The United States is withdrawing its troops from Kurdish controlled northeast Syria by March, at least that is the current plan. The 2,000 troops consist of air controllers, Special Forces and a rotating number of other combat troops (like the battery of marine artillery that fired thousands of guided shells during the battle for Raqqa). The Americans provide air and artillery support for the SDF (Syrian Kurd rebels) as well as commando trainers and a crucial link to the American government. The SDF has about 60,000 armed personnel in the northeast, most of them Kurds. But over half of those Kurdish fighters belong to the Kurdish separatist YPG. This group, like the PKK in Turkey, PKAK in Iran and the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq all want the Kurds united into a Kurdish state. Kurds have wanted this for over a thousand years but have never been able to unite and take territory away from the two local superpowers (the Turks and Iranians). While the Turks and Iranians have always been independent (and usually empires) the Arabs in the region have only been independent since the 1920s and before that were ruled Turks (usually) and Iranians (occasionally) for over 500 years. The Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran have been kept down, often with force, for centuries. This is one of the few things Turkey and Iran agree on.
Turkey has been firing on SDF forces near the Turkish border for over a year. Their intention is to keep the YPG forces on the border from trying to get into Turkey or attack Turkish border forces. The Americans were not able to get the Turks to stop this but were able to discourage the Turks from advancing into SDF territory. The Turks say they are firing on the YPG faction of SDF. While SDF is largely Kurd most of the Syrian Kurds have not been active supporters of Kurdish separatism, at least not while their very existence was threatened by ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Syrian Kurds in YPG are active separatists and the Turks consider them a branch of the larger PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) and there is some truth to that because before the civil war started in 2011 the Assads supported any Islamic or Kurdish terrorist groups that would carry out attacks against the Turks and not reveal the support (often just sanctuary) they received from Syria. The Turks were well informed about this Assad policy and would occasionally move troops to the border and threaten to invade unless the Assads reduced their support for anti-Turk groups. That would work until it didn’t. The Turks have been at war with the PKK since the 1980s. The U.S. and Turkey disagree about the YPG and that may have more with Turkish politics than anything else. After 2011 growing PKK violence inside Turkey was seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK and in mid-2015 that led to a resumption of open warfare between the Turks and PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along, at least not with any enthusiasm. For a while, many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. So far the more radical YPG factions appear to be kept in check by the need for American aid. The U.S. has lots of Special Forces troops who speak Kurdish, understand the culture and have years of experience working with the Kurds. Thus it is difficult for the YPG radicals to violate the deal YPG has with the Americans and keep it secret.
With the Americans gone the SDF is more vulnerable to attack by the Turks (security forces regularly confront and defeat PKK forces in Turkey and northern Iraq) and Syrians (mainly using their Iranian mercenaries who are more of a threat to the SDF than the usual Syrian Arab troops). The Syrians are particularly keen on getting back the Syrian oil fields, which the SDF currently control. Syrian oil production was never great (about 340,000 barrels a day at most) but it was a major national asset and about 40 percent of that oil was exported for hard currency. Before the war began in 2011 that came to $4 billion a year. For a relatively poor nation like Syria, that was a serious amount of money. Any conflict is easier to understand if you follow the money.
With the Americans leaving the SDF is shifting its forces to face the Turks who are, and always have been, their most formidable threat. Ominously the Turks have also reinforced their forces facing the SDF. But figuring out who might attack, or support, the SDF now is not easy.
The Turks do not want to fight the SDF for the very simple reason that there is not much popular support in Turkey for any operation that would get a lot of Turkish troops killed in Syria. For that reason, since the Turks crossed the border into Syrian in 2016 they have used local FSA (secular Free Syrian Army rebels) forces to do most of the fighting. What the Turks do want is to get the Kurds, especially YPG forces, away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 20 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy. Turkey expects to use over 10,000 FSA fighters against the Kurds, along with Turkish tanks, artillery and air power.
Likewise, the Syrians use Iranian mercenaries (many of the Afghan Shias) for the heavy combat. The Syrian Army was never noted for its combat capabilities and after seven years of civil war there are few Syrian combat units with much ability or willingness to carry out a successful offensive.
The Russians don’t have sufficient ground troops to carry out a large-scale offensive and the most effective Russian ground troops are Russian mercenaries because Russian popular opinion is very hostile to Russian troops getting killed in foreign wars. Iraqi officials openly discussed sending Iraqi troops into Syria but the Iraqis have an even worse reputation for combat effectiveness than the Syrians. There was talk of the Saudis and UAE replacing the Americans in Syria. Possible in theory but not likely in practice. The Saudis are more concerned with the Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia itself.
