LIVE UPDATES: We continue to track reports that the Syrian regime, despite Russian air support, is losing momentum in Aleppo, while it may be losing ground in Hama, Latakia, and elsewhere.
The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.
Multiple social media accounts also report that the Syrian regime has made some gains near Judaydah, east of Aleppo (map) near al Safira, however these are not yet supported by videos from the ground.
This map, pulled from the latest report from The Institute For The Study Of War which assesses the situation in Aleppo, shows Khan Touman, Al Safira, and the Kweires airport. As you can see, the defeat of the Assad offensive in the southwest, or the advance of rebels there, could seriously threaten the southern supply routes for Assad positions in southern and western Aleppo city.
— James Miller
The Russian air campaign in Syria is three weeks old, and the US bombing campaign against ISIS started one year and four months ago. So it’s worth auditing the combatants to see who is bombing what, and where.
Let’s start with the United States, which nominally commands a coalition of foreign powers who are combating ISIS in eastern Syria and in Iraq. On paper, the non-US contribution to this coalition is modest but significant and includes aircraft from Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the UK, Australia, Canada, France, and Turkey.
The reality, however, is that the Gulf states (with the possible exception of Jordan) have had a limited role which has decreased in recent months as the war in Yemen has heated up. The US now conducts 95% of the airstrikes on ISIS in Syria, according to data given to Vocativ by the US government:
Furthermore, Canada’s prime minister elect, Justin Trudeau,says Canadian jets will withdraw from the anti-ISIS coalition.
The United States conducted airstrikes against the Islamic State’s oil operations in Syria this week. The Associated Press reports:
Operations officer Maj. Michael Filanowski told journalists in Baghdad that airstrikes late Wednesday struck ISIS-controlled oil refineries, command and control centers and transportation nodes in the Omar oil field near the town of Deir el-Zour. Coalition spokesman Col. Steven Warren said the attack hit 26 targets, making it one of the largest set of strikes since launching the air campaign last year.
The refinery generates between $1.7 and $5.1 million per month for the Islamic State group.
“It was very specific targets that would result in long-term incapacitation of their ability to sell oil, to get it out of the ground and transport it,” Filanowski said.
Coalition officials said that Iraqi security forces, backed by the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Forces and Iraqi federal police, continue to work to recapture and clear the western city of Ramadi and the city of Beiji, home to Iraq’s largest oil refinery. They were being supported by airstrikes.
Iraqi forces said Tuesday that they had driven Islamic State militants out of Beiji and were in full control of the town. But coalition officials said Thursday that the mission has not been completed.
Earlier this week, the US conducted a special operations mission in ISIS-controlled Iraq which led to the death of a US service member. During the raid, 70 prisoners were freed who, US officials say, were facing imminent execution. It was the first time a US soldier was killed in combat operations in Iraq since US forces withdrew in 2011, leaving only advisors and trainers. New York Times reports:
Providing new details about the operation, American officials said on Thursday night that it had been mounted at the request of the Kurdish officials who insisted they had solid intelligence that the Islamic State was about to massacre prisoners, including a number of pesh merga fighters, as the Kurdish forces are known.
“They were going with or without us,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a classified operation. “We wanted to stand behind an important ally.”
Fears that the prisoners were in danger may have been reinforced by the militants’ actions in recent days. An Iraqi in the Hawija area, who asked not to be named because he feared retribution from the Islamic State, said this week that the militants had recently executed 11 young men who were the sons or relatives of police officers or other Iraqi forces. He said their bodies had been displayed on a nearby bridge.
Five American helicopters were involved in the raid, a mix of Chinook and Black Hawk choppers. The American forces included commandos from the Delta Force counterterrorism unit, officials said.
As the operation began, the United States conducted an airstrike to destroy a bridge near Hawija and hamper the Islamic State’s ability to send reinforcements. But the operation soon became an intense firefight.
