February 25, 2018

Ceasefire in Syria's East Ghutah was never going to happen

Caption: Russian occupation aircraft bombing cities and towns in the East Ghutah

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2401 demanding a 30-day "cessation of hostilities...to allow safe, unimpeded and sustained access each week for the humanitarian convoys of the United Nations and their implementing partners to all requested areas and populations — particularly the 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities in acute need and the 2.9 million in hard-to-reach and besieged locations, subject to standard United Nations security assessments." It also demanded that the United Nations and its partners be allowed "to carry out safe, unconditional medical evacuations, based on medical need and urgency."

You can read the text of the United Nations summary here (the actual text is not available yet). As you read this, I want to remind you of the Arabic idiom bas hibr 'ala waraq (mere ink on paper).

Immediately following the vote, however, at least three of the affected parties announced their self-declared exceptions to the resolution. The three affected parties are, as usual, the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians - in other words, the perpetrators of the slaughter that has killed well over 500 people in the space of a few days through relentless air, rocket, and artillery strikes on the besieged enclave east of Damascus.

As we have seen in virtually every attempt - all of which have failed - at a ceasefire, truce, cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, etc. - these three allies have declared that the agreement does not cover groups they label as terrorists.

To these parties, that label applies to anyone not fighting for the regime. Specifically, this time, Moscow, Tehran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad stated that “parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up [operations] will continue there.”

Those who the Russian, Iranians, and Syrians believe to be terrorists

Let's drill down on the phrase "clean-up" operations.

With the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - there are only small pockets remaining in Syria - the common enemy for the Syrians, Iranians, Hizballahis, various Iranian-led Shi'a militias, and even the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) no longer exists. More importantly, it frees up thousands of Syrian troops formerly used in the push to retake central Syria and the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr to be redeployed for the next major assault.

That assault, the elimination of the rebel-held eastern Ghutah, has begun.

When I was assigned as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I lived about five miles west of the East Ghutah in the Western Villas section of the al-Mizzih district of the city (at the blue dot on the above map). Around the city is a greenbelt of trees and small towns - very pleasant, clean, safe, nice - called the Ghutah. There is a western Ghutah as well - both were preferred places to either live or have a weekend place outside the city.

Since the Iranian intervention in 2012 which allowed Bashar al-Asad to survive the first major challenge, and the Russian intervention in 2015 which kept him in power again as Syrian forces were being pushed south toward Damascus, the East Ghutah has held on, but has been under brutal siege.

The Syrian regime tactic has been, and remains, to impose a siege, hammer the infrastructure by air and artillery - including deliberate targeting of hospitals, markets/commercial bakeries, and schools - until the residents agree to a truce. In the past, the rebels would be allowed to leave, usually bused to Idlib.

I don't think that is going to happen - the situation has changed since the virtual/imminent/territorial (pick a word) defeat of ISIS. The Syrians have recommitted the bulk of their forces to start mopping up any pockets of resistance - the East Ghutah will be the first.

The Syrians have assigned the task to the Tiger Forces, an elite armored/mechanized force under the command of Brigadier General Suhayl al-Hasan - a very capable field commander who was the key leader in the fight against ISIS. He is brutal and efficient - his public statements echo that. He has become a folk here to the regime supporters.

The Tiger Forces listed their objectives, which basically are to regain complete control of the M5 highway - the main line of communication north to the rest of the Syrian forces, stop rebel mortar and rocket attacks on Damascus, secure the East Ghutah, and then move on to the Yarmuk rebel and ISIS pockets (southwest of East Ghutah).

With the resources no longer needed to fight ISIS, General al-Hasan now has overwhelming firepower, massive amounts of airpower from the Russian Air Force operating out of Humaymin air base near Latakia, as well as all the artillery organic to the regime-protection elements firing from the mountains just northwest of the city.

In General al-Hasan's own words:

"We won’t allow anyone to interfere with the battle’s issues. Any attempt to impose a ceasefire and open passageways to exit the militants from the western side of eastern Ghutah is not allowed at all. The battle is ongoing and will stay that way until the end of the last militant standing in eastern Ghutah. For every round from your weapons and for every drop of blood from a martyr or wounded in Damascus, our response will be firing so many rounds that you will know the righteousness of God and know that no one has ever tried to injure al-Sham to make her cry and succeeded. Long live you, and Syria al-Asad."

Here is a propaganda video from the Tiger Force media office lionizing (no pun intended) General al-Hasan.

Here is a report of Syrian military operations from the day after the ceasefire went into effect - you be the judge.

Given the commitment of units such as the Tiger Forces, the overwhelming force at its disposal, the unwavering support of the Russians and Iranians, and the willingness to ignore and exploit the United Nations resolution, it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime regains control of the area.

The downside is the huge numbers of civilian casualties (hundreds per day now - it will get worse) and the destruction of almost all the infrastructure in the area.

