Sunday, June 26, 2016

Flash Update: Fallujah Liberated

ISIS has been driven completely out of Fallujah, and mop-up operations have begun to clear the highways between Fallujah and Ramadi. But ISIS troops there have nowhere to hide, and the Iraqi Army has the numerical and mechanical advantage. It should take a few weeks.

What's quite amazing is that Fallujah actually had 4,000 ISIS troops, and the Iraqi Army dealt with them pretty quickly once they punched in. It's an amazing victory and shows that the spear tip of the Iraqi Army is quite sharp. Well-done.

After that mop-up, the road to Mosul is clear.

I'm getting updates from here, by the way:

Manbij is taking much longer than I thought, in part because my troop counts weren't up to snuff. The Kurds are slowly working their way to the edge of the city, and keep repelling ISIS counter-attacks.

In a way, this is good: the Kurds are quite stiff of spine, and have so much territory around Manbij surrounded that, if they are successful, they will likely destroy the 2,000+ unit in the city. So it will take some time, but momentum is definitely in the hands of the Kurds and SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces).

Stay tuned for more updates.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Flash Update: ISIS Abandons Far Northwest

Through yesterday, ISIS had been pressing the northwestern Free Syrian Army forces away from Dabiq and into the mountains.

Possibly due to the Kurdish advance on Manbij (where ISIS was at risk of leaving their backside totally exposed), they've evacuated back towards Manbij to hold there, giving the FSA an opportunity to potentially surround and isolate the town.

Here's the northwestern Syria map for context.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Coordinated Summer Offensive Against ISIS

One of the tricky things about hitting ISIS is that they can hit back pretty well while you're mired down in IEDs and sniper fire. ISIS can go on the offensive somewhere if you've concentrated all your troops for a single offensive. Frequently ISIS responds to offensives with suicide attacks in civilian centers in the hopes of distracting the military forces against them. So lone offensives are incredibly risky.

And, as we know, the Iraqi army doesn't always do well when on defense. The Syrian Army is exhausted and depleted from 5 years of war. For short-term better, and long term... probably worse, each of these armies is deeply reinforced by fresher, more elite troops, and short-term allied with the ever-vigilant Kurdish Peshmerga. 

Iranian troops are in both Syria and Iraq. Syria's spear-tip is sharpened by Hezbollah, and they're supported by primarily Russian airstrikes. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite tribal militias provide a lot of the hammer that the army needs, and US elite troops are on the ground to provide intelligence and backbone to offensive operations. And as much as the Iraqi army is a mess, there are pockets of excellence in the elite counter-terrorism units, which are the first charging into Fallujah.

This hodgepodge seems to be a combination that has a shot at winning. After a few months of stagnation, the Kurds, Iraqis, and Syrians have all kicked into high gear... almost as if they're coordinating. And they might well be. They're pushing hard on three fronts (while the Syrian Rebels seem to be mostly licking their wounds and holding fast around Aleppo right now), which might just keep ISIS off-balance. 

Let's take a look at what's going on in Fallujah, Raqqah, and Manbij. I'm currently using LiveUAMap, which updates daily, and the last few days have seen a lot of movement.

We all know this one's been long in coming, and that Fallujah's been under siege by the Iraqis for months. They move excruciatingly slowly (possibly to mitigate the risk of a disorganized force panicking and fleeing), and people in Fallujah are starving for it. But they've finally gotten their claws into the city and are crawling their way through.

Counter-terror units are grinding their way in from the south. As you can see, they haven't quite penetrated the tight-knit city blocks yet, and once they get in, it's going to be a bloody, messy affair. They're supported by a lot of US airstrikes and US "advisors" on the front lines.

The really good news is that the Iraqis have repelled a pair of counter-attacks by ISIS troops. Clearly, ISIS (which is of course greatly outnumbered in Fallujah right now) was testing to see if Iraqi organization or will would break under direct assault, but it held firm. It's a huge step forward from 2014's humiliating retreats, and I'm predicting that Fallujah is about a month away from falling.

