Category: MENA

Rush to Deir Ez-Zor: Operation “Jazzira Storm”

Situation Report – On September 9, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have announced the start of Operation “Storm of Jazzira/ Cizre” or “Jazzira Storm” to…

Situation Report – On September 9, the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have announced the start of Operation “Storm of Jazzira/ Cizre” or “Jazzira Storm” to liberate eastern Syria and Deir ez-Zor province from ISIS. This offensive was rumored to be under wraps for several months but it became an urgent priority after the Loyalist camp (Syrian Arab Army, Iran and Russia) managed to carve a land bridge through ISIS-held territory and relieve the siege on Deir ez-Zor city, where contingencies of the Syrian forces remained from 2013 surrounded by the jihadists. This page will be updated in accordance with the events unfolding.

There is an extended strategic analysis on the matter here, that includes all the necessary data, explanations, hypothesis and maps to explain the competitive rush to liberate Deir ez-Zor. It’s about energy security, border control, geopolitical features and counter-terrorism, boiled around the mid-Euphrates river valley.

While the battle hardened and experienced Kurdish militia YPG, as the whole SDF, is concentrating to cleansing Raqqa from the remaining ISIS fighters, the Deir ez-Zor Military Council (DMC) and several local Sunni Arab Tribes (as the Al-Sanaadid Forces) from Hasakhe and Deir ez-Zor will spearhead the offensive.

On the other side, after the Loyalists manged to randezvous with the Syrian Arab Army elements from the provincial capital, they are now heading towards south of mount Tharda and of the airbase.

As of now, the SDF has reached the eastern outskirts of Deir ez-Zor city including the industrial area. The Spokesperson for the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS ‘Inherent Resolve’ said that around 250 km2 were liberated by the SDF along the Khabur river valley.

The race revolves around the strategic question of who liberates the oil-rich region first? The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) backed by Russian and Iran.

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IAF Raids Syrian Chemical Site in Hama

Clandestine air strike raids Syrian chemical site in Hama Province: It has been announced by the Bashar al-Assad Regime that the Israeli Air Force conducted air strikes from the Lebanese airspace…

Clandestine air strike raids Syrian chemical site in Hama Province:

  • It has been announced by the Bashar al-Assad Regime that the Israeli Air Force conducted air strikes from the Lebanese airspace on a military objective in eastern Masyaf, Hama province.
  • While not acknowledging the chemical production nature of the site, there is enough data to suggest that the al-Tala’i facility hosts significant plants tasked to enhance the Regime’s CBRN potential.
  • Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) is hosted in the al-Tala’i facility and is believed to be the site of WMD production that also made the compounds used in the Khan Sheykoun attack.
  • The Israeli government did not comment on is involved in the air strike as it is the State’s policy not to discuss these issues.
  • However, the Israeli Air Force has conducted dozens of clandestine air raids into Syrian territory in an attempt to stop the transfer of advanced weapons for Iranian Revolutionary Guards to the Lebanese Hezbollah, and to also curb the militia’s influence near the border area of Golan Heights. The most frequent location striked in the past by the IAF is the Al-Assad International Airport in Damascus.
  • Hezbollah’s growing power in Syrian is also embedded in Iran’s influence over Damascus at a strategic level which posses an existential threat for the Israeli state.
  • A former head of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, tweeted that Thursday’s strike on Masyaf was “not routine” and targeted a “Syrian military-scientific centre for the development and manufacture of, among other things, precision missiles”. 

Presumed blast of the overnight air strike

Russian S-400: Bypassed again or Idle? 

  • The presence of the advanced S-400 missile defense system operated by the Russian Federation at Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia has not deterred nor stopped the Israeli Air Force from striking the location.
  • It could be assumed that Jerusalem has even employed the recently purchased multi-role F-35 in the operation which is recommended to have a superior stealth and evasive technology.
  • On the other hand, it could also be the case that given the open Moscow-Jerusalem channel, the Russians could have compromised and allowed strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons plant; while a long shot, it is a worthy hypothesis especially because Israel has made its intentions clear and has drawn its “red lines” in regards to Hezbollah and Iranian activities on the border, notwithstanding the country’s readiness to take action if certain sensitive factors align.

 

Growing anxiety at Jerusalem

  • Given the winning streak of the Syrian Regime coordinated and aided by Iranian elements it is expected for Tehran to gain a significant grip on the country and move advanced weapons and funds more easily to support Hezbollah’s operations against the Israeli Defense Forces.
  • The border province of Quneitra is still disputed between the Regime, several Rebel factions and the ISIS-affiliated ibn-Khalid Army, therefore time is still on the table in regards to Israel’s national security concerns in Syria.
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11 Days: The Liberation of Tel Afar

Situation Report – According the Press Release, the global Coalition to defeat ISIS congratulates Prime Minister Al-Abadi and all Iraqi Security Forces on their stunning victory in Tal Afar and…

Situation Report – According the Press Release, the global Coalition to defeat ISIS congratulates Prime Minister Al-Abadi and all Iraqi Security Forces on their stunning victory in Tal Afar and Northern Ninewah Province, Aug. 31. The offensive to liberate Tel Afar was launched on August 20 after necessary assets and personnel were redirected from Mosul, upon the finalizing the liberation there, to the near-by region. Tel Afar, a Shiite enclave in the predominantly Sunni-Niniveh province, was captured by the jihadists in June 2014, bringing death and suffering to the local population, also comprised of a significant Turkmen and Yazidi population.

Under the command of Prime Minister al-Abadi, all branches of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) took part in the liberation of Tal Afar – the 9th, 15th and 16th Iraqi Army Divisions, the Counter Terrorism Service, the Federal Police and Emergency Response Division, Iraqi Local Police, the Popular Mobilization Forces as well as the Kurdish Regional Government Peshmerga.

While the city and critical infrastructure are under ISF control, dangerous work remains to completely remove explosive devices, identify ISIS fighters in hiding and eliminate any remaining ISIS holdouts so they do not threaten the security of Tal Afar in the future.

“Following their historic liberation of Mosul and now a swift and decisive victory in Tal Afar, the ISF have shown, once again, they are an increasingly capable force that can protect the Iraqi people, defeat ISIS within Iraq and secure the country’s borders,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq and Syria. “This is yet another significant achievement for the Iraqi Security Forces and the government and people of Iraq.”

Before declaring complete victory, the Iraqi forces had been waiting to clear the small town of al-‘Ayadiya, 11km northwest of Tal Afar. Da’esh militants had retreated to the town and put up a heavy resistance. The victory in Tel Afar essentially brings ISIS to an end in northern Iraq and almost cleared-out of the Niniveh province – that held a dual important, symbolic (declaration of the Caliphate) and strategic (border area + source of oil revenue).

The Coalition contributes to the defeat of ISIS by providing Iraqi forces with equipment, training, intelligence, precision fire support and military advice to leaders. By working by, with, and through the government of Iraq and the ISF, the Coalition has enabled the Iraqi Security Forces to reclaim 90% of their land from ISIS. The Coalition will continue to support the government of Iraq and Iraqi Security Forces as they fight on to defeat ISIS in Western Anbar province and Hawijah.

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Deal with the Devil: ISIS Allowed to Evacuate from Syrian-Lebanese border (Updated)

Situation Report – Da’esh (ISIS/ ISIL) jihadists and their families were evacuated from Qara, western Qalamun, on the border with Lebanon, on Monday for the border city of Abu Kamal,…

Situation Report – Da’esh (ISIS/ ISIL) jihadists and their families were evacuated from Qara, western Qalamun, on the border with Lebanon, on Monday for the border city of Abu Kamal, Deir ez-Zor governorate, near Iraq.  According to reports around 308 ISIS militants  and 331 civilians were evacuated. This comes after a deal was struck between the stranded fighters on the Lebanese-Syrian pocket, extended from Western Qalamun of in-between Syria’s Homs and Rural Damascus provinces to the Lebanese towns of Afat and Ras Belbek, with Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Regime forces.

Video of the evacuation of ISIS fighters, issued by Ruptly (Russia Today/ RT):


First reports came in during the days of Friday and Saturday (26th August) in regards to a ceasefire being in place to facilitate evacuation talks resulted after a weeks-long drive by the Lebanese Army in the near-by mountains, parallel with an offensive led by Hezbollah and auxiliary Syrian Regime forces that saw a massive bombardment of Halimah Qaarrah, highest peak in ISIS control. Regime sources suggested that both sides were opened to negotiations, but chances were low to succeed as ISIS fighters never agreed before towards such an arrangement; while the Syrian forces frequently evacuated Rebels with the famous ‘green buses’ from disputed areas under different truces.

In retrospective, on July 31st 2017, around 8,000 fighters of the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) were evacuated from Arsal mountains (same area) under an agreement with the Lebanese militia. Based on that move, Hezbollah was able to move and take control of those abandoned points that later on served as a staging area for the recent offensive on ISIS in western Qalamoun that led to the same ending.

