Al Qaeda is trying to survive the defeat of Islamic terrorist groups, mainly ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), in Syria and is doing so with a lot of help from the Turks. The main reason the rebels lost in Syria was the appearance of ISIL, which led to more fighting between rebel groups than with the Syrian government. That is another reason why ISIL is so unpopular throughout the Islamic world. Meanwhile, al Qaeda survived in Syria, first as al Nusra in 2012. In 2015 and 2016 al Nusra joined coalitions with other Islamic terrorists to deal with ISIL. Finally, in 2017 al Nusra declared itself to be the lead member of the HTS coalition, an organization that is still loyal to al Qaeda but insists it isn’t. HTS is trying to cut a deal with the Turks to get most of its members out of Syria alive (although disarmed). HTS has always been on good terms with the Turks, who have in turn been willing to let Islamic terror groups that will behave in Turkey or Turkish controlled portions of Syria operate freely. This policy has been criticized by fellow NATO members because it means Turkey is providing sanctuary to Islamic terror groups that consider themselves at war with the West. This is one of the many disputes the current Islamic government of Turkey has with its NATO allies. As a practical matter, it is not much different than the policy Saudi Arabia has long maintained but the Saudis are an acknowledged problem in that area while the Turks, as NATO allies, are supposed to know better. These attitudes towards largely Arab Islamic terrorists bothers a lot of Turks, who remember the old saying (popular when the Ottoman Empire ruled many Arabs); “don’t involve yourselves with the affairs of the Arabs.” The Arabs tended to put the most powerful local Arab leader in charge and remind him that any disloyalty would result in a costly visit by a Turkish army. This worked for centuries but that sort of thing is not acceptable these days. Thus many Turks, and most Westerners see the current Turkish government as playing with fire that will eventually burn the Turks and many others in the region.
Undismayed by this criticism some former members of HTS, mainly the NLF (National Liberation Front) are already operating under Turkish control, alongside the more secular FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels. NLF is a dissident faction of HTS which has allied itself with Turkey earlier this year. HTS is also in the process of removing its heavy weapons (mortars, rocket launchers and missiles) from the buffer zone. The buffer zone must be cleared of rebels by October 15th. Some rebel groups refuse to move but Turkey believes that it controls (or heavily influences) so many of the rebels in Idlib that the few groups that will not cooperate will be so outnumbered as to be unable to stop the peaceful Syrian takeover of Idlib. As part of this deal, Turkey says it will disarm and accept (as refugees) most of the Islamic terrorists currently in Idlib. It is believed that the Turks will then arm many of these Islamic terrorists and use them to fight the Syrian Kurds who still control most of northeast Syria and apparently seek to be autonomous like the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Assad government says it will accept this plan if it works, but expects to ultimately regain control of all pre-2011 Syrian territory. The Turks are not eager to surrender control of the buffer zone they set up and run on the Syrian side of the border. The official Turk position is that they will not leave until Syria holds national elections. That might not be too far from happening. However, elections during the decades of Assad rule were far from free and fair.
Iran Strikes Back
Iran is finding less consideration and cooperation from its allies in Syria. Russia, Turkey and the Assad government see the continuing Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria as a matter between Israel and Iran. The obsession with destroying Israel is seen as an Iranian weakness. Although Russia, Turkey and Iraq are technically allies with Iran in Syria the historical record shows Iran is usually the enemy of these three nations and that has been the case for centuries, long before Israel came along in 1948. One thing everyone can agree on is the need to get rid of the remaining Islamic terrorists in Syria. Most of these are currently surrounded in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. There are some ISIL groups hiding out in eastern Syria but these are seen as much less of a threat than the tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Everyone in and bordering Syria would like to see the Iranians go back to Iran and stay there. The few hundred Iranian troops and over 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria are seen as a constant source of trouble. Iran realizes that their allies in Syria have, and will probably continue, to collaborate with Israel if an opportunity presents itself. Yet Iranian leaders fail to see the absurdity of this situation and despite widespread popular protest against the Syrian operations continues to operate like its forces in Syria are on the verge of destroying Israel.
