December 29, 2016

Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

A ceasefire in Syria, brokered by the Russians and the Turks, is scheduled to take effect at midnight on Thursday. Notably absent from any of the negotiations was the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin made a statement outlining the agreement, and in effect, marginalized any American role in resolving the six-year conflict in the country.

The Russian-Turkish brokered ceasefire follows a December 20 meeting in Moscow between the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss the future of Syria, both short and long term. A ceasefire was one of the topics, as was the potential for a political solution to the civil war. The ceasefire agreement announced by Mr. Putin seems to have addressed both.

It appears that once again, President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have outplayed American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. As I have said in the past, the new power brokers in the region - especially when it comes to Syria - are Russia, Turkey and Iran.

While all of us are pleased that there is a chance for a cessation of the bloodshed in war-torn Syria, it remains to be seen if this ceasefire will have any greater chance of success than the preceding attempts. Mr. Putin called the ceasefire "fragile."

As with previous ceasefire agreements, the parties to this agreement are the Syrian government and its allies on one side, and the armed opposition on the other.

Syria's regime is backed militarily by a tightly-managed coalition of Russia, Iran, and Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shi'a militias. About half of the ground forces fighting for the al-Asad regime are provided by these alliance groups. However, it was the introduction of Russian airpower in September 2015 that guaranteed the survival of the Bashar al-Asad government, allowed the regime to regain momentum in its military operations, and to retake the city of Aleppo.

It is also important to note that, as in previous ceasefires, the agreement does not include groups labeled as terrorists. Those groups specifically include the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the former al-Qaidah affiliate in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Levant Conquest Front). However, some groups that have been labeled as terrorists in the past, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are now included in the scope of this agreement.

If past precedent holds, agreement on what constitutes a terrorist group will still be an issue. The exact wording in the agreement defines groups that can be attacked as "those associated with" designated terrorist groups. The Syrian regime regards virtually any group that has taken up arms against it as a terrorist group. In the Arabic-language Syrian government-controlled press, the words rebel and opposition are not used - all opposition is labeled terrorism.

There is no doubt that the opposition has suffered recent setbacks - the loss of its stronghold in east Aleppo was a strategic, tactical and symbolic defeat. The Syrian coalition now has the momentum. I expect that after totally securing the city of Aleppo, they will turn their attention to neighboring Idlib governorate and use their successful seizure of Aleppo as the template to expel the rebels from that area. Unless the situation changes, I do not think the opposition will be able to prevent this regime coalition operation from succeeding.

The opposition knows it is now in a much weakened position and that they have lost much of their leverage in negotiations with the regime. If the opposition can get something that guarantees that they will have a voice in a future political settlement, they will likely adhere to the agreement. That is a tall order, however - the two sides are still far apart. The Russians believe that any future political solution must include the continuance of the Bashar al-Asad government, while Turkey and the opposition want the future of the present government to be on the table as well.

There is one group that is not included in the agreement which the United States considers to be part of the fight against ISIS. This is the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, or in Arabic QSD), composed of Sunni Arabs and Kurdish fighters who are members of the Syrian Kurdish group known as the YPG. The U.S.-led coalition supports the SDF with airstrikes, weapons and on-the-ground advisers. They have proven themselves to be effective against ISIS, and are now only about 15 miles from the ISIS capital of al-Raqqah.

The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is more than mere rhetoric - Turkish aircraft have bombed SDF units, despite the fact that these units are engaged in direct combat with ISIS.

It is not clear if the Turks are going to continue their attacks in the SDF/YPG. Given President Erdoğan's recent activities and statements, I fear the US is headed for a showdown with the Turks over this issue. (See my earlier article, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?)

Part of the agreement calls for talks on a future political settlement in Syria after the ceasefire holds for 30 days. Those talks will be held in Astana, Kazakhstan - again with no American participation. The Russians did note that after January 20, the Trump Administration may be asked to play a role.

I suspect that President-elect Trump's statements have partially shaped this ceasefire and political settlement talks framework. Mr. Trump has hinted that he is not in favor of continuing American policy demanding the removal of the current Syrian government, and thus ending what covert support to the opposition that exists. The opposition may believe that they may be losing American sponsorship and should take this opportunity to at least have some say in Syria's future.

I further suspect that the Russians are hoping that a Trump Administration might be amenable to coordinated or joint operations against ISIS. While many senior U.S. military officers are wary of closer ties with the Russians, the Russian and Turks are now in the drivers' seats.

December 25, 2016

Implications of crash of the Russian Air Force aircraft en route Syria

Earlier image of Russian Air Force Tu-154B RA-85572

Early on Christmas day, a Russian Air Force passenger jet crashed into the Black Sea while on its way to an air base in Syria. The aircraft, Russian Air Force Tu-154B (NATO: Careless) RA-85572 was flying from Moscow to Humaymim Air Base just south of Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Humaymim Air Base base has been the headquarters of Russian expeditionary forces deployed to Syria since September 2015. The aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff from a refueling stop in Sochi on the Black Sea.