Iranian-backed Shiite militias are on hand to deal with counter-attacks or ISIS retreats from the city, but aren't pushing in: the Iraqis wisely made sure the only militias going into the city at first are Sunni, as there's still a lot of distrust among Sunnis for the post-2003 invasion reprisals by Shiites.

Manbij is a town that sits on the crossroads of 2016 and M4, which are both supply routes from Turkey that ISIS has been using to resupply Raqqah and its Aleppo province operations. A few months ago, Kurdish troops advanced modestly towards Manbij from the south via a bridge across the Euphrates, but were held fast by ISIS resistance. Things cooled down for a bit.

After that, ISIS turned its guns west to try to take A'zaz and Marea (north-northwest of Aleppo) from rebel troops and to hold off a counter-attack by Syrian troops from the airbase east of Aleppo (where troops had held out for over a year before finally being reinforced). That shift in force gave the Kurds an opening, and they took it.

The Kurds are storming Manbij from three directions at once, and the map above keeps changing by the day in the Kurds' favor. I anticipate it'll fall within the week.

After Manbij, the Kurds will still have a huge advantage while ISIS remains bogged down to the west, and I suspect they'll try to push that advantage. That said, ISIS could counter-attack, and they'd be in a frustratingly good position to disengage from the west, because (as you can see below) the Syrian rebels and government troops are back to fighting for Aleppo.

But if the Kurds can move quickly, they'll be on a race to try to take the other border crossing with Turkey. If they can pull it off, they'll have isolated Raqqah completely.

Raqqah seemed like it was going to be the last nut to crack in the ISIS war, but the Kurds and Syrian troops seem to have different plans. Pressure on Raqqah would of course make life much harder for ISIS troops elsewhere, and coalition troops would be able to focus on eliminating pockets one at a time.

The Syrian army has mustered a whole bunch of tanks to race towards Al Tabqah. It's open desert along the highway, where the more mechanized Syrian army--with Russian air support--has a huge advantage. They're picking up a few kilometers per day and should be able to close the distance to Lake Assad and the Euphrates river. If they pulled that off, Raqqah would become totally cut off from ISIS troops in Aleppo province.

Kurdish troops are also more quietly wiggling their way from the north. I'm a bit surprised at this for two reasons: first, Raqqah doesn't have many Kurds, so the Kurds have less of a dog in this fight. Second, it's a displacement of troops that could be used in Aleppo.

Given that, here's my thought: I suspect the Kurds are absolutely not going to storm Raqqah, but they want to move the front line further away from Kurdish territory, and be on-hand to cut down ISIS troops trying to flee north and west if the Syrians move into the city. The Kurds will keep the highways going in and prevent ISIS from moving freely.

The real fight will happen between Syrian Army and ISIS troops. I'm not sure if the Syrian Army intends to take the fight into the city now, but if they did, it would be a huge momentum swing. Assad and Putin may have decided going for the heart of the operation, a la Enders Game, is the fastest way to end the fight--much faster than slowly clawing back territory and saving Raqqah for last.

So ISIS is under pressure on three fronts. They probably have 100,000 men deployed in Syria and Iraq: if we compare this to the Peshmerga's 300,000, the Syrian Army's 150,000, and the Iraqi Army's about 200,000 fit-for-service troops, there's a more than 5:1 advantage. The trick of being able to use this advantage--against a dug-in and mindbogglingly fanatical force--is to be able to pick battles where the numbers are overwhelming and the enemy is off-balance. If these forces can bring guns to bear in a really coordinated way, they'll be able to make sure of just that advantage.

More to come as events unfold.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Little Rocks, Big Deal: Podcast on the South China Sea

So for those of you wondering what I'm up to in my analysis time, here's the answer: I'm spending most of my effort on working on Something to Consider. We have a podcast called ReConsider, and we just dropped two great episodes on the South China Sea.