Discussions continue on how Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate in Syria once the civil war is officially over. Iran insists that it will still be in Syria at that point. Syria is negotiating peace deals with Kurds (who control the northeast), Druze (wh0 occupy much of the Israeli-Jordan border) and Sunni groups (tribal leaders and local leaders who have not been hostile). Syria wants to attract a lot of foreign aid for reconstruction but that is complicated by Iranian plans to establish a permanent military presence and continue threatening Israel. Several members of the Assad clan are facing war crimes charges and Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan want to send back several million Sunni Arab refugees (which the Assads do not want). The war will not end quickly or in a tidy fashion.
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 more 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. These phone calls have become more frequent and have 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.
In Syria, most of the ground forces used to find and eliminate ISIL are Kurdish led (and mostly Kurd) SDF rebels. In this effort, the SDF is assisted by about 5,000 American troops and several thousand contractors operating from 22 bases, most of them near the Iraqi border and in the northeast. The current American policy is to keep troops in Syria until ISIL and the Iranians are gone. The American advise and help train the Kurdish forces that control the Syrian northeast (which is adjacent to the Kurdish controlled areas of northern Iraq). Some of the U.S. troops in Iraq are in the Kurdish north where American and British troops have been operating since the early 1990s.
The Russian Presence In Detail
In mid-2018 Russia revealed that they had sent 63,012 troops to Syria since mid-2015. That includes army, navy and air force personnel, many having been there multiple times (but are only counted as one of the 63,012). Not included are contractors, who are civilians, even if they took on some of the most dangerous jobs and suffered more casualties than the military personnel. However many of the contractors were never near combat and were there mainly to help the Syrians refurbish and revive their rundown military equipment and infrastructure.
Out of those 63,000 Russian military personnel who have been in Syria (some for less than a day, few for more than six months) only about a hundred have died in combat so far. There have been half as many military contractors serving in Syria and they have suffered several hundred dead. No official numbers of military contractor fatalities have been released but Russian volunteer organizations have tried to keep track of the funerals or other indications of young men dying in Syria and it is clear that being a military contractor is a lot more dangerous. The point here is that there are still some Russians willing to take dangerous combat jobs but there are not enough them to maintain the million man military Russian leaders want. Russia knew going in that Russian troops getting killed overseas, even if they were not conscripts (who were kept out of Syria from the start) was politically unpopular with most Russians. Even volunteer troops getting killed overseas was unpopular although opinion surveys showed that the average Russian was not upset if a contractor (or “mercenary”) was killed because they were paid a lot more and were professionals who knew what they were getting into.
Russia also revealed that 41 percent of the Russian troops in Syria were officers and that seven percent of the troops sent were “artillery specialists”. That’s because Russia did have some artillery (tube and rocket) and anti-aircraft units in Syria as well as a lot of artillery officers and technicians to help rebuild the Syrian army artillery and air defense equipment and train personnel. Next, to “artillery” troops there were nearly as many special operations troops. These were there both for training Syrians and carrying out, well, special operations.” Most of these were eventually replaced with contractors, some of whom had earlier served in Syria as a soldier.
Most of the Russian troops in Syria were there to provide training, combat advisors and, most importantly, technical help in rebuilding the Syrian inventory of weapons and equipment. These support personnel were also hard at work maintaining Russian aircraft and military equipment in general. The Russian aircraft maintainers made it possible for Russian warplanes to fly 39,000 sorties (an average of 36 a day) that, according to Russian estimates, killed at least 86,000 enemy personnel. This air support was a key factor in Syrian forces being able to regain control of most of the country by 2017.
Is It Safe
Lebanon says that about 50,000 of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon returned home so far this year. Lebanon believes that up to 200,000 Syrians might leave Lebanon by the end of 2018. Then again, maybe not. In Syrian areas recently returned to government control police have been making arrests (of those suspected of being rebels or rebel supporters) and ordering young men to join the army and carry out their mandatory conscript service they avoided by leaving the country. Sunni Arab refugees are particularly suspect but even Shia and Christians are subject to serving conscript duty that was avoided in exile. Most of the five million Syrian exiles are Sunni Arabs and these were the backbone of the revolution and over 70 percent of the population in 2011. The Assad government would prefer that most of the Sunni exiles stay where they are, permanently.
October 6, 2018: In the northwest (near the Turkish border, north of Aleppo) Islamic terrorists set off a car bomb outside the Turkish controlled town of Azaz. Four civilians died.
