by Valentin Vasilescu
Translated by Alice Decker
So far no deal has not been officially acknowledged between Vladimir Putin (who has gotten closer to Recep Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad) and Donald Trump, on cooperation regarding the encirclement and isolation of IS-held territory in Syria. However, the way recent military operations were carried out, on three different fronts in Syria, by three different actors, clearly indicates the existence of such cooperation. Trump is proving that, unlike Obama, he is able to take unilateral decisions, leaving aside the members of the EU (which are also part of NATO), which are considered partners of the US. This hypothesis is supported by Trump’s position of stepping back from NATO, an organization he considers outdated; it was created years ago, and the member countries do not pay the way they should. This is Trump’s first concrete step in establishing real coordination of Russian and American actions, aimed at destroying the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria — which could lead to the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia.
The Turkish military offensive (1,300 troops, 50 tanks, 15 APC), supported by 2,000 Islamic rebels from the FSA (Free Syrian Army), to capture Al-Bab, began in September 2016. The town of Al-Bab is located 40 km northeast of Aleppo and was an important component of the Islamic State’s defenses for their “capital” of Raqqa. From November 2016 until January 2017, over 5,000 Islamic State fighters rebuffed all attempts to surround Al-Bab from the east and north by the Turks and their allies.
In late December 2016, when the operation to free Aleppo city ended, Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Erdogan concluded an agreement mediated by Putin. Following this agreement, the Syrian army came to the aid of Turkish troops. The Syrian army penetrated 25 km deep, five to eight km southwest, south, southeast and east of Al-Bab, and so the city was totally surrounded. Russian and Syrian aviation provided air support to the Turkish military. Since then, the Islamic State could no longer get any reinforcements to help them hold Al-Bab city. That is how the Turkish army managed to break through the defensive lines of the Islamic State. With Al-Bab, the Islamic State lost its last territory in Aleppo governorate.
The SDF group (Syrian Democratic Forces) consists largely of Kurdish YPG fighters, including some members of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which Turkey considers to be terrorists. Even if this group is large (10,000 fighters), it is poorly armed and trained. Be that as it may, SDF, which holds a large part of northern Syria, set off an offensive operation against the Islamic State in order to conquer the city of Raqqa. The operation was planned by officers from the US Army Special Forces. Hundreds of soldiers from the US Special Forces are working as SDF instructors. At Rmelan, in territory controlled by the SDF, the American 101st Airborne has a base for helicopters and MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft used in combating the Islamic State.
The defensive dispositions around Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, are round, and are arranged in at least four more or less concentric circles. This disposition has 30,000 fighters with 200 tanks, 200 APCs and IFVs, over 100 artillery pieces and MRLS. Islamic State has had sappers prepare the area over the last three years, with some areas mined, with counter-offensive installations equipped with tanks and US BGM-71 Tow-2 anti-tank rockets. They have a lot of underground weapons and ammunition depots that have not been detected by American aviation.
The Islamic State has operations planning officers who are as well trained as those in Western armies. They have procured hundreds of drones with which they have created an ISR structure (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) that runs missions to discover artillery sites and motorized or tanks columns, and concentrations of enemy forces. These civilian-type drones include the DJI Parrot (price US $ 1,000), Skywalker X-8 and X-UAV Talon ($200), the quadcopter DJI Phantom 3 ($600) are readily available in Europe and in the Gulf States and the US. Some drones have been modified to launch handmade Islamic State explosive devices, but they did not have the expected effects.
The Islamic State’s defensive dispositions are also based on secret tunnels through which Islamic State fighters can attack the enemy from behind, or create ambushes for supply or support columns. The Islamic State’s offensive counterattacks are extremely well prepared and highly efficient because of their high mobility, provided by thousands of small trucks armed with 12.7 mm caliber heavy machine guns.
Initially, in November 2016, the SDF made on offensive direction was north–south of Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State. Encountering strong resistance, the SDF offensive was stopped. The SDF then tried to encircle the IS defensive positions, shifting the offensive to west–east along the north shore of Lake Assad. Both directions of SDF offensive got to within a distance of 8–15 km from Raqqa, supported by massive aerial bombardments by the anti-IS coalition led by the US. Even with that, the SDF which has only a few armored vehicles, cannot go further.
Therefore, in late January 2017, the US, with the agreement of Russia, delivered about 100 M117 Guardian 4x4s that can carry ten fighters. This light 15 tonne armored vehicle is something between a Humvee and a Stryker ICV. The M117 Guardian is armed with an M2 Browning heavy machine gun (12.7 mm caliber), and an MK 19 grenade launcher (40 mm caliber).
In February 2017, the SDF initiated the third phase of the offensive. For starters, the SDF forces and equipment are moving from north to south and parallel to the eastern border of Syria, to Deir ez-Zor. The aim of this maneuver is to block IS fighters from Mosul, in Iraq, from getting to Raqqa. After this maneuver, SDF can attack the Islamic State defensive position to the east. It can be seen that American planners intend for the SDF to isolate Islamic State territory to the north and east.
The “Tamadur” Detachment is performing offensive missions to retake the city of Palmyra city from Islamic State. It is comprised of the Syrian Regiment 800 Republican Guard, two battalions of the Brigade Tiger (Syrian Special Forces), two artillery battalions from the Syrian Army, one Liwa Fatemiyoun battalion (a Shia paramilitary group in Afghanistan), one IRGC battalion (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) and local units of the Syrian National Defense forces.
After Palmyra is liberated, the “Tamadur” Detachment should be reinforced with additional forces of at least two mechanized brigades. Its immediate task should be to get the 137Mechanized Brigade, the 104 Airborne Brigade and the 121 Artillery Regiment defending the city of Deir ez Zor from the Islamic State. This mission should be easily accomplished even though Deir ez Zor is located 188 km from Palmyra. Between the two cities there are only a few little settlements occupied by small Islamic State groups, since it is desert. If the Syrian army manages to reach Deir ez Zor, it isolates the Islamic State territory in the south after the SDF has isolated its territory to the north and east. To the west, the Islamic State is already almost entirely isolated by the Syrian army.
In southern Syria (the governorate of Daraa and the Kuneitra), the Southern Front and al-Muthanna Islamic Movement, allies of the Islamic State, have resumed fighting with the Syrian army. These groups control the Syrian border with Jordan. They consist of 38,000 fighters and they keep the Syrian Army 1st Corps blocked in the region (the latter is composed of four divisions of tanks and a mechanized division). In the governorate of Idlib in northwestern Syria, 29,000 rebels are concentrated, from al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda) and Ahrar al-Sham. These two groups have just resumed fighting with the Syrian army in the northern governorate near Latakia.
Under these circumstances, it is pretty hard for the Syrian army to come up with two brigades to deploy to the east of Palmyra. After Aleppo was released from the Islamist rebels, the first Russian battalion took over from an operational unit of the Syrian army to maintain peace and order in the city. After that, Russia sent a second battalion of military police to Syria. Also in Aleppo, a Syrian military unit was replaced by a Russian engineer battalion in a demining mission and to remove explosive devices planted by Islamist rebels.
As Trump is applying pressure, a growing number of “moderate” Syrian rebel groups controlled by the Pentagon and CIA are deciding to respect the ceasefire brokered by Russia. We can expect that more Russian military police battalions will replace Syrian combat forces in peacekeeping missions in the localities recently liberated. That will free up several Syrian army units to be sent to the east of Palmyra for the fight against Islamic State.