In the hours preceding Christmas Eve, Afghan forces were able to fend off Taliban sieges in the Sangin District, killing a “Taliban commander and 50 fighters.” Nonetheless, the district, located in Afghanistan's strategic Helmand Province, could not have been rid of Taliban presence without US and British airstrikes and air support backing Afghan reinforcements. Since this incident in the Sangin District, and since the recent deaths of six Americans in an attack just outside of Bagram Air Base, President Obama’s vow to significantly reduce the number of US troops in Afghanistan has again become a prominent component of US foreign policy--with 9,800 slated to stay in the region into most of 2016, and 5,500 to be deployed beyond the president’s departure from office.
Aftermath and Political Fallout
This event marked the first time a NATO member has ever shot down a Russian jet. The initial response by Russia was rather muted, likely due to their leadership trying to ascertain the specifics of what happened. Several hours later, Putin responded to the shoot-down, calling it a “stab in the back" committed by "accomplices of terrorists". The Russian Ministry of Defence also characterised the shoot-down as an “unfriendly act”, and promised a series of measures in response.
Later in the evening, the MoD also announced a significant tightening of its air support in Syria. All operations would now reportedly fly with a fighter escort and “dangers” to Russian aircraft would be "destroyed” with support from ship-based anti-aircraft systems.
For its part, Turkey has defended its actions, with President Erdogan claiming that “we did our best to prevent this outcome”. As well, Erdogan claimed that Turkey’s actions were in some part driven by the desire to protect ethnic Turkmen in Syria from Russian bombing saying: “Russia is bombing Bayirbucak Turkmens and claiming they are targeting ISIS.” As well, in a leaked letter to NATO his government referred to repeated breaches of its airspace over the last few years as a further pretext for its actions.
No WWIII, But More Room for Escalation
While there will likely be no further escalation or direct reprisals from either party following this incident, there is now a much greater risk of escalation. With both sides taking aggressive postures to defend their aircraft and strategic interests, mistakes and miscalculations are possible, if not probable. As has become the norm over the previous years, Syria is becoming an even more dangerous flashpoint.
Several major developments happened last month in the Syrian Civil War. While the nascent Russian intervention in support of the Assad regime got most of the media attention, a similarly significant development was happening in North-East Syria. Here, in the Kurdish YPG-controlled area of Rojava, a new coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces -- called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) -- was announced. This coalition is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious group made up of the Kurdish YPG/J, the Syriac Christian MFS, and Muslim Arab groups under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), including Euphrates Volcano and Jaish Al-Thuwar. The Syrian Democratic Forces, as suggested by their name, are committed to a “democratic, inclusive and self-governing Syria”.
While many of these groups have cooperated in the past, the formation of this new entity has been likely brought about by US influence. Wary of Turkish concerns of Kurdish expansion in Northern Syria, the SDF put a new face on any further anti-ISIS advances and gives the US more freedom in its support for these groups. Indeed not long after the announcement of the formation of the SDF, the US announced that it would send up to 50 Special Forces to this region to support the SDF, which is the first official American deployment of ground troops in Syria.
Advance on Al-Hawl
The reason that the US has invested into the creation of and support for the SDF is to aid it in its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Effectively blocked by Turkey from attacking ISIS in the town of Jarablus west of Kobane, the SDF has instead turned its attention towards the town of Al-Hawl in the far east of Syria. Over the last few days this medium-sized town has become the objective and the first real test for this new grouping.
Al-Hawl itself sits astride a major roadway connecting ISIS holdings in Syria, including its self-declared capital Ar-Raqqa, with its areas in northern Iraq. As such, capturing this town would be a significant victory in the fight against ISIS. The position of this town and its surroundings can be seen on the map below:
Fighting has been ongoing now for several days. While the town itself has not been captured, the US has announced preliminary success for the operation, taking over 250 square kilometers of ISIS-controlled countryside.
“It was a fairly straightforward, conventional offensive operation, where we estimated … several hundred enemy [fighters] were located in that vicinity. There was a substantial friendly force -- well over 1,000 participated in the offensive part of this operation. And they were able to very deliberately execute the plan that they had made themselves,” said US Army Colonel Steve Warren in a statement to the White House press.
The US also confirmed that fighters in this operation were backed by significant US air assets. These assets include A-10 Warthog ground-attack aircraft and an AC-130H Spectre gunship, both of which carry heavy on-board cannons, as well as bombs and other munitions.
Additionally, the US confirmed that these operations were also at least partially supplied by an earlier material airdrop, which was announced last month.
“The Syrian Arab Coalition, or SAC, was able to conduct the assault as part of the Syrian Defense Force, he added, “because we supplied the vetted … SAC with [50 tons of] ammunition on Oct. 12. This is important because [Hawl] is predominantly an Arab area and the SAC is the Arab component of the SDF,” Warren stated.
“We believe that the … 200-plus kilometers of ground that the Syrian-Arab coalition has managed to take, to some extent validates this program. … So I think you will see continued resupply of these forces [to] … reinforce the successes we've already seen.”
YPG role in offensive
One question remains regarding the ongoing offensive against Al-Hawl: to what extent is the YPG/J playing in these operations? While the US is talking up the role of Syrian Arab fighters in this offensive, videos of these operations have shown a large number of Kurdish fighters also taking part. It is likely that the YPG will continue to benefit from the sharing of munitions supplied by further US airdrops in Rojava as well.
