Enhanced Pressure on North Korea: Clock is Ticking

Situation Report – Tensions between North Korea and the United States have reached a new boiling point in the past days. Uncertainty and hostilities have been spiked by the newest…

Situation Report – Tensions between North Korea and the United States have reached a new boiling point in the past days. Uncertainty and hostilities have been spiked by the newest statements and by an analysis composed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s intelligence service that indicate that Pyongyang is now capable to fully miniaturize the nuclear weapon in order to be mounted as a missile’s warhead. A similar conclusion has been reached by the Japanese as well. Furthermore, U.S. officials believe that North Korea now holds a stockpile of 60 nukes, more than previously estimated, while other independent experts believe the number is lower, but between 30-60.  Additional reports state that the CIA and the other intelligence agencies of the U.S. agree with the DIA’s assessment.

Over these infinitely tense environment, Pyongyang also issued a plan to fire an ICBM containing a war head into Guam, a U.S. island in the Pacific ocean and near the Sea of Philippines, of which trajectory will violate Japanese airspace. It is now clear that the ‘clock’ has reached an unprecedented moment, when North Korea not only has nuclear weapons but also holds that capacity necessary to deliver them against military targets, hence the rising deterrent factor that it applies.

It’s unclear what kind of missiles is the DIA report referring too, but if it can fit on the following missiles: Hwasong-14 (KN-20) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-12 (KN-17) intermediate-range ballistic missile, or Pukkuksong series (KN-11 or KN-15), then North Korea has indeed the operational readiness and technological know-how to strike South Korea, Japan and parts of the United States. The Hwasong-14 (KN-20)  ICBM for example, has been tested twice this year in July, following a new wave of high tensions that are better described for that context in this past analysis, including the Chinese pivot, hypothetical regime change and the military option.

In March 2017, Secretary of States Rex Tillerson announced the ‘end of strategic patience’, a North Korea policy followed by past Presidents attempting to cope with the North Korean issue, and instead adopted an ‘Enhance Pressure’ approach. The past strategy was founded on the belief that if enough pressure and isolation is applied, North Korea will eventually come to the negotiations table, in a way that worked, in theory for now, with Iran. The decades-long strategic patience instead resulted in a gradual increase of military capabilities, nuclear developments and missile tests that have paramounted in a functional cache of ICBMs and a significant stockpile of nukes. The perpetual bellicose attitude of Kim Jong-Un and his efforts driven to secure his throne also stirred anxiety at Beijing who were prospecting the idea of a regime change while not interrupting the dynasty, hence the assassination of Kim-Jong Nam by North Korean intelligence in Malaysia.

 

Enhanced Pressure

The new enhanced pressure approach is currently unclear and blurred, being still in application and sheltered under the fog of public vs. backchannel diplomacy. For now, it seems that the unprecedented increase in hostile declarations against Pyongyang has not deterred it from trying to pursue nuclear weapons and ballistics missile technology. It did however, secure China’s public disapproval of the Kim Jong-Un regime, even though that could be circumstantial given their separate bilateral dynamic and how that evolved since Jong-Un took power. Strategic Patience has become obsolete and even an anachronism.

The strategic environment has changed, shifting from a nuclear-aspiring North Korea to a nuclear armed and ICBM-ready one, capable of deterring its enemies. The U.S. is needed and willing to strike first in order to avoid letting itself vulnerable to the whims of a rogue nuclear state. And while diplomacy is still the first option, ‘Enhanced Pressure’ might be the last chapter in negotiations before bringing the military options upfront. 

This new dimension of American power projection towards the Korean Peninsula was needed, which as many other geopolitical disputes, are inter-winded with several other factors and inputs. Notably China, Russia or the Asia-Pacific order. ‘Enhanced pressure’ also implies, publicly made by Rex Tillerson, that all options are on the table, followed by President Trump’s ‘fire and furry’ comments and complemented by Secretary of Defense James Mattis declarations about the military options being prepared. The situations seems tense and critical, however, when speaking of the North Korea issue, hostile declarations or increased media coverage could easily fuel false and periodical alarmism which amounts to nothing. This is an occurring tendency for years, that could very well prove to be case now as well. However, given the new, earlier-argued context, there are reasons to believe this situation is different.

Even from the earlier boiling point in March 2017:

  • China has moved thousands of troops on the border city of Dandong,
  • Russia has also closed its airspace in March, in southern Prymorskyie Oblast and around Vladivostok by moving S-300s in the area. Now, the Kremlin put their air defense infrastructure on high alert,
  • while the U.S. increased its naval presence in the water around South Korea and Japan, while also equipping its regional allies with THAAD and Patriot (PAC-3) missile defense systems. THAAD guards Seoul from the border while reports suggest that the Japanese owned PAC-3’s have been detached in Hiroshima, Shimane and Kochi, shielding Tokyo from a feared course change.

The two traditional U.S. allies are firmly against a preemptive campaign that has been rumored for the past months, since it would be impossible to stop all the small arms fire, rogue missile or rockets fired in Japan or South Korea. As James Mattis presented, such an options would imply a massive shelling of Seoul and the border area, that would cost thousands of allied lives. A war with North Korea is unwanted given the consequences and after effects it will produce, but it may become a reality, if theoretical, that is the next step after ‘Enhanced Pressure’ fails – if it does. Accordingly, a military campaign against North Korea’s nuclear program, which would be the best and more limited scenario, is more difficult than most think. Pyongyong’s key facilities are spread to all over the country and are protected by significant coastal early-warning systems (be they outdated and rudimentary) that could buy enough time for North Korea to do enough harm to its neighbors.

Therefore, an escalating path to to war has several potential weaknesses for American strategy: allied disapproval. Notably, South Korea could be so desperate in avoiding a war that it could accept to rollback U.S. presence in the peninsula, appeasing their northern neighbors and their interests. While appeasement is a proven strategy for failure and would actually fuel expansionist prospects, it may be an mirage-option for Seoul. Therefor Washington needs to play this card very close to the chest, striking a balance between deterring North Korea and not alarming the South.

L.E: Just one day after writing this assessment, President Moon Jae-In of South Korea issued a statement saying: ‘There will be no war repeated on the Korean Peninsula […] Military action against North Korea should be decided by ourselves and not by anyone else‘, further confirming our hypothesis that Seoul could block or temper US pressure on North Korea, if it considers that the situation reaches a critical boiling point.

Open in ‘view image’ for a larger picture.

Camouflaged Negotiations: Threats, Statements and Remarks

Transylvania Intelligence recommends that the recent bellicose rhetoric between the U.S. and North Korea is actually a prelude to negotiations and not to war. If in March, Rex Tillerson stated that there will be no negotiations for the nuclear weapons, now he expressed openness for dialogue with Pyongyang if its halts missile tests. North Korea responded by saying that nukes are off the negotiations table, the United States needs to leave the Korean peninsula. Both actors publicly presented their interests: U.S. wants to de-nuclearize the peninsula, North Korea wants the American presence there gone or reduced to a sterile level. Convergence is very little if none at all, the situation is too black and white to find a middle ground. And that is exactly why they are now leveraging each other. General Kim Rak Gyom, chief of the Strategic Forces of North Korea presented on live television the fly path of Hwasong-2 rockets that sees the bogeys crossing through Japanese airspace and landing in the waters of Guam, a Pacific territory that hosts a strategic U.S. base. It is obvious that no country would publish its ‘going-to-war’ moment before it does, especially when only 50% of ICBM tests have been successful. This is actually Pyongyang’s way of deterring the United States, showing that it now has leverage through striking capability, informing their counterparts that the stakes have changed and that they are not the only ones holding a joker card. While the overall sentiment is that Pyongyong is bluffing with its Guam threat.

L.E: The next day after writing this assessment, state news agency KNSA reported that Kim Jong-Un reviewed plans to fire a ICBM towards Guam but has now decided to post-pone the decision, awaiting Washington’s move. This also confirms our judgement that the Guam threat was a useful bluff for providing additional leverage in the negotiations.

As of now, the United States does not have enough assets in the Korean Peninsula to fight an all out war with North Korea, it does have, however, strategic bombers in place capable of conducting preemptive sorties, recon and sabotage ops. While there are still enough ways to build-up forces in South Korea and Japan capable of going unnoticed by the press or observers, there would still be several weeks needed for a march towards a conventional conflict that would involve the overthrow of a government, securing nukes, dog fights, naval warfare (including aircraft escorts, counter-submarine ops), neutralizing enemy forces and occupying the country through massive numbers of U.S. Army assets and personnel.

