Turkey’s Intervention in Syria/ The Weakening of ISIS Sinai

Update from AIJAC


Sept. 2, 2016

Update 09/16 #01

This Update features some background and analysis of Turkey’s intervention in the Syrian civil war last week, in an operation termed “Euphrates Shield” launched last Wednesday, and aimed initially at the ISIS-held town of Jarablus – which Kurdish forces looked poised to take.

It further features a piece reporting on, and analysing, the apparent recent success of the Egyptian military in cracking down on “Wilayet Sinai”  the ISIS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula which has been promoting unrest and engaging in terrorism there for almost five years.

We lead with some new reporting from the Wall Street Journal, which makes it clear that while a Turkish intervention in northern Syria has long been discussed with Washington, this particular intervention took the Obama Administration by surprise (despite public claims to the contrary.) While similar plans have been under consideration since last year, these were shelved after the Russian intervention in Syria – but revived by Turkey in early August as Kurdish forces moved into the area. Meanwhile, the US priority since the intervention has been to keep the Turkish and US-backed Kurdish forces from clashing. For all the background on how this intervention came about, CLICK HERE

Next up is top Israeli academic specialist on Syria Eyal Zisser, who says that despite its claims about ISIS, Turkey sees the Kurds as the real threat in the Syrian arena. Zisser says the intervention – and he predicts Turkish forces may engage in an ongoing occupation of an area of northern Syria – is Turkish President Erdogan’s way to ensure that no Kurdish state is created on Syrian soil  and to make the US and Russia take his interests into account in finding a solution in Syria. He also says the clear winner from Erdogan’s decision to “join” the civil war in Syria is the Assad regime, who is enjoying the infighting between his various enemies. For the rest of his analysis, CLICK HERE

Finally, Israeli counter-terrorism scholar Yoram Schweitzer looks at the apparent weakening of ISIS’ Sinai affiliate under the blows of the Egyptian military. He looks at the various measures that have been taken, but cautions that it is too early to conclude that “Wilayet Sinai”  is close to being finally defeated. However, he argues that such a defeat, if achieved, would be a major blow to ISIS globally, and calls on international players, including Israel, to try to find new ways to do more to support Egypt’s efforts against ISIS in Sinai. For Schweitzer’s complete argument, CLICK HERE. More details on the blows that the Egyptian military has landed against “Wilayet Sinai”  recently come from Avi Issacharoff of the Times of Israel.

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Article 1

Turkish Offensive on Islamic State in Syria Caught U.S. Off Guard


Behind scenes, coordination between Washington and Ankara broke down at senior levels, according to officials

When Turkish ground forces delivered a lightning strike on Islamic State fighters in Syria last week, the Pentagon hailed what it described as close U.S.-Turkish coordination.

But behind the scenes, cooperation between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners broke down at senior levels, according to officials on both sides. The two countries weren’t as aligned on the operation as their public statements indicated.

While the White House was preparing to consider a secret plan to have American special forces join the Turks, Ankara pulled the trigger on the mission unilaterally without giving officials in Washington advance warning. When clashes started between Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters—who are directly backed by U.S. Special Forces—the Pentagon issued unusually blunt calls for both to stand down.

U.S. officials say the Turks’ decision undercut a behind-the-scenes effort to clear rival Syrian Kurdish elements out of the conflict zone first and created a prickly, new challenge for the U.S. as two of its most important partners in the campaign fight each other instead of Islamic State. The breakdown in coordination adds a new layer of tensions between Washington and Ankara on top of those sparked by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown since the July coup attempt in Turkey.

Officials in Washington said they warned their Turkish military counterparts Monday that the U.S. won’t provide air support to Turkish forces pushing southward, deeper into Syrian territory. The U.S. will continue to provide air support to Turkish forces moving westward, into the border area threatened by Islamic State.

Likewise, U.S. officials told the Kurds that U.S. air support hinged on their forces moving east of the Euphrates River and on advancing south toward Islamic State’s self-declared capital, Raqqa, to ensure they wouldn’t come into conflict with the Turks, according to the officials. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Monday that the Kurdish forces had begun to move eastward, easing the friction between the two sides.

Turkey has long accused the main Syrian Kurdish militia of being an extension of the Kurdish separatist group that uses car bombs and suicide attacks in Turkey as part of a fight of more than three decades for more rights and autonomy.

A reconstruction of events leading up to Turkey’s ground intervention, based on interviews with U.S. and Turkish officials and Syrian rebels involved in the offensive, shows discussions between the U.S. and Turkey over a joint operation along the Turkish-Syrian border date back to the spring of 2015.

