Rojava Embattled and the War to Destroy ISIS, 2014-2018
In 2012 ISIS began to expand in Syria as that country was gripped by a war between the brutal Alawite (a syncretic Shiite offshoot) regime of President Bashar al Assad and a complex array of Sunni rebel groups. Hardened ISI fighters (Islamic State in Iraq, formerly an anti-US insurgent group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq) who had years of fighting Shiites in Iraq crossed the border during the chaos and eventually created a trans-border group known as ISIS. Sunni ISIS then conquered territory stretching from two border crossings with Turkey at Jarabulus (in the northwest) and Tel Abyad (in the northeast) and the Aleppo region down along the Euphrates River towns of Tabqa and Raqqa, to the Iraqi border town of Abu Kamal.
In August 2014 the US declared war on ISIS and by September of that year had begun bombing ISIS targets in Syria. But ISIS could not be “degraded and destroyed,” as Obama put it, without “boots on the ground.” US Central Command found those boots in the form of an untried Socialist Kurdish militia in northern Syria that was facing an ISIS offensive against their town of Kobane. The Obama administration decided to arm and provide close air support to the Kurdish defenders of this northern border town with Turkey in the fall of 2014. In a see-sawing battle watched by the world, this UCW (Unconventional Warfare) approach to war prevailed and the Kurds were able finally stop ISIS’s self proclaimed policy of “existing and expanding.”
With 500 initial US special forces ground-spotters calling in airstrikes for their increasingly confident forces who absorbed thousands of local Arabs the Syrian Democratic Forces (as the Kurdish- led fighters now called themselves) liberated most of the Euphrates River towns and in long bloody siege retook the “heart of darkness,” ISIS’s capital of Raqqa. Meanwhile, the Syrian government that had been forced back to the western coastal strip where most of the population lived, went on the offensive with Russian air support and Hezbollah and Iranian troop support. The Syrian Army crushed the Sunni rebels in the west (except in Idblib Province) and pushed ISIS out of Palmyra, Deir es Zor and parts of Damascus.
Afrin. The 2018 Turkish Invasion of Kurdish Syria
Turkey considers all Kurdish fighting forces, who are America’s main “boots on the ground” ally in Syria against ISIS, to be “terrorists” with links to Turkey’s domestic enemy, the Kurdish PKK separatists. When the Trump administration declared in January 2018 that it would arm and train a Syrian Kurdish border patrol of 30,000 to permanently suppress ISIS in their eastern deserts holdouts, the Turks were furious. To punish the Syrian Kurds, who primarily fight for a US backed fighting force known as the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in January 2018. This invasion was against the exposed province of Afrin where no US troops had been deployed, as there was no ISIS presence there.
This massive campaign, involving approximately 6,400 Turkish and 15-25,000 allied Sunni Arab rebel fighters, had the objective of conquering one of the Syrian Kurds’ three northern provinces, Afrin. Turkish artillery, drones, and F-16 jets carried out heavy, precision strikes on Kurdish SDF positions in this area without fear of hitting US troops like the ones deployed with the SDF in the eastern Kurdish provinces.
Before the invasion, the Turks secured an agreement with Vladimir Putin that would allow Turkish jets to carry out strikes in northwestern Syria. US Central Command, which had a close working relationship with its Kurdish SDF allies–that had been forged in their joint battles to defeat ISIS,–was dismayed by this rear attack by NATO ally Turkey. It came as no surprise that the Kurdish SDF forces–that had been so essential in defeating the remnants of ISIS in the eastern Syrian desert–were subsequently diverted from the campaign against ISIS remnants in order to assist their fellow Kurds in their westernmost province. In three months, however, Turkey’s proxy Sunni Arab rebel forces, backed by the Turkish military, successfully captured the city and canton of Afrin. By invading Afrin, Turkey was effectively able to drive the Kurdish forces out of this area and establish a contiguous, Arab-dominated rebel control zone that stretched from Idlib province in the west, through northern Aleppo province to the Turkish border town of Jarabulus. This disrupted the Syrian Kurds’ dream of uniting their two million oppressed people into a contiguous homeland to be known as Rojava, The Land of the Setting Sun. Turkey subsequently vowed to take the Kurdish SDF-held, strategic town of Manbij where U.S. Special Forces had been deployed since 2015. Turkey’s goal was to prevent the Kurds from absorbing this Arab town into Rojava and uniting their homeland with Afrin. The U.S. has heavily capitalized on Kurdish fighters to fight and defeat ISIS. US commanders in Syria have vowed to defend their forces in Manbij if they are attacked by Turkey. In April 2018, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. troops were building new military positions near Syrian-Turkish border. This was aimed at deterring advancing Turkish-backed rebel groups and preventing a Turkish conquest of Manbij where the SDF have created a democratic local leadership based on the model they have established throughout their territories.
