TSI Syria Update: May 30, 2017

Takeaway

The race to control the southeastern Badiya area of Syria continues, with Iranian-backed pro-government militias reportedly making additional gains. If these forces can capture a route to the Iraqi border they could create an unbroken swathe of Iran-backed Shi’a militia control across the region. Yesterday, a US CENTCOM spokesman said that the US-led Coalition forces will not permit Assad Coalition forces “within a 55km radius around the area in which coalition and partnered forces are operating near a-Tanf,” and will defend themselves unless the militias withdraw. A commander in Jaysh Maghaweer al-Thawra (MAT), a US trained and funded armed opposition group in the area said that the support provided to his faction from the US-led coalition is limited to the fight against ISIS, and request of support to confront Assad Coalition forces is ignored. At the same time, members of several US-supported groups in the area have noted a steady increase in US arms flowing to the group in the past few weeks, presumably in order to counter the advancing pro-government forces.

Military

  • 27 MAY: Armed opposition groups (AOGs) and the Islamic State (ISIS) clashed on Saturday when ISIS fighters tried to advance in Fleta and Wadi Hameed, in western Qalamoun area. According to pro-opposition media, 30 ISIS fighters, many of them leaders, were killed in the clashes, and more than 40 were injured. ISIS did not successfully advance in the area. (Smart News-AR, Zaman Alwasl-AR)
  • 27 MAY: Armed opposition group Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) clashed with Assad Coalition forces on Saturday in Eastern Ghouta. JAI claimed Assad Coalition forces launched several attacks trying to advance near Hosh al-Dawahira and Hazarma on Saturday and Sunday. (Smart News-AR, @jaishalislam-AR, @jaishalislam-AR)
  • 27 MAY: US-led Coalition warplanes killed at least 18 civilians on Saturday when they targeted public transportation buses in the villages of Ratla and al-Kasrat, south of Raqqa city. (Shaam-AR, SOHR-AR, @Raqqa_SL)
  • 28 MAY: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of several small villages in clashes with ISIS southwest of Raqqa city, including Hunaydah, Jaideen, and a branch of an oil company. The new advance gives the SDF more control over the Aleppo-Raqqa international highway. (Smart News-AR, Alaraby-AR)
  • 28 MAY: On Sunday, ISIS fighters launched an attack on an Assad Coalition checkpoint on the Athraya-Khanaser highway in al-Badiya. The confrontation reportedly killed 7 pro-government fighters. (Smart News-AR, Micro Syria-AR)  (Analyst Note: This highway is the only route currently connecting government controlled portions of Damascus and Homs with Aleppo, and it has significance for military reinforcement. It has been subject to several attacks from ISIS, see 24 May TSI Update)
  • 29 MAY: More than 11 civilians were killed and dozens were injured on Monday when ISIS shelled the besieged government-held al-Jorah neighbourhood in Deir-Ezzor city. (Deir-Ezzor 24, Shaam-AR)
  • 29 MAY: An Ahrar al-Sham commander claimed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an attack on Ahrar al-Sham’s locations around Deir Semaan castle, northwest of Aleppo. There are unconfirmed reports that the attack led to the death of several SDF fighters without an advance in the area. (Baladi News-AR, Micro Syria-AR)
  • 29 MAY: Iran-backed Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi militia, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), captured a group of ISIS-controlled villages on the border with Syria in northwestern Iraq. This move connects Iraqi PMUs with Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. Notably, this advance reportedly included an appearance by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Qassem Suleimani of the elite Iranian Quds Forces. (Reuters, AP, al-Masdar)
  • 29 MAY: Assad Coalition forces reportedly captured 100 kilometers of territory in eastern Qalamoun this weekend, taking control from both ISIS and armed opposition. For the first time since 2015, pro-government forces gained control of the highway linking Palmyra to Damascus and phosphate mines. (Syria Direct)
  • 30 MAY: On Tuesday morning, the fourth and final group of Barzeh’s forced population transfer arrived in the opposition-held city of Idlib. There were 1,012 individuals, including 450 fighters. (SANA, Reuters, Qasioun-AR)
  • 30 MAY: Armed opposition groups (AOGs) targeted a military convoy with missiles and artillery near the town of Kherbet Ghazaleh in Daraa province, reportedly killed ten pro-government fighters. The convoy was intended to reinforce Assad Coalition forces in Daraa city. Some sources reported that reinforcement troops were from Fourth Brigade and Iranian militias. (Smart News-AR, Enab Baladi-AR, all4syria-AR)
  • 30 MAY: Jaysh al-Islam (JAI) reportedly launched an attack against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – gaining control of the Mazare al-Ashaari area of Eastern Ghouta Tuesday morning. While JAI claimed to only be targeting the remaining HTS fighters, there are reports that Failaq al-Rahman (FAR) positions and fighters were also involved. (@alrahmancorps3-AR, Enab Baladi-AR, all4syria-AR)