Under the original Turkish proposal, which Mr. Erdogan discussed with his top generals in June 2015, his government would have sent as many as 2,000 troops across the border. Turkish officials were so convinced of the political will to launch the operation that they had drafted news releases announcing the military decision.

In addition to Turkish forces, Ankara wanted the Obama administration to commit to sending in U.S. commandos, but the White House was cool to the idea, according to U.S. officials. Instead of using foreign ground forces, the U.S. and Turkey agreed to use air power and artillery to support thousands of Syrian rebel fighters who would move in to clear a 60-mile stretch of the border.

Turkey shared the names of the Sunni rebel units that it wanted to spearhead the ground operation, allowing U.S. intelligence agencies to vet them for any possible terrorist ties. One of the largest groups on Turkey’s wish list for the operation—Ahrar al-Sham—was rejected by the Americans as too extreme.

Civil and military authorities on Monday inspected the construction of a border wall between Turkey and Syria near the Suruc, which borders with the northern Syrian town of Kobani.
Civil and military authorities on Monday inspected the construction of a border wall between Turkey and Syria near the Suruc, which borders with the northern Syrian town of Kobani. Photo: Kadir Celikcan/Reuters

But talks between the U.S. and Turkey over the joint operation bogged down last summer as Pentagon leaders and some Turkish generals raised doubts that Ankara would be able to mobilize enough rebels to carry out the proposed mission.

The proposed operation was shelved as unfeasible when Russia intervened in Syria last year to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially after a Turkish jet shot down a Russian warplane on the Turkey-Syria border. Many of the Turkish-backed rebel groups were too busy trying to fend off Mr. Assad’s resurgent forces in Aleppo to join Turkey on another front against Islamic State.

Talks renewed in the winter during a short-lived cease-fire. Then, in March, Turkey provided the U.S. with a list of 1,800 Syrian rebel fighters it had identified to lead the operation, a senior Turkish official said.

July’s attempted military coup against Mr. Erdogan ratcheted up tensions with the U.S. But top military officials on both sides said they didn’t want to let the discord affect cooperation against Islamic State.

After Mr. Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Aug. 9, Turkey sent a high-level military delegation to Russia to discuss its planned operation into Syria. The Russians assured Turkish officials that Moscow wouldn’t target Ankara’s forces if Turkey moved across the border, according to senior Turkish officials.

Turkey’s plans progressed after Aug. 13, when Kurdish-led forces backed by U.S. commandos seized control of the Syrian town of Manbij, which sat on Islamic State’s strategic supply route between Raqqa and the Turkish border.

That next week, alarm bells sounded in Ankara and Washington when some of those Kurdish units started to push north toward the Turkish border. Turkey had agreed to the U.S.-backed operation to liberate Manbij from Islamic State after receiving assurances from Washington that the Syrian Kurdish forces spearheading the fight would leave the largely Arab town once the jihadist group was defeated and move back to the east side of the Euphrates.

By Aug 17, Turkey was calling in Syrian rebel militias who were part of the battle plan, according to people familiar with the matter. Turkish security forces began transporting those friendly fighters to staging grounds along the Turkish border.

At the same time, Kurdish elements were taking more villages around Manbij, and not retreating as they had promised the U.S. Some Kurdish leaders also indicated that their next military objective would be Jarablus, a Syrian town on the Turkish border, instead of Raqqa. U.S. officials said the main Kurdish forces they backed never threatened to go to Jarablus.

By Aug. 20, Turkey had a new reason to launch its attack: A suspected Islamic State bomber targeted a wedding celebration in Gaziantep, a city of about two million near the Syrian border. At least 54 people were killed.

Turkish and American officials said the Turkish military wanted to look decisive and to show loyalty to Mr. Erdogan, particularly after the coup.

With their Syrian rebel allies massing, the Turkish military briefed their American counterparts based in Turkey on their plans.

They asked for a contingent of U.S. Special Operations forces to enter Jarablus alongside Turkish commandos, according to U.S. and Turkish officials. U.S. commandos would help call in airstrikes and coordinate with rebel fighters on the ground.

Pentagon leaders backed the plan, which called for deploying at least 40 U.S. commandos. Then, early last week, they began talks with the White House about the proposed joint ground operation.

The Pentagon was looking for a speedy answer. Instead, the White House—cautious about putting American troops on another front inside Syria—told the Pentagon that it wanted certain questions answered before proceeding. Specifically, the White House wanted to know how Special Operations forces would be protected given the presence of al Qaeda-linked fighters in the area, officials said.

