Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Warning Update: Pro-Assad Coalition Set to Escalate in Southern Syria

By Christopher Kozak

Key Takeaway: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran are preparing to launch imminent combat operations in violation of the de-escalation zone in southern Syria. Al Qaeda is also likely preparing for a return of hostilities to southern Syria. The end of the ceasefire would generate new military and humanitarian crises on the borders of Jordan and Israel. The resumption of violence would also present an opportunity – if not counteracted – for further consolidation by Iran and Al Qaeda in southern Syria. The U.S. and its allies must set conditions to transform the inevitable collapse of its flawed truce into an opportunity to advance its interests against Iran, ISIS, and Al Qaeda in southern Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran are preparing to launch imminent combat operations in violation of the de-escalation zone in southern Syria brokered by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan in July 2017. Pro-regime officials reportedly threatened during a meeting with a local opposition council on January 17 that the de-escalation zone will expire on February 7. In addition, pro-regime forces increased shelling on opposition-held areas and deployed reinforcements to both Dera’a City and Izra in Dera’a Province beginning in December 2017. The reinforcements reportedly included pro-regime militias affiliated with Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These deployments further strain a tenuous exclusionary zone brokered in November 2017 that called for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from frontlines in southern Syria.

Pro-regime forces have already violated the margins of the de-escalation zone in southern Syria. The Syrian Arab Army conducted a military offensive that ended with the forced evacuation of several hundred opposition fighters and civilians from the Beit Jinn Pocket in southern Syria on January 2. The operation reportedly included the quiet participation of local militias backed by Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. The Beit Jinn Pocket falls within the bounds of the de-escalation zone. Pro-regime forces more recently demanded the evacuation of the besieged opposition-held town of Sanamayn in Dera’a Province on January 22. Sanamayn – which holds a long-standing reconciliation agreement with the regime – rests along the key M5 Highway between Damascus and Dera’a City.

Al Qaeda is also likely preparing for a return of hostilities to southern Syria. Al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) intends to develop and consolidate a new safe haven in opposition-held southern Syria. HTS reportedly transferred more than 30 senior officials to Dera’a Province to reinvigorate its military and political campaigns in southern Syria in May 2017. HTS intensified its ongoing assassination campaign targeting mainstream opposition figures across Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces in late 2017. HTS also leveraged its mounting influence to muster a temporarily successful opposition offensive against pro-regime forces near the Beit Jinn Pocket in November 2017. This influence only stands to grow as mainstream opposition forces struggle with a cutoff in covert support from the U.S. and Jordan that took effect in December 2017. HTS further bolstered its footprint in southern Syria by transferring at least 100 fighters to Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces from the evacuated Beit Jinn Pocket in January 2018.

The collapse of the ceasefire in southern Syria would apply significant pressure on the U.S. as well as its allies in Jordan and Israel. The de-escalation zone has failed to constrain both Iran and Al Qaeda despite an overall decrease in violence in southern Syria. The resumption of hostilities would nonetheless generate new military and humanitarian crises along the Golan Heights and the Syrian-Jordanian Border. The violence would also present an opportunity – if not counteracted – for further consolidation by Iran and Al Qaeda in southern Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely discussed these challenges in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on January 29. The U.S. must not be taken by surprise by the collapse of its flawed truce but rather set conditions to minimize further risk to our interests and allies in southern Syria.

Russia's Plan for Syria Collapses in Sochi

By Bradley Hanlon

Key Takeaway: Russia’s effort to secure a diplomatic “end” to the Syrian civil war that preserves Syrian president Bashar al Assad failed. Russia’s “Syrian National Dialogue Congress” concluded in Sochi on January 30th without meaningful progress. Russia’s failure reflects the limits of its leverage in Syria and demonstrates the futility of looking to Russia for diplomatic solutions in the Middle East and North Africa.

Russia failed in its effort to secure a diplomatic “end” to the Syrian civil war that preserves Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russia’s diplomatic initiative, titled the “Syrian National Dialogue Congress”, concluded in Sochi on January 30th without meaningful progress. The Kremlin’s stated goal was to establish a political solution to the Syrian Civil War.[1] Russia’s true objective was to construct an agreement that would formally end the war on terms favorable to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The Kremlin failed to compel opposition groups to attend despite significant diplomatic outreach, a deal with Turkey, and an attempt to reframe the event under the auspices of the UN peace process.[2]

Russia’s failure reflects the limits of its leverage in Syria. The events in Sochi demonstrate that many Syrian groups correctly do not regard Russia as a legitimate peace broker despite its efforts to posture as such. Russia’s strategic interests in Syria include subverting any international attempt to reach a political settlement that would require the Assad regime to grant concessions to the opposition. Russia is a belligerent in the Syrian civil war on behalf of Assad. It does not have the leverage necessary to lead a successful diplomatic effort between Syrian parties, therefore.

