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Turkey’s efforts to pursue independent policies to continue to exacerbate tensions with Western, non-Western actors – Turkey Special Analysis

This report was written by Sanjana Parashar (MENA Intelligence Manager) and Swathi Nagesh (Levant region specialist)

And reviewed by Darren Cohen (MENA Senior Intelligence Manager and Levant region specialist) and Oded Berkowitz (Deputy Chief Intelligence Officer)

Executive Summary

Tensions between Turkey and Western state actors have increased over recent years due to various geopolitical and security issues. Ankara’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy and the shift in its strategic alliances is the result of both developments in the domestic political sphere and the waning presence of leading Western actors in the region.

A significant area of contention is Ankara’s military interventionism. On October 8, the US condemned Turkey’s operations in Syria as posing “an extraordinary threat” to Washington’s national security. On October 5, Canada announced the suspension of arms exports to Turkey over Ankara’s reported military support for Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia. On September 21, the EU sanctioned a Turkish firm for breaching the UN arms embargo on Libya

These developments highlight the clash between Turkey’s effort to bolster its regional influence and secure its independent interests on one hand and the interests of its traditional Western partners on the other.

Turkey and the US have particularly disputed the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which the latter contends threatens its advanced aerial capabilities. This decision reflects Ankara’s intent to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its willingness to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority.

Ankara’s efforts to gain accession to the EU over the past decades have suffered several setbacks over recent years as Brussels has condemned Turkey’s economic policies and alleged human rights violations. More recently, tensions have been elevated over Ankara’s deployment of research vessels to conduct oil and gas exploration activities in disputed areas of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that are also claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Furthermore, Turkey has been engaged in a diplomatic rift with France over perceived anti-Islam comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron. The dispute has added to a growing perception in the West that Turkey seeks to adopt a “neo-Ottoman” ideology and present itself as the “protector of Islam”.

While Ankara’s foreign policy decisions have primarily been driven by an effort to advance its independent geopolitical interests rather than ideological opposition to the West, these decisions will nonetheless serve to alienate the latter.

That said, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations and, therefore, Ankara will refrain from completely jeopardizing its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy.

Regardless, during episodes of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western-aligned states, the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace can potentially translate into a hostile atmosphere, including calls for boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric.

Western nationals conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals.

Assessments & Forecast

Turkey’s geopolitical shift is partly a product of developments within its domestic sphere, US’s waning presence in the region

Although the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the 2018 general elections with a clear majority, the government’s popularity has somewhat decreased over recent years, as evidenced by the AKP’s losses in the 2019 municipal elections in Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. This is primarily due to the inability of the government to stabilize the economy, characterized by a significant devaluation of the Turkish lira since 2018. Furthermore, a broad crackdown on opposition actors and perceived dissidents has exacerbated existing anti-government sentiments of certain sections of the local populace. Against this backdrop, Ankara’s willingness to confront its Western allies is likely part of an effort to gain patriotic support for Turkey’s endeavors and project its regional dominance, which, in turn, is partly aimed at containing domestic criticism against the government.

Erdogan has also attempted to revive the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and use Islamic sentiments to consolidate power, particularly from conservative and Islamist-leaning members of the populace. This is evidenced by the July 10 announcement to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, designated a museum by Turkish secular leaders in 1935, into a mosque. Although the decision sparked condemnation by various international actors, Erdogan received support for the move from conservative Turks who make up part of his support base. The decision’s timing was thus partly an attempt to bolster Erdogan’s “strongman” persona while diverting the local populace’s attention away from Turkey’s deteriorating economic conditions, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s growing military interventionism can also be partially attributed to the US’s waning presence in the broader region. Turkey’s Operation “Peace Spring”, aimed at dislodging Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants from the area, was launched two days after the US’s October 7, 2019 announcement regarding the partial withdrawal of its troops from Syria. Turkey likely aimed to capitalize on this power vacuum to increase its influence within Syria and mitigate the Kurdish militant threat emanating from the country. Washington has also been largely uninvolved in Libya over recent years, which has allowed Turkey to become the main supporter of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and therefore become one of the primary international actors involved in the country. Overall, the lack of military presence by Western state actors in these countries over recent years has created a relative power vacuum that Ankara aims to fill as part of its aspirations to expand its regional influence.

Turkey’s regional interventionism largely motivated by the pursuit of independent foreign policy, rather than ideological hostility towards West

In recent years, Turkey has pursued a more independent foreign policy, distinct from its traditional Western allies, as illustrated by its military regional interventionism, the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, and Ankara’s activity in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea that has led to tensions with EU states. This approach has been perceived by Western actors to be destabilizing and contrary to the West’s interests. However, this is primarily, although not solely, an effort by Ankara to establish a more dominant role in the region, rather than being motivated by an ideological hostility to the West.

In Syria, Turkey’s efforts to mitigate what it perceives as the “Kurdish threat” to its national integrity have manifested in opposition to Washington’s interests. While Operation “Peace Spring” was launched primarily as an effort by Ankara to address the Kurdish militant threat, given the US’s alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of the YPG, it collided with Washington’s interests in the country. Tensions over this issue have persisted over the past year, as evidenced by a statement published by the US on October 8 indicating that Turkey’s operations in northern Syria directly undermine the former’s anti-Islamic State (IS) campaign and US’s national security. Therefore, while Turkey’s policy was not directly motivated by an anti-US agenda, it nonetheless contributed to the growing rift between the two counties.

Also in the Syrian context, Turkey backs the Syrian National Army (SNA) rebel alliance, which opposes the Damascus government, backed by both Iran and Russia, all of whom are adversaries of the US. However, the leaders of Iran, Turkey, and Russia have led the Astana Peace Process for Syria, which was originally launched in January 2017, and largely reflects an effort by Ankara, as well as Tehran and Moscow, to project itself as a regional power broker. It particularly underscores Turkey’s willingness to cooperate with its rivals in the Syrian sphere in order to cement itself in the political processes that determine Syria’s future and therefore maintain a strong influence in the country, which it considers essential to its security interests. However, as Turkey strengthens its strategic partnerships with Iran and Russia, and thus develops a greater alliance with the West’s foes, it partially reinforces its position as a non-Western-aligned state. This is also given the lack of involvement of the US in the Astana process, which showcases Ankara’s willingness to form interest-based alliances independent of its Western allies.

Turkey’s military backing for Azerbaijan amid its conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region has further served to alienate Western-aligned allies. Ankara’s support for Baku is partly driven by its shared ethnic and cultural ties as well as historical antipathy towards Armenia. NATO, however, has called for the restoration of peace between both sides in the region, while Western states, such as Canada, have actively condemned Turkey’s reported military support for Azerbaijan. Hence, Turkey’s role in this conflict as part of its independent foreign policy interests serves to supersede its obligations to this Western security alliance. That said, Turkey’s reported deployment of Syrian rebels to fight in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and overall support for Baku is also a sensitive issue for Russia, due in part to the perceived threat of Islamist spillover regions along Russia’s southern borders and Moscow’s long-term cooperation with Armenia. This, therefore, showcases Ankara’s efforts to prioritize its own geopolitical interests, even if they partially undermine its alliances with either the West or with Russia.

These opposing interests between Ankara and Moscow were also witnessed in Libya, where Turkey provides military support for Libya’s GNA and Moscow supports the GNA’s rival, the Libyan National Army (LNA). Amid Turkey’s increasing military reinforcements for the GNA, both in the form of equipment as well as Syrian fighters, Russia increased its provision of military equipment to the LNA as well as its deployment of Russian private military company (PMC) personnel. This further reiterates Turkey’s willingness to pursue its own military interests, potentially at the expense of the interests of its allies, both Western and non-Western.

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 reflective of efforts to confront the West, bolster its regional authority

Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, which the US has stated “cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence-collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities”, is indicative of Ankara’s prioritization of its alliances with Moscow over its participation in the US’s F-35 program and its ties to NATO and the West. While Turkey insists that this does not clash with NATO assets or US F-35 aircraft, despite evidence to the contrary, pressure is growing in Washington to impose punitive measures on Turkey for its perceived transgressions. This was recently demonstrated by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s condemnation of the S-400 testing, which the chairman called on October 16 “a direct threat to the [US-made] F-35”, adding that “US law requires sanctions against countries that continue to deepen their defense relationship with Russia.”

The decision thus reflects Ankara’s willingness to overtly confront Washington and NATO by presenting its conviction to partner with Russia amid its broader efforts to bolster its regional authority. In this way, Turkey aims to demonstrate that it is not bound by Western alliances and interests, which may in future grant it leverage over the West during potential disputes. Moreover, the decision is also likely rooted in domestic politics. By demonstrating Turkey’s willingness to acquire weaponry from any partner of its choice, Erdogan seeks to affirm Ankara’s sovereign right to choose its military alliances, regardless of the West’s objections. This, in turn, allows Erdogan to bolster his “strongman” credentials to the domestic audience.

As illustrated by Turkey’s recent testing of the S-400 system, regardless of concerns voiced by the US and other NATO members, Ankara is determined to proceed with the preparation process and ensure the systems become operational. FORECAST: Elements within the US foreign affairs establishment will continue to pressure the administration to sanction Turkey. However, US President Donald Trump’s reluctance to take action, as illustrated by the absence of sanctions despite the Senate’s approval of such measures in December 2019, renders it unlikely that imminent measures will be imposed. US policy vis-a-vis Turkey may change, however, if the presidential election yields a change in administration. This is unlikely to happen in the immediate coming months as it will take time for any administration to review and formulate its foreign policy.

Turkey’s ambitions to become a regional energy hub, secure foreign investments has also increased tensions with Western actors

Turkey’s involvement in Libya highlights its efforts to secure its energy interests in the region and counterbalance Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, and Israel. Turkey signed a Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Libya’s GNA on November 27, 2019 for this purpose. This includes the establishment of a maritime border between the parties and allows Turkey to stake a claim to oil drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, particularly in the vicinity of some Greek islands and the disputed waters south of Cyprus, which the Greek Cypriot administration claims is part of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The EU, particularly Italy, France, and Greece, as well as Egypt and Israel, have backed the Greek Cypriot government’s claim. Thus, although Turkey’s stance has elevated tensions with certain EU states and other regional stakeholders, Ankara’s determination to pursue its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea highlights its willingness to take a confrontational stance against certain EU members to achieve its energy objectives.

