Photographic evidence has emerged of Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria with US-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles.Read More
Die jüngsten Entwicklungen zeigen jedoch, dass die Kurden nach wie vor an der Seite der USA zu stehen scheinen. Erst heute ist ein Foto kurdischer Kämpfer mit einer Javelin Panzerabwehrrakete aufgetaucht.Read More
The gulf nation plans to send ground troops to try and stop the spread of ISIS in the region.Read More
The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been deteriorating for several years now, but has reached crisis point over the first weeks of 2016.Read More
While this year began with significant ISIS victories in Iraq’s Anbar Province and western Syria, it is ending with a number of significant defeats for the militant group.Read More
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.
This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on ISIS’s strategic evolution. Part 1 can be read here.
In the past month, ISIS, in collaboration with its regional affiliates has killed at least 400 civilians in a series of major attacks. On October 31, the group’s Sinai Province bombed a Russian passenger jet flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing 224. Then on November 10, a series of suicide bombers targeted a Shia neighborhood of Beirut killing at least 43. Finally on November 13, nine attackers conducted a Mumbai-style assault on several regions around Paris, killing at least 129 people.
Such attacks are both unprecedented in terms of scope and scale. So how do they fit into what we know about ISIS’s strategy of continuous theater-based offense?
The simple answer is they don’t. Rather, they prove that the group’s baseline strategy of responding to military defeats with counterattacks elsewhere in Syria and Iraq is no longer viable.
Recent defeats have shown that the militant group has reached a limit in its ability to mount counterattacks. Notwithstanding a theater-wide Tet-style offensive in Iraq or Syria, the forces arrayed against ISIS are now too large in number, and too well organised to suffer new, large-scale losses of land. So instead, in order to maintain an air of invincibility, and gain a propaganda victory, the group is now engaging in spectacular international attacks.
The Far Enemy
Into the future, fresh ISIS offensives in Syria and Iraq are possible, if not probable, but are unlikely to have the same effect as those in the past. Furthermore, the rate of these offensives and their size will continue to decline as the group begins to feel the bite of continuous attrition from air-strikes and failed attacks. With the territory controlled by ISIS now in decline, the group is shifting more and more towards hitting soft international targets. This regression is in many ways similar to the focus Al Qaeda put on attacking the 'far enemy' (USA) over the 'near enemy' (Muslim countries) following the First Gulf War.
From a Western (and Russian) perspective, this is critically dangerous. With border security compromised due to large-scale arrival of refugees - the vast majority of which are legitimately fleeing the worsening regional conflict - security services have their work cut out for them. France alone has stated that it has a list of at least 10,000 “potential terror suspects”. Within such an environment, further attacks on soft targets are all but inevitable.
However, with each successive attack which ISIS carries out, they will also increase the number of foreign nations intent on destroying their core territories in Syria and Iraq. Already there is talk of a possible alliance between Russia and France, the two nations who have suffered the most from this recent wave of international terrorism, in order to defeat ISIS in Syria. With this taken into consideration, these attacks, while horrifying from a security perspective, also represent the beginning of the end of ISIS as a conventional military threat.
Obviously, the defeat of ISIS’s conventional forces will not solve the root problems that lead to the group’s rise in the first place. But rather it will give international players and local partners the space to implement reconstruction and educational projects, in order to restore some level of order to the regions formerly occupied by the group. Should these steps not be taken, a tactically different ISIS will continue to wage an insurgency in the region, as well as presenting a continuing international threat.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series on the strategic evolution of ISIS. Last week, despite the headlines focusing on the Paris attack, ISIS suffered yet another serious defeat, this time in Sinjar, an Iraqi town which sits astride a major highway linking Raqqa and Mosul. A combined force of Kurdish Peshmerga, PKK and Ezidi militia commenced a massive assault on the city on November 13. Just over 24 hours later, at 10:20 local time, these forces entered the town, and rapidly captured all areas, facing only token ISIS resistance.
This defeat, which will severely limit the group’s ability to transfer materiel and fighters between its Syrian and Iraqi provinces, is just the latest in a string of losses for the group. Recent months have seen the so-called Caliphate lose control of the city of Baiji, the area surrounding Ramadi, as well as significant territory in Southern Aleppo. This is all despite the fact that ISIS, by all accounts maintains a large fighting force, which should be able (on paper) to offer greater levels of resistance, especially when defending urban or semi-urban areas.
With this considered, the question needs to be asked – why is ISIS so bad at defense?
Evolution and expansionism
One answer to this question comes in the way in which ISIS rose to power in large portions of Syria and Iraq. Following the collapse of the Syrian state in 2012, ISIS began to enter Syria, and rapidly began consolidating its presence in what were then ‘rebel-held’ areas. Over the course of the next year or so, through aggression, subversion and coercion, ISIS grew to dominate power structures in the west of Syria.
