Tag Archives: Syria

Russia is Launching Two Major War Games, and China is Invited

Russian war games will start next week in the Mediterranean Sea. These will be followed by a second military drill, Vostok-18, that will be held in Siberia and Russia’s far East that will begin September 11th. Combined, the games will see multiple naval fleets, thousands of planes, tens of thousands of vehicles, and hundreds of thousands of Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese troops practice large scale maneuvers. These drills will be the largest Russia has held since the Cold War.

In the Mediterranean games, Russian Naval forces will practice anti-submarine and anti-air combat drills. The drill serves as an open show of force to Western powers right before Syrian forces make their push into the last rebel held stronghold in Idlib. The Mediterranean war games also display Russia’s mission to garner greater influence over the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East, and North Africa. This drill came as a surprise to NATO members, who just days before announced the build-up of Russian forces near Syria for unknown reasons.

In Russia’s far East, Vostok-18 will be the largest joint war game Russia and China have ever participated in together. Around 300,000 Russian soldiers will be joined by 3,200 Chinese troops and soldiers from Mongolia. While the scenario for the drill has not yet been released, Pentagon officials have stated that the Vostok drill will likely focus on invasion from a major foreign power, like the U.S. The military exercise will occupy most of the military districts in central and eastern Russia.

Large scale war games conducted by Russia are not new; the largest one ever conducted took place during the Cold War. What is new, however, is the inclusion of Chinese troops as a part of large scale exercises. Historically speaking, Russia and China have not been close, and so the inclusion of Chinese troops to this drill marks a shift towards what may become one of the strongest military alliances in the world.

These war games are being launched at a time when international pressure on Russia and China is high. Russia is facing sanctions from the United States and the United Kingdom in addition to condemnation for its role and behavior in Syria. China is in the middle of a trade war with the United States and is receiving condemnation for its ongoing actions in the South China Sea.

Large scale war games like these are unwelcome by NATO and Japan.  It shows a worrying sign that the Russian-Sino split is being mended out of shared interests to combat pressure from Western countries and Japan. This is a worrying scenario as such an alliance could bully U.S. allies in the Pacific and in Europe to bend to the demands of Russia and China via economic, energy, and military pressure.

A strong Russia-China alliance is antithetical to the interests of the United States and her allies across the globe. This United States will work to stop the rise of such an entente that threatens the global order the West has painstakingly created.

Russia Gaining Influence in Mediterranean

In early June, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Rwanda where he announced the Russian government’s intent to host a Russia-African Union summit next year. The announcement is a signal of Russian interest to get further involved diplomatically in African affairs. The summit indicates the Russian government’s desire to invest in Africa and cultivate relationships that ultimately boost its standing internationally.

Russians have a history of cooperation with many African countries, however, since the fall of the Soviet Union, involvement in Africa has effectively ended. Recent years have seen the Russians engaging more with Africa, especially in northern countries around the Mediterranean Sea, where the Russians are using military operations against various rebel or terror groups as leverage against the United States.

Russia’s relationship with Turkey will have the biggest impact on future affairs in the Middle East. Though not yet allies, the two governments appear to be improving ties. Despite the numerous setbacks, they have developed an energy alliance, and Turkey recently agreed to buy Russian air-defense systems to diversify their security strategy. There have been tensions though; Turkish F-16s downed a Russian aircraft after it entered Turkish airspace while conducting bombing runs in Syria and Turkey refuses to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Further complicating the relationship is Russia’s support for Turkey’s enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan staunchly opposed Assad’s regime, but he has since left Russia and Assad to conduct operations against rebel militias without strong objections.

Meanwhile, Erdogan must balance the demands of Russia with those of the U.S. and other NATO partners. Recent events have soured the U.S.-Turkish relationship, but the Trump administration recognizes the strategic value of a good relationship with Turkey to fight terror threats posed by Islamist groups. Likewise, Russia appears committed to making the relationship work to boost their influence in the Mediterranean and gain improved access to the Black Sea and Bosporus Strait. The U.S. has found a useful ally in Turkey, the region’s primary economic and military power, but it must weigh such geopolitical concerns with Turkey’s human rights abuses, persecution of the Kurds, and budding relationship with Russia.

Much has been reported of Russia’s military engagement in Syria, including recent airstrikes against Syrian rebel groups in Deraa. The area was jointly declared a ceasefire zone last year by the U.S., Russia, and Syria, but Assad ignored U.S. warnings and coordinated with Russia to recapture the territory. Russia recently ratified a deal with Syria to maintain a permanent presence at the Tartus naval base, Russia’s only foothold in the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, Syria remains Russia’s closest ally in the region.

