October 10, 2023

IntelBrief: The Fog of War Envelopes Syria

AP Photo/Abdelrahman Shaheen

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The U.S. shootdown of a Turkish armed drone in northeastern Syria demonstrates the potential for unintended conflict when so many actors are operating militarily in one space.
  • Türkiye and the United States continue to differ on the prominent role that Kurds play in the U.S.-led effort to suppress Islamic State forces in both Syria and Iraq.
  • Russia’s continued struggles with its faltering war in Ukraine are creating space for external actors to pursue their separate agendas in Syria.
  • A lethal armed drone strike on a Syrian military academy illustrates that the Assad regime, contrary to its pronouncements, has not pacified the country or set the stage for reconstruction.

On October 5, perceiving a potential threat to U.S. forces in Syria, U.S. F-16s shot down an armed Turkish drone that was striking Kurdish forces near the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah. Describing the rationale for what they called a “regrettable” incident, U.S. military officials said the Turkish drone had been observed striking targets within a declared “restricted operating zone” – to which Türkiye had been notified - by U.S. commanders. While adding that the Turkish drone did not appear to intend to strike any U.S. forces, U.S. officials stated that the weapon’s proximity to U.S. forces caused them to “relocate to bunkers.” The United States maintains 900 troops in eastern Syria, where they work with Kurdish-dominated militia partners known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to combat remnants of Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Da’esh). The Kurdish forces partnering with the U.S. military in eastern Syria are largely from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Türkiye considers an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has conducted periodic terrorist attacks on the Turkish government and other targets since 1984. It claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the Turkish Ministry of Interior building in Ankara on October 1, wounding two Turkish security officers and resulting in the deaths of two suspects – one a suicide bomber and the other a gunman killed in a shootout with police.

The downed Turkish armed drone was part of Türkiye’s retaliatory operations for the Ankara attack. Claiming that the Ankara attackers entered Türkiye from Syria, Turkish security authorities immediately began conducting armed drone strikes on YPG targets there. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan stated that: "All infrastructure, superstructure and energy facilities that belong to the PKK and the YPG, especially in Iraq and Syria, are legitimate targets of our security forces, armed forces and intelligence units from now on." The Turkish drone attacks on the U.S.’s Kurdish allies inside Syria put Ankara in direct opposition to U.S. policy. Some experts interpreted the U.S. shootdown of the Turkish drone as an indirect message to Turkish leaders not to attack, or even continue to threaten, the Syrian Kurdish partners of the United States. Following a familiar pattern, as part of its retaliation, Türkiye also struck PKK bases in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. In Iraq, approximately 2,500 U.S. forces are deployed to support both central government forces controlled by Baghdad as well as Kurdish peshmerga fighters in their combat against remnants of Islamic State that still operate in remote locations inside Iraq. However, few U.S. personnel are based in northern Iraq and Turkish strikes there do not risk striking any U.S. facilities or personnel.

Acknowledging that the drone downing represented an unprecedented clash between two NATO allies, U.S. officials immediately sought to downplay strains between Washington and Ankara. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a call with his Turkish counterpart, “acknowledged Türkiye's legitimate security concerns and underscored the importance of close coordination between the United States and Türkiye to prevent any risks to U.S. forces or the global coalition's Defeat ISIS mission.” U.S. officials also noted that the United States has designated the PKK as a terrorist organization, although Washington asserts that the Syrian Kurds who work with U.S. forces have no connection to that group. Yet, Ankara continued to conduct strikes on Kurdish militia positions inside Syria even after the high-level damage control contacts between Ankara and Washington.

The shootdown incident also exposed several cross-cutting trends and dangers inherent in the number of outside and domestic actors fielding sophisticated weaponry inside Syria. The regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad holds power in Damascus, but it depends on outside support from Russia and Iran, both of which have deployed military forces to Syria to assist the beleaguered Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Yet, Russian forces are consumed in a faltering war effort in Ukraine and have redeployed some forces and combat aircraft from their pro-Assad mission in Syria. The drawdown has weakened the Assad regime and perhaps emboldened the anti-Assad opposition as well as outside actors to pursue their separate agendas more vigorously. Israel, for example, has been freer to strike Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria than the Israelis were able to do when Russian forces were more focused on their Assad support mission. Given the Hamas attacks in Israel over the weekend, Israel may very well step up targeting Iranian-backed groups operating on Syrian soil in the coming weeks. The U.S. military mission in Syria is formally directed against ISIS, but is widely known as performing the additional task of limiting Iranian influence in Syria and deterring Iran from using Syrian overland routes to arm Lebanese Hezbollah.

Demonstrating the degree to which the Russian drawdown in Syria might have energized the anti-Assad opposition, an armed drone attacked a military academy graduation ceremony in the central province of Homs on October 5, reportedly killing more than 100 cadets and family members. The strike hit the site minutes after Syria’s defense minister left the event, suggesting that the attackers had precise intelligence about the timing and attendance of the ceremony. No group claimed responsibility, leaving experts to speculate about the perpetrators. Turkish operations inside Syria target Syrian Kurds and Türkiye’s leaders have been expanding ties with the Assad regime in recent years. Israel confines its strikes to Iranian and pro-Iranian targets. Further, U.S. policy – and thus the actions of U.S. forces – is to oppose the Assad regime through diplomatic and economic – but not military – means. Suspicion immediately turned to ISIS as well as the Islamist and secular opposition – any of which could have been provided with armed drones sufficiently sophisticated to carry out the attack on the ceremony. ISIS probably has more experience using armed drones than do other Assad regime opponents. Yet, the secular and Islamist opposition, although largely confined to the northern province of Idlib, are more likely to have had contacts inside the regime to acquire precise information about the attendance and timing of the ceremony. The Assad regime responded to the attack by bombing opposition enclaves in Idlib, suggesting it blamed – or saw an interest in blaming – the mainstream opposition for the assault.

No matter the perpetrators of the Homs attack, the incident contradicts the narrative advanced by the Assad regime and his outside supporters that the Syrian government has succeeded in defeating its opponents and pacifying the bulk of the country. The strike on the ceremony came after months of anti-government demonstrations and attacks on government facilities in the southern province of Sweida. The Homs assault also undermines the Assad regime's assertions that its return to the Arab League and normalization of relations with many of the Arab states will augur in a period of substantial reconstruction of the country and its economy. Rather, the strike on Homs shows the degree to which the decline of Russia’s presence and operational tempo inside Syria has emboldened not only other outside powers but also domestic actors to expand their operations and pursue their own agendas inside Syria.