The U.S. should reject similar Russian diplomatic initiatives elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, where Russia has even less influence. Russia established a “Libyan Contact Group” in 2015 to facilitate dialogue between opposing sides in the Libyan Civil War.[3] Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also indicated Russia seeks to act as a peace-broker between conflicting parties in Yemen.[4] Russia’s actual goals in these conflict zones include expanding its regional basing and obtaining economic partnerships. It seeks to use such bases and resources to further constrain the U.S. and NATO while advantaging Russia in any future conflict. The U.S. must not fall for this ruse.

[1] http://tass(.)com/politics/987372; http://tass(.)com/politics/987057

[2] https://ria(.)ru/syria/20180122/1513068512.html; http://tass(.)ru/politika/4902999; http://tass(.)com/politics/986376

[3] https://www(.)

[4] http://tass(.)com/politics/986212

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Turkey Escalates against Pro-Assad Forces to Protect Afrin Operation

By Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella with the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: The Assad regime and Iran attacked Turkish forces that deployed into Syria with apparent Russian permission to establish a blocking position near a critical front line south of Aleppo City. Turkey’s goal was to deter Assad and Iran from providing military support to Kurdish forces defending Afrin against a Turkish offensive. Turkish forces stopped short of their objective after coming under fire and it is unclear whether they will resume their advance. Iran and Assad are acting as spoilers to demonstrate that Russia cannot fully control them.

Pro-Assad regime forces attacked a Turkish convoy that deployed from Turkey into Syria on January 29. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed a convoy of up to 100 armored vehicles with air support from Turkish F-16 fighter jets to establish a blocking position near a key front line between pro- and anti- Assad regime forces south of Aleppo City on January 29. Turkish forces previously reconnoitered an area near the frontline village of al Eis, on January 24. Turkey coordinated its deployment with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Unidentified pro-Assad regime forces attacked Turkey’s convoy with artillery fire as it transited through opposition and al Qaeda-held terrain, forcing the convoy to stop short of its objective. It is unclear whether Turkish forces will fortify in place, resume their advance, or withdraw. The establishment of a Turkish position near al Eis would provide Turkey leverage over Iran and Assad by blocking a future offensive to lift a siege on two Shi’a-majority towns, Fu’a and Kafraya north of Idlib City. The liberation of these towns is a priority for Iran and Assad in Syria. 

Turkey seeks to deter Assad and Iran from supporting the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. Turkish forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces have made slow but steady progress on multiple fronts along the Syrian Turkish border amid fierce YPG resistance and adverse weather conditions. Assad has allowed YPG and allied groups to deploy reinforcements to Afrin through regime-held terrain. Assad and Iran may be providing advanced weapons systems to the YPG. Turkey seeks to keep Assad and Iran on the sidelines in order to prevent its intervention in Afrin from escalating into a large-scale conflict with pro-Assad regime forces in the near term. The YPG called for a full regime military intervention in Afrin on January 24 after initially rejecting a Russian proposal for the handover of Afrin to pro-Assad regime forces to avoid Turkey’s intervention. The YPG’s call for direct regime support likely triggered Turkey’s deployment into Aleppo. 

Russia intended to allow the Turkish deployment but could not control pro-Assad regime forces. The involvement of the Turkish Air Force indicates that Russia allowed the operation. Russia has refrained from condemning the deployment, moreover. Turkey’s deployment to south of Aleppo fulfills Russia’s request for Turkey to establish additional “observation points” along front lines in northwestern Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated Russia’s desire for Turkey to deploy additional “observers” near Idlib Province on January 15. Russia most likely did not approve the attack against the Turkish convoy on January 29. Iran and Assad oppose the deployment of Turkish forces into Syria, reflecting divergent priorities among the pro-Assad regime coalition. Iran and Assad may continue to spoil deals between Russia and Turkey in northern Syria.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Russia Maintains Airstrikes Despite Claims of Partial Withdrawal of Forces

By Matti Suomenaro

Russia continued its air campaign in Syria despite attacks on its personnel, facilities, and equipment while simultaneously claiming a partial withdrawal of its forces to please a domestic audience before the upcoming presidential election.

