After clearing a path for its troops to enter Syria, Turkey is now fully involved in a military campaign in northern Aleppo province. Turkish forces, predominantly backing the Free Syrian Army, are advancing against positions in the region held by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State. Ankara’s direct participation in the civil war has further muddled an already complex conflict, presenting opportunities and challenges for the other parties involved, including the United States and Russia.
Washington, for example, has aided Turkey’s campaign in northern Syria with intelligence and air support. It has also, however, had to contend with Turkey’s independent moves. According to The Wall Street Journal, the start date of the incursion had taken the United States by surprise, even though Ankara had coordinated the bulk of the operation with Washington. And while the offensive in northern Aleppo could benefit U.S. strategy by severely undermining the Islamic State’s presence in the region, it has already instigated a disruptive fight between two of Washington’s allies. On several occasions, the Turkish-backed rebels have clashed with the Syrian Democratic Forces, requiring the United States to try to separate them so that its plan to attack the Islamic State would not be ruined.
So far, the gains of working with Turkey have outweighed the costs for the United States, but the same cannot be said for Russia. Turkey’s incursion into Syria forced Ankara to re-evaluate its tense relationship with Moscow and damaged the United States’ ties to the Syrian Democratic Forces — both positives from Moscow’s perspective. But despite Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia, which was a key prerequisite of the Turkish army entering Syria, significant difference remain between them on the best path forward in the conflict. So while the danger of military escalation on either side has been largely defused, Turkey continues to support rebel fighters who battle not only Russian-backed loyalists but also Russian forces themselves as the opportunity arises. If Turkey continues to assist a renewed rebel push, those fighters could eventually reach the Syrian government’s lines around Aleppo, threatening the loyalists’ long-standing effort to advance in and around the city.
Turkey’s decision to join the fray has also alarmed both of Russia’s allies in Syria: the government of President Bashar al Assad and Iran. Having given assurances that they will not target Turkish troops, the Russians have now had to reassure those partners by demanding that Turkey coordinate its military action in Syria with Damascus. But two key meetings between Russian and Turkish officials have been postponed or canceled: Both countries’ chiefs of staff were scheduled to meet Aug. 26, while their presidents were supposed to meet Aug. 31. That neither of these meetings will have been held as originally planned could indicate that the Turkey-Russia relationship is still strained.
Turkey’s participation in Syria has thrust yet another major power into the conflict, one whose interests and objectives do not neatly align with those of the other actors on the battlefield. The United States and Russia will have to adjust their strategies accordingly, accounting for Turkey’s presence even as they try to negotiate another peace deal in Geneva.
Turkey has announced the start of Operation Euphrates Shield, an offensive led by Syrian rebels to retake territory on the Syria-Turkey border from the Islamic State. The most important target of the operation is the town of Jarabulus, the last major Islamic State stronghold in the border region. With artillery and airstrikes, Turkey launched a concerted bombardment on nearly 100 Islamic State targets Aug. 24, clearing a path for the rebels to begin their attack on Jarabulus. After several hours of light fighting as the Islamic State retreated, the rebels succeeded in recapturing the town.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that the operation’s objective is to halt attacks on Turkish territory conducted from Syria. But the timing of the offensive — just after the Syrian Democratic Forces captured Manbij — suggests that it is also linked to Ankara’s concerns about the advance of Kurdish units embedded within the group. Ankara likely hopes that a Turkish-backed rebel assault will both eliminate the Islamic State threat looming on its border and impede any further encroachment by the Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Aleppo.
The rebels have been gathering in the Turkish town of Karkamis, just across the border from Jarabulus, for the past few days. Numbering around 1,500, the fighters largely belong to the Jabhat al-Shamiya, Sultan Murad, Turkmen Martyrs Battalion, Nour al-Din al-Zinki and Faylaq al-Sham units. Now that their immediate goal of seizing Jarabulus has been realized, they will begin pushing westward along the border, aiming to eventually link up with the rebel-held town of al-Rai.
