March 23, 2017

Syrian Democratic Forces assault on al-Tabaqah - opening shots in the liberation of al-Raqqah

SDF armored vehicle on south bank of Euphrates River

The opening shots in the battle to liberate the Syrian city of al-Raqqah from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may have been fired yesterday (March 22).

The daring assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by U.S. airlift, airpower, intelligence, and long-range rocket artillery was removed from the headlines by an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in London, and the continuing saga of American political maneuverings.

For the first time in the U.S-led coalition fight against ISIS, American heavy transport helicopters moved hundreds of SDF troops from their positions north of the Euphrates River south to locations across the river behind ISIS lines, a classic American air assault tactic.

This operation also marked the first use in Syria of the U.S. Marines' M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). The Marines, recently deployed to Syria via neighboring Iraq, fired long-range (up to 180 miles) guided artillery rockets in support of the air assault operation.

At the same time, other SDF units ferried heavy vehicles across Lake al-Asad, the reservoir created by one of the objectives of the operation, the al-Tabaqah Dam, the largest dam in Syria. The dam is a mere 25 miles west of ISIS's self-proclaimed capital of al-Raqqah.

Red=regime / Green=FSA / Brown=ISIS / Yellow=SDF
(Click image for larger view)

The initial focus of the U.S.-supported SDF operation was the Shurfah peninsula, about 10 miles west of al-Tabaqah city, dam, and airport. All three are occupied by ISIS and will be aggressively defended. Not only is the SDF attack putting pressure on ISIS, Syrian regime units just 25 miles to the west are also fighting the Islamist group.

After moving north and marginalizing the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army elements moving south from the Turkish border towards al-Raqqah - but still 100 miles away - the Syrians are cooperating with the SDF to focus the fight on ISIS. (See my earlier article, SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?)

The Syrian Army, with Russian airpower and support, has made good progress at forcing ISIS to retreat. These regime units have now reached the Euphrates from the west and are now poised to move east toward al-Raqqah. That said, the lead elements of the Syrian Army are still well over 60 road miles from al-Raqqah.

I assess that the SDF will move out of the Shurfah Peninsula beachhead as soon as possible to secure the al-Tabaqah dam, air base, and most of the city. Sitting on the peninsula will only invite an ISIS counterattack. ISIS has a history of mounting vicious counterattacks as soon as they are able to absorb an initial assault and regroup their forces.

There will likely be a supporting attack on the dam area from the north. It will be a tough fight for the SDF to take these objectives, but with American airpower and long-range artillery rocket support, they eventually will prevail.

Red=regime / Green=FSA / Brown=ISIS / Yellow=SDF
(Click image for larger view)

After seizing the objectives in the al-Tabaqah area, I expect the SDF forces to pivot to the east and continue to move against ISIS along the south bank of the Euphrates in the direction of al-Raqqah.

At the same time, about 35 miles to the east of al-Raqqah, additional SDF elements have successfully attacked south to the Euphrates. This accomplished two major objectives. First, it cut the main supply route between ISIS forces in al-Raqqah and its forces further east along the Euphrates River near the city of Dayr al-Zawr, and further east to the now-isolated Iraqi city of Mosul.

Second, it provides an opportunity for an additional crossing of the Euphrates to establish a second beachhead on the southern bank of the river. If SDF forces can successfully mount such an assault, they will be able to move west towards al-Raqqah while their counterparts are moving from the west, eventually surrounding and isolating the self-proclaimed ISIS capital.

Once the pocket is closed, it can be besieged - the SDF will be able to mount a multi-axis attack on al-Raqqah, eventually defeating ISIS in the city.

The fight for al-Raqqah will be reminiscent of the fighting in Mosul - it will take months. ISIS has had well over two years to fortify the city for the fight all knew would come someday.

It would appear that day is fast approaching.

March 20, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister al-'Abadi in Washington - some realities

My quick readout of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi visit to Washington and his meeting with President Donald Trump.