Russia reported a partial withdrawal of its air assets in an effort to signal a military victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the runup to presidential election scheduled for March 18, 2018, but the draw-down is likely a ruse. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced on December 22, 2017, that a partial withdrawal from Syria ordered by Putin on December 10 was complete, ending more than two years of Russian involvement in the conflict. Shoigu reported that the withdrawal included 36 fixed-wing aircraft and four helicopter gunships - the vast majority of the air group operated by Russia in Syria. However, Russia previously has used false claims of withdrawal to rotate and redeploy new assets to Syria.

Russia nonetheless maintained a constant tempo of airstrikes to protect its assets in western Syria and to support the regime in the east. Russia sustained its air campaign despite sophisticated attacks against its main airbase on the Syrian Coast. Unidentified opposition groups conducted two indirect fire attacks against the Bassel al Assad International Airport on December 27 and December 31, 2017, as well as a sophisticated attack on the airport with a drone swarm on January 6, 2018. The attacks, which reportedly damaged at least seven warplanes, highlighted the potential vulnerability of Russian aircraft in Syria. Russia conducted airstrikes against opposition-held areas in northeastern Hama Province between December 18 and December 27, 2017 that indirectly enabled further ISIS expansion in the region. Russia also targeted opposition supply lines and key urban centers on January 21 in support of an ongoing pro-regime offensive and seized the Abu Dhuhur Airbase in eastern Idlib Province.

Russia leveraged its air campaign to strengthen Syrian President Bashar al Assad ahead of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue hosted by Russia in Sochi on January 29 and 30. Russia intensified its air campaign on January 3 – January 7, 2018 in Damascus to buttress the position of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Opposition forces successfully encircled a key regime armored vehicle base in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on December 31, 2017, inflicting heavy casualties on pro-regime forces and dealing an embarrassing setback to the regime in its capital. The Russian Air Force  assisted in lifting the siege of the facility on January 7, 2018. Russia likely intended to strengthen the regime’s control over the capital and thereby bolster the position of Assad prior to the start of the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue hosted by Russia in Sochi. 

The preceding graphic depicts ISW's assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia's air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Syria Situation Report: January 10 - 24, 2018

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from January 10 to January 24, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as January 26, 2018.

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of these Syria SITREP Maps.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Iraqi Kurdish Political Fractures Weigh on Looming Elections

By Omer Kassim

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s Kurdish political parties have fractured rapidly since September 2017, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) unilaterally held an independence referendum contravening ultimatums from Baghdad and Tehran. The KRG lost control of key terrain to Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian proxies in October 2017, forcing longtime KRG President Masoud Barzani, the architect of the referendum, to resign from his office. Further fractures in mid-January 2018 have set conditions for an even more contentious Kurdish legislative election in March 2018 that will determine Barzani’s successor and shape the KRG’s political structure. These fractures also reduce the ability of Kurdish parties to negotiate effectively with Baghdad over key issues for the region’s future, such as its share of Iraq’s national budget. The Kurdish electoral splits may endure long enough to preclude the Kurds from functioning as an effective, cohesive power bloc in the upcoming Iraqi national elections.

Secretary General of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) Salahadin Bahadin on January 16 withdrew his party from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—the third party to quit the coalition in just over a month. The KRG failed to meet the KIU’s demands to pay the delayed salaries of employees, agree to the demands of Kurdish protesters in Sulaymaniyah, and release those arrested during the protests. Bahadin stated the KIU’s withdrawal does not signal support for or opposition to any side. The KIU, despite maintaining relatively friendly ties to both the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is likely positioning itself closer to the opposition camp led by Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) ahead of the Kurdish legislative elections. Gorran and the KIG withdrew from the KRG on December 20 following the Kurdish protests in Sulaymaniyah. 

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) faces public backlash for the failed independence referendum held on September 25, the ensuing economic crisis instituted by Baghdad, and the subsequent withdrawal of Peshmerga forces from nearly all territories disputed by the KRG and Baghdad. The KRG cannot pay its employees' salaries because Baghdad imposed economic pressure after the referendum and took control of vital oil resources on which the KRG had depended for its revenue. The regional government also faces criticism for achieving only limited success in critical negotiations with Baghdad regarding control over the region’s border crossings, airspace, budget, and oil revenues. Kurdish political opposition parties Gorran and the KIG in December pressured KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to ask the Kurdish parliament to set a date for early regional elections by March 17—a goal that may not be reached for technical and political reasons. 

