Syria: This Will Not End Well


March 11, 2021: The fighting in Syria has been going on for ten years, and there is no end in sight as long as Iran continues to use Syria as a staging area for a direct attack on Israel. This has turned Iran into the into the widely accepted bad guy in Syria. This was something Iran sought to avoid, but Iran’s “allies” Russia, Turkey and the Assads are now all working against Iran. Popular opinion and governments in Iraq and Lebanon are now actively hostile towards Iran. Back home most Iranians see the Syrian War as a disaster for Iran. The cost of the war is pushing more Iranians into poverty and the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s considers the destruction of Israel as worth any cost. Most Iranians, and everyone in the region, disagree with this. The Iranian leadership is not dissuaded because they are on a Mission From God which means no earthly power can interfere. This will not end well.

Israel is quietly working on a peace deal with the Assads by first consulting Russia, Turkey and the Arab nations Israel has diplomatic relations with. If Israel can achieve a consensus on how to offer and deliver the Assads a workable peace deal, Iran could be driven out of Syria. Israel and the Assads have been, since the 1970s willing to leave each other alone and make mutually acceptable deals. The Assads would often threaten another war with Israel but did not pose as determined threat as Iran. Because the Assads became allies of and dependent on Iran in the 1980s for protection from chaos in Iraq and Lebanon, they had to at least pretend to support the Iranian obsession with destroying Israel. The Assads knew better but, until the Assad police state failed in 2011 and a rebellion got going, the Assads were able to resist Iranian presence and control of Syria.

The UN is also involved in this stealthy peace effort because Iranian interference has blocked the UN effort to create a new constitution for Syria that would assist efforts to end the civil war. The Assads are also hostile to the proposed new constitution, which would mean national elections monitored by the UN. The Assads cannot afford to lose control of the government because that would make them more vulnerable to arrest and prosecution for war crimes. The accusations continue to pile up against the Assads, which always treated Syrians who opposed them with brutality and terror. So far this year, over a hundred Syrians a month get arrested and brutally interrogated, or simply murdered, by the Assad security forces. Yet doing business with Iran can also be fatal for the Assads.

March 10, 2021: In the east (Raqqa province) fighting resumed between the Turks and Syrian (Assad) forces at Ain Issa, a town north of the city of Raqqa. The Turks are using Syrian Arab mercenaries for infantry while Turkish personnel provide air, artillery and other support. The fighting has been going on since the 2nd, when Turkish artillery fire destroyed a car belonging to a Syrian Army commander who ordered return fire. This slowly escalated and for the last several days and both sides have sent reinforcements. Neither side has sought to turn this into a major battle. Turkish forces have increased their harassment attacks all along northern and northeastern Syria where the face Kurdish forces.

In the northwest (Idlib province) Syrian army artillery was used against Islamic terrorist gunmen in the “de-escalation zone” where such attacks are forbidden. The Syrians usually claim that the Islamic terrorists fired first, which is sometimes true.

March 7, 2021: Another irritating Iranian tactic in Syria has been the illegal purchase or seizure of property along the Lebanese border so that Iranian mercenaries from outside Syria can settle down and provide an armed pro-Iran population along the border. Syria has always had laws regulating who could buy property near the border, mainly to prevent what Iran is now doing along the Israeli border as well.

March 6, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) there is growing tension, and some violence, between the decade old Salvation Government rebel provincial administration and HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), the umbrella organization for most of the 20,000 (or more) armed rebels in Idlib. There are also 1.5 million civilians and the Salvation Government makes itself essential by coordinating foreign aid that keeps people alive. The aid also sustains a local economy and Salvation Government and HTS cooperate to maintain a degree of order. Factional frictions within both HTS and the Salvation Government are threatening what stability there is in the half of the province that is still rebel controlled. The rest has been occupied by Turkish forces in the north and Assad forces in the south.

March 5, 2021: In the east (desert areas between Hama, Homs and Raqqah), Russian warplanes returned to the air after a three day pause and carried out sixty air strikes against ISIL targets. This campaign against ISIL in eastern Syria has been going on for two years and killed over a thousand ISIL fighters. This reduced the number of areas where ISIL is able to base themselves and plan attacks.

March 4, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) American troops and their Kurdish SDF allies shut down two Iranian border crossings on the Euphrates river. The U.S. shut down construction of a bridge connecting two Iran-backed militias while the Kurds shut down a pipeline crossing the river that delivered Iranian oil to Iran backed groups in Syria.