Beyond Jarabulus and the Syria-Turkey border, the last prize left in northern Aleppo province is the Islamic State-controlled city of al-Bab. The city is currently sandwiched between Turkish-backed rebels, the Syrian Democratic Forces and loyalist troops. For the Islamic State fighters in the region, who are surrounded on all sides, it is only a matter of time before al-Bab falls, though it is still unclear whom the city will fall to. Al-Bab is paramount to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ plan to link up with Afrin canton, but the Turkish-backed rebels will undoubtedly try to get there first to halt the Kurdish fighters’ expansion.
In an effort to take on a greater role in the Syrian conflict, Turkey has sought to improve its ties with Russia and Iran. The former is particularly important, considering that Russia’s troops have used the threat of military action to block Turkish aircraft from flying over Syria before. As Turkey sends its forces directly into Syria — even if only to support the rebels — it will be careful to ensure that doing so does not lead to clashes with Russia.
Turkey, meanwhile, is also working closely with the United States. U.S. air support bolstered the Jarabulus operation, but Ankara is more interested in securing Washington’s help as a precaution, should a confrontation occur between Turkish troops and loyalist or Russian forces. The United States is also in a position to pressure the Syrian Democratic Forces not to push deeper into Aleppo, of which Turkey will be eager to take advantage.
It appears as though the battle for the Syrian city of Jarabulus, one of the last strongholds of the Islamic State, will soon begin. Some 1,500 rebels fighting for the Free Syrian Army have reportedly been deployed to the Turkish district of Karkamis, which lies directly across the border from Jarabulus. The Turkish government is evacuating the city, with police calling on residents to leave the area in light of recent mortar fire.
Turkey has said it will support the rebels’ operation. To that end, the military has intensified its artillery fire into Syria over the past 24 hours, striking Islamic State and Kurdish People’s Protection Unit targets as more tanks and armored vehicles make their way to Karkamis. Still, Ankara is not expected to send many — if any — ground forces across the border. Meanwhile, Russian aircraft are said to have launched airstrikes on Jarabulus, but it is unclear how closely, if at all, these strikes were coordinated with the government in Ankara.
If the rebels wrest control of Jarabulus from the Islamic State, they will be able to put some distance between the jihadist group and Turkey. And as proxies for Turkey, which is anxious as ever to halt Kurdish expansion, they also hope to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia composed primarily of Syrian Kurds, from pushing too far west after gaining control of several strategic towns in the north already.
A group of Syrian rebels is preparing to launch an attack on one of the last major towns controlled by the Islamic State along the Syria-Turkey border. Members of the Free Syrian Army and various other militias have massed in Turkey ahead of the assault on Jarabulus, which is scheduled to begin sometime within the next few days. The operation’s purpose is twofold: By recapturing Jarabulus, the Free Syrian Army hopes to not only push the Islamic State from the Turkish border but also to limit the Syrian Democratic Forces from extending their reach to the west. Earlier this month the Kurdish-dominated group seized the city of Manbij, just 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Jarabulus, and Kurdish militias elsewhere in Syria have gained control of several strategic towns in the northern Aleppo province — a development with which Turkey, the Free Syrian Army’s backer, is not pleased. In fact, Turkey has already conducted several airstrikes and has fired rounds of artillery shelling in and around Jarabulus.
The Free Syrian Army’s Jarabulus operation is a clear sign of how the United States and Turkey diverge when it comes to the Kurds. Turkey wants another major Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to halt its operations west of the Euphrates River, especially after the Syrian Democratic Forces’ success in Manbij. The Syrian Democratic Forces, however, want to link up with YPG units in Afrin to unite their territories and have been advancing toward the cities of al-Bab and Jarabulus to do so. But the recent announcement by the Syrian Democratic Forces that their units are halting moves on Jarabulus likely indicates that the United States, one of the group’s supporters, has pressured them to stop to assuage Turkish security concerns following its failed coup and ongoing operations against other Kurdish militias. Moreover, the Turks shelled the YPG around Manbij on Aug. 22, a clear warning to advance no farther toward Jarabulus. Still, the question of which group will take al-Bab remains. If Syrian Democratic Forces do not take the city, they will not be able to link up with the YPG in Afrin.
