Iran and Syria have made it official; Iran will assist the Assad government in regaining control of all of Syria and will back efforts to reopen all border crossings with Iraq. The Iranian-backed militia forces are now officially part of the Syrian Army, even though they still take orders from Iran. About of third of Syria is still not under Assad control. Most of the northeast is controlled by the Kurdish led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) militia (which contains a lot of Arabs and other minorities from the area). The SDF is the most effective ground combat force in Syria as well as having active assistance from the Americans. Despite that, the SDF is threatened with attack by Syrian, Iranian and Turkish forces. The SDF is willing to accept the return of Assad rule but only if the Kurds have a degree of autonomy, including some protections from Turkish attack. While the Kurds and Assads are currently threatening each other there is an understanding that some kind of deal can be worked out. The Turks and Iranians agree that the Syrian Kurds should not have autonomy, which further complicates the situation.
Then there is Idlib province in the northwest, where 20,000 non-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) Islamic terrorists are trapped and unable to agree on whether to surrender or fight. That means more fighting and the Russian warplanes resumed bombing nearly two weeks ago. Syria expects the Iranian mercenaries to handle most of the ground combat. There are plenty of Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries surrounding Idlib. There are Turkish forces covering the north but not wanting an attack that would send a million refugees headed for Turkey. Everyone is hoping for some kind of miracle solution to the Idlib mess. Lesser miracles are sought for other unresolved issues in Syria.
There are a number of complications in Syria that have led to a stalemate. Many of these revolve around what to do with the Syrian Kurds. Iran has problems with Israel in Syria, as well as its own allies. The Iranians want the Syrian government (controlled by the Assad clan) to accept Iranian domination (as Hezbollah does in Lebanon) and agrees with Turkey the Syrian Kurds should not get autonomy and should accept rule by the Iran-backed Syrian government as well as Turkish control of border areas. Iran has a major problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force dedicated to starting a war with Israel.
The Russians would prefer that the Turks and Iranians got out of Syria and that the Assads and Kurds worked out a compromise (which the two seem willing to do). The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach. The Kurds have some additional problems. The SDF wants some help in dealing with the 5,000 ISIL fighters (and 24,000 family members) they have captured so far this year. SDF has detained 72,000 people who left the last ISIL stronghold over the last year or so. These are held in a large refugee camp and various governments are being asked to verify who is a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq has agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. Many of the ISIL wives are obviously still active ISIL members and many were caught smuggling weapons into the camp when they were searched before entering. These ISIL women are terrorizing other camp residents and seeking to intimidate the camp guards. The Kurds need help paying for the camp and want the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. All of the camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them that is unclear.
A growing number of nations have agreed to take their citizens back although some nations are revoking the citizenship of camp residents and that keeps these stateless people in the camp longer. On the plus side, the existence of the refugee camp discourages Syria and Turkey from attacking the Kurdish controlled northeast because if they capture the camp they are then responsible for it. The refugee camp is not the main reason Syria or Turkey hesitate to attack the Kurds. The possibility of being repulsed is a real threat and heavy casualties are a certainty. The Kurds still have powerful allies, but it is uncertain how far the Americans, Britain and other NATO countries, as well as Israel and Russia will go to help defend the Kurds against Turkish or Syrian/Iranian invasion. Then there is the fact that that just about everyone opposes the Turkish presence in Syria.
The SDF reported that it had lost 11,000 dead (and over 20,000 wounded) since 2011. That’s about three percent of the casualties suffered by everyone in Syria since 2011. Most of the Kurd losses were while fighting Islamic terror groups, mainly ISIL. Some 72 percent of the SDF dead were Kurds while the rest were Arabs and other minorities residing in the northeast. Most of the Kurdish dead were members of the YPG Kurdish separatist movement. Turkey calls the YPG a terrorist movement because they assisted the Turkish PKK Kurdish separatists during 30 years of armed resistance to Turkish domination of Kurds in Turkey.