This determination to enhance its energy security has likely also been bolstered by the actions of other regional actors in this context. On September 22, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Greece, Cyprus, Italy, and Jordan established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) to promote natural gas exports from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkey was not included in the forum. Ankara’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has reportedly stated that Turkey will “resolutely” continue to “protect its rights” in the Eastern Mediterranean and that “no alliance of malice” will prevent this. Ankara likely perceives the establishment of the EMGF as a provocative action aimed at actively excluding Turkey, which has likely increased its efforts to conduct exploration missions in the East Mediterranean. FORECAST: As illustrated by Turkey’s recent extension of the “Oruc Reis” research vessel’s activities in disputed waters until November 14, regardless of whether such action prompts tensions with the EU and potential sanctions against it in the framework of Brussels’ targeted sanctions program against Turkey for its “unauthorized” drilling activities of “hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean”, Ankara will persist with its exploration activities.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have relatively divergent interests in the Black Sea. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 allowed it to expand its de-facto coastline to over a thousand kilometers, enabling the country to carry out its energy exploration, in direct conflict with the interests of NATO countries and their allies, such as Ukraine, in the Black Sea. In this context, on August 20, President Erdogan announced the discovery of a “320 billion” cubic meters gas reserve in the Black Sea, constituting the largest gas reserve discovered in the area by Turkey. Energy production from this reserve is slated to begin in 2023. FORECAST: Ankara’s discovery of a gas reserve in the Black Sea in August and its growing readiness to invest additional resources to carry out its exploratory missions in the area may increase Moscow’s perception that Ankara is attempting to impose itself in the region and thus increases the potential for friction with Russia.

Overall, both of these developments constitute an effort by Turkey to acquire energy security and thus reduce its dependence on other states to import oil and gas, which is likely becoming increasingly costly as the lira has devalued significantly over recent years. The fact that Turkey’s operations in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea have the potential to cause friction with both the EU and Russia again demonstrates that Turkey’s activities are part of an overall effort to implement an independent policy, and while liable to alienate its geopolitical alliances, do not constitute an explicitly anti-Western strategy. However, as illustrated throughout this report, regardless of whether Turkey aims to antagonize its Western allies, the outcome is ultimately the same.

Political rapprochement with US’s adversaries motivated by geopolitical concerns, desire to present itself as ‘protectors of Islam’, likely to further alienate West

In Turkey’s partnership with Iran, Ankara likely aims to counter what it perceives to be a growing regional threat to its ideology and interests. The Erdogan-led government seeks to impose its version of state-level political Islam, by forming alliances with Iran, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood groups and affiliates throughout the region. This is with the aim of countering the growing alliance of states in the region that it perceives as countering its interests and ideology, led by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, all of whom are at least willing to collaborate with Israel and are largely acting in coordination with US interests. Thus, its increasing interventionism throughout the region can also be understood as an attempt to project Turkey as the “protectors of Islam” and has been perceived in the West as a form of “neo-Ottomanism” and an effort to invoke the spirit of the former Ottoman empire.

In this context, there has been a growing rapprochement between Iran and Turkey over recent years, in contrast with the ideological rivalry that initially emerged between the two states following the 2011 Arab Spring, with the parties largely on opposing sides in major conflict zones, such as Syria. The warming of their ties over recent years has manifested in political opposition to Saudi-aligned Gulf states and varying degrees of support for Qatar amid its rift with the former, both countries’ opposition to the “Abraham Accords” signed between Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel, as well as Iran’s diplomatic support for Libya’s Turkey-backed GNA. A recent September 8 meeting between President Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wherein they committed to conducting joint counter-militancy operations is thus indicative of increasingly cordial relations between the two states. FORECAST: These ties are liable to increase the tension between the US and Turkey, given the former’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Iran, as part of its broader “maximum pressure” campaign.

The ongoing rift between French President Macron and Turkish President Erdogan pertaining to the former’s defense of the right to draw caricatures of religious figures is likely to increase the West’s perception of Turkey “neo-Ottoman” aspirations. These diplomatic tensions followed the beheading of a teacher in France for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his students and has generated a diplomatic fallout between Turkey and France, with Erdogan stating on October 24 that Macron should get “mental checks” and Macron on October 31 accusing Turkey of having a “bellicose attitude toward its NATO allies”, adding that Ankara has “imperial inclinations in the region”. The fact that this has also translated into anti-France protests throughout Turkey illustrates the impact of such diplomatic tensions and the potential for a hostile environment to emerge for Westerners operating in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the US has stated that it “strongly objects” to Erdogan’s hosting of the leaders of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, in Turkey on August 22. The Turkish government announced that it “fully rejected” the US’s statement and accused Washington of “serving Israel’s interests”. Additional reports from August also indicate that Turkey is granting citizenship to Hamas operatives. Through this action, Turkey has signaled its willingness to legitimize the Palestinian militant group, as opposed to Washington’s categorization of the Gaza Strip-based group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

Ankara’s actions are likely to be perceived by Western-aligned states as granting increased freedom of movement to Hamas and thus allowing them to carry out destabilizing activities in Israel. Similar to its relations with Iran, Turkey’s support for Hamas is unlikely to yield major economic or security benefits. Rather, it is indicative of an effort by Ankara to align with Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and other Islamist groups and thus expand its sphere of influence throughout the region. Turkey also seeks to be a power broker and thus counteract recent ties between Gulf states and Israel, as evidenced by its hosting of talks between the two rival prominent Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, for reconciliation talks on September 22.

These relations constitute a further fault line in the current tensions between the US and its allies on one side and Turkey on the other. FORECAST: Turkey’s growing support for Hamas as well as its opposition to Arab states’ normalization with Jerusalem, despite the fact Ankara maintains relations with Israel, is liable to increase tensions between the US and Turkey as well as Israel and Turkey. Although Jerusalem and Ankara share strong economic ties, Erdogan’s growing support for Hamas and persistent condemnations of Israel has the potential to strain these relations. This is particularly the case in light of the fact that Jerusalem now has formal ties with other regional states that are rivals of Turkey, primarily the UAE, and may therefore opt to cooperate economically with these countries, at Ankara’s expense.

Turkey to ultimately refrain from completely alienating its NATO allies

FORECAST: Taken as a whole, while Turkey is pursuing a more independent foreign policy, it is unlikely to completely alienate its Western allies, particularly NATO members. This is because Turkey can leverage its strategic position as a member of NATO to deter any significant punitive measures. This alliance also allows Turkey to mitigate the risk of direct confrontations as it implements its military policies in Syria, Libya, and Armenia/Azerbaijan, as well as within the energy sector, as Turkey pursues its energy interests in direct conflict with certain EU member states, such as Greece. In turn, despite the disputes between NATO member states and Ankara, Turkey will continue to remain a strategic ally by hosting US and NATO military assets, such as the Incirlik Air Base.

Within the context of the energy dispute between Turkey and the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, NATO also provides for peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms between its member states. This, therefore, allows NATO to mitigate the threat of direct confrontations between Turkey on one side and Greece and Cyprus on the other in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Hence, it is in the interest of NATO actors to continue to retain Turkey in the alliance as this would serve to manage emerging conflicts with EU members. This, in turn, provides Ankara with leeway in terms of its ability to pursue its energy policies without the threat of military confrontation with EU states.

Business continuity in Turkey for Western-linked entities unlikely to be significantly impacted, although potential punitive measures liable to elevate tensions

As previously mentioned, it is unlikely that under a President Trump administration, barring a breakdown in personal relations between the leaders, the White House will implement the Senate’s December 2019 approval of sanctions against Turkey. However, a Joe Biden-led presidency may seek to change course and punish states deemed to be acting in opposition to Washington’s core interests, for instance by operating Russian-made air defense systems.

In the event that the US imposes sanctions or tariffs, as in 2018, there is a high probability of further damage to the Turkish economy, as was witnessed following the implementation of such measures two years ago. This would lead to a further devaluation of the currency and render it more difficult for Turkish-based companies and Turkish state entities to remain competitive. FORECAST: Irrespective of who wins the US presidential election, as previously mentioned, any decision on sanctions or tariffs against Turkey is liable to take several months as the incoming administration formulates its foreign policy agenda. Regardless, Turkey’s actions may prompt other Western actors to consider punitive measures to pressure Ankara to alter its perceived destabilizing activities. This may, for instance, manifest in a ban on arms sales, as announced by Canada on October 5, which has the potential to undermine Turkey’s aforementioned defense strategy.

In the event that the US and/or the EU does impose sanctions or other punitive measures on Ankara, there is a potential for an increase in vocalized sentiment emanating from the government and domestic populace against the US, the West, or its perceived interests. This was illustrated by events in August 2018 amid the sanctions and tariffs imposed on Turkey by Washington, wherein a significant uptick in protests condemning the US was recorded in major cities in Turkey and President Erdogan reportedly called for a boycott of US electrical goods, while some Turkish citizens posted videos on social media of them physically attacking US-made products and currency.

Similarly, amid the aforementioned dispute over comments made by French President Macron regarding cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad, reports from October 26 indicate that Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods. Both of these episodes illustrate the existing religious and nationalist zeal of segments of the local populace that can translate into a potentially hostile atmosphere, including boycotts of foreign goods, demonstrations, and aggressive rhetoric. As per the prior example involving the US, these tensions tend to subside relatively quickly without a significant impact on foreign businesses operating in Turkey. However, there is also the potential for temporary retaliatory measures imposed by foreign states such as sanctions and tariffs, as occurred in 2018, as well as increased bureaucratic challenges for nationals of perceived adversaries, which may hinder operations in the country.

However, ultimately, Turkey’s economic interests are likely to override any other considerations. This is illustrated by its willingness to cooperate economically with China, despite differences in ideology. According to the EU, Turkey’s main export markets are the EU, the UK, the US, and Israel. Thus, despite Erdogan’s geopolitical activities, economic trade with its Western counterparts remains crucial for the stabilization and growth of the Turkish economy. FORECAST: The Turkish government is unlikely to significantly jeopardize its ability to improve trade relations with Western countries as access to these markets is crucial to sustaining the Turkish economy. Turkey’s geopolitical expansionism is therefore unlikely to have a significant impact on Western economic interests over the coming months. Moreover, Turkey is unlikely to place restrictions on private Western citizens or enterprises from operating in the country, even in the event of a dispute between the states in which these entities are based.

Recommendations

Travel to Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir may continue while remaining cognizant of the latent threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales. Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

It is advised to avoid all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq given the increased risk of militancy and spillover of armed conflict emanating from these countries.

