The Russian Mission In Syria Is Far From Done

May 17, 2016
ASOR / Digital Globe

LIVE UPDATES: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Kurdish Officials Assassinated By Erstwhile Ally In Afrin, Aleppo

Jaish al-Shamal, a small militant group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), claimed responsibility yesterday for the assassination of two Kurdish officials in Afrin. 

A spokeswoman known as Shirin, reported to be working with the YPG/J (although the PYD, the political party closely linked to the military group, denies this) was shot dead along with her assistant Ziyad Jafar by Jamil Karmo, who had previously fought alongside the YPG in northwestern Syria.

Graphic footage was released of the killings.

Karmo has been presented by some as a ‘sleeper agent’ for the small militant group.

According to some reports, he had previously fought with Jaish al-Thuwar, a group that once affiliated itself with the FSA but which then aligned itself with the YPG and joined YPG-led attacks on other rebel groups, including FSA units, north of Aleppo earlier this year.

This video purportedly shows him at a funeral of YPG soldiers killed in Afrin: 

Jaish al-Shamal and reportedly Karmo himself have stated that the killings were a retaliation for a YPG parade of rebel corpses in Afrin at the end of last month: 

ARA News, a Kurdish news outlet, reported that Shirin and Jafar had been engaged in negotiations on the return of the bodies of 66 rebel fighters killed in battle.

According to the report, rebel groups fired “at least five rockets” at Afrin today, but caused no casualties.

The fighting between the YPG, Jaish al-Thuwar, and other opposition groups in the Aleppo area is a grave cause for concern, with the YPG-led offensive on Azaz earlier this year piling pressure on a narrow corridor of rebel territory trapped between forces allied to the Assad regime and the Turkish border. This led to widespread suspicions that the Afrin YPG was colluding with Russia and the regime in their attacks. 

Meanwhile rebel Jaish al-Islam fighters are also reported to have conducted indiscriminate artillery bombardments of Kurdish areas of Aleppo city and even used chlorine gas in at least one attack earlier this spring, according to a recent Amnesty International report.

Meanwhile to the south and east regime-allied forces (led by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), as well as ISIS, are pressing on the rebel positions, supported by Russian air power. 

Internecine fighting between Arab rebel and Kurdish groups can only worsen the situation for the civilian population under fire in the north of Aleppo and may well develop into a longer lasting and more deadly conflict that could run parallel to both the wider Syrian war and the conflict between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, which has close links to the YPG.

There are also concerns that, at least as far as some in Turkey are concerned, the US has switched from backing FSA rebels that Turkey also supports to solely backing the YPG rebels who are fighting against ISIS. This incident also takes place right after fighters from the PKK shot down a Turkish military helicopter in Turkey.

ARA News reported that YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) representatives had vowed to punish the perpetrators of yesterday’s killings, giving every reason to expect a further worsening of violence.

— Pierre Vaux

As Russian and Assad Troops Advance, Did ISIS Just Blow Up Syria’s Largest Natural Gas Field?

The fight for Palmyra, and the Shaer gas fields, is heating up. After having recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra in central Syria, the Russian government took a victory lap by holding a grotesque charade — a concert to celebrate the defeat of terrorism — while new airstrikes, either launched by the Syrian military or by Russia, killed dozens of refugees in northern Syria: 

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Western Media Swallow Putin's Syria Narrative

It's been a banner week for the Kremlin's propaganda machine. At home, and across the border in the parts of Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, Russian military hardware was out on display for the May 9 Victory Day parade marking the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.

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May 17, 2016 18:52 (GMT)

The Russian military has been building new bases in the area, one of which threatens the archaeological heritage that the Kremlin has praised their mission for preserving: 

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A New Russian Military Base Is Threatening Ancient Ruins In Syria

Satellite views of the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria suggest that Russia is building a military base on top of a World Heritage Site, possibly breaking international law protecting antiquities. In March, Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces retook Palmyra from ISIS forces.

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May 17, 2016 18:54 (GMT)

We predicted that when Russia captured Palmyra, their main goals were two-fold: to win a propaganda victory, and to secure the oil and gas fields just outside the city, thus bolstering the Assad regime by making it more economically viable while spreading the message that Assad and Russia are crucial to the fight against terrorism:

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If The Goal Is To Defeat Islamic State, Don't Rely On Russia To Help

Three historic developments have taken place in Syria in the last month and a half. The first was the declaration of a nationwide cease-fire, agreed upon by President Bashar al-Assad as well as most nonjihadist factions of the Syrian opposition. The second, Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement that Russian forces would begin a partial withdrawal from Syria.

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May 17, 2016 18:59 (GMT)

Yesterday, pictures and videos uploaded to social media showed the Russian military taking the next step — advancing toward the Shaer gas fields, the largest natural gas deposit in all of Syria. LiveUAMap, which is also tracking the Syria conflict, has posted pictures like this one, which reportedly shows a Russian T-90 tank, the most advanced Russian tank in service, deployed in the area: 

Russian T-90 A operating in Shaer Gas field, eastern Homs.

Civil war and Russian intervention in Syria

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May 17, 2016 19:06 (GMT)

But then yesterday there was a surprising headline — a 4.4 magnitude earthquake took place just 18 kilometers north of Palmyra (Tadmur). The rumor, spread through social media and pro-ISIS Twitter accounts, was that the terrorist group had blown up the gas fields as the Russian troops advanced.
24 hours later there is no confirmation that ISIS destroyed the gas fields, though more groups have echoed the claim. Still, photos posted recently show more destroyed telephone and electrical cables cut. 

The only ones with the ability to send messages out of this area, it seems, are the Russian and Syrian soldiers, and the ISIS fighters, and all three of them continue to pursue their own communication strategies that have little to do with truthful reporting. 

Today, there are videos and pictures (which we cannot confirm) that reportedly show Russian air power operating near Palmyra: 

And yet ISIS is making its own claims — that it is resisting the advance of the pro-Assad coalition in the area: 
James Miller