Meanwhile, news of the impending assault comes just days after high-level talks between Turkey, Russia and Iran and after an Aug. 20 announcement by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim that Syrian President Bashar al Assad could have a role in the transitional period following the end of Syria’s civil war. Turkey, with its large and restive Kurdish minority and al Assad, aided by Russia and Iran, have an interest in stopping the Kurdish militias from staking out their own region in Syria.
Kurdish peshmerga launched a large-scale ground offensive in northern Iraq on Aug. 14 to drive Islamic State militants out of villages in western Kirkuk province. The offensive was part of the larger effort by a coalition of peshmerga, Iraqi security forces and international fighters to capture Mosul, the Islamic State’s stronghold in the region and the second-largest city in Iraq. The gains they made were diminished slightly, however, by attacks in other parts of Iraq and by the fear that the Islamic State could be changing tactics.
The General Peshmerga Command called the overall operation a success, adding that the peshmerga, in continued fighting over two days, gained some 150 square kilometers (about 58 square miles) of land and killed about 130 militants. Through the operation, peshmerga units from several provinces reportedly seized about a dozen villages on the Khazir and Gwer front lines from the Islamic State. Local news reported that peshmerga units are now stationed about 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the center of Mosul.
Three Peshmerga fighters were killed in the clashes, and an undisclosed number of others were wounded, News Release Today reported. A Peshmerga official said the Islamic State used underage fighters to carry out suicide and car bomb attacks to buy more time for others to escape.
Meanwhile, security sources in Nineveh province said fighters from the Anti-Terrorism Directorate and the Iraqi army’s 5th Brigade in Qayyarah captured the villages of Hawaij and Hawasem and a crucial power plant. The troops had air support from the international coalition.
Though these victories near Arbil province are notable, it is also worth noting that over the weekend the Islamic State waged an attack in neighboring Sulaimaniyah province. Two suicide bombers struck near a Kurdish Asayish unit west of the city of Sulaimaniyah, about 200 kilometers southeast of Arbil, injuring four officers. The attack was significant because it shows that even if the coalition campaign is successful in pushing the Islamic State out of the territory it currently holds, small groups of displaced militants could reappear to attack in other areas. These groups would be difficult to detect, and though it is unlikely they would reclaim any territory, they could cause disorder in a region that is still relatively unstable.
For instance, the Rudaw Media Network published a report this month about the spread of unknown armed fighters in the mountains in western Sulaimaniyah province, on the border with Kirkuk. These militants were believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State.
The autonomous region of Kurdistan is politically complex and important to many international actors, including the United States, Russia and Turkey, who have often competing interests. The Kurdish peshmerga are critical allies and proxies for both Russia and the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.
After a weeklong offensive, rebels outside of Aleppo broke through loyalist lines Aug. 6, linking up with their allies inside the city. Although there is now a direct ground link into the city, the rebel-held parts of Aleppo are still technically under siege: Loyalist forces are shelling the area, preventing an influx of significant supplies. The rebels have also managed, however, to cut the primary loyalist supply road into western Aleppo, so the loyalist and rebel areas of the city are now both under siege.
From the start, the rebel offensive into Aleppo faced long odds. Fighters had to overcome not only loyalist defenses but also Russian airstrikes. The breakthrough came only after a week of protracted battle and heavy casualties, ending when fighters from the Jaish al-Fatah coalition ousted loyalist forces from the artillery academy of Aleppo, the site of a base that lies just west of the Ramoussah roundabout. Having secured the base, Fatah Halab rebels inside the city were able to break out to meet the Jaish al-Fatah relief force. Currently, a gap of approximately 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) connects the rebel-held areas of Aleppo to the outside. This link, mostly in Ramoussah district, is under constant air and artillery attack, impeding rebel relief efforts.