Anxious and nervous of the verbal war drums of the dispute, China and Russia have presented Tuesday a plan for de-escalating the tensions. They suggest that Pyongyang declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while the United States and South Korea refrain from large-scale military exercises. This way, North Korea does not continue to enhance its nuclear and ICBM features while the United States would not conduct a build-up of forces in the South Korea under the disguise of military drills. There are enough reasons to doubt the reason and prospects of this proposal. For one, there is no guaranteeing body or force that could oversee a halt in North Korea’s nuclear program, nor is it feasible anymore, the nukes are produced, some ICBMs work, this is not an Iraqi or Iran situation where this late-stage can be prevented – what’s done it’s done. Chinese and Russian interests, although weakened and compromised by Kim Jung Un’s way of leading the country, still uplift the containment of Washington in Asia-Pacific as their utmost strategic aim.

Even though many argue that a fragile management of nuclear North Korea should be the option of choice, being the lesser evil of the other scarier methods, Transylvania Intelligence considers that the volatile, unprecedented nature of an ICBM-ready and nuke-rich North Korea is too unpredictable and hostile to sleep safely at night for decision makers at Washington. While I do not consider that the Kim regime is irrational or ‘crazy’, there is a precedent and history of rogue states going out of their way in face of enhanced pressure and anxiety in order to secure their survival.

However, America’s first options continues to be the diplomatic one, motioned by Rex Tillerson and Nikkey Halley that work around the clock behind the international stage’s curtain to negotiate a deal. A key would be bypassing Chinese mediation between the two and actually be able to establish a direct line of communication, something that Beijing might be opposed to, dully because that would cut China’s importance in the diplomatic dialogue and ignore it’s power-broker role in the region. And while diplomacy is in motion, Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford recently met with South Korean President in order to discuss military coordination and strategic issues in regards to this threat. It’s safe to assume, that contingency plans are planned and negotiated as never before, hence the after statement of ‘military action is our last resort’.

 

Contingency plans

If everything fails, then it’s better to attack now than later. Time is not on Washington’s side. Every missile test, every ICBM production or uranium enrichment means more nukes, better capabilities and an overall tougher North Korean defense posture.  And while China continues to re-assert itself as being the bridge between Pyongyang and the intentional community, the bilateral interaction with the U.S. is complex and ambivalent, crafted by other inputs as their competitive nature in international affairs, Asia-Pacific geopolitics, and some rare episodic convergences. Regardless of perception, the North Korea regime acts from a rational motivation: ready-to-launch nukes secure the continuity of the regime and therefor, deter outside attacks. Washington may now be opened for clear negotiations but this position is fragile. An over aggressive misstep from Pyongyang, as enforcing their Guam threat,  would put the Trump administration in a very though spot, prompting it to reinforce its red line. However, we should also bear in mind that preemptive action could actually be synonym to preventive war, there is not guarantee that targeted strikes on nuke sites would reduce a hypothetical conflict to just a limited campaign.

This is not a time for missteps and anxious moves. Another War in Korea would be the battle of a generation of Americans and a first when two nuclear powers engage in direct combat; the lack of historical precedent is enough to make anyone feel nervous, even if, pragmatically thinking, the option would be preferable now then later. The level of urgency has obviously spiked, and time should be judged as a resource for all strategic thinkers observing these events unfold.

 

 

 

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Battle for Raqqa, Vol.2 – Live Journal

Transylvania Intelligence continues the ‘Battle for Raqqa’ daily journal feed with a fresh new entry that will try to improve based on previously provided feedback from you, the audience. You…

Transylvania Intelligence continues the ‘Battle for Raqqa’ daily journal feed with a fresh new entry that will try to improve based on previously provided feedback from you, the audience. You can find the first volume, here, and read all about the methodology employed, the source/ reference policy and subsequently about the daily entries, stretching from the assault on June 6th, the later encirclement and to the sustained efforts within the Old Town, until August 1st.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that encompass thousand of Kurdish, Arab or Syriac fighters from several factions or militias,(more about the faction here), led by the YPG, are supported by the U.S.-led International anti-ISIS Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’. Upon finalizing the battle, Raqqa will be handed over the Raqqa Civil Council as an interim power that will end its term in 2018 when democratic elections will be held.


August 18h, 2017

A new batch of supplies arrive in Northern Syria on route to support the anti-ISIS effort in Raqqa.

Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk met with representatives of the Raqqa Civil Council in Ain Issa.


August 17h, 2017

Clashes between the SDF and ISIS continued throughout the night in Shahadeh district. US-backed forces managed to take an ammunition depot from the jihadists in that area. In the city center, SDF manages to hold and consolidate the ground capture in the Old Town and captures the entire al-Quwalti street that separates Rifaq and Mahdi neighborhoods. On the other hand, significant attempt of counter-attack launched by ISIS were dealt with success by the SDF on several fronts, while also managing to open several safe passages for civilians to flee.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 18 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 12 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 29 fighting positions, three ISIS communication lines and two logistical nodes.


August 16h, 2017

Clashes continued in al Mansur, al Rashid, Shahadeh and Darayeh neighborhoods, killing 46 jihadists. Four SVBIED have been also neutralized before they could be detonated. OIR Spokesperson said that 55% of the city is now in SDF hands.

According to an article in Reuters, The current number of Arabs in the SDF is around 24,000 with 31,000 Kurds; just since November, U.S. trained 5,000 local Arabs from Raqqa to join the ranks of SDF. This day marked the 1 year anniversary of the liberation of Manbij, significant celebrations took place in the city, now administered by the Federation of Northern Syria. Interesting war stories of the SDF in Raqqa can be read through this insight-full article.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 20 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 16 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 17 fighting positions, a logistics node, an IED, a command & control node, an UAS and a vehicle. Additional 23 strikes were also reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 15h, 2017

Around 95 jihadts have been neutralized in the intense and ongoing clashes in Raqqa’s Old Town. Humanitarian situations in some parts have improved, many civilians managing to escape, however the overall outlook is dire, being the 62nd day without water. SDF managed to destroy an ISIS SVBIED before detonating itself, close to the Children’s Hospital in near the Security Box, near Shahadah/ Furat, where the jihadists tried to open an offensive.

Drone footage captures moment when U.S. air strikes hits ISIS position in Raqqa.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 11 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging seven ISIS tactical units; destroying 30 fighting positions, a logistics node and a UAS. Additional 37 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 4 strikes were reported in the strike release of August 17th.


August 4-14th, 2017

In this long 10-days span fights continued in the disputed Old Town as well as in the near-central districts. Little progress has been achieved given the fortified positions of the jihadists and the urbanized area that the SDF is now operating in. Without a doubt, the U.S-backed fighters are well deep into the most difficult terrain of the anti-ISIS effort, needing to push the jihadists out of the city and off the Earth, while also preventing casualties both in SDF and of the civilians.

Following intensified efforts in Nezlat Shahadeh and Hisham Abdulmalik districts in 6-9 August, on the 10th, the SDF managed to capture the small ISIS pocket there and united the eastern and western fronts through the southern axis near the Euphrates banks

. SDF fighters congratulated and saluted each other as they met. Capitalizing on this new enforced posture of SDF personnel south of the Old Town, sustained operations have began targeting the city’s central districts with night raids, air strikes and shelling.

In the meanwhile, SVBIED attacks from ISIS tried to weaken SDF presence in the western parts of the Old Town, even near the Old Mosque. Despite these efforts, on March 12, SDF managed to capture Mahdi and al-Rifa districts, which amount to more than half of Raqqa’s Old Town, including the Old Mosque. These is not just an intelligence tactical plan, but also an outstanding achievement that the SDF managed to actually apply it. In contrast, Iraqi Security Force (ISF) did a major mistake by cornering the last remnants of ISIS in the Old Town of Mosul, heavily urbanized and basically a maze of narrow streets packed with IEDs, tight corners, tall buildings and enough cover and door-to-door situations, to stall the battle for months and cost additional lives of civilians and soldiers. The last four three months of the battle for Mosul took place in the Old Town. What SDF is attempting (successfully for now) is conduct an early liberation of the Old Town, in order to push the last remnants of ISIS in the opened areas of Raqqa, which make them an easier target for the sweep & clean closing operations of the battle.

Before the liberation of Mahdi and al-Rifa, сommander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Hafal Jabbar, said that SDF need 4 more months to capture Raqqa city. And according to U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS Coalition, Brett McGurk, there are ‘2,000 ISIS fighters left in Raqqa’ while Colonel Ryan Dillon, a Coalition spokesperson said: “Fighting in Raqqa continues to be intense, as fanatical ISIS dead-enders and foreign terrorist fighters left to die use the dense urban environment to try to cling to territory”.