While the current media coverage of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shifted to the fighting in Syria, the major battle continues to be the Iraqi campaign to defeat the Islamist group in the city of Mosul.

The Iraqi security forces - Army, Air Force, police, and special operations units, as well as several Iranian-backed Shi'a militias - have generally acquitted themselves well in the fighting. We all remember the Iraqi Army's dismal performance against ISIS in June 2014, when the Army collapsed as the group stormed into northern Iraq from Syria and began a lightning military campaign south down the Tigris Valley, and west into the Euphrates Valley.

Now, two years later, the Iraqis have reconstituted their forces with massive American support, and are on the verge of retaking the iconic city back from ISIS. Although Iraqi political leaders committed to having the city back under Iraqi control by the end of 2016, it was obvious to virtually all military analysts that it would take longer. I believe that by the end of April, they will have retaken the entire city.

That's the good news.

Here are some military realities that tend to get little media coverage. ISIS will be defeated in Mosul - the city is surrounded and isolated. It has taken some time to achieve that goal - I thought the Iraqis should have done that before launching the assault into the city. There is no escape route for the thousands of ISIS fighters now trapped in a portion of the right/west bank of the city.

While that is a good military position, it does not portend well for the thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped in Mosul with the remaining ISIS fighters. Unfortunately, they will be used as human shields in the street-by-street, house-by-house fighting over the next few weeks. It is a sad reality that the Iraqi and coalition forces can try to minimize, but by no means avoid.

After Mosul is liberated, ISIS will not be defeated in Iraq. There are still pockets of ISIS control, including a substantial area to the west of Mosul near Tal'afar towards the Syrian border. There is another stronghold in the Hawaijah area southwest of the city of Kirkuk, and several areas in al-Anbar province in the Euphrates Valley on the Syrian border.

Once the Iraqi security forces secure Mosul, they will address these remaining pockets and reduce them one by one. That said, the ISIS leadership is not stupid - they can read the handwriting on the wall.

As the group began to suffer militarily over the last year, it began returning to its roots as an insurgency. There has been a major uptick in suicide bombings in Shi'a areas in the Baghdad area. A major face-to-face and online recruiting effort is underway to re-create what was originally known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq.

It is unknown if they will succeed or not, but surprisingly, their message still resonates among Iraqi Sunnis who believe they will never be treated equitably by what they perceive is an Iranian-influenced Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

There are political realities as well - again not widely reported.

A new round of elections is scheduled for September of this year - the voting might well be the end of Prime Minister al-'Abadi's government. The two major threats to his continued leadership are the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. In my opinion, either - especially al-Sadr - would be a disaster for Iraq, U.S.-Iraqi relations, and American foreign policy in the region.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a virulently anti-American Shi'a cleric from a respected family (in Shi'a circles) with a huge following among rank and file Shi'a. His militia has American blood on his hands - he is lucky to be alive.

Should the worst case happen and al-Sadr becomes the new prime minister, there will be no American military presence in the country - possibly no diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Washington - and Iraq will likely spiral into a Shi'a autocracy, making al-Sadr the poster boy for ISIS recruitment.

(Note: I have been highly critical of Muqtada al-Sadr since 2003, at one point advocating military action against him. My latest article is from last year: Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr flexes his political muscles.)

An only slightly better scenario would be the return of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki, derisively known among his political enemies as nuri al-irani (Nuri the Iranian), would again be a puppet for the Iranian regime. It was Nuri al-Maliki - in concert with Barack Obama in what I believe was a colossal foreign policy blunder - who presided over the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011.

The result of the Obama - al-Maliki decision was the corruption and atrophy of the Iraqi Army, the resurgence of the almost-defeated al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) terrorist group, the transformation of AQI into ISIS, and the mess that is the current geopolitical situation we now have in the region. Eight years of Nuri al-Maliki was more than enough.

The best option is the retention of Haydar al-'Abadi. Should the United States decide to try and meddle in someone else's election - a hot topic these days - we might want to support Prime Minister al-'Abadi.

March 16, 2017

Russian and American cooperation in Syria - a policy change?

