Jenan Moussa, a journalist with UAE based al-Aan TV, released a video on her Twitter claiming to have sent three people undercover into Idlib province, where they filmed daily life with their cellphones.Read More
The official account for the International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve has confirmed that coalition warplanes struck pro-government forces near al-Tanf area near the Syria-Iraq border "posing a threat to US partner forces".Read More
A Syrian Air Force Su-22 jet had been shot down in southern Aleppo Province today - the second such incident in less than a month. But who was responsible, and how did they shoot it down?Read More
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.
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".
The assassination of Sheikh Wahid al-Balous has caused tremendous strife inside the Druze community. The majority of established Druze clerics are extremely pro-regime, however, Balous was a very outspoken critic of the Assad regime. Balous was also the leader of a large anti-regime milita in Sweida called “The Sheiks of Dignity”. Like most things in the Middle East, the group also had dimensions of being a religious movement. It is important to note that there are also pro-Assad militia’s among the Druze community, including the National Defense Front and the hard-right Syrian Social Nationalist Party. [embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki6FdtZbCo8[/embed]
After the assassination, the immediate question was “who did it?”. So far, the answer to this question is “we do not know.” The supporters of Balous immediately blamed the regime, while the pro-regime figures called it a “terrorist attack” (Note: “Terrorist” is a catch all term for the opposition for many pro-regime figures) and tried to calm tensions. The Western/Gulf backed Southern Front of the Syrian Opposition stated that such an assassination was “inevitable” and called on the Druze community to commit to the opposition.
Balous was a major problem for the regime because of his outspoken criticism. Chief among these was his opposition to the drafting of the Druze to fight for the Assad regime. Most Druze decided to form local protection militia’s in response to the attempts by the Assad regime to draft members of their communities. Balous also was an advocated for Druze autonomy and a supporter of the Syrian Opposition.
Whatever happened, this event is going to increase tensions among the divided Druze community. We have already seen footage of protests in response to this attack. No matter where the Druze stand politically, there is nothing more important to them then their community. Most would consider this assassination unacceptable.
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.
One year after the biggest victory of the 'Islamic State' it has now suffered its worst defeat. We talk about the ramifications of the YPG/FSA victory in Tel Abyad, as well as the wider US strategy in the war against ISIS. We also briefly discuss rising Russia/NATO tensions in Eastern Europe.
What initially looked like a stunning victory in Northern Aleppo for the Syrian Regime has turned into an apparent disaster that threatens to actually set the Assad regime in a worse position then it was before the offensive. It is also important to note that many reports are coming in regarding Iranians, Hezbollah and Shia Afghanis. This could be a reflection of the apparent manpower problem that the Syrian Regime reportedly finds itself in. It also could point to a distrust of the Sunni conscripts in the Syrian Arab Army. It has been reported that often Hezbollah or SAA special forces (which tend to be comprised of Assad’s true believers) are the groups that lead and conduct actual assaults.
Excellent Map produced by https://twitter.com/macroarch
Assad had recently suggested that he would be willing to stop using the Syrian Air Force to strike at targets in Aleppo for a period of six weeks. This would seem to point that he would be willing to implement the proposed UN “freeze” in Aleppo. It appears that the apparently failed offensive was an attempt to besiege opposition held Aleppo and then call for the proposed “freeze”. The opposition in Aleppo has already suggested that they will not support the UN’s plan and they are now even less likely to agree. Assad possibly knew this and was likely attempting to use the “freeze” plan to appear as a rational actor. Furthermore, the rejection of a ceasefire would give the Assad regime more cover if it decided to strike the besieged areas of Aleppo.
Whatever the intentions, it looks like this offensive has resulted in a large number of captured loyalist soldiers.
Which the opposition is eager to show they are treating well
Also interesting is the large amount of Anti Tank Guided Missiles or ATGMs videos being uploaded from Aleppo recently. This seems to indicate that either Turkey and/or the United States has turned on the “weapons spigot” into Aleppo again.
US vetted “Division 13” of the FSA strikes a Syrian Regime Tank
FSA affiliated brigade firing an Anti Tank Guided Missile
Another video of the opposition destroying a loyalist tank
Tour showing the opposition has regained control of Hardtnin Village
Footage claiming to show opposition control of Al-Malaah
What is going on in the Damascus Suburbs? Some of the most underreported and fiercest fighting has occurred in the suburbs of Damascus. Despite repeated attempts to dislodge them from the area, the Opposition has stubbornly held against Assad regime and Hezbollah advances. The opposition in the area is composed mainly of several FSA brigades and the Salafist Islamist (not to be confused with the Jihadist Al Nusra) Jaish Al Islam which is under the command of the enigmatic Zahran Alloush. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia is/was a main backer of Jaish Al Islam (roughly translated to Islam Army).
Several days ago this group launched a large Grad rocket strike against the Syrian capitol, firing at least 100 rockets, causing large amounts of damage. Jaish Al Islam claims to have been only targeting military areas, while the Assad Regime claims that it has targeted civilian areas. It does appear that this attack resulted in civilian casualties. It is important to note that the Assad regime has routinely conducted airstrikes and shelling of areas of places like Jobar and Duoma Syria where Jaish Al Islam is concentrated. These attacks have been horrific and often the videos and pictures from these zones are difficult to stomach.