Russia has made recent inroads into Algeria as well. In February, Russia’s Lavrov met with Algerian officials to emphasize military cooperation between the two countries in the fight against terrorism. A Russian delivery of TOS-1A rocket launchers was sent to the Libyan border to prevent al-Qaeda and Islamic State extremists from establishing a stronghold in Libya and invading Algeria. For Russia, Algeria is a trading partner with a large amount of oil and metal resources. More importantly, an improved relationship between the two would strategically position the Russians between U.S. allies Morocco and Tunisia, give them greater access to the Mediterranean, and close the distance between Russia and Western Europe.

Since the brief intervention in Libya in 2011, the U.S. military has remained largely uninvolved in the ongoing Libyan conflict with the exception of occasional strikes on high-profile Islamic State and al-Qaeda targets. In the absence of U.S. involvement, Russia has steadily increased its covert support for Libyan National Army leader Khalifa Haftar by providing intelligence and military advising to the Libyan army. Russia’s long term goal in Libya is to establish a new military and economic partner so the Russians can apply pressure on the U.S. and influence the region’s affairs.

Developments in Iraq and Afghanistan have diverted U.S. attention away from geopolitical concerns along the Mediterranean Sea. These, along with domestic political issues within the U.S., have allowed the Russian government to expand its influence in a strategic location. Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe and the Middle East reestablishes the Mediterranean and Black Seas as major strategic regions. Russia seeks additional security and trading partners between Turkey, Syria, Libya, and Algeria because having significant influence in those countries could minimize the West’s control of the region. At the moment, the U.S. continues to maintain ties with Turkey which is deemed a reliable counter to Russian influence. Unfortunately, close ties with Turkey jeopardize the alliance with the Kurds, who are stable, effective allies with the U.S. in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The U.S. faces a tough decision: choosing to align with a brutal authoritarian regime in Turkey or losing a major regional ally in the Middle East. Turkey’s continued progression into authoritarianism may leave the U.S. with only one choice.

Turkey’s Erdogan Wins Re-election

On June 24th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won an absolute majority in his re-election bid. The Supreme Election Council of Turkey announced him the winner after receiving 53% of the popular vote. His primary opposition, Muharrem Ince, earned 31% of the votes and conceded the race Monday after complaining of unfair election conditions. International observers, some of whom were denied access, say the election was impacted by restricted freedoms of speech and assembly and unfair campaign coverage in the media. Turkish officials claim international observers were biased against Erdogan.

Erdogan’s victory gives him broad executive powers after a 2017 referendum drafted a new constitution. Among several changes, the new draft turns Turkey into a presidential system and dissolves the office of Prime Minister. It gives the President power to appoint ministers and judges and enact certain laws without parliament. Erdogan claims the new system will remove obstacles to Turkey’s progress, justifying his newly acquired powers.

In July of 2016, junior officers led a disorganized coup attempt which was suppressed within hours. Erdogan used the attempt to further consolidate his power and purge those he accused of supporting the coup. Since then, hundreds of thousands of military, police, academics, and reporters have been detained or dismissed on phony charges, including jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson and NASA scientist Serkan Golge.

Turkey’s transition into a dictatorship has been feared for years, based on Erdogan targeting reporters who expressed dissent. Censorship and other restricted freedoms are more common in Turkey now, too. Another key part of Erdogan’s agenda is the imposition of Shariah into daily life. Religious schools have increased exponentially and even non-Muslim students are automatically enrolled in some of these government-sponsored schools.

Turkey is a member of NATO and located at a key geographic location between Europe, central Asia and the Middle East. It could be an important U.S. ally in the Syrian war and the fight against the Islamic State, although current tensions are challenging the alliance. The U.S. partnered with Turkey to use Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey to conduct its air campaign against the Islamic State. The U.S. also maintains a nuclear arsenal there.

Erdogan’s Islamist agenda has strained relations with the U.S., while he improves ties with Russia. State-controlled Turkish journalists cite U.S. support for the Kurds in declaring that the U.S. is now an enemy to Turkey.

Turkish media and members of the parliament have also demanded the U.S. military be removed from Incirlik Air Base or else “thousands will siege” upon the base. This level of hostility poses a direct threat to U.S. forces and their ability to achieve strategic and tactical goals in the Middle East.

