Syria: What Was Lost

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April 24, 2019: The damage done to Syria by eight years of war is worse than realized when you take into account expected (normal) growth in the economy (GDP) and population if the war had not happened. This data assumes a decade of some post-war reconstruction for the real Syria. Syria without the war would have a population of 32 million by 2030. Because so many (over six million) Syrians fled the country and fewer were born (and 500,000 more died) the most likely population of war-ravaged Syria by 2030 is 22 million. Most of the refugees (Sunni Arabs) do not want to return to a homeland dominated by a Shia government and occupied by Iranian (and Shia) forces. In these “war/no-war” comparisons the economic projections show the country even worse off. Currently, GDP is less than a third of what it was in 2011. But even with a decade of post-war reconstruction 2030 GDP would only be about 74 percent of what it was in 2011 and about 35 percent of what it would have been in 2030 without a war. Without the war, GDP would have doubled by 2030. It is possible that Syria will grow (in terms of GDP and population) at a faster rate but that is unlikely since not a lot of nations are lining up to donate to or invest in reconstruction. In part that is due to the expected long-term presence of Iran or, even without that, the Assads would probably remain in power and still accused of war crimes during the war. There is no statute of limitations on that sort of thing. Meanwhile, the years of war have destroyed structures, infrastructure and businesses that will cost several hundred billion dollars to replace. That will be hard to do for a nation that had a 2011 GDP of about $60 billion and not a lot of natural resources other than its people and their many skills. And those skills have declined due to the war wrecking Syria's educational system. 

Little money is being offered to finance reconstruction. The Iranian budget for Syrian operations has been cut and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) is doing what it can to build grassroots support for Iran by handing out favors to any Syrians seen as likely to reciprocate. The IRGC efforts include trying to convince Sunnis to convert to Shia Islam. This doesn’t bother the Sunni Turks and Kurds but it infuriates the Arab oil states, who are the major source of reconstruction cash. Iran has the Assad family by the throat and even if some members of the Assad clan favor rebuilding relationships with the Sunni Arab world, Iran has convinced some Assads that Iran is the best bet. Meanwhile, Syria will remain an economic and social disaster area for some time to come.

Multiple Conflicts

Israel still wants Iran out of Syria and would prefer that the Syrian Kurds get 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. While Iran has backed off from the Israeli border and spent more time and effort concealing its operations and personnel in Syria, there are still plans to “destroy Israel.” These apparently revolve around upgrading over 10,000 of the longer (50 kilometers or more) range rockets Iran has provided Hezbollah in Lebanon. The upgrade is mainly about adding GPS guidance systems that will allow for precision attacks on Israeli targets (especially populated areas). Mass use of these rockets could overwhelm Israeli anti-missile defenses. Iran is also seeking to rebuild the Syrian missile factories and supply Syria with more modern missile technology. These efforts are regularly hit by Israeli air strikes.

Russia has taken the lead in brokering agreements or “understandings” to deal with disagreements with Turkey or Iran over who will get what in Syria. So far Russia has had limited success with Iran and Turkey. Israel has been willing to work with Russia and that has proved useful for both countries. Israel and Russia have been cooperating in Syria for years but Turkey and Iran are determined to have their way despite the opposition they are encountering.

Iran has been spending a lot less on Syrian operations because Iran has less cash to operate with. The IRGC budget for foreign operations (especially Syria and Lebanon) have been cut, apparently in a big way. The Iranian mercenary force in Syria is undergoing a reorganization and downsizing. The IRGC explains this away by describing it as a “redeployment for the attack on Israel.” The reality is that there is a lot less cash to pursue that goal and the IRGC is actually trying to avoid more Israeli airstrikes if only because this implies that Israel continues to win this war with Iran. In Lebanon the well-established (since the 1980s when founded by the IRGC) Hezbollah has done the unthinkable and is asking the public for donations because Iranian subsidies have been cut, apparently drastically. The Iran government is spending more money to relieve the economic problems most Iranian face back in Iran. Beyond that, the American revival of economic sanctions has left the Iranian government will less cash, a lot less.

Meanwhile, there are a number of complications in Syria that have led to a military stalemate. Many of these revolve around what to do with the Syrian Kurds and the remaining Islamic terrorists. Iran has problems with Israel in Syria, as well as its own allies. The Iranians want the Syrian government (controlled by the Assad clan) to accept Iranian domination (as Hezbollah does in Lebanon) and agrees with Turkey that the Syrian Kurds should not get autonomy and should accept rule by Iranian backed Syrian government as well as the existence of Turkish controlled border areas. Iran has a significant problem in that no one wants them in Syria much less acting as an occupying military force 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. Iran is a major impediment to such a deal. The Americans, Israelis and most other Middle Eastern nations agree with this approach and are pressuring Iran to get smart and get out.