Lebanese President, Michael Oun officially declared Lebanon free of ISIS, after his country was the scene of a potential-catastrophic spill-over from the Syrian Civil War, hosting battles between ISIS,  Jabhat al-Nusra and other Rebels on the border mountains that cost the lives of civilians and soldiers. While this move does indeed free a patch of land from ISIS control, it simply snoozes a larger military effort by transporting them in Deir ez-Zor, where two competitive offensives are expected to set the stage for the terror group’s end in Syria. Read an extensive analysis on the subject here.

Special Presidential Envoy to the U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS, Bret McGurk condemned the Regime’s deal with ISIS to evacuate the terrorists to Abu Kamal, Deir ez-Zor, saying that “ISIS fighters should be killed on the battlefield”. Iraqi Prime-Minister Abadi also expressed great concern that a wave of ISIS fighters is allowed to move freely to the Iraqi border.  He said  that the deal was “unacceptable” and an “insult to the Iraqi people”.

U.S.-led Coalition threatened to bomb the convoy but are still assessing whether there are a civilians present.  Islamic State fighters were believed to be accompanied by family members in 17 buses and 11 ambulances, and at least 25 of them were wounded, according to statements by Hezbollah officials in Lebanon.

We’ve seen ISIS use protective sites like hospitals and mosques, seen them drive in ambulances,” Colonel Ryan said. “So if we do identify and find ISIS fighters who have weapons — and like I said, we can discriminate between civilians and ISIS fighters — we will strike when we can. If we are able to do so, we will.”

Other ISIS areas

Outside Deir ez-Zor, ISIS controls small pockets in:

  • Rural Quneitra Province near Israel’s border in the Golan Heights,
  • and in Yormouk, a district of Damascus that hosts a significant Palestinian refugee camp.

Should be noted that the mentioned turfs are not directly controlled by ISIS but by affiliated groups, such as Khalid ibn al-Walid; a Salafist Jihadist faction formed in 2016 after the merger of Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, Mutha’ana Movement and the Army of Jihad.


UPDATE September 5, 2017

According to the US-led Global anti-ISIS Coalition:

“Today is the seventh day ISIS fighters and their families have spent with a bus convoy now stalled in the Syrian Desert east of As Sukhnah.

The convoy, initially consisting of 17 buses and other support vehicles, was halted in its move toward Iraq on Aug. 29 by Coalition strikes that prevented its movement to the east.

The Coalition and our Iraqi partners were not a party to the agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS to allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border. The Coalition has been clear, that in support of our Iraqi partners, we will not allow the movement of ISIS fighters near the border or onto sovereign Iraqi soil.

Photo of the ISIS members in the convoy

The Coalition has never struck the convoy, and has allowed food and water deliveries to reach the stranded women and children. The Coalition will continue to take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able without harming non-combatants.

Coalition leaders have communicated a course of action to the Russians, providing the Syrian regime an opportunity to remove the women and children from this situation. “The Syrian regime is letting women and children suffer in the desert. This situation is completely on them,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve.

Over the past week, 6 of the 17 buses have returned westward toward Palmyra, back in Syrian regime territory, unimpeded by any Coalition action. The Coalition continues to monitor the remaining 11 buses and communicate with Russian officials who advise the Syrian regime.”


UPDATE September 2, 2017

The Coalition issued updates on the status of the ISIS convoy:

“After turning around and heading back west from the Abul Kamal area, the convoy of 17 buses containing hundreds of armed ISIS fighters and their families remains in the Syrian Desert between Humayma and As Sukhnah.

The Coalition has not struck the convoy. In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition has struck ISIS fighters and vehicles, including a tank, armed technical vehicles, and transport vehicles seeking to facilitate the movement of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners. Food and water have been provided to the convoy.

The Coalition has communicated to the Russians, to deliver a message to the Syrian regime, that the Coalition will not condone ISIS fighters moving further east to the Iraqi border. The Coalition values human life and has offered suggestions on a course of action to save the women and children from any further suffering as a result of the Syrian regime’s agreement.

The Coalition and our Iraqi partners were not a party to the agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS to allow these experienced fighters to transit territory under the Syrian regime control to the Iraqi border. ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution.

In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition will continue take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able to without harming civilians.”


UPDATE August 31, 2017

Press Release – The Coalition was not a party to any agreement between the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS. Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they cut deals with and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control.

ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution. This is just further evidence of why Coalition military action is necessary to defeat ISIS in Syria.

The Coalition has not struck the convoy. In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition cratered the road heading east between Hamaymah and Abul Kamal to prevent the further transport of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners and struck individual vehicles and fighters that were clearly identified as ISIS.

In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the Coalition will take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able to without harming civilians, according the Coalition’s press release.

 


UPDATE August 30, 16:50 

According to the Associated Press, the U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS “Inherent Resolve” struck the route of the ISIS convoy heading from the Syrian-Lebanese border area of western Qalamoun to Deir ez-Zor. Air strikes destroyed the road and a small bridge, entrapping the militants. The Coalition still has not ruled out the possibility to hit the convoy itself. 

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SDF on the Valley of Euphrates: ISIS Prepares for Last Stand in Deir-Ezzor

Intelligence analysis – The following assessment outlines the current competitive military efforts underway against ISIS in Deir-Ezzor (also known as Deir ez-Zor, Dayr al-Zawr etc.), the last area of dominance…

Intelligence analysis – The following assessment outlines the current competitive military efforts underway against ISIS in Deir-Ezzor (also known as Deir ez-Zor, Dayr al-Zawr etc.), the last area of dominance for the terror group, and consequently, the place where they will make their last stand. Furthermore, that ‘last push’ on ISIS will also gain a significant geopolitical element as divergent external actors plan and execute their own version of liberation. While this adds an additional layer of complexity, it will also increase the chances that the remaining senior leadership, sheltered into these desert lands will be annihilated together with the whole network in Syria.


Setting the Stage

  • Deir-Ezzor is one of the 14 Governorates of Syria, numbering around 600,000 people, largely Arab Sunnis, most of them condensed in the administrative capital of Deir-Ezzor City, Maya’din, Abu Kamal etc.
  • Deir-Ezzor City numbered 204,000 people (2012 census) and is nicknamed “the pearl of the desert”.
  • Deir-Ezzor Province is an arid area with sparsely populated perimeters that are also part of the Syrian Desert.
  • Geographically, the province is cut in half by the Euphrates River in its way towards Iraq.
  • Inhabitans of the province took advantage of the fertile grounds around the Euphrates Valley and developed a major agricultural hub with well developed cattle herding, cotton cultivation, and other plant cultures as grain production.
  • It is Syria’s foremost oil extraction center: al-Omar is the country’s largest oil and gas deposits while the Al-Tanak oil fields yielded up to 12,000 barrels/day of top-quality crude oil.
  • This oil is easily used in the production of gasoline and liquid fuel.
  • As of this reason, Deir-Ezzor was vital for Da’esh’s income, industry and oil trade.
  • Oil fields, pumping stations and the overall infrastructure was heavily damaged throughout the war by airstrikes from the U.S.-led Coalition and Russia Aerospace Forces. The damage in many cases is irreparable or totaled.
  • Starting with 2011, the province saw its first protests demanding Bashar al-Assad’s resignation, additional Regime troops were deployed and violence erupted shortly afterwards.
  • By the fall of 2012, the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra controlled almost the entire province.
  • In the summer of 2013, Rebels already secured the rural outskirts and expanded in Hasakhe Province and ousted most of the Regime’s forces from Deir-Ezzor city. Internal tensions began to boil in the Rebel camp.
  • Around 2014, Rebels already controlled all of the oil fields but were deepening their in-fights that weakened them in face of AQI’s resurgence through ISIS coming from Iraq.
  • ISIS was concentrated on Raqqa and Hasakha Provinces, but saw an immediate opportunity in June 2014 to launch an offensive that cleared Deir-Ezzor of Rebels.
  • Consequently, the jihadists turned towards Deir-Ezzor Airport where contingencies of Regime forces were still stationed.
  • Capitalizing on their success in Iraq, ISIS also took control of the major oil fields of the province, while gradually boxing the Regime forces more and more into the city.
  • The first ISIS siege on the Syrian troops was fully established in Autumn 2014.
  • Garrisons of the Regime managed to keep control of the provincial capital and the airport, where they remain surrounded and under siege until today.
  • Deir-Ezzor city is supplied through an ‘air bridge’ by the Regime and the United Nations that deliver aid and goods through the Airport located at 4-6 km from the city, also in Regime control.
  • The iconic Siyasiyeh bridge was destroyed in mid-2015 as a result of the battle between ISIS and the Regime.
  • The jihadists have named the province “Wilayat Deir-Ezzor” in attempting to imitate the “mythology” of the Caliphate.
  • In January 2016, ISIS throttled a new offensive from all sourouding parts but further deployments of Regime and Russian troops helped the stationed garrisons to protect the provincial-capital.
  • In January 2017, seeing the fall of Mosul and the approach towards Raqqa, jihadists were pulled from Niniveh province (Iraq) to aid their fellow-fighters from eastern Syria, trying to take Deir-Ezzor city and move their capital there.
  • In June 19th, 2017, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) fired six medium-range ballistic missiles at Daesh targets in Syria’s Deir-Ezzor in response to a June 7 attack by Da’esh against two locations in  Tehran, which killed 18 people.
  • As of now, Deir-Ezzor province remains the sole ISIS stronghold in Syria, and that is still connected to the Iraqi territories of Anbar and Niniveh, partially still under Da’esh control.
  • It is the location where most of the terror group’s leadership figures took refuge when the siege of Mosul, and the later battle of Raqqa began.
  • In accordance to the development of the war, Deir-Ezzor province will be the scene of the terror group’s last stand in Syria.

