Syria Situation Report 22 01 2016January 23, 2016
The Syrian/Russian war plan is straight forward: First the supply corridors from Turkey to IS (Islamic State), Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and other Islamist groups have to be cut and the conquered territories fortified. From these territories the more heavily populated areas around Latakia and Aleppo have to be captured. After that Idlib can be attacked from Aleppo in the east and Latakia in the West.
The supply lines from Jordan and Israel have to be eliminated by agreements with these two countries.
The desert areas at the moment are left for the terrorists, who will fade away after supply lines are destroyed. When no more ammunition and money comes from Turkey and Jordan, many insurgents will lay down their arms and the unrepentant individuals can be eliminated step by step in mopping-up operations.
This is a solid plan, which the Islamists and their main patrons (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE) of course desperately try to thwart.
IS (Islamic State) launched its biggest offensive in a year against the town of Deir Ez-Zor in eastern Syria. IS was able to overrun the Ayash weapons depot and the Al-Baghaliyeh district, committing the usual massacres and executing 270 people. The town is under siege since May 2015, when IS captured Palmyra and cut the main supply line to Deir Ez-Zor.
Deir Ez-Zor lies on the Euphrates river and there was a beautiful and famous suspension bridge across the river. In May 2013 the bridge was destroyed from shelling by the FSA (Free Syrian Army).
IS used at least 30 suicide bombers in the Deir Ez-Zor offensive and relocated troops from all over Syria to take part in this operation. IS desperately needs a victory because it has lost huge swaths of territory in the last month, the supply lines from Turkey (Jarabulus, Bab al-Hawa, Azaz / Bab al-Salam), are under threat, and the oil export to Turkey has been disrupted by Russian bombing. Salaries of fighters have been cut in half.
Syrian/Russian commanders have to make the difficult decision of either moving troops to relieve the besieged town and prevent a terrible massacre, attack Palmyra to reconquer the supply lines, or take advantage of the fact, that IS positions are now thinly manned, and advance around Aleppo.
Russian planes have been redirected to support the defenders of the town, which is difficult because the Russian SVP-24 guidance system is only useful for stationary targets. It has already been alleged that Russia erroneously bombed a government oil depot in Deir Ez-Zor. Russia has parachuted humanitarian supplies to the town.
This is a high resolution map. Click to get full size. By zooming in one can find most of the in the post mentioned locations.
Aside from the desperate situation in Deir Ez-Zor, the surprisingly fast conquest of Salma in northern Latakia by SAA (Syrian Arab Army) and NDF (National Defense Forces) confirms, that the tide is turning in the Syrian war.
While Russian jets were busy in Deir Ez-Zor, Jabhat al-Nusra was able to launch a counter offensive and retake a few villages, approaching again the outskirts of Salma, yet, the next day they were beaten back and the Syrian troops conquered even more territory, taking the Baradun dam and advancing toward Rabia. Latest reports suggest, that there is already fighting in Rabia.
If Rabia falls, the last insurgent stronghold left in Latakia is Kinsabba. This place however is not as well situated as Salma, which lies on a hill top and is heavily fortified, representing a medieval castle. After Kinsabba, Syrian forces would have to mop up the remaining scattered jihadists and prepare for an advance into Idlib, starting with Jisr ash-Shugur.
Another hot spot in the Syrian war theater is Sheikh Miskeen on the Daraa-Damascus highway, 70 kilometer south of Damascus. The SAA 15th Brigade has conquered 80 percent of the town, cutting essential supply lines of the rebels.
Intra-rebel tensions weaken the defenders. There are accusations against Harakat al-Muthanna of extremism and pro-IS tendencies, abduction and assassinations of rebel commanders and activists are common. At least 105 rebel fighters, including 15 FSA commanders, were assassinated in 2015.
The Amman-based MOC (Military Operations Center) has ordered the Southern Front factions to focus their efforts against Jabhat al-Nusra and leave the Syrian army alone. Jordan and Russia have agreed on military coordination in Syria. It is not a “joint war room,” but informations and intentions are exchanged. Jordan’s King Abdullah II is apparently cutting his losses and exiting the war.