ISIS Terror Threats to the FIFA Soccer World Cup in Russia June-July 2018
On the eve of hosting the FIFA World Cup in soccer, the most widely viewed sports event in the world, the Russian Federation is facing a surge in the terror threats linked to Vladimir Putin’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. There is increasing concern that terrorists linked to the Islamic State and other jihadi groups will seek to use the month-long global spectator event, kicking off June 14, to carry out high-profile terror attacks. Pro-Islamic State media platforms have launched an unprecedented social media campaign calling for attacks on the tournament. In just the past few years, there have been numerous successful terror attacks and thwarted plots in Russia by terrorists linked to or inspired by the Islamic State. This suggests the group may have the capacity to launch attacks in Russia during the World Cup.
Russian officials have assured sports journalists that “Russia, by comparison with other championships, will guarantee one of the highest levels of security. In view of the measures taken and the experience of other major championships we will be able 100pc [percent] to ensure order in the stadiums and fan safety.”
Russia has had almost three decades of experience in counterterrorism operations, but such bold promises of 100-percent security would appear difficult to keep in light of the recent Islamic State-inspired attacks that have taken place since 2015 in retaliation of Russia’s military campaign against Sunni rebels in Syria. As the World Cup approaches, pro-Islamic State media platforms have launched an unprecedented media campaign designed to galvanize “lone wolves” or “wolf pack” cells to carry out the sort of self-starter, do-it-yourself attacks that have increasingly become the group’s trademark. There is also the possibility that hundreds of battle-hardened Russian fighters from Dagestan, Chechnya, Tatarstan, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia could return to Russia following the collapse of the Islamic State’s caliphate, seeking vengeance. Furthermore, there is concern Russians recruited locally into the Islamic State-aligned Kavkaz Velayet (Caucasus Province) could carry out terror attacks during the World Cup.
In response to these threats, Russian security forces have launched a series of raids in the Caucasus region over the course of the last year and have arrested cells throughout Russia. Stringent security measures have also been put in place to protect the World Cup, but it will be difficult to maintain security of the sort achieved during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi as the matches will be held across Russia in 11 cities that are connected by vulnerable travel networks.
Foreign fighters joining ISIS from Russia and Central Asian Republics
What made the ISIS a sizable, lethal force was its ability to attract and recruit foreign fighters abroad. Indeed, the existence of the newly established self-proclaimed caliphate depended on a steady flow of incoming foreign fighters.
Through a manipulation of religious texts and historical events, ISIS’ manifesto-type propaganda materials were notoriously effective in convicting vulnerable youth to conduct hijrah. Hijrah refers to a sacred migration from danger to a safer zone. ISIS’ exclusive framing of hijrah as a migration from Darul-Kufr (land of infidels) to Darul-Islam (land of Islam) was highly inaccurate that inventively exploited the authentic application of hijrah in Islam.
