TSI Syria Update: May 11, 2017

Takeaway

The Turkish government is angry over the US announcement earlier this week that it will start directly arming Kurdish fighters in Syria for the upcoming operation to retake Raqqa city from ISIS. Turkey believes that the Kurdish YPG is a terrorist organization and sees arming the Syrian Kurds as a threat to Turkey’s security. US government officials have been working to reassure Turkey of the US commitment to protecting Turkey, a key NATO ally. So far the US has promised an increase in intelligence cooperation with Turkey to counter Kurdish PKK militants, and has potentially made other as-yet unknown concessions in an effort to prevent Turkey from escalating its attacks against Syrian Kurds. The first shipment of US heavy arms is rumored to have arrived in Kurdish-held Hasakah last night, but it is not yet clear how Turkey will respond.

For a brief explanation of this issue see the background note in 25 April TSI Update.

Military

  • 10 MAY: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) resumed the fourth phase of Operation “Wrath of Euphrates” on Sunday after a two week hiatus due to clashes with the Turkish army. The operation aims to push the Islamic State (ISIS) out of Raqqa province and ultimately to capture Raqqa city. The SDF announced that it gained control of the villages of al-Jalaa and Maysaloon north of Raqqa city on Monday, as well as surrounding farmland. (Hawar News-AR)
  • 10 MAY: On Wednesday, the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) announced it had gained complete control of Tabqa Dam and Tabqa city. US Central Command confirmed their claims on Thursday, adding that approximately 70 ISIS fighters had surrendered to the SDF’s terms and were allowed to withdraw after disarming. (SOHR-AR, CENTCOM, Smart News-AR)
  • 10 MAY: The spokesman for Liwa al-Mutasem, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliated armed group, released a document on Wednesday claiming that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) would hand over Tel Rifaat and 10 other villages in northern Aleppo countryside to the group. The document was reportedly issued by the US military under the authority of the international coalition forces, although there has not yet been any confirmation from the US as to its authenticity. (@MustafaSejari, Smart News-AR, all4syriaAR) (Analyst note: If proven true, it is possible that this concession could be part of US efforts to placate Turkey over its decision to directly arm the Syrian Kurdish fighters preparing to take Raqqa from ISIS. The 11 villages in question would increase the size of the buffer zone that Turkey is forming to try and prevent the Kurds from uniting their western Afrin Canton to the areas they control to the east.)
  • 10 MAY: The ninth batch of forced population transfers from Waer, Homs, left yesterday toward Jarablus city in northern Aleppo near the border with Turkey. With approximately 2,500 individual of fighters and civilians, this was the largest group to be displaced from al-Waer so far. (Smart News-AR, YouTube)
  • 10 MAY: Negotiations for the Barzeh forced displacement agreement were suspended Wednesday evening when the government refused to release a group of detainees, which was a term of the initial deal. After negotiations were suspended, all crossings in and out of Barzeh were closed, even to university students who were previously permitted access. Demonstrators took to the streets yesterday demanding the release of detainees. (Geroun News-AR, Syria Direct)
  • 11 MAY: On Wednesday, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra) ordered its fighters to block the movement of Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated fighters and weapons through HTS checkpoints in Idlib. The next day, an FSA-affiliated faction Abnaa al-Sham announced that a checkpoint for HTS in Idlib arrested a group for them and confiscated their weapons (@Charles_Lister, @abnaasham-AR)
  • 11 MAY: Clashes took place today throughout the northern Aleppo countryside. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) carried out an attack on Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield Forces near the city of Marea, north of Aleppo. The initial attack was followed by clashes lasting for several hours without any advancement by any side. The Turkish army shelled SDF locations in the town of Janderes northeast of Aleppo near Afrin. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the SDF may have y raised a Russian flag to stop the shelling. (Qasioun-AR, Syrians News -AR, SOHR)
  • 11 MAY: Assad Coalition forces clashed with ISIS north of Palmyra on Thursday. 13 Assad Coalition fighters were reportedly killed in the clashes. Another three fighters were captured by ISIS. (Smart News-AR, World News-AR)
  • 11 MAY: The US-led coalition reportedly targeted the city of Raqqa and the village of Maisalun with several airstrikes that killed 16 civilians and injured dozens of others. (Shaam-AR, Qasioun-AR)
  • 11 MAY: The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) reportedly closed the road between the SDF-held city of Manbij and the opposition-held city of Jarablus. Reports indicated only citizens of Manbij are permitted to enter Manbij. (Syrian PC-AR, Alahed-AR, Enab Baladi-AR)
  • 11 MAY: Today the opposition group Failaq al-Rahman (FAR) attacked an Ahrar al-Sham (AS) center in the Eastern Ghouta neighborhood of Arbin. FAR reportedly demanded Ahrar al-Sham dissolve and merge with them. In neighboring areas, opposition group Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) removed the berms between its territory in Misraba and the FAR territory in Hamouriya, which could be related to the statement JAI released yesterday mentioning a willingness to facilitate the access of good between the neighborhoods in Eastern Ghouta. (Enab Baladi-AR, Geroun News-AR, @jaishalislam-AR) (Analyst note: JAI began fighting HTS and FAR last month – see 28 April TSI Update. JAI claimed the aim of the offensive was to eradicate HTS from Eastern Ghouta. It told FAR to stay out of the clashes, though some parts of FAR cooperate with HTS fighters and appear to have been targeted by JAI.)
  • 11 MAY: Unconfirmed reports suggest that the first US shipment of weapons was delivered directly to the Kurds in al-Malikiyah, Hasakah governorate yesterday. The shipment reportedly included tanks, anti-tank weapons, and other heavy arms. (all4syria-AR)