Foreigners, particularly Westerners, conducting travel in Turkey are generally advised to maintain a low profile, and exercise heightened vigilance in the vicinity of locales frequented by foreign nationals. This is particularly the case in the event of elevated tensions between Turkey and Western or Western-affiliated states and entities.

Avoid any overt or critical statements of government, religious, or political institutions both in public spaces and online, including social media. It is also advised to be mindful of any social media posts made prior to travel that could be accessed publicly and could be viewed negatively during your visit. This is particularly the case during times of heightened political tensions involving Turkey in the international arena.

SAA deploying towards Aleppo Province’s Kobani, Manbij on October 13-14 following deal with SDF – Syria Situation Update

Executive Summary:

  • On October 13, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) deployed its troops towards northern Syria in line with a reported agreement between the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The development highlights the SDF’s willingness to negotiate with the SAA to receive their support to counter the Turkish Operation “Spring of Peace” in northern Syria.
  • The SAA as well as the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have deployed troops towards the strategically important town of Manbij in Aleppo Province. The SAA likely seeks to prevent the TSK and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) from taking control of the town.
  • The TSK and its proxies’ recent territorial advances in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces allow them to take control of the strategic M4 Highway, used as a primary supply line by the SDF to move assets to its positions on the frontlines in northern Syria. The SNA may attempt to take control of the entirety of the M4 highway, particularly in Raqqa Province over the coming days.
  • Turkey’s new operation has weakened the SDF’s ability to allot their resources for anti-Islamic State (IS) operations. The diversion of SDF fighters has created a security vacuum in People’s Protection Units (YPG)-held territories such as Raqqa, Hasakah, and Deir Ezzor provinces. This has allowed the militant group to increase the pace of its activities in recent days.
  • Overall, the October 13 IS-claimed rocket attack targeting a US base in al-Shaddadi in Hasakah Province highlights the ability of the militant group to exploit the SDF’s preoccupation along the Turkey-Syria border to carry out attacks in northern Syria. Therefore, there remains a potential for an uptick in IS attacks in Kurdish-controlled territories over the coming days and weeks.

Focal Points in Syria

Please be advised:

Across the country, the following incidents have been reported:

Aleppo Province

Map # Date District/City Brief Description
1 October 11 Kobani According to reports quoting the US Pentagon, US troops came under artillery fire from Turkish positions outside the Security Mechanism Zone. No casualties were reported. The Turkish Ministry of Defense reportedly stated that the artillery fire was in response to Kurdish attacks and was not targeted at US troops.
2, 3, 4, 5 October 13 al-Farat, Arab Hassan, al-Dandaliya, and al-Jamousiya Syrian Arab Army (SAA) reinforcements enter al-Farat, Arab Hassan, al-Dandaliya, and al-Jamousiya in support of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following an agreement between the Syrian government and the SDF.
6 October 13 Highway 216 SAA units deployed along Highway 216, connecting Jarablus to Manbij.
7 October 13 Manbij Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) reinforcements moved towards the frontlines near Manbij.
1 October 13 Kobani US pulls out troops from its base in Kobani.

Daraa Province

Date District/City Brief Description
October 11 Daraa countryside Islamic State (IS) claims targeting of a Russian convoy and pro-government troops using two IEDs.

Deir Ezzor Province

Date District/City Brief Description
October 10 Diban IS claims shooting attack targeting a SDF-aligned village leader.

Hasakah Province

Map # Date District/City Brief Description
8 October 10-11 Qamishli SDF announces Turkish shelling of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in Qamishli.
9 October 10-11 Darbasiyah SDF announces Turkish shelling of YPG positions in Darbasiyah.
10 October 11 Ras al-Ayn SDF announces capture of a five-member Turkish sleeper cell during operations by the SDF’s internal security forces in Ras al-Ayn.
11 October 11 Tal Halaf SDF announces thwarting of Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) infiltration attempt in area.
12 October 11 Kashto Turkey announces “liberation” of Kashto village from the YPG as part of the Operation “Spring of Peace”.
8 October 11 Qamishli IS claims killing and wounding of dozens of YPG fighters in a vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) attack.
8 October 12 Qamishli Five IS militants reportedly escape prison following the fall of a mortar shell on the facility.
13 October 13 al-Shaddadi IS claims launch of five Katyusha rockets targeting a US base, which led to material damage at the facility.
14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 October 13 Tal Khagar, Khirbet al-Banat, al-Aziziya, Abu al-Soub, Mukhta, Tal Arqam, and Um Azam Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) takes control of the towns of Tal Khagar, Khirbet al-Banat, al-Aziziya, Abu al-Soub, Mukhta, Tal Arqam, and Um Azam from the SDF.
21 October 13 Tel Baidar US pull out troops from its base in Tel Baidar.
22 October 14 Tal Tamr SAA takes control of Tal Tamr following following an agreement between the Syrian government and the SDF.

Syria2

Raqqa Province

Map # Date District/City Brief Description
23 October 10 Karama IS-linked media reports on an IED attack on October 8 that resulted in the killing and wounding of five YPG fighters and the destruction of their vehicle.
24 October 10-11 Tal Abyad SDF reports that the TSK shelled YPG positions in Tal Abyad.
24 October 10-11 Tal Abyad SDF announces repelling of TSK infiltration attempt and killing of 22 TSK soldiers and destruction of three TSK vehicles.
24 October 12 Tal Abyad Reports quoting the SDF state that the Secretary General of the Kurdish Future Movement in Syria was reportedly executed along with nine other civilians by Turkish-backed militias near Tal Abyad. The Turkish-backed SNA reportedly denied the allegations.
24, 25, 26 October 13 Tal Abyad, Hammam al-Turkuman, M4 Highway SNA takes control of Tal Abyad and Hammam al-Turkuman and parts of the SDF-controlled M4 Highway near the Raqqa-Hasakah border.
27 October 13 Ain Isa US pull out troops from its base in Ain Isa.
27 October 13 Ain Isa Hundreds of suspected IS militants reportedly escaped a detention facility in Ain Isa after some of the group’s fighters orchestrated a prison break by attacking the facility’s guards.
28 October 14 Tabqa Airbase SAA troops reportedly take control of Tabqa Airbase from the SDF.
29 October 14 Rasafah, Ain Isa Reports indicate the movement of SAA reinforcements from Rasafah towards Ain Isa via Raqqa City.

Political Developments

Date Brief Description
October 10 French President Emmanuel Macron condemns Turkish operations in northern Syria.
October 10 Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened Europe with a flood of refugees if the continent’s leaders call the Turkish invasion of Syria an “occupation.” Erdogan said that “…we will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” while speaking to officials from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
October 10 Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announces Russia’s plans to push for dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish governments following an incursion by Turkish troops into Syria.
October 10 According to the Syrian national news agency, Syrian Deputy Foreign and Expatriates Minister described Turkey’s Operation “Spring of Peace” as an “invasion” and breach international law and Syria’s sovereignty. The minister added that “…Syrian Arab Army, which confronts the terrorist organizations, will confront the foreign invading forces which are present illegitimately on the Syrian territories and it is ready to face all challenges to which Syria is exposed”.
October 11 Turkey announces that 49 YPG fighters were neutralized in overnight operations on October 10-11, which brings up the total number of Kurdish militants neutralized so far to 277.
October 12 Turkish Foreign Ministry states that “Turkey will respond to any US sanctions within the framework of full reciprocity.”
October 13 According to the Syrian official news agency, the SAA has started to send reinforcements to northern Syria in support of the SDF following an agreement between the Syrian government and the SDF.

Assessments & Forecast:

  • Although the details of the October 13 agreement between the Syrian government and the SDF are yet to be released, the deployment of SAA troops towards northern Syria is a highly notable development. It indicates the Kurdish forces’ willingness to at least partially cede territory to the Syrian government in exchange for military support against the TSK and Turkish-backed SNA in the context of Turkey’s Operation “Spring of Peace”. FORECAST: On the one hand, this development will compel the SAA to engage in hostilities along a new frontline in Syria, which, in turn, could adversely impact its ongoing efforts against rebel and jihadist groups in Idlib Province, as it will necessitate the diversion of troops and resources towards the Syria-Turkey border. However, on the other hand, this development will significantly increase President Bashar al-Assad’s hold over power in Syria, as it would allow pro-government forces to take control of key infrastructure and territories in northeastern Syria without having to engage in a military offensive against the SDF.
  • The recent increased deployment of both SAA and TSK reinforcements to the frontlines near Manbij is indicative of an impending Turkish offensive against the strategic town over the coming days. Control over Manbij is of significant importance to Turkey, as it is currently controlled by the Manbij Military Council, a civilian body set up by the SDF. Furthermore, Manbij is strategically located on the western edges of SDF-controlled territory along the M4 Highway. Therefore, control over this town would allow the TSK and SNA to move east along the M4 Highway and meet up with its forces in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces, thereby effectively cutting off the SDF’s ability to move reinforcements between these regions. FORECAST: While the presence of SAA troops in the region may delay Turkey’s planned offensive against Manbij, it is unlikely to deter the TSK and the Turkish-backed SNA from launching an offensive against the city. This is partly because the failure of Operation “Spring of Peace” could have a significant adverse impact upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popularity within segments of the local Turkish population that is in support of the offensive against the YPG in Syria. Therefore, while Turkey may focus on its operations in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces over the coming hours and days, this period will likely witness an increase in military buildup by both the SAA and the TSK around Manbij. This will increase the risk of small-scale skirmishes between the SAA and the TSK in Aleppo Province, which is liable to significantly expand the scope and scale of the current hostilities in northern Syria.