In response to growing tensions between the two countries, the U.S. Senate moved to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey, although this has yet to be finalized into law. In the meantime, Turkey received two F-35s at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, though they won’t be permitted to take them to Turkey until Turkish pilots have adequately trained with them.

Whether or not the sales go through, the debate around them is illustrative of the current relationship between Turkey and the U.S. Turkish officials have suggested they will coordinate with Russia if they are unable to acquire F-35s from the U.S. Turkey has already agreed to buy Russian S-400s, an anti-aircraft missile defense system. If Turkey also acquires F-35s, U.S. officials fear Russia will be able to collect data from Turkey’s S-400s and determine how to better target F-35s used by NATO partners.

Though the results came as no surprise, the reelection of Erdogan will have a damaging impact on U.S. goals in the Middle East. Rising Islamist and anti-American sentiments within Turkey could present a direct security threat to the United States or its allies in the region. The U.S. may be forced to find a new base of operations to wage its air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It must also consider the amount of support provided to the Kurds, who have been subjected to Turkish military operations in Kurdish-held territories Afrin and Manbij, which the U.S. and Turkey agreed to jointly administer. The U.S. has relied on the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State, but now that the Islamic State’s caliphate has been largely defeated, the U.S. must decide between supporting the Kurds’ independence and angering the governments of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, or angering the Kurds by improving ties with Turkey and Iraq.

Of equal significance is the balance between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Iran opposes Turkish incursions into Kurdish territories because it may present a long-term threat to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey opposes, but Iran and Russia support. Russia, however, supported the operation, meaning the Iranians were alone in opposing it.

Meanwhile, in southern Syria, Russian jets backed Assad’s military strikes against rebel-held areas in Daraa, a border city near Jordan and Israel. The strikes came even after the U.S. warned Assad and Putin against it, though the U.S. also withdrew support for rebels in the area, revealing reluctance to increase involvement in Syria.

Overt aggression shown by Turkey, Russia and Syria in these matters poses a threat to U.S. allies and stability in the region. Iran is also attempting to exert its influence in the region, so the U.S. must carefully choose who to support to prevent Russia and Iran from controlling Middle East affairs.

Additionally, a closer Russian-Turkish relationship would jeopardize U.S. military capabilities against terror threats posed by jihadists. It also impacts U.S. nuclear presence in the region, as well as U.S. access in the Black Sea, where U.S. interests lie in energy and security concerns. Erdogan’s election victory complicates the issues faced by U.S. officials, who must carefully weigh the security threat from Islamist jihadists with the geopolitical threat from Russia and Iran.

 

Protests in Jordan Could Affect Regional Security

On Wednesday, May 30th, Jordanian workers staged a strike in the capital city of Amman against the government’s latest income tax proposal. The proposal was set to increase government revenue by raising the individual tax rate to up to 25% of their reported income and anywhere between 30% and 40% for most businesses. The plan was also set to eliminate exemptions and tax pensions and inheritance for the first time.

The reforms come just months after an earlier tax hike as part of an agreement with the International Money Fund (IMF) to reduce Jordan’s $40 billion public debt. The IMF conditioned its aid package on Jordan enacting austerity measures, such as an increase in government revenue or unpopular spending reductions.

The strike was set to last from 9am to 3pm with a demonstration to follow, but demonstrations continued peacefully into the night. Unique about this protest is the fact that it was organized by professional workers’ unions rather than political parties.

The unions cover a diverse set of trades, including teachers, doctors, shop workers, and bankers. Historically, many Jordanian unions have been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front, but the group has fared poorly in recent union elections. In current protests, with a less influential Muslim Brotherhood, participants have been adamant about not allowing the Muslim Brotherhood or any other external group to use the protests for ideological gains. Instead, protesters insist they have learned from the past and are attempting to stay focused on “singular goals.”

Much of the protests are led by young men and women who are motivated by the failures of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, which led to “half-hearted” reforms among Jordan’s government that had minimal results.

Although initially concerned with the tax reform law, protests morphed into demonstrations against the government’s corruption and poor economic policies. On Wednesday, June 6th, the 7th day of demonstrations, protests turned violent when a security guard was non-fatally stabbed by a protester who was then arrested. No acts of violence have been reported since.

To appease the protesters, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki resigned on Monday, June 4, and was replaced by Omar Razzaz, a former World Bank official. In another victory for the protesters, Razzaz announced his intent to withdraw the tax reform as soon as he was sworn into office by King Abdullah. Additionally, Jordan has asked the IMF to slow its reforms.

