The Syrian regime managed a highly strategic advance over the last few days around north Aleppo, cutting off rebels from key supply lines. This advance, which also relieved the regime enclave of Nubbol and Zahraa, puts the rebels in a precarious position across northwest Syria, and may mark the beginning of the end of them as a coherent fighting force.
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.
By Thomas Baron As Russia increases its level of commitment on the ground in Syria, there are increased concerns that any meaningful change in the political situation is slipping away. Washington has, over the course of the civil war, reduced its own red lines and failed to act to support a meaningful uprising that could be deemed legitimate by the international order, and there are increased concerns over what direction the conflict will take and what the end will look like.
Ultimately, what is ideal for the Syrian groups on the ground is an all out victory in their favour while for the regional and international powers it is for a friendly government to be installed or maintained. The high levels of death and destruction such a victory entails in the short term has made them highly unpopular is recent decades amongst the international community (although there are arguments that such victories are more stable and ideal in the mid to long term) and most participants now insist that the conflict should end at the negotiating table.
A negotiated settlement is favoured outright by the United States and their Western allies for various reasons. The first of these is that such a settlement justifies international norms which state that democratic, inclusive negotiations are the key to successful governance as well as an effective moral and ethical resolution. A second, more practical reason is that it is increasingly clear that only through a negotiated settlement may the United States start building meaningful influence in a future Syria government that could benefit its global vision.
Occupying an essential position on the geopolitical map, Syria has been firmly seated in the anti-American bloc of nations since the Ba’ath party seized power in 1963. In spite of CIA attempts to cultivate an opposition movement to seize the country, particularly throughout the 1950s as part of anti-communist operations, US influence failed to gain hold and, in the years before the Arab Spring, the United States had little-to-no known influence over potential opposition groups on the ground.
With the rise of the Arab Spring and the fall of regimes across the region, many saw the conflict in Syria as a chance to topple the Assad/Ba’ath regimes once and for all, installing a government that was democratic in values, open to international norms on trade, and less hostile to its neighbours.
Attempts to bolster rebel forces who emerged as opposition groups armed as protection against increased government aggression failed and it has been increasingly obvious that the US lacks the ability or willingness to wield their power adequately to influence the dynamics of the conflict on the ground to the point where an all-out rebel victory could be won.
Evidence that Russia’s aerial campaign is focused not on ISIS – as Moscow claims – but rather at Arab rebels that pose a threat to the Assad regime is growing. Targeting these groups helps lessen the pressure on areas under Assad’s control and helps him and his allies expand this control across the cities of the northeast of the country.
This strategy has the added advantage of eroding non-ISIS, Arab rebels and limiting the groups available for support on the ground by regional and international players. By doing so, it is hoped, the conflict will slowly move away from the complex network of actors on the grounds towards a two-way fight between the Assad bloc and ISIS, realising the held rhetorical line that Assad is the last bulwark against terrorism. Doing so would make a negotiated settlement impossible as non-ISIS rebel groups hold no points to negotiate and nothing to offer at the table.
Other states traditionally allied with the United States – mainly the Gulf States and Turkey – have been able to build some influence with material support to groups who the United States has traditionally been deemed too ‘Islamist’ to support. These states may not share Washington’s willingness to negotiate a settlement with Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, however, and it may be up to international powers to convince these states that such a diplomatic solutions are in their best interests.
A key for America’s strategy will be ensuring that fighting groups favourable to the United States can maintain a place on the battlefield in order to ensure a seat at any future table can be easily occupied and that their concerns will be taken seriously. Without control of places of geopolitical that will be essential to the future states, such groups would be marginalized in the future negotiations.
Such an outcome will be much easier to achieve than an all-out victory. The Obama administration has, since Russia began its aerial campaign, loosened its demands that Arab rebel groups meet certain criteria to be considered for US support and have ended failed training programmes for the elusive moderate rebels. Its new focus will be on forcing a stalemate on the ground, creating a situation in which all-out victory will be elusive to all players and advances on the battlefield near impossible for Assad’s forces, although it is unclear how far they are willing to go to achieve this aim.
If this paralysis can be achieved and if the parties in the conflict can be persuaded that this is the case, it will lead the way to divert the conflict of the battlefield towards the negotiating table. If victory is still seen as a possibility through war – or if parties believe advances can be made that will strengthen their position in negotiations – then negotiations will be elusive and the possibility of meaningful compromise weak.