In the south (across the border in the Israeli Golan Heights) several dozen Israeli Druze held a pro-Assad demonstration that was acknowledged by Syrian soldiers guarding the border (who shouted encouragement). The Israeli border police did not interfere because even though most of the 20,000 Druze living in Israeli controlled (since 1967) Golan Heights have retained their Syrian nationality they have been loyal to Israel. A growing number of younger Druze are accepting the offer of Israeli citizenship. Many of the Druze in Syria (about five percent of the population) turned against the Assad government by 2015. Since late 2014 al Nusra and other Syrian rebels controlled 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. That never happened.
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 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 controlled most of the border. Al Nusra was driven away from the Israeli border by Syrian soldiers and Iranian mercenaries in early 2018 and now the entire southern border is controlled by the Assad forces.
October 5, 2018: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkish backed NLF rebels clashed with HTS (al Qaeda) Islamic terrorists in the new buffer zone. Two FSA and one HTS men were killed along with three civilians. The clash was apparently over HTS efforts to arrest a troublesome Islamic terrorist commander.
October 3, 2018: In the northwest (Latakia province) S-300 equipment flown in for the Syrian military began arriving. This equipment is from the Russian 583rd Air Defense Regiment based near Murmansk on the Russian northern coast (Arctic Ocean). Russia said this unit had recently upgraded to the S-400 and that their S-300PM equipment was checked over and any problems were fixed. Russia often sells or gives away these used S-300 systems. Flying 39 vehicles (launchers, radars, control vans) to Syria via An-124 transports will include some of their operators and maintainers. Russia says Syrian crews will be trained by the end of October but that seems unlikely. It is quite possible that Russia is sending enough S-300 operators to get at least one of the batteries operational by the end of October. Russia wants the S-300s capable of confronting the Israeli air threat to Iranian and Syrian forces as soon as possible and is actually sending experienced crews along. Russia said it is providing the three S-300 batteries (24 launchers plus associated search radars and control centers) free of charge. Senior Israeli officials have said the S-300 won’t make any difference in Syria and that Israeli forces can deal with the S-300s as effectively as they did the S-200s. Israel already has lots of experience with the S-400 batteries Russia has brought in to protect its bases near the Mediterranean coast and Israel sees the Russian S-300s for the Syrians as an unfriendly gesture as well as a potentially embarrassing one. If the Israelis go ahead, as they say they will, and keep attacking Iranian targets and the Syrians use their S-300 systems to try and stop them, and get the same dismal results as they did with their S-200 systems it is bad news for Russian military tech. Maybe Russia felt it had no choice after the recent embarrassing incident (a Syrian S-200 missile destroyed an Il-20 maritime surveillance aircraft operating off the coast). But Russia is doing more than deliver S-300 missiles, it is also assigning Russian troops to operate with Iranian forces, making it more likely that Russians will get hurt if the Iranians get hit by an Israeli airstrike. The Israelis have made it clear they will not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria and if the Russians want to take more losses because of that, it is a Russian decision.
President Bashar Assad gave an interview to a Kuwaiti newspaper. This was the first time since 2011 that Assad has talked to a Persian Gulf Arab newspaper. Assad confirmed that he had been speaking with other many Arab League members since late 2017 and had obtained offers of assistance in rebuilding Syria and assisting Syria in becoming an active member of the Arab League once more. In late 2011 Syria was suspended from the Arab League and many of the 21 other League members cut diplomatic relations or imposed sanctions. But the Arab League was unable to do much else. By early 2013 the Arab League was still unable to muster enough unity to call for international (Western) intervention in Syria. The Arab League did that in 2011 for Libya and many Arabs considered it shameful that the Arab world could not handle the military intervention itself. Despite trillions of dollars in oil income and hundreds of millions of Arabs demanding something be done, the Arab League had to call on outsiders to save Libya from degenerating into a drawn-out bloodbath. That is what was happening in Syria and many Arabs refused to accept responsibility and just blamed the West and Israel for the mess. Given that toxic atmosphere, Western nations, including NATO member Turkey, were reluctant to do what the Arabs wanted it done but would not admit they cannot do it themselves. Meanwhile, the SNC (Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella organization for rebel groups) opened its first embassy in Qatar. At that point diplomats working for the Assad government were under pressure to switch sides (and some did) to represent the rebel government. By March 2013 SNC was recognized by the Arab League as the legitimate representative of Syria. This made it easier for the SNC to establish official diplomatic relations. At the same time, the U.S. refused the SNC request that NATO Patriot anti-aircraft missile batteries on the Turk-Syria border be ordered to shoot down Syrian warplanes operating within their range (which would mean some 50 kilometers into Syria). The SNC points out that these Syrian aircraft are constantly attacking civilians, as well as armed rebels. But the U.S. and NATO are still trying to avoid military involvement in the civil war, as that would mean Arabs would blame the West for everything that goes wrong. There would also be criticism in the West because armed support of the rebels would, indirectly, be aiding the Islamic terrorist rebel factions. The SNC allied itself with the FSA (Free Syrian Army) but both groups were brushed aside after 2013 by the growing power of Syria Islamic terrorist rebels. By early 2018 the FSA formally ended its alliance with the SNC and that confirmed that SNC was officially powerless even though it still exists.