 

Rush to Deir-Ezzor

The governorate of Deir-Ezzor is the last remaining territory dominated by ISIS in Syria. There are currently two competitive efforts to drive the terror group out:

(1) The first one, spearheaded by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Tiger Forces of the Assad Regime, alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Russian Expeditionary and Aerospace forces is under an advance stage.

The military effort came as a direct result of the near-successful implementation of de-escalation zones in the Rebel-held areas accordingly with the Astana Accords, that granted the Loyalists the liberty to move assets (manpower, resources etc.) to concentrate on a combatant that they have overall avoided in the past 3-4 years: ISIS. The supreme objective of the Loyalists: to form a land bridge capable of lifting the 3 years siege imposed by ISIS on the Regime-held enclave of Deir-Ezzor (the City); later on, to clear the whole area, re-establish order and take control of the border with Iraq.

(a) The offensive was launched around early-to-mid April when resources from western Homs and eastern Aleppo were directed towards south-west Raqqa governorate, around the time the SDF was securing the Tabqa Triangle near Lake Assad.

(b) Their offensive saw a swift liberation of the rural area of southern Raqqa governorate, all the way through the territory between Lake Assad and Lake Jamil, towards western Homs governorate and eastern Hama.

(c) The ISIS territory in Hama and Homs was effectively cut into three pockets isolated from one another using synchronized assaults by Loyalists forces coming from Raqqa gov, Homs gov, and around the area of Palmyra (Tadmur). On March 17th, SAA elements from Jabal al-Shaer meet with those coming from Jabal Sawwanah, their rendezvous completed the siege in the eastend of Hama province.

(d) The ISIS pocket in western Homs province towards Deir-Ezzor was completely shut on August 25th when SAA forces that liberated Palmyra (in March) came from al-Shuknah and met with their allies just 10 km north that before making the juncture liberated Jabal al-Dahiq mountain. After uniting the two expeditionary efforts, the Loyalists also penetrated the east of Deir-Ezzor province.

(e) Loyalists elements have been on stand-by in the northwest corner of Deir-Ezzor province after the Tiger Forces captured several villages on July 29. Later on, their further advancement in the area has been mild, however, it is unclear if that is due to the reasons of postponing until the Homs front was dealt with, or because of ISIS resistance in the area.

(f) On August 25th, ISIS launched a desperate counter-attack using tanks, technical vehicles and SVBIEDs, retaking some of the initial lost turf in northwestern Deir-Ezzor. The result of this blitz effort is expected to be temporary as the terror group will sharply decrease in intensity and fatigue. There are even reports of a 500-men supported by tanks, gathering in Madan to counter the Syrian Army’s assault.

(g) Additional ISIS troops will be directed from Western Qalamoun and from the Lebanese border after Syrian sources confirm that a deal was struck with the jihadists to be evacuated from the are to Deir ez-Zor. Information requires additional confirmation to be validated in my analysis, however, negotiations for such a deal have been acknowledged and reported even by Reuters, likewise a cease-fire was in effect to facilitate such discussions. It is also the case that the joint effort by the Lebanese Army, Syrian forces and Hezbollah defeated the terror group’s last stand in that area after 100 of them surrendered.

 

(2) The other military operation was announced by the U.S.-led Coalition and the SDF, but is currently under intense planning.

As of now, the offensive is pending several key elements: a reliable and willing indigenous force to spearhead it, timing and additional resources needed, depending if the operation will be successive or parallel to the Battle of Raqqa. Also, it is unclear if a geopolitical deal has been struck in regards to the sphere of influence regarding the province of Deir-Ezzor.

The Arab indigenous elements of SDF were in low numbers at the foundation of the ‘umbrella’ organization in October 2015, withal Arab-men gradually joined the group as the YPG/ YPJ elements managed to liberate Manbij and then head south towards Raqqa in mid-to-late 2016. The Raqqa Governorate is overwhelmingly majority Arab, thus local tribes are key to obtaining a successful post-conflict resolution. Following negotiations and successful agreements, local tribes agreed to conscript into the SDF, thus balancing the Kurdish vs. Arabs proportion within the member groups of the SDF.

Deir-Ezzor is also an Arab province, by also one of the least multi-ethnic or culturally diverse area of Syria, therefore the recipe stays the same: Arab fighters need to led the way. However, this province is an ISIS stronghold for more than three years, the most hardened and experienced fighters of SDF, namely the Kurds, cannot be sidelined just because of cultural sensibilities, being vital for the expected tactical success. 

(a) When the U.S.-led Coalition announced its political intention to organize and support such a move, the Kurds (which make roughly 60% of the SDF) were not eager to engage in a parallel offensive while their resources, manpower and dedication is towards the battle of Raqqa.

(b) The first temptation was for Washington to await their victory in Raqqa in order to hand the YPG/YPJ elements of SDF the keys for Deir-Ezzor. That equation was troubled by the unexpected half-success of the Astana Accords that saw a significant de-escalation in the Rebel-Regime fight, which in turn allowed the Regime, Russia and Iran to move their assets towards other fronts, namely Homs, rural southern Raqqa and now Deir-Ezzor. Inadvertently, time came into question as a consuming resource for the Coalition’s strategic thinkers, and an immediate partner force was now needed.

(c) An option was the Maghawir al-Thawrah (ex-New Syrian Army) faction based in Amman, Jordan operating under British-American guardianship in Eastern Homs, around the border crossing to Iraq in al-Tanf. They were trained and equipped to seal the border with Jordan and then move up towards the Iraqi one, purposely to disrupt the Iranian-sanctioned Tehran-Mediterranean Sea ‘land bridge’, by capturing strategic border crossings that could deny the free movement of Shi’a militias from southern and central Iraq towards Syria and direct land-based arms transfer from Iran to Hezbollah.

The Maghawir al-Thawrah did not show the same effectiveness and discipline as the Kurdish YPG/YPJ. In many instances, the U.S. SOF’s based in Jordan were needed to come to their aid in face of ISIS mobile attacks in the area. Later on, the frontline with ISIS (which would have justified their advancement along the border with Iraq) was cut by the Loyalists, that avoided engaging the Rebels directly, bypassing them in order to land to their north. This Loyalists move came only after Iraqi Shi’a militias operating on behalf of Iran tried to approach and contest the Rebel garrison at the al-Tanf border crossing, but were met with lethal air strikes from the U.S.-led Coalition.

Afterwards, there was the possibility to airlift the Maghawir al-Thawrah fighters in front of the Loyalists in order to regain the frontline with ISIS towards Deir-Ezzor, but that plan was likely scrapped; or maybe it is still under wraps (?) but I doubt that hypothesis. Facing the operational limitations of the Maghawir al-Thawrah fighters and the uneasy context around the al-Tanf area, Washington and CENTCOM looked towards other available partners.

(d) Constrained by the advanced Loyalist offensive, the U.S-led Coalition green-light two factions of the SDF to detach from the Battle for Raqqa and prepare for the Deir-Ezzor operation. The al-Saanadid Forces and the Deir-Ezzor Military Council are the two leading combatants of this expeditionary corps tasked to beat the Loyalists to Deir-Ezzor.

Annex 1: The al-Sanadid are a Sunni Arab militia part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), formed in 2014 on tribal grounds. The founding figures and most of the members come from the Hasakha province branch of the Shammar tribe. As any sociopolitical unit based upon extended families living in a defined territory, usually entire towns and city neighborhoods, the Shammar tribe took arms in the eve of the revolution-turned-war.  And originating from the Kurdish-majority province, they hailed the Kurds as being historical neighbors and allies, not enemies, which is a rare attitude given the history of Arab-Kurdish relations in the Middle East. In 2004, the Shammar were the only tribe in Hasakha that did not attack the Kurds during the Kurdish Uprisings of Qamishlo. Over the past decades and starting with Hafeez al-Assad, the Regime managed to develop an intricate relation with tribal leaders, naming them de facto intermediaries between local communities and the State. This dialogue extended even east of the Euphrates (historical Jazzira/ now Hasakhe and Deir-Ezzor province), in the lands considered during the French Mandate as being Syria’s most wildest part; French garrisons were stationed there to maintain order and assert the political authority with force, even more than in other provinces.