How long with this go on? The area is about 100 square kilometers - they could hold out for maybe weeks, but it is going to be ugly. Take a look at the destruction in the cities of Mosul, al-Raqqah. Aleppo, etc - this will be worse.

Here are my thoughts on the ongoing, and unfortunately future, carnage in the East Ghutah, on CNN International a few days ago.

February 10, 2018

Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria - more to come

Israeli Air Force F-16I "Sufa" of 253 Squadron at Ramon Air Base

There has been ample reporting on the events of the day, but allow me to add some thoughts and clarifications. To recap quickly, an Iranian-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was detected over northern Israel and shot down. The Israelis responded by launching four F-16I "Sufa" fighter-bombers (like the one shown in the above photograph) to strike the facility used to control the UAV.

Syrian air defense units fired a volley of as many as 24 surface-to-air missiles at the jets, hitting one, causing it to crash in northern Israel as it tried to reach an Israeli air base.

Most Middle East analysts knew this was coming at some point, given Iran's expanding influence in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), spearheaded by its special operations unit, the Qods force, has been a key player in supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

That support has included what many consider the bulk of the Syrian alliance forces - IRGC units, Iranian army units, Iranian-led Iraqi Shi'a militiamen, Lebanese Hizballah fighters, and even volunteer Shi'a fighters from Afghanistan. Without this Iranian-led support, the Syrian regime would have likely been overthrown in 2012.

The Iranians have also provided materiel support to Syria, including a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). It is common to see the Mohajer-4 reconnaissance UAV as well as the armed Shahed-129 UAV in Syrian skies. The U.S.-led coalition has shot down at least two of the armed versions over Syria. It is believed that the drone downed by an Israeli Air Force AH-64 Apache helicopter today was a new Iranian UAV based on an American UAV which Iran seized in 2011.

The Israelis believe the UAV was launched from an Iranian unit at Tiyas air base, located in the central Syrian desert between the cities of Homs and Palmyra (Tadmur). It is also referred to in some media as T-4 (variants Tifur or Tayfur) because it is adjacent to the T-4 pumping station.

The Israeli defense ministry released a reconnaissance photograph (below) of what they claim is an IRGC UAV unit at the base. I have circled the location of the unit on the larger satellite image.

Some media reports are questioning why the Iranians chose to launch a UAV sortie against northern Israel from Tiyas. The distance from the base to where the UAV was downed near Beit She'an by the Israeli Apache is 300 kilometers/185 miles - there are numerous other bases and locations closer to Israel from which to conduct such operations. (Note: the red line is NOT the flight route for the UAV.)

In this case, the simplest answer is probably correct. Tiyas is where the IRGC has set up its operations to support the Syrian regime. Its central location makes sense, and the airfield can handle large transport aircraft, including Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force planes as well as those of the not-so-covert IRGC support airlines (YAS Air, Pouya Air, Fars Qeshm, and SAHA).

Many observers are wondering how the Syrian air defense was able to down an Israeli Air Force F-16 when it has not been able to in the past. I am not sure of the flight path today, but Tiyas is a bit further inside Syria than many previous targets. Although the Israelis struck a nascent nuclear facility at located on the north bank of the Euphrates River between al-Raqqah and Dayr al-Zawr in 2007, that area is almost devoid of capable air defenses. Tiyas, on the other hand, sits in the middle of an intense air defense environment.

Here are the "threat rings" for Syria's air defense missiles.

Here are the threat rings for the long-range S-200 (NATO: SA-5 GAMMON) system that was used to down the F-16. Even if the F-16's used stand-off weapons and launched them from a distance, the location of Tiyas would necessitate entering the heart of the SA-5 threat envelope.

According to the Israelis, the Syrians fired a volley of as many as two dozen SA-5 and Kvadrat (NATO: SA-6 GAINFUL) missiles. One missile was able to penetrate the Israeli electronic warfare defenses and damage one of the four F-16s conducting the mission against Tiyas.

The Israeli response was quick and predictable. It will extract a price for the loss of the F-16, and also for the blow to its ego. There have been two waves of retaliatory airstrikes, hitting a variety of air bases and air defense units, air defense command and control facilities, and installations known to be associated with the IRGC.

For example, one of the targets was Khalkhalah air base, located 25 miles south of Damascus on the al-Suwayda' road. Syrian press reports that the SA-5 site just north of the air base was hit as well.

This will continue until the Israelis believe they have made their point.

The questions: Does Syria attempt to continue the engagement with Israel? Does Iran plan to continue to provoke the Israelis?

If either of them decide to engage the Israelis, I assess that it will be of limited scope and duration. They are, after all, busy with the Syrian civil war. It is a distraction neither of them needs.

February 2, 2018

The Turks and the Kurds - creating a self-fulfilling prophecy

The Turks are now two weeks into their so-called campaign to "eradicate terrorists" inside northern Syria. By terrorists, they are referring to the fighters belonging to the militias of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or PYD). The two militias are known as the People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG) and its female counterpart, the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ).