Political

  • 27 MAY: On Friday, US officials announced 12 delivery and supply companies based in Turkey are banned from doing business with the US government as a result of their roles in profiteering from humanitarian aid intended for Syria. (Reuters, USAID OIG)
  • 27 MAY: The leaders at the G7 Summit in Italy voiced support for a resolution to the Syrian conflict in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254, which calls for a political transition. The G7 leaders also called on Iran and Russia to use their influence on the Syrian government to stop or reduce the violence in Syria, prevent the use of chemical weapons, and allow unhindered humanitarian access. Notably, the leaders stated that they were willing to work with Russia in Syria to achieve a political settlement, should Russia be prepared to use its influence positively. (EU)
  • 28 MAY: US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated on Sunday that US strategy in the fight against the Islamic State has shifted from attrition to annihilation tactics. Mattis noted that in the past, the strategy had been to force ISIS from territory under its control by pushing it from one area to another. This newer strategy is designed to prevent ISIS forces from retreating to other areas by surrounding them completely. He also affirmed that despite rising numbers of civilian casualties in US-led coalition airstrikes, there had been no change in restrictions designed to prevent non-combatant deaths, stating that civilians deaths are “a fact of life.” (CBS, Bloomberg, WSJ) (Analyst note: Mattis suggested the recent increase in civilian casualties resulting from US-led coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is attributable to an increase in tempo of the offensive against the Islamic State; not from a shift in restrictions designed to prevent civilian deaths. What isn’t immediately clear from Mattis’ statement is how a shift to a strategy of “annihilation” and an accelerating offensive account for a trend of rising civilian deaths, as the rules of engagement designed to prevent these deaths ought not be susceptible to shifts in tempo or tactics.)
  • 29 MAY: On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghasemi stated that Iran is prepared to deploy “peace forces” to Syria to observe the implementation of “de-escalation zones” upon request. This deployment would be predicated on the agreement of Russia and Turkey, the other two guarantors of the Astana agreement. (Iran MFA, Anadolu, Tehran Times)
  • 29 MAY: French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Versailles on Monday. Afterward, Macron stated any use of chemical weapons in Syria would result in reprisals and an immediate response from France. He also urged cooperation between Russia and France in the mutual interest of combating extremism in Syria and seeking a solution to the conflict, and noted that dialogue with all actors in the conflict in a “diplomatic and political framework” was essential. (MEE, The Guardian, Kremlin, Elysee-FR)
  • 30 MAY: On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron had an unannounced meeting with Riad Hijab, Coordinator for the Syrian opposition group High Negotiations Committee (HNC), and an HNC delegation. In this meeting, Macron affirmed his support for the Syrian opposition in the context of a political transition. (Reuters, Diplomatie)
  • 30 MAY: On Tuesday, the European Union announced the extension of sanctions against the Syrian government for another year. In addition, three high-ranking members of the Syrian justice, trade, and development ministries were added to the EU’s list of sanctioned entities and individuals, bringing the new totals to 67 and 240, respectively. (IHS Jane’s, EU L 139, Asharq al-Awsat)
  • 30 MAY: Opposition leaders in southeast Syria say the US and its allies have increased the amount of military aid provided to opposition groups in the area in the last two weeks, ostensibly in response to the advance of Assad Coalition forces in the Badiya area. In addition to the struggle to control Syria’s borders, Assad Coalition forces and US-backed opposition forces are vying for position in the incipient offensive against the Islamic State stronghold of Deir Ezzor. (Reuters)
  • 30 MAY: Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Gallow announced the American military has begun transferring weapons and equipment to Kurdish YPG forces in Syria. Major Rankine-Gallow stated the YPG had received a shipment of small arms and vehicles from the US, and these were distributed on Tuesday.  (Reuters, NBC) (Analyst note: While the US has previously supplied weapons and equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella group that includes (and is reportedly dominated by) the Kurdish YPG, this is the first time the US has openly done so directly to Kurdish forces.)

Humanitarian

  • None

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 29 MAY: “Al-Tanf: A Base for Washington or a Damascus-Tehran Crossing?” (Syrian Observer)
  • 29 MAY: “Turkey Making Itself at Home in Syria” – Fehim Tastekin (al Monitor)
  • 29 MAY: “US-backed Rebels Losing Territory in East Syrian Desert to Regime” – Waleed Khaled A-noufal (Syria Direct)
  • 30 MAY: “Syria’s Bloodiest Battle is Yet to Come – and 1 Million Civilians are at Risk” Louisa Loveluck (Washington Post)
  • 20 MAY: “Stephen O’Brien (OCHA) on the situation in the Middle East – Security Council, 7955th meeting,” (WebTV)
  • 30 MAY: “Implementation of Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2258 (2015) and 2332 (2016) – Report of the Secretary-General (S/2017/445)” (UN)
  • 30 MAY: “The complex battle for control in eastern Syria” – Aron Lund (IRIN)