Syria: Sustained Complications

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September 13, 2022: In the northeast (Kurdish controlled Hasaka province), Kurdish security forces have spent several weeks searching the al Hol prison camp for Islamic terrorists and gangsters hiding out there. Several dozen suspects have been arrested. Since 2018 the SDF has been maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters and their families. This includes persistent problems with criminal activity taking place among the prisoners. The SDF has to keep pointing to their allies that without some help in dealing with the huge number of ISIL captives they ended up with the situation would get out of control. By 2019 the SDF had over 50,000 prisoners held in a large refugee/prison camp and various governments were asked to verify who was a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. That process was slower than expected. There are still about 56,000 of these prisoners at the al Hol camp, most of them women and children that no one wanted to take back. 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 needed help paying for the camp and wanted the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. Nearly all camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them it is unclear exactly where they come from. Some active ISIL terrorists are in the camps and are the source of much violence. Nearly a hundred prisoners were killed in al Hol this year and ISIL leadership keeps calling for members inside and outside the camps to cooperate to create a major uprising in the camps.

Any peace deal ending the ten-year-old Syrian civil war will probably involve the Assads inheriting the remaining prisoners in the Hol camp. If that happens the Assads will eventually announce that nearly all the prisoners have been taken care of. For the Assads that means some deniable mass-murder via executions plus lack of food and medical care. The prospect of this happening gives nations where the women and children are from one last chance to take them back or be held accountable for what happens next.

The Assads are having a difficult time reestablishing a legitimate government, as opposed to its current status as a barely tolerated and much sanctioned government run by war criminals. The Assads have allies who are trying to work out a deal that legitimizes the Assads and leads to lots of economic aid and investment. There is some but not a lot of progress in that department. 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 a 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 any efforts to directly control Syria.

The Assads are still responsible for most of the violent deaths in Syria. Since 2011 about half a million people have died, a third of them civilians. Annual deaths peaked in 2014 with 111,000. Since then, there’s been a steady decline with deaths falling under 10,000 a year in 2020 and continuing to decline. It appears there will be about a thousand war related deaths in 2022.

Tormenting the Turks

Syria continues to be a major problem for Turkey while increased trade with Russia has provided a needed economic boost. Turkish relationships with Russia begin in Syria and elsewhere are increasingly merging in Syria. At the same time the war in Syria continues to slow down. In the northwest (Idlib province) there are over 10,000 Islamic terrorists holding about half the province against weak but persistent attacks by Syrian troops. Most of the casualties in Idlib are caused by Russian airstrikes. The Kurdish-controlled northeast, including Hasaka and parts of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces, continues to be attacked by Turkish forces, but not in a major way. That is changing as Turkey persuades Russia to shift its air support to assist Turkish operations.

Turkey is also continuing its “decapitation” (assassination) program against Kurdish civil and military leaders, especially those supporting the Kurdish led SDF (Syrian Defense Forces) militia and Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish separatists operating in northern Syria. Turkey uses electronic eavesdropping on Kurds suspected of supporting the Kurdish rebels and separatists. Air strikes, usually with UAVs armed with laser guided missiles, do most of the killing and a lot of the surveillance.

Turkey is striving to achieve control of a 30-kilometer-deep (into Syria) border strip along the length of its Syrian border. The Assads and Kurds agree that this border strip is a bad idea.

Iran Is Making Deals

The Iranians continue to seek cooperation from the Turks, Syrians and Russians in getting Iranian forces close enough to the Israeli border to make attacks possible, but until recently no one is interested. Iranian efforts in Syria and Lebanon are very low-budget and Iranian officers in charge of this have to make do with very little. This has changed recently as Iran has been supplying Russia with weapons to be used in the Ukraine fighting. In return Iran is getting some modern (Su-35) jets and spare parts for some of their older Russian made warplanes. In addition, Iran expects Russia to be more helpful in Syria, where Russia already has an understanding with Israel that involves Russia not interfering with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets. In return Israel does not supply Ukraine with weapons. Most Israelis support the Ukrainians but they also recognize the threat from Iranians in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Russia and Iran are still negotiating terms for this issue.

In August Russia and Iran signed a new agreement that expanded economic and political cooperation between the two nations. This agreement ignores sanctions currently imposed on Russia and Iran and formalizes the cooperation between the two oil producers to evade Western efforts to prevent Iran and Russia from exporting its oil. The new agreement also confirms joint efforts to support each other militarily. Iran has supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine while Russia backs Iranian threats to other Middle Eastern oil producers. This does not include unofficial Russian agreements in Syria that keep Israel and Russia from going to war because of continued Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria. Russia continues to support Iranian efforts to expand its influence over the Iraqi government.

This new arrangement means problems with Israel-Russia understandings in Syria. Israel sometimes fires on Iranian forces operating near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel occasionally releases evidence of this to the media so Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iranian foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria since 2020 but have not made much progress. Continuing Iranian sponsored violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents away from the Israeli border area.

Israel has not been providing any weapons to Ukraine because of Iranian activity near the Israeli border in Syria. Israel needs to maintain good relations with Russia to deal with the Iranian threat. Russia told Israel that sending weapons to Ukraine could reduce Russian cooperation in Syria against Iran. Most Israelis support Ukraine, but the Iranian threat is very real and next door, so Israeli politicians cannot ignore it unless they want to lose their next election. Russia does not want to lose its relationships with Israel but now Iran is in a position to force the matter. Russia appears to be seeking a compromise with Israel that will not offend Iran.