These militias are a key component of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF was the primary ground force which - with massive American air and artillery support - liberated most of the areas of northern Syria that had been seized and occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They were the proverbial "boots on the ground" as part of the U.S.-led coalition to oust ISIS from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq.

A few words about the Turks and ISIS. Although the Turks couch their operations in Syria as an effort to support the fight against ISIS, the Turks rarely, if ever, took on the jihadist group. There has been a lot of finger pointing between the Turks and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition over Turkey's real stance on ISIS.

If you will recall, between 2013 and 2016, ISIS's ranks were swelled by the constant flow of new recruits from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and even some from the United States. The major transit route for these foreigners was via Istanbul, then to the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, then across the border into Syria.

I have spent a lot of time along both sides of that border - it's not a border I would attempt to cross unassisted. It is quite formidable, with substantial fences, obstacles, including minefields in some areas, overseen by a series of guard towers manned by armed soldiers on the Turkish side. One has to wonder how these thousands of ISIS recruits were able to reach Syria. I think we know the answer.

As a result, the United States is reportedly in the process of creating a 30,000-strong "border security force" from the ranks of the SDF. The pragmatic reason for the necessity of such a force? If thousands of ISIS recruits were able to infiltrate into Syria via Turkey, why would we expect that they would not be able to exfiltrate via the same route in reverse?

The mission of the new forces is to prevent the survivors of the anti-ISIS operation in Syria and Iraq from re-entering Turkey and returning to their home countries. Most of the countries of origin are concerned that these veterans of the fighting in Syria and Iraq will return home and attempt to conduct "martyrdom" operations.

As I said in my recent article, Turkey's main concern in Syria is not ISIS, it is the Kurds. If you ask the Turks, they believe the YPG/YPJ is nothing more than an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK). While the PKK has been designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO, and the European Union, the YPG has not. (See that article, Turkey - Operation Olive Branch: how far will they go?)

I disagree with the Turkish assertion that the PKK is synonymous with the YPG (and there will be numerous comments from my Turkish readers that I am incorrect). For a better perspective, here are excerpts from a recent article by journalist and award-winning author (and friend) Michael J. Totten, No, the Syrian Kurds are not Terrorists:

Their [YPG] ideology isn’t Islamist. It’s leftist. They champion, in their own words, “social equality, justice and the freedom of belief” along with “pluralism and the freedom of political parties.” They hope to implement “a democratic solution that includes the recognition of cultural, national and political rights, and develops and enhances their peaceful struggle to be able to govern themselves in a multicultural, democratic society.” They describe themselves as libertarian socialists, a minority faction within the worldwide socialist movement that rejects one-party rule and authoritarian state control of the economy.

They also ascribe to what they call Communalism, a set of ideas put forth by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of Turkey’s Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). It is here that the YPG gets itself into trouble with Turkey.

Ocalan founded the PKK in 1978 as a Kurdish nationalist separatist movement and a Marxist-Leninist insurgency. Like nearly all communist guerrilla armies—from Peru’s Shining Path to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—it was inherently prone to terrorism. While primarily striking Turkish soldiers and police officers, the group has also committed a number of attacks against civilian targets, including a car bomb in Ankara last March that killed dozens and wounded more than 100 and a suicide attack in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in 2010.

The YPG...has never committed an act of terrorism in Syria or anywhere else, not even at a time when terrorist attacks are as routine as weather in Syria. So while, yes, the YPG and the PKK are ideologically linked, the Turkish government has never been able to identify a single act of terrorism the YPG has ever committed, not in Turkey, not in Syria, nor anywhere else.

Turkey can call the Kurds terrorists all they want, but that will not make them so.

With their ill-advised and ill-timed invasion of 'Afrin canton in northern Syria, the Turks may be creating, or at the very least, exacerbating the very problem they claim to be solving. If there was no cooperation between the various Kurdish factions in all four countries that are home to Kurdish minorities - Turkey, Syrian, Iraq, and Iran - there soon may be. With the Turks attacking the PYD/YPG in Syria, who is next? The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq?

I spoke yesterday with a member of the PUK. He believes that Turks have done something that the Kurds themselves have not been able to do for decades - unify the various Kurdish parties and factions.

He added (my translation), "All of us are now YPG, we Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Iran - all over the world - now support the YPG and Rojava.* Now the PKK, YPG and peshmerga are all one. It is the only way to have a free Kurdistan. The Turkish army, ISIS and the Free Syrian Army are all against us."

Bottom line: If the PYD/YPG were not cooperating with the PKK, thanks to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, they most likely are now or will be in the future. The Turks have just created a larger enemy that will continue the fight for years to come. They did this to themselves.

* Rojava is the common Kurdish name for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. It is not recognized by the Syrian government.