March 3, 2021: In the north (Aleppo province) Russian and Assad forces fired four missiles at an improvised oil refinery in Turkish control territory, causing a massive fire that killed four and wounded over twenty. Nearly 200 fuel tanker trucks were destroyed or damaged by the large fire. This is the third such attack on these refineries in 2021 and no one will take credit. To do so would force Turkey to respond to protect its Syrian mercenary groups that operate the refineries to earn money. Syria considers such activity illegal and harmful to Syrian interests. The oil comes from Kurdish controlled Syrian oil fields.

March 2, 2021: Israel carried out more airstrikes against Iranian targets near Damascus. The target was new Iranian bases for Iranian Arab and Afghan mercenaries as well as Iranian military, mostly IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) personnel. This latest attacked caused over fifty casualties among the military personnel, including fifteen dead. Eight of the dead were Iranians and one of them was an IRGC general. Another three were senior IRGC officers working for or meeting with the general.

March 1, 2021: It is estimated that nearly 500 people died throughout Syria in January because of the continued fighting and terrorism. About 30 percent of the dead were civilians, 20 percent ISIL and the rest split between Assad government forces and other factions, like the SDF and Turkish mercenaries. The deaths have been declining in Syria over the last five years. The total for the last decade is nearly half a million. During the first five years the losses were much heavier, sometimes reaching a thousand or more dead a week for months on end. Now deaths are down to about a hundred a week.

February 28, 2021: Israel carried out a several airstrikes against Iranian targets outside Damascus. The sound of the many explosions could be heard in Damascus. Hezbollah gunmen quickly set up checkpoints and restricted access to the bases that apparently suffered a lot of damage, in part because warehouses containing weapons and ammunition were hit, triggering secondary explosions with debris scattered over a wide area, including many fragments of Iranian made weapons.

February 26, 2021: The course of the Syrian civil war was changed today in the Gulf of Oman, near the Iranian coast, where the Helios Ray, an Israeli owned RO/RO (roll on, roll off) vehicle carrier ship was hit by two missiles. There were two holes visible above the waterline on each side an empty cargo deck of the 35 meter (112 foot) wide ship. There was no serious damage to the ship, that had made several stops in the Persian Gulf to unload new vehicles. After the attack the ship turned around and returned to Dubai to get the hull patched. The ship was on its way to Singapore, a voyage that was to take about a week. Iran was suspected of causing the damage, which is similar to what earlier happened to other commercial ships in the area. At first Iran denied any responsibility, but two days later boasted that they carried out the attack because the RORO ship was spying on Iran. As soon as Iran took credit, Israel carried out several airstrikes on Iranian bases outside Damascus. Iran thought all this would create more Syrian enthusiasm for the Iranian war on Israel. Instead, the Syrian Internet saw a spike in anti-Iran messages. There has been a shift in Syrian public attitudes towards Iran as Iran moved in more of its Lebanese (Hezbollah), Afghan and local mercenaries to Syrian army bases around the capital and other areas where a lot of Assad supporters live. That is followed by truckloads of missiles and other weapons from Iran to be stockpiled for use against Israel. Several hundred times over the last few years Israeli airstrikes have destroyed these Iranian stockpiles, usually with few casualties on the ground and those tend to be Iranians or their mercenaries. Now the Iranians, or at least their Hezbollah veterans, are talking of the need to store these weapons in residential areas to use Syrian civilians as human shields to discourage Israeli air strikes. Syrian civilians know how this works. The Israeli guided missiles do not cause a lot of civilian casualties. Instead, the Iranian missiles, rockets and explosives do that as they explode and kill or would nearby civilians. The Iranians see this as a plus as it is supposed to make the locals more anti-Israel. The Syrians see the Israelis attacking no matter what, even if Iran switches to the “human shields” approach, because otherwise those weapons will be used against Israeli civilians. This shift in public opinion is a problem for the Assad government because Iran has hundreds of “advisors” working within the Assad government and military. These Iranians report potential problems back to Iran or, rather, the IRGC that runs Iranian operations in Syria and Lebanon. If the Iranians suspect that the Assad government is considering switching sides and joining a coalition that opposes Iran and considers Israel an ally, Iran could do a lot of damage to the Assad clan.

The IRGC also suspects Russia of working with Israel to broker a peace deal between the Assads and Israel. These suspicions increased in mid-February when Russia brokered a deal with Syria to participate in an exchange with Israel that saw the return of two Syrians and one Israeli civilian who had crossed the border. Iran was not consulted and Russia refused to reveal details. The Assads deny there were any hidden objectives. Iran did note that the deal also involved Israel reducing the prison sentence for a pro-Syrian Arab. And there were rumors that Israel would also help Syria obtain covid19 vaccine and so on. Rumors are rumors but the strains in Iran-Syria relations is real.