The aircraft was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew. The majority of the passengers were members of the Russian Army choir, heading to Syria to provide holiday concerts for Russian troops in Syria, as well as a few reporters and at least one charity fund director.

At this point, there is no suspicion of terrorism - Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a thorough investigation into the incident. I believe the investigation will show some technical issue or pilot error - this was a Russian military aircraft and access to the aircraft would normally be restricted to authorized military personnel. However, while the aircraft was being serviced in Sochi, others may have have had access to the plane.

Two questions come to mind:

- Why was the aircraft on this flight route?
- Why did the flight stop in Sochi?

The aircraft was headed from Moscow to Syria. That's not unusual - the Russian Air Force flies at least one resupply and troop rotation flight to Humaymim Air Base every day. In addition to Tu-154 jets, the Russians also use AN-124 (NATO: Condor) heavy transports and Il-62 (NATO: Classic) passenger aircraft.

The normal flight route from Moscow takes the aircraft over Russian airspace to the Caspian Sea, then the airspace of Iran and Iraq before entering Syrian airspace.

This circuitous route is used because Russian Air Force aircraft are not normally granted permission to overfly Turkey. This restriction is in response to an American request that members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) refuse overflight clearance for Russian military aircraft heading to or from Syria.

This particular flight appears to have been on a different flight route - from Moscow to the international airspace of the Black Sea, then via Turkish airspace to Syria. Why would the Turks grant overflight clearance to this Russian military flight? Was the fact that the aircraft was carrying the Russian Army choir deemed to not fall into the category of a military flight? Would the Turks have known the exact manifest?

Call me a cynic, but I wonder if the recent meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey in Moscow to discuss the future of Syria, resulted in an agreement between the Russians and Turks to allow overflight of Turkish airspace for the airbridge between Moscow and Humaymim Air Base.

That would represent a significant change in Turkish-Russian relations, and a blow to NATO solidarity. I note that the United States was not invited to the Moscow meeting.

In any case, the aircraft was flying directly from Moscow to Humaymim, a distance of about 1400 miles. This is easily within the flight range of the Tu-154B - a refueling stop in Sochi was not required. Why did the aircraft make a stop? Were there mechanical problems with the aircraft the caused the pilot to land at Sochi?

I look forward to the answers. It is important to know if this was mechanical or human failure, or worse, terrorism.

December 13, 2016

After the fall of Aleppo, what next?

The graphic above is a Reuters photograph with a caption from the Arab-language al-Jazeera network. The caption reads:

Truce agreement and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from Aleppo. Syrian opposition sources confirmed that they had reached an agreement with the regime for a cease fire and the evacuation of civilians and fighters from the besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo. It will take effect beginning Tuesday evening.

So this is how the battle of Aleppo ends. The struggle for control of what was Syria's largest city began in earnest in the summer of 2012. My assessment at that time (See Syria--the battle for Aleppo - July 30, 2012):

The battle of Aleppo will be a harbinger of things to come. If the opposition is defeated by overwhelming military force, which it might be since the Bashar al-Asad regime seems to have no reticence about turning its military - the armed forces built to fight the superior Israel Defense Forces - on its civilian population, it may well portend the end of the uprising. The opposition cannot afford to lose in Aleppo - for them it is do or die.

The opposition - a term that includes not only the Free Syrian Army, but a variety of Islamic militias as well as the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria, formerly the jabhat al-nusrah (Victory Front), now calling itself the jabhat al-fatah al-sham (Levant Conquest Front) - fought the battle for over four years.

Several times in the years of fighting, the opposition held the upper hand, even to the point of advancing south while pushing back the Syrian Army almost completely out of Aleppo and Idlib governorates. Despite the coordinated - and significant - intervention of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah fighters, the opposition was still able to continue to put pressure on the Syrian regime.

In 2015, when it appeared that the regime was again faltering, especially in Aleppo and Idlib, the Russians intervened with massive amounts of airpower, the likes of which the opposition had never experienced at the hands of the Syrian Arab Air Force.

The introduction of effective airpower into the fighting was able to not only stop the Syrian withdrawal and rebel advance, it precipitated a major reversal of fortune that has led us to the fall of Aleppo today.

I was not alone in my predictions - virtually every military analyst warned that the city would be retaken by the regime and its backers. There was too much firepower arrayed against the rebels - with Russian airpower and advice, the forces encircled the city and slowly but deliberately began to crush the resistance.