The successful rebel offensive has enhanced the prestige of Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which officially cut ties with al Qaeda in late July. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is a key member of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition and was instrumental in the offensive to break the siege. The coalition’s actions will make it popular in Syria; at a time when eastern Aleppo was besieged and bombarded by Russian and Syrian airstrikes, Jaish al-Fatah was the only force to come to the rescue of the approximately 250,000 civilians in rebel-held areas. This will undoubtedly facilitate the coalition’s recruitment efforts.
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham badly needs the positive publicity. Rumors at the beginning of July suggested that the U.S.-led coalition intends to coordinate airstrikes with Russia against the group, spurring it to change its name and distance itself from al Qaeda. Now, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham needs to embed more deeply among other rebel groups to make itself indispensable on the battlefield. The successful offensive demonstrated the group’s critical role in the fighting as well as the advantages of rebel unity. The United States will now have significantly more difficulty persuading other rebels to dissociate themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
But breaking the loyalist siege of Aleppo does not mean rebel victory in the city. Russian airstrikes and Syrian artillery fire continue to bombard the narrow link with rebel-held parts of the city. Loyalist forces, moreover, are preparing to mount a counterattack. For several days now, troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad have been streaming into Aleppo. These new arrivals include Hezbollah fighters from the elite Radwan unit, Iraqi fighters from the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba militia and Palestinian fighters of the al-Quds Brigades. Syrian government forces — including members of the 15th Special Forces Division, Tiger Forces, Republican Guard and 4th Mechanized Division — have also been arriving. Backed by artillery and air support, these loyalist troops will soon launch an offensive of their own against the rebels.
The fate of the city of Aleppo is of critical importance to loyalist and rebel fighters alike. Retaking the city would allow the government to cement its position and quell talks of political transition. And if the rebels were to lose Aleppo, military victory against Damascus would become a distant dream. Washington, meanwhile, is trying to revive efforts to achieve a cease-fire. But with loyalists and rebels locked in a deadly fight in Aleppo, establishing and implementing any such deal will be impossible in the near future.
With operations to sweep the remnant Islamic State forces out of Fallujah wrapped up, the focus of Iraqi security forces has shifted to a slow-moving approach toward Mosul, the heart of Islamic State operations in Iraq. Iraqi advances over the past few weeks, intensifying over the past few days, on both sides of the Tigris River have squeezed Mosul’s ability to supply Islamic State operations to the south and have put significant pressure on Islamic State militants still in Hawija district, a relatively fertile slice of land in Tamim province populated largely by Sunni Iraqis and sandwiched between the Tigris and Iraqi Kurdistan.
East of the Tigris near Makhmur, Iraq has been building up its forces for weeks in preparation for cutting off Hawija from its critical Mosul supply lines. Iraqi Kurdistan has been the staging area for many of these operations, and there is significant Kurdish peshmerga participation. The recapture of a handful of small villages around Haj Ali in the beginning of July prompted many Islamic State fighters to flee, likely north toward Mosul. On the western side of the Tigris, despite the significant threat that the Islamic State presents along the Shirqat-Qayara corridor, several Iraqi battalions drove north and turned east toward Qayara air base, raiding Shirqat district and capturing a handful of villages. The advance culminated July 9 in the recapture of the key base. In the coming months, coalition engineers and logistics personnel will build up the base, enabling increased air support for the battle against the Islamic State.
Meanwhile, the capture of the village of Ijhala, on the western bank of the Tigris near Haj Ali, on July 12 enabled the start of construction on a pontoon bridge across a relatively narrow portion of the river to enable the Iraqis’ eastern and western advances to link up. Meeting in the middle is a crucial next step for the campaign launched earlier this year to capture Mosul and Nineveh province. Connecting east and west with a supply artery will establish a free flow of communication, personnel and materiel that could either enable a concerted attack against the Islamic State in the Hawija area or isolate those forces and weaken their ability to reinforce Mosul. Iraqi forces are already attacking Islamic State hospitals and storehouses by air in the Hawija district itself, and militants have reportedly begun fleeing in large numbers. Iraqi security forces will focus on attacks against Islamic State fighters to pin them down and prevent them from reinforcing Mosul.
