TSI Syria Update: June 27, 2017

Takeaway

Late Monday evening, the White House issued a statement warning that the Syrian government appeared to be actively preparing for another chemical strike. According to the Pentagon, the US has witnessed increased preparation activity in the last 24 hours at Shayrat Airbase, the site from which the 4 April chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun is believed to have been launched. The White House warned President Assad that he and his military will “pay a heavy price” if another chemical attack takes place. While Russia and the Syrian government have dismissed the White House statement, both the UK and France have since voiced support for serious reprisals in the event of another chemical attack in Syria.

Military

  • 26 JUN: US-led coalition carried out an airstrike on a building used as a prison by Islamic State (ISIS) in al-Mayadin city in the eastern part of Deir Ezzor governorate. The strike reportedly killed at least 44 civilian inmates and 15 ISIS militants and injured many others. (Reuters, Deir-Ezzor24, DW)
  • 27 JUN: Assad Coalition forces continued an offensive against armed opposition groups (AOGs) in Eastern Ghouta today. Clashes erupted near the town of al-Rayhan and Hosh al-Dawahira while Assad Coalition forces shelled Ein Terma and Harasta with artillery, leaving several civilians killed and injured. (Harasta LC FB-AR, Ghouta GMC FB-AR, Smart News-AR, Smart News-AR)
  • 27 JUN: Assad Coalition forces continued the offensive in Daraa governorate and targeted al-Ajami, Dael, Tafas and Mzereeb villages in the western and southern countryside  with artillery and airstrikes. Pro-government warplanes also bombed the Daraa al-Balad neighborhood of Daraa city with barrel bombs and ground missiles. The bombardment on al-Ajami village reportedly killed a mother and her four children who earlier fled Daraa city due to clashes and airstrikes. (Smart News-AR, Shaam-AR)

Political

  • 26 JUN: On Monday night, the White House released a statement warning that the Syrian government appeared to be preparing for another chemical weapons attack, similar to the 4 April strike on Khan Sheikhoun. The White House statement said if Assad conducts another strike he will “pay a heavy price.”  On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis stated this involved “active preparations” at the Shayrat Airbase in the last 24 hours, the location the attack on Khan Sheikhoun is believed to have been launched from. US  ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley added to this statement, saying, “Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia and Iran who support him killing his own people.” Also on Tuesday, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said the UK would fully support a military response to any future chemical weapons use by Assad. Similarly, French President Emmanuel agreed to work with the US to find a “common response” in the event of a new chemical attack. (NYTimes, Fox News, The Independent, MEE, Reuters) (Analyst Note: If Assad is planning a new chemical strike, the timing would fit a pattern: there are often significant upticks in pro-government attacks in the weeks prior to international talks. Syria talks in Astana and Geneva are scheduled to begin 4 July and 10 July, respectively.)
  • 26 JUN: Former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass died today in Paris aged 85 years old. (BBC Arabic) (Analyst note: Tlass was one of the key founders and supporters of the Assad regime since 1970 and was Minister of Defense between 1972 and 2004. He played a major role in helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad succeed his father in June 2000. After the uprising against President Assad began in March 2011 Tlass chose to leave  the country while his sons, who were influential members in the army and state, defected and became prominent members in the opposition.)
  • 27 JUN: On Tuesday, Defence Secretary James Mattis discussed the possibility of supplying longer-term military assistance to the Kurdish YPG in Syria after ISIS is defeated in Raqqa. When asked if the YPG would return to pre-Raqqa levels of armament, Mattis responded this would depend on what the next mission is following the Raqqa offensive, saying “it’s not like the fight is over when Raqqa is over.” (Reuters) (Analyst Note: The US announced it had begun supplying  weapons to the Kurdish YPG on 30 May, ostensibly with the understanding the weapons would be tracked and eventually returned. This was allegedly confirmed by Mattis in a letter to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reported on 22 June. Reluctance to relieve the YPG of the weapons recently supplied may indicate US intends to continue to use the group in future offensives against ISIS following the completion of the Raqqa campaign.)
  • 27 JUN: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke about de-escalation in Syria over the phone, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Lavrov urged the US to stop all provocations against Assad Coalition forces. (Russian Foreign Ministry) (Analyst note: As this phone call took place before the White House issued its statement on a potential chemical attack, the “provocations” likely refer to recent incidents in which the US-led coalition has targeted Iranian-backed pro-government forces in al-Badiya area)

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 26 JUN: “Sitrep Raqqa: The Geopolitics of Eastern Syria” – Joseph V. Micallef (Military.com)
  • 27 JUN: “Staffan de Mistura (Special Envoy) on the situation in the Middle East (Syria) – Security Council, 7983rd meeting” (UN WebTV)