From this power base, the group engaged on a series of highly successful offensive operations. First in Syria, they captured almost the full length of the Euphrates River, driving out Kurdish, and moderate rebel forces. Then, they struck Iraq, taking advantage of internal instability to take control of Fallujah in early 2014, and then shocking the world with the capture of much of northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit in June 2014. Finally, despite increased resistance and coalition airstrikes, the group managed to capture Ramadi and Palmyra in early 2015.
This history of victorious offensives used to expand their nascent ‘state’ likely cemented the idea in the militant group’s leadership that offensive operations were key to victory, while neglecting static defense.
Through this experience of continuously spearheading offensives, ISIS developed a strategy whereby defending territory was replaced with a different tactic altogether. Should an area come under serious attack, the group would merely try to stall the advance of the force with IEDs and a small number of near-suicidal troops, before mounting counteroffensives elsewhere.
Instead of committing seriously to defense, past battles have shown that ISIS prefers to keep the majority of its troops on reserve, and then mount counter-offensives against softer targets, taking advantage of the fact that their enemies concentrated their forces at the first point of attack. In this way, when attacked and defeated at point A, ISIS would counterattack at points B and C.
This kind of strategy has worked for ISIS several times over the past years. The most obvious example of this was following the defeats of ISIS in Kobane and Tikrit, the group launched simultaneous offensives against Palmyra and Ramadi. As well, the Iraqi city of Baiji has switched hands several times now between ISIS and government forces with ISIS mounting counter offensives only when opposing troops have been redeployed elsewhere in the theater.
Finally, ISIS not only implements these tactics on a theater-wide scale, but also on a more tactical level. Before assaulting a position, ISIS usually makes a number of small probing raids which despite causing losses for the group, helps them find and target weak spots in their opposition's defense. From there they mount a massive attack using VBIEDs, AFVs and infantry, as seen during the battles for Ramadi, North Aleppo and Palmyra.
Nonetheless, ISIS continues to lose ground across its core regions, proving that this strategy, while successful in the past is now a failing one. In part two of this article, released tomorrow, a new and dangerous ISIS strategy can seen to be emerging, which is turning it into a more global threat, while at the same time hastening its demise.
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.
Nearly a month ago, the Russian Air Force began its first strikes against opposition forces in Syria. While the stated goal of these strikes was to fight ISIS, based on eyewitness reports and geolocation, it can be determined that the vast majority of these strikes have been against non-ISIS rebel forces in Syria’s northwest, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, and the Al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JaN). Knowing this, it is clear that Putin’s strategy in Syria is not to eliminate ISIS first but rather to focus on the other rebel groups, which more directly threaten the survival of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Taking this is the apparent goal of the intervention. How successful has it been? Have tangible gains been made over the past few weeks?
Small Territorial Gains
Following on the back of these air strikes, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has conducted a number of offensives in Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Latakia Governorates.
In Homs, regime forces backed up by Russian Mi-24 attack helicopters conducted an attack against the rebel held town of Talbeesa in the Rastan Pocket, north of Homs city. This attack is ongoing and has managed to capture some outlying areas, however it has yet to achieve any conclusive results.
In Hama, the SAA has launched a counter-offensive in the Al-Ghab plain, the scene of heavy fighting with the rebel Jaish al-Fatah coalition earlier this year. Here the SAA has been more successful and managed to capture the towns of Al-Bahsa, Safafa, and Farwa. The offensive is also ongoing at this stage. A separate offensive was also conducted against Al-Lataminah further south in the Al-Ghab plain; however, it stalled after encountering stiff rebel resistance.
In Latakia gains have been more marginal, with a strong SAA push towards Salma facing strong resistance from Jaish al-Fatah forces. While small villages were captured, rebel forces counterattacked and managed to capture the nearby (regime held) town of Dorin.
In Aleppo the SAA has made its strongest showing. Its forces have attacked north from Al-Safira into territory held by ISIS, and have begun to clear a route towards the besieged regime-held Kweris Air Base. Despite slow going, progress has been made and this offensive is continuing. Meanwhile, south of Aleppo regime forces have pushed west, capturing the villages of Haddadin and Abtin.
Significant Material Losses
These territorial gains have come at a significant cost. Most notably, ATGM systems operated by rebel groups have caused significant damage to regime armoured vehicles. Both the US-made TOW missiles supplied as part of a CIA program, and well as Russian Kornet and Fagot missiles captured from regime stockpiles, are more than capable of penetrating the armour of the T-72 tanks operated by the SAA.
On any given day rebel groups upload a large number of videos showing these missiles being used. From this footage, it is possible to estimate that between 5 to 10 armoured vehicles (including tanks, APCs, and self-propelled artillery) are lost per day in these offensives. While at the beginning of the war Syria had one of the largest stockpiles of tanks in the world, these vehicle losses are unsustainable, and in the long run will deplete the SAA’s ability to conduct mobile operations and simultaneous offensives.