The participation of the YPG as part of the SDF is indeed predictable. The group represents the strongest and most numerous military grouping in North-Eastern Syria, and it has years of experience fighting against ISIS. Furthermore, its fighters have worked in close coordination with US airstrikes during the Battle of Kobane, as well as the Tel Abyad offensive.
The US also likely knows (and has no problem with) the involvement of the YPG in these operations. This being said, the Obama Administration relies at least partially on the use of the Turkish Incirlik airbase for its anti-ISIS sorties. Should the US talk up its support for Kurdish groups with ties to the PKK, Turkey would be put in a difficult position and may rescind US use of the base. Furthermore, it would drive a political wedge between the two countries, further complicating a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.
Barring any major change to the situation on the ground, we can expect continuing advances by the SDF around Al-Hawl, backed up by continuing US air support. Should this operation prove fully successful, it could provide a model for a future US strategy in the fight against ISIS.
On Friday, both the Pentagon and White House announced plans to make significant changes to the the “train-and-equip” program. The program, which was slated to produce “5,000 trained fighters in a year,” only ended up training a total of 60 Syrian rebels. https://twitter.com/Conflicts/status/652449556978921472
The program itself will not be stopped entirely. Resources will be reallocated to provide aid to rebels already fighting ISIS, rather than putting efforts to training new opposition fighters against the terror group. Brett McGurk, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy on the Counter-ISIL Campaign, told reporters that the groups in focus for this shift would be Arabs, Christians, and Kurds in the northeast, as well as other moderate groups to “protect Jordan” in the south.
So a question begs itself: Is it best to take those guys out and put them through training programs for many weeks, or to keep them on the line fighting and to give them additional enablers and support? I think the latter is the right answer, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.
Despite its internal political troubles, US officials also emphasized that Turkey would still be a “fundamental part” in the coalition against ISIS. The US, who has worked closely with them to gain access to the Iraqi Peshmerga corridor and other strategic regions, will continue the relationship primarily through NATO.
Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes described the shift as an “evolution” of the program, but pointed out that training rebel forces have not been completely phased out in the fight against ISIS.
Frankly, we’re also not ruling out any future training, but we are acknowledging a pause in the way in which we’ve approached the program and conducted the training out of the country to date.
The officials also claimed that they wanted to support the existing rebels with resources in order to promote “credible opposition factions” to help a peaceful power transition away from Bashar al-Assad. Rhodes told reporters that while a militaristic approach is important, the military alone cannot solve the Assad issue.
...there’s no military solution that could be imposed upon them in which Assad stays in power. That would be a recipe for more extremism, a recipe for more conflict. And it’s just simply something that we don’t think would work.
Regarding the Russian presence in Syria, officials recognized that they were being “extraordinarily counterproductive” in the effort towards political resolution. Plans of specific US actions against Russia were not discussed, and officials were quick to change the topic of discussion with reporters.
With Russian forces on the ground, Turkey’s domestic political struggles, and ISIS getting stronger and more fearless, the US is in a difficult position. Are American forces finally adapting to Syria’s dynamic and volatile battlefield with these changes, or are they setting up their exit strategy? Only time will give the full picture on how the US will react to the “quagmire in Syria".
Following a report published by a European think-tank group on the ever-impending possibility of a NATO-Russia war, NATO has responded that the report is “misleading” and the Russians have yet to respond – what does this all mean?
The think-tank European Leadership Network (ELN) published a report today that claims Russia and NATO are close to a full-on war as they continue to cross into each other’s borders with their military exercises. The authors of the report found that NATO is focusing on securing the Baltic States, while Russia is focusing on securing the Arctic – two key areas for either side.
“Each side is training with the other side’s capabilities and most likely war plans in mind. Whilst spokespeople may maintain that these operations are targeted against hypothetical opponents, the nature and scale of them indicate otherwise: Russia is preparing for a conflict with NATO, and NATO is preparing for a possible confrontation with Russia.”
– from Ian Kearnes, Łukasz Kulesa, and Thomas Frear of the European Leadership Network (ELN).
NATO responded that the ELN report “misleadingly puts NATO and Russian exercises on par” and that Russian exercises far outnumber those planned by NATO and its allies.
“Moreover, Russia has incorporated nuclear and nuclear capable forces in its recent exercises. NATO has made repeatedly clear that we not seek confrontation with Russia. For over two decades, we have tried to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. But Russia has changed borders by force, continues to support separatists in Ukraine and threatens to base nuclear missiles close to Alliance borders.”
– from Deputy spokesman Carmen Romero of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
There’s yet to be an official Russian response (as of 14:00 CEST - this article will be updated once one is released). Previous responses from Moscow towards NATO-centric topics have accused the organization of undermining regional stability via their increased presence in bordering nations with Russia, as stated by Sputnik International.
Coincidentally, the ELN report was published on the same day as the Russian annual holiday celebrating their Air Force branch, known as the VDV; this year marks their 103rd in official existence. Additionally, Russia recently expanded their military aviation branch on August 1st 2015 to include their “aerospace” program, designed to defend Russia against air and space attacks.
So is war between NATO and Russia inevitable as these military drills escalate? The ELN authors are careful to directly state that war will happen -- even going so far as to provide pointers to NATO and Russia on how to avoid war -- but their message is clear enough: at this rate, it’s bound to happen. Spokesmen and women can cite their statistics or opt for the “blame game” tactic, but what lies on the international table presently is an unstable country in a deep recession with anger towards the West and a trembling military organization in fear of any other upsets in Europe, which in all reality looks to be the recipe to another war.