Syria: Game Of Unknowns

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January 9, 2018: In the south (Damascus) Syria claims that Israeli aircraft and missiles hit a missile warehouse outside Damascus. Syria claim they shot down one of the missiles and damaged an Israeli warplane. Israel did not comment, which is not unusual.

In the north, from the Mediterranean coast to the Iraq border, Russia, Iran and the Assads find themselves facing (and often fighting) and informal coalition of Turkish and American troops along with SDF (predominately Kurdish rebels) and some Sunni Islamic terror groups that appear to be cooperating with the Turks. To further complicate matter the Turks want to eliminate all armed Kurdish groups west of the Euphrates River. Then there is the problem of the rebellion. Technically the Assads are still the legal (internationally recognized) government of Syria (and control the UN seat and the Syrian embassies). The Assads invited Iranian and Russian forces into the country, but not the American or Turkish forces. At the same time Turkey has made it clear that it does not want any peace deal that leaves the Assads in power. The Turks have never got on well with the Assads, especially since the 1980s when the Assads became allies with Iran (because both Iran and the Assads were Shia and both were enemies of the Sunni minority dictatorship in Iraq that was then led by Saddam Hussein). The Turks are not getting on with their Russian allies either. Russia accuses the Turks of collaborating with Islamic terror groups and assisting some of these groups in making attacks on Russian bases in Syria. Turkey does not want to see Russian and Iranian bases in Syria. Russia is also pressuring the Assads about any Shia groups that might be attacking Russian bases with assistance from the Assads or Iran.

The Kurds have the military and diplomatic backing of the Americans and diplomatic support from the Russians (who have invited the Syrian Kurds to the Russian sponsored Astana peace talks). The Assads are trying to back out of their decades (since the 1980s) alliance with Iran and have the backing of Russia for that. Wanting Iran gone from Syria is a common goal for Turkey, Iraq, Kurds and Israel. Most Lebanese also agree with that (but Hezbollah does not). Israel believes the Assads are hostile to a permanent Iranian presence because that might lead to an Israeli invasion, which would give the Syrian rebels a boost.

And the rebels are still the rebels (although the Kurds have always been flexible when it comes to the Assads) and the Assad forces are concentrating on rebel controlled Idlib province in the north and the rebel held Ghouta enclave east of Damascus. The only success the Assads have had in Ghouta lately was stopping a rebel offensive that surrounded an army base. The Assads also get air support from Russia in Ghouta, although most of the air strikes are often by the Syrian Air Force.

The SDF rebels shifting forces back north after taking Raqqa. But some SDF forces are still operating in the Euphrates River valley near the Iraqi border. This is mostly against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) remnants and with the assistance of American air strikes (5-10 a day).

Iran Interrupted

For two weeks now Iran has been in turmoil because of nation-wide protests against the current government (a religions dictatorship run by Shia clerics). Arab and Israeli intelligence officials appear to agree that the Iranian unrest is entirely an internal affair (despite Iranian accusations of “foreign involvement”). The activity of Iranian forces (most of the IRGC and Quds) in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are being carefully monitored. A lot of the most capable IRGC and Quds men are outside the country and if a lot of them suddenly head back to Iran it means something major is going to happen inside Iran. Quds personnel are pretty busy in Yemen and Syria right now and the departure of key personnel would be noticed.

The protests are all about corruption, bad government and priorities. Since 2011 the Iranian government has spent more and more (often billions of dollars a year) on foreign wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. At the same time the Iranian economy, at least for most Iranians, gets worse. Then there are the strictly and often violently enforced religious lifestyle rules. Since the 2009 nationwide demonstrations there was fear that enormous popular unrest would break out again. The high unemployment, and obvious wealth of the senior clergy, and their families, fuels the growing opposition. The clerics still have some support. They also have the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). The IRGC is the primary security force keeping the religious dictatorship in power. The IRGC has also become one of the most corrupt institutions in Iran, owning billions of dollars in assets and demanding deals like some with the Assad government as payment for their services. The IRGC has been essential in creating an army of Shia mercenaries to keep the Assads in power. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Over a hundred IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. The IRGC expects to get paid, and they, and the Iranian people believe this is at their expense. As long as the IRGC remain willing to kill Iranians, another revolution won't succeed. The IRGC, however, has also become greedy and corrupt, and the clerics increasingly doubt the loyalty of these guardians of the revolution. Meanwhile the IRGC is essential to protecting Iranian interests in Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has made it clear that they will fight if Iran tries to establish a military presence in Syria. That is complicated by the fact that Iran has allies in Syria; Russia and Turkey. What makes this interesting is that Turkey and Iran are traditional enemies of Russia, while Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia are 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. Thus for Israel any long term Iranian presence in Syria is intolerable. Russia says it can work out such a deal but many Israelis are skeptical and Iran says such a deal is not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts 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.