Syria3

  • The territorial exchanges in Raqqa and Hasakah provinces between October 12-14 are notable considering the rapid pace of the Turkish-backed forces’ territorial advances vis-a-vis the Kurdish-dominated SDF over the past 24-48 hours. The SNA’s ability to take control over part of the M4 Highway is particularly significant as its allows them to cut off the SDF’s main supply line running between the latter’s territories in Hasakah, Raqqa, and Aleppo provinces. This would make it difficult for the Kurdish forces to send reinforcements from Hasakah Province towards the frontlines in Raqqa Province and vice-versa. It would also prevent the SDF from sending reinforcements to Aleppo Province’s Manbij, where the TSK is currently mobilizing to launch an offensive. FORECAST: With this goal in mind, the SNA will likely capitalize upon its latest advances and attempt to take control over areas along the M4 Highway between Sahl Ruwaydat and Tal Tamr, located in Hasakah Province. This would allow the SNA to flank SDF fighters from three fronts. Furthermore, SNA fighters near Raqqa Province’s Hammam al-Turkuman will likely simultaneously move further south of the town towards the M4 Highway near Ain Isa. If successful, this two-pronged offensive will cut off the SDF’s strategic supply line at two distinct junctures, which will allow the SNA to secure its control over the entirety of the M4 Highway, at least in Raqqa Province. However, the SAA has recently deployed reinforcements towards Tal Tamr and Ain Isa in support of the SDF to defend against the Turkish offensive. This will significantly bolster the Kurdish-backed forces’ defensive capabilities in these two regions, which in turn will pose a challenge to Turkey’s planned offensive. Regardless, heavy fighting is likely to be witnessed in areas located along the M4 Highway between Ain Isa and Tal Tamr over the coming days and weeks.

Syria4

  • Since Turkey’s launch of Operation “Spring of Peace” on October 9, there has been a significant increase in IS activity in northeastern Syria. This can be attributed to two main factors. First, the diversion of SDF troops and resources towards the frontlines along the Turkey-Syria border has created a partial security vacuum in Kurdish-held territories in Raqqa, Hasakah, and Deir Ezzor provinces. This has likely allowed IS militants to regroup and launch an elevated number of attacks in these regions over the past week. Second, there have been instances over recent days, where IS militants have either taken advantage of structural damage caused to Kurdish-operated prisons housing IS fighters from the ongoing hostilities or the significantly reduced presence of guards at such facilities to orchestrate prison breaks, witnessed in Qamishli on October 12 and Ain Isa on October 13, respectively. This has likely bolstered the ranks of IS cells operating in northeastern Syria, thereby increasing the Sunni jihadist militant group’s operational capabilities. In this context, the October 13 IS-claimed rocket attack on a US base in al-Shaddadi is particularly notable given its rarity. However, the event is not indicative of new capabilities, particularly considering the low sophistication of the modus operandi of the attack. FORECAST: Nonetheless, the symbolism of the target will likely further bolster the confidence of IS militants operating in the country. Therefore, the coming days will likely witness a further increase in IS activity in northeastern Syria. This development may also lead to further international criticism of the Trump administration’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria, particularly considering the US President’s earlier statement that IS had been “defeated in Syria”.

Recommendations:

  1. Avoid nonessential travel to Damascus at this time while maintaining heightened vigilance and adhering to standard security precautions regarding the threat of militant attacks and potential airstrikes. In addition, it is advised to avoid all travel to the vicinity of military installations due to the potential for Israeli Air Force (IAF) airstrikes.
  2. Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel-held areas.
  3. Avoid all travel to the border area with Israel given the persistent risk of Israeli Air Force (IAF) and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) strikes targeting positions in the region.
  4. Avoid all travel to the Kurdish-controlled areas in northern and eastern Syria, including Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, in light of the persistence of near-daily acts of militancy by jihadist militant operatives in these regions.
  5. Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.
  6. Those remaining in Aleppo should minimize movement within the city and avoid all travel to the cities western and northwestern districts given the persistence of indiscriminate mutual artillery shelling between militant groups and government forces. An escalation of armed conflict remains possible.
  7. Those continuing to operate in Damascus and Aleppo should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the remaining potential for a deterioration of the security situation.
  8. Avoid non-essential travel to government-controlled areas, including Latakia and Tartus, given the prevalence of significant anti-western sentiments, as well as a latent threat of militant attacks.
  9. In case overland travel between Damascus and Latakia cannot be avoided, we currently recommend crossing out of Syria via the Damascus-Beirut Highway and crossing back via the Coastal Road.
  10. In the event that a security checkpoint is encountered, act respectfully and patiently, while cooperating fully with security personnel. Refrain from photographing security personnel or documenting events.
  11. As a general rule, nationals from North America and Europe are advised to maintain a low profile throughout Syria given increased negative sentiment against various foreign governments among broad segments of the populace. In government-controlled areas, strictly refrain from discussing politically sensitive topics or making comments critical of government and political institutions, as this may lead to prosecution or arrest.

Implications of recent escalation in US-Iran tensions on Iranian domestic, foreign policy – Iran Analysis

Executive Summary

Over the months of April and May, the US took multiple measures as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign vis-a-vis Iran, including the revocation of sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil and deployment of US military assets to the Middle East.

As a response to the perceived provocations, on May 8, Iran announced its decision to partially halt its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and set a 60-day deadline for European states to renegotiate the financial terms of the agreement, marking a highly significant development since the ratification of the nuclear deal in 2015.

The purported involvement of Iran and its affiliates in the recent uptick in attacks against US allies, particularly the May 12 attack against four naval vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, off the coast of the UAE, has further fueled tensions in the region.

Iran has resisted direct negotiations with the US thus far, which indicates the high level of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy. Tensions are liable to remain high as both Iran and the US are likely to continue their strategic posturing in the region over the short term, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to regularly review emergency and contingency protocols as a basic security precaution due to the risk of limited hostilities between Iran, the US, and its Gulf allies. Those operating in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria are advised to maintain a low profile due to threat of attacks by Iranian-linked elements.

Current Situation

On May 8, Iran’s SCNS released a statement announcing Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA and setting a 60-day deadline for European states to take steps to counteract the negative effects of US sanctions.

The US President Donald Trump subsequently issued an executive order to impose sanctions on Iran’s metal industry.

On May 11, the US sent Patriot air defense systems to US CENTCOM based in Qatar’s al-Udeid Air Base.

On May 12, the US Embassy in Baghdad issued a security alert advising “all US citizens of heightened tensions in Iraq” and the “requirement to remain vigilant.”

On May 12, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency stated that two out of the four civilian commercial cargo ships that were subject to a “sabotage attempt” near UAE territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman, off the eastern coast near Fujairah, were Saudi oil tankers.

On May 14, the Yemeni Houthis claimed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) attack against an oil pipeline belonging to the official Saudi Arabian Oil Company in Riyadh Province’s towns of al-Duwadimi and Afif.

On May 15, the US ordered the departure of all non-emergency US government employees stationed at the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US Consulate in Erbil from Iraq.

On May 18, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued an advisory warning of risks to civil aviation over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

On May 19, a rocket landed in the vicinity of Baghdad’s Green Zone, less than two kilometers away from the US Embassy.

On May 20, the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi stated that Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of enriched uranium had increased by four-fold.

On May 20, two ballistic missiles were reportedly intercepted over Mecca Province’s Taif and Jeddah. Yemeni Houthis denied involvement in the attack.

On May 24, the US announced additional deployment of 1,500 military personnel to the Middle East.

Background

In May 2018, the US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, which was negotiated between Iran and P5 +1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) countries in 2015. Subsequently, the US re-imposed sanctions related to Iran’s export of oil in November 2018, but granted sanction waivers to eight countries including India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, and Turkey for a period of 180 days. On April 8, 2019, the US designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO). This was followed by the US’s decision to end sanction waivers to importers of Iranian oil starting on May 2, 2019. Out of the seven sanctions related to Iran’s uranium enrichment and civilian nuclear energy cooperation, the US revoked two sanction waivers related to Iran’s uranium enrichment process under the JCPOA – one that allowed Iran to store excess heavy water produced in the uranium enrichment process in Oman and one that allowed Iran to swap enriched uranium for raw yellowcake with Russia. On May 5, US officials announced their decision to deploy an aircraft carrier and bomber task force to the Middle East citing indications of Iranian threat, but provided no further details. This prompted Tehran’s decision to partially halt its commitments to the JCPOA on May 8, 2019.

Assessments & Forecast

Impact of IRGC’s designation as an FTO:

The designation of the IRGC in its entirety, including its extraterritorial wing, the Quds Force, as a “terrorist entity” marks a highly significant development, as it constitutes the first ever instance wherein the US has labelled a country’s military organization as an FTO. Such a designation comes amid the US’s continued policy to apply “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government to end its alleged role in destabilization activities across the regional as well as the international stage. It forms part of the US’s efforts to depict the Iranian administration as “rogue” or an “outlaw”, and is aimed at further isolating Iran on the international stage.

The move is largely symbolic, given the fact that US sanctions already target the IRGC and its leaders, affiliates, and subsidiaries such the Basij Resistance and the Quds Force and the US had already designated the IRGC as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in 2017. However, the latest step will likely augment the existing pressure on Iran. Any individual or entity knowingly providing material support to the IRGC will now face the possibility of a 20-year US prison sentence. It will also impose immigration restrictions on members of the IRGC who attempt to travel to the US simply by virtue of their membership or affiliation to the organization. FORECAST: Given that the IRGC has significant stake in the Iranian economy, through this measure, the US likely intends to make it further difficult for foreign entities to conduct business with Iran, which, in turn, would have a negative impact upon the Islamic Republic’s economy. However, the fact that a large extent of the IRGC’s business dealings are known to be carried out through illicit channels, such dealings are unlikely to be significantly affected by the recent designation.

FORECAST: Moreover, such a move is also unlikely to alter Iran’s policies on the regional setting, like its involvement in supporting proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq such as the Harakat al-Nujaba (HNA). Rather, given the increased restraints faced by the IRGC, the recent move is liable to increase Iran’s motivation to expand its regional footprint through the above-mentioned proxies as well as other sponsored militias. To this effect, the Iranian government will continue to divert large funds, at the expense of its domestic population, in order to sustain its influence in neighboring countries. This, in turn, is likely to inflame already existing local grievances, which may result in further instances of widespread civil unrest in the country. However, on a broad basis, given Iran’s history of strategic culture and great power rhetoric, a majority of the Iranian populace views the US sanctions as the source of their economic hardship, as compared to the Iranian government’s policies. While this is partly aided by the intensive propaganda campaigns in the country, it nevertheless galvanizes unity in the face of a “foreign aggression”. Thus, it is likely that the Iranian administration will attempt to placate the inherent domestic concerns related to the government’s regional activities and support for its proxies amidst an economic crisis, by attempting to project strength vis-a-vis the US. This may take place through the continued portrayal of strength through military exercises, display of new defense equipment, such as the unveiling of the new domestically produced “Khordad 15” air defense system on June 9. Moreover, the Islamic Republic will seek to counteract the US’s measures by maintaining a relatively belligerent posture, given the influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy.”