The rise of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical factions was a devise element among many tribes, prompting members to fight each other in accordance to their allegiance, the Shammar tribe managed to maintain a unique solidarity. They did not support the revolution as a group but armed themselves as self-protection units (similar to the Turkmens in northern Latakia and Aleppo), but later went after ISIS when the terror group came after their land. “Marchers of the Red Death” as they call themselves, asserted from 2015 as loyal fighters to the YPG/ YPJ saying that they will follow the Kurdish groups wherever they go. They are also considered as being a bridge for moderation and cooperating between Arabs and Kurds in the SDF-formed Federation of Northern Syria.

It was announced since February 2017 that the al-Sanadid Forces together with SDF will take on Deir-Ezzor. The announcement was reconfirmed (reportedly) in August 4th, when an SDF source informed that they have refused the deployment of of Magawir al-Tahwar from al-Tanf, and that instead, the al-Sanadid will led the offensive in Deir-Ezzor.

Annex 2: The Deir-Ezzor Military Council was announced on December 8th, 2016 during a press conference held in Hasakhe province. Their members are mostly remnants of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters that remained after ISIS took over Deir-Ezzor governorate in 2014, and local men that joined them in the last year and a half. After their foundation, the DMC (Deir-Ezzor Military Council) participated under the SDF banner in the operations targeting the northern countryside of Raqqa province that cut major supply lines of the terror group towards the Turkish border.

Later on, the DMC began a massive recruitment process in order to boost their ranks and numbers by appealing to all the youth from Syria and Turkey regardless of their military background promising that they will not be punished”. Consequently, they were an integral part of the 3rd phase of the SDF’s Operation “Wrath of Euphrates” that saw to isolate ISIS in Raqqa before taking on the city itself. The DMC was tasked to securing 20-30 km east of Raqqa down the Valley of the Euphrates thus cutting a major supply road from the terror group’s “capital” to the rural strongholds in Deir-Ezzor province. On June 2017, the DMC announced its commitment towards an Deir-Ezzor offensive is opportunity of operation arises. According to Reuters, the DMC has around 4,000 fighters.

 

(e) On August 25th, Abu Khawla Al-Diri, Chairman of the SDF-formed Deir-Ezzor Military Council (DMC) announced that the offensive to liberate Deir-Ezzor will commence soon. There are several battalions of Al-Shaitat and Al-Baggara Arab Sunni tribesmen that recently incorporated directly into the SDF and DMC, awaiting orders in the Shaddadah district in southern Hasakha province.

Abu Kawla al-Diri has been accused by the local press that years ago he supplied intelligence to the Regime’s Brigade 113 about the Free Syrian Army, while he rallied manpower to operate a checkpoint on the highway between Hasakhe and Deir-Ezzor to disrupt ISIS activities, while his brother, pretended to be an ISIS fighter in order to loot and steal from the local population. The same source says that when ISIS took control of the entire area, he fled to Turkey and has lived in the border town of Tel Abyad for the past months, before enrolling into the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to led the military council of Deir-Ezzor.

An original map; click „view image” for a larger format.

Headhunting: HVTs for KIA

Before and during the assault on Mosul and in the eve of Raqqa’s encirclement, significant senior members of Da’esh leadership have taken refuge in a number of rural, more secure areas as Tel Afar, the Niniveh plains and consequently, the mid-Euphrates valley in Deir-Ezzor province, but also stretching to Iraq’s Anbar Province. The Iraqi-Syrian border essentially vanished after 2014 so the cities of Maya’din, Abu Kamal and al-Qa’im (Iraqi border with Syria) became major hiding spots for families of fighters and senior members embeded in the terror group’s movement patterns. Inadvertently, a large kill count of High-Value Targets (HVTs) was reported in this area. Here’s a kill list of some of those individuals killed during their 2017 exodus on the valley:

  • Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, a foreign fighter and external terror attack facilitator, was killed on April 6, 2017, near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria by the Coalition. He was a close associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and helped facilitate the high profile attack which murdered 39 people on New Year’s Eve at the Reina night club in Istanbul. U.S. Central Command announced his death on April 21, 2017.
  • Mustafa Gunes, a Syria-based ISIS external operations facilitator from Turkey, was killed by a coalition airstrike near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, 27 April. He was identified as an ISIS recruiter in the central Turkish city of Konya. Gunes was linked to facilitating financial support for planning attacks outside Syria and Iraq against the West.
  • Abu Asim al-Jazaeri, an ISIS external operations planner and a Syria-based French-Algerian ISIS fighter, was killed by a Coalition airstrike near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, May 11. Al-Jazaeri was involved in training a new generation of ISIS youths, called the Cubs of the Caliphate, a high priority training program sanctioned by ISIS leadership.
  • 13 ISIS senior members killed during a meeting in al-Qa’im, Anbar Province, Iraq by the Iraqi Air Force on May 14th.
  • Abu-Khattab al-Rawi, a senior ISIS military official, was killed during an operation near Al-Qa’im in Iraq, 18 May. Al-Rawi was killed along with three other terrorists. Al-Rawi was an ISIS military official who operated in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province and provided direct support to ISIS leadership. Al-Rawi was responsible for coordinating UAV operations and procurement in Al Anbar Province in Iraq
  • Orhan Ramadani, was killed by a Coalition airstrike on May 21 near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria.  Ramadani was responsible for actively planning external terror attacks from Syria.
  • Bara Kadek a.k.a. Rayan Meshaal, the founder of ISIS propaganda agency Amaq was killed a Coalition air strike in his home in Mayadin, (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, on May 31st.
  • Ayad al-Jumaili, ISIS deputy leader and chief of the group’s internal security, responsible for public executions and other atrocities served as punishments or sentences. He was killed by an Iraqi Air Force strike in al-Qa’im, Anbar Province, Iraq on April 1st.
  • Samir Idris, a key ISIS financial facilitator for external terror attacks and an international money launderer, was killed June 7, 2017, near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria by a Coalition bombardment. He was trusted by senior ISIS leadership to move funds across borders to pay for external terror attacks.
  • Lavdrim Muhaxheri was killed by a Coalition airstrike June 7, 2017, near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. Muhaxheri was an ethnic Albanian from Kacanc, Kosovo, and a self-proclaimed leader of ISIS foreign fighters from Kosovo. He was known as the most prominent and radical ethnic Albanian fighter in Syria and was directly responsible for inciting jihadist ideology within European communities and encouraging foreign fighters to travel to ISIS-controlled territory. He was also responsible for planning numerous terrorist attacks, including the failed plot to bomb the 2016 Israel-Albania soccer match in Albania.
  • Irfan Hafiqi, a fellow ethnic Albanian and deputy to Muhaxheri, was killed by a Coalition airstrike on June 7 near Qayira (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. Haqifi was involved in plotting terror attacks abroad, and was responsible for recruiting ISIS fighters from Southeast Europe and facilitating their movements to Syria.
  • Fawaz Muhammad Jubayr al-Rawi, a key ISIS financial facilitator, was killed by a Coalition in Abu Kamal (Deir ez-Zor), Syria, June 16, 2017. , a Syrian native and an experienced terrorist financial facilitator, moved millions of dollars for the terror organization’s attack and logistics network. He owned the Hanifa Currency Exchange in Abu-Kamal, which he used along with a network of global financial contacts to move money into and out of ISIS-controlled territory and across borders on behalf of the group.
  • Razim Kastrati, an ISIS external terror attack coordinator, was killed along with five other ISIS fighters by a Coalition airstrike on June 16 near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. Kastrati moved and trained foreign fighters from southeast Europe to Syria and was involved in plotting external attacks.
  • Abd al-Ghafur, a Syria-based ISIS external operations official, and one associate were killed in a Coalition airstrike on July 24 near Albu Kamal, (Deir ez-Zor), Syria.
  • His assistant, Abu Hammam, and three other ISIS members were killed by a Coalition airstrike July 16 near Deir ez-Zor (city), Syria. They coordinated and linked networks tasked to conduct attacks against Middle Eastern and Western targets.
  • Abu Futtum, an ISIS explosives specialist, and one associate were killed in a Coalition airstrike on July 13 near Mayadin (Deir ez-Zor), Syria. As a bomb maker, Futtum was a part of ISIS’ network that instructs and incites others to take the same destructive actions, encouraging lone wolf attacks across the globe using homemade explosives.