The Turks have other internal problems that may delay any move on northeast Syria. The Islamic party that has ruled Turkey for nearly two decades is increasingly unpopular in Turkey and is liable to be out of power soon. If that happens the new government will be more concerned about internal politics than maintaining a military presence in Syria and Iraq. The SDF not only did most of the fighting to destroy ISIL in Syria but also liberated some five million Syrians from ISIL (and other Islamic terror groups) rule. The Syrian 2011-2019 war has left about 400,000 dead so far. A third of those dead were Assad forces (Syrian army and militias plus Iranian mercenaries). About 35 percent were rebel forces, about half of them ISIL and al Qaeda Islamic terrorists. While three percent of the dead were SDF, who were technically rebels, the SDF often maintained truces with the Syrian government and cooperated with the Assads to destroy ISIL. The rest of the dead were civilians, most of them pro-rebel.
Israel wants Iran out of Syria and would prefer that the Kurds got their autonomy. Israel is willing to make a peace deal with Syria and Turkey. Israel has successfully attacked Iranian efforts to build a military infrastructure (bases, arms factories, forces on the Israeli border) in Syria and this has made the Iranian leadership angrier and very frustrated. Iran is seen as even more unstable and unpredictable than Turkey. While Iran has backed off from the Israeli border and spent more time and effort concealing its operations and personnel in Syria, there are still plans to “destroy Israel.” These apparently revolve around upgrading over 10,000 of the longer (50 kilometers or more) range rockets Iran has provided Hezbollah. The upgrade is mainly about adding GPS guidance systems that will allow for precision attacks on Israeli targets (especially populated areas). A mass use of these rockets could overwhelm Israeli anti-missile defenses.
Russia has taken the lead in brokering agreements that would solve most of these disagreements regarding Turkey or Iran. So far there has been limited success with only Israel willing to work with Russia. Israel and Russia have been cooperating in Syria for years but Turkey and Iran are determined to have their way despite the opposition they are encountering.
Iran has been spending a lot less on Syrian operations. The IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) budget for foreign operations (especially Syria and Lebanon) have been cut, apparently in a big way. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria is undergoing a reorganization and downsizing. The IRGC explains this away by describing it as a “redeployment for the attack on Israel.” The reality is that there is a lot less cash to pursue that goal and the IRGC is actually trying to avoid more expensive (for Iran) airstrikes by Israel which continues to win this war with Iran. In Lebanon the well-established (since the 1980s when founded by the IRGC) Hezbollah has done the unthinkable and is asking the public for donations because Iranian subsidies have been cut, apparently drastically. The Iran government is spending more money to relieve the economic problems most Iranian face.
March 24, 2019: Britain will keep its warplanes operating over eastern Syria for a while longer. These aircraft will search for and attack remaining ISIL forces that are known to still be in the area, on the run but still active. Some British ground forces will still be in northeast Syria where the SDF maintains a large camp containing refugees from ISIL controlled territory. Some 900 of these are from Britain and they must be interviewed to determine if they committed any crimes or are still active. Britain also reported that is warplanes had killed 4,000 Islamic terrorists in Syria and Iraq since 2014. While most (75 percent) of the dead were in Iraq (where British warplanes are based) most of the British airstrikes have shifted to Syria during the past year.
March 23, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), SDF declared that they had eliminated the last visible remnants of ISIL that had been driven out of the town of Baghuz (near the Iraq border) on the 19th. Apparently, this announcement was convincing and spread quickly because within 24 hours many ISIL fighters were emerging from hiding places (like tunnels not yet discovered) and surrendering. Others walked in from seemingly uninhabited areas around Baghuz and turned themselves into SDF personnel.
March 21, 2019: The United States backed the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, which Syria still considers as Syrian. Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967 when they took the area after Syrian used these heights to attack Israeli territory to the south that was on the lower ground. In 1981 Israel annexed the area. The UN opposed this but that had no impact on the situation. Israel points out that Syria has never made a serious efforts to retake the Golan Heights since 1973. In that respect Israel considers the Golan Heights abandoned property and has absorbed it.