These steps by the government convinced union leaders to suspend protests to allow the government to make further changes. This was poorly received by protesters, however, who pressured union leaders to continue lobbying efforts with members of Jordan’s parliament.

What’s At Stake?  

Jordan has been an ally to United States’ efforts for peace and security in the Middle East, but economic troubles could restrain the Jordanian government’s ability to assist the U.S. in some of its key regional security goals. Jordan is one of two countries in the Middle East to sign a peace treaty with staunch U.S. ally Israel, which it did in 1994.

Jordan maintains a vested interest in Jerusalem, where it administers the Temple Mount, a major religious site for Jews and the site of Al Aqsa mosque, which is highly regarded by Muslims. Tensions increased between Jordan and Israel over the decision to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and in January of 2018, Jordan’s King Abdullah affirmed his support for the Palestinian cause. This relationship is an important factor to peace in the region.

Although seemingly friendly, Jordan and Palestinians have historically had a complex relationship. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank and granted citizenship to the Palestinian population. With the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the situation devolved into conflict after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Human Rights Watch reported that more than half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin, but more than 2,700 of them were stripped of Jordanian citizenship beginning in 1988, the height of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The possibility of a Palestinian majority poses a threat to the political power of the Hashemite ruling family of Jordan. Therefore, Jordan has supported the right of return for Palestinians and a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinian territories to prevent Israel from controlling the West Bank and prevent Palestinians from threatening Jordan’s rulers.

If a severe economic crisis develops in Jordan, it would result in Jordan’s inability to be a significant ally in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The U.S. or Israeli governments might have to take a more proactive role in finding a long-term peaceful solution, an already difficult task made more complex by recent, ongoing protests and the U.S Embassy relocation to Jerusalem, which further angered Palestinian supporters. Although Hamas has been linked to sponsoring the protests to pressure Israel, reporting has often portrayed the Israeli military as unnecessarily aggressive, further straining relations.

Jordan has also been a major partner in the Syrian refugee crisis, taking in the second highest total of Syrians and offering them protection, health and education services, employment opportunities, and access to resources. Expenditures for the Syrian refugees totals over $2.5 billion per year, a quarter of government revenue and 6 percent of Jordan’s gross domestic product. In other words, the refugee crisis has been a significant financial burden on Jordan, and its economic crisis could send more Syrians on the move. That scenario could result in Syrians attempting to seek refuge in the U.S. or European countries, which would pose potential security threats.

Jordan’s economy is dependent on foreign aid with no oil or other natural resources, so its foreign policy is dependent on its largest donor. Since the U.S. is Jordan’s largest donor, Jordan has historically adopted a pro-West stance. It is notable then, that after agreeing to a $1.2 billion financial aid package with the United States, Jordan’s King Abdullah met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. In their meeting, the two leaders expressed their displeasure in the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem and affirmed their support for the Palestinian cause. Rouhani later stressed a desire to improve relations with Jordan, and the tensions between the U.S. and Jordan could provide an opening for both leaders to cultivate the relationship. Because of Iranian tendency to undermine stability in the region by supporting insurgencies or other divergent tactics, the relationship between these two is worth watching. However, the Jordanian monarchy still maintains close economic and military ties with the U.S., the E.U., and Saudi Arabia.

After repeated failed promises to reform Jordan’s government, King Abdullah’s appointment of Omar Razzaz seems to ignore the demands of the protestors. The IMF-backed reforms have strained middle and lower class Jordanians, and a former World Bank official as Prime Minister is indicative of Jordan’s intent to continue pursuing IMF reform proposals. Jordan’s Military Veterans Association also expressed disappointment in Razzaz, calling him “unfit” to lead the country through this crisis. Although popular now, Abdullah must carefully weigh the necessary austerity measures with the economic realities of Jordan’s lower class citizens, who began their protests because of such measures.

For the time being, the demonstrations remain as mostly peaceful protests against increased costs of living, higher taxes, and limited job opportunities. The protests are advocating for governmental reform rather than regime change. But if the King is unable to promote meaningful reform, Jordanian citizens could reach a breaking point.

Considering that some of Jordan’s veterans groups have been critical of the monarchy in the past, this event should not be written off as a simple protest. Jordan’s economic woes have continued for years, and its government does not appear to be close to a solution.