The Spratly, Paracel, and Senkaku islands, in the South and East China Seas are a powderkeg right now. Probably even more than the Middle East or Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia is at biggest risk of becoming a war between major powers.

Take a listen: we have two great episodes to unpack the whole thing.

The first gives the incredibly complex context in Southeast Asia, Chinese and American foreign policy.

The second describes specifically what's going on in the islands now, what the risks are, and what the options are for the US.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Putin Pulled Out of Syria

Monday, 3/14: Putin announces sudden pullout of Syria, saying he conveyed it to Assad the day before, saying that Russia had "achieved its objectives."

It was a surprise. Given Putin's foreign policy style, as usual, it was unpredictable. As usual, Americans and the West were generally left flat-footed. I was actually pretty surprised that Russia pulled out before Aleppo fell to government forces.

Russia getting out certainly feels like good news. Is it?

Yeah, probably. It's unlikely that this is a dubious trick by Russia: they've got a stalemate with a shaky ceasefire that's... actually holding. The rebels took such a shellacking that they're in no position to launch a sudden counter-offensive (I think). The ceasefire is likely to hold. Humanitarian relief can reach Aleppo, and it's possible some refugees will start being able to return to what's left of home.

But why not just extend Assad's power? Why pull out now? I think there are a few key reasons:

  • Russia's economy sucks. Like seriously. Their GDP is $2 Trillion, which is--yes--1/8th that of the United States. Russia is more like Mexico than a serious-business global power. Throwing tons of money into bombs, fuel, and other operations costs is bloody expensive. Historically low oil prices and sanctions over Ukraine have been killer: its GDP has shrunk at a rate of 4% over the past year and it's likely to continue. They just can't plain afford a prolonged operation, and they've likely learned the lessons of over-reach that the Americans learned in the 2000s.
  • Russia is far more concerned with its own borders. Ukraine is unlikely to be able to take back Donbass on its own... but Russia doesn't want them to be tempted. Russia is, in fact, still a very vulnerable regional power with enemies all about. It's got to keep its focus there, and doesn't want to take its eyes off for too long. 
  • Killing all the rebels is not going to happen. There are just too many. 
  • Russia doesn't actually want Assad to rule over an empire of ruin. They want a country that can get itself back on its feet--what's the point of having a client state if it's just a rotting hulk? 
Realistically, the best Russia can hope for is a coalition government with Assad still in power until 18 months down the line. Putin is nothing if not pragmatic in his realpolitik.

Was this a good move for Russia? Well, suddenly talks have picked back up--literally the day after the pullout began. Assad's much more willing to negotiate without Russia covering for them, and that's what Russia really wants: serious peace talks that just end the bloody war already. Other Syrians are more willing to talk now that it's just a 1:1 fight. Both sides have their patrons (the US and Russia) in these talks, both of which will be supporting their side while trying to twist some arms to get real commitment.

The final good sign for Russia--besides the ceasefire holding--is that opposition and government forces have both turned their guns on ISIS, and are making some gains... even without serious support from Russia.


Now that the Syrian army has shifted its focus (finally) to ISIS, it's pushing to entrap the ISIS forces in the northwest. I'm guessing it's pushing to al-Thawrab in order to cut off the 2nd link (the Kurds took care of the first) between Aleppo and ar-Raqqah (the ISIS capital). ISIS committed a lot of troops there... particularly hoping to pick at the warring Syrian factions. 

This will be Syria's 2nd-toughest operation against ISIS (before the battle for ar-Raqqah, if it comes), and everyone is really tired. Putin is cleverly leaving the monkey on the back of the US coalition to bear the costs of air support. But encirclement would be a great first step. If everyone's able to coordinate their efforts, ISIS will be get pressed on 3 fronts here. Not sure if that can happen. 