Other parties in Syria have been renegotiating relationships in Syria. In May Syrian leader Bashar Assad made an unannounced visit to Iran, apparently to negotiate how Syria and Iran will take over Russian bases and any Russian equipment left behind. Most Russian ground forces in Syria are returning to Russia because of the war in Ukraine. These Russian troops consist of special operations forces, military advisers and tech support personnel who help maintain Russian weapons used by Syria. The departing Russian troops are first moved to a Russian controlled airbase near the Mediterranean coast and then flown back to Russia. Some of the abandoned bases were transferred to Iranian control and used by Iran-backed militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran is one of the few countries to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has even sent the Russians some weapons via the Caspian Sea which borders Russia and Iran. The Assad visit was announced after he left Iran to return to Syria.

Israel recently revealed that the Assad government had turned over control of the underground chemical weapons research center at Masyaf (northwest Syria Homs province). Israel has been monitoring and occasionally attacking Masyaf for years. Since 2017 Iran has been actively assisting Syria in expanding the Masyaf operation, but apparently not to resume manufacture of chemical weapons. Instead, Iran staffed the facility with Iranian weapons specialists. This was for the conversion of unguided missiles to guided missiles. Moving most of that activity to underground bunkers provided a work area that was more resistant to airstrikes. Earlier this year a series of airstrikes destroyed all the entrances to the underground facilities and apparently collapsed some of the underground spaces. Israel makes it clear that such attacks will continue as long as Syria and its patron Iran try to attack Israel and openly call for the destruction of Israel.

ISIL In The East

ISIL also continues to be a problem as they contest control of remote areas in eastern Syria. Most of this occurs in the Badia Desert south of the Euphrates River Valley. ISIL and associated groups have long used the largely empty desert as a sanctuary. This desert area extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria, 85 percent of Jordan, and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Baida desert was long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against and between Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. An exception to this rule has ISIL waging an assassination campaign against Islamic clergy and staffs of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong.

September 12, 2022: In the east (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) a failure to provide chlorine for water pumping stations led to contaminated water and an outbreak of Cholera. At least three people have died so far. Typically, about three to four percent of Cholera cases turn fatal. Iraq also had a Cholera outbreak this year, for the first time since 2015.

September 10, 2022: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the Iran backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia has been turning over dozens of its local (Syrian) members to the Syrian army because these men had joined Hezbollah to avoid getting conscripted into the Syrian army. This resolves one of many disputes between the Assad government and Iran.

September 9, 2022: Turkey revealed its police and arrested Bashar Khattab Ghazal al-Sumaidai, a senior ISIL official, in Turkey. Sumaidai was a senior judge for ISIL and divided his time between Turkey and Syria. Sumaidai was also considered one of six potential replacements for the top leadership position in ISIL. The last two ISIL leaders, including founder Baghdadi, had been killed in northwest Syria (Idlib province) near the Turkish border. The successor to Baghdadi was himself killed in February 2022 and his successor named a month later. With Sumaidai under arrest, the potential candidates for leadership of ISIL get smaller. These disruptions to the senior ISIL leadership have hurt the organization via fewer recruits and financial donors.

September 8, 2022: In the northeast (Hasaka province) Kurdish SDF forces clashed with ISIL, leaving one ISIL gunman and two Kurds dead. In the northwest (Idlib province) Russia warplanes carried out fourteen airstrikes on several Islamic terror groups in the province, killing over a hundred people. This is part of the Russian air support provided to the Assad government to justify the Russian deal with the Assads to obtain long-term leases for a Russian air field and naval base in adjacent Latakia province. The Hmeimim airbase there was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim. As long as the rebels are active in Idlib they will be a threat to the Russian bases.

September 6, 2022: In the north (Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike hit the main airport outside the city. This is the second such Israeli attack in the last week. Israel has been intensifying its airstrikes on airports that Iran uses to fly in weapons. Israel has already disrupted road and sea movement of these weapons. Israel is deliberately damaging the runways of major airports and preventing repairs from being made. The airstrikes also target airport navigation equipment. Israel told Syria that these attacks are not directed at Syrian forces but just Iranian efforts to move modern weapons into Syria for use against Israel.

September 3, 2022: In Libya Turkey has continued, for the sixth month, withholding pay for the thousands of Syrian mercenaries it has here. Turkey won’t let the Syrian soldier return to Syria either. Turkey is having political and financial problems back home that won’t be resolved until the June 2023 national elections.

August 31, 2022: In the east (Deir Ezzor province and the Euphrates River Valley) Iran ordered all its militias, including Hezbollah, to take down any rocket launching facilities aimed at American bases near the Iraqi border. Iran wants to concentrate its efforts on Kurdish forces in the area.

August 27, 2022: In the northwestern (Hama province) an Israeli air-strike destroyed a group of warehouses where over a thousand Iranian rockets were stored. Some of these rockets had been assembled there while others were flown in. It had taken Iran over a year to amass this stockpile. The Israeli airstrike set off a series of explosions that lasted for over six hours.

August 20, 2022: In the north (Aleppo province) two days of fighting between Turkish and Kurd SDF forces have left two Turkish soldiers and three wounded while Turkism artillery fire killed 17 civilians and wounded 35. Turkey blames the fighting, which consisted of artillery fire and bombs, is the fault of the United States for their support of the SDF.

August 15, 2022: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), near the Tanf /Walweed border crossing, American troops shot down two UAVs seeking to attack their base.

August 14, 2022: In the south (Damascus) and west (port of Tartus) Israeli air strikes left three Syrians dead and three wounded. The targets were apparently related to Iranian weapons shipments.

August 12, 2022: The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry thanked Latvia for designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and called on other nations to do likewise. Since July such a resolution has been making its way through the U.S. Congress. If that resolution is signed into law, it will make Russia the fifth nation the U.S. has designated and imposed sanctions and other restrictions related to terrorism support. The other four “state sponsors” are Syria, Iran, North Korea, and Cuba.

 

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