Successful KDP and PUK negotiations with Baghdad, although unlikely, would improve the parties’ chances to win the Kurdish elections. To do so, the KRG’s leadership seeks to maintain the legitimacy of the government while accelerating negotiations to reach the most favorable deal possible with Baghdad ahead of Iraqi legislative elections, scheduled for May 12. Barzani, the Deputy President of the KDP, is trying to shore up PUK support for the KRG, visiting the PUK’s stronghold of Sulaymaniyah on January 9 and emphasizing the necessity to “deepen and sustain” KDP-PUK ties. The failure or delay of a KRG-Baghdad deal before federal elections would allow the opposition bloc to emphasize the failures of the current KRG leadership. 

The intra-KRG divisions are likely to extend to the federal legislative elections—especially in disputed territories such as the oil-rich and multi-ethnic Kirkuk province and ethnically mixed areas within Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces. Barzani on January 7 called for a united Kurdish approach to the federal elections, but many Kurdish parties have signaled that they will run separately. Gorran, the KIG, and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ)–led by former KRG Prime Minister Barham Saleh–are poised to run independently of a broader coalition in territories disputed by the KRG and Baghdad. Gorran, KIG and CDJ also visited Baghdad on January 4 separately from KDP and PUK in order to discuss KRG-Baghdad negotiations in an effort to boost their profile as an alternative to the KDP-PUK alliance. Meanwhile, the KDP decided to boycott election in some disputed territories, particularly Kirkuk, to protest Baghdad’s control over them. This split gives Baghdad leverage in negotiations over military and political control over the disputed territories, most importantly Kirkuk.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Turkey’s Next Phase in Afrin, Syria

By Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella

Turkey is preparing to launch the main effort of its Operation Olive Branch assault against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Afrin area in northern Syria. Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups have set military conditions for a Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) ground operation in the coming days. Turkish warplanes began an air campaign against YPG military targets along the Syrian-Turkish border on January 20th, 2018. Turkish Armed Forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups attacked YPG forces on multiple fronts along the northern outskirts of YPG-held terrain from January 20-22 in order to fix YPG forces while additional TSK forces, including armored units, mobilized on the YPG's western and southwestern flank. Russian forces, meanwhile, withdrew from Afrin and reinforced Russian positions near Tel Rifaat. 

The Institute for the Study of War’s January 23 map depicts a possible course of action that would achieve Turkey’s likely operational objectives. Those objectives are to secure the Syrian-Turkish border, isolate Afrin city, seize the Mennagh airbase, secure ground lines of communication, and establish a new forward line of troops to serve as a future “de-escalation” line with pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces including Russia. Turkish officials have also stated that they will attack the YPG-held town of Tel Rifaat. They may pursue that secondary phase after they accomplish their prior objectives. Tel Rifaat is a priority for Turkish-backed opposition groups but not critical for Turkey’s goals.

The U.S. has accepted Turkey’s offensive against Afrin but appealed to Turkey to limit the scale of civilian casualties. U.S. military officials are in Ankara to meet with their Turkish counterparts on January 23, 2017. The U.S. goal is likely to prevent Turkey from attacking the town of Manbij, farther east near the Euphrates River, where U.S. forces are present. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to seize Manbij after Afrin.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Syria’s “War after ISIS” Begins as Turkey Attacks America’s Anti-ISIS Partner

by: Jennifer Cafarella and Elizabeth Teoman with Bradley Hanlon

Key Takeaway: Turkey launched an air-ground operation against the American partner force in Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in Afrin district northwest of Aleppo City on January 20th, 2018. Turkey’s goal is to extend its buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey may subsequently attack the town of Manbij, east of Afrin on the banks of the Euphrates River. Turkey’s operations threaten to provoke a widening Turkish-Kurdish war that could unravel the U.S. stabilization effort in eastern Syria, place U.S. service members in Manbij at risk, and force the U.S. to reconsider support for the YPG.

Turkey launched an air-ground operation against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to extend Turkey’s buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. Forces from Turkey’s Second Army launched a three-pronged ground attack – “Operation Olive Branch” – against YPG forces northwest of Aleppo City on January 20th, 2018. The Turkish Air Force and Syrian armed opposition groups are supporting the operation. Turkey cited the right to self-defense in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as a legal justification for its operation. Turkey’s immediate objective is to extend its buffer zone to sever the YPG’s access to the Turkish border northwest of Aleppo City. Turkey previously seized and secured a buffer zone from the outskirts of Afrin to the east bank of the Euphrates River in northern Aleppo Province beginning on August 24th, 2016. Turkey may pursue the full defeat of YPG forces in the Aleppo countryside after securing the border. Turkey may attack terrain east of Afrin that YPG forces seized in 2016 while the Syrian opposition attempted to defend Aleppo City against a Russian- and Iranian-backed Bashar al Assad regime offensive. Initial Turkish airstrikes targeted the YPG-held Menagh airbase north of Aleppo City on January 20th. These strikes may indicate Turkish intent to seize the airbase and the nearby city of Tel Rifaat.

