Syria: Rearranging The Chess Board For The Next War

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November 7, 2017: Who controls Syria once ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and other rebels are defeated? It is basically a showdown between Iran (which has been at war with Israel since the 1980s) and Israel (which does not want Iranian military forces on its Syrian border under any circumstances). Iran is also at war with Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies. Not surprisingly the Saudis and Israel have been cooperating more since 2001 because of this shared threat. Yet the Arabs in general have a problem as they have been insisting that Israel does not have the right to exist since Israel was created in 1947 and decades of state sponsored propaganda leaves a lot of Arabs confused as Israel and Saudi Arabia cooperate to deal with Iran. .

The Saudis are likely to become more public about their alliance with Israel because the Sunni Arabs believe they can rely on Israel more than their Western allies and that will require more open joint operations soon. The Western allies can back off from a fight while the Israelis cannot as they, and Saudi Arabia, are the main Iranian objectives. Iran is moving forward towards a confrontation and given past performance, might agree to back off if offered enough of an incentive.

When it comes to Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts Russia at odds with their two other allies (Turkey and Iran) in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally that the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. For example on October 31st Russia invited the Syrian Kurds to a November 18th “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue” conference in Russia. The Kurds were among 33 groups invited to a UN backed effort to work out a peace deal for post-war Syria. Russia has long tried to play peacemaker even though to make any progress it must offend its new allies Turkey and Iran. Russia is recognizing the key role the Syrian Kurds played in defeating ISIL in Syria and driving ISIL out of Raqqa. In contrast Turkey and Iran want to attack the Syrian Kurds and force them to submit to Assad rule. A week later Turkey said it had convinced Russia to allow the Syrian Kurds to attend. That was incorrect but Russia did postpone the conference until it could deal with Turkish objections.

ISIL Withers But Does Not Die

ISIL has lost all its major urban areas, more recently Raqqa and Deir Ezzor city in eastern Syria. Overall ISIL has lost 98 percent of the territory it controlled at their peak in late 2014. At that point ISIL controlled about ten million people in Syria and Iraq. Now they control less than 100,000.

Syrian forces are moving down the Euphrates River valley towards the Iraq border, clearing out remaining ISIL forces as they go. At the Iraqi border Iraqi troops (and Iran backed Shia militia) have already captured both sides of a key border crossing.

Up north the Kurds still control most of the Turkish border but the Turks are making their move to change that. Down south rebels still hold a lot of the Jordan border while the Israeli border is mixed with Syrian troops holding about half and various rebel groups the rest. Syrian forces control most of the Lebanon border. There is still a lot of fighting expected and before this is over (sometime in 2018) about half a million will have died in the war, most of them Syrians.

Libya is seen as the new ISIL base area. That is not working out so well because if there is one thing most Libyans can agree on is the need to keep ISIL out. With their headquarters in Syria gone, along with most of the territory ISIL had controlled until about a year ago, Libya still has to deal with more than a thousand ISIL members seeking to establish base areas (for training and planning operations worldwide).

As happened in Syria, Iraq Afghanistan and elsewhere harsh ISIL rule enraged many of the locals. In Libya ISIL punished or executed people for minor infractions of what ISIL considers proper Islamic lifestyle and that eventually backfired. ISIL definitely believes that if you can’t be loved by your subjects than fear is an acceptable substitute. That approach works both ways and ISIL lost in Libya and most everywhere else.

ISIL also needs money and with the Syrian oil income gone people and drug smuggling gangs have become more important, especially in Libya and Afghanistan. ISIL remains the most effective hired guns smuggling gangs can get. But even ISIL cannot stand up to the Western troops or determined local militias.

November 6, 2017: In the east, (Deir Ezzor province) a roadside bomb wounded five Russian soldiers and four Russian journalists.

November 4, 2017: The Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri resigned while visiting Saudi Arabia. Hariri, who was raised in Saudi Arabia and maintained a second home there, was persuaded to become the new Lebanese prime minister in late 2015 despite the fact that his father had been murdered by Hezbollah in 2005 after leaving the same job. The Hariri clan and many other prominent Lebanese Sunnis and Christians have complained about Iran backed (and created) Shia Hezbollah militia taking control of Lebanon. This has happened even though the Shia are a minority in Lebanon but with Iran backed Hezbollah have managed to develop a veto over most government decisions.