To make matters worse for Iran, Turkey and Israel are negotiating a deal to improve diplomatic and economic relations. The Turks have been increasingly hostile to Iran lately and that includes ignoring Iranian requests during the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey sent advisors, armed UAVs and Syrian mercenaries to help the Azeris score their first victory over Armenia in a three-decade long territorial feud. Iran was also unhappy with the fact that the Azeris gave credit to the many Israeli weapons that had purchased over the last decade. This included the Israeli Barak 8 anti-aircraft system which intercepted a number of Russia made ballistic missiles fired at Azerbaijan by the Armenians. One of those ballistic missiles was an Iskander, a recent Russian design that was supposed to more difficult to detect and intercept. In short, Iran has reasons to be displeased at how its campaign in Syria is proceeding and how unhelpful, or even hostile, their allies have been.

This is not a new development. As far back as 2018 there were signs that Iranian allies in Syria were something of an unnatural act. Israel had made it clear that they would fight if Iran tried to establish a military presence in Syria. That was complicated by the fact that Iran had allies in Syria; Russia and Turkey, who were traditional enemies. In contrast Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia began trying to negotiate a deal to prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans, already announced and underway, to establish bases in Syria and organize anti-Israeli forces for a final battle. For Israel any long-term Iranian presence in Syria was intolerable. Russia believed it could work out such a deal but many Israelis were skeptical and Iran declared that such a deal was not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran, Israel always had some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this put Russia at odds with their two other allies in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. Recently Turkey had come to agree with Russia and is seeking to improve relations with Israel, even that is at the expense of Iran.

February 25, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike by two F-15E fighter-bombers used seven smart bombs against an Iran-backed militia facility and largely destroyed it. This was not a very important facility and was in an isolated rural area. There was at least one death and four wounded. This indicates how little used this place was. The facility was used to support the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah, an organization that is meant to become as powerful in Iraq as the original Lebanese Hezbollah has been since the 1980s in Lebanon. The U.S. holds Kataib Hezbollah responsible for recent rocket attacks on American bases and embassy in Iraq. Iran denies responsibility but the rockets used were made in Iran. The air strike was near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Iran is seeking to provide a safer environment for its Iraqi militias. Inside Iraq Kataib Hezbollah is subject to attack by security forces and pro-government militias. In eastern Syria the biggest threat is Israeli airstrikes and the occasional American one. For that reason, the Americans warned Israel the day before that there going be U.S. airstrike, to ensure an Israeli airstrike was not scheduled to take place at the same target or another one in the area. The is the first American airstrike in Syria since a new U.S. government took power that had indicated it would no longer such American airstrikes in Syria.

In the northeast (Hasaka province) someone (apparently ISIL) used a remotely detonated motorcycle bomb left near a Turkish checkpoint manned by Syrian mercenaries. One merc and three civilians were killed.

February 19, 2021: Diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran met and agreed to back Syrian claims that continued Israeli air strikes violate the 1974 UN brokered ceasefire that halted the Israeli advance on Damascus after defeating the Syrian surprise attack to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In 1973 the Arabs believed their simultaneous attacks against Israeli forces in the north and south would push the Israelis out of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan heights and possibly other Israeli territory as well. After some initial success the Israeli defenses held and counterattacks forced the Egyptians and Syrians to retreat in an effort to defend their capitals. The ceasefire agreements that halted the fighting on both fronts included Egyptian and Syrian pledges to not back covert terror attacks on Israel. As far as Israel is concerned the Iranian military buildup in Syria is a violation of the 1974 agreement and justifies the continued airstrikes against the Iranians. Syria protests that the airstrikes endanger commercial air traffic and Syrian civilians living near Iranian military facilities. Russia and Turkey are unlikely to do anything to block Israeli airstrikes because Israel, Turkey and Russia all want Iran to get out of Syria but only Israel can admit it openly.

February 17, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike hit an Iran base occupied by Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries. There were at least 57 fatalities, including 17 Syrian army troops, sixteen Iraqi militiamen, and eleven Afghan mercenaries.

February 11, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike hit a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons as it passed through the Iraqi Al Bukamal crossing into Syria. There were several large explosions, made possible by the munitions carried in the trucks. The attacking aircraft could not be identified but were believed to be Israeli and part of a campaign to cripple Iranian efforts to build up a large force in Syria that would be capable of launching thousands of guided and unguided rockets into Israel.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close