One notable ‘victory’ for the Russian air forces operating in Syria, is that so far none of its aircraft have been shot down by rebel fire. Its low-flying helicopters are particularly vulnerable to MANPADS and anti-aircraft artillery. Despite some initial rumours, there has been no confirmation of any losses. This stands testament to the skill and training of the Russian air crews, as much as to the rebel’s lack of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons.
Given the high cost which the SAA is paying for its ongoing offensives, combined with their slow progress, it is clear that Russia has yet to achieve its strategic goals. The longer these offensives drag on, the more costly they will become, especially as regional supporters of the rebels like Turkey and the Gulf States ramp up their supplies of weapons to the region.
With this in mind, Russia will need to change its strategy in order to achieve its goals. The easiest way for it to do this would be to deploy a significant number of ground troops to the front lines, in order to spearhead offensives with their better weapons, training and morale. Alternatively, and more difficultly, it could tighten its lines of communication with the SAA so as to allow more comprehensive close air support in battles, enabling regime troops to fully leverage Russian air power.
A final face-saving and unlikely option would be for Russia to reduce its commitment to fighting the rebels while simultaneously increasing its number of airstrikes against actual ISIS targets in western Syria, in cooperation with other international players like the US.
Despite this, Russian (and SAA) troops will have a hard fight ahead of them, and whichever option Putin chooses will likely have a profound effect on how the war plays out into the future.
Kurdish militias have been accused of displacing Arabs from their homes.Read More
This is a op-ed article written by Thomas C. Baron With a sense of pride, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced to the House of the Commons that British drones had killed Reyaad Khan, an ISIS fighter and recruiter, alongside two others in Syria. This was not the first time drone had been used by the RAF in Syria, nor was it the first time they had been used for targeted killings, but the justification Cameron gave for the operation was a new direction.
“We should be under no illusions,” Cameron told the House on the first day back after summer break, “their intention was the murder of British citizens.”
Pointing to six attacks the police and security forces had prevented over the previous 12 months and naming various military commemorations as known targets, Cameron said Khan posed as “clear and present danger” to the United Kingdom. Two others, both ISIS fighters, one of which was also a UK citizen, were also killed in the strike.
This is the first time the public has been made aware of a drone strike targeting a British citizen and signals a new justification for the use of drones and targeted killings.
Where as previously, drones had been used in support of ground operations of British and allied soldiers as well as to diminish their targeting enemy troop movements, arms stores, and targeted killings of terrorist leaders with the intent of diminishing their operational ability, the justification for the killing of Khan was focused solely on the protection of the British people from an imminent threat.
Where previous killings have targeted leadership and key personnel, it is unclear to what extent Khan represented a major player within ISIS. Young, he was 21, and relatively new to the world of Islamic militarism, it is unlikely he was included in operational matters or was a leader in any capacity. Compared to older members who were veterans of conflicts across the world and had more experience in the region, Khan had no experience and little to offer in the fight beyond the services of a foot soldier.
Being British, however, Khan carried weight as a PR tool of the organisation. Last year he featured in an English-language recruitment video for the group aimed at attracting young Muslims from the English-speaking world to ISIS and his social media presence has provided a key force for ISIS’ message, his accounts sharing pictures and stories glorifying the life of an ISIS fighter and their operations.
If Cameron’s claims are accurate, Khan’s planned of terrorist attacks in the UK were unlikely to have taken place at the command of ISIS leaders. ISIS has little history of planning terrorist attacks outside their region of control, preferring recruits to join the fight in Iraq and Syria and pushing only those who cannot relocate to fight on the home front, and any attacks that have taken place have largely been on the initiative of the individuals involved.
Khan appears to have been one of these individuals. Full details have not been made public, but the statements of the prime minister make it clear there was evidence that Khan was planning attacks against public events in the UK, although no details have been released as to whether he planned to carry out the attacks personally or was recruiting Brits to carry out these attack for him.
Under international law, the killing of Khan stands up for this reason. As the Economist wrote on the issue, “the concept of what constituted an ‘imminent’ threat is fairly elastic and certainly does not require waiting until the last moment before it materialises.” While question as to the size of the threat may never be known, the political incentive for Cameron is clear.
To say that killing of Rayaad Khan was political is to ignore the simple fact that most killings in war, and war it self are political acts. It is fair to say that his killing was more political.
In carrying out the operation, Cameron was able to send a clear message to the British electorate that he is taking actions to protect the UK against the threat of ISIS, a threat Cameron consistently made clear. In killing Khan, and announcing it publicly, Cameron can hope to stem criticism that he is failing to act to tackle the problem and can show himself as a defender of the British people, willing to stand up to the ISIS threat. The killing also fits into Cameron’s narrative as to the threat Islamic extremism poses to the UK and his role as a defender of traditional British values against the growth of radicalisation.
The nature of such events means that it is unlikely the evidence Cameron was provided as to the threat Khan played to the UK will be made public in the near future. His targeting of British citizen in a foreign country due to the threat the individual (as opposed to the collective) posed to the British people directly is new ground for British anti-terrorist operations and, whilst controversial to some, will prove popular with Cameron’s electoral base.