Turkey secured Russia’s permission for the operation and likely negotiated a new “de-escalation” line north of Aleppo City. Turkish Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization head Hakan Fidan met with Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu in Moscow on January 18th to coordinate the operation. Turkey’s air operations on January 20th demonstrate that Turkey secured Russian permission to conduct close air support in Syrian airspace. Turkey also took steps in coordination with Russia to mitigate the risk of a Syrian regime escalation. Assad threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes on January 18th while Turkey and Russia were de-conflicting operations. Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli dismissed the regime’s threats as “mere thoughts” of a state with “limited capacity” and signaled that the Russian anti-air systems in Syria were Turkey’s only concern. Turkey deployed electronic warfare systems to counter possible regime anti-air attacks and to enable Turkey to respond to YPG artillery fire against Turkish territory. Turkey likely cleared the deployment of these systems with Russia during the Moscow visit. Turkey and Russia likely also agreed on a future “de-escalation” line of contact that balances their interests in Aleppo Province. The exact location of this future line of contact is unclear from openly available information. Russia withdrew its forces from Afrin district, likely to Aleppo City. Russia’s goal in the negotiation with Turkey was likely to ensure that pro-regime forces can secure and defend Aleppo City against possible future attack.

Erdogan may next attack Manbij, where U.S. forces operate. Erdogan demanded a “handover” of Manbij on January 14th and reiterated his intent to take the city by force after operations in Afrin conclude on January 20th. He is likely providing covert support to Arab resistance against YPG dominance in Manbij that escalated alongside his demand for the handover of the city. Arab tribal leaders in Manbij issued a list of demands to the SDF on January 16th that amount to the dismantlement of the existing YPG-dominated governing structure in the city. The tribal demands followed the outbreak of large-scale protests against the YPG in Manbij beginning on January 12th, which the SDF blamed on Turkey. A car bomb targeted senior SDF military figures in Manbij on January 20th. The combination of tribal pressure and targeted attacks could reflect covert Turkish efforts to set conditions for future military operations to seize Manbij with local support.

The U.S. strategy for de-escalation with Turkey has failed. Turkey’s operations threaten to provoke a widening Turkish-Kurdish war that could unravel the U.S. stabilization effort in eastern Syria and force the U.S. to reconsider support for the YPG. Possible Turkish follow-on operations against Manbij put U.S. forces directly at risk. American military forces are patrolling front lines in Manbij as part of a U.S. effort “to prevent security incidents from occurring, to observe and report whatever security situation that they saw and to reassure” both Turkey and the SDF. The U.S. must abandon this tactical approach to de-escalation and acknowledge the scale of the rift with Turkey. The U.S. cannot prevent ISIS’s resurgence, pivot toward countering Assad, contain Iran, or pursue a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war if Turkey’s priority remains thwarting U.S. policy.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Syria Situation Report: December 14, 2017 – January 10, 2018

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

This series of graphics marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. These graphics depict significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from December 14, 2017 to January 10, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as of December 12, 2017 or January 8, 2018, respectively.

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of these Syria SITREP Maps.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Turkey's Erdogan Pivots to Target U.S.-Backed Force in Syria

By Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella with Bradley Hanlon

Key Takeaway: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preparing to attack America’s local partner in northern Syria on two fronts along the Turkish border. Russia and the Bashar al Assad regime support his planned operation, which could constrain the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and possibly neutralize American plans to build an SDF-linked “border security force.” Erdogan’s escalation is consistent with the Institute for the Study of War’s September 2017 forecast that Turkey will conduct new military operations against U.S.-backed forces.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pivoted from blocking Russia in northern Syria’s Idlib Province to preparing an attack against the U.S. partner force. Erdogan announced his intent to attack the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at a political event in Turkey on January 13. He stated Turkish forces will attack two SDF-held areas along the Turkish border within one week unless Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominate the SDF, withdraw. The areas Erdogan intends to attack are a zone of YPG control northwest of Aleppo City called the “Afrin canton” and the town of Manbij, northeast of Aleppo City. Erdogan deployed reinforcements to the front line between Turkish troops and the YPG in Afrin and began a military buildup across the Turkish border on January 14. Turkish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups renewed shelling YPG-held areas on January 13, provoking return fire. Erdogan does not face internal obstacles to launching offensive operations against the SDF and claimed the operation can “start at any time” on January 15. Erdogan will likely seek the formality of the Turkish National Security Council’s (MGK) approval during the next meeting on January 17, however.