That leaves Israel, which is focused on Iranian forces in Syria and Lebanon and continuing Iranian public backing for the destruction of Israel. Armed with the most formidable air force and special operations troops in the region Israel is currently allied with the Gulf Arab states being threatened by Iran.
The Americans are long-time allies of Israel and Saudi Arabia (and most other Gulf Arabs) but the American government has no popular support back home for getting into another Middle Eastern war. The American troops were in Syria to help the Kurds defeat ISIL and other Islamic terrorist threats. That is one thing most everyone in Syria (Turks, Russians, Iranians and most Syrians) can agree on. With the Americans gone, there are few factions in Syria who do not want to see all the Islamic terrorists eliminated. There are some ISIL remnants still active in eastern Syria which everyone has been allowing the American backed SDF deal with. In northwest Syria, the remaining non-ISIL Islamic terrorists are trapped in Idlib province and the Turks, Syrians, Iranians and Russians are still debating how to eliminate that lethal (if attacked or left alone) collection of over 20,000 Islamic terrorists (including some ISIL members).
With all this, the Syrians are willing to discuss some sort of autonomy deal for the SDF led Kurds in the northeast. All Syrians agree the Turks should be kept out as much as possible. All factions in Syria agree that Iran is a serious problem what with the Iranian goal of trying to destroy Israel the most militarily effective nation in the region and the only one with nukes. No one wants to be collateral damage if Iran makes a major attack on Israel.
The War On Israel
Israeli military leaders believe they are winning their battle to keep Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria, even with American troops leaving northeast Syria. This Israeli goal has been achieved via a combination of force (air and artillery strikes on Iranian bases and personnel in Syria) and diplomacy (convincing Russia to persuade Iran to keep their forces away from the Israel border or suffer Israeli attacks the Russians will not interfere with). Other diplomatic activities involved the Americans and Arab nations. There is general agreement by Israel and their Arab allies that the forces Iran has assembled in Syria and Lebanon are a far greater threat than Hamas in Gaza. But this war is not yet won and whether it is depends more on what happens in Iran. The Americans are preparing to pull their 2,000 troops out of Syria but not their support for the large force of Syrian Kurds who did most of the fighting to destroy the ISIL presence in eastern Syria.
Law And Disorder
The Syrian government now controls over 60 percent of the country and about the same portion of the remaining population. A year ago the government controlled only 20 percent of the country and this rapid expansion has encountered lots of problems restoring law and order to newly occupied areas. The general disorder is a result of the war having killed over half a million people (most of them Syrian civilians) and driven a third of the population into exile (most to Lebanon or Turkey). There are dozens of pro-Assad Syrian militias that have to be demobilized. Since many of these militias exist mainly to protect a specific part of Syria (where the militia members and their families come from) there will be reluctance to demobilize until it is safe. Then there is the economy, which is a mess. GDP is about half what it was in 2011 and limping along largely with the help of economic aid from Iran. The enormous expense (billion a year) has caused growing unrest in Iran and that aid may have to be cut. Gulf Arab states have expressed an interest in providing huge amounts of aid and loans for reconstruction, but only if Iranian troops and mercenaries are removed from Syria. In fact no one is willing to put a lot of money into rebuilding Syria has long as Iran has a large military force there whose main goal is to start a war with Israel. This presents the ruling Assad clan with a dilemma. Do they try and betray their long time (since the 1980s) benefactor Iran for the good of Syria or stand by while Syria remains rubble, poverty and hunger while Iran tries to take on Israel. Even Iranian allies Russia and Turkey are unwilling to invest in a potential war zone and would prefer that Iranian military forces leave Syria. Worse, for the Iranian religious dictatorship, most Iranians back withdrawal from Syria and have been openly demonstrating for that since late 2017.
With the Americans gone Iran cannot use the excuse that the Iranian presence in Syria is to help prevent the creation of another autonomous Kurdish area in northeast Syria which would, because of the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq next door, create the basis for the Kurdistan state Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey have been seeking for centuries. Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey most definitely agree on none of them wanting to contribute territory and population to create a Kurdistan. One of the founding principles of the UN was to respect existing borders. This has not prevented the creation of new breakaway states (like Kosovo and South Sudan) but officially the UN does not encourage it (otherwise the UN would lose a lot of its major members and most of its financial support.) This was one reason for pulling American troops out of northeast Syria. Helping the Kurds create an autonomous area in Syria was never an American objective and it is obvious that the Syrian Kurds thought otherwise by the way they have reacted to the American departure. Some Arab states (like the UAE) who have been quietly working with the Americans in Syria to support the SDF have indicated they would be interested in staying and expanding their commitment (by bringing in more special operations troops and providing some air support) but that won’t replace the U.S. effort and may not be possible because of threats from the Turks. The SDF is technically rebels but have always been willing to make deals with the Assads. Iran and ISIL are another matter and everyone knows it. The Syrian Kurds could still get some autonomy if they cooperate in crushing ISIL in eastern Syria. The only complication is Iran.