FORECAST: By continuing, or rather increasing support for its proxies, the IRGC may be able to effectively target its adversaries, namely the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia-aligned countries in the Gulf over the coming months. In this regard, given that much of the recent attacks in the region, such as the May 19 rocket landing in Baghdad’s Green Zone near the US Embassy, the June 1 rocket attack into Israel’s Mount Hermon from Syria, or the spate of attacks against Saudi targets have consistently targeted Iran’s adversaries, it is likely that they were encouraged by Tehran in an effort to destabilize the region. Moreover, the fact that some of the attacks were carried out against energy-related targets, such as the May 12 targeting of Saudi oil tankers off the coast of UAE’s Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman and the May 14 Houthi-claimed UAV attack on the oil pipeline in Riyadh Province, suggests that Iran may be attempting to weaken the economies of Saudi-aligned countries, given their significant dependence on oil revenues. This would align with Tehran’s strategy of preventing its rival, Saudi Arabia, from expanding its influence in the region and subsequently positioning itself as the dominant regional power in the Middle East. This, in turn, would allow Iran to prevent the regional balance of power from significantly shifting away from itself, particularly in light of the reimposition of US sanctions.

Potential Ramifications of the imposition of various sanctions on Iran:

A) Oil-related sanctions:

The US’s refusal to extend the 180-day sanctions exemptions for importers of Iranian oil (China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Japan) from May 2 constitutes a core segment of the US’s “maximum pressure” campaign, as it aims to completely diminish Iran’s oil revenue. Although India and China, the two top importers of Iranian oil, were envisaged to face significant setbacks to its energy security policy due to the US move, it appears that both countries have planned for this eventuality and are effectively looking at alternate sources to fulfill their energy requirements. In this scenario, while neither of the two countries have officially announced their position on the future of Iranian crude imports, it is likely that imports from other key energy players such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will feature on a higher side, specifically in the case of India. This will put further strain on Iran’s revenues from its oil sector, which, in turn, will have a significant adverse impact upon its national economy.

FORECAST: Given that the move has been anticipated since the reinstatement of US sanctions on Iran in November 2018, early indications suggests that apart from the initial shock, the decision has not drastically impacted the global oil market, despite fears of an oil price surge and supply disruptions. This is primarily due to a boost in Saudi Arabia’s oil production in May to fill the gap of Iranian crude, along with similar boosts in production by Iraq and Libya. However, Iran may resort to illegal trade of its oil in the black market, particularly in countries such as Yemen, where the Houthis have been reportedly deriving a majority of its income by selling Iranian oil. Furthermore, Iran may also attempt to export its oil through the use of “switch-off-the-transponder” tactics, which makes tracking ships increasingly difficult.

B) Uranium enrichment-related sanctions:

The May 8 statement released by the SNSC, which was reiterated by Iranian President Rouhani in a televised address, represents a pronounced effort by the Islamic Republic to project strength in response to perceived US provocations in recent years. The decision to halt its partial commitments under the JCPOA regarding enriched uranium and heavy water reserves follows the US’s May 4 revocation of the two sanction waivers, which practically forces Iran to completely overhaul its production of heavy water and uranium enrichment or continue production and find itself in breach of the JCPOA. Moreover, the five sanction waivers that were extended were also reduced from 180 days to 90 days, in which the remaining adherents of the JCPOA are allowed to cooperate with Iran on the sites of Bushehr, Arak, and Fordow without facing US sanctions.

This was followed by the May 20 announcement from the Spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Behrouz Kamalvandi according to which, Iran’s 3.67 percent production capacity of uranium had increased by four-fold. However, Iranian officials reportedly stressed that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67 percent limit set under the JCPOA. Thus, although Tehran still remains party to the JCPOA, its increased capacity to produce enriched uranium suggests that Iran is likely to soon exceed the 300 kg uranium stockpile limitation set by the accord. FORECAST: However, as indicated in Rouhani’s speech, Tehran will likely retain its enriched uranium (upto 300 kg) and heavy water (upto 130 tons) rather than selling them to other nations while remaining within the limits prescribed in the nuclear deal over the short term, at least until July 8. This would allow Iran to project its adherence to the terms set under the JCPOA.

FORECAST: However, as per the joint statement released by France, Germany, and the UK on May 9, while the European states expressed “regret” over the reinstatement of US sanctions and continued to pledge their willingness to support alternate trade mechanisms such as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), they also categorically rejected Tehran’s 60-day ultimatum for negotiations. While this highlights their unwillingness to publicly be strong armed onto the negotiation table, it is also indicative of their reluctance to oppose US policies. Furthermore, the reimposition of the US sanctions has increased the risk of conducting business with Tehran for foreign companies, several of whom have already ceased their operations in the Islamic Republic. This is likely to have a significant adverse impact upon Iran’s economy over the coming months.

C) Metal industry-related sanctions:

The US President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to impose new sanctions on Iran’s metal industry are aimed at undermining Iran’s revenue from the export of industrial metals, the country’s largest non-oil sector, which reportedly accounts for approximately ten percent of its export economy. While Iran’s mining industry was already facing severe setbacks due to shipping and payment restrictions, the recent move is liable to inherently impact employment provided by the metal as well as the automotive industry, which reportedly constitutes almost six percent of Iran’s total labor force. This is liable to significantly exacerbate domestic workers’ grievances, which have manifested in the form of persistent localized demonstrations across Iran over the recent months.

FORECAST: In this context, public protests surrounding employment, pensions, inflation, increase in the prices of basic commodities and other economic-related issues are liable to continue in a significant manner over the coming weeks and months. Such demonstrations will likely take place across Iran, including in major cities such as Tehran, as well as in outlying provinces such as Khuzestan and Kordestan, where the locals comprising of an Arab-majority or Kurdish population perceive themselves as marginalized by the Shiite Iranian government’s policies. This will not only increase the threat of civil unrest in the country as a whole, but also exacerbate sectarian tensions between the countries minority communities and the Shiite-led government.

Lack of direct engagement, continued strategic posturing liable to prolong tensions in the region:

The Iranian administration’s current position to resist direct negotiations with the US, albeit agreeing to mediation talks with Japan, highlights the high degree of influence wielded by hardliners on the country’s foreign policy at this juncture. Such elements continue to criticize the Rouhani administration’s moderate approach towards dealing with the US and aspire to correct the perceived weakness with which the terms of the JCPOA were negotiated in 2015. FORECAST: This, combined with the relative lack of tangible economic benefits from JCPOA, is liable to further embolden segments of hardliners and conservative elements within Iran’s political sphere. This may result in further appointments of such elements in key leadership posts, which is liable to significantly hinder the popularity of more moderate officials, consisting of figures such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This is underscored by the appointment of General Hossein Salami, a prominent hardliner within Iran’s military establishment as the IRGC’s Commander-in-Chief on April 21. Such appointments are not only liable to increase the anti-US rhetoric emanating from the Islamic Republic but also significantly hamper the potential for backchannel negotiations with the US, which are generally conducted by more moderate officials.

FORECAST: On a regional level, tensions are liable to remain high due to the strategic posturing of the two countries, in order to eventually coerce each other onto the negotiating table. The deployment of US warships, including an aircraft carrier and a bomber task force on May 5, the sending of Patriot missile systems on May 11, as well as the decision to deploy an additional 1500 US military personnel to the region, is likely to significantly increase tensions in the Persian Gulf waters and the Strait of Hormuz over the coming weeks and months. This is particularly in light of Tehran’s persistent effort to assert its authority as the legitimate custodian of security across its territorial waters. These tensions may manifest in the form of limited confrontation between the naval forces of the two sides, which constitutes a general risk to shipping through the critical energy choke point.

FORECAST: Tensions are also likely to increase between Saudi-aligned countries and Israel on one side and Iran on the other. Iran may encourage its backed elements, particularly the Yemeni Houthis, to increase their attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This would also align with the Houthis’ aim of weakening the economies of countries that are part of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen in order to reduce their ability to engage in the ongoing civil war in the country. Iran may also use its proxies and backed elements in Syria and Lebanon, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, to put pressure on the US by using them as leverage against Israel, the US’s closest ally in the Middle East. This may manifest in the form of attacks against Israel by Iranian-backed elements in Syria, as witnessed on June 1, when a rocket was launched from Syria towards Israel’s Mount Hermon. However, such attacks are likely to remain limited and constrained to areas within close proximity to the Syria-Israel border. This is because an attack deep inside Israeli territory would trigger a large-scale conflict between Israel on one side and Syria and Lebanon on the other, and Syria is currently not interested in such a scenario given its preoccupation in hostilities with rebel forces.

FORECAST: Overall, as tensions between the US and Iran get prolonged, the risk of a military confrontation between the two countries will increase. Such a military confrontation is likely to be limited at least in the short term, with Iran attempting to use its proxies as a means to put pressure on the US and its Gulf allies and the US retaliating with a further increase in military presence in the Persian Gulf. While Iran is currently not interested in a broad conflict with the US given that its economy is unlikely to be able to sustain such a cost, as previously assessed, the influence of hardliners on the country’s foreign policy reduces the possibility of backchannel negotiations. This combined with the fact that the US is unlikely to agree to any terms that do not significantly diminish Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities, further reduces the possibility of successful negotiations. Therefore, as these tensions persist over a long period of time, the risk of a full scale conflict between the US and Iran cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other may manifest in some form of cold war or even a limited or full military confrontation.

Western nationals operating or residing in Iran are advised to remain cognizant to prevailing negative sentiment toward the United States and other North American and Western European countries.

US citizens and other Western nationals operating or residing in other countries in the Middle East with sizeable Iranian-backed elements are advised to keep a low profile and maintain heightened vigilance, given the potential for attacks by such groups.

Those operating vital infrastructure, particularly in the oil sector, in Saudi Arabia are advised to review security protocols in light of the threat posed by Yemeni Houthi-perpetrated attacks, particularly through the use of UAVs.

Those planning to operate commercial aircraft over the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman are advised to exercise heightened caution and remain apprised of further FAA notices regarding the increased threat to aviation in this region.

Surface-to-air missile lands in Cyprus after reported Israeli airstrikes in Syria – Israel & Syria analysis

Executive Summary:

On June 30-July 1, the official Syrian news agency reported that Israel Air Force (IAF) attacked targets in areas surrounding Damascus and unspecific locations in Homs Province. The airstrikes reportedly targeted a scientific research center in Rif Dimashq’s Jamraya, and other military research facilities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah.

