TSI Syria Update: June 19, 2017

Takeaway

Tensions are rising rapidly between the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition and the Assad Coalition, amidst the heightened risk of confrontation directly between the US and Russia/Iran. On Sunday, a US F/A 18E ‘Super Hornet’ shot down a Syrian government SU-22 jet south of Tabqa in the province of Raqqa after it reportedly launched an airstrike near the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which were under attack from Syrian military ground forces. This marks the fourth time in a month the US has directly attacked pro-Assad forces in Syria. The incident prompted harsh condemnation from Russia, who claimed the Syrian government jet was targeting ISIS positions in the area, and contradicted the US statement that it tried to reach out to Russia through the established “de-confliction” channel. Russia announced it was suspending communications with the US through the de-confliction channel, and said that all aircraft west of the Euphrates river would be treated as potential targets for both air and ground anti-aircraft systems. Also on Sunday, Iran launched ballistic missiles directly from Iran into Syria for the first time. While these strikes targeted ISIS – reportedly in retaliation for last week’s terror attack in Tehran – they also send a clear message to US Coalition forces moving eastward, and highlight the increasing threat of further escalation.

Note: Today, The Syria Institute and PAX published the Sixth Quarterly Siege Watch report, covering events from February to April 2017. Read the full report here: Siege Watch Sixth Quarterly Report, February – April 2017

Military

  • 17 – 19 JUN: On Saturday, the Syrian government declared a 48-hour ceasefire in the southern city of Daraa. The Syrian military stated the ceasefire would take effect from noon on Saturday in order to “support reconciliation efforts.” The agreement, said to be brokered by Russia, the US, and Jordan, comes after escalating clashes between Assad Coalition forces and armed opposition groups (AOGs) in Daraa. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported relative calm in the city, broken only by several instances of shelling by pro-government forces. (SOHR, SANA, Reuters, SOHR)
  • 18 JUN: On Sunday, a US warplane shot down a Syrian government jet in the province of Raqqa after it reportedly targeted US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions south of Tabqa. A statement by the US-led Coalition reported at approximately 4:30pm Syria time,  pro-government forces attacked the SDF-held town of Ja’Din, reportedly forcing the SDF from the town. US-led Coalition aircraft conducted a “show of force,” halting further pro-government advances in the area. According to the statement, the US-led Coalition then contacted Russian counterparts via the establish “de-confliction line” in order to avoid escalation. At approximately 6:40pm Syria time, a Syrian government SU-22 jet dropped munitions near SDF positions south of Tabqa. It was immediately shot down by a US F/A-18E fighter. Contrary to US claims, the Syrian government and Russia assert the government jet was targeting ISIS positions in the area, not the SDF. (Reuters, CJTFOIR, CENTCOM, SANA)
  • 18 JUN: US-backed SDF continued its offensive to capture the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold city of Raqqa. On Sunday, the SDF stated it captured al-Bitani district in the eastern part of Raqqa and most parts of al-Barid district in the western part of the city. Also, the SDF opened a new battle front to the south of Raqqa after taking control of Sheikh Juma’a village on the southern borders of the city.  (Smart News-AR, Baladi News-AR)
  • 18 JUN: On Sunday, the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) launched several ballistic missiles from Iran targeting Islamic State (ISIS)-held areas in Deir-Ezzor. The ground-to-ground strikes, which were launched from an IRGC base in western Iran, were reportedly carried out in retaliation for the terrorist attacks earlier this month in Tehran, the IRGC stated. Iran has provided fighters, military advisers and weapons to the Syrian government but the attack marks the first time Iran has fired missiles at Syria and represents a major escalation of Iran’s role in the conflict. (AP, NYT)
  • 18 JUN: On Sunday, Assad Coalition forces and Iraqi troops met up at a crossing point on the Iraq-Syria border for the first time in years. Pro-Syrian government media reported the meeting took place one day after Iraqi forces took control of al-Waleed border checkpoint, located northeast of the US base at al-Tanf. According to some observers, the link between Iraqi troops and Assad Coalition forces will provide pro-Iran militias and Iraqi fighters with an easy path to move inside Syria and join the Assad Coalition in its campaign against ISIS. (AP)  
  • 18 JUN: Assad Coalition forces bombarded the Damascus neighborhood of Jobar and surrounding areas of eastern Ghouta over the weekend. The current escalation of violence around Damascus began on Thursday, ending several weeks of relative calm following the announcement of the Russian “de-escalation zones” initiative at Astana. (Syria Direct, @SiegeWatch, Ghouta GMC FB-AR)
  • 19 JUN: On Monday, Assad Coalition forces took control of the al-Rasafah town in the countryside of Raqqa governorate after clashes with ISIS fighters. This advance places Assad coalition forces within 10 miles of Tabqa airbase, controlled by US-backed forces. (Smart News-AR, Qasioun, SANA)

