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[Live Updates] - Turkish military units have crossed into Turkey in support of rebel fighters in an attempt to create a safe zone along the country’s border in northern Syria.Read More
A coup was launched last night against the Turkish Government, which appears to have failed, and left hundreds dead.Read More
Yesterday ISIS successfully counterattacked against rebel forces in the north of Syria, forcing them to retreat to more secure areas of the Azaz pocket. This retreat brought ISIS close to a large number of internally displaced persons (IDP) camps along the border with Turkey.
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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
The Syrian regime managed a highly strategic advance over the last few days around north Aleppo, cutting off rebels from key supply lines.Read More
A Kurdish peace rally was devastated by a suicide bombing in Istanbul.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
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.
Since the shootdown of a Russian Su-24 by the Turkish Air Force on the 24th of November, Russia has escalated its bombing campaign in Syria against rebel groups in the north of Syria, including ones the US calls ‘moderate forces’. Some of these groups have the backing of the US & Turkey and have been actively fighting against both the Assad regime and ISIS for some time. Following Russia’s intervention in the war, the number of deadly airstrikes have increased targeting both rebels and also truck convoys moving across the border from Turkey into Syria which allegedly carried aid. Russia has as stepped up its attacks in areas close to the Turkish border that are home to a large number of Turkmen, seen by Turkey as their ethnic brethren.
As well as bombing, Russia has committed heavier and more sophisticated hardware to the region, including the S-400 anti aircraft system. Although there was some evidence that suggested that the S-400 was in the country already, Russia only revealed the system after the shootdown of the Russian jet. Furthermore, Russia has also started arming some of their fighter/bomber aircraft with air to air missiles for ‘defence’ and has deployed the guided missile cruiser ‘Moskva’ to the region, in order to provide additional anti-aircraft protection.
Aside from these direct military deployments, Russia has been hitting back at Turkey in other ways, such as arresting Turkish businessmen, banning Russian football clubs from signing Turkish players and seizing Turkish cargo ships. The Russian government has even gone so far as to pursue economic sanctions against Turkey, and discouraging Russian tourists from visiting.
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.
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".
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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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Over the course of the last week, the Turkish military and police forces have found themselves coming under increasingly deadly attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As well as continuing assassinations, gun, and missile attacks on their positions in Turkish Kurdistan, security forces are taking severe losses from the same technology which caused havoc for Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan: IEDs. On the 6th of September, two Turkish Army armoured vehicles were attacked by a PKK roadside bomb in Daglica, a remove village close to the southern border with Turkey. While the details of the incident are not yet fully clear, what is confirmed is that at least 16 Turkish soldiers were left dead (the PKK claims a higher toll) and several vehicles were destroyed. In response, the Turkish Air Force conducted massive air raids comprised of least 50 aircraft targeting PKK camps in Northern Iraq.
This massive aerial response however does not seem to have impacted the PKK’s operational capabilities or indeed its will to fight, for it was followed by yet another bloody day for Turkey. This morning, 12 police were killed and 4 more injured when their bus stuck an IED in the country’s north-eastern province of Iğdır. Then, this afternoon, news emerged of another PKK attack, this time in the southern city of Cizre, where 3 more police were killed in an RPG attack.
With airstrikes not enough to dislodge the PKK, the Turkish military then made decision to strike back against the militants and send ground forces across the border into Iraq. Reports emerged in the wake of today’s attacks that the Turkish Army had sent a battalion of at least 1000 troops and vehicles into Iraq in order to “pursue” PKK attackers.
This amounts to a large-scale escalation of the conflict and represents a further undermining of the sovereignty of Iraq, already weakened by the advance of ISIS. This being said, it is not unprecedented, with a similar incursion being undertaken by Turkey in 2008. Drawing a parallel with this event, it seems unlikely that Turkey’s armed forces will be able to uproot the PKK from this region, and indeed this cross-border attack may serve to even further inflame the fighting.
The nature of the PKK and the terrain in which it fights gives it a massive advantage over time. Distributed across tens of thousands of sq. km of mountainous terrain, their fighters are able to rely on guerrilla tactics, picking when and where to fight Turkey’s military. As well, many PKK fighters are battle hardened through years fighting both Turkey as well as ISIS, while many within the Turkish military are young conscripts with understandably low morale.
Giving that these are not difficult observations, thought needs to be put into why Turkey has even chosen to fight the PKK at this stage?
To answer this question, one only needs to take a look at the political situation within Turkey. In the recent general elections incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party (AKP) failed to gain the necessary 50% it needed to form a majority government. Instead, the pro-Kurdish HDP performed surprisingly well, blocking the AKP’s chances, and forcing a number of rounds of (failed) coalition government negotiations.
Seeing the writing on the wall and imminent snap elections, Erdogan likely believes that through a resumption of hostilities with the PKK, he can gain politically. AKP supporters have ramped-up allegations that the HDP is a political wing of the PKK and state-run media has become increasingly hostile towards the party. By linking it with the PKK who are very unpopular in the majority of Turkey, Erdogan hopes that he can reduce the HDP vote in upcoming elections to below the 10% threshold needed to enter parliament, and thus lead the AKP to a majority victory.
Nonetheless, if polling is to be believed the HDP has not seen a significant fall in support within Turkey, meaning that Erdogan is playing a very dangerous game politically and with the lives of his soldiers. This conflict with the PKK is continuing to escalate and the body count climbs higher with each passing day. He can either decide to de-escalate with the PKK and return attempt to return to earlier peace talks or he can continue to up the ante with addition cross border attacks and a further crackdown in Kurdish areas of Turkey, in an attempt to intimidate potential HDP voters.
Both strategies are incredibly risky from a domestic politics and regional security standpoint. All eyes will be on Erdogan and the AKP for what stance they take in the run up to snap elections called for Novemeber 1. Unlike most conflicts however, this latest PKK-Turkey struggle will not revolve around the success and failure of a military campaign, but rather an electoral one.
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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.
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.