Russia wants Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria and the Turks refuse to leave. Russia also wants the Americans out of eastern Syria and the Americans won’t leave. In the south Russia wants the Iranians out of Syria. The Iranians won’t leave. All these Russian eviction notices are in support of the Assad family and their continued rule over Syria. The Assads want the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province eliminated and the surviving Islamic terrorist rebels pushed out of the country.
Too many of these Russian, Turkish, Iranian, American and Syrian goals contradict each other. There are other parties that must be paid attention to, like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Israel. ISIL is still a violent presence in eastern Syria and Israel continues to carry out airstrikes on Iranian forces as long as the Iranians are in Syria and demanding that Israel be destroyed.
Turkey is already fighting Russia in Libya and does not want to open another front in Syria. Turkey orders its force to defend and not attack Russian forces in Syria. Turkey has an advantage here because the Turkish army is nearly (265,000 troops) as large as the 350,000-man Russian army. The Turks are better equipped and nearly all are available for any Syrian conflict. Russia has limited forces in Syria with the rest spread all over Russia. Turkey also has far more combat aircraft and modern warships in the area than Russia. Threatening to use nuclear weapons is not practical either, at least as long as Turkey still belongs to NATO, which has three nuclear armed members (the U.S., Britain and France). Russia and Turkey have a “de-escalation” effort that has Turkish and Russian patrols and outposts along the border in northern and northwest Syria. The Turks want the Russians to give up those patrols and outposts and the Russians refuse.
In 2018 Russia made a deal with Israel, Syria and Iran to remove Iranian forces (including foreign mercenaries) from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. Iran complied but then recruited Syrians who lived along the Israeli and Jordanian border. These Syrians were armed and paid by Iran to try and gain control of the Syrian side of the borders with Israel and Jordan. This resulted in more Israeli artillery and airstrikes. The Iranian mercenaries paid more attention to tormenting fellow Syrians than in going after the Israelis.
Turkish and Iranian meddling is prolonging the fighting. The war in Syria should be over by now but isn’t just because the foreign factions with unresolved issues. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and is not having much success at all. Turkey wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists (both Turkish and Syrian) in Syria and that is not going well. The Americans want to keep ISIL down and support their Kurdish allies while Russia wants to prop up the Assad government in order to keep the airbase and port facilities arrangements they have obtained from the Assads.
Which is the most dangerous faction in Syria? Probably Iran, which is becoming increasingly aggressive and desperate. Iran needs a win against Israel and all it is getting in Syria is an endless string of defeats. Because of the “death to Israel” obsession Iran is destroying its alliance with Turkey and Russia. Yet Iran is not the only one with an Israel obsession. Turkey is also obsessed, but not to the point of cutting all commercial ties with Israel.
Worn Down By A Forever War
Defeating rebels in most of the country has not brought peace. Syria has been unable to send enough of its army and police forces into southern and eastern Syria to restore and maintain order. This is because of a shortage of loyal recruits for the army and police as well as war weariness among Assad supporters. Even with all the military and financial help from Iran and Russia, most Syrians are very war weary and war wary. The Assad clan was never very popular and for decades ruled through fear and corruption. Nine years of war and an apparent victory has not boosted recruiting. Conscription no longer works because even the most loyal Assad supporters are reluctant to send any more of their men to fight. The Assads have had to back off on enforcing conscription because doing so was sending more loyalist families into exile. A growing number of those exiles are actively calling for the Assads to be replaced by a kinder and gentler dictator who would look out for the interests of the religious minorities that were always the core of Assad support. Some former Assad supporters, even in Damascus, are openly protesting. The Assads depend on loyalist local militias to maintain order in many areas and that is often inadequate.
For example, in eastern Syria ISIL violence is common (10-20 attacks a month) and the Kurds, now on good terms with the Assads, don’t have the manpower or authority to handle the ISIL situation with their own forces. The Americans carry out frequent airstrikes on ISIL targets but have not got enough troops in eastern Syria to police large areas and keep ISIL down or out. American forces protect a few key areas and assist the Kurds. Syria lets the tribes and local militias do what they can to deal with Islamic terrorists and other outlaws in their midst, which is not enough to restore any kind of pre-2011 order.