Erdogan has been preparing to attack the YPG for nearly one year. Erdogan regards the YPG as a Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in Turkey. Erdogan has consistently reiterated his intent to remove what he refers to as the YPG’s “terror corridor” along Turkey’s southern border. He intervened militarily in mid-2016 to block further YPG gains and prepare future options. He began preparing for renewed military operations against Afrin in March 2017, when Prime Minister Binali Yildirim announced the conclusion Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria and suggested Turkey would launch future operations. Turkish troops deployed into northwestern Syria to secure the front line between the YPG and Turkish-backed opposition groups west of Aleppo City in October 2017 in order to prepare for future operations against YPG forces in Afrin. Erdogan meanwhile built up his opposition proxy force north of Aleppo City in order to prepare for future operations against Manbij.

Turkey is now taking pre-emptive action to block the U.S. from further solidifying the SDF in power. Turkey is prepared to seize SDF territory to mitigate the effect of U.S. policy in Syria, or, in Erdogan’s ideal scenario, to reverse it. U.S. officials announced plans to build a “Border Security Force” from the SDF in late 2017 and stated that the U.S. intends to make the SDF into a “model for a future Syria.” Erdogan views the conversion of the SDF into a stabilization force as a fundamental threat to Turkish national security and Turkey’s interests in Syria. Turkey condemned the U.S. policy as “absolutely impossible” for Turkey to accept. Erdogan plans to take pre-emptive action to prevent the U.S. from transitioning the SDF into a durable stabilization force. He will also use the operation to gain domestic support among the Turkish nationalist electorate ahead of Turkey’s presidential election in 2019. The Institute for the Study of War warned on November 21, 2017 that Erdogan would become even more aggressively anti-U.S. as he campaigns for re-election.

Russia and the Assad regime are backing Erdogan’s play out of a shared desire to thwart U.S. policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Russian officials condemned the U.S. for “provocations” against Turkey on January 14 and 15. Russian state-controlled media has framed the U.S. plan to build the “Border Security Force” as an instigator of Turkish aggression. Russia’s rhetoric is consistent with Turkish messaging and helps legitimize Erdogan’s operations. Russian forces are deployed along front lines in both Afrin and Manbij, and will likely withdraw. The Assad regime has also condemned the U.S. policy as an attack on Syrian sovereignty and appeared to condone a Turkish operation. Russia will attempt to exploit Turkey’s operation for its own gain and to further strengthen the Assad regime. Russia may draw back to and reinforce its positions in the Menagh Airbase and Tel Rifaat, north of Aleppo City, which provide leverage it can use to attempt to thwart possible future Turkish-backed efforts to contest pro-regime control of Aleppo City. Russia will likely seek to create a new security arrangement with Turkey that protects its interests in Aleppo City and the surrounding countryside after the operation, if it occurs. Lavrov called on Turkish forces to establish up to twenty observation points on January 15 as part of the ‘de-escalation’ agreement between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Lavrov’s statement indicates that Russia will continue to drive Turkey to become a security guarantor in northern Syria in order to enable Russia to leverage great-power negotiations to solve local problems in Syria

Erdogan’s previous intervention in Idlib Province, south of Afrin, set conditions for his pivot against the U.S. Erdogan applied constraints on the scale of a current pro-regime push in Idlib Province by raising pro-regime military costs and proposing that Turkey and pro-regime forces refocus on their common interest against the U.S. in Syria. Erdogan provided armored vehicles and advanced weapons systems to Syrian opposition forces fighting alongside Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the successor of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Turkish support enabled these forces to reverse some pro-regime gains from January 11-15 and inflict higher casualties on pro-regime forces. Russia pivoted away from escalation with Turkey and back towards escalation with the U.S. after Putin spoke with Erdogan via phone on January 11. Russian media had shifted  blame for a January 6 drone attack on Russia’s airbase in Hmeimim on the Syrian coast from the U.S. to Turkey on January 11 as Russia and Turkey escalated in Idlib. Putin later absolved Erdogan of responsibility, and Russian media resumed its campaign to implicate the U.S. Erdogan and Putin’s deal appears limited to northwestern Syria despite Erdogan’s effort to include the Syrian capital, however. Putin has not conceded to Erdogan’s demand for a halt to pro-regime operations in Damascus.

