Syria Update: June 2017. A lot has been happening in Syria over those past 6 months. It is time to do a little recap, analyse what has happened and what is happening on all fronts. This article only covers the main events and ignores the battles near and around Damascus and in the Idlib province.
January 2017: Race to the Euphrates and Raqqah.
East Aleppo was liberated by the SAA in December 2016. Straight after that, the Syrian command launched its troops Northwards toward Al-Bab which was targeted by Turkey and its proxy militias (as part of its “Euphrates Shield” operation). SAA and allies also rushed Eastwards toward the Euphrates before turning South with the twin aim of securing Aleppo’s Eastern flank and simultaneously getting as close to Raqqah as possible. It is interesting to see that all actors involved were racing each other: Turkey and SAA were racing each other for Al-Bab while SAA and US supported SDF were racing each other toward Raqqah, the Syrians army on the West bank of the Euphrates and the Kurdish militias on the East bank of the river.
While Turkey reached Al-Bab first, the SAA managed to link up with the Kurds East of that position, cutting the road to Raqqah for Turkey and its allies, jeopardising “Euphrates Shield”.
The conquest of Palmyra was hailed as a “clean” operation which resulted in minimal losses in men and hardware on the Syrian side. The whole operation was planned and supervised by the Russians. While the SAA advanced toward Palmyra, the Russian Air Force engaged ISIS positions in and around Palmyra. They effectively destroyed ammunition dumps, command centres and vehicles in and around the city while simultaneously engaging any supply columns trying to bring in ammo and reinforcement into Palmyra. They also provided the SAA with effective front line Close Air Support.
The SAA main objectives were the heights overlooking Palmyra. Once those heights were conquered, the SAA had fire control over the whole town and could observe ISIS movements. They then executed a pincer move on the town’s two flanks. ISIS retreated but were harassed by the Russian Air Force, losing more men and hardware in the process.
The most marking fact about this event is that the SAA had just executed a full-on combined arms operation in open terrain against a town and conquered it. We are not talking about small units close quarter fighting Aleppo style. We are talking about a classic conventional move including SF operations, reconnaissance and observation by drones, air cover and tactical bombing, infantry and armour assaults executed under artillery and Close Air Support. All this executed by an army that was all but seen as defeated less than two years ago. It remains impressive even when taking into account the Russian role in that operation. The SAA seems not only to be recovering but also to be learning new tricks.
April 2017: Turkish Checkmate.
April 2017 will be remembered as the time when most of the actors involved in Syria banded together to frustrate Ankara’s ambitions: American troops took positions in Kobane, just on the Turkish border to shield the Kurds from further Turkish attacks while Russian troops deployed in Afrin, a town controlled by Kurdish militias on the frontline with Turkish troops and associated militias. Meanwhile, SAA troops swapped places with Kurdish militiamen on several points along the line of contact between Kurdish “Rojava” and Turkish militias.
It means both Russians, Americans, Kurdish militias and troops belonging to the Syrian Army collaborated together to block the Turkish incursion in Syrian territory. This was the final nail in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation. Ankara started the operation with the aim of capturing Al-Bab, Manbij and then dash toward Raqqah. The official aim of this operation was to “fight ISIS”. The real aim for the Turkish leadership was twofold:
1) Prevent the two Kurdish enclaves in Syria from linking up along the Turkish border.
2) Get involved in Raqqah to prevent the Kurdish militias from conquering it and apply pressure onto the Syrian leadership.
While Ankara managed to conquer Al-Bab, it failed to get anywhere near Manbij and was effectively blocked by Kurdish, Russian, American and Syrian troops from advancing any further into Syrian territory.
Euphrates Shield was meant to make Turkey one of the main actors on the Syrian conflict. If anything, it showed how unpopular Ankara is even with its own allies and how ineffective its armed forces are: The conquest of Al-Bab was painfully slow, it cost Ankara several main battle tanks and armoured vehicles and everyone will remember how Erdogan complained about NATO not providing Turkish troops with any air support… The Turkish air Force currently counts 668 aircrafts of all types in its inventory. If that is not enough to provide air support for the conquest of a small town held by ISIS troops with no air cover, Turkey’s armed forces has serious problems indeed…
Ankara will console itself with the fact the two Kurdish enclaves are separated by a Turkish controlled salient. At least, that goal was fulfilled.