Throughout the kill releases issued by the U.S.-led Global Coalition in the past 5-6 months in regards to ISIS senior leaders neutralized, nearly 99% of the targeted HVTs were based in the middle-Valley of the Euphrates river, mostly in Deir ez-Zor province of Syria, notably in the city of Mayadin, or in Iraq’s Anbar province, notably al-Qa’im.

One of the rare pictures available online showing the city of Mayadin.

 

End Notes

General considerations of the dual effort to clean the province from ISIS:

  • The offensives will pour sharply and in an accelerated manner, using the fast & light motorized infantry tactics, essentially technical vehicles with mounted machine guns preferable for desert warfare and swift maneuvers in open field, aided by transport and attack helicopters from the air.
  • Both Russian Aerospace Forces and United States Navy or Air Force are expected to play significant roles. Close coordination using the Qatar-based de-confliction line is vital in avoiding unwanted or unnecessary incidents.
  • I am skeptical on the efficiency and numbers and of the Arab elements within the SDF, which leads me to believe that they would kick-start the offensive but would need the YPG/YPJ factions pending availability (if willing) upon closing the battle for Raqqa, to sustain the military effort. While not undermining their contribution to their anti-ISIS campaign, it should be acknowledged that all the major battle were planned and coordinated by the Kurdish factions of YPG/ YPJ. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Arab elements of SDF.
  • A high kill count of Da’esh leadership figures is expected.
  • Deir-Ezzor province and its neighboring Iraqi districts of Anbar, or even others parts, could serve as the setting for a further Sunni extremist insurgency given the geographical and administrative conditions (hard to govern) of the areas.

From my judgement, the tactical and operational features of the competing expeditionary efforts can be offset by two main hypothesis for strategies:

Option 1: Fair-share.

Taking into consideration the geostrategic placement of both actors, the Loyalists and the US-backed SDF, they stand on different banks of the Euphrates thrusting in their opposite anti-ISIS efforts. We may consider that discussions have been held at a political level in regards to their local postures from which a de-escalation protocol focused on the region has been drawn, in addition to the general Qatar-based line. Although this is not a forecast, my projection leds me to believe that both offensive will develop side-by-side without a formal or intentional coordination, that will split Deir-Ezzor in half accordingly with the Euphrates river valley. In other words:

The Euphrates river valley will serve the role of a geographic “Berlin Wall” between the Government-liberated area on the west, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured ones, in its east. Both actors will thereafter assume security and border policing towards the Iraqi boundary. I am confident that in this equation, the Regime will retain Deir-Ezzor city and regain other more mentionable urban settlements as Abu Kamal and Mayadin, located on western banks of the river; while SDF will try to develop and uplift the more modest towns in the eastern banks, but of which lands are the most fertile in energy deposits, capturing Syria’s largest deposit: Omar oil fields.

In this hypothesis I can identify two weaknesses:

  • The United State might not accept to share the border with Iraq and could try to secure it by itself, thwarting Iranian ambitions of forming a direct land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon and Syria, that could threaten North Atlantic interests in the East Mediterranean and Israel’s national security.
  • The Syrian Government and its backers might not agree to give up the country’s most energy-fertile lands, eastern Deir-Ezzor, just for the essence of a peaceful geopolitical bargain. However, challenging such an arrangement would involve two elements: time and force. If Assad’s forces reach those parts first, then no one can contest them without direct military engagement, if they don’t, then they will be needed to engaged U.S.-backed forces in order to contest their positions and gains; a move that would guarantee (as shown before) a U.S. retaliation. But given Assad’s focus on the province and SDF’s attention towards Raqqa, they could try the “all in” card.

Option 2: All in.

  • Governmental Forces of Bashar al-Assad will go “all in” and attempt to secure the entire Deir-Ezzor province. Such an equation will imply massive military support from Russia and further detachments of Syrian troops from other fronts, which would expose them in those regions.
  • Tactical airlifts behind enemy lines are the most effective ways to secure a presence in other parts and open new fronts and were used in the past weeks when the Loyalists fought against ISIS in Homs province.
  • Mobile light infantry tactics supported by long-staying air elements have been successfully in the Homs theater, allowing the Loyalists to capture wide patches of land in a short amount of time; it remains to be seen if they can sustain the speed in Deir ez-Zor as well.
  • For the sake of this hypothesis, we can guess that in anticipation of such a move from Damascus, the SDF will commence its own offensive from two or three positions to secure more than the eastern banks: one, led by indigenous elements of al-Sanaadid Forces and DMC will start from Hasakhe’s Shaddaday which could towards the city of Deir-Ezzor without the objective of liberating the city itself but the road and the rural outskirts.
  • Additionally, this route would also split the ISIS-held areas in the eastern banks in two pockets.
  • Complementary to this effort, SDF elements stationed in Raqqa governorate’s southern edge to Deir ez-Zor could active that frontline and move along the river to form a junction with the SDF’s Arab elements that already reached the outskirts of the provincial capital.

A clear forecast of the prospective scenarios is not possible as of yet, underlining that even the sketched options are just the tip of the iceberg, and that strategic planning and military implementation, notably in a battlefield as in Syria, can differ and provide a new set of outcomes in stark contrast with the planned blueprints. However, it was important to gain a comprehensive overview of the situation of Deir-Ezzor which is vital towards the political settlement of the Syrian Civil War and of the war against ISIS, notwithstanding the important energy deposits and key routes towards Iraq.


UPDATE September 9th, 2017

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the start of operation “Storm Island” to expel ISIS from Deir ez-Zor and the eastern parts of Syria. This comes just days after the Syrian Arab Army and the Loyalist Coalition managed to punch through ISIS defensive lines and form a land bridge to Deir ez-Zor, the provincial capital, therefor relieving the 4 years-long siege on it.


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Fury in Ankara, Anxiety in Erbil, Distress in Baghdad: Sinjar Declares Autonomy amid Kurdish Independence Vote

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety…

Situation Report – Democratic Autonomy has been declared in the Niniveh governorate town of Shengal (better known as Sinjar). This announcement spiked furry at Ankara, distress at Baghdad and anxiety at Erbil that has an independence referendum scheduled for this Autumn. There is an utmost potential that the tinderbox of ethnic, sectarian and regional rivalries of Sinjar could escalate in a battlefield orchestrated by regional stakeholders intending to prevent the independence referendum from taking place.

 

The Declaration of Shengal/ Sinjar

The declaration came at a press conference attended by Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly Co-chairs Hisên Hecî Nefso and Rîham Hıço, Democratic Administration Board Co-chairs Hecî Hesen Pîso and Nehlê Yusif Hefsun, Deputy Co-chair Yardımcısı Kurdê Elî Ezîz, YBŞ (Shengal Resistance Units) Commander Seîd Hesen Seîd, Êzîdxan Asayish member Faris Herbo Xidir and Shengal Youth’s Assembly Co-Spokesperson Îbrahîm Omer, according to ANF (you can find the full communique here).

Press conference held by the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly through which autonomy was proclaimed for Sinjar/ Shengal.

The declaration invoked the right of the Yezidi/ Êzidîs people for self-determination, mentioning their “most ancient faith and cultural society in history” because of which they “have suffered repeated genocides”, especially mentioning the ethnic cleansing, forced conversion, sex slavery and mass killing at the hands of Da’esh (ISIS). The tragedy began in early 2014 when ISIS was emerging in both Iraq and Syria; in March 2014, the jihadists captured the town of Sinjar administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) but majority populated by Yazidis. The later, took shelter on the near-by Sinjar mountain, becoming encircled and under siege from the terror group. ISIS and its radical and puritarian interpretation of Islam  considers the Yazidis as being “devil worshipers” and therefor legitimizes, in their insane and made-up jurisprudence, to brutalize them as they chose to: from mass-killing to sex enslavement. The tragedy was designated as a genocide by the United Nations, the United States (by both Trump and Obama administrations) and many other countries.

To their defense came the United States that deployed in August 2014 Special Forces and advisors, alongside the British Special Air Service (SAS) to asses options and plan an evacuation of the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, sparking the first air strikes conducted by the Pentagon against ISIS.  On the ground, salvation came through the Kurdish factions as the KRG’s rulling party KDP, and its military force, the Pashmerga but also rival Marxist guerilla and outlawed PKK-backed by the PUK – the opposition party. Sinjar was liberated in October 2015, lifting the siege on the Yazidi population and also cutting a major supply route from Raqqa (ISIS’s capital) to Mosul (ISIS’s largest city). Since then, both Pashmerga and PKK began contesting the turf. The fighters of PKK backed the formation of the Sinjar Alliance, a joint command room between the the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ), the Êzîdxan Women’s Units (YJÊ) – the two Yazidi militas formed in 2007 after the exact model of the Syrian Kurdish YPG/ YPJ groups – and themselves. While the Pashmerga inflicted political pressure backed by their military foothold in the area, somewhat also enforcing Ankara’s protests regarding PKK’s presence in the area. There have been times when the two camps clashed in the Sinjar area, forcing additional displacement from the Yazidis.