The biggest foreign fighter migration joining ISIS occurred from the former Soviet Union (FSU) republics. Russian is the third most common language of ISIS after Arabic and English. This map illustrates the inflow of foreign fighters coming from each FSU country. Although the numbers vary, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that roughly 8,500 individuals from Russia and the Central Asian states traveled to join ISIS and other jihadi factions. The ISIS’ intelligence apparatus – the Emni – acted as the main recruiting mechanism both through its affiliates on the ground and online. Distinctively, the highest number of fighters, both men and women, came from Russian Federation (3,417), followed by Uzbekistan (1,500) and Tajikistan (1,500). Not coincidentally, the level of religious radicalization has been traditionally higher in these two Central Asian republics (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) compared with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. Economic incentives (monthly fighter salaries) offered by ISIS was also instrumental in process. Once arrived in Syria, Central Asian fighters were generally distributed into two main frontlines: Aleppo (northern Syria) and Raqqah/Mousul lines. For instance, one of the largest fighting factions is known as the “Aleppo Uzbeks” that comprised several smaller brigades in northern Syria. Other prominent FSU brigades include Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (aka Katibat al-Imam Bukhari) and Jaish al Muhajireen (JMA). Fighters also joined al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al Nusra faction in Syria. Similarly, female Central Asian fighters were heavily recruited into the Al-Khansaa Brigade that routinely patrolled the streets of Raqqa to enforce strict dress code. The largest inflow of fighters from FSU, however, was observed from Russian Federation. See URL (link to other map) MAP for Russian foreign fighter inflows to Iraq/Syria. Sources: USAIAD, The Soufan Group, The Center for Strategic and International Studies Foreign fighters joining ISIS from Russia and Central Asian Republics
Northern Caucasus Fighters in Syria and Iraq
Russian is the third most common spoken language of ISIS after Arabic and English. This map illustrates the inﬂow of foreign fighters coming from Russia’s turbulent north Caucasus region. Although the numbers vary, the Atlantic Council estimates suggest that nearly ~4,500 fighters from the Caucasus or Caucasian diaspora (mainly Chechens in Europe) traveled through Turkey, largely undetected or with the quiet consent of Turkey, to join ISIS and other jihadi factions in Syria and Iraq. Many were encouraged to emigrate by Russian authorities who have been fighting secessionist and jihadi Chechen and Dagestani boyeviki (fighters), rebels, and terrorists in the north Caucasus since the 1990s. The ISIS intelligence apparatus, the Emni, acted as the main recruiting mechanism, both through its affiliates and extensive networks in the former Soviet Union Republics and online. Social media communication platforms, such as two-way encrypted Telegram and WhatsApp, played a prominent role in ISIS communications that facilitated the fighter emigration. Many fighters from the war-torn were moved to fight in Syria to defend Sunnis from the Alawite (syncretic Shiite splinter group) massacres of Sunnis (the North Caucasian Muslims are primarily Sunni)
By far, the largest number of fighters came from the restless republic of Chechnya and Chechen-diaspora regions in Europe (~3,000) followed by the multi-ethnic republic of Dagestan (~1,200), the Kabardino-Balkaria (~145) and Ingushetia (100). ISIS regards the North Caucasus region as its own Kavkaz Velayet (Caucasus Province). Despite their relative small numbers, Northern Caucasus fighters gained a prominent reputation for fighting skills and became a formidable, lethal force among the various Sunni rebel factions in Syria, including ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Some of the Chechen fighters came with battlefield experience in asymmetric and insurgent warfare from their involvement in the first and second Chechen wars of independence against the Russian military (1994-6 and 1999-2007).
Some of the Northern Caucasus militant leaders, such as Muslim Shishani and Abdulhakim Shishani, remain active to date. Incoming fighters often joined the militant brigades and factions led by Chechen commanders (or emirs). The Chechens were legendary for having defeated the Russian Federation in the 1994-96 war for independence and often acted as “force multipliers” in Syria, due to their battle skills earned in fighting in the mountains and towns of Chechnya against much larger Russian Federal forces. Their most prominent Chechen fighting unit was the Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar (Army of the Immigrant Supporters). It should also be noted that a famed, red-bearded Chechen fighter from the Pankisiki in northern Georgia (where there is a small Chechen community) named Omar al “Shishani” (‘The Chechen,’ in Arabic) was the overall commander of the ISIS army until his death in a US airstrike on July 12, 2016.
Other North Caucasian fighting units included the Ajnad al Kavkaz, Jaish al –Fatah, and Jaish al-Usro, and the world’s first jihadi Russian-speaking private military contractor, Malhama Tactical
After the fall of ISIS’s capital of Raqqa in October, 2017, the bulk of Russian-speaking (Former Soviet Union) fighters has reportedly returned home or have settled in parts of Turkey. Numerous cases of intra-rebel infighting among Arabs, Turks and North Caucasians have been reported. however, some of the smaller fighting factions remain active today in Syria.
