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NATO in Asia-Pacific: Temporary Deterrence or Forward Thinking?

Urgent Briefing – The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conducted a diplomatic tour to visit the two regional allies in Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and the Republic…

Urgent Briefing – The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has conducted a diplomatic tour to visit the two regional allies in Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK, ‘South Korea’). This raised a legitimate debate regarding NATO’s prospects in a region so far away from the Euro-Atlantic realm.

 

Visits to South Korea and Japan

Jens Stoltenberg arrived on October 30, 2017 in Tokyo for a three-day visit. Appointed in 2015 as Secretary General, this was his first tour in Asia-Pacific, throughout which he reinforced the Alliance’s partnership with Japan and South Korea. Having talked with the Japanese Defense Minister, the two agreed on the potential to expand cooperation in the areas of maritime security and cyber defense, additionally to the substantial efforts already undergone. On November 1st, he traveled to South Korea for a two-day trip to meet with the Foreign Minister, and to address the North Korean threat. He made bold comments about this issue, condemning Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic programs; Stoltenberg referred to them as a threat to ‘international and regional security’, calling on Kim Jong-Un to abandon this pursuit.

 

NATO’s Asia-Pacific policy

Sine the conclusion of the Cold War, the Alliance created a wide range of partnership options through which it pursued fostering good relations with states across the globe. The largest such framework is Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), a 50-nation multilateral forum that encompass diverse actors, from Russia, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Ukraine, to Austria or Armenia. The Mediterranean Dialogue is eligible for states situated in Northern Africa or the Levant, as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) welcomes several Gulf states as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Additional to these frameworks, there are individual options that are loosely referred to as ‘Partners across the Globe’, and provides interested peers with tailored diplomatic protocols that facilitates a closer engagement to NATO. Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) are one of those states. And following Washington’s model, they are NATO’s key partners in shaping an Asia-Pacific policy. Evidently, the United States has a leading role in applying and conceptualizing such a policy, but the other 28 states also have a decisive input. It is widely known that NATO has a history of conducting operations and crafting strategies in rapport with issues and regions outside the Euro-Atlantic space in the post-Cold War era. Operation Ocean Shield (Indian Ocean, Bab-el-Mandeb strait), ISAF (Afghanistan) or Iraq Training Mission have cemented the Alliance’s outlook towards the external space amid the 21st century security environment and emerging threats. The 2010 Lisbon Summit formally marked this transition by adding Crisis Management and Cooperative Security to NATO’s core values, in addition to the original task of Collective Defense. The 2010 New Strategic Concept is relevant in application to all issues and challenges, while keeping the focus on cooperative efforts with regional peers.

There has been no official military presence in the waters of Asia-Pacific before, nor substantial diplomatic effort in the region under a NATO framework. This marks Stoltenberg’s tour as a milestone in the Alliance’s ‘coming-of-age’ towards the region. The visits to Japan and South Korea can be regarded as a natural sign of solidarity towards NATO’s biggest financial contributor and strongest member, the United States. And that extensively, the effort was an additional deterrence tool in applying pressure towards the North Koreans.

 

North Korea: a global problem

In a speech held at the National Press Club in Tokyo, October 31st, Jens Stoltenberg outlined the ‘new geography of danger’ emphasizing the global dimension of the North Korea threat and the necessity for a united, potentially stronger front, against Kim Jong-Un regime. Mr. Stoltenberg called on Pyongyang to “abandon its nuclear program once and for all”; to “suspend the development of ballistic missiles”; and to “refrain from further testing”. He also reiterated that “NATO strongly supports a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula.” He also added that “achieve this, pressure is key”, before acknowledging that Japan is NATO’s “natural partner”. (read the entire speech here, as delivered)

Asked whether an North Korean attack on the island of Guam, a US territory, would trigger Article 5, he refused to respond. However, he did mention that NATO’s European Defense system is ready to counter any possible ballistic missile launched from the Korean peninsula.

 

Key Judgements

NATO is right to have concerns regarding the North Korean problem. The passive and impotent efforts throughout the past three decades have allowed the totalitarian regime from Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons, and now, even sophisticated means of transporting them towards enemy targets. The strike range of those ballistic missile do not only extend towards California, Alaska or some Pacific islands, but also over Europe. NATO’s concerns are legitimate and worthy of being shared at the strategic level by all 29 members. While the diplomatic tour in Japan and South Korea can well be accounted as a pressure force towards North Korea, and as a solidarity gesture towards the United States, there is the potential for more than just an episodic touch. Given the rise of China in the international stage and the risks it poses for global trade and regional stability, notably given the standoff in the South China Sea, it’s fair to assume that NATO is considering widening its projection. Benefiting from predictable and strategic partnerships with capable actors in the region, namely Australia, New Zeeland, Japan and South Korea, and its utmost important member in the driving seat, the United States, NATO holds the incentives for a long-term game in respect with the Asia-Pacific theater.


