TSI Syria Update: May 31, 2017

Takeaway

US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) continued to advance on ISIS positions around Raqqa on Wednesday, capturing several villages to the north and west of the city. The SDF now surrounds Raqqa on all fronts except to the south. These advances were accompanied by Coalition airstrikes on the city, which reportedly destroyed an ISIS communications complex, disrupting ground communication. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stated the Raqqa offensive will involve “annihilation” tactics, which entails fully surrounding militant positions, thus cutting off any possible retreat before beginning the assault on the city itself. This marks a shift in the US-led Coalition fight against ISIS.

Military

  • 31 MAY: Assad Coalition planes continued targeting the Islamic State (ISIS) held city of Maskaneh in southeast Aleppo with airstrikes and shelling on Wednesday. The attack started Tuesday as pro-government ground forces advanced outside of the city. Assad Coalition forces reportedly captured new villages west and north of Maskaneh. Some sources reported at least six pro-government soldiers were killed, including two high ranking officers. (Qasioun, Sham FM-AR, Baladi News-AR, Aletihad Press-AR)
  • 31 MAY: Tuesday evening, a Russian frigate and submarine in the Mediterranean launched four Kalibr missiles at ISIS facilities east of Palmyra. The strikes targeted “shelters” believed to be harboring heavy weapons and a group of ISIS militants. Russian officials reported all four missiles hit their targets, and that the US, Turkey, and Israel were notified of the strikes in advance. Notably, this is the first strike of this kind by Russia in Syria since November 2016. The strikes come as Assad Coalition forces work to secure the area east of Palmyra from ISIS. (Kremlin, BBC, Al Jazeera, The Independent, Russia MOD)
  • 31 MAY: The US-led coalition may have conducted a covert operation in Shunaina village, west of Raqqa. According to pro-opposition media, the operation came after several coalition airstrikes targeted the village. During the hour-long operation, the coalition reportedly killed an estimated ten ISIS fighters, and arrested another four. (Step Agency-AR, Orient News-AR)
  • 31 MAY: Armed opposition groups Jaysh Ossoud al-Sharqia and Ahmad al-Abdo attacked Assad Coalition forces in al-Badiya area near the Zaza checkpoint and Sabe Byar town, and gained control of new locations. Saad al-Haj, spokesman for Jaysh Osoud al-Sharqiya, stated that opposition advances in the area were halted after a sortie of Assad Coalition jets bombed them. Pro-opposition media also reported Syrian and Russian airstrikes in the area. (Qasioun, Reuters, al-Masdar, @osoudalsharqia-AR, @osoudalsharqia-AR)
  • 31 MAY: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced against ISIS in areas west of Raqqa city and gained control of several villages, including Bir al-Hashim and Mazrah. There were also reports that US-led coalition airstrike bombed an ISIS communications building in Raqqa, disrupting communications at least temporarily. (SMO-AR, Smart News-AR, Enab Baladi-AR, @Raqqa_SL) (Analyst note: With this advance, the SDF now surrounds Raqqa city from all directions except the southern side).
  • 31 MAY: Pro-government forces targeted residential areas of the town of Shaifonia in Eastern Ghouta with with shelling, which injured civilians. (@DoumaRevolution-AR, Smart News-AR)

Political

  • 30 MAY: In a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley stated that Russia and Iran had either aided or looked away as the Syrian government committed some of history’s worst war crimes. Haley said the government subjected its people to torture, most notably at Sednaya prison, where the US believes the Syrian government constructed a crematorium to dispose of detainees. Additionally, Haley pointed to the systematic destruction of hospitals and schools by the Assad Coalition across Syria, and called on Russia to end such atrocities. (UN, USUN, Orient)
  • 30 MAY: On Tuesday, US State Department official Stuart Jones addressed the ongoing conflict between Assad Coalition forces and Armed Opposition Groups (AOGs) in al-Badiya in southeastern Syria. Jones reiterated the US is “very concerned” with Iranian influence in the area, and stated “We don’t see the Iranian presence there as enabling a political solution or a security solution for Syria.” Jones made no comment on the possibility of escalation between US-backed forces and the Assad Coalition in al-Badiya  (US State Department)
  • 30 MAY: Talal Silo, spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stated that SDF forces would not allow Iran-backed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs – also known as Hashd al-Shaabi) to cross into Syrian territory. Silo said that if PMUs attempted to cross the border, the SDF would fight them. This statement came shortly after PMUs captured a group of villages on the Syria-Iraq border near the Sinjar region from ISIS. (MEE, Kurdistan24)
  • 31 MAY: On Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated that the recent US decision to arm the Syrian Kurdish YPG was a mistake, and “extremely dangerous for Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.” Turkey views the YPG as a militant group directly linked to the Iraqi PKK, while Washington believes it to be the most effective force fighting ISIS in Syria. Cavusoglu’s statement comes a day after the Pentagon announced it had begun distributing weapons and vehicles to Kurdish forces in advance of the offensive on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. (AFP, Asharq al-Awsat, al-Manar, Hurriyet)
  • 31 MAY: Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the rising number of casualties in US-led coalition airstrikes, calling them “ill-conceived, poorly planned actions carried out under the pretext of the fight against international terrorism.” Zakharova stated that such airstrikes were counterproductive as they killed more civilians than militants, and ultimately exacerbated the conflict in Syria. (Russia MFA-RU)

Humanitarian

  • None

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 30 MAY: “Syria and the Six-Day War: A 50-Years Perspective” – Itamar Rabinovich (Brookings)
  • 30 MAY: “The US has Ramped Up Airstrikes Against ISIS in Raqqa, and Syrian Civilians Are Paying the Price” – Murtaza Hussain (The Intercept)
  • 30 MAY: “Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria” – Nikki Haley (USUN)
  • 31 MAY: “If Trump Wants to Fight Iran, He’ll Soon Get the Chance in Syria” – Henry Meyer and Nafeesa Syeed (Bloomberg)
  • 31 MAY: “Hospitals Become the Front Line in the Syrian Civil War” – Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian (Foreign Policy)
  • 31 MAY: “‘I don’t know how we are still alive’: In Deir e-Zor city, regime districts survive on airdropped on rations while surrounded by Islamic State” – Noura Hourani, Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, and Tariq Adely (Syria Direct)