October 2, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) two American soldiers and three SDF militiamen were killed when their vehicle was hit by an ISIL roadside bomb. American and SDF forces in the area are seeking to surround and destroy the last organized group ISIL has in eastern Syria. This operation has been going on since early September and has slowly but steadily forced ISIL from villages and rural areas near the Iraq border. ISIL tries to limit the mobility of SDF forces by using a lot of mines and roadside bombs. Three civilians were killed in the same area by an ISIL rocket attack on a pro-SDF village. This is the same area where the Iranian ballistic missiles landed yesterday. SDF provided data on where ISIL targets were likely to be. So far the SDF has arrested 2,300 people (about 30 percent adult males) on suspicion of being ISIL supporters or members.
Iran has agreed to build a $460 million power plant in northwest Syria (Latakia province). Construction begins next year, although this agreement is unpopular with most Iranians and that might delay planned construction in 2019. Western and most Moslem nations refuse to contribute to rebuilding Syria until there are free and fair elections in Syria. That is not something the Assads do so they have to depend on Iran, China and Russia for reconstruction funding and technical assistance.
October 1, 2018: For the second time Iran has fired Zulfiqar ballistic missiles from Western Iran at ISIL targets 570 kilometers away in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province). This time six missiles were fired and the press release noted that three had names; “Death to Israel.” “Death to America” and “Death to the Saud Family.” At least one missile failed and landed inside Iran and damaged a farm near the Iraqi border. Others may not have made it all the way either. The point of these names was to remind everyone that from western Iran Zulfiqar missiles can hit American bases in Syria (most of which are near the Iraqi border). These missiles can also hit the Saudi capital, although Iran has been trying, without success, to do that since 2016 by firing over a hundred ballistic missiles (with varying ranges) from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. All have been intercepted by Patriot air defense systems. If Iran could operate Zulfiqar from Iraq (dubious considering the current anti-Iran riots) the missiles could reach Israel and be intercepted by Israeli Patriot systems (plus several other air defense systems). The Iranian press release did not mention the failure or interception rates of Zulfiqar and similar Iranian ballistic missiles. The last time Iran fired missiles at Syrian targets was in June 2017 when six Zulfiqar ballistic missiles were fired at ISIL targets in Palmyra and Deir Ezzor. Only two of the missiles hit anything of value but some of them traveled about 620 kilometers. Four apparently landed in western Iraq. Iran denied these Israeli claims about accuracy and Israel dismissed the denials as more Iranian posturing. This public disagreement went on for a week and the Israelis did not back down with their claims that the Iranian missiles performed poorly. For a nation constantly threatened with attack by Iranian ballistic missiles the Israeli observation of the Zulfiqar performance is yet another embarrassment for Iran. The Iranian media described (and published pictures) of the Zulfiqar ballistic missile. This appeared to be another version of the Fateh-110 which is a 3.5 ton, solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 250 kilometers and a half ton warhead. Iran first revealed Fateh-110 in 2002. These missiles were also manufactured in Syria before 2011 (as the M-600). The Iranian version appeared to be based on the Chinese DF-11, which entered service in 1979 and continues to be used by China and was exported to Pakistan. The DF-11 (also known as the M11) is a single stage solid fuel missile that weighs 4.2 tons, has a range of 300 kilometers and carries a .8 ton warhead. By 2011 there were reports of a DF-11A which used a smaller warhead and larger solid fuel to achieve a range of over 700 kilometers. Several years later an update of the DF-11A entered service with a more accurate and reliable guidance system. This is a missile quite similar to the Zulfiqar, which Iran announced in 2016. So far no Zulfiqars have been sent to Syria or Lebanon. In 2013 Iran was found to be airlifting more Fateh-110s to Syria, apparently meant for Hezbollah. These longer range missiles, that can reach all of Israel’s major cities, are a primary target for Israeli forces in any future war with Hezbollah and some were destroyed by during at least one of the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria.