Military officials said the White House’s request for more information amounted to a rejection of the plan because they knew the Turks wanted to move quickly.

As White House officials awaited answers to their questions, the Pentagon pressed Ankara to give U.S. deliberations more time. Meanwhile, U.S. officials were trying to get Kurdish forces to leave areas where Turkish forces would deploy.

Late on Aug. 23, the White House told the Pentagon that it was prepared to convene a high-level meeting the next day to consider the Pentagon’s proposal to insert U.S. Special Operations forces as part of the Turkish operation.

But overnight, Turkey launched its offensive without giving officials in Washington advanced warning. The proposal never reached President Barack Obama’s desk, according to a senior administration official.

While Turkey publicly cast the campaign as a joint operation with the U.S.-led military coalition, the first airstrikes carried out by Turkish jets on Jarablus were done unilaterally, not under the coalition umbrella.

Turkish aircraft fired from Turkish airspace, not Syria’s, according to U.S. officials.

When U.S. military commanders in the region realized that Turkish forces had launched their operation without the Americans, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, Gen. Joe Votel, used existing authorities to have U.S. forces in the region provide the Turks with limited air support via drones, F-16s and A-10s.

Instead of participating at the front line, U.S. Special Operations forces took up positions on Turkish soil overlooking Jarablus to try to help direct U.S. strikes from the sidelines. But officials said the commandos could do little from the distance.

The battle for Jarablus, which U.S. officials thought would take days or even weeks, was over within hours as Islamic State militants pulled back without putting up much of a fight.

Turkish officials seized on the quickness of their victory as evidence that the Americans were wrong to doubt their capabilities. “Obviously, the liberation of Jarablus by the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army is proof that our troops were always up to the task,” a senior Turkish official said.

U.S. officials acknowledge that they misjudged Islamic State’s determination to hold that town. But they say they are more worried now about the danger that a NATO ally could get bogged down in Syria and inadvertently take pressure off Islamic State.


Article 2

The Turkish adventure in Syria


Eyal Zisser

Israel Hayom, August 28, 2016

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took time off from the mayhem in his country and his campaign of political payback for the failed coup against him nearly a month ago, by sending his army into neighboring Syria. Thus, simultaneous to rapprochement efforts with Russia and Israel, Erdogan chose to open a new-old front against his enemies in Syria.

The military operation was code-named “Euphrates Shield” and is intended, according to Erdogan and his cohort, to hit the Islamic State group, which has recently carried out a string of devastating terrorist attacks on Turkish soil. In the most recent of these attacks, about one week ago in the city of Gaziantep in the country’s south, a 13-year-old suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of a wedding party and killed dozens of people. It is good that Islamic State exists, to provide justification for military intervention in Syria.

To be sure, the Russians and Iranians also announced they were sending troops to Syria to fight ISIS, but actually they are fighting the moderate rebel groups posing a threat to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad while largely ignoring Islamic State.

Islamic State is indeed a growing nuisance for the Turks, but in the Syrian arena, they see the Kurds as the real threat. For their part, the Kurds are slowly establishing, with the help of Washington and with Russia turning a blind eye, true autonomy in northern and eastern Syria. This burgeoning autonomy has also aroused nationalistic feelings among the Kurds, which Ankara fears could spill over to the Kurdish minority in Turkey itself. After all, the Turkish army is mired in an escalating conflict with the Kurdish underground, the PKK, with which the majority of Kurdish forces active in Syria are affiliated.

Erdogan, it appears, believes the best way to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state in Syria is by military intervention and perhaps ongoing occupation on Syrian soil. It is the only way the large superpowers will take him into account when they set out to formulate a long-term resolution to the crisis in Syria. And it is the only way to get the Americans — who support, train and arm the Kurds to fight Islamic State (which the Turks have thus far avoided doing) — to limit the scope of Kurdish activity inside Syria. Indeed, the Kurds, lacking a better alternative, are being made to swallow this bitter pill. They are dependent on the good graces of Washington, which needs the Turks.

The Turkish military operation is targeting the town of Jarablus, from where Islamic State has dispatched suicide bombers to wreak havoc across Turkey. The town is important, however, because it is a meeting point between the Kurdish-held lands in eastern and northern Syria. With the help of his tanks, Erdogan hopes to stop the Kurds from conjoining these two swathes of territory in an effort to establish an autonomous region, and perhaps, down the road, even from declaring an independent state there. From this area, Erdogan can also influence events in Aleppo, where the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah are engaged in all-out war against the Syrian rebels, who for the time being, against all odds, have managed to withstand the onslaught.