March 19, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), the last visible remnant of ISIL was driven out of the town of Baghuz near the Iraq border. The SDF rebels are doing all the fighting on the ground, with air support from the United States. Several hundred ISIL gunmen fled the fortified buildings in Baghuz after more than a month of fighting. While ISIL abandoned the town they continued to fight in the nearby hills. By spreading out in the countryside the remaining ISIL men are more difficult to find and kill with artillery or an airstrike.
March 14, 2019: Off the southwest coast of Iran, dozens of Iranian UAVs were seen in the air near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran described it as practice for a mass UAV attack on Israel, using about ten stealthy (based on a captured American RQ-170s UAVs) and many more conventional designs. Iran regularly tests Israeli detection and defenses against their UAVs by having Hezbollah fly one into Israel from Lebanon or Syria. Iran believes it has detected an Israeli vulnerability although those test flights also provided Israel with a list of improvements they can make in their ability to deal with these UAVs. Israel is bombing Iranian weapons construction and storage facilities in Syria and Lebanon to prevent such a UAV attack from being launched from those two countries, which would be more difficult to deal with than one launched from Iran (which would have to be one way.)
March 13, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Russia has resumed regular airstrikes against rebel targets in Idlib province. Turkey had earlier announced an agreement with Russia to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib. To that end, Turkish and Russian troops will patrol the ceasefire line that defines the extent of rebel-controlled territory.
Israeli intelligence released aerial photos showing construction of what Israel describes as an Iranian weapons factory in western Syria (outside the port of Latakia). Israel also released aerial photos of a similar missile plant in Iran.
March 12, 2019: Russia is apparently expecting a fight in Idlib province because at least four upgraded Su-25SM3 ground attack aircraft have arrived in western Syria and the only reason to bring these in is to use them under combat conditions. The only likely combat these days is in nearby Idlib province. Russia is also moving more warships to Syria and these often fire Kalibr cruise missiles at Syrian targets during major Russian operations.
March 11, 2019: Iran awarded the commander of the Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, the nation’s highest award. Quds is the IRGC branch that stirs up and sustains pro-Iran terrorism overseas. Quds is largely responsible for terrorism attacks against Israel and for the very expensive Iranian efforts in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran and many other lesser operations (like in Venezuela). Quds recently had its budget cut drastically and the clerical leadership wanted Soleimani to know that it wasn’t personal.
March 10, 2019: Turkey has approached Russia and the United States to discuss Turkish plans to invade Kurdish controlled northeast Syria. Russia and the U.S. both advised against it. Turkey pointed out that Syrian refugees were willing to return to Syria if they were allowed to live in areas not controlled by the Assad government. This would include the Turkish controlled areas on the Syrian side of the border. This security zone only extends about 30 kilometers into Syria and only includes the half of the border not controlled by the Kurds.
March 9, 2019: The government is trying to revive its maritime smuggling routes to Syria by obtaining port management agreements with Syria. Iran is running into resistance from Russia as well as Lebanon who fear that this will turn the local coasts into a combat zone as Israel and the Americans put intensive and heavily armed, scrutiny on the area. Although the Assad government will not openly defy Iranian requests it has learned how to quietly cooperate with other nations, especially Russia, that will be blunt with Iran in opposing Iranian proposals seen as too dangerous to work.
March 3, 2019: Israel revealed that a recent meeting, in Russia, between the Russian and Israeli leaders there was an agreement to carry out a joint effort to get all foreign forces out of Syria. Everybody wants the Turks and Iranians gone but the Syrian Kurds want some Americans to stay and Russia has treaty rights with Syria to operate an air base and a naval facility staffed with Russian personnel. This new agreement does not ban continued Israeli airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria.