December 25, 2018: In the south, Israel carried out air strikes against three targets outside Damascus that were apparently Iranian or Hezbollah bases or warehouses. One of the targets was a meeting of senior Hezbollah leaders that left several of those Hezbollah commanders dead, or not. The Hezbollah leaders may have flown off to Iran shortly before the attack. Half an hour before the airstrikes an Iranian B-747 freighter aircraft left Damascus after making a delivery from Iran that was believed to be weapons because the 747 belonged to the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). The same 747 had left Iran earlier in the day and apparently arrived in Damascus and unloaded before it returned to Iran. Shortly after the airstrikes in Damascus, an Israeli anti-missile missile intercepted a missile from Syria. There was no damage (from falling debris) to any residential areas. The Syrian missile was apparently an S-200 antiaircraft missile that fired at a target south of Damascus and missed. Because Damascus is so close to the Israeli border this sort of thing was expected and has already happened before. The problem is the incoming spent S-200 (not aimed at anything in particular) looks like an incoming missile headed for a specific target and Israeli anti-missile defenses react automatically. Since the missile is intercepted over Israeli territory fragments of that missile can be collected and the missile identified.
December 24, 2018: Turkey revealed that an American military delegation would visit Turkey in the next week to discuss how and exactly when American troops would withdraw from northeast Syria.
December 23, 2018: In the south (the Israeli border in Golan Heights), Israeli troops fired on several armed men trying to enter Israel. The intruders fled back into Syria. Iran is trying to move more Iranian controlled forces to the Israeli border.
December 22, 2018: Since 2016 Turkey has persuaded about eight percent of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return home. Most refugees refuse to even try returning and many of those who do regret it and let those still in exile know it. The Turks know that going to war with the SDF will cause more chaos in Syria and more reluctance of Syrian refugees to go home.
December 21, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), SDF forces repelled another complex and desperate attack by several hundred ISIL fighters seeking to protect their last stronghold near Hajin city and the Iraqi border. This is the second such attack since a similar one was defeated a similar one at the end of November. The current attack began with at least 17 suicide bombers approaching SDF positions followed by a barrage of rocket and mortar fire. The attack faltered and failed but during the November attack the SDF lost 92 dead over three days, the most ever in a single battle.
Since SDF began moving against this ISIL stronghold in early September the primarily Kurdish group has lost nearly 500 dead. The three day ISIL November offensive was like the December one stopped by stubborn SDF defensive tactics, which had American artillery and airstrikes on call. ISIL lost over a hundred known dead but many of the ISIL bodies are in what is still ISIL territory where airstrikes hit any group seen moving during the battle. Because of that a lot of the ISIL attackers never reached SDF positions. Many of the attackers, especially suicide bombers, got close to SDF forces by claiming to be civilians fleeing ISIL. There are a lot of civilians in this ISIL controlled area. Many of them are wives and children of ISIL fighters but many are not and are discouraged from leaving the area. ISIL wives are often willing to participate in suicide attacks and take the kids with them. Soon SDF forces will advance into this last ISIL stronghold and have to deal with landmines, explosive traps and suicide bombers that appear to be civilians. This is why ISIL is often described as a suicidal death cult. The hundreds of ISIL fighters surrounded near Hajin are all diehard and desperate Islamic terrorists who realize this is their last stand and the possibility of getting out is very low. After this most recent battle and the heavy losses, SDF suffered there is even more resolve by the SDF to ensure that none of the ISIL personnel escape. Taking prisoners is unlikely because the trapped ISIL men know about the growing number of captured ISIL men and women being sentenced to long prison terms or execution.
December 19, 2018: The American president, in keeping with a campaign promise, announced the withdrawal of American forces (about 2,000 troops) from Syria and about half the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. No timetable was given but preparations are being made to establish new American bases in southern (Anbar province) and northern (Kurdish controlled border area) Iraq. This campaign promise arose from the fact most Americans have noticed that since the 1990s there have been a growing number of overseas military operations undertaken by different American governments and that these operations, initially described as short-term, never seem to end. For example, there are still U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo, a late 1990s assignment which was to have ended within a year but somehow never did. Putting American troops into Syria was supposed to be temporary until ISIL was destroyed. That task has largely been accomplished and the remaining anti-ISIL forces in Syria can mop up.