Even bigger than Salma and Sheikh Miskeen could be a push to clean Aleppo from Islamists. There has been a build-up for quite some time and Syrian forces as well as Kurdish troops are advancing around Aleppo. 8000 new recruits have arrived and are stationed in small villages around Aleppo to free up experienced troops. Pictures of T-90 tanks (the most advanced Russian tanks) on trucks being driven towards Aleppo have emerged. One doesn’t move around heavy armor just for fun.
North of Aleppo the already mentioned IS supply corridor (Jarabulus, Bab al-Hawa, Azaz / Bab al-Salam) becomes smaller by the day and Turkey has to take action or abandon the Syria regime change project altogether.
Turkey and the Kurds, again
Kurdish YPG forces have captured the Tishrin dam and crossed the Euphrates, ignoring Erdogan’s “red line.” SDF/YPG forces are only 9 kilometers from Manbij, which is a key node in the IS supply network.
Turkey claims, that it hit IS positions near Jarabulus with artillery, but nobody in the area has seen any impact. Turkey sent also tanks and a mine clearing vehicle into Syria, which were greeted amicably by IS. There are reports that 1,000 Turkish troops have invaded Syria near Jarabulus to safeguard the supply lines of Islamic fighters. This could be a start of the “safe zone,” which Erdogan desperately needs to keep the supplies to Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and IS flowing.
A Turkish invasion into Syria is rather plausible, given Erdogan’s hatred against the Kurds. With Turkish options in Syria becoming more and more limited, it wouldn’t be surprising, if Erdogan in a bold move sends in troops to support the Turkmen auxiliaries (Sultan Murad Brigade) and the jihadi proxies (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Islamic State).
On the other hand, military analysts agree that Russia in no way can allow being bullied out of Syria if it hopes to keep a world power status, meaning that an incursion by Turkey into Syria could lead to the most unwanted consequences.
In addition to that, Erdogan has severe problems with the Turkish military, caused in part by Erdogan’s persecutions of senior military officers for alleged coups.
The purported Turkish invasion could also be a case of mistaken identity. The Turkmen Sultan Murad Brigade is operating along the border around Jarabulus with active artillery support from the Turkish army across the border. The Turkmen are trained, outfitted, and equipped by Turkey, they are led by Turkish officers. They can be easily mistaken for Turkish troops and they in the end are Turkish troops in all but name.
This gives Turkey the opportunity of a face saving exit in case the Russians take on the Turkmen brigade.
The Syrian government has sent an official appeal to the UN secretary-general and chairman of the UN Security Council over “repeated incursions of Turkish troops into Syrian border areas.”
Russia is examining an SAA airfield in Qamishli near the Turkish border, which could be converted into a Russian base, and though work has not yet begun, Erdogan already mentioned this as an eminent threat to Turkish security.
The USA, not to be outdone, has finally invaded Syria and taken over the airport “Abu Hajar” southeast of Rmeilan in Hasakeh province. Rmeilan is the site of one of Syria’s largest oilfields. The Kurdish YPG previously controlled the base and handed sole control over it to the USA, in order to enable weapons shipments and the launch of attack helicopters. Work is underway to expand the runway from 700 to 1,400 meters.
The Kurds are playing both sides and taking any kind of help from whoever is offering it. It can well be that both Russia and the USA will have air bases in Kurdish territory, a fact which would at least deter Turkey from military actions against the Kurds.
Despite political maneuvering and flirting, there’s no way that the Kurds would want to break with the Syrian government. They understand perfectly well that their territory is non-viable for independence and that they will have to make a deal to get autonomy in a federal Syrian state. Despite occasional clashes and sometimes acrimonious rhetoric between government and Kurds, both sites always kept the door open, continued consultations, and coordinated policies as well as military moves.
Several artillery shells fired by the Turkish army hit the YPG headquarters in the border city of Tel Abyad, injuring at least two Kurdish fighters and destroying three armored vehicles.
In Suruc, Turkish border guards prevented an aid convoy from entering the world famous Kurdish town of Kobane on the other side of the border and confiscated its load (medicines and medical equipment), while arresting the accompanying aid workers.
After Russia asked for an inclusion of Syrian Kurds, represented by the PYD, in Syrian peace talks, Germany has now joined the call for a participation of the Kurds. ”Yes, there is a big Kurdish minority in Syria,” said a foreign ministry spokesman. “That this Kurdish minority has the right to take part in the formation of a future and peaceful Syria is surely right.” It is quite remarkable, when the most important political power in the EU stands up against Turkey.
