Editor's Note: Stratfor closely monitors conflict zones from a geopolitical perspective. What is perhaps the most volatile conflict today can be found in the territories of Iraq and Syria that are controlled by the Islamic State. Though these areas are cartographically distinct, they are functionally linked: Sunni tribal structures, rebel operations, Kurdish interests, external influences and the suzerainty of the Islamic State bind them together as a single, coherent theater.
The Islamic State capitalized on the chaos of the Syrian civil war and the inadequacy of Iraqi security forces to take over a large swath of the Middle East. After making some impressive gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Mosul, the Islamic State now finds itself in an increasingly difficult position, against which a wide array of opponents are aligned. Nonetheless, the group is uniquely resilient and, as such, remains extremely dangerous and unpredictable.
In addition to examining the combatants inside the Syria-Iraq battlespace, Stratfor also tracks the political machinations, negotiations and goals of outside the battlespace, including Iran, Russia, the Gulf monarchies and the United States. For the first time, in one place, Stratfor is providing routine updates covering the gains, losses and extent of the Islamic State's so-called caliphate.
Russia Boosts Its Negotiating Power in Syria: Sept. 22
A new batch of U.S.-backed New Syrian Force fighters entered Syria over the weekend, according to rebels from the Free Syrian Army. Comprising 75 fighters, the new force entered Aleppo province between the night of Sept. 18 and the morning of Sept. 19. Given the failure of the last batch of fighters inserted into Syria, the United States has been careful to place this group under close air support and to direct them toward friendly Free Syrian Army positions for mutual support against other jihadist rebel outfits.
The entry of the new fighters highlights the complications that Russia's involvement in the conflict pose for the United States and its allies. As Russia's military buildup in Syria continues, the United States has publicly expressed alarm at the possibility that Russia-supported Syrian loyalists could clash with U.S.-backed rebel groups. Indeed, Moscow has rightfully judged that direct Russian intervention in Syria will help break Russia out of isolation and will force Washington to begin direct military-to-military talks with the Russians on Syria.
Greater Russian involvement in Syria will also help Moscow push the negotiations toward a solution more amenable to its interests and to those of its allies. What is unclear, however, is the extent to which Russia would involve itself in a messy and potentially protracted conflict in Syria, where mission creep is a significant risk. To an extent, the degree to which Russia devotes resources and manpower to Syria depends on the evolving military landscape of the conflict. For instance, Russia will probably maintain a certain degree of flexibility to enable it to scale up its commitment in case reversals on the battlefield place a dangerous level of stress on its Syrian allies.
But what is already apparent is that, with the possible exception of Iran, Russia has demonstrated more of a willingness to step into the Syrian conflict than has any other state actor. Recent footage from Syria shows a significant number of Russian troops being directly embedded with Syrian units, including in their armored forces. Satellite imagery also indicates a rapidly growing Russian aerial component in Syria.
Efforts to resolve the conflict continue, but negotiating a solution is impossible without the buy-in of the groups fighting. This is what makes it significant that 20 rebel groups reached a unified position on negotiations through talks mediated by the Syrian Islamic Council in Turkey on Sept. 18. Labeled the "Five Principles of the Syrian Revolution" and signed by rebel outfits such as Jaish al-Islam and the Levantine Front, the consensus maintains a rather extreme position. It calls for the overthrow of core members of the Syrian government, dismantlement of government agencies and a rejection of sectarian power-sharing agreements. However, the document also signals a willingness to move toward a negotiated solution.
Russia Complicates the Syrian Conflict: Sept. 16
Russia continues to build up its presence in Syria as the country's conflict drags on. T-90 main battle tanks, self-propelled howitzers, R-166-0.5 communication vehicles and expanded infrastructure have been spotted in Latakia's Bassel al Assad International Airport, confirming Russian activity in the area. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have informed Bloomberg that the Russians plan to deploy MiG-31 interceptors and Su-25 attack aircraft to the airport. Reuters, citing its own U.S. official sources, has reported that Moscow also plans to send SA-22 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria to provide air defense cover to Russian forces in the country.
The presence of a substantial Russian military force is already notably influencing the Syrian conflict. Some rebel fighters have made bombastic threats about shelling the Latakia air base where Russian troops are stationed, but even they understand that it will now be exceedingly difficult to retake core territories held by the Syrian government while Russian soldiers are there. For instance, Jaish al-Fatah has discarded its plans to push into Latakia province as it concludes operations in Idlib. Instead, rebels have turned to the far more practical approach of launching an offensive against Hama.
Russia's ramped up efforts in Syria have also significantly expanded loyalist forces' supply lines. Russian An-124 transport aircraft and landing ships from the Black Sea Fleet continue to deliver equipment and weaponry to Syria, most of it destined for Syrian government troops, not Russian. For example, growing numbers of BTR-80 and Tigr vehicles operated by loyalist forces can be seen in footage from the conflict. Pictures of BTR-80 vehicles in Zabadani have also emerged over the past two days, raising the possibility that even Hezbollah may be using some of the new Russian equipment.
The potential deployment of Russian aircraft to Syria greatly complicates the U.S.-led coalition's air campaign in the conflict as well. Establishing deconfliction procedures, already a complex process of avoiding interference among allied forces, becomes all the more difficult with the introduction of non-allied aircraft. In fact, at this point there is no guarantee that coalition and Russian aircraft will even be willing to communicate with each other to set up such procedures. Coalition aircraft may find themselves providing close air support to New Syrian Forces embedded with a Free Syrian Army unit that Russian aircraft are targeting. While a direct clash between coalition and Russian aircraft is highly unlikely, an active Russian air presence in the region would only muddle the battlefield in Syria's airspace more. Subsequently, it is unsurprising that reports from the rebel Shamiya Front, though currently unconfirmed, suggest that Turkey has abandoned its efforts to persuade the United States to participate in a no-fly zone over northern Aleppo.
Perhaps the most notable reports are those hinting that Russia may be actively assisting the Syrian government in its counterattacks. Stratfor has already noted the presence of Russian-speaking personnel within Syrian units in the Latakia Mountains. But the latest reports indicate that the Russians plan to participate in a large counteroffensive into the Sahl al-Ghab region spearheaded by the Syrian government's 4th Armored Division. There, the battle has raged for several months, and a convoy of 15 buses carrying Russian soldiers has been spotted heading into Hama city from the direction that the offensive is thought to have been coordinated. However, the Russian troops could be in Hama for several reasons other than the projected loyalist counteroffensive.
As Stratfor has previously noted too, Russia's primary motive for building up its presence in Syria is likely to bolster loyalist forces as it negotiates a solution to the conflict that safeguards its interests. Still, the conflict's continuation is more likely than a negotiated resolution, at least in the short-to-medium term. Therefore, Russian forces will likely continue to complicate U.S., Turkish, Israeli and Gulf Cooperation Council actions in Syria. It will also put Russian troops closer to an active battlefield where opposing rebel forces are using lethal weapons at least partially supplied by the United States, Turkey and Arab countries — a situation that has not been seen since the Soviet-Afghan War. It is possible that some of these countries, especially the Gulf states and Turkey, will try to boost their support for the rebels to compensate for the growing Russian and Iranian aid to the Syrian government. Such measures will only further exacerbate the civil war and proxy battles taking place in Syria, even as negotiators continue to seek a solution to the increasingly complex conflict.