December 18, 2018: Diplomats from Russia, Iran and Turkey decided they were stalemated at a meeting in Switzerland. This is a UN sponsored conference to decide who shall be on the Constitutional Committee that will create a new constitution for Syria. The three nations could not agree on several dozen of the 150 committee members. The three nations will try again in early 2019. This committee is the result of a UN proposed compromise that includes a new constitution and monitored elections in Syria to form a new government. Iran wants to ensure that the Assads retain power, Turkey wants someone elected who has popular support and Russia will back whoever seems to have the best chance of getting on the committee. The three countries also disagree on who shall control what territory in eastern Syria once ISIL and the Kurds are pacified.
December 17, 2018: In the northwest (Latakia province), another Russian (an army veteran serving as a contractor) was killed by mortar fire from an Islamic terrorist group. Russian officials also revealed that Russian air power had reduced their air operations since November from over 750 sorties a week to four or less (mainly for reconnaissance). Russia making more use of UAVs as well for surveillance and reconnaissance. This reduction in sorties saves Russia a lot of money and gives its aircraft maintainers a break and an opportunity to catch up on deferred maintenance and upgrades.
Russia confirmed that they had used their Iskander ballistic missile in Syria along with the new 300mm six cell Tornado-G MLRS (multiple launch rocket system) system. These 800 kg (1,760 pound) rockets have a range of 90 kilometers. There is also a GPS guided version of the 300mm rockets. This one weighs 820 kg and has a max range of 120 kilometers.
December 13, 2018: An Israeli military and diplomatic delegation are meeting with their counterparts in Russia to work out details of future cooperation in Syria, especially with regards to Israeli operations against Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. Russia has never agreed with the Iranian goal of trying to destroy Israel. Russia sees Israel as a valuable ally in the region while Iran is considered, apparently, a necessary evil for Russian operations in Syria.
December 12, 2018: Turkey confirmed that it had moved a force of over 14,000 troops (nearly all of them FSA militiamen) to the Euphrates River valley opposite SDF controlled territory. The Turkish said the Turkish offensive would begin in a few days (but it didn’t and was delayed for unspecified reasons).
December 11, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), Iraqi F-16s attacked two ISIL targets killing an estimated 44 Islamic terrorists and destroying equipment and weapons stockpiles. These two ISIL bases are near the Iraqi border where a number of ISIL members are still maintaining a presence. ISIL targets in this area were hit by Iraqi F-16s on November 20 killing at least 40 Islamic terrorists. Syrian Kurd SDF militias are on the ground shutting down these ISIL base areas.
December 9, 2018: In the east, across the Iraqi border in Anbar province local officials confirmed that the Americans appear to be establishing a third base along the Syrian border, 30 kilometers north of the Euphrates River near the Nineveh province border. Two more American bases in Anbar are at the Tanf crossing (near the Jordan border) and further north at the Qaim border crossings into Syria on the Euphrates River.
December 5, 2018: Russia voiced open support for the Israeli anti-tunnel operation on the Lebanon border, which Iran did not appreciate. Russia, as always, is caught between its desire to maintain good relations with Israel while also maintaining a working relationship the Iran, Turkey and the Assad government of Syria.
November 30, 2018: In the south (the Israeli border in Golan Heights), Israeli troops found fragments of a Syrian missile on the Israeli side of the border. The Syrian missile had been fired at Israel after an Israeli airstrike yesterday.
November 29, 2018: In the south, an Israeli airstrike hit Iranian bases south of Damascus, or at least that is what Jordanian media first reported and later eyewitness accounts confirmed there were numerous large explosions that went on for about an hour. Syria said its air defenses shot something down but could not produce any wreckage and Israel would only say they had not lost any aircraft or sent any into Syria. That does not rule out a missile strike, because Israel has some new air-launched missiles that strike targets as a ballistic missile would. This would be the first reported Israeli airstrike in Syria since September. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile landed in the Golan Heights but it is not clear which side of the border. It was later revealed that the attack was carried out by short-range ballistic missiles and air-launched (apparently from outside Syria) surface to air missiles.
In the United States (Washington DC), the Americans put a vast trove of Iranian weapons or fragments (of ballistic missiles, naval mines, remotely controlled bomb boats or UAVs) collected from countries throughout the Middle East (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and so on) as evidence of illegal Iranian arms exports. Most of the items displayed have Farsi (the Iranian language) markings. Opening the display in Washington makes it accessible to many foreign embassy personnel and journalists. Two more interesting items (Iranian made rocket launchers) were recently found in Yemen. And Iranian weapons are so common in Iraq that it is no big deal unless it is components for landmines and roadside bombs. These are provided by Iran to be used against Iraqi security forces and American troops.
November 28, 2018: For the first time an Iranian B-747 freighter aircraft delivered missile components directly to Lebanon. These components add GPS guidance to long-range unguided rockets. The transport flew from Iran via Iraq and Syria.