Briefing is a short-to-medium assessment that presents a sharp overview of a recently occurring event with the objective of providing timely information with additional comments, rather than a comprehensive in-depth analysis. Such a paper does not regularly exceed 1,100 words. 

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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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Enhanced Pressure on North Korea: Clock is Ticking

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

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

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

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

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

 

Enhanced Pressure

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

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

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

Even from the earlier boiling point in March 2017:

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

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

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

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

Open in ‘view image’ for a larger picture.

Camouflaged Negotiations: Threats, Statements and Remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Contingency plans

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

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

 

 

 

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Battle for Raqqa, Vol.2 – Live Journal

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

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

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


Mission has ended. 

October 17, 2017 (Overview)

It’s over.

The U.S.-led Coalition backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have put an end to the ISIS rule in Raqqa, and liberated the last districts controlled by the terror group.

Major military operations in Raqqa are finished but they are now clearing the city of sleeper cells — if they exist — and mines,” Talal Salo, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told CNN. The SDF is a coalition of Arab and Kurdish fighters. “The situation in Raqqa is under control and soon there will be an official statement declaring the liberation of the city.”

Click to ‘View as’ to see a wider format.

What remains as tactical objectives for the triumphant party is to hunt the remaining sleeper cells, defuse IEDs and overall, restore security to the city. Inevitable, further small operations will continue, but battle for the city is a sealed deal. In accordance to the protocol established before the battle, the city will be handed over to the Raqqa Civil Council, which took responsibility to assure the transition period until the first elections in 2018. The city will also be a part of the Federation of Northern Syria.

Amid the final success, the latest fights had the SDF pitted against remaining jihadists around the Municipal Stadium, and throughout the central-northern parts. Weary and condemned to failure, 350 jihadists surrendered just today to the Coalition. The fighters were brought to a prison in Tabqa where they await trail.  Additionally, there are rumors that some ISIS fighters have been allowed to leave for other territories (possibly Deir ez-Zor), especially after a video emerged showing them leaving the National Hospital.

ISIS still controls areas in eastern Syria, (Deir ez-Zor province), contested by the Loyalists and the US-backed SDF; a small pocket in northern Hama disputed with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (unofficial Al-Qa’ida affiliate), and in Anbar province, notably around the cities of al-Qa’im and Rawah – pressured by the Iraqi Security Forces backed by the US-led Coalition.

Most of the SDF personnel in Raqqa, especially the battle-hardened and experienced YPG elements, should normally be transferred to Deir ez-Zor province, in order to assist Operation Jazzira Storm, currently spearheaded by allied native Arab Sunni tribes, and the Syrian Arab Coalition. More about that operation here.

In the interest of presenting a comprehensive overview of the situation on the field, the activist group ‘Raqqa is Slaughtered Silently’ that represented a resistance voice in the city throughout the years of Da’esh occupation, has issued another critical tweet addressing the number of civilian casualties (claims to be 1,000) and destruction left behind (claims 90%) by the SDF’s and YPG’s way of conducting the battle. While RISS had traditionally supplied interesting insights, their anti-SDF bias is widely known, this being said without being able to confirm the claimed facts and figures.

Coincidental, the end of the battle for Raqqa comes at the Coalition’s 3rd anniversary. In this regard, the Coalition Spokesperson listed on Twitter some facts and figures of their efforts against ISIS:

  • liberated 87% of the terror group’s territory,
  • that amounts for 6,5 million people freed under their ruthless rule;
  • degraded ISIS’ ability to finance their operations, cutting oil revenues by 90%,
  • reduced the flow of foreign recruits traveling to ISIS-held areas from 1,500 people/ month, to nearly zero per day,
  • liberated the self-proclaimed ‘capital’ of ISIS, Raqqa.

Also, as a personal note, the Coalition destroyed the will of the enemy to continue fighting, a fact exposed by the repeated requests of Da’esh to be allowed to evacuate or surrender – something unprecedented some months ago.