Repeated American attempts at ceasefires failed. The regime appeared to have the upper hand - I am sure Russian military analysts had come to the same conclusions that I had - it was only a matter of time, so why agree to any ceasefire except on the most favorable terms? American diplomacy had failed - I summed up my thoughts in October with an article, Aleppo--the impotence of American diplomacy.

That impotence characterized by chronically ineffective Secretary of State John Kerry continues. A ceasefire agreement that will go into effect on December 14 allowing civilians as well as rebel fighters to leave the city was reached - the agreement was hammered out between the Turkish national intelligence organization and the Russian military. Kerry has been trying for weeks to reach some agreement with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, with no results.

The recriminations will consume the news for the next week. As government forces and their allies begin their bloody retribution in the former rebel stronghold, the question is - what happens now? This is the fall of Aleppo, not the end of the war.

I believe the Syrian alliance will now focus its military efforts to the south and southwest of Aleppo. The alliance now consists of what remains of the Syrian Army - now less than half its pre-war strength due to losses and defections - IRGC forces, Iranian Army troops, Hizballah fighters, Iraqi Shi'a militias, Afghan Shi'a volunteers, as well as Russian special forces and advisers. The Syrian Army contribution to effort comprises only half of the total ground forces.

The ground components are supported by Russian Navy missiles, Russian Army field and rocket artillery, and a large contingent of Russian Air Force fighters, fighter-bombers and attack aircraft, including helicopter gunships. These aircraft are based near Latakia at Humaymim air base, normally used by the Syrian Navy antisubmarine warfare helicopter squadron.

The Russian expeditionary presence in Syria, protected by state-of-the-art air defenses and electronic warfare systems, is a potent military force. Without the presence of the Russians and other foreign forces, the Syrian armed forces would be hard-pressed to conduct successful offensive operations.

I should also mention the Syria deployment of the Russian Navy aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its complement of fighters and fighter-bombers, but the carrier has had numerous maintenance issues - its catapults are now inoperative, forcing the Russians to relocate the aircraft to Humaymim.

The first military objective after the Syrian alliance has fully secured Aleppo will be the re-opening of the main north-south highway - officially called the M5 or International Highway, but more commonly known as the Aleppo Highway. The highway is a good four-lane road that runs from the border with Jordan in the south, north through Damascus, Homs and Hamah, then ending in Aleppo. It is the main line of communication for the western part of Syria, home to the country's major population centers.

Referring to the map, the area in the red oval - coincidentally the primary target area for the Russian Air Force - is currently under opposition control and includes that main highway. The regime has been forced to rely on a two-lane desert road out to the east to maintain its line of communication between its strongholds in Hamah and Homs with its forces in the Aleppo area.

That desert road has at times been cut by rebel attacks - the regime needs to secure the main highway before they will be able to mount a major offensive to defeat the opposition in Idlib Governorate. That attack will be south on that highway from Aleppo and north on the highway from Hamah - obviously supported heavily by Russian airpower.

There is still fight left in the rebels, but they have just been handed a serious military defeat and major symbolic setback. As with the Syrian regime and its allies' assault on Aleppo, the massive amount of firepower and complete domination of the airspace over the battlefield will almost certainly overwhelm the fractured opposition. Unless there is a change of the situation on the ground - which I do not foresee - the revolution and the civil war may well be lost.

It gets worse for the opposition. On January 20, Donald Trump becomes the new American president. Given his pronouncements that the United States is not going to support the overthrow of dictators around the world or engage in nation building, we may see the development of an actual coherent policy on Syria.

Current American policy appears to be bifurcated between the removal of Bashar al-Asad and the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS. The two are almost impossible to achieve together - I believe the new president may opt to drop the former and keep the latter.

The situation for the various components of the Syrian opposition worsened with the loss of Aleppo - I fear they will get no help from a Trump Administration.

December 10, 2016

More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?

Alleged US special operations forces in Syria

On December 10, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the deployment of an additional 200 American troops to support the impending attack on the self-proclaimed Islamic State capital city of al-Raqqah. The additional troops will bring the declared American troop level in Syria to 500. Their mission will remain the same, per Secretary Carter, to "recruit, organize, train and advise local Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces to fight" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The "local Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces" Carter references are the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). This group presents itself as Arab-Kurdish cooperation, and is an attempt to put to present a less-threatening image of Kurdish participation in the fight against ISIS.

Why is that necessary? The Turks are alarmed of even the merest hint of Kurdish nationalism or autonomy in either Syria or Iraq, believing any such movement will spill over into southern Turkey. That said, the Kurds comprise the bulk of the SDF and constitute the most effective force facing ISIS.

This announcement will not please the Turks, and not only for the reasons above. The Turks are supporting a Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault in northern Syrian called Operation Euphrates Shield (dara' al-furat) with air, armor, artillery and special operations forces. The operation - in conjunction with Kurdish-controlled areas on the border - has been successful in almost totally closing the Turkish frontier to ISIS, hurting the group's ability to bring in new recruits and supplies from Turkey.