American and Russian troops in the city of Manbij, Syria

Recent American military moves in Syria may indicate a shift in U.S. foreign policy in the region. The presence of both American and Russian forces in the northern Syrian city of Manbij (photo) may herald the Trump Administration's new strategy to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

This map shows the current situation on the ground in northern Syria.

Click on image for larger view

Syria is a confusing tableau of competing interests, and at times a four-way fight. Major combatants in the fighting*:

- Free Syrian Army (FSA, green) - backed by Turkish forces (Operation Euphrates Shield)
- Syrian Armed Forces (red) - backed by Russian military, Iranian military and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shi'a militia, and Hizballah forces
- Syrian Democratic Front (SDF, yellow) - a joint Kurdish-Arab group backed by the American-led coalition (Operation Wrath of Euphrates)
- ISIS (brown)

ISIS remains the common enemy of the other three combatant groups. In a perfect world, the three other combatants would ally with each other in the fight to defeat ISIS. While all of them are engaged in the fight against the Islamist group, at times they also engage in combat operations against each other, thus diluting the main effort against the terrorist organization.

Recent events may indicate a sea change in American policy following the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

In August 2016, the Turks began their intervention in northern Syria, ostensibly to support elements of the Free Syrian Army in its fight against ISIS. The FSA - heavily supported by Turkish air, armor, artillery and special forces - was able to push ISIS forces back over 40 miles from the Turkish border south into Syria, finally seizing the ISIS stronghold of al-Bab in late February.

After that hard-won fight, the Turks and FSA set their sights on the SDF held city of Manbij, about 30 miles to the east of al-Bab. This decision was obviously made by the Turks, whose main objective in Syria is not to defeat ISIS, despite protestations to the contrary.

Turkish troops are in Syria to ensure that when the Syrian situation is resolved, there is not an autonomous Kurdish region (similar to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq) on Turkey's southern border. The Syrian Kurds, who call the northern part of Syria Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, want exactly that.

The Turks, on the other hand, believe the Syrian Kurds to be at best supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or at worst, a mere extension of the terrorist/separatist group.

Click on image for larger view

As the Turkish and FSA forces began to pivot their forces from al-Bab east towards Manbij, the SDF made a quick arrangement with Syrian regime forces, allowing them to move north (black arrow on map) to take up positions in and around Manbij. The Kurds would rather strike a deal with the Syrian regime than get into a fight with the Turks who appear determined to remove them from what they consider Kurdish territory.

Not only does this agreement between the SDF and the regime serve to thwart a Turkish move on Manbij, it isolates the Turks from ISIS front lines, and further blocks their eventual march towards ISIS's self-declared capital of al-Raqqah. The Turks have insisted that they lead, or at least by involved in, the assault on al-Raqqah.

As all three non-ISIS combatants focused their attention on the city of Manbij, the effort against ISIS was bound to suffer. To prevent a three-way fight between the Turkish-backed FSA, the Syrian regime and the American-backed SDF, both the United States and Russia deployed forces to the city as a potential buffer between the three groups and to attempt to refocus the fight against ISIS.

This seemingly simple move in a complicated situation by two of the world's major powers just might indicate a significant shift in American policy in Syria, or the realization that the previous policy was flawed.

Under President Obama, U.S. policy in Syria hinged on two goals: to "defeat and destroy ISIS" and support the removal of the Bashar al-Asad government. Given the political-military realities on the ground in the region, the two objectives were at odds with each other. I think that became clear with the Russian military deployment to Syria in the fall of 2015.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin's stated mission was to fight ISIS, his main objective was to guarantee the survival of the Syrian regime in exchange for long-term Russian access to Syrian naval facilities and air bases - he appears to have achieved that objective.

The tenuous U.S.-Russian cooperation in keeping the Turks (with the FSA), Kurds and Syrian regime from engaging each other in Manbij could be de facto American acceptance of the survival of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and signal a willingness to work with the Russians to focus on the defeat of ISIS. See my earlier thoughts on this move: SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

President Trump said during his campaign that he will not launch wars to topple dictators. It appears that while seemingly more committed than Barack Obama to the defeat of ISIS, he is not committed to the removal of Bashar al-Asad. I have said in the past, the overarching objective in Syria is taking on ISIS - we can address the regime later, if at all.