Political

  • 17 JUN: On Saturday, UN envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura announced the next round of intra-Syrian talks would be held in Geneva on 10 July. De Mistura stated discussions on constitutional and legal issues would continue in addition to the formal sessions, and mentioned that additional talks were scheduled for August and September. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated Astana talks would also resume on 10 July, and would be attended by de Mistura, leading to confusion regarding the timing of the discussions. When questioned, a spokesman for de Mistura reportedly stated the issue was “currently being discussed.” Further clarification has not been given by the UN or Russia. (MEE, UNOG, Russia MFA, Al-Jazeera)
  • 19 JUN: In a statement from the Russian Ministry of Defense on Monday, Moscow condemned Sunday’s downing of a Syrian government jet by a US warplane near Tabqa and issued a warning to the US-led Coalition. It said that, despite statements to the contrary, the US failed to use the established “de-confliction channel” prior to shooting down the Syrian aircraft, and stated that Russia was suspending communication with the US in Syria. It also stated all aircraft west of the Euphrates River, including those from the US-led Coalition, would be tracked by anti-aircraft systems, and treated as potential targets. In response, Department of Defense spokesperson Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway stated the US-led Coalition would continue conducting air operations throughout Syria. Rankine-Galloway also noted as a result of recent encounters with pro-government and Russian forces the US has taken “measures to reposition aircraft over Syria so as to continue targeting ISIS forces while ensuring the safety of our aircrew given known threats in the battlespace.” (Russia MoD FB, BBC, NYTimes, Fox News)

Humanitarian

  • 19 JUN: On Monday, an interagency humanitarian aid convoy delivered food and medicine to 11,000 people in the besieged town of Harasta, in Eastern Ghouta. This was the second attempt by SARC and the ICRC to deliver aid to the besieged town. On Saturday, the convoy’s delivery was aborted after government officials reportedly failed to remove the sand berms near Harasta’s entrance. As the convoy was forced to turn back, it came under a gunfire attack which the Harasta Local Council blames on pro-government forces. One SARC driver was injured and one truck was damaged. (UNOCHA, @ICRC_sy, @OCHA_Syria, @SYRedCrescent, Harasta LC-FB)

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 18 JUN: “The War After ISIS: Has Trump Opened the Door to Conflict With Iran?” – Julian Borger (The Guardian)
  • 19 JUN: “Siege Watch Sixth Quarterly Report, February-April 2017    “ – TSI & PAX (TSI)
  • 19 JUN: “U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet Downs Syrian Su-22 Near Raqqa, Syria. And Here Is Everything We Know.” (The Aviationist)
  • 19 JUN: “Trump and the Battle for Eastern Syria” – Jonathan Marcus (BBC)
  • 19 JUN: “A Teenage Syrian Refugee on a Mission to Educate Her Generation” – Kim Bode (Syria Deeply)
  • 19 JUN: “Coalition Defends Partner Forces from Syrian Fighter Jet Attack” (CJTFOIR)