Close to 10,000 Yazidis have been killed, kidnapped  by ISIS, even more than this have been also affected or displaced. A study published in academic journal PLOS Medicine found that 3,100 were murdered, with almost half executed by gunshot, beheading or being burned alive, while the rest died from starvation, dehydration or injuries during the Da’esh siege on Mount Sinjar. While 6,800 of them have been kidnapped, most of them (women) being forced into sex slavery.  The same studies suggest that over 2,5% of the estimated 400,000 population of Yazidi has been exterminated by ISIS.

Map of the situation in Mount Sinjar (2014). Source: unknown

 

Sinjar: A Second ‘Qandil’ in the Eyes of Turkey

Turkey fears that a Sinjar controlled by the PKK could become a strategic node for a permanent logistics and paramilitary corridor from the PKK’s homebase in the Qandil mountains (north-eastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan bordering Iran) all the way to the Syrian boundary, providing the outlawed group with a superior capacity to move and assert its interest against Turkish national security concerns and in regards to the Kurdish population in northern Syria, where they benefit from an allegiance and organizational link with the YPG, Iraq and overall the entire region coordinated through KCK format established as of 2004.

Ankara is also pitted in a difficult situation, as their primary partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has not backed down in face of pressure from holding the announced independence referendum. This ballot will also involve Sinjar, regardless of its disputed status in relation with the Iraqi government from Baghdad, therefore the KDP needs a sensitive approach towards the Shengal Democratic Autonomous Assembly in order to secure their cooperation in the interest of expanding the referendum. On the other hand, both President Erdogan and Prime-Minister Yildirim announced that Turkey will not let Sinjar become “a second Qandil” referring to the safe-heaven held by the PKK on the Iraqi-Iranian border from which the outlawed group has launched repeated attacks in Turkey’s southeastern province for the past decades. They are currently awaiting for the KDP to solve the issue as promised, while not resisting to tease that a second, military option also exists.

Worth to mention that KDP hosts a significant amount of Turkish troops in the area and that Ankara has a training camp at Bashiqa where hundreds of Sunni tribesmen and Pashmerga soldiers have been trained. In a bid to prevent further Turkish actions, the KDP and its Syrian Kurdish allies sought in March to dislodge the PKK from Khanasor by entering YBS controlled area, but failed. Later on in April 2017, Turkish fighter jets targeted PKK and YBS militants in the area, but ended up killing 6 KDP Peshmerga instead.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted n August 21st that his government is considering joint military action with Iran against the PKK. “[The] PKK terror organization has a foot in Iran,” Erdogan said, speaking to reporters ahead of an official visit to Jordan. “They always cause harm to Iran and us. … We believe if the two countries cooperate, we can reach a conclusion in a much shorter period of time.” Iranian-backed PMU’s are kilometers away in northern Iraq, both at the Syrian border after they secured the Umm Jaris crossing, and at Tel Afar, where together with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have just launched an offensive to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Tel Afar, as the post-Mosul nexus. More on the situation post-Mosul in this analysis.

On August 24th, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Chairman Devlet Bahçeli issued two major threats in regards to the situation in Northern Iraq“Turkey should cooperate with Iran to destroy PKK terrorists located in Northern Iraq,” In relation to the upcoming referendum which will be held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, Bahçeli said that it is unacceptable and that it should be considered as a cause of war for Turkey.

Brief Geopolitics of Kurdistan: Can It Break Free of the Constraint Theory?

On June 7th, 2017, after high-level consultations between political factions, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani announced that a date has been set for the Independence referendum to take place: 25th of September. KRG already enjoys a large extent of self-governing features such as an own parliament, armed forces and jurisdiction, however the relations with the central government with Baghdad has always been sour.

(a) The rule of Saddam Hussein threatened the mere existence of the Kurds in northern Iraq, exacerbating armed conflicts and insurgencies in face of chemical attacks and attempted genocides by the Ba’ath authority. The conflict was in a dead-end as the many negotiations between KDP, PUK and Ba’ath failed to produce anything than temporary ceasefires. The situation only improved after the United States launched Operation ‘Provide Comfort’  in 1991 which sought to deter Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish population by implementing a no-fly interdiction in the airspace and a safe-zone on the ground which at the mission’s end in 1996, fully established today’s self-ruling Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

  • In the post-Saddam Hussein era, the divisive Maliki government challenged the economical and political structures and functionality of KRG through its policies. The Maliki cabinet refused to send the block grants that pay for the salaries of the region’s civil servants, or have boiled tensions over the city of Kirkuk at a near-war level, especially since the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) abandoned their positions when ISIS stormed Northern Iraq, creating a vacuum,that in Kurdish eyes, served the area on a plate to the jihadists while the Iraqis were making a run for it. Although deployment of the Pashmerga and the appointment of the comprise government of Abadi loosened up the situation, disagreements remained due to the Kurdish advancement outside the territory of KRG essentially annexing new turf under their jurisdiction, and in regards to the oil exports and revenue.
  • Of course, most of Baghdad’s hostility towards the KRG post-2003 came from the oil disputes, which is also strongly related with the status of Kirkuk. As the central government applies ultra-centralized policies in regards to oil production and exports, the KRG tried to by-pass the Constitution and independently sell oil through separate deals (as with Turkey, for example) while not returning any taxes or revenues to Baghdad, as long as possible. This stirs a never-ending line of blames and justifications between the two intra-state actors heavily dependent on oil exports. In reality, Article 111 and 112 from the Iraqi Constitution related to energy issues clearly states that ‘oil and gas shall be propriety of all Iraqi people in all regions and provinces’ […] ‘The Federal Government should jointly manage oil and from current fields with the governments of the producing regions and provinces, provided that the proceeds from these shall be allocated fairly and proportionately with the population distribution throughout the country’. KRG is entitled to 17% of these revenues.

(b) Iraq’s oil politics is a decisive input in understanding the state of affairs within and around the country. In 2003 the estimated capacity would have put Iraq in equal terms with Saudi Arabia, or even past it taking into account the vast potential of unexplored reserves. This Brooking analysis lists some of those statistics: the Petroleum Economist Magazine estimates that there were as many as 200 bbl of oil in Iraq; the Federation of American Scientists estimates 215 bbl; a study by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice University claimed that Iraq has 220 bbl of undiscovered oil; and another study by the Center for Global Energy Studies and Petrolog & Associates offered an even more optimistic estimate of 300 bbl. Fellow partners from OPEC fell threatened by Iraq’s vast potential and they have good reasons to be so.

(c) World Oil informed two months ago that Iraq was the top crude supplier to India for a third month in May, shipping 1 MMbpd. Iraqi supplies accounted for 23% of India’s purchases last month, up from an average 19% in the previous four months, while Saudi Arabia’s share fell by 1% to 17%, the data showed. Oil producers are facing increasing competition in major markets like China and India as OPEC as those are the fastest-growing and potentially-largest consumer markets. India’s $2-trillion economy imports more than 80% of its crude requirement and the IEA expects it to be the fastest-growing consumer through 2040.

view of Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, as seen from Hotel Divan, a popular spot for the Kurdish elite and foreign businessmen. In the foreground is the long-stalled development Empire World, a casualty of the economic crisis now facing the region. (Jake Naughton/GlobalPost Investigations)

(d) Deepening our understanding of the oil problem, it should be mentioned that a significant part of Iraq’s wealth and deposits are also situated in the North, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the ‘territorial belt’ disputed with Baghdad. According a highly-insightful analysis from the Revenue Watch Institute, the southern-most region of Basra accounts for 59% of Iraqi oil reserves (65 bbl), Kirkuk comes second with 12% (13 bbl), while KRG’s total is only 3%, including the oil fields in Erbil, Dohuk and Suleymaniyah. Looking in stark contrast, northern Iraq did not enjoy the same stability as the southern lands, namely Basra where skyscrapers and luxurious malls are being built, a significant portion of the oil fields in Kirkuk are damaged or outdated and only operate at half their capacity. Kirkuk’s joker card its the undiscovered/ unexploited deposits which maintain optimism and attract investments from international energy giants.

On the other hand, the prospects of KRG-based oil looked fairly pessimistic for investors in the past years, as revisions over some oil fields found more water than oil, reducing the deposit’s projected potential. Consequently, decision makers at Erbil decided to maintain the massive oil fields located in Kirkuk in the post-liberation period. And while energy-reasons are not the most PR-friendly justification, the historical ones are. Kirkuk was a Kurdish majority city up to the rule of Saddam Hussein who forcefully displace them and encourage Sunni Arabs to populate the region instead. Over the course of dozens of years, this social engineering still casts a shadow over Kurdish-Arab Sunni relations.