One sticking point, however, if there has been a change of policy. What of the American-backed Syrian opposition groups? I would suggest they seek some form of political arrangement with the Syrian government - I do not see this Administration ready to support a long-term insurgency to remove Bashar al-Asad.
* For more details on the combatants, see my earlier article: American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....

March 4, 2017

SYRIA: Has Turkey been marginalized and the Americans thrust into the fight?

Turkish Army M52T 155mm self-propelled howitzers in northern Syria

In a remarkably under-reported series of events in northern Syria, the success of the joint Turkish - Free Syrian Army (FSA) Operation Euphrates Shield (Turkish: Fırat Kalkanı Harekâtı, Arabic dara' al-furat) is now more uncertain than ever. The goal of the military campaign is to defeat the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

FSA forces supported by Turkish air power, armor, artillery, intelligence and special forces were moving slowly but steadily on their way from the Turkish border towards what is regarded as ISIS's center of gravity - its self-proclaimed capital in the city of al-Raqqah. Just over a week ago, they completely removed ISIS from the key stronghold of al-Bab. This victory was supposed to pave the way for a faster-moving thrust east towards al-Raqqah.

As I wrote last month, the situation in Syria is a confusing tableau of competing interests, basically a four-way fight. (See that analysis: American combat troops to Syria? Not so fast....) Briefly, the major combatants in the fighting in northern Syria are:

* Free Syrian Army - backed by Turkish forces (Operation Euphrates Shield)
* Syrian Armed Forces - backed by Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Hizballah forces
* Syrian Democratic Front - a joint Kurdish-Arab group backed by the American-led coalition (Operation Wrath of Euphrates)

ISIS remains the common enemy of the other three combatant groups. In a perfect, sane and rational world, the three other combatants would ally with each other in the fight to defeat ISIS. While all of them are engaged in the fight against the Islamist group, at times they also engage in combat operations against each other. This dilutes the main effort against what many believe is the vilest terrorist organization of our time.

At one point, there seemed to be some semblance of a temporary coalition between the Syrian government forces and the FSA, brokered by their two major backers - Russia and Turkey, respectively. That cooperation was short-lived and only worked in a few instances. Given the animosity between the Syrian regime and the FSA, not to mention the Syrian government's contention (with some merit) that the Turkish military forces are in Syria illegally, it was not unexpected.

The main point of contention between the three groups fighting ISIS: which group will conduct the eventual and inevitable attack on al-Raqqah?

The Syrian armed forces want to retake the city, after all, it is part of Syria. Even with the backing of their Russian, Iranian, Iraqi and Hizballah sponsors, the Syrian military has been unable to concentrate enough force to mount an attack on al-Raqqah.

After its successful campaign to regain control of the city of Aleppo from the FSA, Syrian government forces have been focused on consolidating their hold on Aleppo governorate, regaining control (again) of the crossroads city of Palmyra (Tadmur), fighting off a strong ISIS offensive in eastern Homs governorate, attempting to reassert control of the suburbs surrounding the capital of Damascus - along with other smaller, but manpower and resource intensive operations.

The Syrian armed forces are spread very thin throughout the south, west and central parts of the country. Without the support of their foreign sponsors, the Syrian Army would cease to be a viable combat organization in short order.

The FSA, with Turkish support, also wants to liberate al-Raqqah from ISIS, expanding the territory under its control after the devastating loss of its main stronghold - the city of Aleppo - to the regime late last year.

The Turks are providing support to the FSA for two reasons. First, they support the removal of the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and second, they want to ensure that there is no semblance of a Kurdish autonomous region along their southern border. If they have to choose between the two, they will opt for the latter.

Despite the fact that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (known as the YPG) are arguably the most effective fighting force arrayed against ISIS in Syria, the Turks regard them as nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (known as the PKK).