On the other hand, the price for this victory was costly. Airwars estimated in September that around 1,000 civilians were killed since June 6 at the start of the campaign; while the number is unconfirmed by the Coalition, which slammed Airwars in the past for unsubstantiated figures, we can still assess that at least 500-700 non-combatant deaths have occurred. While the population’s well-being is a central concern for all civilized actors, the use of human shields and mines by ISIS, and the difficulty in telling the difference between combatant and non-combatant on today’s hybrid battlefield has sparked significant difficulties, if not made it impossible to completely reduce the civilian loss.

According the Telegraph, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor put the overall death toll for the battle at 3,250, including fighters and civilians, but said hundreds were still missing or unaccounted for. Personal and open-source assessments of SDF casualties put estimates around 400.

Emphasizing again, after the following sweeping operations that will close the chapter, the Raqqa Civilian Council will assume control of the administration, with the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF) formed at Ain Issa on May 17, will patrol the streets of the city.

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Although October was not covered, and September was poorly reported upon, the update frequency from June to early September has been overall on a daily basis, and counted as a personal success thanks to engagement and feedback from the audience. 

SDF victory celebration at the Al-Naim circle, a place where ISIS would conduct brutal executions and beheadings.


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.

Click ‘view image’ to get a larger format


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

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

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

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

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

 

‘Swift Response’: a ‘Saber Guardian’ exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Sea Region: An emerging strategic vector? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

General Considerations

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

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Showdown in Korea: The end of US strategic patience while envisioning a Chinese-approved regime change

STRATEGIC ANALYSIS – In order to comprehensively approach the North Korea problem, a glimpse into the past is needed. The Cold War that stretched from the immediate post-World War II…

STRATEGIC ANALYSIS – In order to comprehensively approach the North Korea problem, a glimpse into the past is needed. The Cold War that stretched from the immediate post-World War II period to the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall holds the origin and the inception of the North Korean problem. In contemporary times, the regime from Pyongyang through its pursuit of nuclear armament has become an international threat and a troubling issue for the Asia-Pacific security complex.  Moreover that the conventional capabilities of the North Korean Armed Forces are able to target and inflict devastating damage to South Korea and Japan – the major US allies in Asia and one of the leading nations in terms of economy and technology.  Yet the web dynamic goes further to China and Russia, the main backers of the Kim dynasty in the Korean peninsula, who have traditionally opposed though sanctions on the Communist state and are openly sustaining the country’s economy by a trade relation exclusively bounded into a geopolitical idea. And that’s precisely why the North Korean issue has remained unresolved, due to its geopolitical weight, deeply rooted in the second half of the 20th Century.

 

The Korean issue: origins and historical context

Following the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was divided into two zones along the 38th parallel by the United States and the Soviet Union, with the north occupied by the Soviets and the south by the Americans. Moscow’s interest in extending its influence in the Asia-Pacific is well know, and as Nazi Germany fell in Europe, Stalin quickly shifted his attention on Imperial Japan, as promised even from the 1943 Tehran conference. There has been even a wide debate through academics of whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blast were also keen as leverage against Soviet interests towards Japan and the Pacific region, urging the American need to quickly crumble the government in Tokyo and initiate an US-oriented political regime. In August 1945 the Soviet Union engaged in a short but steadfast offensive against the Japanese, occupying Manchuria and carving a way towards the Korean peninsula. The northern half received after the surrender of Japan was an unexpected geopolitical win that has shifted the post-WW2 order in Asia-Pacific until this day.

However, it wasn’t the USSR who continued to back the state establish north of the 38th parallel, Democratic People’s Republic of Korean (DPRK) or North Korea, but China; another major Communist state that was aspiring towards regional hegemony, which would later bring the two “red states” competing against each other (Sino-Soviet Split). The geopolitical emergence of China began with the victory of the Communist guerillas led by Mao Zedong in 1949 taking over Beijing, and then continued to be amplified by the strategic mistake of Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator had a saying: “one’s power is as long as its army can go”, yet when the Korean War was about to being, and Kim Il-Sung requested permission to invade the South, Stalin initially refused. Swiftly was China grated the opportunity to act. Mao Zedong approved Kim Il-Sung’s aspiration and additionally promised to send troops to support his campaign. Later on, Stalin changed his position as well, realizing China’s gamble. Yet Stalin’s engagement in Korea was limited, by having only non-combatant military advisors on the ground, especially because he wanted to avoid confrontation with the United States, and therefore lost influence and power over the regime in Pyongyang. China on the other hand continued to capitalize on this weakness, or rather, strategic boundary that limited the USSR, sending thousands of ground troops in a combatant role to support the DPRK army in any way needed.