In Syria it is important to note that for the United States, the fear of loosing strategic headway is slim. If they can nudge the Syria conflict to a negotiated settlement that would include groups open to Western and Gulf influence, this may be a victory in itself. An Assad victory would simply be a return to the norm in the levels of control they have over the territory of Syria and the cost of his removal as well as the risk of who his replacement may be, are too great for the US.
A return to normal, however, would signal to America’s allies a step-away from the region and an unwillingness to act as a security guarantor. Some fear that this will embolden the revolutionary bloc of states, leading Iran and Russia to further increase support for actors who will destabilize the regional and world order. Such a move could force America’s allies to look to self-defence and self-determination to tackle the expanding threat and may do so in a manner more disruptive, with itchier fingers on the trigger, that could lead to a greater level of conflict with more devastating results.
To be successful in this policy, the United States will need to relay the support of its regional allies to ensure that both they and their partners on the ground respect any negotiated settlements that can be forged. Similarly, it will need to ensure that Russia, as the biggest power involved, will respect the agreements, bringing the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah to the table. Whether or not this can be achieved may be largely down to the diplomatic abilities of Obama and Kerry to make the negotiated settlement appear the best option.
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.
A report by human rights organisation Amnesty International has accused the US-backed Kurdish force, the YPG (Kurdish for the People’s Protection Units), of carrying out demolitions of homes and forced displacement of inhabitants in Northern Syria that amount to war crimes. The organisation’s report focuses on several villages in Northern Syria. but one that stands out is Husseiniya village in the Tel Hamees countryside, where approximately 94% of the buildings that were standing in June 2014 were destroyed in June 2015.
According to one witness in the report, the YPG took control of the area in February of 2015 and immediately began demolitions.
“They pulled us out of our homes and began burning the homes. They brought the bulldozers, they demolished home after home until the entire village was destroyed,” claimed the witness.
As well as Husseiniya, Amnesty International reports that the YPG also carried out “extensive demolition” in villages south of Suluk near Tel Abyad, where one of the villages mentioned is Asaylem village.
A resident told Amnesty International that the YPG destroyed 100 out of 103 buildings and believed that the demolitions were in retaliation for an ISIS VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) that targeted YPG troops in the village.
The report also focuses on the forced displacement of villagers. One villager said that the YPG threatened them with US airstrikes if they did not leave, claiming that they would tell the US that they are IS. This is according to the villagers that there were approximately 1400 Turkmen families in the village of Hammam al-Turkman and 10 Kurdish families.
Farid (not his real name), one of the villagers, claimed that everyone was forced to leave their homes and that they spent nearly two months living in fields before 50% of the population were allowed to return, and even then could only return if they told the YPG forces who the ISIS supporters were in their village.
The YPG responded to Amnesty International’s accusations by claiming that the forced displacement of villagers only occurred in “isolated incidents” and only when the “threat of terrorism” required it.
Redur Xelil, the spokesman for the YPG, claimed that villagers were forced to leave for their own protection and not necessarily for any ties to armed groups. He is quoted as saying,
“When clashes happen there is shooting and car bombs, airplane shelling; all kinds of weapons are used. The better solution is to move civilians away from the frontlines until the situation improves.”
Amnesty International reports that the YPG’s forced displacement of villagers breaks international law as they did not provide adequate shelter or enjoy satisfactory hygiene, nutrition, and safety.
Although this is the most recent accusation against the YPG by a human rights organisation, accusations have been leveled against the Kurdish group for some time. Earlier this year the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) put together a list of approximately 50 children under the age of 18 that are fighting with the YPG/J -- including one 14-year-old girl, whose father claims she was taken from school and forced to join.
The YPG responded by saying that they are targeting the problem and have punished officers who have accepted recruits under the age of 18, yet they did not give HRW names or dates of those who were punished. The YPG also claimed that they are accepting 16- and 17-year-old recruits but are not using them in any military capacity. HRW responded by saying that the YPG should not accept anyone under the age of 18 for any purpose.
Athough HRW accepts that the YPG are fighting groups like ISIS, who have committed numerous war crimes over the last 4 years in both Syria and Iraq, the organisation maintains that it is no excuse to accept abuses of human rights by their own forces.
In the grand scale of things, the YPG’s abuses -- as serious as they are -- pale in comparison to abuses by other players in the conflict, such as ISIS, al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch), and the Syrian government itself. It seems that no faction in the war is innocent.
As the United States starts to ramp up their support for the YPG and the FSA (Free Syrian Army), then both need to clamp down on their own forces as the eyes of the world are on them.
A link to the full Amnesty International report can be found here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/2503/2015/en/
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".
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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