The U.S. government must closely monitor the situation while also remaining wary of Iran’s attempts to increase its influence in the Kingdom. If Jordan is unable to overcome this economic crisis, the United States risks losing a key ally in improving the security of the Middle East.

 

 

UN Security Council Finds That North Korea Has Sent Chemical Weapons To Syria

On February 27th a United Nations Security Council (UN) panel uncovered evidence that North Korea is assisting Syria develop chemical weapons.

There is evidence that there were three visits by North Korean technicians in Syria back in 2016. Further findings show more than 40 unreported shipments from North Korea to companies that operate Syria’s chemical weapons programs, these shipments took place between 2012 and 2017.

Trade between the two countries appears to allow Syria to maintain their chemical weapons arsenal and provide North Korea with hard currency.

North Korea is believed to hold a vast chemical arsenal and could potentially expand Syria’s chemical capabilities. Syria has shown in the past that they do indeed have a large arsenal of chemical weapons, and have demonstrated a willingness to use them.

The most recent example of Syria’s chemical weapon capability occurred on February 26th of 2018 in the eastern Ghouta region of Syria. Reports came in from witnesses that chlorine gas was used during airstrikes that killed at least 23 people. The Syrian government has denied using chemical weapons throughout the civil war.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 North Korea has closely backed al-Assad’s government. Since 2013 there have been reports of North Korea sending troops and technical advisors to Syria to help strengthen Assad’s hold on power, though there is no hard evidence.

The relationship between Syria and North Korea has historical roots. The two countries have been supporting each other since the 1960s. For example, in 1967 North Korea sent 25 pilots to Syria during the Arab-Israeli war. Furthermore, throughout the 80s and early 90s North Korea sent special operations forces into Syria to help train the Syrian Arab Army in insurgency tactics.

The biggest concern is whether North Korea will sell nuclear weapons to Syria. North Korea has generally denied that it seeks to export nuclear technology and Syria publicly admits no interest in the purchase of nuclear weapons. However there has been proof in the past of collaboration between the two countries in regards to building a nuclear weapons program.

In September of 2007, Israel launched an operation called Operation Orchard

 which was an attack against a Syrian nuclear facility. The plutonium reactor bore a striking resemblance to the North Korean Plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. Israeli reconnaissance before the strike of the reactor facility showed North Korean workers at the site. While the two countries are very far apart from each other, their shared opposition to the existing international sanctions regime makes them obvious allies.

The two countries also share a more powerful patron, with Russia heavily involved in preserving the Assad’s regime. While less well-known Russia also maintains a relationship with North Korea.

In December of 2017 Russian tankers reportedly supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three separate occasions in previous months, in violation of UN sanctions according to two Western European security sources, despite Russian Foreign Ministry denials.

North Korea and Syria long-standing relationship, solidified by shared relationships with other actors such as Russia, will continue to complicate efforts to enforce the international sanctions regime. U.S. and allied intelligence agencies must continue to take into account the ability of both regimes to use each other’s territory and resources, and U.S. Treasury should prioritize sanctions enforcement against any companies or organizations, including those of countries like Russia, who play a facilitating role in sanctions busting.

Syrian Government Joins Forces With The YPG Against Turkey

On February 19th the Syrian government moved troops towards the Northern Syrian city of Afrin, where Turkish troops are currently engaging the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Unit (YPG). Over the last few weeks Turkey has focused on taking the town of Afrin as part of an effort to create a buffer area in Syria, pushing the YPG from its border. The Syrian government has called the attack on Afrin a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty.

On February 20th a convoy of pro-Syrian militia forces entered Syria’s Afrin region. The Turkish military reportedly fired “warning shots” forcing the 20 plus vehicle convey to withdraw to about 10km away from the city.

The YPG said that the Syrian forces will deploy alongside Afrin’s border with Turkey. Erdogan said on Tuesday “The besieging of the Afrin city center will start rapidly in the coming days.”

The Syrian moved sparked substantial diplomatic activity. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke on the phone with his Russian and Iranian counterparts. But  Russia’s Foreign Ministry called on Turkey to speak directly with the Syrian government.

Erdogan also spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani reportedly said the Iranians sought to see Syria cleared of “terrorists” but also insisted on that Syrian’s territorial integrity be respected according to a statement from Rouhani’s office.

Turkey publicly views the YPG as a terror organization but has also been one of the primary backers of Sunni Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Over the last few years Turkey has increasingly accepted that Assad’s government is unlikely to be ousted by Syrian rebels. Turkey wants to maintain their image of standing by the rebel groups it supports. In practice this has meant agreeing to work with Iran during “De-Escalation” agreements with Russia.

