Russia has moved 25 warships to the Syrian coast, apparently in support of the Syrian offensive against Idlib, the last rebel held province. The naval force includes submarines, destroyers, frigates, smaller warships an several support ships. This is the largest number of warships Russia has ever deployed to the Syrian coast and this is officially an effort to deter the U.S. Navy from attacking the Syrian forces (which the U.S. said it would do if the Syrians used chemical weapons in Idlib). Russia has also moved more warplanes to Syria and has some heavy bombers ready to fly from southern Russia to launch cruise missiles at targets in Idlib.
Some of the rebel groups in Idlib have been seen digging trenches and destroying bridges, or installing remotely controlled explosives, in preparation for the expected battle. The Turkish border is heavily guarded by the Turks but traffic is allowed, especially supplies coming in from Turkey. The fortified Turkish border is meant to keep Islamic terrorists out, as well as refugees trying to flee the expected fighting in Idlib.
Russia warned that the rebels are preparing to use chemical weapons while the United States pointed out that the available evidence indicates that the Syrian Assad forces are more likely to use chemical weapons. So far the Syrian Army has moved about 2,000 armored vehicles (visible from the air) to the Idlib border. Russia and Syria will provide air support for the Idlib offensive and Turkey will maintain control of its border. No Iranian mercenaries are being used in Idlib, something Turkey insisted on and Russia and Syria persuaded Iran to accept. Iran repeated its determination to keep military forces in Syria despite Israeli refusal to accept that and willingness to keep bombing Iranian facilities. So far Iran has not been able to prevent these air strikes and Israeli officials agree (with commercially available satellite photos and eyewitness reports from Syria) that Iranian military activity has decreased considerably since July. This reduction in activity is apparently linked with unrest back in Iran.
Elsewhere in the north (and the rest of Syria) there is not much violence at all, especially in Kurdish controlled territory (everything east of the Euphrates River). The Assads and Kurds are still negotiating the post-war form of government the Kurds will have. The Kurds want autonomy for their northeastern homeland and believe they have earned it. Although technically rebels after 2011 the Kurds were actually frenemies with the Assads throughout the civil war. Assad is inclined to grant it but Iran is pressuring the Syrians to take a hard line on the Kurds.
The Assads note that in neighboring Lebanon the recent national elections returned Christian billionaire Saad Hariri to his post as prime minister. Despite that Hariri has limited power as prime minister because Iran backed Hezbollah dominates the government to the point where they not only have a veto over anything the majority (which does not support Hezbollah) wants but can also push through nearly any new laws they (or Iran) wants. Most Lebanese do not want another civil war (like the devastating 1975-90 one) and Hezbollah and Iran take full advantage of that. The Assads fear they will end of like Lebanon if Iran is allowed to build a Syrian branch of Hezbollah. Putting that in perspective Hariri recently commented that he would rather deal with the Russians (about local matters) than the Assads.
Israel has warned that it will not allow a Syrian Hezbollah to be created and will attack Iranian forces in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This is especially true as Iran seeks to establish their shorter range ballistic missiles in these three countries and threaten Saudi Arabia as well as Israel with them.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has gone guerilla and has no large base areas where it can operate openly, especially in Syria. Yet many ISIL gunmen still have their families (wives and children) with them. These can hide in plain sight as refugees or live among pro-ISIL civilians. Such communities provide some support for the ISIL fighters but must remain unknown to police or the many (the majority) Iraqis and Syrians who are hostile to ISIL. Guerilla tactics were always an ISIL staple, especially in Iraq where ISIL operated (as an al Qaeda offshoot) before it changed its name to ISIL. The name change was the result of the unexpected success of some of these Iraqi terrorists at establishing themselves in Syria. There the civil war was intensifying and the Assad government was losing. Now that ISIL has lost control (by early 2018) of Mosul and other Iraqi towns they have no choice but to start all over. In Syria, ISIL lost control of Raqqa (to the Kurds) at the end of 2017.
As ISIL personnel are now generally in hiding it is difficult to get an accurate count. Official mid-2018 estimates were about 17,000 in Iraq and 13,000 in Syria. But that implies that the number of armed men ISIL had in Iraq by 2014 is the same as mid-2018. How can that be given the relatively low level of ISIL activity since early 2018? The answer is that the official estimates include a lot of unarmed supporters, including family members. Captured ISIL members will often exaggerate the size of the group he belongs to as will ISIL members delivering threats to local civilians who the Islamic terrorists are trying to intimidate into compliance (not informing on ISIL). Cooperative civilians are immune to ISIL attacks so there is that. But the ability of ISIL to enforce the cooperation is often an illusion because ISIL tries to appear more omnipresent than they actually are.