archive photo of US servicemen in Korea

The invasion initiated by North Korea led to the Korean War (1950–1953). After three years of fighting to repeal and defeat the DPRK invasion, the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953. In effect, there was only a ceasefire that followed, and no peace treaty; the hostilities continued at a lower intensity. Theoretically speaking the two countries are still in a state of war. Yet, China saw the potential in building a stead-rock regime in Pyongyang which would issue threats that Beijing couldn’t, which could directly threaten US interests as China wanted to publicly avoid. The Chinese have also developed a strong leverage over the North Korea government, involving trade, energy and technology. The isolated DPKR relies on Chinese imports to maintain its economy, on Chinese technology to keep its military capacity up –and-running and on Beijing to maintain a diplomatic shield over the Kim dynasty, outside as well as inside – against tempted generals to take power. Over the years and following China’s global engagement and strong trade relationship with the US, Beijing’s doctrine over North Korea remained the same, yet a rather unexpected situation occurred. Following Kim Il-Sun’s death in late 2011, his son, until then kept hidden from international eyes, has emerged to power.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un

 

Kim Jong-Un has boosted the government’s pursuit for nuclear weapons and has intensified its aggressiveness towards US strategic interests. The Nuclear bomb is perceived by the regime in Pyongyang as being an existential element of retaining the country’s sovereignty, capitalizing on the MAD theory (mutual assured destruction) that deterred the aggression of one nuclear nation over another throughout the Cold War. DPKR (North Korea) has managed to develop fully functional nuclear weapons, but it has starved its whole population in the process. However, the defensive capacity is strongly disputed given the frequent provocations against South Korea, Japan and the United States. Subsequently, the development and testing of long-range ballistic missiles makes the nuclear program as offensive as possible. The Taepeodong-2 and KN-08 (Rodong C) are capable of delivering a 1,000 kg neutron bomb as far as America’s western coast, posing a direct vital threat towards the homeland, in Hawaii or Pearl Harbor. Hwasong 5 and 6, tested and fully-functional are already capable of hitting targets in Japan and South Korea, where taking aside the civilian factor, are also US strategic bases.

As we can conclude, the North Korean problem has been growing harder to address, both because of the US strategic patience and due to China’s loss of grip over Kim Jung-Un. Both US President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping have agreed on this issue, and Kim Jung-Un has credible concerns in regards to it.

 

The Communist anomaly

The North Korean dictatorship is not only a Communist hellhole and a totalitarian state, but also the only country that did not completely de-Stalinize. They did not catch the cvasi-reform period that occurred in the Iron Curtain during the 50’s and 60’s, being quickly taken under China’s grip who had no interest in reforming, thereby weakening, a servile and obedient dynasty.

According to the CIA Factbook, DPRK’ has one of the world’s most centrally directed and least open economies, facing chronic problems. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair, the agricultural sector is weak, due to collective farming practices, poor soil quality and lack of needed technology or fuel. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption.

The mid 1990s were marked by severe famine and widespread starvation. Significant food aid was provided by the international community through 2009. Since that time, food assistance has declined significantly. In the last few years, domestic corn and rice production has been somewhat better, although domestic production does not fully satisfy demand. A large portion of the population continues to suffer from prolonged malnutrition and poor living conditions. In addition, few sustainable solutions have been undertaken, the country remaining fully underdeveloped, with a total political control over its affairs and isolated from transnational projects that would include the DPKR in an economical zone. In addition, the almost inexistent trade relation is overwhelmingly depended on China; up to 75% of exports goes to China, while the country imports come 76% from China and 5,5% from Congo.

 

The 25 million population, weakened and in deep poverty are subjected to an ideological and political repression that goes beyond the traditional personality cults found elsewhere on the globe, transcending to an almost messianic embodiment of defunct Kim Il-Sung, whom remains the Eternal Leader of the country. Given the monopolization of state power, even in a Communist state, Beijing has swiftly realized that Kim Jung-Un no longer fits its interest and also no longer abides by them. The government in Pyongyang has also developed awareness on the potential effects of its rogue behavior in regards to nuclear and ballistic developments. Consequently, Jung-Un began preparing for the worst from his enemies and “ex-friends”. He has initiated a purge within his family, party and armed forces, that began with 2012 and escalated in 2016 after he even restructured the party’s leadership positions. His uncle, brothers, sisters and officers were executed in a disclosed manner to send a message to both external threats but also internal silent opponents. In this way, he gradually but firmly declared war those who intend to depose him from this “rightfully” and hereditary throne. Both Washington and Beijing realized the scope of Kim’s paranoia and aggressive contingency actions, therefore plans were put in motion.  