March 2, 2019: Israeli media is reporting the presence of Iranian mercenaries based near the Israeli border, with most of these Iranian forces east of the Golan Heights portion of the border. It is also believed that Iran still has Hezbollah members, pretending to be Syrian soldiers, operating an Iranian observation post along the Golan Heights border to keep Iranian commanders current on what is happening on both sides of the border. Iran believes many Syrian civilians and even Syrian soldiers along the Golan border are not fans of Iran. Actually, Israelis have seen examples of this since 2011.
February 27, 2019: Iran revealed that it had agreed, in January, to build 200,000 new housing units (most of them apartments in urban areas, especially Damascus) in Syria. These would house pro-Assad civilians. Some of these are foreign Shia mercenaries (and their wives) that Iran has brought in to make the Sunni majority in Syria less dominant. Most of the six million Syrians who fled to other countries since 2011 were Sunni Arabs deliberately encouraged to flee by the Assads. About two-thirds of these refugees ended up in Turkey where the Turks have offered to absorb most of them (Turkey already has an Arab minority). Most of the Syrian refugees would like to go home but since the rebels have been defeated the refugees realize that Syria is not a welcoming place for Sunni Arab refugees. About a third of the Syrian refugees are in Lebanon where they have shifted the ethnic balance of a much smaller country than Turkey. The refugees in Lebanon are not welcome at all.
February 25, 2019: Syrian leader Basher Assad arrived in Iran for a three-day visit. He met with various Iranian leaders to assure them that he was still loyal and would do as told. This was the first foreign trip Assad has made since 2011 and it was kept secret. Even the Iranian Foreign Minister did not know about it.
February 24, 2019: In eastern Syria, the SDF has captured some 500 Iraqi ISIL members. At least the SDF believes they are Iraqi (based on accent, mainly) and is seeking to get Iraq to take all of them and prosecute. The U.S. is helping with this effort by providing biometric identification equipment that generates ID data compatible with what the U.S. and Iraqis have on known ISIL members. So far 280 of these SDF ISIL members have been confirmed as wanted for terrorist activity and Iraq is willing to take and prosecute them. This is not an attractive prospect for these ISIL captives because Iraq will execute ISIL members found guilty of murder and other serious crimes. NATO nations are also seeking to have Iraq prosecute ISIL prisoners who came from NATO countries (including the U.S.) and committed crimes that Iraq knows about. Iraq is willing to do this because they know that European courts will be much easier on ISIL members. That often means a short jail sentence and then these killers are back on the street again and may well return to Iraq. France recently persuaded Iraq to accept and prosecute 13 Frenchmen who had joined ISIL. Iraq already has hundreds of ISIL captives from foreign countries and is prosecuting all of them, including some ISIL wives who also committed atrocities. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces are arresting a lot more suspected ISIL members near the Syrian border, especially in Mosul, which is still seen as a good hideout for ISIL men who known their way around the city. Many of the ISIL members now fleeing Syria had fled to Syria in late 2018 as Iraqi forces followed up on the liberation of Mosul from ISIL rune in 2017. The returnees include many notorious ISIL leaders who responsible for a lot of death and destruction in Iraq. These are sought and often found among the new faces showing up in Mosul and surrounding areas.
February 23, 2019: In Syria, the commander of Iranian forces in Syria said that 90 percent of Iranian goals had been achieved and Iran was now concentrating on rebuilding the Syrian armed forces. Not mentioned was any efforts to destroy Israel and this was deliberately downplayed in an effort to avoid more Israeli airstrikes. Iran has withdrawn its forces from the Israeli border and has greatly reduced weapons shipments to Syria. The Israelis are still watching and apparently still willing and able to launch airstrikes on Iranian forces.
February 22, 2019: The United States has agreed to keep a small (a few hundred) force of peacekeepers in Syria after most of the current 2,000 advisors and Special Forces troops are withdrawn. The peacekeepers would make it more difficult for Iranian or Turkish forces to misbehave without risking intervention by American forces in neighboring countries. This is a relief to Iraqi Kurds, who still have plenty of such American assistance in northern Iraq and have been told that there will always be some American troops in northern Iraq “as long as it is necessary.”