A population of cooperative civilians is essential for ISIL to survive as guerillas and that is why there are probably more ISIL operating in Iraq than in Syria. The civilians not only provide some cover but are also a source of supplies (which ISIL strives to pay for, in order to build some loyalty.) This is all basic guerilla tradecraft that is made more difficult when there are a lot of cell phones around. That increases the risk of some angry (or not even local) civilian making a call to the police to report possible ISIL activity. ISIL leaders noted that a key factor in the loss of control in an area was the local civilians retaining some access to Internet and cell phone service as well as satellite TV receivers. ISIL (and other Islamic radicals) have long tried to control the use of all three of these items but have been unable to completely eliminate them from populations they control. Once ISIL was driven out of an area the cell phone companies were eager to rebuild their cell phone and Internet service and as people in those areas of restored cell phone service became more confident that reporting on remaining ISIL activity would not get them killed the calls started coming. These phone calls have become more frequent and has led to the growing number of arrests or discovery of ISIL hideouts and the destruction of active ISIL terrorists. This has led to a decline in terror related deaths and more violent encounters between security forces and the many “sleeper cells” ISIL deliberately left behind when they lost control of an area. What has kept ISIL going are Sunni Arab areas where they still have some support, at least as someone who will fighting hack against the Kurds and Shia Arabs. There are fewer Sunni majority areas in Syria for ISIL to get support from.
The civil war that began it was always about Syrian Shia (the Assads) and other minorities against the Sunni Arab majority. The Assads deliberately and successfully drove most of the Sunni Arabs most opposed to them out of the country. The Sunni Arabs are still a majority but they have been terrorized by the Assads and convinced that support for groups like ISIL would bring swift and severe punishment. There are more opportunities to find sanctuary in Iraq. There are some areas along the Iraqi border where ISIL can hide on the Syrian side, but once discovered they are subject to attack by Iraqi or American airstrikes (or artillery fired from Iraq) as well as Kurdish and Assad ground forces in Syria (as well as some Iran backed mercenaries). ISIL is still around in Syria and Iraq but as hunted killers, not rulers of vast areas in both countries.
September 3, 2018: The United States warned Russia, Syria and Iran not to attack Idlib province, the last rebel held area in Syria. This warning was mainly meant for Syria and its use of chemical weapons. Russia is mainly there to provide air support of the Syrians do attack. Russia is also trying to intimidate the Americans. Iran is sitting this one out and while Turkey supports clearing the Islamic terrorists out of Idlib the Turks are just going to defend their border against the expected million or more refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkey won’t let them in. France also protested the offensive and also threatened to retaliate militarily. In the last two years, the U.S. has twice bombed Syrian forces in retaliation for Syrians using chemical weapons and threatens to do so again if the Syrians use chemical weapons in Idlib. Syria apparently plans to do so in order to reduce casualties among their own troops.
September 1, 2018: In the south (Damascus) there were several large explosions at the Mazzen airbase outside the capital. There were two fatalities. Syria blamed Israel, saying several rockets were launched from northern Israel against the Republican Guard base. Israel did not comment. Initial attempts by Syria claim the explosions were because of an accident, not an attack, were quickly withdrawn. There were too many witnesses and missile attacks leave missile fragments behind in the target area (which was right outside the base at a weapons and ammo storage area).
In the east (Homs province) an Iranian military convoy was hit by an airstrike. This killed four Syrians, one Iranian and three foreign mercenaries. At least eleven people were wounded. The airstrike may have occurred because the convoy was too close to the American special operations base of Tanf, on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border near the Jordan border. The American forces there reported they had been fired on by unknown forces but there was no damage and they did not return fire. So it remains a mystery whose warplanes did the deed. The Americans have some support from Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq and that is mainly to keep informed on what is going on in the area around Tanf. Iran has assisted (with its mercenaries) Assad forces in trying to eliminate the Tanf base but these efforts have failed. The Americans have too much airpower and too much aerial and ground surveillance around Tanf. The U.S. has declared a “free fire” zone that means any Assad/Iranian forces getting within 30 kilometers of Tanf are automatically attacked. Iranian and Assad forces rarely test this free-fire zone. They know it works. While no one took credit for the airstrike it is now believed to be Israeli, but the Israelis often try to hide their involvement.
Off the Syrian coast 25 Russian Navy ships (most of them warships the rest support) and 30 aircraft held training exercises.