(e) Geoeconomic-wise, the KRG’s oil potential and independent dealings are conditioned by two complex actors, Turkey and the Iraq.  While Ankara holds the soul pipeline towards its industrial port in Ceyhan used as a hub for further exports and transports, benefiting from a somewhat dependency of the Kurds towards their transitional posture, Baghdad controls the roads and pipelines capable of transporting the products to other regional markets or integrated networks of roads. In an exclusive Reuters article, the region’s minister for natural resources, Ashti Hawrami, said that to avoid detection Kurdish oil was often funneled through Israel, transferred directly between Greek commercial ships off the coast of Malta, and decoy ships used to make it harder for Baghdad to track. However Baghdad did fill a lawsuit against Greek company Marine Management Services over its involvement in these dealings. But even to by-pass Baghdad, KRG needed to help of Turkey.

(f) Looking at trade figures, Kurdistan’s Board of Investments informs that imports account for 85% of the estimated US$5.0–5.5 billion of annual external trade in the Kurdistan Region.  Most imported goods are consumed in the Region and are not re-exported as value-added products. The largest external trading partner for KRG is Turkey and most of products consists in food and consumables.

(g) Translating this data over the disputed areas and into demographics, the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) in Kurdistan reports that:

  • 6 million people in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed territories such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin have the right to vote in the referendum.
  • 48% of the Kurdistan Region’s land is still disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, and some 2.7 million people live in the disputed territories.

 

End Notes

(1) Looking at these figures we can conclude that for an independent Kurdistan the possession of Kirkuk, Sinjar and other disputed areas is key. However, given Iraq’s and Turkey’s disapproval towards the vote, and subsequently, leverage over Erbil (trade, energy, infrastructure) the referendum could simply result into a sterile non-actionable outcome if the expected “Yes” camp will win. Both Ankara and Baghdad can simply block Kurdish oil exports and isolate the region as wanted, even before talking about a military solution. Turkish Energy Minister Berat Albayrak already said that the referendum would harm energy cooperation with the KRG, which pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day to Turkey’s Ceyhan export terminal.

According to the constraint theory, there are a number of clear geographical, statistical inputs that can predict an actor’s behavior, there have been enough cases (example: Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015) that ignored strong trade ties, energy dependency or political comfort, on the grounds that third effects could overthrow the second ones, and unlock a better prospect. In this logic, while Erbil knows that the referendum could be disastrous for the country’s trade and economics due to geopolitical constraints as immediate secondary effects, it could also judge the long-term prospects as being an opportunity of emergence which is nothing short or rational thinking however dangerous would it be to roam through an adverse Middle Eastern quagmire.

(2) It is not clear if PKK’s influence over the Sinjar Council that recently proclaimed autonomy will exercise any kind of negative effect over the referendum. It may be the case that PKK wants to assert itself in the region before an independent Kurdistan emerges, in a bid to softly challenge KDP’s authority. However, this uncontrolled enthusiasm could actually put in danger the referendum by attracting a Turkish economic boycott against the KRG, or military intervention targeting the Sinjar Alliance, which is exactly the scenario that Masoud Barzani, KDP President, fears and tries to prevent through a combination of military pressure, shuttle diplomacy and effectively, stalling time. Ankara might not see the proclamation of autonomy in Sinjar as an organic right to self-determination of persecuted Yazidis, but a political instrumentation from the PKK to achieve influence in the area.

(3) Secretary of Defense James Mattis signaled Washington’s nuanced stance on this matter by announcing on August 23rd at Baghdad that they are committed to preserve the unity of Iraq, while the later meeting at Erbil with President Masoud Barzani he only suggested that the dialogue with the Iraqi government should continue on that matter. In addition to this, Iran and Syria also oppose a Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq fearing that a domino effect could vacuum their Kurdish-populated territories as well – also a vital concern of Turkey.

The unanimous decision taken by all Kurdish parties to support the referendum shows a rare moment of Kurdish unity throughout history, which could cancel any external soft-or-smart power effort to disrupt KRG’s affairs.

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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.


September 8-24, 2017 (Overview)

After successful fights inner Raqqa and on its outskirts, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have boxed the remaining jihadists in the upper-north districts of the city. Yesterday on December 23rd, the US-backed forces have even liberated al-Firdous neighborhood reaching the southern end of the Municipal Stadium. 

The enemy is significantly weaken and lost morale, information suggest that many have already surrendered to the Coalition. Just last week alone, the SDF captured 84 city blocks in Raqqa, marking a swift advance that maintained an intense effort that crippled the jihadist defensive lines and inner ranks throughout the city. The dramatic falls of ISIS in Raqqa intensified on September 19th, when the SDF captured the Grain Silos and closed the northern lines. Only so that the next day, the complete liberation of the ex-Division 17th HQ and the hills around it to be confirmed as secured. Subsequently, nearly 80 percent of the ex-self proclaimed capital of the “islamic state” has been liberated by the indigenous multi-ethnic SDF supported by the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS “Inherent Resolve”. Some sources indicate that the actual gains amount to 90 percent of Raqqa.

One thing is sure, the battle for Raqqa will end this year. And with that, more assets and personnel will become available to contribute to the already launched operation “Cizre Storm” targeting ISIS fighters in Deir ez-Zor province.

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Feed interrupted…  


September 7, 2017

Fighting continue to concentrate on the Amin district of central Raqqa, where the SDF foiled an ISIS counter-attack. Also a significant amount of ammo and equipment was captured from the jihadists that was originally looted form the forces of the Syrian Regime.

The U.S.-led Coalition conducted 11 strikes in Raqqa, destroyed 11 ISIS fighting positions, a command & control node and suppressed three fighting positions.


September 6, 2017

The Civil Registry Building was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) while in a previously liberated part of Sina’a, the Baghdad Gate was also fully cleared from ISIS elements. The Coalition backed forces advanced under the continuous harassment from ISIS snipers. The cohort is pushing towards the central parts of Raqqa.

The U.S.-led Coalition conducted eight (8) strikes, destroyed 13 ISIS fighting positions; damaged five fighting positions and suppressed two fighting positions. Additional 38 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 31- September 5, 2017

The Coalition backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have managed to sustain a continuous advancement of carving into ISIS-held territory with no setback of successful counter-attacks from Da’esh. The paramount of this effort was marked on September 2 when the full liberation of Raqqa’s Great Mosque was announced consequently fully clearing the city’s Old Town.

In this respect, on September 3, the SDF managed to liberate al-Moroor district, further boxing the jihadists between Raqqa’s open hills and the city’s northern limits, also eroding their lines of defense. CNN issued an exclusive drone video showing the destruction of Raqqa.

On August 31st, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 15 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 11 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 10 fighting positions, three logistics nodes, two vehicles and a command & control center. Additional 31 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.

On September 1st, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 17 strikes in Raqqa, engaged four ISIS tactical units; destroyed 16 fighting positions, three logistics nodes, two command & control nodes, and a SVBIED. Additional 12 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Five more strikes were also reported on September 3rd.

On September 2nd, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 19 strikes in Raqqa, engaged five ISIS tactical units; destroyed five fighting positions, four logistics nodes, three IEDs, two staging areas, a mortar system, a vehicle, a command and control node. Additional five strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.  Ten more strikes were reported on September 4th. Also 11 more strikes were reported on the 5th.

On September 3rd, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 21 strikes in Raqqa, engaged nine ISIS tactical units; destroyed 13 fighting positions, two pieces of ISIS communications infrastructure, two vehicles, a SVBIED, a command & control node, and a logistics node. Additional four strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.  One more strike was reported on the 5th. Ten strikes were also reported on the 6th.

On September 4th, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 23 strikes in Raqqa, engaged seven ISIS tactical units; destroyed 20 fighting positions, four oil stills, three oil tanks, two logistics nodes, and a command & control node; and suppressed two fighting positions. One additional strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 15 strikes were reported on the 6th.

On September 5th, the U.S.-led Coalition conducted 25 strikes in Raqqa, engaged an ISIS tactical unit; destroyed 22 fighting positions, three ISIS communications infrastructure items, and a logistics node; damaged three fighting positions; and suppressed four fighting positions. Additional 15 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.


August 30, 2017

In an interesting development, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) managed to cut cordon off Muroor district by capturing the main street that cuts between them in diagonal. Around 200 civilians were rescued by the SDF from the Children’s Hospital area and were transported to Kobani. Panorama Garden from Diriyah district was also captured by the advancing SDF.

In addition to a large quantity of ammo and weapons captured from ISIS in southern Raqqa, the Turkish-made HAR 66 surfaces again to the terror group’s stockpile.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 17 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 11 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 15 fighting positions, two command & control nodes, a logistical node, and an IED factory. Additional 18 strikes were reported the next day. Two more strikes reported on September 1st.