Yet, all things considered, the Turkish campaign is limited in scope. It comprises several hundred troops and a few dozen armored vehicles. To be sure, the Turks, and Erdogan in particular, talk a lot — as was the case with Israel — but they are aware of their limitations and have exhibited considerable caution at every step. After all, they also want to avoid sinking in the Syrian quagmire.

Turkey has joined the game in Syria, but has essentially been aiding the rebels there for quite some time already. However, following Turkey’s intervention, a beneficiary has clearly emerged from among all the players, along with clear losers.

The big winner is of course Assad, who is still securely in power and enjoying the fact that his adversaries are fighting among themselves. The losers, meanwhile, include Omran Daqneesh, the 5-year-old Syrian boy who was photographed covered in dust, bloodied and in shock after an airstrike, likely Russian, turned his home into rubble and killed his older brother. For one short moment, the image appalled the entire world. He and others like him are paying the price for Assad’s continued power, for the prestige of Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, and for the failures and utter helplessness of the Obama administration.


Article 3

The Weakening of Wilayat Sinai

Yoram Schweitzer
INSS Insight No. 851, August 31, 2016
Wilayat Sinai, an organization identified with the Islamic State, has recently suffered a series of serious blows from the Egyptian army. Most prominent among them was the air strike in early August 2016 that killed dozens of senior commanders, launched as part of a targeted campaign against terrorism in Egypt in general, and in Sinai in particular. Yet despite the significant decrease in the effectiveness of the organization’s operations over the past few months, it is too early to state that Egypt is on the verge of defeating Wilayat Sinai and removing the danger it poses to the security of Sinai and Egypt as a whole. The defeat of Wilayat Sinai could contribute greatly to the overall fight against the Islamic State and its image among Muslim populations. Therefore, supporting Egypt in its efforts to eliminate the organization is of the utmost importance. In this framework, and subject to Egypt’s consent, Wilayat Sinai should be included among the groups targeted by the international coalition, which is gaining momentum in its war against the Islamic State and its allies in Libya, Iraq, and Syria.
Wilayat Sinai, an organization identified with the Islamic State, has recently suffered a series of serious blows from the Egyptian army. Most prominent among them was the air strike in early August 2016 that killed dozens of senior commanders, launched as part of a targeted campaign against terrorism in Egypt in general, and in Sinai in particular. The recent decline in the intensity of Wilayat Sinai’s attacks against the Egyptian army, alongside a drop in its media activity and propaganda systems, may point to cumulative damage to the organization and a decline in its strength. The weakening of the organization, which was considered one of the most dangerous of the Islamic State’s allies, has diminished its glamour in the eyes of its patron. Nonetheless, it is too early to conclude that a terrorist organization whose power rests mainly on the resentment of an alienated population that feels economically and socially disenfranchised and lives far from the grip of an effective central government – i.e., the Egyptian regime in Cairo – will not survive the intensive attack against it and regain the ability to continue its high profile terrorist activity.
The organization Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, later renamed Wilayat Sinai, was established in Sinai in late 2011 as a local branch identified with al-Qaeda, and developed over the years into an organization with impressive capabilities in terrorist and guerilla activity, able to launch complex showcase lethal military attacks with a variety of modes of operation. Over the five years of its existence, the organization launched numerous strikes against the Egyptian regime, primarily in the Sinai Peninsula but in mainland Egypt as well. Attacks over the years included operations against energy and infrastructure targets in Sinai, which disrupted the flow of gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, as well as attacks on police stations and military bases and outposts that led to the deaths of many dozens of Egyptian soldiers and police. The organization has also targeted Israel: in 2011, it undertook a terrorist attack on Highway 12 near Eilat, which caused the death of eight Israelis, six of them civilians; it was responsible for the attempt to blow up an APC full of explosives in the vicinity of Kerem Shalom in 2012; it sent a suicide attacker whose plot was foiled by the Egyptians during Operation Protective Edge (2014); and it launched a rocket toward Eilat in 2015.
After the unification with the Islamic State, Wilayat Sinai became one of its most prominent and dangerous partners. Reports by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy show that since the unification of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis with the Islamic State and the assumption of its new role as the “Sinai Province” in November 2014, some 800 people have been killed by its operations, more than half of them security personnel. The Egyptian group’s most significant action was in October 2015, when one of its members succeeded in bringing down a Russian passenger plane using a bomb that its members planted in the belly of the aircraft, which took off from the Sharm el-Sheikh airport. This attack caused the death of all 224 passengers and crew. 