The Israelis keep pointing out that Iran and their dependency Syria have, since the 1980s, openly called for the destruction of Israel. Many Westerners saw this as absurd while Russia sees it as an opportunity and the Israelis point out that they have nukes, the most effective military (and economy) in the region and no tolerance for more Iranian forces moving into Syria or agreeing that the Assads are a legitimate government. For Russia this is a challenge since as outsiders they realize that Israel is right and long-term a more dependable and desirable ally. But the current Russian government is getting by on uncertainty, deception and hope that something will work.

While Russian and Turkish officials have privately disapproved of Iranian plans to establish more direct control in Syria and Lebanon the U.S. and most European nations openly object to this Iranian strategy. France has been particularly opposed to the Iranian plans, in part because France has itself been involved in what is now Syria and Lebanon (the “Levant”) for nearly a thousand years. Over the last century Islamic radicals in the region have been more energetically trying to drive all non-Moslems out.

The Dead

How many people has the Syrian war killed so far? Apparently at least 400,000 since 2011 with 39,000 killed in 2017, down from 49,000 in 2016. While we are at it, how many people has the Assad government of Syria killed so far? By the end of 2017 ISIL lost control of the last bits of territory it had controlled in Iraq and Syria since mid-2014. Most of Syria is now back under the control of the Assads, although most of the population is not. In 2011 there were 21 million people living in Syria, now there are about 14 million. Most of the lost population is still alive, but outside Syria (mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan). The Syrian civil war saw the Assad government deliberately attack pro-rebel civilians. Since that included most of the Syrian population the immediate goal was not to kill them (although over 100,000 direct deaths were probably the result) but to get the pro-rebel Syrians to flee their homes and, preferably, the country. About a third of the population did just that. Many of these refugees want to return, but only if it is safe.

January 8, 2018: In the northwest (Latakia province) the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase has been under constant attack by rebels for the last two weeks. Some of these attacks caused Russian casualties, including at least seven aircraft. Russian and Syrian troops have apparently chased away rebels using 82mm mortars (which have a range of about four kilometers) and admit that they could use anti-mortar systems similar to those the Americans and Israelis have developed. Russia blames Turkey for allowing the rebels to obtain weapons and other supplies via Turkish dealers and smugglers. Turkey denies this and accuses Russia and Iran of allowing the Assad forces to cooperate with the Syrian Kurd rebels (especially the leftist PYD group) in Aleppo. According to Turkey anyone who works with the PYD (Syrian Kurdish separatists) is also supporting the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) which the Turks are now at war with and have been fighting since the 1980s. The Turkish leader is now calling the Assads and Russians terrorists and insists there can be no Syrian peace deal if it means the Assads are considered the legitimate rulers of Syria.

The Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase 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. Before 2011 Russia was building a small, but technically permanent naval support facility in Tartus.

January 7, 2018: In the northwest (Idlib province, northeast of Latakia province and bordering Turkey) the Assad forces have, over the last two days advanced and captured several villages in southeast Idlib that were long held by ISIL (which never held much more of the province). The ISIL held town of Sinjar was taken today and troops continued advancing towards an airbase in central Idlib that has been long held by rebels.

In the city of Idlib (in the northern part of the province) a car bomb went off outside the headquarters of a local Islamic terror group (Ajnad al-Kavkaz) run by Chechens. The explosion killed over 40 people, half of them civilians. It is unclear who was behind the car bomb attack. It could have been a rival Islamic terror group, including pro-Assad Islamic terrorists like Hezbollah.