August 29, 2017

Snipers of the SDF have taken the rooftops of southern Muroor district and especially on top of the Mwasa Children’s Hospital to prevent unexpected counter-attacks by Da’esh.  Other active fronts were Nahdah, were previous efforts to carve through ISIS-held territory proved successfully, al-Mooror and al-Tashih districts.

Nowruz Ahmed from the military council of the U.S.-backed and YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) spoke to Reuters, in what she said was her first interview with the media, about the ‘Great Battle’ launched on June 6 to liberate Raqqa from ISIS. “We cannot determine the time period in which the battle of Raqqa will end precisely because war has its conditions. But we do not expect it to last long, and according to our plans the battle will not take longer than two months from now,” Ahmed said.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 46 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 30 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 66 fighting positions, five heavy machine guns, five vehicles, three anti-air systems, three medium machine guns, two command & control nodes, an ISIS HQ, a weapon cache, a SVBIED and damaged 8 fighting positions. Additional 16 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. The total now amounts to 62 strikes, just below the 63-strikes record reached the day before.


August 28, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fully liberated al-Mansur district, thereby completing the capture of Raqqa’s Old Town. The most difficult part of the anti-ISIS fight here is over; jihadists have been now pushed to other districts with the hope to further isolate them in open field, making them clean targets for the U.S.-led aviation.

Commander of the Manbij Military Council (MMC) of the SDF was killed in clashes with ISIS in the battle for Raqqa.

In parallel, SDF managed to liberate more streets in Nahdah district.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 12 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 6 ISIS tactical units; destroyed nine fighting positions, logistics nodes and a VBIED. Additional 48 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 3 strikes were reported on the 30th. Total: 63 strikes, a new record for the Coalition’s activity.


August 27, 2017

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global anti-ISIS Coalition confirmed that SDF have captured the Children’s Hospital in Maroor district, even though data about such a liberation debuted online two days ago, probably waited for the local forces to consolidate and implement a firm control.

Coalition and Kurdish YPG launched a crackdown on Raqqa’s Hawks Brigade chief due to his cooperation with Regime forces during the Syrian Arab Army’s operations in rural southern Raqqa governorate.

A group of 24 nurses who have been training for 4 months at Rojava’s Health Academy in Serêkaniyê arrived in Raqqa to complete the final phase of their education 12 nurses were sent to Raqqa’s eastern front while another 12 were dispatched to the east.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 29 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 13 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 19 fighting positions, five logistics nodes, three vehicles, three ISIS HQs, two VBIEDs, and two command & control nodes. Additional 24 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Two new strikes were reported in the 29th strike release.


August 26, 2017

#SDF controlled Zahraa School in Thakana neighborhood and the market area till Mitafawekin School. Liberation remains idle despite ongoing clashes in remaining Mansur district, Nahdah and around al-Maroon. Added humanitarian relief was made possible and more civilians managed to escape disputed areas for the safety of the city’s outskirts. De-mining efforts continue throughout liberated neighborhoods.

al-Rashid district in Old Town

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 18 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 4 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 14 fighting positions, six logistic nodes, and three vehicles. Additional 22 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 2 strikes were reported on the 28th strike release.


August 25, 2017

An early-morning offensive by the Syrian Democratice Forces (SDF) assaulted ISIS position in Nahdah district and liberating significant turf in the neighborhood. Through this military effort, the SDF have captured an ISIS-held munitions factory in the area, consisting of missiles and around 100 mortar rounds. Anti-radiation Kh 28, R-27 Vympel, and Totchka are some of them. Also, many of those missiles contain Cyrillic writing on them, most probably of Russian origin, scavenged by Da’esh from captured Regime bases and garrisons.U.S. B-52 carpet bomber was spotted above Raqqa’s airspace.

SDF also advanced on Maroor district, freeing the Children’s Hospital.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 24 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 15 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 20 fighting positions, two logistics node, two command & control centers, a VBIED, an ISIS UAS, an ISIS HQ; and suppressed a tactical unit. Additional 31 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Another 4 strikes were reported on the 27th strike release. Total number: 59


August 24, 2017

Around 24 jihadists were killed last night in al Mansur, al Moroor, Nadah and Bitani districts, while SDF received 3 casualties. Fighting throughout the day saw the Syrian democratic Forces attempting to push the frontline as westwards as possible in Mansur district. Air strikes and artillery targeted the area around the “Security Box” in a bid to soften the terrorist’s defensive positions. Clashes were also reported in Nahdah neighborhood and resulted in 5 losses for ISIS. Roj Mine Control Organization (RMCO) defused many ISIS mines (IEDs) planted inside Raqqa civillians homes to slow down SDF advance in city.

Clocktower in al-Rashid district: up (2015) vs. down (present).

SDF also liberated the square around the Clock Tower, where ISIS has been holding the public executions and were the heads or bodies of those killed were exposed. The United Nations called for a humanitarian pause to allow an estimated 20,000 trapped civilians to escape from the Syrian city of Raqqa, and urged the U.S.-led coalition to rein in air strikes that have caused casualties. However, ISIS is not bound to any kind of pause, such an option is unrealistic.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 5 strikes in Raqqa, engaging 4 ISIS tactical units; destroyed five fighting positions. Additional 41 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release, engaging 31 ISIS tactical units, destroying 31 fighting positions, an ISIS HQ, three vehicles, an IED, an anti-air artillery gun, and a command & control node. Other 11 strikes were reported in the 26th strike release. Total number: 57


August 23, 2017

In an interview for ARA News, Bret McGurk said that around 2,000 ISIS fighters are left in Raqqa, and that city is 55-60% liberated by the SDF. Also, he pointed out that the Coalition gathered around 10 Terrabytes of intelligence on ISIS, and that together with Interpol they have built a data base of 19,000 known foreign fighters, local assets, sympathizers etc.

Map of the Battle for Raqqa as of 23rd of August, 2017 // all rights reserved to Transylvania Intelligence

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 9 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 7 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 11 fighting positions a vehicle.


August 22, 2017

In an extraordinary course of events, SDF managed to defeat ISIS in the Old Town and capture the rest of Rashid district, and therefore almost the entire territory walled within the city’s medieval core. Through this, the SDF made sure that the closing fights of this battle will not be prolonged or stalled as the ISF did in Western Mosul’s old districts, therefore pushing the jihadists in the open. Dozens of civilians were able to escape the now near-fully liberated old town.

In addition, SDF managed to even push the frontlines west of the Old Town, around 100 meters to Qusad al-Mu’taz Street, video bellow, and at the roundabout on Quwatli street:

The U.S.-led Coalition conducted 14 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 13 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 26 fighting positions, an ISIS HQ, a command & control node, and engineering equipment used by the jihadists. Additional 27 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Three (3) more strike were also reported in the 26th strike release. One more strikes reported in the 27th strike release.


August 20-21, 2017

Clashes occurred all over Raqqa. ISIS suicide bomber Abu Yusuf al-Hindi detonated himself in north-eastern Romaniah district, a much more lower intensity location of the battle. In the districts of Mahda and Muroor SDF managed to advance and inflict casualties in the jihadists. Thousands of civilians have been vaccinated in Raqqa amid Polio outbreaks.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 21 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 14 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 22 fighting positions, two UAS staging areas, two heavy machine guns, a vehicle and an explosive cache on August 20th. Additional 33 strikes reported in the next day’s strike release.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 20 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 13 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 24 fighting positions, a vehicle, a logistical node and ISIS communication towers. Additional 21 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 2 strikes were reported on the 24th. Other 3 strikes reported only in the 26th strike release.


August 19th, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces captured several checkpoints both in Rashed neighborhood and Derayah. The fighters advance slowly but surely, in order to avoid IEDs and other booby-traps set up by ISIS. While the positions in the Old Town are on one hand, consolidated by the half controlled by SDF, and disputed in those streets in the western parts, still under ISIS control, the SDF distributed leaflets in Mansoor informing civilians to evacuate and the jihadists to surrender.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 5 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 2 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 3 fighting positions. Additional 36 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release, that engaged 22 ISIS tactical units, destroyed 29 fighting positions, and several other assets or battle vectors. Additional 6 strike reported on the 21st. One additional strikes reported on the 22nd. Another additional strikes reported in the 26th strike release.


August 18th, 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.

U.S.-led Coalition conducted 19 strikes in Raqqa, engaged 17 ISIS tactical units; destroyed 20 positions, anti-air system, and a command & control node. Additional 20 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release. Additional 4 strikes were were reported on the 20th. One additional strike reported on the 21st.


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. Additional 19 strikes were reported in the next day’s strike release.  Additional 3 strikes were reported on the 19th.


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. Additional 5 strikes were reported on 18th strike release. One more strike was reported in the 26th 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. This marks the day with the highest air strike count from the entire campaign: 52.


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. Another 2 strikes were reported only on the 26th 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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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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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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