Though Iran and Turkey have been working together for a while, in 2009 Erdogan told the British newspaper The Guardian that “Iran is our friend” saying he had good relations with their leaders.

In 2016 Turkey’s relationship with Iran has also strengthened over support for Qatar, when Turkey sent troops to Qatar following the Saudi-led boycott of the country over Qatar’s support for terrorist groups including Al Qaeda-linked groups, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The YPG relationship with Assad’s forces remains uneasy. Both powers hold more Syrian territory than any other group. The YPG seek autonomy over the regions they control, while Assad continues to seek the restore Syrian control of the entire territory, calling the YPG traitors in the past.

The YPG had no other choice but to ask Assad’s military for help since no other outside force would help them against Turkey, which includes the United States.

The U.S. has been backing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes the YPG throughout the course of U.S.-led effort against Islamic State, but does not back YPG efforts at autonomy. The U.S. recently backed Kurdish forces in the city of Manbij where Turkey threatened to attack the city. U.S. presence in the area was enough to hold the Turkish forces at bay.

The U.S. foreign policy in Syria today remains convoluted.  In 2013 under the Obama administration the U.S. undertook a policy of covertly arming Syrian rebels to overthrow Assad. The Obama administration’s red line on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was repeatedly violated, despite the Obama administration’s reaching an agreement with the Russians for the disposal of Syrian chemical weapon stockpiles.  But in 2015 the U.S. began using airstrikes to combat the Islamic State which had taken over a significant amount of Syrian territory.

Today the U.S. plays a minimal role with the wide variety of Sunni Syrian rebel groups who rely primarily on support from Turkey and Qatar. The majority of  U.S support is going towards the SDF/YPG in north east Syria in the continued fight against the IS, which has been largely ousted from its territory in Syria and Iraq.

 

 

Iranian Drone Shot Down Over Israel

On February 10th Iran launched a drone into Israel from Tiyas airbase in Syria’s central Homs region. In response Israel used an Apache attack helicopter to down the drone. It is unknown whether or not the drone was armed.

Israel then sent four fighter jets into Syria to strike the Tiyas airbase. During the attack Syrian anti-aircraft batteries downed one jet which crash-landed in Israel.

Both pilots ejected before crashing, one pilot is in critical condition. The anti-aircraft fire went into northern Israel triggering an emergency lockdown. No civilians were reported injured.

Israel then launched 8 fighter jets for another raid into Syria striking 12 targets, a mixture of Syrian air defense batteries and Iranian assets.

On Saturday evening, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Vladimir Putin over the phone informing him that Israel intends to defend its self from any form of aggression and to prevent Iran from establishing a presence within Syria. Recent reports have suggested that Russia has continued to deploy advanced S-400 Air Defense system in Syria, and Russian defense officials claim to have integrated the their Air Defense network with the Syrian system.

One of Israel’s primary objectives has been to intervene when necessary to prevent Iran from using Syria as a corridor to Lebanon to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah hailed the Syrian air defenses after they shot the fighter jet down. They claim that this is a new era in which Israel cannot enter Syrian airspace without confrontation.

Israeli security officials have publicly stated of that the Iranian drone which entered Israeli airspace was a copy of a U.S. drone captured by Iran in December of 2011. Iran denied the claim.

Iran has for some time been working on their drone program, which includes “suicide” drones armed with explosives which have reportedly been provided to Hezbollah according to the U.S. Army. In 2012 Hezbollah threatened to use such drones to target nuclear infrastructure in Israel. By 2015, Hezbollah had a fully operational drone base in Lebanon from which to target Israel.

On February 6th of 2018 Iran announced a mass production of bomb-carrying drones which can carry smart munitions and strike a variety of targets.

Russian foreign ministry officials said that they were concerned about these recent events, and that everyone must exercise restraint to avoid further actions.

The US also commented on the recent events in Israel, the Department of State said that the US is deeply concerned about the escalation in violence over Israel’s border and supports that Israel has a right to defend itself.

The US continues to push back on Iran’s malign activities and has called for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens the stability of the region.

As Iran is slowly gaining confidence within their military due to their success in Syria, they are beginning to test Israel to see how they will react to certain situations. After Israel’s retaliatory attack no further escalation has occurred.