The Turkish-supported FSA forces are making good progress, pushing southeast towards al-Raqqah. In the last few days, they have reached the ISIS-held city of al-Bab. But al-Bab is almost 100 miles from al-Raqqah - it will take weeks, possibly months for the FSA to reach and mount an attack on al-Raqqah. In contrast, the U.S.-backed SDF forces are within 25 miles of the ISIS capital.

It is Turkey's stated policy that al-Raqqah should be liberated by the FSA (with their support). They claim that to the residents of al-Raqqah, the SDF will be regarded as a Kurdish force despite the "SDF" designation and minor Arab participation. In essence, according to the FSA and Turks, the people will be trading one oppressor for another.

Although I have no direct evidence to refute this, my reading of what little uncensored information leaking out of al-Raqqah seems to indicate that the people of al-Raqqah are totally terrified by ISIS and would welcome any relief, hoping that even a Kurdish liberating force would be better than ISIS and at some point life would return to normal under a Syrian (read: Arab) government.

It appears from Secretary Carter's announcement that the United States will increase its support to the SDF, that we won't wait for the Turkish-supported FSA to reach al-Raqqah and possibly urge the SDF to move on the city in the near future.

In October, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve said there are threats to the United States in planning in al-Raqqah and that time is of the essence.

I wrote at the time, "The timing, according to U.S. Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, is being driven by planning and potential execution of terror attacks against Western targets emanating from the ISIS "capital" and main operations center. The general did not name a specific threat or target." (For the complete article, see The coming assault on al-Raqqah - a political minefield.)

If General Townsend is correct and the timeline to mount an assault on al-Raqqah is short, these additional American forces will be welcome. Although 200 troops - even the final number of 500 troops in Syria - does not sound like a lot, they bring special capabilities to the effort. Rather than being direct action forces, although they have conducted such missions, they are true "force multipliers," leveraging American air power, intelligence and logistics in support of the very effective Kurdish-dominant SDF.

The problem with a decision to move ahead of the arrival of the Turkish-backed FSA Euphrates Shield force is that it will alienate Turkey, a NATO ally. However, if there is a major threat to Western targets, waiting for the FSA to reach al-Raqqah is not an option.

The Turks will have to understand that this is not about them, or the Kurds - it is about our own security.

December 2, 2016

Israeli air strike in Syria - no surprise

Israeli Air Force F-16

During the night of 29-30 November. Israeli Air Force aircraft conducted strikes against targets near Damascus, Syria. The target locations were identified in various media as a weapons storage area of the elite 4th Armor Division (a regime protection unit) and a convoy on the Beirut-Damascus highway. The specific targets in both cases were reported to be weapons destined for Hizballah in Lebanon.

The Israelis have for years conducted these types of operations when what they call "advanced weapons" are about to be transported from Syria to Lebanon's Biqa' Valley, where they become part of Hizballah's arsenal.

"Advanced weapons" to the Israelis include, but are not limited to, air defense weapons and surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). Although it is impossible to prevent the transfer of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to terrorist groups, the movement of larger, radar-guided air defense missile systems is easier to detect. The same applies to SSM launchers.

Some of these weapons come from Syrian stocks, but most were en route Lebanon from none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran - yes, Iran, the world's primary state sponsor of terrorism. After the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Syria's weapons were used against its own people. Since then, most of Hizballah's weapons have originated in Iran.

The Iranians make no secret of the fact that they support Hizballah with money, weapons and training. They routinely fly Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) Boeing 747 cargo aircraft or charter aircraft of IRGC-affiliated airlines laden with arms from Iran to the Damascus International Airport.

I know this from personal experience as the Air Attaché at the American embassy in Damascus - anyone could watch weapons crates from IRIAF aircraft being loaded onto trucks bearing the Hizballah emblem at the civilian cargo terminal at the airport.

One such flight took place on December 1 - here is an air traffic control plot of the IRIAF 747 freighter on its way to Syria.

Once the weapons, supplies and Hizballah fighters returning from training in Iran were loaded onto the Hizballah vehicles, the convoy would make the 35 mile trip to the Lebanese border (see map).

This Israeli strike was based on intelligence information that Hizballah was being provided the "Buk" air defense missile system. The Buk missile system is a family of self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems designed to shoot down cruise missiles, aircraft and drones.

There are variants known in the West as the SA-11 and SA-17* - the exact variant believed to be in this shipment is unknown, but either version would represent a significant upgrade in Hizballah's ability to counter Israeli air operations. This crossed an Israeli "red line" and triggered the attack.

I suspect that if the Iranians, Syrians and Hizballah attempt this again, the Israelis will react the same way.

* A Russian SA-17 was used to down Malaysian Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014.