 

The silent regime change plan

A hypothetical American-Chinese agreement foreseeing a regime change would need to satisfy the following needs:

  1. renounce the nuclear program and abandon pursuit for long-range intercontinental ballistic weapons;
  2. Liberalize the country, but
  3. Maintain Chinese influence in northern Korea in balance with the security concerns of US and its allies.

However, China was always skeptical, fearing to not make a bad deal, giving up a disobedient, yet anti-American regime in Pyongyang, for a liberalized, but possibly leaning-American one. Therefore, Beijing inclined for a half-measure: continue the dynasty but bring a different Kim in charge. That’s precisely why Kim has launched a purge over his relatives, to prevent such an action, being well aware that his relatives, as long as they’re alive will pose a perpetual threatening competition. Beijing was quick to punish the regime, and has already began imposing “masked” economic sanctions that are highly representative by yesterday’s episode, when the coal transports traditionally imported by China, where refused and turned back to North Korean.

Kim Jong-Nam, the dictator’s defunct step-brother

China’s favorite candidate for the throne in Pyongyang was Kim Jong Nam, the incumbent’s half-brother that lived overseas. As a consequence, he was publicly assassinated on February 13th 2017 by two DPRK Intelligence operatives at Kim’s order in Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia. Lawmakers and intelligence officials from South Korea also acknowledge this fact. The kill-op has left Beijing without its top candidate for a regime change, an action that Kim hoped to continuously secure his place, which almost did. But the death of Kim Jong Nam also benefited the United States. Washington would prefer to completely terminate the dynasty, launch a de-Kimification process and install a general, supported by the DPKR Armed Forces to lead the liberalization of North Korea. From there on, Chinese ambitions could be curved and US interests inserted.

External-made regime changes have occurred in the past, but never in regards to a nuclear state, therefore, be advised, we are now on hypothetical territory. Such an undertaking would involve military pressure, sterile or active, political opportunity within the state and a strong international will go to all the way in forcing a nuclear nation into submission.

 

Military options: everything on the table

After 8 years of Obama’s strategic patience, which is a sedative for “doing nothing” we came to realize that the Kim dynasty will not give up their nukes on their own, and that throughout this time, DPRK’s offensive capacity has become much greater. The United States has tried diplomacy and then coercion; the very limited non-military options have gradually proven their sterility. It has now hit a critical level. North Korea has a stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons and the means to transport them to their target; imminently , now in testing, the ICBM’s will also be able to hit the US coast. Furthermore, an additional fear is that of a “nuclear domino”. That the day DPRK has the capability to hit the US with their own ICBM, Iran will also have it for the right price. It will sharply and dramatically curb and degrade the United States, exposing it further to threats and facilitating a nuclear multi-polar world – a type of international order proven throughout history as being the most unstable and war-leaning. In that moment, the end of the American century will commence. The threat of North Korea cannot be postponed again.

The regular US military drills in cooperation with South Korea and Japan, as well as the permanent military installations on the territory of the mentioned states, do provide the Pentagon with actionable resources to commence any political decision to be translated into military effort. Furthermore that the pivot in Asia-Pacific began late by the Obama administration does provide for an increased US presence in the region. The strong-act put up by Donald J. Trump during Xi Jinping’s visit at Mar-a-Lago, bombing the Syrian regime while casually enjoying a desert, spoke volumes to Chinese, Russians and North Koreans. It suggested that the current US President will not act publicly in regards to America’s strategic intentions, and will hold a high degree of unpredictability in regards to foreign and defense policy. This alarmed President Xi, forecasting that the US might even act alone, if he’s not on board, which could have devastating consequences for Chinese influence in the Korean peninsula. In the end, this has facilitated a common position from the two countries on the North Korean issue, and the above-mentioned regime change deal in principal.