 Egyptian security forces in the Sinai, in July 2013. (Mohamed El-Sherbeny/AFP)

The Egyptian army and security forces in Sinai have taken action against the organization, killing many of its commanders and combatants in a series of targeted operations carried out from time to time. However, it appears that only in the past few months has Egypt had significant success in its military campaign against the organization and caused significant evident damage to its ranks. Within this framework, there were reports of an air strike on the organization’s bases in Jabel Hilal a few months ago, and more recently in the area southwest of el-Arish in northern Sinai that killed 45 of the organization’s members, including the man considered its commander, Abu Duaa al-Ansari. Even though the organization still carries out almost daily attacks on army and police posts in the areas of el-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah, and continues to kill and injure soldiers and commanders, it seems that there has been a decline in the complexity of the attacks, which in the past were well planned and caused heavy losses. A large number of fighters participated in these attacks, and combined suicide attacks with massive missile fire against army bases and police stations, including with advanced Kornet anti-tank missiles. In contrast, the organization’s recent operations have been more limited, consisting of ambushes, light arms fire, and use of IEDs. 

It also seems that effective Egyptian operations against Hamas’ tunnels built on the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, which served as a central corridor for Wilayat Sinai’s smuggling of weapons and activists for training, refuge, and medical care, are hampering its operations. Egyptian political pressure on Hamas’ leadership to cease these ties has also had an effect: the Hamas leadership has recently been very cautious about these ties, though they have not been `severed.  

The Islamic State, facing a powerful attack by the Western-Arab coalition and the Russian-Iranian alliance, is likewise in a process of retreat while suffering a loss of territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. In turn, it is less able to aid the organization in Sinai and its partners among the Salafist-jihadi organizations in Gaza. The decline in Wilayat Sinai’s successes, and the fact that it is currently not demonstrating its strengths as a significant player in the Sinai region and Egypt in general, may also lead to the decline in its prestige in Islamic State eyes. 

In tandem, over the past year Wilayat Sinai has increased the intensity of its threats against Israel. In October 2015, January 2016, and most recently in August 2016, the organization’s spokesmen have promised that they will act against Israel and that the organization retains its promise to work toward the liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque. In a video on August 2, 2016, the organization promised Israel that “we have a long-standing account with you, and you will soon pay the price.” In the same video, Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi promised not to forget Jerusalem and threatened the Jews that “your land will not be yours for long, it will be your graveyard.” The implication is that Wilayat Sinai sees Israel as a partner in the Egyptian campaign against it, and hence its drive to take revenge against Israel. Wilayat Sinai’s increased threats may reflect the goal to deter Israel from continuing to support the Egyptian operations. In addition, the organization also seems interested in proving to its patron, the Islamic State, the advantages of the partnership, in the hope of receiving active assistance. It also believes that attacking Israel could earn it the broad support of Muslims around the world who identify with the resistance to Israel, and lament the fact that Israel has not sustained losses inflicted by the Islamic State and its allies. 

An image taken from a video clip released by the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State group on August 1, 2016. (MEMRI)

It is clear, however, that Wilayat Sinai’s main efforts remain focused on the Egyptian army, security forces, and police in Sinai. It continues its efforts to carry out terrorist attacks in Egyptian cities, especially in the Cairo area, the Delta, and the Suez Canal. Despite the significant decrease in the effectiveness of its operations over the past few months, it is too early to state that Egypt is on the verge of defeating Wilayat Sinai and removing the danger it poses to the security of Sinai and Egypt as a whole. Egypt must continue to deal with the popular base of support for the organization, through massive investment in building an economic infrastructure in Sinai and in improving the welfare of the local civilian population that has been neglected for many years – in the hope that this too will aid in preventing terrorism.

The defeat of Wilayat Sinai could contribute greatly to the overall fight against the Islamic State and its image among Muslim populations. Therefore, supporting Egypt in its efforts to eliminate the organization is of the utmost importance. In this framework, and subject to Egypt’s consent, Wilayat Sinai should be included among the groups targeted by the international coalition, which is gaining momentum in its war against the Islamic State and its allies in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. Israel can join in these efforts and thus contribute to the international campaign against terrorism, while making its southern border with Sinai and Gaza more secure. Steps in these directions are important, since despite the apparent recent weakening of Wilayat Sinai, the organization clearly has no intention of relinquishing its efforts, and intends to continue its terrorist activity, including against Israel.
 Thanks go to Aviad Mendelboim and Nurit Yohanan for their help in preparing this article.

Yoram Schweitzer, an expert on international terrorism and head of the INSS Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University.