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Friday, January 19, 2018

Syria Situation Report: December 14 – January 10, 2017

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 CommuniquĂ©. 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 chargĂ© 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.