The Syrian army got pushed out of Palmyra and back to the front door of Homs, but is turning the tide. We see them expanding in 3 directions here to take back heavily populated areas and dislodge ISIS into the desert, where it will be much more vulnerable.


Opposition forces have quickly advanced to the border with Iraq, probably high-fiving Iraqi army forces at the border crossing. They've now got a pocket of ISIS pretty well surrounded and cut off. One of many tough parts about the ceasefire is that there might be a bit of a scramble for territorial control if/as government and opposition troops advance on ISIS positions. It might be tough to not end up shooting at each other. It'll be a big test of the ceasefire.

So that's all the news that's fit to print today. Still giving my very controversial thumbs-up to Russia on this one; I think they accelerated the peace-building process pretty significantly.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Big, Fat, Hairy Update on Syria and Iraq

Lots has happened since we last updated you about ISIS, Iraq, and the Syrian civil war. We're going to make an effort here to cover all the key changes on the ground, discuss how they happened, pat ourselves on the back about being right, and then tell you what we think is going to happen next.

Enjoy. Thanks as always to the tireless efforts of the Wikipedia editors of the Syria/Iraq map.

So there are 3 big places to look at this fine leap day:

  1. Anbar
  2. Mosul
  3. Aleppo
But that's really where we always look, because that's where the hot action is.


Ramadi fell a couple of months ago, and the Iraqi army--in its usual excruciating slowness--has pivoted towards Fallujah. This is a tougher nut to crack. It gave the Americans hell twice during the occupation. But it's also full of people pretty sick and tired of ISIS's crap, so they're less prone to really enthusiastically take up arms against the government. They're also sometimes carrying out attacks on ISIS troops there. Sunni volunteers have come from around Anbar to join Iraqi forces, which will be a plus during the upcoming door-to-door. 

It's hard to get out of Fallujah, and conditions are pretty crappy right now, but the Iraqi army has the city totally surrounded and has set up very heavily armed checkpoints for those trying to escape. This also means that ISIS is able to escape, which is a mixed blessing: 600 have slipped out, leaving only 400 behind, but it means those 600 won't be eliminated (and they're probably on their way to Mosul).

The big black dot in the middle there is really just the city center: the army now has the surrounding neighborhoods. One of the reasons it's taking its sweet time there is that coalition warplanes are softening the city with airstrikes, and the army really can't afford another "drop your guns and flee" debacle.

Fallujah is pretty much a ghost town at this point, and scraping through the city center is going to be sucksville, with all the booby traps and sweet sniper positions in the rubble. But it'll get done.

And then, finally--finally--on to Mosul. But don't get too excited.



The Kurds, being the very fierce bros (and don't forget the many very bad sis's, too) and deciding (with much US coordination) to take matters into their own hands where they can, decided it was about time to cut off the Raqqah-Mosul supply line. For those forgetting, Raqqah is the de facto capital of ISIS. Mosul is the largest city they've got. 

Some months ago, the besieged Syrian Army almost lost al-Hasakah. The Kurds decided they'd swoop in and take care of it.

But a few weeks ago they also decided to push south and cut off the final highway that's at all plausible to use to resupply Mosul from Syria. So in addition to Sinjar--where the two key highways meet--the Kurds now control the relevant border crossings in the north.

So there's a lot of nope for anyone in ISIS trying to sneak anything across that can't fit under a burka.

Mosul is far from surrounded, and it's still using ISIS's typical leeching strategy to extract resources from the countryside, but it won't be getting more heavy weapons or serious troops from Syria, which means the coming siege has its flank covered.

Nice work. Did we call it? Totally. The Kurds probably won't march on Raqqah, but they've got enough staying power to make some strategic moves, and holding the northern supply routes is the biggest solid they can do for the war without going all out. Expect them to help in Mosul, as well--there are a lot of Kurds in the city. Or at least there were.


So this is a hot mess. 