Another interview with Bret McGurk said: ‘we know that a lot of foreign fighters are concentrated in the city of Raqqa, and our mission is to make sure that they cannot escape. Our mission is to make sure that any foreign fighter, that came from another country to fight here for ISIS in Syria, they will die here in Syria. If they’re in Raqqa, they’re going to die here in Raqqa. For Syrian who might have been swapped up with ISIS and want to surrender, the Raqqa Civilian Council here [interim political authority for Raqqa] last week pardoned 80 Syrians last week. So that is something that Syrians can work out.’

In Derek, self-proclaimed Federation of Northern Syria, authorities now print school manuals in Kurdish.

On the 13th and 14th, desperate SVBIED attacks of ISIS in consolidated western district of Romaniah, Abdul Malik and counter-offensive in the Old Town, that failed to repeal SDF personnel from their positions.

Coalition uses Apache attack helicopters to rain down hell on ISIS positions in Raqqa.

Strike list of the U.S.-led Coalition:

August 4th –  27 strikes engaged 19 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 17 fighting positions, three tactical vehicles, a vehicle, two heavy machine guns, a mortar system, a weapon cache, a command & control node, a SVBIED facility, and a SVBIED. Additional 4 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 5h – 21 strikes engaged 15 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 13 fighting positions, two vehicles, two heavy machine guns, a front-end loader, UAV site, and a sniper position. Additional 5 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 2 strikes was reported in the strike release on the 7th.

August 6th – 9 strikes engaged 9 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 7 fighting positions, an HQ and a SVBIED facility. Additional 8 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 7th – 18 strikes engaged 16 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 17 fighting positions, a tunnel and  two vehicles. Additional 6 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 8th – 12 strikes engaged 10 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 7 fighting positions, two vehicles, one front-end loader, an ISIS communication tower and communication equipment. Additional 7 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 9th– 14 strikes engaged 9 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 27 fighting positions, five command & control nodes, two heavy machine guns, a mortar system, a vehicle, and an IED factory. Additional 16 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 10th – 33 strikes engaged 14 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 21 fighting positions, four command & control nodes, three ISIS communication nodes, two IEDs, a logistics node and an ISIS communication facility. Additional 2 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 11th – 26 strikes engaged 19 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 35 fighting positions, two vehicles, an HQ, and a communication line. Additional 11 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 12 – 15 strikes engaged 14 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 3 command & control nodes, two HQs, an UAV launch site and a vehicle. Additional 21 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 13 – 16 strikes engaged 11 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 3 fighting positions, an anti-aircraft artillery system, a logistical node, a heavy machine gun, a vehicle and an IED. Just one additional strike was reported in the next day’s strike release.

August 14 – 27 strikes engaged 19 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 59 fighting positions, two heavy machine guns, a mortar system, an IED and a logistical node. Additional 32 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. This might be the day with the highest air strike count since the battle started: 59.


August 3rd, 2017

Raqqa civillians being evacuated from conflict zones are joyful as they spot SDF reinforcement convoy heading towards the city:

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 15 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging 10 ISIS tactical units; destroyed seven fighting positions, three mortar systems, two sections of Rafiqah wall, two vehicles, two anti-air artillery, heavy machine gun, and explosive cache; damaged five supply routes; and suppressed a jihadist tactical unit. Additional 13 strikes on August 3rd were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another strike was reported on the strike released issued on the 5th.


August 2nd, 2017

SDF elements further push to consolidate on their wins in all fronts. In Raqqa’s Old Town, they assault the Ateeq Mosque, where according to Raqqa 24, was followed a counter-attack that killed 11 SDF elements.

In Rawda district, SDF fighters foiled an IS attack with 2 VBIEDs that they destroyed before reaching their targets. While limited fire fights also took place south of the Sugar Factory. Furthermore, SDF has liberated al-Muna Mosque, Bustan Garden, Micro-bus Station and Kerala from ISIS in the neighborhood of Hisham Bin Abdulmelik, southern Raqqa and north of the Euphrates. Eight jihadists have been neutralized. Also, SDF is working on opening humanitarian corridors by conducting sweep&clean ops in Nazlat Shahadah.

ISIS claimed two SVBIED attacks on SDF positions in Muklathla district, one suicide bomber looks underage. Attack only injured fighters, reporter capture immediate aftermath on tape.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 14 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging 10 tactical units, destroyed 9 fighting positions, two vehicles, a supply cache, a SVBIED, a mortar position, an ISIS UAS site, and a electricity generator. Four additional strikes on August 2nd have been reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 1st, 2017

The defensive posture of ISIS in Raqqa has become weary and seasoned. Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to pull huge wins in the southern sectors. For one, they managed to capture the district of Nazlat Shahadah, while also managed to push through the ex-Government headquarters located in Barid, therefor securing the banks north of the New Bridge. On the other hand, SDF captured the Political Security Zone in Hisham bin Abdulmalik neighborhood in order to link the two southern flank of the city, further tightening the grip on the Old Town.

A former rapper now ISIS member threatens Rome and Istanbul on a video addressing Donald Trump, while their propaganda also released several new videos showing SVBIED attacks against SDF targets in Raqqa. Arab Sunni Rebel group, part of SDF, Jaysh al Thuwar will include female fighters within their ranks taking the example of YPG with YPJ.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 7 strikes against ISIS in Raqqa, engaging 4 tactical units, destroyed 4 fighting positions, two ISIS headquarters, and IED, a ammunition cache, and a fuel supply point. Additional 17 strikes conducted on the 1st, have only been reported on the next day.

 

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A ‘Swift Response’ from the ‘Saber Guardian’: Recognizing the Strategic Importance of the Black Sea Region

Strategic Analysis – Saber Guardian 2017 (SG17) is an annual, multinational exercise held in the Black Sea region as pat of the U.S. European Command Joint Exercise Program. This year’s…

Strategic Analysis – Saber Guardian 2017 (SG17) is an annual, multinational exercise held in the Black Sea region as pat of the U.S. European Command Joint Exercise Program. This year’s iteration took place between July 11 – 20. The exercise’s aim was to assure allies and partners of the enduring U.S. commitment to the collective defense at the Black Sea region, to enable the Alliance’s command and control functions, and to reinforce deterrence measures agreed to by NATO  allies at the Warsaw Summit in 2016. The exercise was organized by the U.S. Army Europe and co-hosted by Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, that saw numerous drills and simulations taking place all over these countries.

Approximate 25,000 troops participated in the exercise, while 14,000 of them being U.S.forces; the rest coming from member or partners countries of NATO: Armenia, Bulgaria, Czechia, Croatia, Germany, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania, FYRO Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Throughout this analysis we explore the Saber Guardian exercise through the ‘Swift Response’ mission that took place at the 71st ‘Emanoil Ionescu’ Air Base in the village of Luna, near Campia Turzii town, Cluj county (Romania), where Transylvania Intelligence was present obtain exclusive footage and information. Moreover, the massive military effort will later in this article be explained through the geopolitical lens as it relates to the Black Sea, as ‘Saber Guardian’ upholds its exclusive dedicated nature for this expanded region.

 

‘Swift Response’: a ‘Saber Guardian’ exercise

Swift Response is a series of airborne operations and joint force entries that functions within the framework of ‘Saber Guardian’ and took place in Papa Airbase (Hungary), Bezmer & Shabia (Bulgaria) and Campia Turzii-Luna & Cincu (Romania).

The mission that Transylvania Intelligence had the chance to assist to, took place from the 21st to the 22nd of July, 2017 in Luna, near Campia Turzii, Cluj county, Romania, at the 71st ‘Emanoil Ionescu’ Airbase of the Romanian Air Force. The employed scenario foresaw an Allied operation to attack and capture the airbase that was occupied by enemy forces. The operation involved 800 U.S. Troops from the 143rd Texas Regiment and the 2nd Cavarly Regiment, and it stretched on three main phases, the first two referring to the ‘Joint Forcible Entry’ while the last to the ‘Airfield Seizure’ objective:

1.For 3-minutes, eight AC-130’s parachuted  hardware, supplies and logistics at 11.00 A.M., July 21st on a plain-field near the Airbase. These resources were to be collected by units already on the ground and be used in the airfield seizure.

2.Later that day, a night airborne operation took place around 23.00 A.M, that saw 500 paratroopers insert the area previously used to deploy the supplies. These forces regrouped with friendly troops on the ground and used the collected logistics to prepare and later execute the main objective: ‘Airfield Seizure’

3.Around 4.00 AM, July 22nd, the joint Romanian-US force conducted a dawn raid on the airbase that lasted 4 hours and saw the capture of strategic 71st Base.