The Syrian Civil War has been raging now for more than four years, and in that time, despite a few close calls, there have been no large-scale interventions of foreign ground forces in the country. This however, is all about to change. The Russian Federation, over the past few months has massively ramped-up the level of support which it providing to the Assad Government in Syria, and appears to be building up the ability to conduct offensive operations within the country. But what equipment are they sending and what does this say about their plans for Syria?
Initial indications that Russia had changed its level of involvement in the Syrian conflict appeared last month when a number of Russian ships began delivering hidden cargo to the country’s naval base in Tartous. Around the same time, video footage and images began to appear online of Russian soldiers deployed to Syria, which many speculated were military advisers.
While this was alarming on its own, and drew international attention, it was just the beginning. In the last few weeks the Russian Air Force has been conducting daily cargo flights to airbases in Latakia. These flights have been delivering a number of advanced combat systems which appear, by all accounts, to be intended for use in offensive operations by Russian forces themselves.
Some of the these advanced systems being deployed include T-90 main battle tanks, as well as the advanced new BTR-82a infantry fighting vehicles and at least one R-166-0.5 electronic warfare and communications vehicle. These systems which have been sighted both on the ground and reportedly in satellite imagery are indisputably of Russian origin, and not in use by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).
Hybrid war or full-scale intervention?
Currently, estimates put the number of Russian soldiers in Syria in the low thousands, with more arriving daily. Knowing this, it is still difficult to assess just how large in scale Russia’s intervention in the conflict will be.
One important question that needs to be analyzed is whether Russia will follow its (reasonably) successful strategy of ‘hybrid war’ where it semi-covertly backs local forces without taking an official lead role. Until recently this looked to be the case, with official denials from Putin’s government that Russian soldiers were involved in direct fighting within the country.
However, the situation is developing quickly and it is appearing more and more likely that Russian troops are building up to take a more overt role in the conflict. Comments by the Russian leadership that they would help out Assad militarily “if there is a request” indicate that any pretense of mere ‘support’ for the Syrian regime will soon be dropped.
— Foreign Policy (@ForeignPolicy) September 16, 2015
So far, aside from expressions of meaningless ‘deep concern’ towards these deployments, other major international players in the conflict have remained muted in their response. This will likely change if and when Russian troops begin to see more active combat within the country. Should they begin to turn the tide in certain regions against the rebel forces which Putin and Assad label as “terrorists and extremists”, the backers of these rebel groups could respond.
Primarily, Turkey and the Gulf States are poised to increase the supply of arms to their favoured rebel groups. As well as increasing the quantity of these supplies, these countries could also supply rebels with more advanced weaponry such as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), for example the US-made Stinger missile, which was an alleged game-changer during the Soviet/Afghan War.
If this does not prove to be enough, Turkey could be put under pressure to use its ground forces to establish a much-hyped ‘safe zone’ in the north of Syria. Such a move would bring NATO and Russian forces into a possible dangerous confrontation within the country.
Knowing these possible international responses it is likely that for the time being Russia will tread carefully with its forces in Syria, and use them to attack isolated rebel positions as well as to generally halt existing rebel advances – especially in Latakia and the Al-Ghab plain. The last thing an economically-strained Russia wants is to risk the Syrian Civil War becoming an international one.
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Following Russia’s rotation into the monthly presidency position at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on September 1st, where Russia's main stated goal is to counter international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia has indeed been involved militarily in the Syrian Civil War.
President Putin was careful to say that direct military intervention has not yet happened — going so far as to call it “premature” — but rather he confirmed what many knew already: Russia has been supplying arms and helping train pro-Assad soldiers.
“Moscow and Damascus have certain military contracts and they are being fulfilled,” RIA Novosti and Russia Today quoted him as saying. He then directed the focus to Russia being “ready to contribute to internal dialogue in Syria” because, according to the Russian president, refugees are fleeing Syria because of ISIS and not because of Assad – a bit strange considering many Syrian refugees’ cite Assad and “the war” for their reason of fleeing their homeland.
We do realize that political changes are needed and we are talking to our partners in Syria... The president of Syria, by the way, agrees with it, up to calling early parliamentary elections, establishing contacts with the so-called ‘healthy’ opposition and involving them in governance..."
For the past four and a half years, Russia has used its United Nations veto to support the Assad regime and has promoted diplomatic talks over military intervention to resolve the Syrian conflict. President Putin even had an article published in The New York Times in 2013 calling on Americans to understand the Russian position.
Now, as ISIS poses a direct threat to Russia and has targeted top Putin allies and even Putin himself, Russia is taking necessary measures to thwart any more ISIS advances. This includes talking to and partnering with the United States, one of the main nations placing sanctions upon Russia, which has spiraled the Russian economy into a deep recession.