The 2017 Iranian ballistic missile attack was in response to a recent attack in the Iranian capital by six ISIL men armed with firearms and explosive vests. The attack went after two targets; the parliament (in central Tehran) and a shrine to religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who established the current religious dictatorship) south of Tehran. All six attackers were killed but not before seven other people died and 43 wounded. It was soon discovered five of the dead ISIL men were Iranians who police knew or suspected had left the country to join ISIL. The five apparently returned to set up an ISIL branch in Iran and ISIL boasts that this is the first attack of many in Iran. The 2018 missile attack was in response to a recent attack on an Iranian parade that left about 30 dead.
September 27, 2018: The U.S. repeated that it would remain in Syria until Iranian forces were gone but that American presence would not always include troops on the ground. Currently, there are 2,000 American troops in Syria, most of them training and advising Kurdish forces. All these could be removed if the United States believed it could maintain its leverage in Syria using air power and diplomacy.
September 24, 2018: Russia announced that it would begin upgrading Syrian air defenses by delivering S-300 SAM batteries. First deliveries will arrive by mid-October. In addition, Russia said it would try to jam electronics of aircraft making attacks in Syria. In other words, Russia is threatening to stop Israeli air operations in Syria. Unless Israel could get around this jamming electronically (possible, but difficult) the usual response is to destroy the jamming equipment. In most cases, the jammers will be operated by Russians and that would be a problem for Israel and disastrous for the Russians, who are trying to hide the fact that a lot of their military equipment is not as effective as the Russians claim it is. This is all about the recent loss of a Russian four engine Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft off the coast to Syrian S-200 SAMs. This sort of “friendly fire” is not supposed to happen, at least if your IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) equipment works. Something failed and it was apparently Russian and Russia does not want to dwell on that with existing or potential customers. One of those potential customers, Saudi Arabia, is not happy about the Syrians getting S-300 systems, because the S-300 surveillance radars have sufficient range (over 300 kilometers) to monitor air traffic in much of Saudi Arabia. Israel has repeatedly made it clear that it will not stop attacking Iranian targets in Syria. This sort of threat is usually the Russian way of saying (to Israel); we have to talk about how Israel is going to help get Russia out of this mess.
September 18, 2018: Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria since July have killed about 120 Iranians and Iranian mercenaries.
September 17, 2018: An Israeli airstrike in northwestern Syria (Latakia) destroyed a large warehouse used to store Iranian weapons as well as a nearby facility for assembling large rockets and ballistic missiles. During the airstrike Syrian SAMs (surface to air missiles) hit a Russian Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft, killing the crew of 15. Russia automatically blamed Israel but soon even Russian news commentators pointed out that the fault lies with Syrian and Russian procedures for preventing this sort of thing. Russia promptly said it would deliver S-300 SAM systems to Syria and Israel pointed out it could destroy them. Syria currently has older S-200 SAMs but uses them in a careless and reckless fashion, apparently frustrated at being unable to hit anything.
Israel also published high-resolution satellite photos of the Syrian presidential palace compound in Damascus. These photos were recently taken by the new Israeli made Ofek 11 spy satellite, which was put into orbit by an Israeli rocket.
Russian, Turkish and Iranian official worked out a way to deal with the remaining Islamic terrorists in northwest Syria (Idlib province) without triggering a large movement of refugees trying to get into Turkey. This deal calls for the establishment (by October 15th) of a demilitarized zone 15-25 kilometers wide that would separate government and rebel forces. Russia and Turkey would then deal with the Islamic terrorists in some undefined manner that apparently involves Turkey persuading most of the Islamic terrorist rebels that are Syrian to join FSA, a secular rebel group that Turkey backs. Those who refuse this offer would be attacked in such a way (a few small groups hit at a time) that a lot of civilians would not be compelled to flee. This compromise is vague on critical details but has delayed the offensive to take Idlib from the Islamic terrorists by force. Iran goes along with whatever Russia and Turkey want because Iran is more concerned with their efforts to destroy Israel.