The exercise was deemed as a huge success in regards to accomplishing the planned timeline, maneuvers and tactics. This scenario was one of the vastly different and creative operations sketched throughout the ‘Saber Guardian’ framework. Other missions that enabled or took place within ‘Saber Guardian were:

  • Szentes Axe, Danube crossing in Gyor, Hungary, U.S. and Hungarian troops;
  • Olt crossing in Bordusani, Romania U.S. and Romanian troops;
  • Night crossing of Olt, Valcea, Romania, U.S. and Romanian troops;
  • Live Fire Exercise at Novo Selo training field, Bulgaria;
  • A Mass Casualty and Air Defense exercise at Mihail Kogalniceanul Airfield, Romania.

Other parallel exercises that enabled and supported ‘Saber Guardian’ as presented by the U.S. Army Europe – see the last map.

Black Sea Region: An emerging strategic vector? 

The Black Sea region has a unique tradition and history as a geopolitical entity. It was in the 18th Century when the Ottoman Empire lost its hegemony over this sea as a direct result of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774) that gave the Russian Empire access to its first warm water port in the Black Sea, and the status of protector of the Orthodox Christians living under the Sublime Porte. The Ottoman-Russian rivalry is directly linked to these area , and spilled-over to the Balkans and to the Caucasus, attracting external inputs that tried to maintain a balance of power in the region, or internal elements that marched to form their own states and movements. As it was the case of the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when France and the United Kingdom intervened in favor of the Ottoman Empire in order to defeat Russia and avoid a hegemony over the region by Sankt-Petersburg.

The Black Sea was also a significant front in the First World War when the Ottoman Navy engaged the Russian ships stationed in Sevastopol. But while witnessing a declining importance in the Second World War, the Black Sea region essentially vanished as a geopolitical entity in the Cold War. The traditional Turkish-Russian balance of power disappeared and instead, a Soviet and Warsaw Pact hegemony was installed. However, the situation changed when the URSS collapsed, despite the Russian Federation’s desperate attempts to conduct damage control over its ex-territories. One one hand, Moscow saw how its strategic territories as Crimea taken away, how ex-Soviet Republics, as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, or ex-Warsaw Pact allies, notably Poland, Romania, became hardened Euro-Atlantists that integrated in NATO, the European Union and called for a significant increase of U.S. troops on the Eastern Flank.

The critical ‘belt’ that Moscow looked after was its ex-Soviet Republics. While enjoying a friendly government in Kiev and Minsk for most of the time, the Romanian sentiment swiftly grew in Moldova upon assuming its independence in 1991, which triggered an immediate Russian invasion. While not managing to fully subdue Chisinau, a breakaway region was created east of the Dnister that would hold a perpetual leverage over the country. The Republic of Transnistira still hosts today thousands of Russian troops from the 14th Army. Similar interventions also took place in Azerbaijan (much more indirectly) or Georgia, a conventional invasion that sought to cripple the small republic’s future of joining NATO. After the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, two breakaway republics were formed under Moscow’s direct military and political foothold: South Ossetia and Abkhazia; these regions still host a number of Russian basses and thousands of troops eyeing Tbilisi.  Then, came the 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia that crippled the country’s infrastructure.

However, the Black Sea began to fully resurface as a geopolitical battleground when Russia lost Ukraine. After the radical decision by the Yanukovitch government to go ahead with the E.U. association protocol, protests from Moscow made the government reverse the decision, but instead stirred massive street movements in Kiev and all over the country. The crisis of 2014 escalated when the government began shooting at the over 1 million demonstrators in the main square of the capital. In support of the ‘Euromaidan’ movement came opposition parties, the United States and the European Union. And as Yanukovitch flew to Russia in an attempt to escape the angry population, it became clear the Ukraine was now radically driving out of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence and into the Euro-Atlantic one.

Vladimir Putin ordered a seizure of Crimea in yet another attempt of damage control of it’s weakening influence. Under a strict political deniability complemented by an ambiguous informational campaign, topped by targeted cyber and electronic warfare, Russian forces stationed in Sevastopol alongside incoming troops from the mainland managed to encircle Ukraine bases in the peninsula. And under a mock-referendum guarded by the Russian troops and local separatist groups, the population of Crimea, indeed overwhelmingly ethnic Russian, voted in favor of uniting with the Russian Federation.

A similar strategy was applied in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but given the immense Euro-Atlantic support for the Ukrainian Army, and without a doubt, the fierce resistance put by the National Guard and Armed Forces at Mariupol, Ukraine managed to keep the Kremlin in check, and contain the malign separatist conflict. Through the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and the LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) Russian attempted to create a land bridge to Crimea. And from there, according the Vladirim Putin’s speech, to form a New Russia (Novorossyia) for all the Russian speaking people in Ukraine – from Harkov, through the Black Sea littoral (Prychornomoria) and that of the Azov Sea (Pryazovia), including Zaporizhia and Kherson Oblasts, all the way to Odessa Oblast.The two hybrid republics, LPR and DPR formally formed the Federation of Novorossyia in 2014; this ended in January 2015 after it failed to expand the project. Attempts of Russian separatist movements were made in Odessa (strategic to this plan) and all over the Russian-speaking regions, however, those have failed to escalate and evolve in armed uprisings similar to what caused the crisis and the de facto succession in Eastern Ukraine

The combination of international pressure and fierce resistance from Kiev, managed to cancel Novorossiya; at least for now. The self-declaration of ‘Little Russia’ (Malorossyia) as an independent state, made by the leader of DPR, Alexander Zakharchenko, draw hostilities (at least publicly) from the LPR and Moscow, dully because it might have been a sign of abandonment of the larger, grand project for a patch of stable influence. Althought Kiev is still facing with a fragile and status quo-friendly treaty, the Minsk Agreement 2, and a potential volatile breakaway territory in the east, it’s maintaining its path of Euro-Atlantisism; with U.S. forces regularly conducting joint drills in the western region and on the seaboard, while cooperation with the E.U. is unprecedented.

The Black Sea region has recently emerged as a potential energy hub in regards to natural gas and even oil. The underwater deep shells have attracted interests from the biggest energy investors as Lukoil, OMV and Exxon Mobil to contract the licenses. After years of research and drilling, Romania’s maritime shell was confirmed and estimated at around 20 billion metric cubes of gas, enough to make the already energy sufficient country, a gas exporter. Together with Exxon Mobil, Bucharest will begin to exploit the deposit as of 2018. On the other side, Russian companies are already drilling into the shells near Crimea, and could have extended more if Odessa entered the separatist project, and would have changed the Black Sea’s exclusive economic zones in Moscow’s favor. Such a move would have offered Russia the opportunity to contest Romania’s maritime exclusivity and  claim the deep water gas deposits thanks to an island, the Snake’s Island, that sits within the Romanian EEZ and next to XXI Pelican shell, but belongs to Ukraine.

Additional military moves from Moscow are expected in NATO’s maritime perimeter. And as both Bulgaria and Romania suffer from an outdated, weakened and underwhelming military force, a stronger NATO presence is needed in the area. Romania’s sole objective at the 2016’s Warsaw Summit was to receive support for a Black Sea Fleet framework to be formed within the Alliance. Given Bulgaria’s opposition, skeptical of military build-ups in the area, Bucharest only received a multinational battlegroup in Craiova, formed by American, British, Polish and Bulgarian troops. But Washington’s aid had doubled in size in regards to military and political cooperation. Furthermore, the latest two National Security Strategies of Romania named as an objective for the country to become ‘a strategic vector of the Black Sea’.

Black Sea region exercises; source: U.S. Army Europe press kit

Saber Guardian, the largest exercise ever held in the Black Sea area was organized by U.S. Army Europe and co-hosted by Hungary (logistic hub for south-east Europe), Romania and Bulgaria. It massed 25,000 troops in additional to the already many ongoing exercises by NATO in the area. All the simulated scenarios tested,  subjected crisis situations and responsive actions to aggression emanating from the Black Sea. It simulated how logistics could be swiftly transferred from the main U.S. military hubs in Germany, to coordination centers in Hungary and then to the hypothetical frontlines of Romania and Bulgaria. It tested and exercised inter-operability and battle-space versatility, in critical and diverse missions as: air defense operations, mass casualty situations, seizures and counter-offensives; taking place in diverse regional realms, from the Hungarian Danube, to the Romanian plains or Carpathian mountains, to the Black Sea’s ports or waters.

Black Sea Area Support Team (ex- Joint Task Force-East), the operational unit within U.S. Army Europe, that deals with Romania and Bulgaria, had its most busy days from its founding in 2007. Together with local allies, it attempts to stop the maritime area from becoming a ‘Russian Lake’, as an ex-Romanian President once referred to Russia’s resurgent posture in the Black Sea. The region is one of the few that indeed resurfaced after decades of strategic ‘sterilization’ into a vital geopolitical vector.