President Putin denounced US airstrikes in Syria in the press conference, calling the efficacy of them “poor” yet announced his desire for the creation of an anti-ISIS coalition, which would involve leaders from the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, amongst other willing states.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, also reiterated the importance of the Syrian army to combat the rebels and called again for Syria's role to be strengthened internationally. "The international coalition against the terrorist organization ISIS will not be effective without Syria being part of it," he said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. "President Assad was elected by his people and is thus the completely legitimate president of Syria, regardless of the statements from the West."
Can Putin maintain the Assad regime and therefore maintain the longstanding Russo-Syrian alliance — which has lost Russia credit in the eyes of certain Middle Eastern and Western nations within the past few years — while fighting ISIS alongside Middle Eastern and Western nations?
Russia’s alliance with Syria began in the 1950s Soviet era well before Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad were in power. The Communists in the Soviet Union and Syria found common ground in anti-Israeli, anti-American, and some anti-Arab sentiments, and maintained decently close throughout the latter half of the twenty-first century. As the decades passed on and leaders passed on, it wasn’t until 2005 that Syria and Russia truly began to deepen the alliance – under both Putin and Assad. One step forward, two steps back, repeat.
Numerous articles discuss theories that Putin is afraid of Assad losing power for a variety of reasons: Russia has interests in Syria, such as the exporting of arms and the Tartus naval base; the fear surrounding the Chechen-Russian conflict of the ‘90s and the almost-Yugoslavization of Russia; the failure of the USSR in 1991; the US failure of pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014, following the ongoing war that resulted after 9/11; and the general sense that if Assad can lose power after an uprising, so could Putin just as easily.
However, Syria is not Russia's primary arms importer. That's been India for years now. The Tartus naval base theory is interesting but the Cyprus port deal gave Russia an alternative naval base in the region. There could be "fear" still lingering in Putin after the fall of the USSR and the memories of the Chechen Wars and the US Invasion of Afghanistan, but Putin brought Russia out of the rubble of the Yeltsin administration and into a whole new era of conservative, traditional nationalism, which is clearly working in his favour as his approval rating hovers around 89 per cent in Russia. Why would he fear the collapse of his presidency when he is so loved by Russians?
The real reason is as simple as this: Syria is more useful to Russia as an ally than an enemy, and right now, Russia needs all the allies it can maintain. By locking arms (in a sense both literally and metaphorically) with Assad, Putin is ensuring his own survival as well as that of his nation in a world that Russia believes is trying to eliminate Moscow from being a part of. If Putin can support the Assad regime, squash the rebels in Syria (including those in ISIS), Putin will come out on top and give this new, more hardened Russia more global credibility.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe
Syrian refugees are seeking asylum in Europe from the Syrian Civil War in mass numbers that far exceed the refugee situation during and post-World War II. Many are dying on the way to Europe, and if they do make it to Europe, certain European Union leaders are blocking their entrance into the countries they’d like to settle in. Russia is, of course, roped in to this as well. Some refugees are routing via Moscow and Saint Petersburg to get to Norway and other Scandinavian countries, others have chosen to stay within Russian borders. According to Russian news agency Interfax, 12,000 Syrian refugees are currently in Russia. President Putin say it was all "absolutely expected."
This crisis puts Russia in a difficult position as it further demonstrates the weakness of the Assad regime and Assad's inability to crack down on the rebels and maintain the people in his land, which is not a quality the current Russian government cares to endorse. It also conversely puts more pressure on Russian leaders to explain why Russia is still backing a failing dictator, especially at a moment when they are chairing the UNSC with a focus on fighting international terrorism.
As the Putin-Assad tango continues masking the more serious issues at hand (such as the chemical weapon usage by the Assad regime in the past), the world will have to predict the next steps in this complicated geopolitical dance. Indeed a deeper understanding of this choreography of power could eventually boost hopes for a more manageable solution to this conflict.
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It all began with a Tweet. https://twitter.com/GissiSim/status/636230365380800512
Gissur Simonarson, one of three founders of Conflict News, sent out a routine Tweet highlighting another heartbreaking situation as a result of the Syrian Civil War. Four simple photos showing a man, holding his sleeping daughter on his shoulder, trying to sell a few blue ballpoint pens. The message is powerful.
At Conflict News, we see heartbreaking photos daily – even hourly – but it’s our job. We recognize that there are astounding numbers of refugees that need our help; we report on it when the news breaks. We are human, however, and when requests privately and publicly were made to Gissur to help this man, who would turn down the possibility of improving this man’s life for himself and his daughter?
Through the power of the internet and our connections that we’ve made via @Conflicts, Gissur was able to find and secure a connection with Carol Malouf, who works for a local Beirut human rights aid group called Lebanese 4 Refugees. From there, news spread rapidly and the Tweets went viral.
It began with a video interview on Sky News Arabia following an exchange of interactions with Jessy El Murr, one of Sky News Arabia’s lead presenters.
Then just as rapidly as the Tweets went viral, the interview requests started pouring in. Meanwhile Gissur set up an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to truly help this man start a new life, and along with it, a Twitter account: @Buy_Pens. Additionally, Carol Malouf and a couple of other contacts were able to find the man in person.