September 16, 2018: In Syria, two more IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) men were killed in combat. Unofficial data (collected from the Internet or local Iranian reports of funerals) indicates about 2,400 Iranians have died in Syria since 2011.
Syria held its first elections since 2011. These were elections for 18,478 local council jobs in government controlled areas. The local councils have limited power over government actions and mainly advise. The Kurdish controlled areas did not participate.
September 15, 2018: An Israeli airstrike in Syria (Damascus) not only destroyed a warehouse full of Iranian weapons. The airstrike also destroyed a B747 freighter aircraft belonging to Saha Airlines, an operation owned by the IRGC. This aircraft had recently landed at the airport and not yet been unloaded. The IRGC operates several freighter aircraft, most of them B747s using several Iranian airlines. Apparently, Israel is seeking to destroy the aircraft.
September 8, 2018: Russia resumed its airstrikes in northwest Syria (Idlib province). Actually, the Russians had never completely stopped airstrikes against Idlib targets because some Islamic terrorists (mainly al Qaeda affiliated ones like HTS) in Idlib regularly try to attack the nearby (Latakia province) Russian Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase. There were several damaging attacks in 2017 but so far this year the rebels have made many attempts but none got through. The Hmeimim 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. Russia does not consider these “defensive airstrikes” part of preparations for retaking Idlib but if those airstrikes are increased and Syrian troops are nearby it is an offensive because the Syrians or Iranian mercenaries will advance.
September 7, 2018: The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Iran to decide what their common strategy will be in Syria and Syrian troops assemble in the northwest to retake Idlib province from the last major force of rebels left in Syria. Turkey asked for a truce in Idlib so that Turkey could try and negotiate a peaceful surrender. Russia and Iran rejected that at first but the final agreement was all about everyone coordinating their efforts in Syria and that means Turkey has an opportunity to negotiate and carry out as many deals with Idlib rebels as it can manage. Turkey intends to indefinitely maintain a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border and this would include Idlib province. This would give Turkey the opportunity to offer somewhere for former rebels can live that is in Syria but not subject to retribution by Syrian or Iranian troops or secret police.
In eastern Syria, near the American base at Tanf, a company of U.S. Marines conducted a live fire training exercise involving an aerial assault. This was done for the benefit of Iran, Syria and Russia, who have indicated they might deal with the Tanf base (which is near the Iran and Jordan borders). The United States has already attacked Iranian mercenaries and Syrian troops who got inside the 35 kilometer “security zone” the United States has established around the Tanf base. The only way a ground assault could work would be if the attackers had air support and only Russia has modern warplanes in Syria that have a chance of dealing with American fighters and air defenses in general. Yesterday Russia said its aircraft might enter the 35 kilometer (from the base) zone in pursuit of Islamic terrorists. The U.S. responded that American forces could take care of any intrusion and Russian aircraft should stay out. The American show of force caused the Russians to withdraw their offer of air support.
September 4, 2018: Russia has moved 26 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 and 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.
In northwest Syria (Latakia province), Russian air defenses shot down two UAVs headed for the Russian air base at Hmeimim. At the end of July, there was a similar incident. Russian forces shot those down as well and examining the wreckage determined that Islamic terror groups in the area (especially nearby Idlib province) are the main suspects. Russia launched some airstrikes at neighboring Idlib province in response to Islamic terrorists from Idlib attacking Syrian forces in Latakia. The airstrikes today were the first in 21 days as the Russians had been holding off on more air attacks in Idlib until they could convince Turkey to halt its opposition to a military solution in Idlib.
Israel revealed that since 2017 they had carried out more than 200 attacks (usually from the air) against Iranian forces in Syria. Many of these attacks were not made public by anyone, especially those against convoys or troop positions in the countryside. Israel released this data to emphasize that it will fight to prevent Iran from establishing a Syrian version of Hezbollah. The Israelis believe that Iran is using thousands of its foreign mercenaries (mainly Afghans but also Iraqis and other Arabs.