 

 

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White House cancels CIA Covert Program aiding anti-Assad Syrian Rebels

Situation Report – Starting from the unconfirmed reports that have surfaced today that a month ago, the Trump administration has decided to cancel the CIA covert program through which various Syrian…

Situation Report – Starting from the unconfirmed reports that have surfaced today that a month ago, the Trump administration has decided to cancel the CIA covert program through which various Syrian Rebel groups were provided with weapons, ammo and aid in order to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Reportedly, the decision has been taken after President Donald Trump consulted with National Security Advisor MacMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The story is taken by the public as another piece of the ‘Russian collusion’ puzzle and creates additional pressure on the White House and the Campaign team that is now under scrutiny for its undeclared discussions with individuals from Russia. However, this memo will express the background and incentives of the covert program in order to clarify the situation from a technical point of view: retrospective summary, consequences/ benefits and it’s overall projection.

The first things which should be clarified through the complex and entangled U.S. covert plans in Syria is that there were three such initiatives, the early one, run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) included the transfer of weapons, ammo and aid to the Rebels fighting Assad, and two sanctioned by the Department of Defense (Pentagon) that foresaw an ambitious  but failed approach of training 5,000 vetted and hand-picked Rebel fighters per year, and the successful revamped version, through which the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were born, set exclusively in combating ISIS, benefiting from U.S. air support . The one reported to have been canceled by the Trump administration is the CIA-sanctioned one.

Summary

The program has been theorized by the Obama Administration in 2013 when aiding Syrian Rebels was a more practical, credible and efficient solution that would be now. The context of 2013-2014 Syria War is fully opposite to today’s situation. Just until mid-2015, the Assad government had yet to receive direct military support from the Kremlin while Iranian aid consisted mostly in weapons, ammo and a small contingency of Shi’a militias from Iraq, leaving the weary Syrian Arab Army opened to defections and an overwhelming assaults of various opposition forces. Following Washington’s policy throughout the Arab Spring and reflecting on its resolve to topple Muammar Gaddafi’s government in Libya through an extensive air campaign, the context was there for a regime change and state building option in Damascus. But as the situation in Syria grew intensively complex and given the commitment of ‘no boots on the ground’ from the Obama administration, the American strategists faced a difficult task ahead. Moreover, the configuration of the combatant forces was largely ambiguous, and their ideologies or allegiance were at least blurred, bringing an additional layer of difficulty in identifying a compatible native force.

In 2013 the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to arm selected Syrian Rebel groups against the forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The beginnings of the initative four years ago were officially a secret, authorized by President Barack Obama through a “finding” that permitted the C.I.A. to conduct a deniable program through-which opposition fighters received weapons, ammo and aid, fueling the war against Assad while not committing the U.S. politically against a single-handed overthrow of the dictatorial regime. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) identified friendly assets that would act as liaisons for the United States and which received a constant flow of logistics through Turkey and Jordan, both countries that supported such programs and had similar arrangements with own assets themselves. But given the rise of ISIS, that threatened Euro-Atlantic security interests, and the overall polarization of the opposition camp, that left merely a few ‘moderate’ Rebel groups in play in stark contrast to the powerful, well funded and armed Salafists or political islamists, Washington’s priorities changed.

In this context, the Department of Defense was authorized to develop a ‘train and equip’ program that would build a new opposition army from scratch that will focus on combating ISIS and other terrorist groups.

In 2014, Congress for the first time provided the President with authority and funds to overtly train and lethally equip vetted members of the Syrian opposition for select purposes. These objectives include supporting U.S. efforts to combat the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.  The FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, P.L. 113-291) and FY2015 Consolidated and Further Continuing Apropriations Act, 2015 (P.L. 113-235) provided that up to $500 million could be transferred from the newly-established Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF) to train and equip such native forces. Therefore, the covert program did not just refer to training and aiding indigenous elements, but also to undertake the human resources pre-selected, through a strict screening process that would eventually leave only the most ‘moderate’ fighters, in terms of ideology, to receive Washington’s ‘carepack’. This incentive produced two consequences: the recruitment of a small contingency of rebels, and a time-spawn until the force was operational and battle-ready. The training took place on the territory of two regional allies, Turkey and Jordan, which were also the staging areas of detachement of deployment until these new forces set-up forward operating bases (FOBs) in Syria by themselves.

The plan was to train 5,000 such troops, per year. On June 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s testimony in front of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee expressed that at that time, only 60 Syrian Rebel fighters have been trained. As expressed above, the vetting and screening process makes it extremely difficult to identify compatible peers.

On July 2015, the first batch of Syrian Rebels trained called ‘Division 30’ numbered around 200 fighters of Sunni Turkmen or Arabic background, were deployed over the Turkish border. As soon as they steeped in Syria they were violently ambushed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. As a result, their weapons were stolen, some of them got killed and their field commander was kidnapped. As Asmed Shaheed, an Al-Nusra jihadi that posted a photo with his recently capture M-16, many boasted only about their ‘war spoils’ online. The U.S. air cover failed to protect the Rebels, as a retaliatory strike only came the day after. The operational disaster draw comparison between the ‘Divison 30’ episode the massacre of the ‘Bay of Pigs’, Cuba 1961.

Due to its complete failure and its inefficient spending of 500$ million of the taxpayer’s money, the program was suspended in October 2015. This was also regarded at that time as a sign of weakness towards the recent intervention of Russia’s aerospatial forces and expeditionary units in support of Bashar al-Assad. In reality, the suspension of the program was followed by a rational course of events.

In 2016, the White House asked Congress for an additional ‘train and equip’ program, enforced by the same Department of Defense.“This is part of our adjustments to the train and equip program built on prior lessons learned,” said Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad. Starting from early 2015, The United States managed to gain a major ally, the ‘Euphrates Volcano’ – a joint war room formed by Kurdish militias as YPG/ YPJ and several Sunni Arab groups in order to coordinate in their fight against ISIS in Tel Abyad after relieving the siege of Kobane. By late-2015, these groups united their efforts in a framework called ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF). Both DoD and the White House believed that this was a group that deserved their support in order to combat ISIS, given their eficiency and numbers, already proven in previous battle in the region, so that in June 2016 the ‘Train and Equip’ Program was rebooted. U.S. Special Operators, present in Syria since 2015, continued their efforts to train and equip them from Jordan and northern Syria. These now embedded forces would also act as a compact outsourced infantry of the Pentagon’s air campaign.

 

Quality-test

Through this US-SDF partnership, ISIS has lost every battle against them in the past 2 years. The terrorist saw their caliphate shrink into a besieged enclave ‘capital’ of Raqqa, and sparsely spread in villages and towns around the Euphrates Valley. This cooperation has also given the US the chance to build military bases in northern Syria, the largest ones being in Sarrin, near Kobani and Rmelah, near Qamishli. But for reasons of operational secrecy, Transylvania Intelligence chose not to disclose their complete locations.

Just to clarify as an end note: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the entire anti-ISIS effort has nothing to do with the CIA cover program that was canceled.

However, the Rebels have been sequentially losing ground in face of the Loyalist offensives, and became dominated by the Salafist segment, as the ex-al-Nusra, now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Islamic Turkistan Party, Ahrar ah-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam, that have share the Idlib governorate into sectors of influence, setting checkpoints, imposing their own social judiciary based on Sharia Law and even fighting each other – as the current Ahrar vs. HTS clash in east Idlib. Other small pockets of Rebels still survive around Damascus in East Ghouta, Da’ara and Quneitra, but are critically besieged and weakened under a constant rain of barrel bombs and mechanized attacks.

 

The Rebels that Matter:

1. The only part were Rebel fighters that bear a strategic importance to American security interests is the desert area around the tri-border of Syria-Iraq-Jordan, notably around the al-Tanf crossing. The area was seized in March 2017 by Sunni Arab Rebels from the Amman-based Meghawir al-Thawra group, trained, armed and assisted by U.S. forces in camps built in Jordan. The role of this American-Rebel contingency on the border is to block Iran’s geopolitical gamble and deny Tehran a ground supply line for Hezbollah and Shi’a militias operating in Syria. In early June, given the relative cease-fire produced by the Astana Agreements, Loyalist forces spearheaded an operation through the Syrian desert and captured the territory north of al-Tanf, therefor blocking the frontline that the al-Tanf based Rebels had with ISIS, consequently denying their official purpose of their presence. Some strategist could consider that the border territory is now lost to Iran, due to the blockade imposed north of al-Tanf and because the Syrian Democratic Forces firstly need to liberate Raqqa before commencing on the Euphrates Valley and on the border – which could take too long, time in which the Syrians and Iranians could have already secured the frontier. It is also publicly known that President Trump and Putin negotiated a truce, a cease-fire between Loyalist forces and Rebels in that area. Which could equal in an abandonment of support for the al-Tanf contingency, that just months ago, was defended by  bombing the Iraqi Shi’a militias backed by Iran, and that were threatening the local U.S. presence.