Within 30 minutes of the crowdfunding campaign, the goal was met - a perfect demonstration of how powerful the internet could be.
As of the time of publishing, the campaign has accumulated $63,598 USD in just 23 hours from 2,263 funders. The bar showing how much the campaign has been funded is maxed out and states 1,272%. It’s truly inspiring.
More photos of the man have been found and his background was shared with us following an in-person meeting via our trusted contacts in Beirut. Abdul, the father, is a Palestinian Syrian from the Yarmouk refugee camp. He is a single father with two children, Abdelillah (boy) 9 years old, and Reem (girl) 4 1/2 years old.
Some of the funders left comments to thank Gissur, Carol, the Lebanese4Refugees team, and the Conflict News team for aiding this man and his children.
From Melbourne Australia your story bought me to tears this morning, and i hope and prey that the $50 i donated helps you and your daughter in every way possible to start an amazing life
Thank you so incredibly much for allowing us all to reach to this father. Hopefully it will not only help him and his family, but raise awareness about all of those who are in need, and how we can help make a difference in their lives as united Global Citizens. We love you Abdul, hang in there!
Thanks for your kindness. Only because of you we have been able to contribute for Mr. Abdul and Baby Reem. If possible please arrange a video interview with them and in this interview convey our heartfelt prayer to them.
Gissur, the Conflict News team, and a few of our journalist/activist connections are arranging a video interview with Abdul that will take place in a few months, most likely in Beirut. It will be a follow-up video to this crowdfunding campaign that will allow Abdul to tell us his story from his own perspective, and it will show us what Abdul has been able to do with his and his children’s lives following the outpouring of generosity from the internet.
As of publishing, Gissur has been interviewed on the following news channels and sites for his activism and the feat of raising $50k USD in less than 24-hours for Abdul and his family.
- Sky News Arabia
- BILD (Germany)
- BuzzFeed News
- The Independent
- The Mirror Online
- Vanity Fair (Italy)
- The Huffington Post
- BBC Outside Source
- NBC News
- Kavpolit (Russia)
Post/links will be updated as more interviews are published. To donate to Abdul and his family, click here.
Yesterday saw the release of some impressive first person footage of a group of Ahrar al-Sham members storming and taking a hill in Latakia Province. Recently, Jaish al Fatah has been making advances into Latakia that are starting to put the traditional home of the Alawite sect into jeopardy. It is extremely important for Assad to keep control of these areas, however there is more and more evidence pointing to an extreme shortage of troops for the Syrian regime. This is leaving the regime with some extremely difficult choices as it is currently under assault in several areas in the north and south of Syria. It is also questionable to assume that Hezbollah would get involved in the Latakia Province, however it is not out of the realm of possibilities. There is some Hezbollah presence, however, this would cause an increase in casualties and an increase of Hezbollah becoming deeper involved in the quagmire it finds itself in inside Syria.
How did this all happen? In 2013, the Latakia front was opened by a coalition of groups ranging from the Free Syrian Army to Al Nusra. The 2013 offensive was primarily lead by jihadist groups like Nusra and Junud Al Sham (a group of mainly Chechen jihadists). Ahrar al Sham also had a presence, along with Harakat Sham al-Islam (a group founded by released Guantanamo inmates). The Islamic State also participated in this attack as relations were still good between IS and the rest of the opposition in 2013.
Several Alawite villages were taken, and allegations of civilian massacres by Al Nusra were also reported. The Assad regime was able to retake most of these villages, however, the insurgents were able to dig in and establish a small presence in Latakia.
Footage of Latakia offensive in 2013
The 2014 Latakia offensive is likely better known because it brought the infamous #SaveKessab hashtag that was eventually popularized mainly due to Kim Kardashian efforts to bring attention to the issue. Most of the information and pictures were eventually debunked. However, the issue was widely covered in the media. Some politicians also capitalized on the issue and presented it as an issue of “Muslims killing Christians”.
Even Travis Barker of Blink 182 got involved
The 2014 offensive was mainly lead by jihadist groups like Al Nusra and the Islamic Front. The FSA had a somewhat limited participation in this offensive, relations between the FSA and the rest of the opposition were very poor during this time, especially in northern Syria. Some FSA groups claimed they were not informed about this offensive by the jihadist groups and stated they were not allowed by Turkey to travel into Latakia from Turkey.
Once again, Chechens played an extremely prominent role in the fighting. Turkey also allowed several groups to advance into Latakia via Turkey. This offensive also saw the Turkish Air Force take down a Syrian Air Force jet. Turkey claimed the jet violated Turkish air space while Syria denied this.
The most famous battle occurred over “Hill 45” which changed hands many times, before eventually being recaptured by the Syrian Army and National Defense Forces (Syrian Militia supporting the Assad regime). Hezbollah also provided advisors at the very least to the Syrian Army during this battle.
