There is no agreement (between the major powers with forces in Syria) about what to do with the Syrian Kurds and their SDF militia, which was largely responsible for destroying ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria, including capturing their capital city Raqqa. There is a conundrum about how to handle the Kurds/SDF. It goes like this;
The Syrian Kurds want an autonomous Kurdish region in the northeast, similar to what the Iraqi Kurds have had (for 25 years) next door in Iraq. The Assads are inclined to allow that (as the Assads have been able to work with the SDF for years even though the SDF are technically Syrian rebels). The Turks and Iranians oppose the Kurdish autonomous region while the Russians and Americans support it.
The Turks want to control a security zone on the Syrian side of the border and use this territory to resettle (perhaps by force, as most do not want to return) the Syrian refugees in Turkey. This zone will extend 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. Everyone opposes this but the Turks are insistent. The Americans are trying to get the Turks to guarantee Kurdish security but the Turks refuse and also keep talking about fighting the SDF to eliminate them as a “threat”. The Turks are also known to support some Islamic terror groups although they officially deny it. The Americans want to make a best effort to negotiate a compromise with the Turks but that is not going well. Such a compromise is essential if the Turks are to remain in NATO because a growing number of NATO members see the Turks as hostile and unreliable and not really worth keeping in NATO. The Turkish population is divided by this issue as well and most Turks are uneasy about their own government, which identifies itself as Islamic and democratic but over the last decade has become more irrational, corrupt, authoritarian and paranoid. The Turks had long (since the 1930s) been seen as a secular and stabilizing force in the Middle East. But once the Soviet Union (a major threat to the Turks) collapsed in 1991 Turkish attitudes towards the West and the Middle East began to change. Since 2000 the ruling party has been one that identifies as “Islamic” and not interested in becoming more Western.
The trouble is, most of the Middle Eastern nations don’t trust the new Turkey either because up until 1918 most were or had been conquered provinces of the Turkish Empire. The Turks preferred to be feared rather than loved or just respected and obeyed by their subjects and reacted harshly to any disorder or disobedience. Most of Turkey’s neighbors believe the Turks have not changed. Only the West was willing to accept the new Turkey but the current Turkish government has turned its back on the West. In short, most everyone sees the Turks as trouble rather than a potential solution to anything.
The Iranians want the Assads to accept Iranian domination (as Hezbollah does in Lebanon) and agrees with Turkey the Syrian Kurds should not get autonomy and should except rule by the Iran backed Syrian government as well as Turkish control of border areas. Iran has a major problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force in Syria dedicated to starting a war with Israel.
The Russians would prefer that the Turks and Iranians got out of Syria and that the Assads and Kurds worked out a compromise (which the two seem willing to do). The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach.
Israel wants Iran out of Syria and would prefer that the Kurds got their autonomy. Israel is willing to make a peace deal with Syria and Turkey. Israel has successfully attacked Iranian efforts to build a military infrastructure (bases, arms factories, forces on the Israeli border) in Syria and this has made the Iranian leadership angrier and very frustrated. Iran is seen as even more unstable and unpredictable than Turkey.
The Americans (and most NATO members) want Turkey to act more like a NATO member and less like a Turkey trying to reestablish its imperial influence in the Middle East and Islamic world. The Turks are seen as unreliable and dangerous by just about everyone. For somewhat different reasons the Iranians are viewed the same way. The Americans are also threatened with attack and destruction by the Iranians but the Turks still like to at least pretend they are a NATO member in good standing and would like the Americans to appreciate what the Turks are trying to do. The West has been unable to understand, appreciate or support whatever it is the Turks are trying to do. The Americans are trying to negotiate some sort of compromise with the Turks but this is not going well and the Turks seem less concerned about being expelled from NATO and regarded as a hostile force than to the Americans and other NATO members.
The ISIL Last Strand
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the last visible remnant of ISIL is surrounded by the Kurdish led SDF rebels in the town of Baghuz near the Iraq border. There several hundred ISIL gunmen fortified buildings during the first week of February. Many of these ISIL men had wives and children with them and there was some disagreement if the families would remain for the fight to the death. Some wives refused to stay and SDF troops saw some of them trying to escape with children and being fired on by ISIL gunmen. Apparently, ISIL considers such “defectors” as likely to let the enemy know details of ISIL defenses. These defenses contain roadside bombs, landmines and explosive traps in some buildings. There are also some tunnels dug under streets for shelter or to moves from one fortified building to another. Sometimes, but not always, escaped family members do talk, but usually, do not. The most recent group of civilians to leave the ISIL fortified zone was apparently the last and did so without being fired on. Most of the ISIL fighters inside that zone would prefer not to die fighting in a last stand. The surrounded ISIL forces are trying to negotiate a withdrawal to Idlib province in the northwest, where a much larger number al Qaeda Islamic terrorists are surrounded. The al Qaeda forces in Idlib want nothing to do with any ISIL members. Nor does anyone else anywhere. For these trapped ISIL fighters the choice is unconditional surrender (and long prison sentences or even execution) or death in battle.