A contingent of Sunni Arab Rebels and U.S. forces at the al-Tanf border checkpoint to Iraq.

However, it is not clear whether the southern Rebels are  part of the ‘Train and Equip’-Pentagon sanctioned program, or of the CIA’s covert action?

(a) In the case of the later, and their presence or functionality are affected by the cancellation of the CIA’s covert program, than the White House is making a serious mistake, with potential strategic dangers.

(b) On the other hand, the Jordanian-based Rebels have been used to fight ISIS, notably on the Syrian-Iraqi border and hopefully through Abu Kamal, Mayadin the the Euphrates Valley, and benefited from a close coordination with the U.S. Special Operators. It is highly possible that given the level of support and the stated objectives, these Rebels were trained under the Pentagon-backed ‘Train and Equip’ Program, thus being sheltered from any potential damage that the recent decision could have projected. Whereas the CIA convert operation only provided weapons and ammo to Rebels notably fighting Assad.

2. The Rebels from Quneitra also have a distinctive feature. They act as buffer elements between Israel and Hezbollah, that operates near-by. A defeat for the Rebels based there could trigger an Israeli intervention in the conflict and could upper the demands of Jerusalem for ‘safe-zone’ in the area, similar to what Turkey did in northern Aleppo governorate, even through direct action. A weakening of the Rebels fighting in the area could expose Israel’s Golan Heights to Iran’s proxy’s. However, Israel unveiled it’s massive humanitarian operation, code-named Operation ‘Good Neighbor’ through which the IDF provides health care, food and fuel for the Syrians.

 

Key Judgement:

  • Decision to end CIA covert program was most likely taken from a technical point of view, but could have been capitalized in the Trump-Putin negotiations on Syria in Hamburg.
  • In a stark paradox, the Trump administration campaigned that it will renounce state building and regime change activities. Translated in Syria, this is a result to the fact that since 2013, there is no viable and legitimate alternative to Assad at the moment, nor there is one proposed by the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, not even as an interim figure; and as the Rebels are on the imminent brink of defeat, democratic elections are no longer a viable or possible option.
  • The impact of the decision to cancel the CIA covert program is currently difficult to asses. The framework has been loose in its technicalities and details, dully in order to arm Syrian Rebels wherever and whenever needed. Moreover, given the clandestine and potentially classified nature of the program, it is highly unlikely to perceive the effects on the short-term.
  • Syrian Rebels from Maghawir al-Thawra stationed in al-Tanf to guard the border crossing from Iranian elements and launch an offensive against ISIS, are most probably funded and protected under the Department of Defense framework.
  • Rebel factions from the radical ‘safe haven’ of Idlib, the de facto buffer zone of Quneitra, Da’ara, or the suburbs of Damascus as East Ghouta, could potentially face significant challenges given the cancellation. However, given Israel’s escalation of aid (even publicly) to Syrians (even under the auspice of humanitarian aid) and taking into consideration that most of these Rebel groups have been formed and initially funded by the rich Gulf States, it is also safe to assume that the financial gap could easily be filled by the other external backers.
  • On the other hand, the Rebels based in Jordan have been promoted as being
  • In contrast, the cease-fire in south-western Syria brokered between Trump and Putin is difficult to interpret as a strategic action. One significant fear is that the White House won’t fall for Moscow’s apparently but questionable good-will to appease its concerns in regards to Iranian activities on the border. Notably given the lack of leverage that Russia has above Iran in the first place.
  • Abandoning the support for anti-Assad efforts of the Syrian Rebels could make sense from a technical point of view given the current context, however, it does not hold significant benefits for the U.S., other than facilitating a closer cooperation with the Loyalist Coalition, and implicitly, with Russia.
  • The cancellation of this program also strips the White House from a low-to-medium leverage over the Assad regime, which should have been kept.

 

 

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Iraq after Mosul: Coping with a Difficult Diagnosis

Situation Report – After 3 years of ISIS occupation, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been completely liberated. The 9-months long battle saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alongside allies, Shi’a…

Situation Report – After 3 years of ISIS occupation, Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, has been completely liberated. The 9-months long battle saw Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) alongside allies, Shi’a PMU and the U.S.-led Coalition fighting their way block-to-block from the rigged, mined bridges of East Mosul, to the Euphrates river crossing of early 2017, liberation of the International Airport and the later fully encirclement of the remaining ISIS fighters in the Rafidyian, Sheik abu al Ula neighborhoods that form the city’s Old Town in the West.

With the city’s homecoming, inevitable strategic questions were raised in regards to the situation in Mosul, Niniveh and in whole of Iraq: Where is the state going? Can the society recover? And where to defeat ISIS next? Overall, the main questions is: What to expect next? I hope that this analysis can answer some of those questions.

 

Context: ISIS falls in Mosul

This was one of the largest urban battles in modern history, stretching from the ‘traditional’ urban guerrilla type of warfare to conventional, systemic tactics. Although asymmetric elements dominated the battlefront, such as the hostile informational environment perpetuated by ISIS, bomb drones or SVBIEDs, that slowed down and even halted at times the operations. I have extensively covered the tactics employed by ISIS in West Mosul in the anaylsis ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t: Radiography of ISIS’s Desperate Tactics in Mosul’s Operational Playground’.

Between 400,000 and 1,000,000 civilians are estimated are believed to have been displaced by the battles, and lower than 400,000 to have been remained within the city. The dense urban setting used by the jihadists as fortifications and the many innocent people as human shields, made it impossible to fully contain collateral damage and minimize the destruction brought to the city itself, although in West Mosul and notably in the Old Town, few structures have remained in place, leaving just dust and rubble behind. The Governor of Niniveh said for Rudaw: “The damage in the right bank[west Mosul], compared to the left bank is 30 times more. […] I mean here the destruction of the city’s infrastructure, the houses of the people, and the government offices.” In addition, Mahdi al-Alaq, chief of staff at the Iraqi Prime Minister also told reporters that their estimates of rebuilding Mosul stands at 50$ billions.

The battle gathered around 100,000 anti-ISIS forces, stretching from Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Pashmerga militiamen and Shi’a Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) fighters to form an unlikely but temporary alliance in order to combat the jihadists. They suffered at least 770 casualties (some say even above 1,000) in the whole battle while combating several thousands of ISIS fighters (reports indicate around 10-12,000) which are considered to have been entirely neutralized.

This truly was one of the largest urban battles in modern history.

Damage in Mosul’s Old Town (source: AFP)

 

Short Retrospective:

In 2014 ISIS was on the offensive, spearheading attacks as close as Baghdad’s airport, after consolidating control in cities as Ramadi, Fallujah, Haditah and almost completely controlling the border with Syria and Jordan, while also retaining a minimal foothold on the Saudi boundary as well.

On June 9th, 2014, around 75,000 Iraqi Security Forces and Federal Police mass deserted and abandoned their posts to the jihadist offensive in Mosul, leaving over 1,000,000 people under a brutal Salafist apparatus that self-proclaimed itself as a ‘Caliphate’. From the stronghold established in Mosul, the terrorists expanded through the multi-ethnic governorate of Niniveh, shared for hundreds of years by Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmens, Sunni and Shi’a. With Anbar province already subdued, the fall of Mosul proceeded the capture of Tikrit (capital of Salah ad-Din) and parts of Kirkuk by ISIS, moving later south-east to Diyala; gradually surrounding Baghdad.

It should be acknowledged that Shi’a militias played a decisive role in protecting the capital and the ‘urban belt’ surrounding it, when the Iraqi Army either mass-deserted from cities, or were weakened, weary to be successful enough.

Both Iraq’s capital and KRG’s (Kurdistan Regional Government) capital (Erbil) were within a comfortable reach of ‘Islamic State’s’ fighters, whilst also establishing a foothold on the Iranian border. The United States faced a dramatically degraded security environment than it left that was quickly leveraged in regional geopolitical ambitions. First came Malaki’s demise, followed by the United States led-Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ and Iran’s own anti-ISIS campaign that got involved to cleanse Iraq from ISIS;  both powers competing to become the main backer of Baghdad’s new installed ‘compromise’ government of Abadi. While in the north, CENTCOM began exclusively coordinating with KRG’s Pashmerga militia and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

First step was to relieve pressure on Baghdad through targeted campaigns that challenged the terror organization’s consolidated postures in Ramadi and Falluajh, but also against possible sleeper cells within the capital. Due to the continued sectarian tensions and tribal politics that catalyzed the rift in 2012 in the first place stirring anti-governmental protests and anti-Shi’a sentiments, this endeavor was a challenge for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) as well.  

