TSI Syria Update: August 23, 2017

Takeaway

Fighting in the city of Raqqa continued today, with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claiming to have killed at least 40 ISIS fighters across the city, indicating the presence of intense fighting. Reports continue of a surge in civilian deaths resulting from US-led Coalition airstrikes on the city, with sources estimating at least 55 were killed on Monday alone, and another 50 killed by Wednesday morning. Speaking on the situation in Raqqa, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and CJTF-OIR Commander Townsend addressed the issue of reports that civilian casualties resulting from US-led Coalition strikes had spiked, saying it was logical to assume civilian deaths may have risen, but asked for “hard evidence” of such an increase. Mattis added that “We are the good guys, and the innocent people on the battlefield know the difference.”

Military

  • 23 AUG: US-led Coalition airstrikes and US-backed SDF shelling targeting Raqqa continued overnight, reportedly hitting residential areas of the city. The overnight strikes allegedly killed more civilians in an attack on al-Badou neighbourhood, bringing the total of civilians killed in Raqqa to at least 50, with another 60 wounded. The SDF announced on Tuesday that they had gained control of al-Rasheed neighbourhood, in addition to clashing with ISIS in Raqqa’s Old City, along with the al-Nahda and al-Moror districts. SDF also claimed to have killed an estimated 40 ISIS fighters across the city. (Smart News-AR, 7al-AR, Hawar News-AR)
  • 23 AUG: On Wednesday, Turkey-backed armed opposition groups (AOGs) forming the Hawar Kilis operation room launched a campaign to arrest criminals and drug dealers in northern Aleppo governorate in an effort to “restore stability” to the area. Hawar Kilis trains and supports a group of local law enforcement, which will support the operation room in its arrest campaign. Hawar Kilis also made a list of wanted people, including current and previous AOG leaders who were involved in dealing drugs. (Smart News-AR, Orient News-AR, Step Agency-AR)
  • 23 AUG: Assad Coalition forces continued advancing in eastern Hama governorate today, in an operation to reclaim the area from the ISIS. Pro-government forces reportedly captured the villages of al-Jini and Tal al-Elbawi in the Uqayrbat region. Assad Coalition warplanes backed the ground advances with airtrikes. At least 25 civilians were killed in airstrikes while attempting to flee the area near Abo Kahef village. Several sources reported the high number of civilian casualties was a result of Russian planes using cluster munitions. (Smart News-AR, Qasioun-AR, Rozana-AR, Orient News-AR)

Political

  • 22 AUG: On Tuesday, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, CJTF-OIR Commander General Townsend, and Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk discussed the ongoing offensive against ISIS in the city of Raqqa. Townsend said there had been an uptick on US-led Coalition strikes on Raqqa for two reasons: first, with the conclusion of the offensive on Mosul, Raqqa is now the Coalition’s number one priority; and two, the fight in Raqqa is currently entering “the very hardest parts of the city,” and as a result, the Coalition has stepped up its strikes in support of its partner forces on the ground. Speaking on reports of increased civilian casualties as a result of Coalition strikes, Townsend stated that it was logical to assume there has been some increase in civilians deaths, but said, “I would ask someone to show me hard information that says that civilian casualties have increased in Raqqa to some significant degree.” Mattis added, “We can make a mistake, and in this kind of warfare, tragedy will happen. But we are the good guys, and the innocent people on the battlefield know the difference.” (DoD, EA Worldview)
  • 23 AUG: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia today to discuss Israel’s concerns regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. Netanyahu told Putin Israel was prepared to take unilateral action to prevent an increased Iranian military presence in the country. As a result of its intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, Russia has a de facto military alliance with Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militant groups, including Hezbollah, which are also helping prop up the Assad government. Israel has long expressed concern over Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, and fears that a victory for Assad will allow Iran a permanent military presence in the country. Speaking to such concerns, Netanyahu stated, “We want to prevent a war and that’s why it’s better to raise the alarm early in order to stop deterioration.” Netanyahu is due back in Israel to meet with a US delegation later today. (Reuters, Al-Arabiya, Bloomberg)
  • 23 AUG: Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said on Wednesday that a joint monitoring center for the de-escalation agreement in southern Syria had been established in Amman, Jordan, and would begin operations on Wednesday. Shoigu said the center is tasked with monitoring the ceasefire in the south, and will ensure the access of humanitarian aid to local residents. The ceasefire was declared on 9 July and includes parts of Daraa, al-Suwayda, and Quneitra provinces. (TASS, SANA)
  • 23 AUG: US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met with Turkish officials today in Ankara as part of a series of meetings affirming US commitment to strategic allies in the Middle East and Europe. Mattis met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Turkish Minister of Defense Nurettin Canikli. Included in the discussions was the importance of territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq, concern over “Iran’s malign influence in the region,” and the need to promote regional security and stability. (DoD)

Humanitarian

  • None.

Notable Media/Transcripts/Reports

  • 22 AUG: “Secretary Mattis Media Availability with General Townsend and Special Envoy McGurk” (DoD)
  • 22 AUG: “YouTube Removes Videos Showing Atrocities in Syria” – Malachy Browne (NY Times)
  • 22 AUG: “Syrian Civilians Brace for Humanitarian Disaster in a Final Confrontation Between Assad and Jihadists” – Murtaza Hussain, Rajaai Bourhan (The Intercept)
  • 23 AUG: “Government Forces Continue Strikes on Besieged North Homs as Negotiators Demand Prisoner Release” – Mohammed al-Haj Ali, Avery Edelman, Kristen Demilio (Syria Direct)
  • 23 AUG: “What ISIL’s Rise in 2014 Tells Us About al-Qaeda’s Potential in Syria Today” – Hassan Hassan (The National)