August 28, 2018: Russia, Turkey and Syria agreed on a plan to attack and destroy the Islamic terrorist groups in Idlib province, particularly HTS/al Nusra. Idlib is the last Islamic terrorist stronghold and is in the northwest, on the Turkish border. Idlib is currently controlled by various rebel groups. Over half of Idlib is controlled by the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) coalition. This is the main al Qaeda organization which evolved from al Nusra by absorbing (willingly or otherwise) many other like-minded groups over the years. About a third of the province is controlled by several other Islamic terrorist groups. Last week the largest six of these factions merged to form the NLF (National Liberation Front). This merger was arranged by Ahrar al Sham, a longtime rival of HTS. About ten percent of the province is controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred kilometer long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast).
August 27, 2018: Israeli satellite photos show a new ballistic missile assembly facility being built on the Mediterranean coast at Baniyas. The new facility is similar in layout to existing missile assembly plants in Iran. The one in Syria appears to be about six months from completion. Iran is believed to be building or planning to build a similar facility in Iraq. These assembly plants would use Iran made components to produced solid fuel ballistic missiles including the Zolfaghar (700 kilometer range), the Fateh 110 which can be launched from trucks that carry them and have a range of 300 kilometers. There are also truck mounted Zelzal-3s with a range of up to 250 kilometers. All three of these can reach Saudi Arabian and Israeli targets from Iraq and Syria.
August 26, 2018: Syria and Iran signed a military cooperation deal. Details were not revealed although there was talk of Iran assisting in reconstruction efforts. That will be difficult considering the economic crises back in Iran and the growing popular protests against expensive overseas efforts Syria.
August 22, 2018: ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi issued his first recorded message in a year. The 55 minute speech admitted that ISIL had lost all the cities and major towns it controlled a year ago in the Syria and Iraq but urged his followers to continue attacking the enemy, which dozens of small groups of ISIL members have been doing with some success. Baghdadi had recently been reported killed (by an airstrike). These claims have been regular occurrences because so many people want the ISIL founder dead. Eyewitness reports from those who have seen Baghdadi in the last year report that he seems tired and dejected but still in charge whenever he met with his dwindling loyalists. Much like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, if you make enough enemies they will eventually catch up with you.
Russia revealed that their air force had launched about 39,000 sorties against enemy (rebels and Islamic terrorists) forces in Syria since September 2015. Some 121,000 targets were hit, killing 86,000 hostile personnel. The last major effort by Russian warplanes in Syria will soon take place in the northwestern province of Idlib. Russia, Turkey and the Assad government are trying to negotiate a peaceful surrender of the remaining rebels in Idlib but that is not expected to include all the rebel factions, most of them connected with one Islamic terror group or another. Syria is expecting some major air support from Russia in Idlib in order to keep casualties down for the Syrian ground forces. Iran has been persuaded to keep its mercenaries and IRGC forces out of this fight.
August 19, 2018: An American official confirmed that the United States, Israel and Russia agreed that Iran must not be allowed to establish a permanent military presence in Syria. Apparently, the Syrian government agrees with this as there have been some recent clashes between Assad forces and Iranian mercenaries.
August 18, 2018: In northern Syria, an army intelligence officer working for the Syrian Army “Palestinian Department” was assassinated by gunfire. Israeli involvement was suspected.
August 16, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an Iraqi Air Force airstrike near the Iraq border killed 18 ISIL men at what was described as an ISIL headquarters for ISIL forces in Iraq. Most of the victim of this strike were not Syrian.
August 15, 2018: Russian military police are expanding the number of outposts on Golan Heights from four to eight. The Russian military police are there to keep rebels and Iranian forces out of the areas so the UN can resume outpost and patrol duty to the satisfaction of the of the Israelis. Syria is offering amnesty to most local rebels but the Russians are not interfering with Syrian police arresting or raiding the homes of locals suspected of still being rebels.
August 14, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Iranian mercenaries have been fighting with Syrian Army (Assad) troops for control of the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Apparently, there is a dispute between the Assads and Iran over who will control border crossings for routes that are part of the Iran to the Mediterranean land route. This route is essential to support any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon.
August 12, 2018: In the northwest (Idlib province) a rebel weapons storage site, filling the basement of an apartment building, exploded. Fifteen rebels died along with 52 civilians. Two five story buildings were destroyed.
August 11, 2018: Israel released satellite photos showing the massive damage done by a July 22nd attack on an Iranian run missile assembly plant in northwest Syria.
August 9, 2018: Russia, Turkey and Iran announced that they would do all they could to avoid a bloodbath in the in northwest Syria where Russian warplanes are bombing rebel positions in the province and Iranian mercenary troops are preparing to accompany Syrian troops for an advance into Idlib. The three allies did not reveal how they planned to deal with Turkish concerns that combat in Idlib would drive over a million refugees into Turkey.