Throughout 2015 and up to mid-2016, the ISF concentrated on (a) liberating the main cities of Anbar that could threaten the capital and (b) prevented the terrorist elements from keeping their ‘safe haven’ in the ‘Sunni Triangle’ (Baqubah-Ramadi-Tikrit). Aided by Shi’a militias they continued their path up north, through the multi-ethnic Niniveh region. Having the Kurdish Pashmerga already cut off the main supply route (via Sinjar) of Mosul with Raqqa in November 2015, by mid-2016, when ISFs and allies spearheaded their way to Mosul, ISIS was dramatically on the defensive not even managing to pull off counter-attacks. Therefore in late-October/ early-November ISF stormed East Mosul starting off the battle.

The United States refurbished and repaired the trashed Qayyarah West Air Base, just 60 km south of Mosul, so that air assets could be stationed there in order to provide sharp and around-the-clock air sorties. Throughout the fight, attack helicopters, drones and fighter jets have been employed by the US-led Coalition and by the Iraqi Air Force.

East Mosul was liberated by late-January 2017 so that on February-March 2017, ISF could cross the Tigris into the western banks, and managing to capture the International Airport. Within that time frame, they did not only manage to consolidate ground in the western districts, but also managed to close the last supply corridors and avenues of escape, through the countryside and suburbs of West Mosul. This encirclement came late, which also added to the slow progress registered by the ISF, only after did ISIS became increasingly entangled and asphyxiated, sheltering into the Old Town, which they transformed into ‘no man’s land’.

 

The Final Push for Victory

After a steadfast last push by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that lasted for the past six weeks and basically crumbled their hideouts, ISIS had nowhere else to hide or flee. The remaining hundreds of fighters (200-300) have been mostly neutralized. On July 9th, 2017, ISF liberated the Old Town, and ISIS lost its last foothold in Mosul. Many fighters tried to escape by swimming through the Tigris River, but Prime-Minister Abadi assured us that his men had shot at them. He personally came by a helicopter to announce the end of the Caliphate while his soldiers planted the Iraqi flag on the western banks of the Tigris river through the dust of what only suggest was the Old Town.

Civilians and soldiers alike celebrated throughout the country, from Mosul to Ramadi, Fallujah and Baghdad. However, the most symbolic gesture was when ISIS blew up the al-Nuri mosque in an attempt to frame the Coalition for it and to disseminate propaganda. That was the exact place where on June 29th, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the formation of the ‘Caliphate’. He was filmed, at that time, showing abandoned Iraqi army badges and vehicles left by fleeing soldiers, as he added: “There is no army in the world that can withstand the soldiers of Islam,”.

Defeat and move to Tel Afar

Now, ISIS acknowledged its defeat, while also suggesting that the Turkmen-Arab town of Tel Afar is their next HQ. In accordance to this policy, their online and social media propaganda focused on the ‘irrelevance of losing land’, which I can say from an empirical perspective by identifying a significant influx of ISIS propaganda on Twitter focusing on these kind of messages.

 

Diagnosis:

 (1) The liberation of Mosul does not guarantee peace in Mosul. For now, it is impossible to even estimate how many sleeper cells have remained in the city, posing an unpredictable and constant danger capable of taking several forms: from a trimmed and washed ex-‘mujahidin’ to an elderly woman holding a baby (recent case) or a radicalized wife of an ISIS fighter, deeming to commit attacks. The stabilization and pacification process will prove to be as difficult and tricky as the actual liberation was. In addition, the city is yet to be cleaned of mines or IED’s, which is a critical condition for the returning of refugees and internal displaced people back home, but also for the government to safely operate the reconstruction process. The population will face a housing problem, taking into consideration the level of damage inflicted throughout the whole city, a illiteracy one (being 3 years since schools have been closed) and ultimately, an economic issue; which could potentially spark a second wave of migration (internal or external).

(2) Iraq is still a fractured state with a divided society, fears and uncertainty will dominate. Iraq needs national-wide reconciliation process as its main strategic objective. As vaguely, cliché and ‘utopist’ as it sounds, that’s the only way Iraq can become ISIS-proof. Ultimately, Da’esh is simply a name, a placeholder, the ideology/ mentality is the real enemy that can shape-shift, as it did, from Al Qaeda in Iraq to ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ and later to ISIS. Such organizations emulate radical ideas as militant Salafism when they are given (unintentional) the chance to capitalize on the political-societal environment. For example (as June Cole competently points out), some of the Sunni press in Iraq has extensively focused on the damage that he ISF has done in Mosul, rather than on the victory achieved; collateral damage was the central theme for ISIS propaganda as well in the eve of Mosul’s liberation. For Baghdad, prevention and risk reduction is key, while for the Iraqis, societal resilience is the path. Easier said than done, especially since the local regional customs puts the family, the clan or tribe above the State. Subsequently, we can conceptualize the framework from a theoretical standpoint whereas the application remains under the volatile auspicious of the ‘trial and error’ methodology.

(3) There is still work to be done military-wise. The jihadists still have several strongholds in northern Iraq (Tel Afar and Hawja) and on the Euphrates River valley (al-Qa’im); the later still being directly linked with ‘safe havens’ in Syria, consolidated in Abu Kamal, Mayadin and Deir-Ezzor’s countryside. That effort will require a joint, synchronized venture with willing parties operating in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, that even if executed by the book, still could not guarantee the prevention of a long-term ISIS insurgency around the border.

(4) Given the geopolitical value that the border area provides, it is expected that the race for the border to intensify, consequently creating additional friction between the U.S. and Iran around the Syrian Civil War and the War against ISIS in Iraq. Both external powers have already under control a border checkpoint each, the Washington backed-Rebels control al-Tanf crossing, on the Syrian side of al-Waleed, while Teheran coordinated the liberation of al-Jaris crossing, west of Sinjar which has access to the Syrian Democratic Forces (U.S. backed)-controlled Hasakha province of Syria. Let’s call it a draw, for now, but the region is gradually intensifying in this high-stakes strategic game.

(5) Northern Iraq is a heated intersection of stakeholders and their competing objectives. This could potentially errupt in the upcoming battle for Tel Afar. The Kurdish Pashmerga dreams of expanding Kurdistan Regional Government’s borders, even publicly admitting that it will not cede back to Baghdad some of the liberate villages in the area; the Shia’s militias & Iranian advisers aspire for the border while Baghdad wishes to expand and project its sovereignty throughout all of its  territory. Above this entanglement comes the aspirations of secondary players, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and its ally PKK, wishing to expand its own influence over mount Sinjar, replicating a ‘second Qandil’ (as Erdogan described it) and establishing a ‘safe haven’ stretching from north-west Iraq to its east; which inadvertently would trigger a larger Turkish involvement (Ankara is still sour over being sidelined for the battle for Mosul) via allied Kurdish factions, as Pashmerga, Turkmen or Sunni militias trained at Turkey’s camp Bashiqa in northern Iraq. Tensions have already boiled in Sinjar between the KDP Pashmerga and PUK/PKK, that were also fueled by Turkey.  Also, Niniveh governorate is one of the main oil-rich territories of Iraq, therefor being a prospected region of economy, energy and commerce. This situation has the potential to play out in regards to who liberates Tel Afar and how; beyond the official narrative. 

 

Further Prospects:

While the Islamic State’s four main wilayats in Iraq are regressing and shrinking, notably: Wilayat al-Furat (western Anbar), Wilayat al-Jazzira (north-west of Niniveh), Wilayat al-Karkuk (parts of Tamim governorate) and Wilayat Dijlah (western Tamim, around Hawija), the ISF, Pashmerga and PMU’s are expected to concentrate firstly on two main strongholds: Hawija and Tel Afar.

Hawija: a medium sized town of around 500,000 inhabitants, mostly Arab Sunnis, located in the Tamim Governorate’s plains south of the Zagros mountains, east of the Tigris river and northeast of Baghdad, is the Islamic State’s most eastern territory. Together with several rural locations south of the governorate’s capital, Kirkuk, this ISIS-held pocket is completely surrounded by ISF and Coalition forces. 

