with) the involvement of the YPG in these operations. This being said, the Obama Administration relies at least partially on the use of the Turkish Incirlik airbase for its anti-ISIS sorties. Should the US talk up its support for Kurdish groups with ties to the PKK, Turkey would be put in a difficult position and may rescind US use of the base. Furthermore, it would drive a political wedge between the two countries, further complicating a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.
Barring any major change to the situation on the ground, we can expect continuing advances by the SDF around Al-Hawl, backed up by continuing US air support. Should this operation prove fully successful, it could provide a model for a future US strategy in the fight against ISIS.
On Friday, both the Pentagon and White House announced plans to make significant changes to the the “train-and-equip” program. The program, which was slated to produce “5,000 trained fighters in a year,” only ended up training a total of 60 Syrian rebels.
The program itself will not be stopped entirely. Resources will be reallocated to provide aid to rebels already fighting ISIS, rather than putting efforts to training new opposition fighters against the terror group. Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy on the Counter-ISIL Campaign, told reporters that the groups in focus for this shift would be Arabs, Christians, and Kurds in the northeast, as well as other moderate groups to “protect Jordan” in the south.
So a question begs itself: Is it best to take those guys out and put them through training programs for many weeks, or to keep them on the line fighting and to give them additional enablers and support? I think the latter is the right answer, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.
Despite its internal political troubles, US officials also emphasized that Turkey would still be a “fundamental part” in the coalition against ISIS. The US, who has worked closely with them to gain access to the Iraqi Peshmerga corridor and other strategic regions, will continue the relationship primarily through NATO.
Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes described the shift as an “evolution” of the program, but pointed out that training rebel forces have not been completely phased out in the fight against ISIS.
Frankly, we’re also not ruling out any future training, but we are acknowledging a pause in the way in which we’ve approached the program and conducted the training out of the country to date.
The officials also claimed that they wanted to support the existing rebels with resources in order to promote “credible opposition factions” to help a peaceful power transition away from Bashar al-Assad. Rhodes told reporters that while a militaristic approach is important, the military alone cannot solve the Assad issue.
...there’s no military solution that could be imposed upon them in which Assad stays in power. That would be a recipe for more extremism, a recipe for more conflict. And it’s just simply something that we don’t think would work.
Regarding the Russian presence in Syria, officials recognized that they were being “extraordinarily counterproductive” in the effort towards political resolution. Plans of specific US actions against Russia were not discussed, and officials were quick to change the topic of discussion with reporters.
With Russian forces on the ground, Turkey’s domestic political struggles, and ISIS getting stronger and more fearless, the US is in a difficult position. Are American forces finally adapting to Syria’s dynamic and volatile battlefield with these changes, or are they setting up their exit strategy? Only time will give the full picture on how the US will react to the “quagmire in Syria".
Following a report published by a European think-tank group on the ever-impending possibility of a NATO-Russia war, NATO has responded that the report is “misleading” and the Russians have yet to respond – what does this all mean?
The think-tank European Leadership Network (ELN) published a report today that claims Russia and NATO are close to a full-on war as they continue to cross into each other’s borders with their military exercises. The authors of the report found that NATO is focusing on securing the Baltic States, while Russia is focusing on securing the Arctic – two key areas for either side.
“Each side is training with the other side’s capabilities and most likely war plans in mind. Whilst spokespeople may maintain that these operations are targeted against hypothetical opponents, the nature and scale of them indicate otherwise: Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.”
– from Ian Kearnes, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear of the European Leadership Network (ELN).
NATO responded that the ELN report “misleadingly puts NATO and Russian exercises on par” and that Russian exercises far outnumber those planned by NATO and its allies.
“Moreover, Russia has incorporated nuclear and nuclear capable forces in its recent exercises. NATO has made repeatedly clear that we not seek confrontation with Russia. For over two decades, we have tried to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. But Russia has changed borders by force, continues to support separatists in Ukraine and threatens to base nuclear missiles close to Alliance borders.”
– from Deputy spokesman Carmen Romero of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
There’s yet to be an official Russian response (as of 14:00 CEST - this article will be updated once one is released). Previous responses from Moscow towards NATO-centric topics have accused the organization of undermining regional stability via their increased presence in bordering nations with Russia, as stated by Sputnik International.
Coincidentally, the ELN report was published on the same day as the Russian annual holiday celebrating their Air Force branch, known as the VDV; this year marks their 103rd in official existence. Additionally, Russia recently expanded their military aviation branch on August 1st 2015 to include their “aerospace” program, designed to defend Russia against air and space attacks.
So is war between NATO and Russia inevitable as these military drills escalate? The ELN authors are careful to directly state that war will happen -- even going so far as to provide pointers to NATO and Russia on how to avoid war -- but their message is clear enough: at this rate, it’s bound to happen. Spokesmen and women can cite their statistics or opt for the “blame game” tactic, but what lies on the international table presently is an unstable country in a deep recession with anger towards the West and a trembling military organization in fear of any other upsets in Europe, which in all reality looks to be the recipe to another war.