Russia showed up a few months ago and started bombing the snot out of the city and surrounding countryside with the intent of getting government troops back in charge. At this point, Aleppo makes Fallujah look like Miami beach, but it's strategically and symbolically critical. 

Russia's air campaign has reinvigorated the government's northern campaign. And it's killed a lot of people, including lots of civilians. It's dirty, mean work. It spawned another wave of refugees

But we're holding onto our controversial position here that the Russian intervention is the best chance Syria has to end this war and beat ISIS any time soon. The ongoing rebel-government stalemate is good for two interests: ISIS, and the grim reaper. More on that later.

What we're seeing on the ground is a massive offensive out of the al-Safira area. Southeast of that, by that lake, government troops surrounded and disintegrated an ISIS offensive. They're surrounding Aleppo from the north and south, and have cut off the rebel supply line from Turkey. They're pushing northeast, and recently lifted the siege on a military base that has been holding out against ISIS for over a year. It's moving pretty fast.

ISIS has really committed pretty big to the area. They finally captured the symbolic town of Dabiq (where their weird prophecy says they'll bring about the apocalypse) as the rebels have collapsed. Right on cue, the Kurds--having none of that--have started to push back in. They're butting heads with the government, but have managed to not start killing each other yet. 

The Kurds have also finally crossed the river from the east, pushing towards Manbij. It's a little later than I expected, but it's good timing: ISIS committed to the Aleppo front and that left the back door to Manbij open. The Kurds made a quick sprint towards the town but have faced some stiff resistance. At this point they may wait for the government to beat on ISIS a little more before finishing the push.

At this point, the Kurds are hoping to expand their territory to cover more Kurdish population in that area near the border, both to protect them and to stake their claim when the dust settles.

Back to the government: taking Aleppo and isolating rebel forces in the north could lead to the end-game for the war. And that's a good thing.


We're feeling pretty vindicated about our support of the Russian intervention: breaking the stalemate and giving one side an advantage (something the US wasn't willing to commit to) is what's going to end the war. And it's working.

The rebels, sensing that things aren't going to go their way, have come to the bargaining table with a willingness to compromise, which might mean elections or a coalition government. So far, Secretary of State Kerry has brokered a truce with Russia: the "moderate" rebels and government troops are supposed to stop fighting each other. The truce went into effect two days ago.

It appears to be holding--mostly. Russia has halted airstrikes on "moderate" rebel positions, and for the most part the guns have quieted around Aleppo. Russia is still hitting al-Nusra Front (the white space on the map), because they're crazy terrorists. It's--once again--a pretty masterful coup by Russia: al-Nusra is currently allied with the moderate rebels, and they're definitely the better fighters. In this truce, Russia has divided and conquered Assad's political enemies, and with the moral high-ground on the deal.

You might be asking: "If Russia/Assad are winning, why the truce?" Remember that the reason to win is to rule over a country. If it gets pounded into the dirt, there won't be much of a country to rule. Ultimately, total destruction of the rebellion would be enormously costly to Assad's troops and to the population and infrastructure. Assad does not want to rule a shell. The point is to convince the rebels they can't win, not to kill literally everyone that disagrees. 

And further, there's ISIS to deal with. As we've said before, they won't get dealt with until there's a united front between Assad and the rebels. And without a doubt, nobody's suggesting a truce with ISIS. So if this truce holds, ISIS has 3 enemies with guns--finally--pointed towards only them.

Will the truce hold? Probably-kinda, the way it's kinda holding in Ukraine. If they can get some traction, they'll be able to start really squeezing ISIS back towards the east, and have some serious talks about the political solution while they're organizing a final offensive. Working together against a common enemy will do some good to start putting antiseptic into festering wounds in the country.

Assad's going to scrape together something of a victory out of this. Is that the best thing? Almost certainly. Given the political climate in Syria, I can't imagine a rebel victory turning into anything better than post-invasion Iraq or post-intervention Libya, and lord knows we don't want that.