Political

  • 10 MAY: On Wednesday, the US State Department announced it is offering a reward for up to $10 million for information about Muhammad al-Julani, a leader for al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra). (State Department, Reward For Justice)
  • 10 MAY: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington on Wednesday. Discussions reportedly centered on ISIS, de-escalating violence in Syria, and the Geneva peace negotiations. President Trump spoke with Lavrov about Russia and the US working together to end the conflict in Syria, and Trump reportedly stressed the need for Russia to restrain the Syrian government, Iran, and Iranian proxies. (US State Department, White House, TASS)
  • 11 MAY: Turkey reacted negatively to the US announcement that it will directly arm the Kurdish YPG in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for the push to retake Raqqa from ISIS. In response Turkey has threatened to increase military action against Syrian Kurdish fighters and demanded that the US reverse its decision. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Turkey considers both the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Iraq and the YPG in Syria as terrorist organizations, adding that “every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.” During a meeting today between US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in London Mattis worked to calm Turkish fears and reiterate US support for the security of our NATO ally. Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson Colonel John Dorrian said weapons provided to the Kurdish YPG will only be used in the fight the Islamic State (ISIS). US officials indicated the US is strengthening joint intelligence efforts with Turkey to target the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Iraq to offset arming the YPG in Syria. (Washington Post, Hurriyet, Hurriyet, AP, @OIRSpox, Reuters, DOD, WSJ)

Humanitarian

  • None

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 10 MAY: “A Syrian Plan Worth a Look” – The Editorial Board (New York Times)
  • 10 MAY: “US Special Forces Are Secretly Training Syrian Rebels And Fighting Alongside Them” – Mitch Prothero and Mike Giglio (Buzzfeed)
  • 11 MAY: “Syria’s Implacable Vortex: Part 1” – John Polcari (Carnegie Diwan)
  • 11 MAY: “Syrian aid grinds to halt as Turkey cracks down on foreign agencies” – Lizzie Porter (Middle East Eye)
  • 11 MAY: “Saving Lives Underground” – The Syria Campaign and 13 medical organizations (The Syria Campaign)