TSI Syria Update: June 14, 2017

Takeaway

The offensive against the ISIS-held stronghold of Raqqa continues to escalate as US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advance into the city. After relatively rapid gains at the start of the offensive last week, the SDF advances appear to have slowed due to increasingly heavy clashes. Within this context, US officials reportedly stated the Pentagon is considering deploying additional equipment and personnel to Raqqa to counter the armed drones ISIS is currently using to attack US Special Forces working alongside the SDF. The US official’s statement belies the extent of the role US Special Forces are currently playing in the ongoing offensive on Raqqa, and their likely proximity to the front lines of the assault. At the same time, the US-led Coalition has intensified airstrikes on the city, resulting in what a UN investigative commission called a “staggering loss of civilian life.” The commission noted the increased airstrikes displaced an estimated 160,000 civilians from Raqqa.

Military

  • 13 JUN: On Tuesday, defense officials confirmed the US moved its long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) from Jordan to southern Syria near al-Tanf. While the system has previously been used to strike ISIS targets in Syria from fighting positions in Turkey and Jordan, this is the first time it has been deployed within Syria. (CNN, Reuters) (Analyst note: This deployment comes amid increasing tensions in southern Syria between the US and the Assad Coalition. It is likely intended to send a direct message to Russia and Iran, who both have an increasing military footprint in the area, and to discourage Assad Coalition advances near al-Tanf.)
  • 13 JUN: A group of protesters mobbed the police department building in al-Suwayda City on Tuesday, demanding the release of an activist (Murad Jobran) arbitrarily arrested over the weekend. After Murad was arrested, his family member’s allegedly kidnapped at least eight government security soldiers in an effort to seek an exchange for him. Murad’s transfer out of al-Suwayda to Damascus prompted Tuesday’s protest, where protesters surrounded the building and burned tires causing the building’s entrance to catch fire. The tension also expanded to Murad’s hometown Qrayya. (all4syria-AR, Syria Nass-AR, Roya Souria-AR) (Analyst Note: Al-Suwayda city and its countryside is majority Druze – a religious minority – which is divided between pro-government, neutral, and pro-opposition supporters. The Assad government typically avoids upsetting the Druze, resolving disputes through negotiation and compromise which include religious leaders.)
  • 14 JUN: Assad Coalition forces targeted the town of Tafas, north of Daraa city, with artillery and airstrikes on Wednesday. The strikes killed at least 11 civilians and injured dozens. A school being used as shelter for internally displaced persons (IDPs) was targeted by the bombardment. Pro-government warplanes also targeted the Daraa al-Balad and al-Mokhayam neighborhoods of Daraa city. (Smart News-AR, Qasioun-AR, Step Agency-AR,  @SyriaCivilDefe-AR)
  • 14 JUN: US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) faced intense resistance from Islamic State (ISIS) fighters on Wednesday in what was described as the “most violent” battles Raqqa has seen since the launch of the offensive in June 6. The fighting continued on several battle fronts as the SDF tried to capture the al-Bareed and Hiteen districts in the eastern part of Raqqa city, and secured al-Sina’a industrial complex on the western side. Video footage published on Wednesday depicted a convoy from Jaysh al-Thuwwar, a US-backed faction composed of Arab fighters in the SDF, reportedly moving toward Raqqa city as reinforcement. (Syria Direct, Qasioun, @SDF_JABHA)
  • 14 JUN: The Assad Coalition took control of Tal Arak gas field and Arak town along the Palmyra-Deir-Ezzor highway after days of clashes with the Islamic State (ISIS). This new advance positions Assad Coalition forces closer to al-Sukhneh, the last major stronghold for ISIS in Homs governorate.  (SANA, Qasioun)

Political

  • 13 JUN: A group of community leaders, tribal leaders, and armed opposition representatives in Deir Ezzor province released a statement yesterday condemning the increased presence of Iranian-backed pro-government militias in Deir Ezzor. The statement said that the people of  Deir Ezzor can liberate the province from ISIS on their own. At the same time, a newly formed pro-government militia is reportedly transporting militants from Qamishli to Deir Ezzor city for the battle against ISIS. (Eldorar-AR, @FSAPlatform, Qasioun)
  • 14 JUN: US officials reportedly stated the Pentagon is considering sending additional anti-drone equipment and troops to support the ongoing US-backed offensive on Raqqa in response to ISIS drone attacks. The officials stated ISIS is using the drones to attack US Special Operations teams working alongside Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) around the city. Beyond the immediate danger to forces on the ground, the US officials noted ISIS drones were, at times, disrupting the ability of American forces to call in airstrikes. (Washington Post)
  • 14 JUN: On Wednesday, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said the next round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva could start in early July, likely before the G20 summit to be held in Hamburg on 7 – 8 July. Notably, de Mistura said the Russian-led Astana talks were an important part of the efforts to end the Syrian conflict, and stated “We hope that what is being done in Astana can be expanded in order to (reach)… a total ceasefire.” (UNOG, AFP, Reuters)
  • 14 JUN: On Wednesday, Chairman of the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Commission of Inquiry for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, expressed concern over the “staggering loss of civilian life” caused by the US-led Coalition airstrikes in the Raqqa offensive. Pinheiro also stated that the airstrikes led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes. The US-backed SDF is slowly gaining ground against Islamic State (ISIS) forces in the suburbs of Raqqa, with US-led Coalition aerial support. Separately, Human Rights Watch on Wednesday stated that the US-led Coalition airstrikes in Raqqa are endangering civilians after reports that artillery-delivered white phosphorus was used in the city last Thursday.  (OHCHR, Human Rights Watch, Reuters)
  • 14 JUN: Chairman of the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Commission of Inquiry for Syria Paulo Pinheiro told the HRC on Wednesday that Russia’s “de-escalation zones” plan has reduced violence in only one of four zones included in the Astana agreement, and has not led to greater humanitarian access, one of the stated purposes of the deal. Pinheiro noted that although there has been a discernible reduction in violence around Idlib and in western Aleppo, the “enduring violence” present in the rest of the “de-escalation zones” has not changed in nature. (Washington Post, OHCHR)
  • 14 JUN: Syrian and Iraqi officials held a high level meeting today in Baghdad to discuss military and intelligence cooperation. According to the Syrian military, this marks the highest level of coordination between the Syrian and Iraqi militaries since 1979. (Syrian military FB, al-Manar)

Humanitarian

  • None.

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 13 JUN: “Hezbollah’s Redeployment in Syria: Potential Confrontations” – Hanin Ghaddar (The Washington Institute)
  • 14 JUN: “Expect an ugly rumble in Raqqa” – Peter Brookes (Boston Herald)
  • 14 JUN: “Trump’s War To ‘Annihilate’ ISIS Is Raising Civilian Casualties” – David Wood (Huffington Post)
  • 14 JUN: “Iraq/Syria: Danger From US White Phosphorus” (Human Rights Watch)
  • 14 JUN: “Daunting Aid Challenges as Civilians Flee Syria’s Raqqa” – Sara Hussein (Yahoo News)
  • 14 JUN: “ISIS Drones are Attacking US Troops and Disrupting Airstrikes in Raqqa, Officials Say” – Thomas Gibbons-neff (Washington Post)
  • 14 JUN: “Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Syria” (UNOG)
  • 14 JUN: “Statement by Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of INquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” (UNHCR)
  • 14 JUN: “‘Most Violent’ Battles in Raqqa City to Date as UN Warns of Civilian Toll” – Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim, Maria Nelson (Syria Direct)
  • 14 JUN: “Transcript of stakeout by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in Oslo, 14 June 2017” (UNOG)