The United States condemned Iranian aggression and backed Israel’s right to self-defense while Russia publicly urged de-escalation and caution for all parties.

Absent some miscalculation on Iran’s part it seems unlikely that there will be further escalation on this issue. We can expect that Iran will continue to test the Israeli border and its response, both directly and through proxies in the short to medium-term, and that the use of unmanned vehicles will continue to play a prominent role in Iran’s provocative tactics.

US Airstrikes Pro-Assad Fighters

On February 7th and 8th in the Khusham province of Syria, the United States military killed approximately 100 members of a pro-Assad militia, according to U.S. military officials.

Airstrikes were called in after about 500 attackers launched a coordinated assault, by firing mortars 5 miles east of the Euphrates river, targeting U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The mortar fire covered the advance of artillery and tanks. The U.S. responded after 20-30 tank and artillery rounds landed within 500 yards of U.S. allies.

U.S. officials said that the airstrikes were launched in “self-defense.” U.S. military officials called their Russian counterparts and warned them about the buildup. The Russians reportedly told the Americans that U.S.-backed forces would not be harmed. The U.S. and Russia back opposing forces in the area, which has necessitated a substantial deconfliction effort.

While the U.S. defended the SDF against pro-Assad forces the same cannot be said about the SDF coalition member the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has come under repeated attack from Turkish forces.

Recently the YPG and Turkey clashed in the city of Afrin. Turkish forces are attempting to push YPG forces back from the Turkish border and capture the city.

The city of Manbij is the farthest west U.S. troops are stationed with the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State. This means so far, no U.S. troops have been endangered by Turkish strikes, even while the Turkish offensive has undermined U.S. efforts against the Islamic State.

The U.S. has largely avoided taking any steps that could be interpreted by the Turks as defending the YPG, but the rhetoric is escalating.

On February 6th, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who directly threatened Manbij calling it a “Bastion of terrorists” and demanding that U.S. forces leave. The Americans refused, with Lt. Gen. Paul Funk saying the U.S. would respond aggressively if attacked.

Funk was one of two senior American generals who traveled to the front lines just outside of the city of Manbij to meet with the SDF’s Manbij Military Council on February 7th.

Turkey’s military offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurds, and increasingly belligerent rhetoric against the U.S., continues to raise questions about Turkey’s role as NATO member and U.S. ally.

Russian Fighter Jet Shot Down Over Syria

On February 3rd, in northeastern Idilb province, Syria, a Russian Sukhoi Su 25 fighter jet was shot down by the Al Qaeda-linked Syrian group Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham(HTS).

HTS used a surface to air missile in order to shoot down the jet.

The Russian pilot ejected after the plane was struck by the missile. The pilot reportedly survived ejection, and reportedly was killed after Al Nusra fighters attempted to capture him, according to the Russian ministry of defense.

HTS used a weapon known as MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System) in order to down the jet. This of course raised the question as to where HTS acquired this sort of a weapon.

In the past HTS had pleaded with their international backers to acquire this sort of a weapons system. HTS’s backers are not well known, and the US, Russia, and Iran all publicly oppose the group.

However, HTS has worked with Turkey and Qatar in the past.

In 2017 Turkey moved through the province of Idilb and headed toward Aleppo in an effort with Russia and Iran to de-escalate certain areas within Syria. Turkish forces coordinated with HTS as they went through Idilb.

HTS commander Muhammed al Julani sought to improve relations with Turkey, at least in part in order to have a regional backer who could protect HTS from facing a terrorism designation, and to position HTS as a partner in controlling Idilb. Despite warming HTS and Turkish ties there’s no direct evidence that Turkey has supplied MANPADS to HTS.

However, HTS’ other known backers in Qatar do have a history of supplying MANPADS that have fallen into jihadist hands.

Qatar reportedly delivered Chinese FN-6 MANPADS to Syrian rebel groups, some of which have also fallen into the hands of the Islamic State. These top of the line Chinese-made MANPADS were reportedly delivered to elements within the Free Syrian Army by sympathizers in Qatar. The weapons were most likely purchased from arms dealers in Sudan, which has a large stockpile of the FN-6s, purchased from China. Sudan is a major customer for Chinese manufactured arms.

Qatar’s ties to HTS have been part of a long standing disagreement between the small nation and its Gulf neighbors, who point to the Qatari decision to provide the Al Qaeda-linked group with millions of dollars as part of a “Ransom” payment scheme.