Military sources from the Joint Operations Command told Al-Monitor that Hawija will be next after the fall of Mosul, but due to continued disagreements between ISF and Kurdish Pashmerga on a timelines and territory-control, the assault has been postponed several times. Similar to the whole ‘Sunni Triangle’ Hawija was both a Saddam Hussein loyalist stronghold and later an ISIS bastion, being the scene of the violent and deadly clashes between protestors and government forces in 2013. The city and its rural pockets became isolated from the rest of ISIS-held territory in mid-2016, when ISF cut-through Salah ad-Din in their way to establish a corridor from Baghdad to besiege Mosul.

The Kurds have the primary interest to push for the offensive to happen sooner than later, due to Hawija’s strategic node linking Mosul and Kirkuk and directly affecting the security in the KRG’s limits. In early 2017, Iraqi Police arrested several ISIS sleeper cells planted in the liberated city of Kirkuk and coordinated from Hawija, plotting to retake the city.

Tel Afar: Just 63 km west of Mosul and 52 km east of Sinjar, Tel Afar is another isolated pocket of the jihadists. The city itself numbers 200,000 people of Sunni Arabs but also a significant Turkmen population, or Shias.  The city and its rural outskirts have been surrounded by Iraq’s 9th and 15th Divisions in partnership with Popular Mobilization Units and Katib Hezbollah for several months, awaiting the approval for an assault. The situation in Tel Afar is somewhat more complex politically as the local militants have a autonomous drive or even aspirations to succeed from ISIS, as a rumors puts it.

During the Department of Defense Press Briefing held on July 13th, attended by Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman; Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, Spokesperson for Joint Operations Command; Brigadier General Halgwrd Hikman Ali, Spokesperson for the Peshmerga Forces, and Brigadier General Saad Maan, Iraqi Ministry Of Interior Spokesman, the Iraqi officials avoided to name the exact next target.

However, Transylvania Intelligence has reasons to believe the Tel Afar will be the focus of whatever combined or centered mission will proceed the liberation of Mosul.

 

End Notes:

  • Iraq needs a national wide, versatile, top-to-bottom reconciliation process if it wants to survive and evolve as a prosperous nation and as a secure state.
  • Building societal resilience while managing crisis from expanding are main components in order to prevent new Salafist-Jihadist shape-shifters to form from local gangs or rogue tribes.
  • The outcomes of the battle for Mosul will still pose significant security problems for the inhabitants. Such issues are: ISIS sleeper cells, left-behind IED’s & mines, extreme poverty, housing problems (at least half of the city is destroyed) and a perpetual hostile informational environment.
  • The surgical-military component needs to continue in order to vanquish ISIS from northern Iraq, namely from Tal Afar and Hawja but also to,
  • fully degrade and annihilate the ‘safe haven’ from the Euphrates Valley acting on a transnational-operational approach that will liberate al-Qa’im (Iraq), in a joint effort with whoever clears the Syrian side of Abu Kamal, Mayadin, rural Deir-Ezzor and most importantly for now, Raqqa.
  • The geopolitical race for the border, which pits the United States against Iran for a struggle to control the major border outposts and crossings, posses a significant strategic risk for the Iraq, duly because it would accentuate ethnic and political discrepancies within the society; notably if used by these external parties as local proxies.
  • The strategic steak of northern Iraq raises mentionable worries over the stability of the region. ISF’s, PMU’s, Kurds and Turks have consistent motivations and plans for the Niniveh governorate, which could threaten to raise a certain alarming level of insecurity.
  • Prepare for the high-possibility – high-impact hypothesis that a long-term insurgency will reinstate in Anbar (Iraq) and Deir-Ezzor (Syria) perpetuating the anarchy of the border area and that will pose a chronic threat to Baghdad.

Commander of the US-led Coalition, Joseph Dunford, and two Iraqi officers hold an ISIS flag upside down, in a symbolic gesture signaling triumph.

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The Three Seas Initiative: Towards an ‘Intermarium’ under Anglo-Saxon protectorate?

‘I’m thrilled to join you today, and I want everyone to know that the United States supports your bold efforts. […] America will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner…

‘I’m thrilled to join you today, and I want everyone to know that the United States supports your bold efforts. […] America will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner in this truly historic initiative.’ Donald J. Trump, opening remarks at the Three Seas Initiative Summit, Warsaw, Poland on July 6th, 2017.

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Battle for Raqqa: Daily Journal (LIVE)

Transylvania Intelligence presents the daily journal for Raqqa. This space will contain (hopefully) daily entries regarding the developments in the battle for Raqqa, yet time gaps may very as this…

Transylvania Intelligence presents the daily journal for Raqqa. This space will contain (hopefully) daily entries regarding the developments in the battle for Raqqa, yet time gaps may very as this project depends not only on what happens in the field but also on what amount of data (quantity, quality, credibility) surfaces online.

Methodology and Objectives

From reasons of time efficiency, information privilege and empirical manners, this journal will not have a complete reference system. The methodology is based on OSINT (open-source intelligence) and crowdsourcing. Sources stretch from mainstream media, to local news posts in English or translated from Arabic or Turkish (Furat FM, Raqqa24, Rudaw, Rojava News etc.), individuals on social media (accounts of fighters, independent OSINT analysts), monitoring groups or primary sources (YPG Press Office, Amaq Agency, Inherent Resolve Coalition).  

While there are many other crowd sourced maps or pages, what this project also attempts is to provide a larger context and a comprehensive understanding of the situation and how it evolves  in an analytical intelligence-memo framework.

Please consult this page regularly, especially in the evening to catch the daily updates.

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For Dust and Rubble: Iranian Ambitions at the Syrian-Iraqi Border

General Considerations (a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan,…

General Considerations

(a) In the remote, deserted and extremely sparsely populated area of the Syrian Desert, notably around the tri-border area with Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Jordan, the impact of the civil war has been relatively moderate with rare high-intensity waves generated by intertwined moment or actions from other battlefronts. The area was sharply captured by ISIS since late 2014 in order to secure the supply lines from the loyal Iraqi region of Anbar in order to fuel military operations in Homs and Rural Damascus.

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The Day Will Come When You Won’t: Radiography of ISIS’s Desperate Tactics in Mosul’s Operational Playground

INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS  – The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have issued an updated battle war suggesting a finishing phase for the battle as the last western district neighborhoods occupied by ISIS…

INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS  – The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have issued an updated battle war suggesting a finishing phase for the battle as the last western district neighborhoods occupied by ISIS are equated by Bagdad’s estimates at 10% of the city. Continuing with the context, Operation “We Are Coming, Nineveh” (قادمون يا نينوى; Qadimun Ya Naynawais) is a joint ISF-Pashmerga effort supported by the US-led International Coalition ‘Inherent Resolve’ against Da’esh/ ISIS/ ISIL/ IS. The current developments where proceeded by Operation ‘Fatah’ that were a series of missions that took place in mid-2016 to open the way to Nineveh. The actual assault on the city came around October 2016 and only after key operational assets have been seized (as the Qayyarah West Air Base) in the Nineveh region, as well as having secured a southern supply line towards Baghdad. Co-extensively from late 2015 to late 2016 the Kurdish factions attributed to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, such as the Pashmerga have cut the main supply lines from Mosul to the self-declared capital of ISIS, Raqqa, through the border crossings but namely via Sinjar Mountain. Given these multilateral and key military achievements which are expanded and explained in-depth in the video below in this text, we have reached a crucial moment in the fight against ISIS.

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ISIS(K) in Afghanistan: Pentagon’s COIN throughout Far East Geopolitics and Taliban Resurgence

STRATEGIC ANALYSIS – The situation in the Far East is degrading in face of the volatile geopolitical context provided by the regional Far East rivalry and by being under a…

STRATEGIC ANALYSIS – The situation in the Far East is degrading in face of the volatile geopolitical context provided by the regional Far East rivalry and by being under a perpetual chronicle havoc by the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, topped by the “Islamic State’s” gamble to win land in the area. Given the current situation, the United States Armed Forces, as well as the Afghan Army are faced with rising threats that deem operational maturity and strategic action in order to contain and deconstruct the rising transnational instability. In order to comprehensively understand the issues facing the region we need to acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan has never ended, neither the internal turmoil based on tribal, clan and political leit-motives nor the more conventional one between the US, NATO and radical elements. The fugitive US pull-out has accelerated the Taliban’s resurgence and has fertilized the ground for other third parties to enter the stage. Some of these parties is the local franchise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), additionally named “Khorasan Province” or generally addressed in the Euro-Atlantic community as “ISIS-K”. Khorasan is the historical generic term that refers to the region of western Iran to Eastern Afghanistan and holds great value for the Islamic civilization both historical and dogmatic, as Khorasan is subjected in several Hadiths as where the “black flags rise” to establish the Calipath, a prophecy largely capitalized for PR purposes by many Salafist jihadists including ISIS. 

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