There are still smaller groups of ISIL men hiding out in Sunni Arab portions of eastern Syria and across the border in Iraq. The SDF clashes with ISIL fighters several times a week and some main roads in the province go through villages believed to harbor ISIL members who are remaining quiet for the moment.
The Other Islamic Terrorists
In the northwest (Idlib province) the largest number of surviving Islamic terrorists are trapped. Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions do not trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, is making a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turkish government.
Other conspiracy theories have some HTS factions seeking to make a deal with the Assad government which, while largely composed of Shia and other non-Sunni (like Druze and Christians) factions has a long history of working with and even supporting Sunni Islamic terrorists. The one thing everyone here can agree on is the destruction of Israel. The current Turkish government is not as outspoken about this as other Israeli foes, but the Turks are on record as wanting Israel gone. While everyone is trying to make a deal the Islamic terrorists controlled parts of Idlib are at the mercy of the Turks who control the roads used for foreign aid deliveries. HTS controls over a million civilians, most of them supporters. The Turks do not want a lot of these civilians trying to get into Turkey as refugees.
Russia and Iran oppose Turkish plans for Idlib and Kurdish held areas to the east (all the way to the Iraq border). The Turks want permanent control over the Syrian side of the border to improve their own border security and, more importantly, cripple Syrian Kurdish efforts to establish an autonomous Kurdish region in the northeast. This puts the Turks at odds with Syrians in general and especially the Iran backed Assad dictatorship in Syria. Now into its second generation, the Assad clan feels it has won a major victory that will not be complete until all foreigners (Turks in the north, Americans in the east and Israelis in the Golan Heights) are out of Syria. None of those foreigners want to cooperate because they feel the Turks, at least the current Islamic government, cannot be trusted. Arabs, in general, do not trust the Turks, who ruled most of the Arab Middle East for centuries (until 1918) and are still resented and feared because of that.
Currently, about 70 percent of Idlib province is controlled by the HTS coalition. This takeover was completed by early 2019 despite Turkey, Russia and Iran-backed Syria having a plan to prevent it. That plan was never implemented because no one wanted a major battle in Idlib, except possibly Iran. Any attack on Idlib would be very costly without Russian airpower and unthinkable if Turkey opposed it (because of the risk of many Idlib civilians trying to flee into Turkey.) The Russian and Turkish leaders have met several times since mid-2018 to try and work out a new agreement about Idlib, one that can be carried out. So far the Turks refuse to back an attack. Iran and Russia could do it but it would be costly in terms of personnel and equipment losses. The Islamic terrorists in Idlib are known to have a lot of modern weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The Assads point out that the Iranian mercenaries would have to provide most of the ground forces for the attack because the Syrian Army has serious morale problems because so many of the troops have been in uniform since 2011 and not enthusiastic about seeing any more heavy combat. A major part of the Iranian mercenary force in Syria consists of Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen. These forces have suffered heavy casualties since 2012 and most are not being sent back to Syria because Hezbollah leaders report that the fighting in Syria was unpopular with many Lebanese, including Hezbollah supporters. It has gotten to the point where Iran had to back off on its demands for Hezbollah troops in Syria. At the same time over 20,000 Hezbollah militiamen got combat experience in Syria, where they usually fought organized as regular army units (company and battalion size units). Israel has noted this and identified which Hezbollah combat units are now considered “combat experienced” and which are still rated as “militia.” The Israelis are adapting their tactics and training accordingly.
The American Presence That Cannot Be Ignored
During 2018 American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq declined by 78 percent from 2017 (the peak year with 39,577 smart bombs and missiles used.) The previous two years (2015-16) were nearly as intense with about 30,000 bombs and missiles used each year. In 2018 the number of manned fighter-bomber sorties only declined 20 percent and there were simply far fewer targets to hit. The aerial surveillance sorties declined by half in 2018 simply because there was a lot less ISIL activity on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. That and the fact that the surviving ISIL members had learned to either hide well or die. Not having ISIL controlled territory helped as well.
Despite the decline in activity in 2018, there were still twice as many American armed aircraft sorties in Syria/Iraq than in Afghanistan. In Syria/Iraq only ten percent of those sorties involved using a weapon. In Syria/Iraq the peak years of 2016-17 saw half of the armed aircraft sorties resulting in a weapon being used. In 2018 it was only about nine percent of sorties resulted in a bomb or missile used.
Afghanistan was always much less intense and the difference in weapons used was even greater (nine times as many) in 2017. The fighting in Syria/Iraq is far more intense and destructive with more than twice as many deaths in 2018 and even greater disparity (up to five times as many deaths) in Syria/Iraq in previous years. Afghanistan has always been a more low-level war as it is more about drug gangs using the Taliban to terrorize opposition (to drug-related activities) as well as the tribal warfare and rural banditry which has long been a feature of Afghan life even during “peacetime.” In other words operations on the ground are quite different in Afghanistan compared to Syria/Iraq. The one constant is the effectiveness of American aerial surveillance and airstrikes.