Footage from the 2014 Latakia Offensive
The 2015 offensive is the first offensive where the opposition has seen success beyond entrenching in the area. This is mainly due to the success of the Idlib campaign by Jaish al Fatah. This gives the opposition a stable operations center to launch attacks into Latakia. This coupled with the Daraa offensive in the south places two regime strongholds under the possibility of direct threats. The 2015 offensive has also seen the presence of Iranian advisors in the area. This presents a real problem for the Assad regime in maintaining its base of support. Assad needs this support to stay in power. Keep in mind, Latakia has seen heavy losses of its young men due to fighting and the recent issue of a cousin of Assad murdering an air force officer due to road rage has not helped.
As mentioned at the start of the article, first person footage of Ahrar al Sham storming a regime outpost on top of a hill was uploaded recently. The attack apparently caught the regime soldiers by surprise as evidenced by a smoking hookah and what appears to be food being cooked. The soldiers manning the outpost appear to have ran off.
Of chief importance is the success the opposition is seeing in the Sahl al-Ghab plains. Control of this area allows the opposition to cut off a supply route to both Hama and the city of Latakia. Also worthy of note is the presence of American vetted groups supplied with TOWs in Latakia and the al-Ghab plains. The hills of Latakia are especially well suited for TOWs and it will be extremely difficult to dislodge these groups. It appears as if the opposition has established what might be a permanent presence in Latakia.
Assad now faces a decision of having to withdraw troops from other areas in order to defend Latakia. The other option would be an increased presence of Hezbollah soldiers and Iranian units. It should be pointed out that this might not be as popular with the Alawite base as they have cherished their sovereignty.
This video contains footage of the FSA 1st Coastal Division which is a TOW supplied group
In the last 24 hours rebel groups within Syria have begun clashing with ISIS positions in the northern part of Aleppo Govenorate. These clashes appear to mark the beginning of an audacious plan created by Turkey to create a so-called ‘Safe Zone’ in northern Syria. This plan would entail the creation of a 98km long and 45km deep buffer zone within Syria, stretching from the edge of the YPG-controlled Afrin Canton, to the ISIS-controlled town of Jarabulus on the Euphrates River. While Turkey does not plan to be sending in its own ‘boots on the ground’ in order to establish this zone, it has promised to support ‘moderate’ rebel groups with air power and long-range artillery.
However, this is much easier said that done. The majority of this planned safe zone is controlled by ISIS forces, and the rebels in the areas also have to devote the bulk of their forces to fighting (or at the very least defending) against regime forces further south, in the Aleppo urban area. So which forces will be involved in the fighting, and what are their capabilities?
The primary groups who will be involved in the fighting are the remnants of the secular Free Syria Army (FSA) alongside the Islamic Front. Together, both of these groups will be working as part of a newly reformed joint operations room called the Levant Front (Jabhat al-Shamiyya).
While these are the primary groups involved, one additional group – Syrian Turkmen – could add additional support to this anti-ISIS coalition. The Syrian Turkmen Brigades are anti-government militias made up of ethnic Turkmen fighters, comprising a number of moderate-sized brigades in the Northern Aleppo countryside. There is strong evidence to suggest that these groups are directly trained and armed by the Turkish government. Reports arose earlier this week of a large group of such fighters openly crossing the Turkish border into Syria, leading further weight to the idea that they are a Turkish proxy army.
As previously mentioned, within the last 24 hours, these groups have already gone on the offensive against ISIS. So far the have been able to push ISIS back form their frontlines in the region and capture some small villages from the group. Despite this however, unless the US or Turkey massively ramp up their air support for Levant Front, it is unlikely that they will be able to rapidly defeat ISIS, and establish this Safe Zone in its entirety.
ISIS depends on this region for cross-border smuggling from Turkey, and should it be lost, the group would find itself almost completely cut off from outside supply. As such, we can expect to see incredibly stiff resistance from the group, and a possible stalling of the Turkish-organized offensive.
When this happens, Turkey will be forced to make the decision on whether to be content with a smaller safe zone, or escalate its involvement, either through more proxy militias and air strikes, or with a small number of regular ground troops. Whatever decision they make will have a significant impact of the overall development of the Syrian Civil War this year.
The ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq are probably the most bloody and violent conflicts on the planet in 2015. While they have no shortage of conventional, mass produced weaponry, almost every side in this interlinked conflict also fields a massive variety of homemade, improvised weapons. Of these, none has seen greater proliferation this year, than the IRAM (Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar). These improvised rockets are seen all the way from Daraa in the south of Syria, to the Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq. Indeed, just as these weapons are used in a great number of locations, they also come in a variety of shapes and sizes. This being said, almost all conform to a general design philosophy.
In this, a small diameter rocket (often a surplus Katyusha or Grad rocket) is attached to a much larger diameter warhead. This warhead is filled with TNT or other homemade explosives such as ANFO, and sealed within a barrel-like steel casing. In some cases these warheads are fitted with impact trigger fuses, while in other cases, they implement time-delay fuses.