The PKK has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and NATO. The YPG is the majority component of the U.S.-backed SDF. It has not been designated as a terrorist organization by anyone but the Turks.

The Turks are adamant that no Kurds be involved in the attack on al-Raqqah. Their rationale is that the people of al-Raqqah, overwhelmingly Arabs - will be trading one oppressor for another.

I disagree - my reading of what little information that is available from the tightly-controlled city is that they have suffered terribly under strict Islamist ISIS governance and would welcome any relief, be it Kurd, Turk or Arab.

The United States and the recently-inaugurated Trump Administration is now formulating its policy on how to fight ISIS in Syria. I believe the U.S. military planners - looking at the situation map - believe that backing an SDF-led assault on the city is the best option. Although an FSA operation might be more palatable to the residents, time and distance mitigate that option.

The lead elements of the SDF are a mere five miles from the outskirts of al-Raqqah and in the process of isolating the city on the west, north and east - the south is bounded by the Euphrates River, and both bridges have been destroyed by U.S. airstrikes.

In contrast, the Turkish-backed FSA is almost 100 miles away, having just secured al-Bab.

Yellow=SDF/YPG / Brown=ISIS / Red =Syrian regime / Green=FSA
(Disregard the subjective editorial legend in Arabic)

The situation has changed dramatically in just the last week. As Turkish/FSA forces were securing al-Bab and preparing to continue their march east through YPG-controlled territory toward the city of Manbij, they began militarily engaging the YPG. Here again, we had two groups opposing ISIS fighting each other, rather than their common foe.

In a rather stunning move, the SDF/YPG made an arrangement with the Syrian regime forces to allow the Syrian Army to move into the city of Manbij (movement indicated by the black arrow), thereby completely cutting off the Turkish/FSA route of march to the east toward Manbij and then al-Raqqah.

Click on images for larger view

As a result, there is now a combined Syrian Army and SDF/YPG blocking force in front of the FSA, confining them to a pocket north of al-Bab and west of Manbij, essentially removing them from the offensive against al-Raqqah.

It gets murkier. These are new photos and a video clip taken from Arab language media:

The two photos of the U.S. Army Stryker infantry combat vehicles, one flying the U.S. standard, and Humvees have been geolocated to the Manbij area of northern Syria, the same area the Kurds have allowed Syrian Army units to enter. The video clip was taken along the main highway in the Manbij region.

Confusing? Yes - it raises a whole host of questions.

What is the position of the United States on their allies' seeming coordination with the Syrian regime to allow Syrian army forces into Manbij?

Are American forces in proximity to Syrian Army units - and their Russian advisers, as well as their Iranian, Iraqi and Hizballah fighters? Was the United States consulted before this cooperative operation was launched?

What is the role of the Russians? Are the Russians now on the ground with the SDF? Who is providing coordination and deconfliction between the parties?

What of the Turks? Are they going to engage the Syrian Army and SDF/YPG and force their way back into a position to continue their attack towards al-Raqqah?

It appears to me that the United States has decided its strategy: the Americans will provide increased support to the Kurds, over the objections of the Turks.

The Turks appear to be marginalized by the actions of the Syrian Army and the SDF/YPG. We should expect backlash from the Turks. (See my earlier articles from December and January on this issue, More U.S. troops to Syria - a showdown with the Turks?, and Turkish threat to limit access to Incirlik Air Base - a collision course?)

If what I believe is true, the United States will proceed with the Kurdish option to liberate al-Raqqah from ISIS. This will require the introduction of many more American forces than we have there now.

The SDF does not have the firepower, the heavy weaponry needed to dislodge entrenched, committed and prepared ISIS fighters from al-Raqqah. They will need much more assistance - the U.S. troops in the photos and video shown on Arabic media likely represent the vanguard of that effort.

If the Iraqis' experience in their campaign to retake Mosul is any indication, the fight for al-Raqqah will be long and bloody. I suspect that before this is all over, many more young Americans are going to be in the fight.