November 3, 2017: In the east, (Deir Ezzor province) Syrian troops cleared the last ISIL held areas of the provincial capital (Deir Ezzor city). At this point Syrian forces will move southeast to clear the Euphrates River valley to the Iraqi border. There ISIL today lost control of Qaim on the Iraqi side of the border. ISIL had had controlled this town since 2014. Qaim was special because it was the main border crossing between Iraq and Syria and increasingly hit with airstrikes and now ground forces as well. ISIL lost most other border towns already but held onto Qaim as long as they could because it was a key link in the main road from Mosul to Raqqa. That link is apparently no longer considered essential because ISIL no longer occupies Raqqa or Mosul. But the Qaim crossing also opens the way for a Iran-to-Lebanon highway for Shia forces. American backed rebels in Syria might still block use of that road.

In the southwest (Quneitra province) al Nusra rebels attacked Hader, an Assad controlled Druze village near the Israeli border. The attack began with a suicide car bomb exploding. This killed at least nine and wounded over 20. There was a lot of gunfire after that but the remaining rebels in the attack force appeared to retreat. Later that day, under pressure from the Druze community on the Israeli side of the border, Israel agreed to do what it could to keep the Islamic terrorists away from the Hader but would not send Israeli troops into Syria.

The Druze in Syria (about five percent of the population) turned against the Assad government by 2015. At this point Israel had, for several years, been letting badly wounded Syrians in for medical treatment but with Islamic terror groups like Al Nusra and ISIL operating on the border by 2015 and threatening Syrian Druze the situation has become tense. This led some Israeli Druze to assume that wounded Syrians were often al Nusra or ISIL men and there were some violent attacks on ambulances. One mid-2015 attack led to the murder of the Syrian patient. Israeli soldiers had been injured trying to protect ambulance crews and patients. Israeli police managed to track down the Israeli Druze responsible for the violence and end it.

Israeli Druze leaders had condemned the attacks and that helped the police investigation because the Druze can be very secretive (a centuries old trait). At the same time Druze leaders announced that Israeli Druze have raised nearly $3 million for Syrian Druze by 2015 and that fund raising continues. In 2015 Israel announced that it had told Syrian rebels across the border that if they wished to continue receiving Israeli medical aid for their badly wounded they must leave the Syrian Druze alone and help protect them from harm. Since late 2014 al Nusra and other Syrian rebels have come to control most of the border adjacent to Israel. This created problems with the Israeli Druze who feared for the safely of the 500,000 Syrian Druze.

The 130,000 Israeli Druze have been pressuring Israel since 2013 to rescue or help protect Druze living across the border in Syria. Israel has agreed to help but never released a lot of details. The solution apparently involved quietly making deals with Syrian rebels. This solution meant there was no need to allow lots of Syrian Druze into Israel or send Israeli troops across the border to establish a “safe zone” for Syrian Druze. This would preserve the lands of Syrian Druze and not turn them into refugees, but would also be more expensive (in cash and lives) for Israel by establishing a new border.

In 2015 Al Nusra was temporarily allied with ISIL and both these groups, especially ISIL, were very hostile to Druze (a semi-Islamic sect considered heretical by most mainline Moslems). By 2015 over a hundred Druze had already been murdered by Islamic terrorists in Syria and there was a sense of desperation among Israeli Druze. Al Nusra apologized for Druze their men killed recently but ISIL was unapologetic. Other Syrian rebel groups were willing to leave the Druze alone and even protect them in order to gain immunity from Israeli attacks. With ISIL gone from the Israeli border by late 2017 al Nusra and Assad forces control most of the Israeli border. Al Nusra has replaced ISIL as the source of most Islamic terror attacks.

November 1, 2017: In central Syria (Homs province) an Israeli airstrike did major damage to an industrial facility outside the city. Locals indicated that that plant and storage area had long been used by the Syrian military and may have contained a chemical weapons facility. All Syrian chemical weapons are supposed to be gone since a 2013 Russian brokered deal. But in the last few years there have been a number of confirmed instances where Syrian forces used chemical weapons.