May 2017: Raqqah’s cauldron
Kurdish troops were deployed by US helicopter around Tabqah which they subsequently attacked and conquered. It was a brilliant move that achieved many aims: It locked the Western access to Raqqah, preventing ISIS from moving troops in that direction or bringing in reinforcements. But it also prevented the Syrian army from reaching Raqqah too.
Raqqah is now surrounded on three sides by the US backed SDF, which controls the Western, Northern and Eastern approaches.
June 2017: Shenanigans in the Southern desert.
Al-Tanf is a border crossing between Iraq and Syria, almost at the junction where Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. It is also where the US has built a base to train rebels. And it is situated in Syria. The outpost was not too long ago attacked by ISIS troops. The US has warned any armed troops getting near a 50 km radius of the base would be targeted. For the Americans and British, setting up base at Al-Tanf made sense and gave them many options.
– By controlling the Iraqi-Syrian border, they made it difficult for Iran to resupply its troops as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah operating in Syria.
– It also gave them the opportunity to move toward Deir Ezzor in the East.
– Finally, they could lunge toward Damascus.
Twice, The US air force intervened and bombed pro-Syrian militias that were getting a little too close to the exclusion zone and this week, an Iranian drone was shot down by an American F-15 overflying said zone. But it seems that while the American and British were distracted by those militiamen, the SAA dashed across the desert, flanked Al-Tanf and reached the Iraqi border just North of the Al-Tanf border crossing. More worrying for the American is that Iraqi Shia militiamen made the junction with the SAA at the border.
This means a couple of things: The road to Deir Ezzor is now blocked to the American and British supported militiamen in Al-Tanf, They are actually surrounded in what is essentially empty desert. Meanwhile, Syria now controls a border crossing with Iraq, which means supplies and men, from both Iraq and Iran can flow freely into the country.
What does it mean for the US troops in Al-Tanf ? Well, Al-Tanf is still a strategic position for anyone wanting to strike toward Damascus and while the Americans have said they did not want to enter into open conflict with the SAA, the militiamen they are training and equipping have no such qualms. But from their position, they now cannot move toward Deir Ezzor and there are no more ISIS troops in their sector. Only Syrian troops and militias loyal to the Syrian leadership.
Al-Tanf is now a dangerous flashpoint and a magnet for trouble. If there is a chance of open conflict between Syrian or Iranian troops with Western soldiers, it is at that border crossing.
What now ? Situation as of today
On the Northern Front, The SAA has finished expelling the last ISIS troops from the Aleppo province in what looked like a well organised and well led mobile campaign involving combined arms operations. But It has now reached the SDF lines West of Tabkah. Some friction has been reported along this line of contact. It is doubtful the American led SDF will let Syrian troops move toward Raqqah from there: Washington has other plans for the region and is not about to hand over a victory to the SAA over Raqqah, even if it is against ISIS.
A little bit further South, The SAA supported by the Russian air force is slowly expanding around Palmyra while at the same time moving toward Deir-Ezzor and trying to prevent ISIS troops moving along the axis Raqqah-Palmyra and Deir-Ezzor-Palmyra.
By keeping Palmyra under pressure, ISIS knows it is pinning Syrian troops down that are needed for the push toward Deir Ezzor. ISIS also knows that should it manage to reconquer Palmyra, it would deal a blow to SAA morale and regain the initiative in the region: Palmyra is an important crossroad. From there, ISIS could counter attack in all directions and secure the area around Deir Ezzor. Also, being under increased pressure in Raqqah itself, the ISIS leadership could be tempted to try and move toward Deir-Ezzor.
On the Southern Front, while Western supported militias alongside US, British and Jordanian SF/advisors/instructors still control the Al-Tanf border crossing and its surrounding area, they have lost the option to move toward Deir-Ezzor without engaging the SAA directly and are effectively surrounded. The option to move onto Damascus is still open, though, although this would mean clashing with SAA soldiers, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah militiamen.