Qatar’s record on terrorism finance continues to be problematic for the U.S. which technically considers Qatar a close ally in the fight against terrorism. In 2009 Secretary of State Hilary Clinton signed a US cable that stated Qatar’s counterterrorism cooperation is the “worst in the region.”

It would be reasonable to believe that HTS received access to MANPADS through Qatari backers, with the weapons movements possibly facilitated by Turkey.

This would put the two supposed U.S. allies at odds with the U.S. own publicly stated position opposing the proliferation of MANPADS, which U.S. officials fear may fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

On February 3rd according to The Washington Post, the State Department denied allegations of supplying MANPAD weapon systems to groups in Syria, and denied that U.S. equipment was used to shoot down the Russian jet.

Russia retaliated by launching airstrikes. The Washington Post reported that the Russian Defense Ministry said they used “Precision guided weapons” without any further detail. It has been reported that 10 civilians were killed in the Russian response, while Russian sources report killing 30 fighters.

HTS downing of the Sukhoi Su 25 fighter jet, a highly sophisticated fighter jet, is no easy feat. The last time a Russian jet was downed in Syria was 2015 when a Turkish fighter jet fired at a Russian SU 24 fighter jet which reportedly crossed into Turkish airspace.

Obviously, the successful deployment of sophisticated MANPADs by Al Qaeda affiliated groups is deeply concerning. There has been very little public cooperation between the US and Russia on the MANPADs issue, despite concerns raised by both countries, a likely result both of differences over the Syrian situation in addition to wider tensions. Despite their probable contravention of U.S. efforts to prevent MANPADs proliferation it’s unlikely this recent incident will have a substantial effect on U.S-Turkish or U.S.-Qatari relations.

Turkey Clashes with People’s Protection Units

On January 20th Turkey launched operation Olive Branch against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northwest Syria, specifically targeting Syria’s Afrin region. Turkey considers the YPG as a terrorist organization due to what the Turks consider deep ties to Kurdish PKK party, which is fighting to self-rule inside Turkey. The United States and several other NATO allies also consider the PKK a terror group.

However, the United States and France supported the YPG during the Syrian civil war as they fought against ISIS and Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. French president Emmanuel Macron expressed concern with the offensive warning that while France accepted targeting potential terrorist threats it was opposed to a larger scale, more permanent Turkish presence.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan defended the operation saying it is only to defend the country’ security against a “Terrorist organization”.

Ankara has made minimal effort to produce  evidence that the Syrian Kurdish forces have carried out any hostile action against Turkey, though the majority of the Turkish public appears to support the operation, based on reports from   polling. It’s worth noting however that those criticizing the operation risk law enforcement action, at least 300 people have been detained for social media posts opposing the Turkish operation.

The last civilian casualty numbers were approximately 51 civilians killed since the beginning of the operation on January 20th, according to Qatari state-run Al Jazeera. On January 31st the Russia government claimed   were killed since the beginning of this operation.

Turkey’s military said they captured mount Bursaya, which the Turks accuse the YPG of using to target Turkish civilians in the province of Kilis. Turkey’s military reported that they found tunnel systems and concrete structures throughout the mountain.

The hill overlooks Azaz which is a military hub for Turkey within Syria. The hill is also a bridgehead to the rest of Afrin, which is why Turkey is so keen to capture the position.

The U.S. has supported several groups in the Syrian civil war, but is particularly reliant upon the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a member, to retake and stabilize territory formerly ruled by the Islamic State.

The US sees the SDF as an effective force to fight against the Islamic State and has supplied the SDF with weaponry and military advisors.

This puts the US in contention with NATO ally Turkey, whose officials have complained about U.S. arms and training going to Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey has been a primary support of other Syrian rebel units, largely Islamist militias, some with known or suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Turkish supported Syrian rebels have on occasion openly attacked U.S.-supported Kurdish forces.

Turkish officials said that last year in November President Donald Trump had promised to stop supplying arms to the YPG, while U.S. officials say only that it is making “adjustments” to its arms allocation is pending following the successful defeat of Islamic State in Raqqa. Last week Trump and Erdogan had a phone conversation, the White House stated that Trump urged Turkey to “limit its military actions” in Afrin. Despite U.S. efforts to downplay the significance of tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, Ankara seems determined to bring issues to a head. Despite the long history of U.S.-Turkish partnership, (i.e. NATO), U.S. and Turkish objectives in the region are substantively different, and both parties have significantly different end states in mind. As a result, it’s unlikely these disagreements are to be resolved in the near term.