October 31, 2017: In the northeast (Hasakah province) Turkish police found a smuggling tunnel under the border to the Kurdish town of Qamishli. The entrance on the Syrian side was blocked. The tunnel was about six meters (20 feet) beneath the surface.

The U.S. revealed that in the last two months they had killed 11 senior ISIL officials in Iraq and Syria, most of them having something to do with weapons development, finance, media and transportation. This is why the ISIL program of arming commercial UAVs with explosives suddenly disappeared and why so many ISIL dead appeared malnourished while captured (or surrendered) ISIL fighters talked of growing shortages of food and all manner of supplies. Large stockpiles of these supplies are being captured in Syria and Iraq but the organization that once arranged for distribution of this stuff were in disarray, in large part because the few senior ISIL officials who knew how it worked have recently been killed (while the few others have disappeared and appear to have used their resources to get out of the region). Another purpose of this decapitation (going after key leaders) campaign was to reduce the number of ISIL fighters getting home, especially if they came from the West. It was also noted that these decapitation attacks were hurting ISIL media operations, which were once the most successful among many Islamic terror groups. As suspected the last of the ISIL media experts were in Raqqa because after that city was captured by Kurd led rebels two weeks ago, ISIL media activity took a sharp drop. It is believed that ISIL still has some media experts out there and that they are seeking a new base of operations.

Russia announced that one of its Kilo class diesel-electric submarines in the Mediterranean had launched three Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIL targets in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province). Russia makes these announcements as part of a promotional program for sales of its Kilo subs and various Russian made weapons they can be equipped with. This marketing approach is working and that is one reason Russia also revealed that it would not reduce its air force activity in Syria now that ISIL was beaten but would increase it. Russia is more confident of using its new aircraft models in combat now that it has found and fixed various minor problems with some of these aircraft and the smart bombs and guided missiles they use.

October 27, 2017: Iraq called a halt on its offensive against its autonomous Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. In return the Iraqi government expects the Kurds to turn over control of border crossings (to Turkey and Syria) as the Kurds has already (before the Iraqi October 16 offensive against its Kurds) agreed to. This agreement allows the Iraqi forces to direct all their military forces towards the remaining ISIL held territory along the Syrian border. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are believed to have persuaded the Iraqi government to call off the offensive but the details of that are not yet known. The U.S. led air coalition continued its airstrikes in Iraq along with support on the ground and extensive logistic, technical and intelligence support.

October 26, 2017: In the east (Hasakah province) the main border crossing (Fishkhabour) with Iraq came under threat of attack on the Iraqi side by Iran-backed Shia militias and Iraqi troops. This threat did not materialize for several days but is apparently still present. If the Iraqi troops did make a move they would be an attack on one of the original (since the early 1990s) autonomous Kurdish provinces (Dohuk). Fishkhabour is also near one of the main border crossings to Turkey (Ibrahim Khalil). This border crossing was turned over the Iraqi government control on the 30th, which was according to an existing agreement. That deal will also turn control of the Fishkhabour to the Iraq government later. This crossing to Syria connects Iraqi Kurds with Syrian Kurd controlled Hasakah province. Losing access to this would make it more difficult for American troops who aid and advise the Kurds from moving between Syria and Iraq. Turkey wants this as well as Iran and the Assad government.

The UN released a report on an investigation into continued chemical weapons use in Syria. The report confirmed that the Assad government used nerve gas against a pro-rebel village in Idlib province during April 2017, an attack that killed over 83 (30 of them children) and left over 300 with nerve gas related injuries. This is a war crime that many UN members are demanding be prosecuted. As expected the Assads denied the charges safe in the knowledge that their ally Russia would use their veto to block any major war crimes prosecution. The UN investigators had concluded early on that the April attack used nerve gas but the latest report confirms that the nerve gas was delivered by the Assad forces. Another part of this report confirmed that ISIL used mustard gas in several September 2016 attacks.

Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and Syrian patron Iran was believed to have let the Syrians know details of how nerve gas worked in combat. In 2013 the Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It was believed that the Assads would not hold onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it would likely be used against them. But in late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for. The Americans doubt that ISIL had any success manufacturing chemical weapons. It was already known that ISIL was creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals (like chlorine or grain fumigant). Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on.