The USS Carl Vinson escorted by a destroyer

The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier is already in Korean waters, hosting dozens of airplanes including F-22’s and F-18’s. Strategic bombers, including stealth planes, are stationed in the Guam airbase, staged just 3,400 km from North Korea – a distance that can be easily traversed by the B-2. Capable to travel up to 19,000 km with just one air refuel, and costumed to bomb from a tall-altitude such as 15 km, the B-2 Stealth bomber is America’s favorite nuke-to-go plane. It can virtually enter denied airspace and successfully neutralize an enemy’s strategic assets, such as ballistic missile silos that would conceal the enemy’s offensive strength, nuke and ballistic missiles. The MOAB (“Mother of All Bombs”, firstly used in combat just yesterday against the “islamic state” insurgents in Narnarghal province, Afghanistan, is the biggest non-nuclear ordnance that the Pentagon has at its disposal. This strike destroyed an underground tunnel infrastructure was also fired in retaliation for the killing of a Green Berate. In addition, the MOAB is also the preferred weapon to destroy bunkers and underground silos; the same that an enemy would also use to store ballistic assets. Surely that the strike speaks volumes in Pyongyang; it echoes as a war-cry surely perceived overseas.  The WC-135, also called the “Nuclear Sniffer” has been detached in Okinawa airbase since April 13th. This is a special-purpose aircraft capable of collecting samples from the atmosphere with the purpose of detecting and identifying nuclear explosions. Dozens of fixed wing F-18’s also stand on guard in America’s largest military installation throughout Asia-Pacific, the Kadena Airbase in Okinawa, Japan. They are ready to swiftly react and generate air combat in case one of its assets monitoring North Korea will be attacked.

[We have the footage from the MOAB strike in Afghanistan]

In the case of a hypothetical yet possible military option from the US against the Kim regime, preemptive action is vital for the safety of America’s allies. If not, nukes can fly all over the region, targeting Tokyo, Seoul or US ships. However, the Pentagon has placed a THAAD in South Korea, a United States Army anti-ballistic missile system which is designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase using a hit-to-kill approach. It is a state-of-the art piece of military hardware, which should protect allied airspace without many concerns as the DPRK does not hold the capacity to launch a saturation strike, firmly because their nuke stockpile as their ballistic transporters are in a limited number, most of them with questionable functionality.

F-18 Hornet taking off

The US should have the first strike initiative, bombing the nuclear silos using strategic stealth bombers, crippling their capacity to threaten allied nations. This would destroy Kim’s nuclear leverage and supposedly alter his decision-making. In effect, negotiations should be expected from China’s behalf, trying to convince Kim to either abide or leave. Yet, the decades long indoctrination and properness for war makes the conflict hypothesis moderately-likely. US operations should continue.

Cruise missiles, the fan-favorite Tomahawk, should be the first and foremost assets used before any conventional air campaign would be launched, purposely to avoid putting US pilots and assets in harm’s way by operating in an armed hostile airspace. Tomahawks should level the anti-air defense system, notably the coastal infrastructure which would provide a great operational flexibility for starters. Successively, the cruise strikes should dig deeper and deeper in DPRK territory to eradicate the rest of anti-air weapons, so that US jets can swiftly take flight and impose a no-fly zone, which would again degrade any offensive capacity from the DPRK. Any North Korean aircraft taking off or in-flight will be grounded, with the possibility to conduct strike missions on major airfields for preemptive reasons.   

However, such an undertaking could take days, if not weeks, a time in which China’s supposed leverage, which would involve ground troops, should pressure Kim by moving towards the border bringing him at the negotiations table – yet, that is NOT the only way of going around.

The B-2 stealth bomber

Ideally for the US would be that following the B-2 preemptive strike, or the cruise & air campaign, elements within the military leadership would realize the consequences of this action and the imminent annihilation of the North Korean state if Kim is no stopped would step-in and topple the government. Realistically, this could have several following scenarios, stretching form a successfully coupe d’état, to a civil war fought between loyalists and revolutionaries, that could manifest as a conventional confrontation or an insurgency turned into a proxy war. In this case, the Chinese alignment could alter, forcing it to support the loyalists and not the revolutionaries which would clearly be mainly US backed. Keeping the unity of the state and political structure is pivotally important for achieving a stable post-conflict resolution both for US interests and regional security.