Given precedent of previous IAF operations in Syrian territory, reports of the military action are likely credible. The development thus reaffirms Israel’s known policy of targeting Iranian-affiliated installations across Syria in an attempt to prevent Tehran’s entrenchment in the country. The current attack is particularly notable due to the broad scope of the airstrikes.

At least one S-200/SA-5 surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to intercept the IAF aircraft reportedly landed in Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). This underscores the underlying threat of collateral damage, including to air traffic, due to spillover from the firing of surface-to-air missile against IAF aircraft operating against targets in Syria. The development is also liable to heighten tensions between Israel and Turkey.

Overall, the incident comes amid heightened regional tensions over recent months between Iran and its proxies on one side, and the US and its allies in the Middle East, on the other. As the current development will increase tensions between Israel and Syria over the coming hours and days, a retaliatory attack against Israely may occur by either Syrian, or more likely, Iranian-linked forces in Syria.

Please be advised:

According to the official Syrian news agency, several projectiles fired by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) towards military sites in areas surrounding Damascus and unspecified locations in Homs Province were intercepted by the Syrian air defense system during the overnight hours of June 30-July 1. It further reported on extensive material damage and civilian casualties, particularly in Sahnaya, located approximately ten kilometers south of Damascus.

Additional reports indicate that at least 15 individuals were killed as a result of the airstrikes.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the targets of the airstrikes include a scientific research center in Rif Dimashq’s Jamraya, and other military and strategic research facilities linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, including along the Qalamoun mountains near the Syria-Lebanon border, and in unspecified locations in Homs Province.

At least one S-200/SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to intercept Israeli aircraft reportedly landed in the Tashkent area in Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). The missile reportedly caused a fire, but no casualties have been recorded as of the time of writing.

Location of Reported IAF Airstrikes Around Damascus

Assessments & Forecasts:

The latest incident follows a recent escalation in hostilities between Israel on one side, and Syria and Iranian-backed groups, on the other. On June 2-3, the IAF reportedly conducted airstrikes against Syria’s T-4 military base in retaliation to the launch of two rockets from Syrian territory towards northern Israel’s Mount Hermon on June 1. Moreover, on June 12, Syria’s official news agency reported that the SAA intercepted Israeli projectiles over Daraa Province’s Tal al-Hara. Thus, given past precedent, as well as the fact that the nature of the latest airstrikes is consistent with Israel’s known policy of targeting Iranian-affiliated installations across Syria, the reports attributing Israel with the latest strikes are likely credible.

The development is notable given the broad scope of the airstrikes. The IAF-attributed airstrikes targeted at least ten Iranian-linked sites, which is higher than most similar incidents recorded within Syrian territory over the recent months. Moreover, the last such airstrikes targeting areas surrounding Damascus was witnessed on January 11-12, which adds to the significance of the latest incident. This highlights Israel’s determination to curb the entrenchment of Iranian-linked elements and its evolving presence in Syria, which Israel perceives as posing a substantial threat to its national security.

The impact of the Syrian surface-to-air missile in Turkish-controlled TRNC is highly notable, as this is the first time such an incident has occurred. The S-200/SA-5 missile is technologically inferior to IAF aircraft, and is therefore usually employed by the SAA in volley fire without achieving a lock on target, with the intention to deter the aircraft and increase the potential for one of the missiles to hit. This was the case when Syrian air defense systems shot down a Russian plane off the coast of Syria on September 17.

In this context, as IAF aircraft likely conducted the recent airstrikes from over Lebanese airspace or from offshore Lebanon, the SAA likely responded with a volley fire, and the missiles that missed continued to fly in their trajectory until they ran out of fuel and fell to the ground in northern Cyprus. This also corresponds with the fact that Nicosia is approximately 325km from Damascus and the operational range of the S-200/SA-5 is approximately 300km. This nonetheless underscores the underlying threat of collateral damage, including to air traffic over Cyprus, posed by the firing of surface-to-air missiles against IAF aircraft operating against targets in Syria.
FORECAST: The incident has the potential to raise tensions between Israel and Turkey over the coming days and weeks, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may perceive such actions as provocative and use them as leverage against Israeli operations against targets in Syria.

Location of Missile Landing in Northern Cyprus

The airstrikes were reportedly conducted hours following indications that Syria’s entire Russia-supplied S-300 air defense system was in an operational conditional. Until now only three of Syria’s four surface-to-air-missile launchers had reportedly appeared in a raised position in Hama’s Masyaf. Thus, by conducting airstrikes at this time, Israel likely attempts to convey to all actors operating in Syria, including Russia, that it will not be deterred from its objectives of acting against the perceived Iranian threat.

In this context, the latest strikes occurred days after a tripartite meeting between Israel, the US and Russia from June 24-26 in Jerusalem. During the meeting, Russia’s national security adviser, Nikoali Patruschev, reportedly stated that Iran was his “ally and partner” and it was “contributing a lot to fighting terrorists on Syrian soil and stabilizing the situation there”. The official also reportedly stated that Russia “pays special attention to ensuring Israel’s security.” Despite characterizing Israeli airstrikes against Iranian assets in Syria as “undesirable”, the short span of time between the meeting and the latest incident points towards the possibility that Moscow may have given Israel its tacit consent to act against the expansion of Iran’s influence. Patruschev’s prior comments regarding Iran’s status as a Russian ally are thus likely indicative of Moscow’s attempts to balance its geopolitical interests amid the various regional actors.

Overall, the incident comes amid heightened regional tensions over recent months between Iran and its proxies on one side, and the US and its allies in the Middle East on the other. Against this backdrop, several attacks against US interests and its allies over the recent weeks have been attributed to Iranian-linked elements and proxies.
FORECAST: The incident is liable to increase tensions between Israel and Syria over the coming hours and days. While there remains a potential for retaliatory action by the Syrian government, the likelihood for such attacks by Iranian-backed elements against Israel is relatively higher particularly given that the latest IAF airstrikes primarily targeted Iranian-linked facilities.

Recommendations:

Syria:

We advise avoiding all nonessential travel to Damascus due to the remaining threat of militancy in the city. In addition, it is advised to avoid all travel to the vicinity of military installations due to the potential for Israeli strikes.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel-held areas.

Israel:

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

Israeli Air Force targets Syrian air defense system, Iranian bases in Syria during morning hours of February 10 – Israel & Syria Alert

Current Situation

Israeli Air Force targets Syrian air defense system, Iranian bases in Syria during morning hours of February 10 - Israel & Syria Alert | MAX Security

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According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), IAF aircraft targeted the Syrian Air Defense System, as well as Iranian military bases in Syria during the morning hours of February 10. Twelve targets, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military targets, were attacked. The airstrikes reportedly targeted Iranian military bases in al-Kiswah, located south of Damasus.

The attack was launched in retaliation to the penetration of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from Syria into Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights, as well as Syria’s shooting down of an Israeli F-16 with anti-aircraft fire earlier in the day. The latter led to at least one missile landing in Israel, sounding multiple code red sirens in the Golan Heights.

Departures from Ben Gurion International Airport were temporarily halted and arrivals were delayed during the morning hours of February 10 due to increased IDF operations in Israeli airspace. However, further reports indicate that operations at the airport have resumed.

According to incoming reports, the IAF conducted further airstrikes against unspecified targets near al-Kiswah during the late morning hours of February 10.

Assessments & Forecast

The development is highly notable given that it marks the first Iranian launched UAV into Israeli airspace. The incident represents a significant escalation in hostilities between Israel on one side and Syria and Iran on the other. Although reports do not indicate whether the UAV was armed or not, the drone was likely being utilized for reconnaissance and attempting to gain intelligence on IDF troop positions in the Israeli Golan Heights. Such information would allow Iran’s proxy Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah to target IDF positions in Israeli Golan Heights in a future conflict.

The IDF achieves two objectives by targeting Iranian installations in Syria. First, the Israeli government displays a lack of tolerance against any breach to its sovereignty, regardless of its severity. Second, the IDF utilizes such events to neutralize Iranian military facilities in Syria. The IDF has taken increasing efforts against Iran’s actions in Syria in light of the risk that it may pose to Israeli defense. Syria, however, also increased its efforts to retaliate against Israel, as witnessed in today’s incident. Syria’s response is even further significant in regards to this latest development given that it succeeded in shooting down an Israeli aircraft, a feat that the Syrian army has not achieved in recent years. Major successes for the Syrian army in its conflict with both rebels and the Islamic State (IS) likely emboldened it and increased its confidence in terms of conflict with Israel. Israel now faces an increasing threat when conducting such actions given the Syrian army’s higher morale and Iran’s evolving presence in Syria.

Iran’s determination to build its own presence through proxies in Syria, mainly Hezbollah, and in sensitive locales along Israel’s northern borders highlights the risk that the IDF faces in the region. The Israeli government has made attempts both diplomatically and militarily to prevent a buildup of Iranian-backed forces at the border with the Golan Heights, yet this recent development shows Iran’s resilience in proceeding and Syria’s willingness to back Tehran, despite the consequences the Syrian government may face in its own civil war. The Iranian UAV may lead Israel to consider more serious measures in dealing with this threat presented by Hezbollah and other proxies. Israel has already conducted large-scale drills in recent months to simulate a Hezbollah infiltration into northern Israel.
FORECAST: Israel will likely utilize the coming hours to target additional installations in Syria, as recent reports suggest, while Syrian forces may continue to respond forcibly. Syria’s response may include further missiles landing in Israel’s Golan Heights, leading to further code red sirens in the near-term. IED detonations, as well as RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border also remain possible, though to a lesser extent.

No side at this time is likely seeking a major large-scale escalation in conflict, especially Syria given its preoccupation in its own war. The US and Russia are also likely determined to achieve de-escalation between all sides given that such conflict may counteract their own interests in the region. Regardless, the Israeli-Syrian border region is likely to remain tense in the coming days and weeks as the IDF remains persevering in eliminating the threat presented by Iranian-backed proxies and as Syria likely responds to any infiltrations of its own sovereignty. Additionally, increased IDF operations in Israeli airspace may lead to further disruptions to commercial air traffic in the coming hours.

Recommendations

Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.

While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.

According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.

Assessments & Forecast

The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.

The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.

FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Official Syrian news agency reports missile attack targeting military sites in Hama, Aleppo provinces during overnight hours of April 29-30 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

The official Syrian news agency reported that missiles targeted military sites in Aleppo and Hama provinces, during the overnight hours of April 29-30.