Nerve gas is different and the effects are unmistakable, gruesome and often fatal. Moreover the ability to accurately identify the composition or chemical weapons residue has improved greatly since the 1980s. Each batch of chemical weapons is a little different, especially rarely manufactured items like mustard or the various nerve agents (some are a gas some are an aerosol). Chemical analysis can quickly identify the type and identifying profile of the samples taken from a victim or the vicinity of the attack. This analysis was done to some of the Syrian stuff surrendered and destroyed in 2014. That means any use of chemical weapons leaves an informative data trail that can be read and followed.

October 25, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) SDF forces reported being attacked eight kilometers from Deir Ezzor city by ISIL and Assad forces. The ISIL attack force was largely destroyed while the Kurds fired back as the Assad forces and maintained their position.

October 24, 2017: Lebanese media confirmed that Hezbollah was withdrawing all its forces from Syria in early 2018. Hezbollah had earlier told the media about how soon its next war with Israel will happen but a lot of Lebanese were dubious. So were the Israelis who reported that Israeli military analysts agreed with that because the chatter (monitoring of attitudes in Lebanon among Hezbollah supporters and Lebanese in general) indicates that another Hezbollah war now would be unlikely. At the moment Hezbollah military power is crippled by losses (nearly 2,000 dead) in Syria and the continued deployment of about a third of their available forces there. In addition a significant number of veteran personnel are working in Iraq and Yemen supporting local pro-Iran Shia militias. More Hezbollah personnel will be heading back to Gaza now that Hamas has resumed its alliance with Iran. Same with Iranian efforts to form a “Syrian Hezbollah” along the Israeli border, especially the Golan Heights. This effort is led by the Quds Force and Hezbollah commanders who have long worked directly for Quds. In the long term (the 2020s) Iran is building something that is more than another bit of “destroy Israel” propaganda. By establishing military bases in Syria and organizing a branch of Hezbollah in Syria Iran has legal justification for stationing Iranian troops in Syria. Unless Israel interferes Iran could rebuild the Syrian military, especially the Syrian ballistic missile stockpile. Iran would have time (and money) to deal with the financial problems that are crippling Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus by the mid-2020s Iran would be in a much stronger position for attacking Israel. That would include the new Israeli natural gas fields off the coast near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah getting out of Syria is a necessity for Hezbollah which grew even more unpopular in Lebanon over the last five years.

October 23, 2017: In the south (outside Damascus) there was an outbreak of fighting between FSA rebels and nearly ISIL groups. This happened in a ceasefire zone that FSA had agreed to but ISIL had not. Nevertheless the local ISIL forces informally complied (most of the time) with the ceasefire, until now. This may have had something to do with the recent ISIL loss of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor city.

October 21, 2017: In the south (Israeli border), five small rockets fired from Syria landed in the Israeli Golan Heights and in response Israeli artillery fired on three Syrian army artillery positions. Israel has adopted a policy of only firing on the Syrian Army if anyone fires into the Golan Heights. There are a number of different groups in southern Syria that have a presence on the Israeli border. Israel suspects this particular incident was carried out by Hezbollah. Rather than try to determine exactly who fired into Israel each time Israel retaliates against the Assad forces as an encouragement to actually take control of their southern border. Earlier in 2017 the Assads said they now controlled the border with Israel and they may or may not.

In central Syria (Homs province) ISIL forces retreated from the town of Qaryatayn and Syrian soldiers entered to find that the Islamic terrorists had killed over a hundred residents before they withdrew (rather than fight Syrian troops inside the town). This sort of thing has become common in Homs province as ISIL forces retreating from towns they had long held are often murdering dozens of civilians before they leave and taking some civilians with them to use as hostages.

Russia used its UN veto to block a proposal to continue investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The UN had investigated and confirmed accusations that Assad forces used nerve gas earlier in 2017.