The YPG is unlikely to accept the loss of Afrin and Manbij. The YPG was on track to deepen its relations with the U.S. after the U.S. decided in late 2017 to remain in Syria and increase U.S. support to the YPG-dominated SDF. The YPG views Manbij and Afrin as critical components of its statelet in northern Syria. The YPG rebuked Russia’s effort to coopt it by inviting its political wing to participate in international negotiations. Such negotiations have excluded YPG-linked groups to date. A YPG-linked political leader in the SDF, Aldar Khalil, publicly rejected Russia’s offer to participate in upcoming negotiations, accusing Russia of holding them for “show.” The YPG may recalculate its alignment with the U.S. if the U.S. does not take action to prevent a Turkish attack, however. The YPG is posturing as if it will retaliate against a Turkish strike. Kurdish leaders in Afrin affirmed that YPG forces are “not responsible” for the outcome if they are forced to exercise their right to self-defense. The YPG has also reportedly reasserted military control over Manbij and accused Turkey of provoking anti-YPG demonstrations on January 14. The YPG has a range of options for how to respond to an outright ground attack. YPG forces could try to strike a deal with Russia that contains the scale of the Turkish operations. The YPG could also simply choose to fight back. Possible most dangerous escalation paths include YPG support to the PKK insurgency in Turkey.

A change in U.S. policy is required to achieve a viable “post-ISIS” political-security structure in northern Syria. The U.S. shares long-term interests with Turkey in Syria that include containing and reducing Iran’s proxy buildup and reaching a negotiated settlement of the war in accordance with the 2012 Geneva Communiqué. Near-term U.S. policies remain out of alignment with these long-term goals, however. The result is a perpetual showdown with Turkey reflected in increasingly incompatible American- and Turkish-backed structures. The U.S. should reconsider plans to develop the border security force and offer to restart a diplomatic engagement with Turkey over a “post-ISIS” stabilization strategy that re-aligns the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. must redline the involvement of al Qaeda and affiliated groups, which Turkey has been willing to enable and, in some cases, support. The U.S. can still find common ground with Turkey, however. The U.S. should pursue technical talks on the ultimate merger of American-backed and Turkish-backed structures. The U.S. should consider committing to the following in order to incentive Turkey to choose engagement over escalation: negotiations on the composition of a future border security force that leverages both American-backed and acceptable Turkish-backed forces, providing guarantees that acceptable Turkish-backed opposition parties can participate politically in Raqqa, and U.S. or international action to hold the SDF accountable for upholding human rights and inclusive governance.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Turkey Attempts to Block Russian-led Push in Western Syria

By Jennifer Cafarella and Elizabeth Teoman with Matti Suomenaro

Key Takeaway: Turkey is using a combination of military and diplomatic pressure to compel Russia and Iran to halt further offensive operations against Syria’s al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province. An Assad-Iranian-Russian conquest of Idlib is not in America’s national security interest. The US should help Turkey block these operations but must do so without accepting Turkey’s willingness to work with al Qaeda and without submitting to Russia’s sham diplomatic track to negotiate an end to the Syrian war. The US must instead retain freedom of action and avoid the temptation to outsource American national security requirements to regional actors already at war in Syria. 

Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime launched a joint operation in northwestern Syria against the al Qaeda stronghold in Idlib Province in November 2017. Their operational objective is to seize the Abu ad Duhor airbase southwest of Aleppo City. Russian airstrikes shifted to front lines in Hama and Idlib Provinces in November 2017 to set conditions for a ground operation. Pro-regime forces including Iranian proxy militias have reportedly seized the base as of January 10, 2018, although conflicting reports indicate clashes are ongoing. 

The pro-regime offensive violates the “de-escalation” zone in Idlib Province. Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to deploy monitoring forces to enforce the de-escalation zone in September 2017. Russian military police deployed to front lines on the southern outskirts of Idlib Province on September 13th. The deployment blocks further al Qaeda-led attacks against the regime’s stronghold in Hama. Turkish troops deployed on the northern outskirts of Idlib Province along the front line between the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and al Qaeda-led opposition groups in mid-October 2017. Turkey’s deployment opens a second front line against a pocket of YPG control northwest of Aleppo City. The pro-regime push to seize the Abu ad Duhor airbase strengthens the pro-regime front line in eastern Idlib by extending it to a more defensible perimeter. It also sets conditions for a possible subsequent offensive deeper into Idlib. 