Given the racially homogeneously and confessional uniformed nature of the population, the socio-cultural factor would not play a major part in the post-conflict resolution, as it would be the case of a Middle Eastern country. However it is imperative to have as little as power vacuum in country as possible – this is a dangerous uncertainty in any regime change case. Traditionally in communist dictatorships and not only, the armed forces play a major role in the post-liberation phase. Subsequently, it is imperative to have a ready replacement to assume office while retaining as much of the political establishment and military loyalty with it.

 

The boiling point: The “Day of the Sun” or “Diua de la Muertes”?

Saturday April 15th is the biggest celebration in DPRK, the “Day of the Sun” or Kim Il-Sung’s birthday. A grand military parade traditionally takes place in Pyongyang, which this time can be camouflaged march to war; consequently, a show of strength is also being featured by launching ballistic tests. In contrast to previous celebration, this year an unwelcomed guest resides in the Korean water, which is the US strike group composed by the USS Carl Vinson and several Tomahwak “open carrying” destroyers. The US administration has threatened to bring down any ballistic missile fired, suggesting a firm “red line”. The problem with the “red line”, as envisioned by retired-General Stanley McChrystal is that if you’re not prepared to enforce it, you lose credibility both from your enemies and your friends. The Trump administration is surrounded by strategic geniuses as NS Advisor MacMaster and Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, we should not expect empty threats. Will the DPKR call the bluff an issue a ballistic test?

In addition, the “38 North” intelligence analysis center has published a report widely presented by news outlets, as showing heavy military activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear testing center. This facility was built with an underground storage capable of withstanding nuclear blast. This suggests that the DPKR is locked and loaded to launch a nuclear test; enough to defy the international pressure and afferent military threats, but also sufficient to show strength on a symbolic date and tense context. If US and China fail to respond to a nuclear test, then the carefully build-up power in this episode will slowly deconstruct and fade. However, there is no precedent for nuke testing on the “Day of the Sun”, which should serve as an secondary input, yet it is recommended to watch out for the mushroom cloud; even if conducted underground, a nuclear test will still cross the “red line”.

However, Vice-President Mike Pence is expected to conduct a visit on Sunday in Seoul. There are several factors why this potentially is an altering input. First of all, a top level visit will not be conducted if the administration expects that a possible military even will occur, regardless of being a limited campaign or a war. Secondly, there are rumors of a significant South Korean opposition towards a military option against North Korea, given their close proximity, Seoul has major concerns. Mike Pence’s visit could be costumed to address those issues. Also, the VP visit could be canceled if a military action is eventually needed or commenced, which leads us also to another possible outcome: peace and de-tension.

There is also unconfirmed intelligence that Russia has moved anti-air defense systems in Vladivostok [source] and that an “endless” convoy of Chinese infantry armored vehicles are heading towards the DPRK border. [Source] The footage is from March and the movements have been geolocated as having place around the Chinese border with North Korea, more exactly, near the town of Dandong.

 

 

Addressing the “Black Swan” in the room

The hypothesis of “hot air” is as strongly as the other ones, but it can be highly unlikely due to the current context. Evidently, the military build-up and the tense political climate could blow off and retain the status quo, yet the current political climate and the tense military build-up is nothing comparable to past situations: not even to 2013, when DPKR attacked a South Korean island. Regional allies are under a constant vital threat, as time passes Kim’s ballistic capabilities will only improve whereas his nuclear cache will also enlarge. The situation is not funny anymore, DPRK is closer than never to become a real offensive threat to the US homeland. Not to say that these continuously fueled tensions are endangering one of the most emerging strategic vectors: Asia-Pacific. The strategic patience has outgrown, it’s not an option anymore, widely given the imminent threat posed by DPKR’s ballistic program that potentially, in two or three years could reach California. Letting an open-hostile regime develop nukes and then acquiring the means to transport them to your turf is a slow but steady suicide on watch. Recent history is not kind to US plans to pacifying North Korea, neither George Bush nor Barrack Obama were capable of solving the issue, it’s also possible that Trump won’t manage as well, yet his approach is uniquely different which can pull out a surprise.

The historic Chinese shift towards an anti-Kim position is also a strong input for a showdown notably given Trump’s openness to unilateral action, in accordance to the widely-misunderstood strategic doctrine, labeled by the press as being isolationist, but actually potentially quite neoconservative: “America First”. However, there is always a persistent uncertainty coming off these uneasy alliances, as is this case with China. It is not impossible for the Chinese to completely change their policy and return as the protectors of North Korea, outmaneuvering the US; it dependents on how things evolve behind close doors. We can only assume that there are multiple ways of negotiating between Pyongyang and Beijing, an advantage that the US does not posses. The situation is dynamic and fast-shifting, new circumstances and signals appear on a daily basses, the tone changes in regards to what’s discussed behind close doors. Still, a Chinese betrayal is moderately-unlikely at this moment and would in the best case only stall, but not stop, firm actions against Pyongyang.