Sources: Brian Glyn Williams Inferno in Chechnya. The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Al Qaeda Myth (Dartmouth 2016), The Atlantic Council, Foreign Policy, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, ChechensinSyria.com.
The Race for Bases in Syria (2017-2018)
This map illustrates the strategic complexity of post-ISIS race for the military bases by Russian and American forces from a bird’s-eye view.
The U.S. ground war began in 2015 with only ~50 special forces in limited “train and advice” capacity to rebel Arab Syrian forces (aka Free Syrian Army), followed by small bases built primarily in Kurdish lands in northeastern Syria. These ad hoc bases were used by a contingent of 500 US Green Beret special forces approved by Obama administration to train local Kurdish and Arab rebels to fight ISIS and for US ground spotters to assist them initially with air strikes. Later in the 2017 campaign for the ISIS capital of Raqqa the US assisted the Kurds with artillery strikes and the number of US troops in Syria supporting the Kurdish led ground campaign rose to 2,000.
As illustrated on the map, the U.S. is operating at least 8 military installations (among them 3 air bases) in Northern Syria. The US has begun to make two of the bases in strategic locations more permanent. The first is in Tabqa on the Euphrates River near Syria’s largest dam, the second is far to the south on the border with Iraq at al-Tanf. This remote base, which is located in Arab lands, controls a major road leading from Iraq to Syria and controls this strategic border as well. The US has used this base to arm local Arab forces to fight ISIS, just as it did the Kurds in the north. This base serves another purpose of preventing Iran from creating direct links through Shiite-dominated Iraq to Damascus and down to its clients in the south, Hezbollah. There have been several attacks on this base by Syrian Arab Army forces.
The presence of US bases that serve to train Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces fighters has alarmed Turkey which is at war with Kurds in its own lands and they have threatened to attack US troops based in the flashpoint city of Manbij. On July 18, 2017, Turkish state news agency (Anadolu Agency) published the locations of US military bases that largely exposed the U.S. positions inside Syria to ISIS and pro-Assad forces. This was an unprecedented move by a key NATO ally. Turkey has long been upset by increased U.S.-Kurdish strategic cooperation in the region. Criticizing Turkey, U.S. Defense Department issued a statement that “the release of sensitive military information exposes Coalition forces to unnecessary risk and has the potential to disrupt ongoing operations to defeat ISIS.” On the other hand, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russia’s prominent long-range, surface-to-air (S-400) missiles only added insult to the injury of US-Turkey relations. While Trump administration’s Syria’s comprehensive strategy is vague and confusing at best, there are no indications that U.S. will be moving out of Syria any time soon.
In contrast to America’s newly established ad hoc bases, Russia has much larger, older, more established bases in Syria. Most of these Russian bases were previous Syrian Arab Army bases complete with runways, hangers, barracks, anti-aircraft defenses, flight towers, perimeter defenses etc. The Russians also have official treaties with Syria that give them a so-called “permanent grouping rights.”
In 2017, Moscow and Damascus signed a bilateral agreement that granted Russia the right to build and maintain permanent naval and air bases in Syria. The deal allows the expansion of Tartus navel base (built by the Soviet Union and Russia’s only naval base abroad) that permits Russia to keep 11 warships, including nuclear capable vessels. Russia currently operates five air bases, from which it continues to launch surgical air strikes inside Syria. Among them, the Khmeimim air base has been instrumental for aerial operations by Russian air force. At the end of 2017, Russia said it had decided to turn the Khmeimim base into a component of its permanent military contingent stationed in Syria. Although the bilateral agreement term is for 49 years, it could be extended further. This deal essentially makes Russia a permanent player on the increasingly complex Syrian quagmire.
Several Russian runways are capable of supporting a large range of advanced Soviet fixed wing aircraft and helicopters including large Antonov and Ilyushin transport planes, a variety of MiG and Sukhoi fighter bombers, Mil 24 gunships, as well as T-90 main battle tanks and BTR 82 armored vehicles. The newly developed Tiyas Military Airbase (also known as T-4) in the Homs Governorate has the largest runway in Syria. The Russians are massively converting it into their main center of aerial operations in Syria. The Russians have deployed advanced S-400 anti-aircraft systems in Syria to protect their assets.