Turkey is using a combination of military and diplomatic pressure to compel Russia and Iran to stop their offensive at the airbase. An unidentified group conducted three attacks against Russia’s Hmeimim airbase on the Syrian coast on December 27th & 31st, 2017 and January 6th, 2018. The first two attacks included rockets and mortars likely fired from al Qaeda-held areas on the outskirts of Latakia Province. The third attack was a complex drone swarm attack. Al Qaeda likely conducted the attacks as retaliation against the pro-regime operation in Idlib, but has not claimed credit. It is possible that Turkey indirectly or covertly supported these attacks. Russia demanded that Turkish intelligence increase its control over anti-Assad groups in northwestern Syria on January 10th, 2018, indicating that Russia intends to hold Turkey accountable for future attacks. The military threat to Hmeimim undermines Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative of victory and military strength in Syria. Continued attacks could also increase the cost of Russian operations in Syria. Groups fighting with al Qaeda in Idlib have also used advanced weapons systems including reports of MANPADs and other guided missile systems against advancing pro-regime forces, possibly indicating Turkey is equipping these groups to defend against the offensive.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also applying diplomatic pressure. The Turkish Foreign Ministry told Russian Ambassador Alexei Yerkhov on January 8th to cease “violations” of the de-escalation zone ahead of the upcoming Syrian war diplomatic talks in Sochi, Russia on January 29. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later called on Russia and Iran to “realize their duties” as guarantors of the de-escalation zone in Idlib on January 10th. Erdogan is leveraging European and American fears over a renewed migrant flow out of Idlib to rally support to pressure Russia and Iran to halt their offensive. The pro-regime operation has reportedly already displaced up to 100,000 Syrians. Cavusoglu stated that Turkey raised this issue with the US, France, Germany, and the UK in addition to Russia and Iran on January 10th. 

Turkey is likely conditioning its support to the Russian-backed diplomatic process on a cessation of the Idlib operation. Cavusoglu stated on January 10th that Turkey supports democratic elections in Syria that maintain Syria's territorial integrity and that "We seek to integrate” the tripartite Russian-Iranian-Turkish Astana negotiations with the Russian effort to broker a deal between Syrian parties in Sochi on January 29th. Cavosoglu’s statement puts Turkish support for Russia’s Sochi talks on the table as part of a negotiation over Idlib Province. Erdogan had previously signaled Turkish opposition to Russia’s diplomatic play on December 27, 2017. Erdogan called Assad a “terrorist” and stated it is “absolutely impossible” to move ahead in the Syrian diplomatic track with Assad in power. 

Turkey is applying constraints on the diplomatic track in order to mitigate risks to its own interests in Syria, meanwhile. Turkey retains veto power at the negotiating table through its influence over Syrian opposition groups. Turkey claimed to receive guarantees in December 2017 that US-backed Syrian Kurds would not attend upcoming talks in Sochi, although Russia claims the attendee list is still under negotiation. Turkey also summoned the American chargé d'affaires in Turkey to protest US support for the YPG on January 10th. The meeting likely indicates Turkey seeks to pressure the US to block the YPG's participation in the political process. 

It is unclear whether pro-regime forces will halt at the Abu ad Duhor airbase. The military threat to Russia’s airbase on the Syrian coast could deter further operations in the near term. Putin likely intends to keep his losses in Syria low ahead of Russia’s presidential election in March 2018 in order to avoid undue risk to his domestic support. Erdogan can also spoil Putin’s effort to grandstand as a mediator in Syria by rejecting the upcoming Sochi talks. A halt to Russia’s air support in Idlib would prevent further large scale pro-regime operations in Idlib, which depend on Russia’s air campaign to advance. Pro-regime forces will likely take an operational pause in Idlib, at minimum, after they secure the Abu ad Duhor airbase.

A pro-regime campaign to seize Idlib Province is not in America’s interest. The extension of Assad’s control produces a corollary extension of Iran’s military footprint and leverage in Syria. This outcome directly contradicts the Trump administration’s stated Iran policy. Assad and his external backers remain the primary drivers of radicalization in Syria, moreover. Their operations drive support for al Qaeda and will likely trigger a widening escalation of the war in Western Syria. Al Qaeda retains significant combat power in Idlib and will launch a counter-offensive. 

Neither Turkey nor Russia can deliver an outcome in Syria that supports US interests. The US should help Turkey block pro-regime operations that will cause further humanitarian catastrophe. The US must refrain from accepting either Russia’s diplomatic play or Turkey’s relationship with al Qaeda, however. The US must instead retain freedom of action and avoid the temptation to outsource American national security requirements to regional actors already at war in Syria.