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SitRep: Kurds Move on Raqqa, Russia Allies With Kurdish Militias

SitRep: Kurds Move on Raqqa, Russia Allies With Kurdish Militias

 

The battle for Raqqa. Despite months of tension between Turkey and Kurdish rebels in northern Syria, the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have finally kicked off their long-anticipated move on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa. The 30,000-strong force — which includes about 10,000 Syrian Arab fighters — is being backed by U.S. and coalition aircraft and other “advise and assist support,” according to a statement from the U.S. military command in Baghdad.

About those airstrikes. Coalition jets pounded ISIS positions near the Syrian town of Ayn Isa with 16 airstrikes on Monday, hitting 12 ISIS “tactical units” and two suicide car bombers, among other targets, in what looks to be the first big fight in the SDF’s push south.

Where this is going. While U.S. military officials won’t put a timeline on how long it will take before the SDF enters Raqqa, it will likely take months. In the meantime, the coalition “will continue using a campaign of airstrikes to shape the battlefield and inflict damage on Da’esh leadership,” spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad, Col. John Dorrian, told SitRep, using an alternate name for the Islamic State.

Top U.S. General heads to Turkey. In an attempt to smooth things over with Turkey — who has insisted the Kurds play no part in the fight for Raqqa — Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an unannounced visit to Ankara on Sunday, meeting with Turkish officials to discuss battle plans. His staff also announced that the Pentagon is sending a team of officers to Ankara to work with the Turkish General Staff on coordinating the fight. The Turks will play a key role in identifying and training local Syrian Arabs to hold the city once ISIS is evicted.

Dunford said the initial push is meant to box ISIS in, “as we work on a long-term plan that is more viable for holding” Raqqa. “We always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa,” he added. “What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation.”

Things still tense. Plus, Russia. While some initial agreements have been made with Turkey, the situation between Ankara, their militias in northern Syria, and the Kurds remains uncertain.

“The biggest risk with the Raqqa operation is still that the Turkish-Kurd war will expand in a way that kills the operation,” Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War told SitRep. “Russia is inserting itself into the Kurdish calculus in a way that could potentially edge us out as the most important broker between the PKK/YPG and Turks. Russia could end up mediating between the Turks and Kurds, but would only do so in a way that undermines the U.S. and throws off the coalition’s operation to retake Raqqa.”

Case in point. The Russians held a press conference with the Kurdish YPG in Afrin City in northern Syria on Saturday to promote their support.

Bombs over Mosul. In the fight to evict the Islamic State from Mosul, Col. Daniel Manning, the deputy director of the U.S.-led air war told Military.com that since Oct. 16, over 1,300 bombs have been dropped in and around the city, with one landing every eight minutes in the first few days of the offensive.

Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

U.S. Army Special Forces

It’s been a grim month for U.S. Army Special Forces troops, with five soldiers having been killed over the past week in Jordan and Afghanistan. Over the weekend, the Army identified the three soldiers killed in an attack on a Jordanian military base, all from the 5th Special Forces Group: Staff Sgt. Matthew Lewellen, Staff Sgt. Kevin McEnroe, and Staff Sgt. James Moriarty. The three were killed when an assailant fired on the vehicle they were traveling in as it entered Al-Jafr Air Base. Just days earlier, two other Green Berets — Capt. Andrew Byers and Sgt. 1st Class Ryan Gloyer were killed in Kunduz, Afghanistan, while fighting the Taliban. They were assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group.

Yemen

Fighters from the Houthi movement have released a former Marine in Yemen held prisoner for the past year, the New York Times reports. Negotiations between U.S. officials and the Houthi movement freed Wallead Yusuf Pitts Luqman, who had been in the country teaching English. Luqman’s family initially kept his detention a secret but his wife went public about his status in October after receiving proof of life.

Montenegro

Montenegro says it stopped an assassination plot put together by Russian nationalists against the country’s prime minister. Montenegro’s chief special prosecutor says the would-be assassins planned to use a sniper to kill Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and usher in a pro-Russian government. There’s no sign the plot was tied to or aided by Moscow, but prosecutor Milivoje Katnic said that “two nationalists from Russia were organisers.” Prime Minister Djukanovic has angered Russia by seeking closer relations with both NATO and the European Union.

Ukraine

The 2016 election has made a number of American allies nervous about its commitment to their security, particularly in Europe. In response, the Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. Army Europe command Gen. Ben Hodges was dispatched to Ukraine in order to reassure officials there that the U.S. is committed to Ukrainian security. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has taken a warmer attitude towards Russian President Vladimir Putin and said he’d consider recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate, leading many in Kiev to wonder whether U.S. policy will take a sharp turn in January. But Hodges told Ukrainians that his “expectation is the U.S. Army will be given the mission to continue supporting Ukraine for as far as I can see.”

Drones

The leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Council says the Islamic State has been experimenting with a new kind of weaponized drone. In an interview with Reuters, Masrour Barzani says that the jihadist group has converted some drones to use mustard agent and deploy chlorine gas, in addition to artillery shells. It’s unclear how effective or numerous the Islamic State drones are and Barzani didn’t provide further details. An Islamic State drone packed with explosives killed two Peshmerga troops in October when it detonated while being handled.

Navy

The Navy’s $4 billion stealth ship will not be getting its bespoke ammo. Defense News reports the Navy is cancelling plans for the Long Range Land-Attack Projectile over cost concerns. As it stands, the LRLAP — go ahead, try and pronounce that one — would cost about $800,000 to fire a single shot from its 155 mm/62 caliber Advanced Gun System. While the Navy is looking to find a replacement round for the DDG-1000 to fire, the cancellation means it’s possible that the ship will enter service without ammo for its Advanced Gun System.

Marines

A Marine recruit at Parris Island training was found dead, making him the second recruit to die at the training facility this year. Marine Corps Times reports that the Marine, thus far unnamed, was found unresponsive in bed and later transported to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. Parris Island has been rocked by a series of recruit health and safety issues, leading to a investigation of over 20 officials at the facility. Earlier this year, a Marine recruit was killed after jumping down a stairwell in an apparent suicide attempt and another recruit remains in critical condition after falling from a rooftop.

 

Photo Credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images