According to a pro-government media outlet, an arms depot belonging to the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 47th Brigade in Hama Governorate was targeted. As for Aleppo Province, the exact target of the attack has yet to be specified. No official confirmation regarding the perpetrator of the strikes has been released at the time of writing.

Reports additionally indicate that the target was an underground bunker containing more than 100 long-range accurate missiles.

Moreover, reports indicate that missile attacks killed 26 pro-Syrian government fighters at Hama’s arms depot, many of whom Iranians. However, according to an IRGC-linked media, the reports regarding Iranian deaths as a result of the strikes are “baseless”.

According to reports quoting a US military source, the US-led coalition is not beyond the attack.

Assessments & Forecast

The incident comes amidst an uptick in Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked facilities across Syria over the past months. On April 9, Israel reportedly targeted Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Airbase with missiles, which resulted in the killing of seven Iranian troops. In addition, on February 10, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 facilities, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military bases. Therefore, we assess that the overnight strikes were similarly carried out by Israel. Nonetheless, the incident is notable given its scale-and-scope, as the number of reported casualties is significantly higher than Israel’s usual attacks in Syria.

Such attacks, especially in light of the reported Iranian casualties as a result of the recent incident, highlight Israel’s persistent efforts to contain the growing Iranian influence across Syria, as well as its increased willingness to conduct large-scale assaults deep in Syria in order to achieve this goal. Moreover, the development follows multiple Iranian threats of attacks against Israel in the wake of the above mentioned Israeli strikes in Homs Province, which resulted in the killing of Iranian troops. The strikes are potentially an attempt by Israel to send a deterring message to Tehran, as well as that it will continue to operate in Syria, in spite of Iran’s threats. Furthermore, as underscored by the reports regarding the base containing more than 100 accurate missiles, the incident demonstrates Israel’s determination to target military installations containing weapons or systems considered to be jeopardizing Israel’s technological edge and national security.

FORECAST: Given the reports regarding a high number of Iranian casualties, Tehran will likely seek to carry out a significant act of retaliation against Israel. This may include the launching of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory and target a military base, in a similar fashion to the February 10  incident, during which an IAF helicopter intercepted an Iranian UAV in Israeli airspace. Additional response may include attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish interests across the globe, potentially official or diplomatic facilities.  Additionally, albeit slightly less likely, attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrols on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights may also be recorded. Should these materialize, they will likely involve shootings, IEDs, or the use of anti-tank missiles.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy. Restrict essential travel to areas west of the Old City while avoiding travel to the Old City itself due to the risk of mortar fire and threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

US, UK, France missile strikes against Syrian government likely attempt to deter Damascus from further use of chemical weapons – Syria Analysis

Executive Summary

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, UK, and France fired more than 100 cruise missiles against Syrian government facilities in Homs Province and near Damascus.

The strikes are likely an effort by the West to deter the Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, as well as to send a message to Iran and Russia, amidst their perceived expansion across the Middle East.

The attacks are unlikely to significantly impact the Syrian conflict on-the-ground in the long-term, given pro-government forces’ overall superiority over rebel forces.

While tensions will increase between the parties, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the West remains unlikely at this time.

Iranian-backed groups may target US interests and allies across the region over the coming days.

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Current Situation

During the early morning hours of April 14, the US, France, and the UK conducted multiple strikes against Syrian military facilities across Syria, with approximately 120 cruise missiles fired at these targets.

The strikes, which were carried out from naval vessels in response to the suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government against the town of Douma on April 7, targeted government military facilities in Homs Province and the Damascus area. Near Damascus, US Tomahawk missiles hit Kiswah Military Base, Mezzeh Airbase, Dumayr Airbase, as well as a scientific research facility in Barzeh District. In Homs Province, the attacks, which involved the UK’s Shadow Storm cruise missiles, targeted a scientific research facility in Qusayr District. At the time of writing, while French forces also carried out missile attacks, their exact targets and scale are yet to be known.

According to pro-government forces, the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) air defense systems intercepted the “majority of the US fired missiles at the Damascus’ area”.

While at the time of writing the exact number of casualties is unconfirmed, according to pro-government media outlets, three civilians were wounded as a result of the attack.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated,“Right now, this is a one-time shot”. UK Prime Minister Theresa May stressed that there was “no practicable alternative to the use of force”. However, May also stated that the strikes were not about “regime change”.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson condemned the missile attacks. The spokesperson further stressed that there were no Russian casualties as a result of the strikes.

Assessments & Forecast

Assessments: Strikes likely symbolic and meant to deter Syrian government from further use of chemical weapons, send message to Moscow, Tehran 

The strike highlights our previous assessments that the Western response to the chemical weapons attack will be localized and target facilities linked to the use of chemical weapon, although they were larger than last year’s US response to the Khan Shaykhun incident. The use of cruise missiles, which allow attacking targets from a standoff distance, was likely meant to avoid any potential risks associated with operating in or near Syrian government airspace.Because the strikes hit research centers and storage facilities, the West’s response will likely impede the short-term capabilities of the Syrian government to use chemical weapons. However, in the medium-term, particularly in light of recent reports that the Syrian government transferred some of their weapons and forces away from multiple bases, these capabilities were likely not be significantly damaged and it is therefore possible that further attacks using chemical agents may be witnessed across Syria over the coming weeks and months.

In spite of the still relatively limited scope of the strike, the West’s operations in Syria are likely symbolic and meant to deter the Syrian government from using such weapons, especially because of the large number of targeted bases and installations. The strikes also aim to prevent the “normalization” of the usage of chemical agents across the globe, as these type of weapons had been used persistently throughout the Syrian conflict. Despite the low likelihood that many missiles were actually intercepted, if at all, these claims by the Syrian government, as well as the lack of significant casualties among pro-government forces, will likely be capitalized on to bolster its image among its troops and supporters across the country. Coupled with the aforementioned assessments regarding the potential for further chemical attacks by the SAA, the strikes’ deterrence impact will also be limited.

Globally, the development comes amidst an uptick in tensions between the West and Russia over Moscow’s perceived aggressive policies across the globe. These include Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, alleged interference in elections in Western countries, as well as most recently, the suspected attempted assassination of a Russian national in the UK. The West likely used these attacks to deter Moscow from engaging in further actions perceived as hostile towards the West and its allies. In the Middle East, the strikes occurred amidst growing concerns among Western allies, chiefly Israel and Saudi Arabia, regarding Iran’s growing regional influence, including in Syria. The Western strike against Tehran’s important ally, is likely an attempt to intimidate Iran and send a message that its actions are not unnoticed.

Assessments: Strikes unlikely to impact on-ground situation in medium-to long-term; retaliation by Iranian-backed elements against US interests, allies possible across region 

FORECAST: In the short-term, the US-led operations may slightly impact the situation on-the-ground in the vicinity of the targeted facilities. In addition to hindering their operational capabilities, the strikes also led pro-government forces to reportedly transfer some of their weapons and vehicles away from bases. This now forces them to redeploy and reorganize. During this period of time, rebel forces may exploit the possible disarray from the strike and launch assaults on government-held territories and capture some areas from the Syrian government. This is especially likely on fronts near targeted facilities, such as the rebel enclave in the Dumayr area, northern Daraa Province, and northern Homs Province. Nonetheless, in the medium- to long-term, given the strikes’ limited scale and overall superiority of pro-government forces vis-a-vis rebel forces, the developments are unlikely to significantly impact the situation on-ground, with the SAA and its allies likely reversing any possible short-term gains by rebel forces.

The attack by the US, France, and the UK does not represent a shift in the West’s policy regarding the Syrian conflict. This is highlighted by the statements of these countries’ officials that the strikes are a singular, isolated response. However, should the use of chemical weapons persist, additional missile strikes, as well as air raids to a lesser degree, may reoccur over the coming months, targeting the Syrian government’s military facilities.

The operations are liable to increase the already heightened tensions between Moscow and the West. However, particularly given the lack of reports about Russian casualties as a result of the missile attacks, an escalation of hostilities between Russia and the US, UK, and France remains highly unlikely at this time. Instead, Moscow’s response will focus on diplomatic measures against these three countries, such as sanctions. This assessment is highlighted by the April 13 bill by Russia’s Duma to implement sanctions on US alcohol, tobacco, and agro-products. Additionally, cyber attacks by Russian hackers against government institutions in the UK, US, and France may also be witnessed over the coming days.

The events are unlikely to have a significant impact on regional dynamics as a whole. However, it remains possible that a localized retaliation by pro-government forces and Iranian-backed militias will take place against US troops and their backed forces in Syria, such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria and factions within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in southern Homs Province. Should this occur, it will likely include mortar fire and IED detonations. Attacks against US interests may also occur in Iraq, where such actions have occurred in the past. Iranian-backed elements throughout the region may also seek to target countries that are considered Western allies. This mainly includes Saudi Arabia, as the Shiite Houthis may be directed by Tehran to intensify their ballistic missile attacks deep in Saudi territory. Additionally, albeit to a much lesser degree, it cannot be ruled out that Iranian-backed groups, such as Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions, will target Israel, including in the form of IED and anti-tank guided missile attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops along the border with Syria.

Recommendations

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Those seeking to enter Syria are advised to confirm the status of their crossing points and final destinations, remaining aware of recent kidnapping incidents and the nature of military forces deployed in those areas.

Turkey’s military campaign aims to secure interests in northern Syria, mitigate Kurdish militant threat – Turkey & Syria Analysis

Current Situation

Turkish military officials confirmed that operation “Olive Branch” targeting Syria’s northwestern Afrin Province officially began on January 20. The objective is to eliminate the presence of both People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Islamic State (IS).

According to Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Turkish ground forces entered Syria’s Afrin District from Kilis’ Gulbaba region on January 20 at 11:05 (local time). The prime minister also stated that the “four-phase operation” will aim to create a buffer zone 30 km south of the Turkish border.

Turkish forces targeted YPG positions with artillery fire throughout Afrin Province on January 20-21, including along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels were deployed along Syria’s border with Hatay Province and south of Syria’s Azaz.

YPG forces responded to the aerial bombardments with artillery fire striking Turkish forces in and around the Turkish border town of Kilis.

Russia reportedly withdrew its stationed forces from Syrian’s Afrin To Tel Ajar on January 20, in light of the Turkish operation. Russian authorities called for “reconciliation of warring sides.”