These systems have not made the Russian immune to rocket attacks by rebels or strikes by US Tomahawk cruise missiles like the ones in April 2018 and April 2017 to punish Assad for deploying chemical weapons against civilians. While Putin called for removing Russian troops from Syria as the war on ISIS wound down at the end of 2017, this has not been followed through. Like the US, Russia is making its bases more permanent so it can protect its Syrian client state, square of with the US in the northeast and exert its influence in this divided land.
In addition to the airbases in Syria, Russia has a primitive “docking facility” on the coast of Syria that has been leased to them since 1970. This is Russia’s only external warm water port but it is currently not large enough to handle large naval vessels. It is currently being enlarged. Relatedly, Russia also deployed a rather outdated aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov to support air operations primarily against Sunni rebels in the west who threatened the Alawite Assad regime and later against ISIS forces. Overall, increasingly intense involvement of two major powers raises serious questions about the conflict’s long-term implications on (post-ISIS) Syria as well as the Middle East as a whole.
Mystery of the February 7, 2018 Khasham Offensive
This map illustrates the Khasham offensive (aka Battle of Khasham) that occurred on February 7, 2018, between the US-led coalition (SDF and US special forces) with Russian-Iranian-backed pro-regime forces in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. On this day, US-led coalition forces conducted massive airstrikes, along with artillery shelling, on pro-Assad/regime forces near the town of Khasham (part of Deir ez-Zor governorate) in response to an unprovoked attack against the SDF military bases, which also housed the US special forces units.
According to the US military officials, the pro-Assad forces had attacked the US and SDF military base, located 8 kilometers east of the agreed-upon Euphrates River de-conflicting line, with tanks and mortars by crossing the Euphrates river. In an act of self-defense, the US coalition forces fired back by deploying aircraft, combat helicopters, AC-130 gunships, artillery, and armed drones that led to the killing of ~ 100 of the pro-regime fighters.
Overall, there were two attempts to cross the Euphrates river by the pro-Assad forces using military platoon bridges. The first attempt occurred on February 7, 2018, at around 5 am in the south of Deir ez-Zor that involved ~250 fighters from the Iran-backed units consisting of the Bekara and Albo Hamad militia tribes as well as the Fatimiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades (all under Iranian command). Reportedly, no Russian mercenaries participated in this initial crossing. However, this attempted crossing was detected by the US/SDF forces and warning shots were fired. The attacking pro-regimes forces decided to retreat as their initial attempt had been comprised. No fatalities nor injuries were reported.
Undeterred, the pro-regime forces did not give up and instead launched their second attempt from a few kilometers north of the Euphrates close to the Deir ez-Zor military airport, this time with ~500 fighters. Undetected by the US/SDF surveillance, the Iran-backed pro-Assad fighters managed to make as far as the village of Marrat en-route to engage the SDF/US special forces headquarters in Khasham. Simultaneously, another group of Syrian tribal militia fighters from Al-Tabiyeh attacked the Khasham base in a seemingly coordinated attacak. The US/SDF forces reacted with lethal force, both from air and the ground, that killed ~200 attackers, including 10-20 Russian mercenaries who were reportedly stationed near Al-Tabia. By contrast, some of the Russian media outlets, including the Reuters, reported that about 80-100 Russian fighters had died that day.
The Syrian government accused the US of carrying out a “brutal massacre” against Syrian people in Deir ez-Zor province. The Russian defense ministry stated that “no Russian military servicemen were present or ever deployed in Deir ez-Zor.” While there were no official Russian soldiers on the ground in the valley, the presence of Russian mercenary fighters station near Al-Tabiyeh were confirmed. The number of privately contracted Russian mercenary forces are estimated to be at ~2,000 in Syria.
The extent and the scale of Russian mercenary force involvement in the Khasham offensive, whether deliberately or not, is not clear. The Der Spiegel’s independent investigation found no evidence that confirmed “Russian mercenary participation in the attack or even that they joined the fighting at all.” Hence, it is possible that a small contingent of Russian mercenary fighters stationed at Al-Tabiyeh might have been caught in-between and inadvertently hit by US-coalition forces.
Sources: US Military, official “Operation Inherent Resolve” briefings, BBC News, Reuters, Der Spiegel, RIA Novosti (Russian news agency).