Lebanon reports that 80 percent of the nearly one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon want to return to Syria and so far about 60,000 have.

January 6, 2018: In the northwest (Latakia province) someone sent 13 small UAVs equipped as cruise missiles (explosives, GPS guidance and a crude triggering mechanism that detonated the explosives when the UAV was close to the ground) to attack the Russian airbase at Hmeimim and the Russian naval base. The UAVs were detected by radar and seven were shot down while EW (Electronic Warfare) troops forced six to land. Three exploded when they touched down but three did not and are being examined to determine who put them together and launched them (from up to 100 kilometers away according to the Russians). Pictures of the UAVs released by Russia show a modified commercial UAV similar to what ISIL has been using elsewhere in Syria.

January 5, 2018: Iranian media reported that Afghan mercenaries in the Iran backed Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria has suffered over 10,000 casualties since 2013. Over 20 percent of the casualties were fatal. It was also reported that over 3,000 Afghan Shia mercenaries died fighting against Iraq in the 1980s. Then as now the Afghans were recruited with the promise of Iranian citizenship for them and their families. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria has been a decisive factor in keeping the Syrian security forces from being completely destroyed.

January 3, 2018: In the south (the Ghouta suburbs 15 kilometers east of Damascus) eight weeks of fighting have left the Assads frustrated in their effort to capture what is one of the last rebel strongholds around Damascus. This 100 square kilometer (40 square miles) enclave still holds over 300,000 people and was the scene of a major chemical weapons attack in 2013. In mid-2017 the Ghouta area was controlled by over 10,000 armed rebels and at the end of the year that had not changed much. In fact, over the last week rebels in eastern part of the enclave advanced and surrounded an army base. There are about six rebel factions, most of them Islamic terror groups divided between those associated with al Qaeada and the rest supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states. These factions have spent a lot of time fighting, or feuding, with each other. This has tied down a lot of Assad forces to keep an eye on them and the rebels will cooperate in defending the area if attacked. In July Russian military police established about a dozen checkpoints in the Ghouta area and that was as much to reassure the people in the area that Russian and Syrian air strikes would not return but to also monitor movements of known rebels. But the rebels kept shooting, despite ceasefires and more pro-government forces set up patrols around the rebel controlled area. By October nearly all the smuggling routes were no longer safe (or reliable for regular use) and since early November airstrikes and artillery fire intensified, against both military and civilian targets. But the government forces could not make major gains and the government tightened the blockade in an effort to literally starve the rebels out. This works better during the cold weather, but this has not happened as food and other supplies continue to get into Ghouta and as long as that rebel presence exists outside the capital an Assad claims of having taken back control of Syria are suspect.

January 2, 2018: In the northwest (across the border from Turkey’s Hatay province) Turkish forces fired across the border at where they believe someone fired two mortar shells into Turkey. The target area was in territory controlled by the Syrian government.

December 31, 2017: In the northwest (Latakia province) rebels fired numerous 82mm mortar shells at the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase, killing two Russians and destroying (or severely damaging) seven aircraft (four Su-24 bombers, two Su-35S fighters and one An-72 transport). An ammunition bunker also exploded.

December 30, 2017: The United States is keeping its 2,000 troops in Syria and shifting their emphasis on crushing ISIL to seeking out the last few ISIL members left in the country (or at least in territory the Americans have access to) while also assisting in clearing former ISIL controlled areas of explosive traps and hidden (or buried by combat) weapons and munitions. American forces operate mainly in the northeast, where Syrian Kurds have controlled the area since 2011. There are also some American troops in the southeast, near where the Jordan and Iraqi borders meet.

December 29, 2017: In the northwest (Idlib province, northeast of Latakia province and bordering Turkey) the Assad forces have battled rebels for weeks trying to establish clear control of some of the province. Until now Idlib was the only province where the government had not reestablished a presence. Now this province is a high priority for the Assad forces, not just because it has been rebel controlled for so long but because it is next to Latakia province (on the coast and the home of many Assad loyalists) where major Russian bases are. Thus the Syrian Idlib campaign is supported by Russian airpower and special operations forces.