October 20, 2017: In the east (Raqqa province) the U.S. supported SDF (largely Kurdish) militia declared their effort to take control of the ISIL capital of Raqqa was completed. Now the SDF Syrian Kurds have to decide what to do about the Iraqi and Iranian threats join forces and attack the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish areas. The SDF suspected the same sort of thing will happen to them. Since mid-2017 Iran led Iraqi Shia militiamen have entered an area (Hasakah province) that has largely been under Kurdish control since 2012 and the Syrian Kurds warned Iraqis to stay out. These “accidental” incursions apparently had more to do with the Iranian goal of establishing a safe (for Iranian arms shipments) land route from Iran to Lebanon. A major highway crosses the border in the area where the Iraqi Shia militia are operating, now on both sides of the border.

October 19, 2017: In the south (Israeli border), , a mortar shell fired from Syria landed in Israel and within hours Israeli artillery tanks fired on an Syrian army mortar position visible from the Israeli side of the border.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) SDF handed over control of the largest natural gas field to Russia. SDF had captured this Conoco natural gas facility in late September. The Conoco (an American company) connection ended in 2005 when the Syrian government took possession of the facility.

October 18, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) a Syrian Army general (Issam Zahreddine) died when his vehicle his a landmine. Zahreddine was a veteran (1980s) officer and a commander of 7,000 Syrian Republican Guard troops clearing ISIL out of the province.

In Nineveh Province Kurdish forces withdrew, as they had earlier agreed, from the border town of Rabia and the major border crossing with Syria.

Russia made it clear their forces in Syria will not be reduced anytime soon because with the rebels defeated Russia has two military bases in Syria to develop and agreements to continue training and rebuilding the Syrian military. Opinion polls in Russia show 54 percent of Russians approve of the Russian efforts in Syria, but 34 percent oppose the Syrian operation and that percentage is increasing. While the government has kept Russian casualties down it has not demonstrated how the expensive operations in Syria are helping the average Russian.

October 16, 2017: Senior Russian military officials visited Israel and met with their Israeli counterparts. This was the first time a Russian Minister of Defense had visited Israel and, as expected, some major agreements were worked out and details of some were made public. Apparently Israel and Russia confirmed some modifications to their agreement on what Russia would do to keep Iranian forces (including Iranian backed Shia militias like Hezbollah) away from the Israeli border. Israel wanted the Russians to keep the Iranians at least 60 kilometers from the border but the Russians have agreed to smaller buffer zones (10-20 kilometers) and are willing and able to enforce those buffer zones. In part this is done by telling the Assad government that continued Russian assistance for the Assads is contingent on the Assads cooperating with the Russians in keeping the Iranians away from the border. At the same time the Russians do not interfere with Israeli air and missile strikes on Iranian weapons shipments moving from Syria to Lebanon (for Hezbollah). Syria protests via the media but does little beyond that. This cozy relationship with Israel is more valuable to Russia than any deals it has with Iran. Russia recognizes that Israel has the strongest economy in the region as well as the most capable military and nuclear weapons. After the Russian delegation left a senior Israeli official visiting Japan repeated that Israel would, if necessary, use military force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

In the west (Lebanon border) an Israeli reconnaissance jet flying along the Syrian border was fired on by a Syrian air defense unit based across the border in Syria. The Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft missile missed the Israeli jet, as these missiles have done several times already in 2017. Three hours later an Israeli airstrike hit the Syrian SA-5 unit. The SA-5 is a 1960s design that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010.

October 14, 2017: In Syria an IRGC general (Abdollah Khosravi) was killed while commanding Shia mercenaries. Khosravi was known to be involved organizing a unit of Shia volunteers from Iran and Iraq.

October 13, 2017: In the north (Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey) another 80 Turkish troops entered Syria in twelve armored vehicles. The Turks have kept their troops strength in Syria low. At first (August 2016) only about a thousand troops came in but occasionally Turkish troop levels increased by several thousand, most of those coming to the border or crossing it briefly. The Turks have kept their own casualties down (71 dead so far) and depended on Turk supported FSA Syrian rebels (about 12,000 of them) to do most of the fighting (and losing about 600 dead in the process).

October 11, 2017: In Damascus three suicide bombers tried to get into a police station but failed and two of them detonated. The three attackers and two policemen died. There are still some rebel held areas outside the capital and a lot more Syrians in government controlled communities that are hostile to the Assad government. It is much more difficult for Islamic terrorists to get into the capital and carry out attacks, but what happened today shows it is still possible.

 

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