Israel, which buys most of the Kurdish oil and a few weeks ago was again courted by Erdogan, called officially for an independent Kurdish state. This will drive Erdogan crazy.
Rumors and inuendo
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov (the “grey cardinal”) in the Russian enclave Kaliningrad for closed door negotiations.
Intelligence company Stratfor speculates that not only the Ukraine, but also Syria was on the agenda and Russia was offered a deal to let Turkey occupy a reduced “safe zone” in exchange for political concessions in Ukraine and an easing of sanctions. Such an offer could be tempting because Russia is slipping into recession and the low oil price (below 30$ a barrel and still falling) hurts.
More plausibly though this is disinformation of the same kind as the frequent reports that Putin has asked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Russia, contrary to the USA, is not known for selling out and abandoning allies.
Russia has sent the anti-submarine destroyer “Vice-Admiral Kulakov” to the Syrian coast, which indicates that a military conflict with Turkey is considered as possible. Turkey does have 13 submarines, built by Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft, that pose a threat to Russian surface vessels if a conflict breaks out.
Turkey’s neighbors are Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Georgia, Greece, Bulgaria, and across the Black Sea Ukraine and Russia. Greece and Armenia have longstanding aversions against Turkey, while Syria, Iraq, and Iran are on the side of Russia. Georgia, Bulgaria, Ukraine are militarily irrelevant. From a geographical point of view, Turkey is not in a good position, it has alienated most of its neighbors.
If Turkey goes to war in earnest, it could destroy the Russian air force in Syria easily. Turkey has 240 F-16’s, 4 Boeing 737 AEW&C (AWACS), drones, and cruise missiles. Turkey could close the Bosporus strait.
Russia could stop gas supplies and it could invade Turkey via Armenia, where 9,000 Russian soldiers are stationed on Turkey’s border. Russia could bomb Turkey’s mediterranean and Black Sea ports. This would be WW III.
Views from the high ground?
Lets hope that someone is able to restrain madman Erdogan. US Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Turkey, said to journalists:
“But when the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting, when internet freedom is curtailed and social media sites…are shut down and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that’s not the kind of example that needs to be set.”
“If you do not have the ability to express your own opinion, to criticize policy, offer competing ideas without fear of intimidation or retribution, then your country is being robbed of opportunity.”
During his official visit Biden met prominent journalists fired over the past year for their critical coverage of Erdogan, he also met the wife and son of jailed journalist Can Dundar, editor-in-chief of the secularist Cumhuriyet newspaper.
Can Dundar was arrested in November over the publication of footage purporting to show the state intelligence agency MIT guarding weapons transports to Syrian Islamists.
Not only Russia is in economic trouble, European economies are reeling too. Unemployment in Greece, Spain, Portugal remains high, stock markets are in turmoil, US banks are in danger, and the “real economy” (meaning the economic activities outside computers and communication networks), has come to a temporary standstill, as the Baltic Dry Index indicates.
Erdogan is fighting on several fronts. conducting a bloody assault on Kurdish towns in the southeast (Nusaybin, Dargecit, Cizre, Silopi), supporting Islamic fighters in Syria, arresting journalists and academics who criticize the ruling AKP, and trying to intimidate Russia.
This seems to be a poker game where none of the players has a strong hand. We will see who blinks first.
Clarifications about the Syrian conflict
Who will stop Erdogan?
Who will stop Erdogan? Update
Who will stop Erdogan? Update 2
Turkish collaboration with IS
Judo in geopolitics
Russia in Syria – Update 1
Russia in Syria – Update 2
P.S.: Until now my analyses and predictions about the Syrian conflict proved to be largely correct with one exception, which was my prognosis that China would assist Russia in the Syria campaign. At the moment I don’t dare to make any predictions, as the military and political situation has become more and more complicated.
Having said that, there is a real chance to defeat the Islamic insurgents and end the war. Unimaginable pain and suffering has been caused, Syrians would need peace and deserve peace, after all, they are human beings like you and me.
Idle talk, because humanitarian sentiments are not included in the emotional repertoire of imperial strategists.