December 27, 2017: Rebels fired three large rockets at the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase, but the Russian Pantsir-S1 air defense system shot down two of the rockets while a third rocket landed just outside the base.

December 26, 2017: In southern Syria (Golan Heights) Syrian officials, with the backing of Iranian mercenaries, negotiated a deal with the rebels who control the area where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet. The rebels agreed to leave the area (mostly on the slopes of Mount Hermon) and this was carried out by the 31st. The rebels were replaced by what appeared to be Syrian soldiers. Israel has said it will attack any efforts to put Iranian forces on the border and Iran is probably testing that threat. Iranian sponsored forces in Syria have already been hit with over a hundred airstrikes in the last few years, usually while trying to move weapons to Lebanon. But now Israel is targeting Iranian mercenaries (often led by Iranian officers from the Quds).

December 22, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL counterattacked the SDF forces in a village 21 kilometers southeast of Mayadin city. The attack was repulsed by the Kurdish fighters, leaving at least 30 Islamic terrorists dead. ISIL moved its headquarters from Raqqa to Mayadin during September and October in part because Mayadin was about 44 kilometers from Deir Ezzor city and closer to the Iraq border, where ISIL fighters and families were fleeing the recent defeats in Mosul. Tal Afar and Hawija. ISIL no longer controls any cities or large towns in Iraq or Syria as Assad forces now hold Mayadin. There are still ISIL groups trying to survive along the Euphrates River. In late 2017 ISIL had ordered its remaining forces to concentrate in the Euphrates River Valley on the Syrian side of the border.

December 17, 2017: In a rare public gesture the Russian president publicly thanked the Americans for sharing information on Russian ISIL members who were back from Syria and Iraq and planning attacks. Russian police arrested several ISIL members before they could carry out an attack on a cathedral in St Petersburg yesterday. There has been a notable increase in raids on ISIL hideouts in Russia over the last few weeks.

While the official Russian line is that the U.S. is aiding ISIL to escape Syria the reality is that the Americans have developed a much better database of Islamic terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere, along with software to analyze and predict what the Islamic terrorists will do (or go) next. The U.S. is willing to share with whoever will do the same and Russia has long been one of those partners. While Russian propaganda (to keep Iran and Turkey happy) supports a favorite myth in the Moslem world that Islamic terrorism, especially groups like ISIL are all controlled by the CIA and Israel, which created these groups to make Islam look bad. The reality is that Russia has admitted thousands of its citizens (mostly Moslems from the Caucasus, especially Chechnya) have joined Islamic terror groups, especially ISIL. Often the details of (and announcements of) these intelligence sharing agreements are kept quiet to prevent the Islamic terrorists from learning something that could help them avoid detection. Russia knew it was vulnerable if a lot of those Russian Islamic terrorists came home and now they are doing so and the Americans are providing good intel on who, when and where. This has apparently prevented a number of attacks inside Russia and the public praise for the intel sharing deal is usually a sign that the arrangement will be used heavily for some time to come.

The Americans have an edge in Middle East terrorist tracking because they have been heavily involved with that since 2001, developed some useful new technologies and collaborated with Israel a lot and now is getting more cooperation from Arab states (especially Saudi Arabia and North African states) who have long been the source of most Islamic terrorists for decades. Russian troops have identified a lot of its own citizens in Syria since Russia intervened in late 2015. But to find out what these Russian terrorists planned to do after Syria more information was needed.

December 16, 2017: I n eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) a convoy of twenty Iranian trucks made what Iran called the first use of the new land route from Iran to Lebanon. This convoy transported Iranian Quds personnel and Shia mercenaries from Iran, through Iraq to a border crossing (from Iraq to Syria) that is controlled on both sides Iraqi Shia militias. From there the convoy continues through Deir Ezzor province to parts of central Syria the Assads never lost control of. The convoy could then go to Damascus or continue on to Lebanon and the Mediterranean ports.

 

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