It has always been the case that civilians in Assad controlled areas would sometimes anonymously carry out attacks on Syrian soldiers and police. These attacks are a form of protest to let the government know that there is still dissatisfaction with Assad rule. The Assads put pressure on local leaders to make arrests, or simply kidnap and kill suspects. The Assads long assumed that things would eventually calm own. The Assads have been doing this since the 1970s and ignore international criticism because the Assads believe that is how you survive in what is a rough neighborhood. This approach lost its effectiveness as the 2011 war went on. After nine years of violence the old rules no longer apply.
There are other problems in Syria. From the beginning the rebels were divided by ethnicity (Kurds and Arabs), religion (Shia, Sunni, Christian, Druze and so on), tribal loyalties and politics. Islamic radicals want a religions dictatorship while most Syrians want some kind of democracy, or a dictatorship that can maintain order. By 2013 the Islamic radical rebel militias were the most powerful but were divided into mutually hostile factions as well. Despite the obvious mutual benefits of forming a common armed opposition to the Assads, the rebel factions increasingly turned on each other. The Assad forces were more united and believed that, despite having the majority (north of 70 percent) of Syrians arrayed against them, they could prevail. This did happen, but it was a costly and bitter victory, with more than twenty percent of the population in exile outside the country and most of the Syrian population hostile and requiring a more extensive and expensive police state to keep them in line. That was to be paid for by Iran, which believed it could afford that, especially after their 2015 nuclear weapons control treaty lifted sanctions. But then the U.S. caught Iran cheating and reimposed sanctions in 2017. That sharply reduced Iranian income, a situation made worse by growing corruption and mismanagement inside Iran. Because of rebel disunity, Iranian subsidies and Western repugnance, the Assads were able to prevail. But that does not mean survival for the Assads because it has proved difficult to preside over a ruined, resigned and resentful Syria.
September 21, 2020: In the north (Idlib province) the fighting between Syrian and rebel forces in southern Idlib has grown more intense this month. The Syrians want to eliminate the last rebel stronghold but the concentration of surviving Islamic terrorist rebel groups in Idlib know they are making a last stand and believe that because they are on a Mission From God they will somehow prevail. The Assad troops are not nearly as motivated and if it weren’t for Russian airstrikes and artillery support would make no progress at all. The Iranian mercenary ground forces were a casualty of the 2o17 Iranian cash crises. Iran has sent token forces to help out in Idlib but is concentrating most of its forces near the Israeli border. That has led to hundreds of Israeli airstrikes, which often damage Syrian forces that operate closely with the Iranians. The Israeli intel is disturbingly good and their missiles dependably accurate. The Israelis hit the Iranians and, whenever possible, leave Syrian forces alone. The Assads bluster and protest to please their Iranian patrons but understand that Israel does not want to be at war with the Assads and the Assads appreciate that.
September 20, 2020: In the north (Aleppo province) Turkey has ordered its Arab mercenaries to harass the American backed Kurdish forces in the eastern part of the province. The Turks want to push the Kurds further east into Hasaka province but have not got enough mercenary forces available to do the job. Most (about 10,000) of the Turkish troops in Syria are stationed in northern Idlib province to prevent the rebels and pro-rebel civilians in southern Idlib from retreating into Turkey. This means that it is a lot more difficult for the Syrians to regain control of Idlib province.
It also means that the Kurds next door in Aleppo province can fire back at the Arab mercs and take comfort in the fact that the Arabs will not be reinforced by Turkish troops. While all this is noisy there are few casualties in Aleppo province while there are hundreds a month in Idlib.
September 18, 2020: The U.S. has flown in some M2A3 IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) to Syria. These are from an American armored brigade stationed in Kuwait and are to be used for increased convoy protection against Russian efforts to block American use of roads in
Deir Ezzor province. Also sent were some short-range air defense radars. There have been increased jet fighter patrols and more use of AH-64 helicopter gunships to escort American convoys.
September 17, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) Syrian troops fired over a hundred rockets at two rebel held villages. The level of bombardment usually precedes a ground attack. Russian air strikes have also been more frequent and intense in southern Idlib. Since March there has been a lot less Russian airstrikes, a pause which appears to have ended.