For Syrians, a major casualty of the civil war has been any progress in reducing corruption. One of the major problems for Syrian economic growth before 2011 was dealing with persistent corruption. In 2018 there was no perceptible progress, despite the increasing poverty caused by years of civil war and general mismanagement (by local and national leaders). The Middle East has long been known as one of the most corrupt regions in the world and that explains why there are so much unrest and lack of social, economic and political progress. It also explains why some nations succeed and many do not. Israel and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) have done a better job of dealing with it than most.
According to international surveys of corruption, Syria ranks 178th out of 180 countries (same in 2017). Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea/14, Yemen/14, Syria/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Syrian score is 13 (14 in 2017) compared to 62 (64) for Israel, 35 (32) for Egypt, 18 (18) for Iraq, 41 (40) for Turkey, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 49 (48) for Jordan, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 41 (40) for India, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Russia, 39 (41) for China, 17 (17) for Libya, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 72 (75) for the United States, 72 (73) for Japan, and 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia.
A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Syria’s corruption score has changed for the worse since 2012 when it was 26. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.
Worldwide Islamic Terrorism
Worldwide, Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014, when there were 35,000. Global deaths hit 19,000 in 2017 and under 14,000 for 2018. Since 2014 five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan) have accounted for most of these deaths. In 2016-17, however, al Shabaab in Somalia accounted for more of the deaths in Africa than Boko Haram. In Syria, most of the 2018 deaths were still civilians because the Assad tactic of going after pro-rebel civilians in an effort to persuade these Sunni Arab Syrians to leave the country.
The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL, a more radical faction of al Qaeda that currently is where the most radical practitioners of Islamic terrorism are found. Islamic terrorists continue to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorist-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorist-related deaths and is outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.
February 20, 2019: In the east, the American troops continues to occupy positions in Syria at the Tanf border crossing to Iraq. This key crossing is near the Jordan border. With the American forces present there is a 55 kilometers “deconfliction zone” maintained by American forces that unwelcome military forces (Russian, Syrian and Iranian) are banned from. The unwelcome are unhappy about this and have expressed their feelings by not allowing supplies to reach the American run refugee camp within the zone. Most of the 50,000 Syrian refugees are women and children and the U.S. has to bring in all the supplied from Iraq.
February 19, 2019: France and Britain, the only other NATO nations with some troops in Syria supporting the Kurds, confirmed that they will not remain in Syria when the Americans leave but will pull their troops out as well. The Americans had asked Britain and France to keep their support forces in Syria given that Syria is more of a European than American problem.
February 14, 2019: Leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran met and agreed that there would be no military offensive against the thousands of Islamic terrorists trapped in Idlib province but that other, unspecified, measures would be taken to increase the pressure on the trapped Islamic terrorists to surrender. There were also no details on the issue of recent fighting between pro-Russian Syrian Assad troops and Iranian mercenaries. Russia and Iran are competing for the position of the main foreign supporter of the Assad government. The Assads would prefer the Russians, who are not as ideologically fanatic, economically weak and diplomatically isolated as Iran. Russia has to be careful here because the Iranian ground forces (over 20,000 Shia mercenaries) are the largest infantry force in Syria. Russia does not want a war with Iran but they do not want Iranian forces to remain in Syria because Iranian plans for Syria will not end well for anyone.
February 11, 2019: In the north (Golan Heights), Israeli tank fire destroyed what turned out to be an Iranian observation post near the Israeli border. Two Iranians died in that attack. Apparently as a result of this attack and several recent airstrikes on Iranian bases in Syria Iran has pulled back its forces from the Israeli border. These forces are being moved to bases closer to the Iraq border, making it easier to move them into Iraq if necessary. If Iran sets up missile launchers in Iraq aimed at Israel the Israelis would bomb them and the Iraqis now it do not want to get involved in that sort of thing. Syrian army forces could be seen coming in to replace the departed Iranian troops.
Russia once more proclaimed that Israeli airstrikes in Syria were illegal. At the same time, Russian officials agree that Israel has the right to defend themselves. Russia also refuses to open fire on Israeli aircraft or missiles. The Russians want to avoid a demonstration of Israeli countermeasures that work. This would reduce confidence in Russian weapons, which are an important export item for Russia.
February 6, 2019: In northwest Syria (Latakia province), Israel identified a new assembly plant for GPS guided rockers outside the port of Latakia and near the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) Russian airbase in Syria. This is apparently a rebuilt version of a similar facility destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2018. The new one technically belongs to Syria and many of the components are dual-use items imported by Syrian companies.
February 4, 2019: Ukraine and Israel have become allies of sorts and Israel has been purchasing Ukrainian EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment that has been successfully used against the Russians by Ukrainian forces. A recent example of this is the Ukrainian Kolchuga passive sensor system. This system is built to passively (just by listening) detect a wide variety of Russian military equipment, including nearly all their air-defense systems that use active sensors (radars and control signals). Israel purchased a Ukrainian Kolchuga M system in 2018 and it was operational late that year. This made it easier to locate and monitor all Russian air defense systems in Syria, especially the mobile ones. That was a key element in the ability of the Israelis to destroy Syrian air defense systems which were used against Israeli attacks even after Israel warned Syria not to do so.