A rough design of a rudimentary IRAM can be seen below:
A quick glance at this design is enough to infer that these rockets are not at all aerodynamic. The large explosive charge they hold significantly amplifies their destructive power, but it comes at a cost – IRAMs are short range, and highly inaccurate. Videos, such as the one below show that these rockets ‘tumble’ through the air making it basically impossible to reliably aim them.
So given that these rockets are so difficult to use, and obviously time consuming to make, why do groups persist in using them? Indeed, even other improvised weapons, such as the Syrian rebel’s infamous ‘Hell Cannon’ are much more effective and reusable than these weapons.
While there is no easy answer to this question, there are a number of reasons that groups are persisting in using these (seemingly) useless weapons. The first of these is the nature of the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. Rather than fighting at long ranges, most of the combat occurs between static positions in urban environments. These kinds of fights favour weapons which have massive destructive power, as opposed to long range or mobility. Furthermore, the random nature of these weapons also has a demoralising effect, giving soldiers on the other side the feeling that they could be hit anywhere, anytime.
Another plausible reason for the construction of IRAMs within this region is a possible surplus of artillery rockets without their normal warheads. In an event that a rebel group (or pro-Government militia) found themselves in possession of a large number of Grad rocket motors, but not their regular warheads, it would be prudent of them to cannibalise their rockets into further IRAM production.
One final reason for the proliferation of these rockets could be that the weapons represent the fingerprints of Iran on these conflicts. Tellingly, the first groups to use IRAMs in the Middle East were the Shia militia backed by Iran during the Iraq War. Then similar weapons, dubbed Volcano (Burkan) Rockets began to be seen used by the Syrian Regime, likely either supplied by Iran or built with Iranian assistance. From there, the Syrian rebel groups may have copied the designs for these weapons from those that they captured. Indeed, many rumours persist that the largest of the IRAMs seen in Syria – the so-called ‘Elephant Rockets’ are not even produced in Syria at all, but rather in Iran.
The exact reason why Iran favours supplying its proxy militias and aligned militaries with these weapons is unknown, however one answer seems likely. As these weapons are so simple and relatively easy to make, they give the country the ability to maintain plausible deniability.
As the conflict grinds on, we are likely to see a continued evolution in the tactics and weaponry used by each group. It may be that as conditions on the battlefield change, or different foreign suppliers get it involved, IRAMs slowly disappear from use. This being said, the current trend in 2015 is towards a further broadening of the use of these weapons into the future.
This week began with the horrifying news of an apparent suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc. This predominantly Kurdish town lies just across the Syrian border from the YPG-controlled city of Kobane, and has served for months as a stepping-stone into Kurdish regions of Syria. On Monday this week the town played host to a left-wing Socialist Youth group who were planning to bring aid to Kobane. As they gathered together, a bomb exploded in the crowd, killing at least 32 people and maiming many more. The footage of this attack can be viewed below:
With the burials beginning, the discussion shifted to who was to blame. While in most instances of these ‘spectacular bombings’, the group involved (usually IS or one of its affiliated ‘Wiliyaat’) generally claims responsibility as soon as possible, this was not the case for this attack. Due to the lack of an obvious claim of responsibility from IS, many people began to draw their own conclusions.
Among the most important of these is a theory held by many Kurds within Turkey, as well as members of the country’s Left scene, that the attack was either carried out, or at the very least allowed to occur, by the Turkish government. Proponents of this theory point out that many of those killed in the bombing were leaders of the Gezi Park demonstrations and are viewed as enemies of the current government. Others point out that the Socialist Youth meeting was heavily protected, and the bomber would have been unlikely to get through security checks without major lapses of police attention.
While it is not within the scope of this article to examine the veracity of these claims, what is important is that there is a significant group of people who believe them, and this is having real-life consequences. Over the last two nights there have been wide-scale anti-Government demonstrations across Kurdish regions of Turkey, as well as in Istanbul. Many of the protests turned violent, and in at least a few instances, protesters were photographed carrying automatic rifles.
This tension then ratcheted up even further last night when 2 Turkish police were found dead not far from the Syrian border. In a stunning move, a PKK-affiliated website then announced that guerrillas from the organisation conducted this killing as retaliation for the bombing in Suruc.
“Today around 6 am, a punishment operation was carried against 2 policemen collaborating with ISIS in Serêkaniyê North. Both policemen were killed and their weapons/ID documents were seized by an Apocî team,” a translation of the PKK statement read.
This killing, and the clear admission of responsibility by the PKK, amounts to an extremely dangerous escalation in the region. Kurdish, and left-wing anger towards the Turkish government and the AK Party of President Erdgogan is at an all time high, and now for the first time in recent years, the PKK is openly supporting resistance and attacks against government targets.
With a further crackdown from the Turkish government following these killing almost inevitable, and this coming in conjunction with calls from Kurdish and left-wing groups to once against come out onto the streets tonight, many within the region fear that the situation is about to get much much worse. Cooler heads may prevail, however with people already killed on both sides, this is far from guaranteed.