September 14, 2020:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were ten deaths (two Syrian, eight Iraqi), all of them pro-Iran militiamen. This is the third Israeli airstrike in Deir Ezzor province this month.
September 11, 2020: In northern Syria (Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike damaged an Iranian military facility outside the city.
September 3, 2020:
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently Israeli, attacked an Iranian base, killing nine Iraqi Hezbollah militiamen.
In central Syria, Israeli airstrikes again hit the T4 airbase in Homs province, as well as air defense systems outside Damascus and Iranian bases in eastern Syria. At least sixteen Iranians or Iranian mercenaries were killed. Israeli warplanes launch air-ground missiles while still in Israel or just across the Syrian border in areas not covered by Syrian air defenses. Syrian usually claims to intercept all these missiles but commercial satellite photos reveal that the Israeli missiles usually get through and inflict significant damage. The T4 airbase, i
n central Syria near Palmyra, was hit by Israeli airstrikes several times in 2019, at least twice in 2020 and many more times in earlier years. The T4 airbase is the largest in Syria and Iran is building new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Meanwhile Israel is gradually destroying most of Syria’s SAM (Surface-To-Air Missile) capability.
September 2, 2020: In the northwest (rebel held Idlib province) Russia carried out at least six airstrikes against Islamic terrorist groups. In addition, Russian reconnaissance aircraft directed Syrian army artillery fire at rebel targets. All this was in response to recent rebel attacks on Russian patrols in the area. There is supposed to be a ceasefire but some rebel factions refuse to respect that agreement. In the last week these rebel attacks have left about a hundred Syrian troops and militiamen dead. Some these deaths were outside Idlib where Syrian, Russian, Kurdish and American forces are still hunting down and killing ISIL members and have killed or captured several hundred in the last few weeks.
August 31, 2020: In southern Syria Israeli aircraft used missiles to attack several targets, killing eleven people. It was later revealed that one of the dead was a civilian who died when their house was hit by a defective Syrian anti-aircraft missile. This was only the second Israeli airstrike for August in Syria. Syrians and Arab journalists in Syria report that the Israeli air strikes are doing serious damage to the Iranian efforts to establish a formidable military force in Syria. Israel attacks nearly all Iranian arms shipments entering Syria as well as many of the Iranian mercenaries, along with the smaller number of Iranian personnel. Commercial satellite photos show that the Syrian airbases Iran uses to fly in personnel and equipment are out of action most of the time because of the Israeli airstrikes and tend to get bombed again shortly after they are repaired.
August 24, 2020:
In the east (Hasaka province) a Russian armored vehicle convoy overtook some American MRAPs (armored trucks) and deliberately bumped into them. In one case two Russian armored vehicles boxed in an American MRAP and rammed the MRAP several times. Four American troops in the vehicle suffered mild concussions. Not wanting to escalate, the U.S. vehicles left the area. Russians were not supposed to be operating here and this incident is the twelfth time this year that there have been such encounters. The one difference is that this was the first incident that got violent. These confrontations usually involve American troops blocking Russian efforts to move into Kurdish controlled parts of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces. Russian and American forces interact regularly in Hasaka and most of the time there are no problems. American-backed Kurdish forces control most of Hasaka province, where the local population is largely Kurdish. Russian, Turkish and Syrian forces are trying to move troops into Hasaka and gradually displace the Kurdish forces. In some cases, the Syrians, Russians or Turks are, via negotiation with the Kurds, are allowed to base troops or patrol certain areas. The Americans have more surveillance capabilities than the Kurds and more frequently spot Russian troops moving into areas they are supposed to stay away from.
August 21, 2020:
Turkey has recruited over 30,000 Syrians to serve as mercenaries in Syria and Libya and is continuing to recruit, train and fly Syrian mercs to Libya.
Turkey has worked with Syrian Arab mercenaries for a long time, not just in the last few years in northern Syria, but for centuries before that. Turkey offers acceptable terms and tends to fulfill its agreements. Despite all that Turkish military efforts in Syria (and Libya) are stalled.
August 18, 2020:
In the east Syria (
Deir Ezzor province) a roadside bomb killed a Russian general and a sergeant as well as a local militia commander and two militiamen.