It’s possible that this raid indicates a deepening involvement of American special forces troops in the fight against ISIS, a possible indicator that the current strategy is not netting results. It’s also possible that we’re only hearing about this raid because a US serviceman was killed, and raids like these happen more often than we know.
Either way, there is considerable skepticism that the US strategy to empower YPG Kurdish fighters in northern Syria will work. Meanwhile, Russia seems to be undercutting the goals of the US coalition.
Russia continues its own air campaign, but as we’ve been reporting, ISIS has largely benefited from Russian airstrikes against moderate opposition groups. A Reuters analysis of Russian airstrikes estimates that almost 80% of the airstrikes have been conducted in areas that the Islamic State does not control:
Defence ministry statements of targets hit by the Russian Air Force and an online archive of Russian military maps show Russia has hit 64 named locations since President Vladimir Putin ordered the first round of air strikes three weeks ago.
Of those targets, a maximum of 15 were in areas held by Islamic State, according to a survey of locations of the rival forces in Syria compiled by the Institute for the Study of War.
“If you look at the map, you can easily understand that they are not fighting Islamic State but other opposition groups,” said Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based defense columnist and deputy editor of online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.
The data supports assertions from Washington and its NATO allies that Russia’s intervention in Syria, its biggest military deployment abroad since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is designed to prop up Assad, who flew to Moscow on Tuesday to thank Putin for his support.
While Russia’s airstrikes have not led to significant advances for the Assad regime, analyst Charles Lister suggests that there are four primary reasons why Russian airstrikes in Syria will make things worse:
– Firstly, the fact that moderate FSA factions have been hit so hard in Russian strikes — and that these same groups have been so effective in using their TOW missiles — has closed the gap between them and some of the most conservative Syrian Islamists. While they were somewhat distrustful of each other earlier this year, they have been celebrating each other’s battlefield successes since Russia started its strikes.
– Secondly, some diplomatic statements notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other Gulf states are furious at Russia’s actions. They have and will continue to encourage closer military coordination between the FSA and Syrian Islamists, which provides transnationally-minded groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaida-linked factions with space to further integrate into broader opposition dynamics. Already, a number of multi-group operations rooms have been established in areas targeted by Russian strikes in which ‘vetted’ FSA groups, Syrian Islamists and sometimes Jabhat al-Nusra have openly flaunted their cooperation. This was a rare occurrence even one month ago.
– Thirdly — after nearly two years of serious internal and external engagement with the subject of a ‘political solution — Syria’s armed opposition now sees itself in an existential battle which can have no outcome other than the total defeat of Assad, Iran, and Russia. “There is little time for politics right now,” said one mainstream Islamist. The same fighters used to see Russia as a potential party at the negotiating table. “Russia is a major power with a UN veto and before its aggression, it could have helped sponsor an acceptable political solution,” said 101st Division leader Captain Hassan al-Hamadeh, a former regime MiG-21 jet pilot who famously defected with his jet to Jordan in June 2012. “But after Russia’s aggression, Putin has become a clear partner of Assad in shedding Syrian blood, which hinders any hope of a political solution,” he insisted.
– Lastly, Russia’s military intervention will undoubtedly further consolidate jihadist militancy in Syria. Al-Qaida will likely benefit directly from this, by presenting itself as fighting a second “jihad” against Russia. “The most important consequence is the psychological situation now hitting the Syrian people,” Hassan Haj Ali, the leader of the CIA-backed Tajamu Suqor al-Ghab told me. “As far as many people see it, the only friends left of the Syrian people are the car bomb and the gun and those who say there is no solution but to die in battle,” he exclaimed.
Read that analysis here:
Russia's Intervention in Syria: Protracting an Already Endless Conflict
Russia's intervention in Syria has introduced a dangerous new dynamic into an already volatile and complex conflict. Rather than advancing its self-proclaimed objective of fighting terrorism, many more Russian strikes have targeted moderate rebels — "vetted" and supported by the United States — as well as other expressly Syrian opposition groups backed variously by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.