The campaign to take al-Bukamal is ambitious. Not only is the city one of the largest in Deir el-Zour province, but it is also a gateway to Iraq. Because al-Bukamal sits astride Highway 4, which follows the Euphrates River into Iraq, its loss would greatly restrict the Islamic State’s ability to transfer men and supplies between Syria and Iraq. Without it, the extremist group would have an opening of about 150 kilometers (roughly 93 miles) with little road infrastructure along the border. In light of al-Bukamal’s strategic importance, the Islamic State will likely fight ferociously to drive back the New Syrian Army and its allies, even weakening its forces besieging the Deir el-Zour loyalist garrison to reinforce its defenses if necessary. Already, the Islamic State has been cracking down on New Syrian Army backers in the region, home to a number of the group’s fighters and consequently a hotbed of support. In the hours before the operation in al-Bukamal began, the extremist group killed five suspected New Syrian Army sympathizers.
That the New Syrian Army was preparing for an offensive into Deir el-Zour province was long apparent. To maintain an element of surprise, the group approached from the air, landing by parachute or helicopter at the disused Hamdan airport 5 kilometers from the target city. This type of operation, which has never before been employed in the Syrian civil war, highlights the considerable training, assistance and resources that the New Syrian Army has received from the U.S.-led coalition. Airborne operations allow a force to leap over established enemy lines and positions, offering a faster means of deploying into combat. The Islamic State has demonstrated prowess in fast-paced desert maneuvers. But the New Syrian Army’s airborne approach enabled it to seize the initiative from the Islamic State and forced the extremist group’s commanders to rethink their defense strategy across their entire territory. At the same time, however, airborne operations require significant resources and entail high risks: Any failure can jeopardize entire units.
After landing, units of the New Syrian Army overpowered the light Islamic State garrison at the air base before fanning out to secure the nearby villages of Hamdan and al-Sukari. Convoys of Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Brigades and Battalions and Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya fighters, meanwhile, raced across the open desert to link up with New Syrian Army units positioned outside al-Bukamal. In addition, extensive sabotage efforts against Islamic State targets, including the assassination of the extremist group’s deputy governor for al-Bukamal, accompanied the campaign. But subsequent efforts to push into the town were met with fierce Islamic State resistance that killed or wounded several New Syrian Army fighters and forced a retreat to the outskirts.
Nonetheless, the al-Bukamal offensive provides a reminder that the New Syrian Army could emerge as a serious competitor to Syria’s loyalist forces, particularly after the demise of the Islamic State. The New Syrian Army’s growing potential helps to explain why it was a target for June 16 Russian airstrikes, intended in part to undermine its morale and recruitment by casting doubt on the U.S.-led coalition’s ability to protect it. The coalition’s support will be important to the New Syrian Army’s success as it spearheads the formidable effort to seize al-Bukamal. And once the group finds itself deep within enemy territory, facing numerous Islamic State counterattacks, the backing will be all the more critical.
The massive operation to retake the western Iraqi city of Fallujah from Islamic State forces continues. On May 27, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense announced that Iraqi security forces have initiated the operation’s second stage. In a statement, the spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Military Command said that the second stage would focus on minimizing casualties among Fallujah’s residents and that militias would be deployed alongside Iraqi troops.
Shiite militias, with support from Iran, have been vying for greater participation in the fight agains the Islamic State. Washington and other international actors are trying to avoid the outbreak of sectarian clashes during the push for Fallujah — a looming concern across Iraq. The representative of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic state has said 4,000 Sunni fighters will participate in the fight but maintains that it neither works with nor supports Iraq’s Shiite militias. These Shiite forces, however, are already involved in fighting regardless of the U.S. preference. In the operation’s first stage, which began on May 22, Sunni and Shiite militias participated separately in clearing villages around the city. Because the second phase will entail fighting in tight, urban areas, Sunni and Shiite militias will be brought into closer proximity. This makes the risk of violence between the nominally aligned sectarian militias much higher, laying the groundwork for future skirmishes.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State has launched an offensive against rebel forces in northern Syria, cutting off access to the towns of Azaz and Mare. The offensive’s success has revealed just how ineffective rebel groups backed by Turkey and the United States have become. So far, the rebels have gained little ground in their efforts to drive Islamic State forces out of northern Aleppo province. As the rebels founder, the United States has few alternatives to fall back on in the fight against the Islamic State. As a result, the Syrian Democratic Forces may opt to stage their own campaign. Reports suggest that the group is already preparing for a potential offensive by reinforcing its positions near Manbij.