On January 20, the US “encouraged all parties to avoid escalation” and to “focus on the most important task of defeating IS.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated on January 20 that Syria’s Manbij, located just west of the Euphrates River, will be the “next destination for a Turkish combat operation” following Afrin.

Assessments & Forecast

The operations highlight Turkey’s continued efforts to safeguard its interests in northern Syria. The campaign in Afrin comes amidst persistent concerns by the Turkish government regarding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) activity along the border with Syria. The Turkish government has repeatedly accused the YPG of cooperating with the PKK, and by launching the offensive in Afrin District, Turkish authorities seek to stem the YPG’s assistance to the PKK. Additional motivation for the operation may include Turkey’s efforts to assert its political influence, as well as that of the elements it supports in Syria, ahead of future negotiations between the various parties in the Syrian conflict.

President Erdogan’s hardline stance regarding the elimination of YPG elements in Syria is linked to his political ambitions regarding the upcoming 2019 election. In the past, Erdogan’s calls for the eradication of PKK militants and all affiliated elements courted ultra-nationalist voters and expanded his base significantly, helping ensure victories such as the April 2017 referendum. A recent endorsement by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)’s chair and a continuing aggressive foreign policy regarding Turkish-Syrian border security will consolidate his base and secure him the presidency. The military operation in Syria’s Afrin will likely cause obstacles for oppositions parties in uniting, mainly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), due to likely labeling of it being weak on militancy. This labeling will likely be triggered by CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s recent call for diplomacy as opposed to a military operation into Afrin, as ultra-nationalists will perceive the statement as willing to negotiate with militant elements.

US-Turkish relations are likely to further diminish as a result of the operation, given vocal US opposition against intervention in Afrin. Turkish authorities already expressed much discontent regarding the US’ persistent support of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group comprised of mostly YPG fighters in northern Syria. The US will likely continue providing the SDF with both weapons and training in order to not only fight IS, but to counter the influence of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian government. While the Turkish government has voiced its disapproval of Assad in the past, its objective to eliminate Kurdish influence in the region will be the priority, and US intervention will likely only embolden Turkish forces to engage in military operations against the YPG in northern Syria.

While Moscow provides a degree of support for the Kurdish militia, the Turkish operations are unlikely to significantly impact relations between the two countries. This is because the operations in Afrin District are not likely to jeopardize Russia’s strategic interests in Syria, namely the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia. Instead, the campaign may serve Moscow’s interests by weakening the US’s most important on-ground ally, decreasing Washington’s influence in Syria. The possible consolidation of a foothold by Turkish-aligned elements may also allow Moscow to better negotiate and enforce agreements across the country.

FORECAST: Given precedent of the previous Euphrates Shield operations, Turkish-backed rebels will initiate the ground offensive from multiple fronts, such as the Azaz and Deir Semaan areas, as well as from within Turkish territory, including Hatay and Kilis provinces. By doing so, the Turkish-backed rebels will compel the YPG to fight on multiple fronts, overstretching their forces. In the initial stages of the offensive, rebels will seek to attain and cut off the Rajo Road, as well as routes 62 and 217, all serving as important supply lines leading to the city of Afrin. Turkish forces will concurrently mainly conduct aerial bombardments and heavy artillery fire against YPG positions. Once areas are cleared of the YPG, Turkish army personnel themselves are likely to enter captured territories and establish administrative control. In response to the operation, as underlined by the YPG’s artillery fire at Turkish forces in the Kilis area, the Kurdish group will likely retaliate with rocket and mortar over the coming days.

Turkey’s military campaign aims to secure interests in northern Syria, mitigate Kurdish militant threat - Turkey & Syria Analysis | MAX Security

Click here to see Map Legend

The Turkish operations in Afrin District are liable to benefit the rebels’ rivals, namely the Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian government, on nearby fronts. Over the past several weeks, both IS and pro-government forces were able to capture multiple areas from rebel forces in southeastern Idlib, northern Hama, and southern Aleppo provinces. In light of the likely deployments of rebel fighters to northwestern Aleppo Province, at the expense of the Aleppo-Idlib-Hama triangle, their adversaries are liable to take advantage of their more dwindled presence in the region to seize additional territories. This is highlighted by the reported capture of Idlib Province’s Abu Dhuhur Military Airbase on January 20 by pro-government forces. As a result, both IS and the Syrian government are likely to intensify their operations in southeastern Idlib, northern Hama, and southern Aleppo provinces over the coming days and weeks.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Turkey

Travel to Istanbul and Ankara may continue, although travelers are advised to maintain heightened vigilance in central areas due to the threat of militancy, as well as regular anti-government protests and occasional incidents of unrest in these locales.   Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary and contingency support options.

Avoid nonessential travel to the immediate vicinities of government buildings, police stations, political party offices, popular public places and shopping centers, as well as Western institutions and places frequented by Westerners, and places of worship due to the threat of militancy.

Avoid nonessential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces, while also avoiding all travel to border areas with Syria and Iraq, given the increased risk of militancy and spillover violence.

Those conducting essential travel to Turkey’s southern and eastern provinces are advised to defer all travel to areas witnessing curfews due to the elevated risk of violence in these locales.

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Additionally, those remaining in Damascus are advised to avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Those continuing to operate or reside in Aleppo are advised to minimize movement in the city and its surroundings, given the frequency and broad nature of fighting in the city.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel-held areas.

Threat to aviation by anti-tank guided missiles highlighted by al-Arish Airport attack case study – Special Analysis Report

Case study: December 20 attack on al-Arish Airport

On December 20, an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM)  targeted a helicopter on the ramp of al-Arish Airport, located in Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate. The helicopter carried, among others, the Egyptian interior and defense ministers who disembarked from the aircraft shortly before the attack.

On December 21, the Islamic State (IS)-linked news agency released a report on the attack, alongside a claim of responsibility by the local IS affiliate Wilayat Sinai, stating that the group had prior knowledge of the arrival of the ministers and dispatched a team of militants to ambush the entourage. It further stated that the attack was conducted with the use of a 9M133 “Kornet” ATGM that targeted an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter that was escorting the VIPs.

Initial IS-linked report detailing the al-Arish attack
Initial IS-linked report detailing the al-Arish attack

Later that day, the IS-linked news agency released a video showing the attack itself, in which the ministers and their entourage can be seen next to the helicopter with its navigation lights still on, which contrary to initial publications was a UH-60 “Blackhawk”, as it was hit by an ATGM.

Edition number 111 of IS’s weekly al-Naba newsletter published on December 22 included a more detailed and contradictory account of the attack, stating that militants spotted a helicopter with a “unique shape” and concluded that this would be a high value target.

This prompted militants to dispatch an ATGM team to a position overlooking the airport with the objective of destroying the “unique aircraft”.

It is important to mention that the Egyptian Air Force (EAAF) reportedly operated two Blackhawk helicopters prior to the attack, mainly in the role of VIP transport. These aircraft are much more distinct than others that would commonly be seen in Sinai’s airspace, such as Apaches or Mi-17s.

Report of the al-Arish attack released in IS's weekly newsletter with details contradicting initial reports
Report of the al-Arish attack released in IS’s weekly newsletter with details contradicting initial reports

Analysis of the missile launch:

While there has been no corroboration as to the type of missile used by IS in the attack at the time of writing, Wilayat Sinai have employed Kornets several times in the past, most notably in July 2015 when the group used the missile to attack an Egyptian naval vessel off the coast of North Sinai’s Rafah.

If the missile used was in fact a Kornet as IS claims, given that the missile was in flight for 14 seconds from launch until it hit its target and given that the speed of a standard Kornet missile is between 250 and 300 meters a second, it would place the launcher between 3.5 and 4.2 km from the target, well within the Kornet’s effective daytime range.

By comparing the video and imagery analysis of Al-Arish Airport, we concluded that the missile was launched from an elevated structure or a dirt berm southwest of the helicopter’s position, as can be see in the following map:

Analysis of the Missile against Helicopter in Al-Arish-Airport

Threat posed to aviation from proliferation of ATGMs

The attack does not represent a precedent, but rather serves as an opportunity to highlight the threat posed to aviation from the proliferation of ATGMs in the hands of numerous militant groups in multiple countries. Several accounts of ATGMs being fired against aircraft were recorded in recent years, including successfully targeting aircraft in flight, with the most prominent example being the downing of an Israeli Air Force (IAF) helicopter by Hezbollah in Lebanon on August 12, 2006. This is especially important as this threat is often overlooked in comparison to the more well known threat posed by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

While MANPADS pose a more prominent threat to aircraft, as they were designed with the specific goal of targeting aircraft, they have several shortcomings compared to ATGMs. These mainly include being more delicate, having parts with short shelf lives, requiring greater expertise and training to successfully operate, and being more rare. ATGMs still require expertise and training, although less than MANPADS, and are generally more durable and can be sustained for operations over longer time and in harsher conditions. Most importantly however, ATGMs are significantly more common than MANPADS, and with the destabilization of countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, thousands of these systems, of different generations and capabilities, were taken away from military storage and ended in the hands of militant groups across the world. This is in addition to illegal purchases through stable countries that do not adhere to international norms, such as Belarus and North Korea.

As noted, ATGMs were not designed primarily to hit aircraft and therefore do not excel in it, however, the features for which they were designed, namely attacking a comparatively slow moving target, still make them effective weapons against aircraft. This is mostly relevant during the takeoff and landing stages of both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, when these are most vulnerable due to their low speed and altitude. In addition, while there are several options of countermeasures against MANPADS that can be used by civil aircraft, countermeasures against ATGMs are fewer, and often involve explosives, making them currently non-optional for civil aircraft.

An additional weakness exposed in the recent attack is the dependency on local security forces and their protocols, which can often be low in standard. The attack occurred in a region currently undergoing prolonged and high intensity militant activity, in a city that was hit by the most attacks in the region in recent months. Despite this fact, the VIPs were flown in a distinct helicopter that draws attention, the airport lacks even basic and cheap means in place that may disrupt or prevent a missile attack, such as walls that would block line of sight into the airport, or metal nets that would negate the missile’s shaped charge mechanism. All of these expose the weaknesses of local security protocols, which were a direct factor in the attack.

Recommendations

The threat of ATGMs should be considered as a potential factor while conducting risk and vulnerability surveys, particularly in unstable regions.

Prior to conducting aerial activity in countries with known militant activity, contact us at [email protected] to consult on the possible threat posed by relevant militant groups’ weapons and capabilities and ways to mitigate these.

Contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for security surveys of airports.