 

America First, a conclusive factor

America First has the remarkable preeminence of reflecting a contemporary and publicly assumed realistic doctrine that holds similarities to the neoclassic interpretation of raison d’etat; likewise blended with the preemptive post 9/11 engagement and with Barry Goldwater’s “Peace through Strength”, also applied by President Ronald Reagan.

The settlement of the North Korean issue is critically needed, whether this real and actionable opportunity does come to practice is still bounded in the hypothetical realm; negotiations and discussions are still ongoing behind closed doors while plans are outlined, weapons are armed and diplomats are on the watch, the Asia-Pacific concert headlined by Trump and Xi Jinping is still yet to debut. The ball is in Kim’s court.

 

 

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Firm but Fair: Key questions of the limited US Tomahawk strikes against Assad in Syria

Yesterday, around 4:40 local time in Syria, the United States Navy has launched 59 Tomahawk strikes from the USS Ross and USS Porter, eastern Mediterranean, and hit the Shayrat Airfield….

Yesterday, around 4:40 local time in Syria, the United States Navy has launched 59 Tomahawk strikes from the USS Ross and USS Porter, eastern Mediterranean, and hit the Shayrat Airfield. This airfield was used by the Assad regime to launch the deadly chemical attack that killed up to 80 people, including women and children, and wounded hundred other.  The missile strike was a limited action with no further plans to extend or escalate the situation.

Red – Assad’s Regime / Green – Rebels / Dark Green – Turkey’s Euphrates Shield mission + Rebels / Yellow – (east of Euphrates) SDF and YPG (Afrin canton) / Dark – ISIS; S-300 and S-400 range of action slightly inconsistent (too small)

 

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Road to Raqqa: Are we there yet?

INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS – The Euphrates corridor, as any waterway in the Middle East (and not only) has been a catalyst for urban settlement, agriculture industry and energy development. Crossing Syria…

INTELLIGENCE ANALYSIS – The Euphrates corridor, as any waterway in the Middle East (and not only) has been a catalyst for urban settlement, agriculture industry and energy development. Crossing Syria from its north-western corner in Aleppo governorate all the way down to Iraq’s Anbar region, the Euphrates River has been used by ISIS as a blood vein to spread as a tumor in a ravished body. Through its road to Iraq, the Euphrates also crosses the sparsely populated but oil-rich region of Deir-Ezzor; it’s importance being critical for trade, exploitation and transport optimization. Moreover, capitalizing on the strategic importance of the river and its surroundings, ISIS has made its self proclaimed-capital in Raqqa since 2014 – after it ousted the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra that initially liberated it in June 2013 from the Syrian Arab Army, following the escalation of the Revolution into the Civil War.

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Al-Bab Liberated: What’s next? (VIDEO)

VIDEO BRIEFING – The strategic city of Al-Bab has been liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) local allies from the “islamic state” (ISIS)…

VIDEO BRIEFING – The strategic city of Al-Bab has been liberated by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) local allies from the “islamic state” (ISIS) occupation. The battle is in the context of Operation Euphrates Shield launched by Turkey in late-August 2016 in northern Syria, with the strategic purpose of clearing ISIS out of the border, preventing the Kurdish YPG and the SDF from uniting the cantons and to maintain a leverage against Bashar Assad’s regime. The operational objectives of the battle of al-Bab was the city itself. Taking into consideration Syria’s road infrastructure, al-Bab is a logistical crossroads between the Syrian Arab Army-held (SAA) Aleppo city (west), YPG/SDF-held Manbij (east), ISIS between the lakes corridor (south) and the Turkish border and the Syrian bordering city of Al-Rai (just 35 km north). It was imperative in order to seal the deal of a buffer zone in northern Aleppo governorate. The battle for al-Bab began in November 2016 and ended in February 7th 2017 – lasting 104 days.

Check out the video briefing for maps and battlefield footage + voice commentary of the battle. Moreover, it remains the question of where to next? The Kurdish-held Manbij? Or ISIS self-proclaimed “capital” of Raqqa?

Battle of al-Bab: a story through maps

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