Weeks into a revitalized plan to take back Aleppo province and its eponymous capital, it is clear that the efforts of Syrian government loyalists are not succeeding. With the reactivation of militant group Jaish al-Fatah and the subsequent rebel victory at Khan Touman, the rebels have won important ground while embarrassing the Iranian forces who directed the defense of the area and inflicting significant casualties on the loyalists. Subsequent counterattacks in the region compounded loyalist losses and yielded little gain in return. North of Aleppo, loyalist forces, predominantly composed of Palestinian factions, failed in repeated assaults on the Handarat area, which overlooks a crucial rebel supply line into the city.
The lack of progress in Aleppo has divided Syrian government supporters. For instance, the largely Iranian-backed initiative diverges from Russia’s desire to move forward with negotiations to end the conflict. Russia recently ramped up airstrikes in and around Aleppo after complaints from Iranian officers that Russia abandoned them during the Khan Touman battles. Adverse weather conditions could explain the scarcity of Russian airstrikes during that campaign. At the time, however, Moscow was also focused on the cease-fire initiative.
In addition, Stratfor sources, along with local reports from the loyalist side, have suggested that Hezbollah might be drawing down from the province. Even if the reports are accurate, Hezbollah is unlikely to completely withdraw from the Syrian conflict. The group continues to proclaim its commitment to fighting what it refers to as the takfiri (apostate) threat. Furthermore, evidence from the battlefield confirms that a considerable Hezbollah presence remains around Damascus, Homs and Daraa.
Instead, the loyalist side as a whole appears to be shifting both its forces and its focus. Although it is too early to say whether the loyalists have decided to give up on Aleppo for the moment, it is certain that they face increasing pressure elsewhere. For instance, recent loyalist advances in the Eastern Ghouta region, though notable, were largely possible only because of disastrous infighting among local rebels in the wake of the December 2015 death of Army of Islam commander Zahran Alloush.
Meanwhile, battles are heating up in once-quiet sectors such as Daraa and Quneitra, even as loyalist forces contend with rebel forces in Hama province and Islamic State forces in Homs province. In recent weeks, the Islamic State has not only carried out a series of powerful attacks in Homs province, overrunning numerous loyalist positions, but it has also renewed its efforts against the Deir el-Zour garrison, which grows more and more precarious as the loyalists lose ground.
As a result, the loyalists are distracted in the fight for Aleppo, a campaign that demands considerable attention and resources. Operations in the region’s difficult terrain rely on a single supply line. Since elite units such as the Tiger Forces, the Desert Hawks and the Republican Guard are tied up with other battles, Hezbollah is likely being called in to reinforce other areas under threat. But Hezbollah has its own troubles at home in Lebanon and has traditionally preferred to operate closer to its country of origin. The group’s leading role in the western Qalamoun operations on the Lebanon-Syria border illustrates this preference.
For now, the Iranians are the force to watch. Official statements from Tehran affirm the country’s steadfast commitment to the war in Syria. Recent developments, including reported sightings of newly arrived reinforcements, may even indicate that the Iranians are preparing for punishing operations against Jaish al-Fatah. At the same time, other reports in local media suggest that high casualties and recent losses have disheartened the Iranians. Though the Iranians are unlikely to entirely abandon their military operations in Syria, a change of strategy and command elements is not beyond reason. Unverified reports from Stratfor sources indicate that Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani may be replaced by his deputy as head of Iranian oversight in Syria and Iraq and moved to focus on Lebanon instead.