The Arab oil states are willing to establish “normal” (non-threatening) relations with the Shia Assad government in Syria but only if Syria takes a more aggressive stand against Iranian efforts to extend its influence in Iraq and Syria. For Syrian leaders that is difficult to do because Iran has control, or a lot of influence over, the majority for ground troops available to the Syrian government. These Iranian mercenaries and local militias see Iran as a protector against Sunni Arab Islamic terrorist aggression. Note that there are Sunni Moslems who are considered non-threatening, or much less threatening. All non-Arab Sunni Moslems (like the Kurds) are more tolerable than Arab Sunni Moslems. This is largely because many Arab Moslems consider Arabs more authentic Moslems. After all, Islam was founded by Arabs, the Moslem scriptures were written in Arabic and, well, you get the idea. Non-Arab Moslems find this attitude annoying and sometimes it is much more than that. This is because the most violent Islamic terror groups, especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), were founded and largely composed of violent, intolerant Sunni Arabs. The most active of these belligerent bigots are found in Iraq and Syria, where ISIL still has a lot of support. The remaining ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria have proved very difficult to eliminate.

The Kurds in the northeast (Hasaka province and areas to the west along the Turkish border), who are Sunni but not Arab, have kept ISIL out of areas the Kurds control by strictly limiting the entry of any non-Kurds to largely Kurdish areas. The Syrian government doesn’t like this attitude but they respect and have taken advantage of it throughout the civil war. The Kurdish controlled areas in the northeast have, since 2012, become a place where Syrian Kurds and Assad forces could cooperate and maintain an informal, but a generally effective, truce. Iran is urging the Syrians to break that truce but the Syrians are reluctant (or often outright refuse) to do so. The Turks are also threatening to cross the border into Kurdish controlled areas but despite years of threats have hesitated. They know the Kurds will fight and still have the support of the Americans and some other Western nations. For the same reasons, the Iranians are reluctant to go after the Kurds from the south.

April 23, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Russian and Syrian forces carried out over a dozen airstrikes, plus artillery fire on suspected Islamic terrorist targets throughout the province. This caused hundreds of casualties, many of them civilians. One reason for these attacks is to remind the thousands of Islamic terrorists trapped in Idlib that survive only if they refrain from large scale violence. Negotiations between the Islamic terror groups, Turkey and Syria are still a stalemate. This can go on for a long time, but not forever. All those Islamic terror groups are volatile and prone to getting real violence real fast with little advance notice.

April 22, 2019: In the east (Homs province), ISIL forces have been evading and attacking Syrian security (army and militia) forces along the main road that goes through the town of Sukhnah on its way to the Euphrates River Valley and Deir Ezzor province. This is all in the Badia Desert area., which extends into nearby Jordan and is thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. For the last week there have been several clashes that have left over a hundred dead and wounded, most of them security forces who were ambushed. The main job of the security forces is to keep the main road open. This vital route passes through Homs province from the Euphrates to more populated (and pro-government) areas to the west. Over the last month, there have been more than a hundred dead from attacks near or on that road, most of the losses were suffered by the security forces. The fatalities included several local pro-government officials or tribal leaders who were killed by ISIL death squads. These death squads are active throughout southeastern Syria where ISIL is still active, although in hiding.

April 20, 2019: In the northeast, SDF (Kurdish led Syrian Defense Forces rebels) is holding 9,000 ISIL fighters and 60,000 family members. The SDF is having a hard time getting the many nations these prisoners come from to take them back. Some 90 percent of these prisoners are Iraqi or Syrian while ten percent are from about 50 other countries. Iraq is willing to screen and prosecute about 31,000 returnees and Syria is preparing to do the same. But other foreign, especially Western, nations are refusing to take their citizens back. That’s because the legal systems in the West demand a higher degree of proof and Western authorities realize the ISIL family returnees, especially the mothers, are often still true believers and are teaching their children to think the same way. Most of these returnees would be turned loose by the courts for lack of sufficient evidence of past terrorist crimes or current attitudes. The Western nations do not want to raise another generation of Islamic terrorists within their borders. Meanwhile, the SDF is stuck with thousands of these women and children and has not got the resources to maintain them indefinitely.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials hosted a one day conference on regional security attended by senior politicians from Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Syria and Jordan. This was a rare event in that it got Iranian officials meeting with Arab officials.

April 18, 2019: In Syria, the government is suffering a serious fuel shortage. Since late 2018 Iran has not been able to smuggle in petroleum products by sea. The Americans have been successful at finding the halting the use of tankers. Egypt has cooperated by honoring American requests to block suspected smuggling tankers from the Suez Canal. Tankers that can fit through the Suez Canal but take the long way (around South Africa) to Syria are automatically suspicious. Iran is short of cash to pay for more detection-proof smuggling efforts and is doing what it can by sending fuel to Syria via truck. The American success at detecting and punishing shipping companies engaged in smuggling has caused most shipping companies to back away from lucrative (if you don’t get caught) Iranian offers to smuggle petroleum. This, plus the recent American designation of the IRGC as an international terrorist organization has infuriated, and frustrated, Iranian leaders. Economic and corruption problems in Iran continue to cause popular unrest. Iran needs a win, somewhere, somehow and so far that is not happening.

April 17, 2019: Commercial satellite photos have revealed that Russia has brought in several Iskander launcher vehicles and has stationed them at a Russian controlled airbase near the coast. The Iskander is a 3.8 ton, single stage, short range (500 kilometers) ballistic missile that normally uses conventional warheads. Iskander is extremely accurate (landing within five meters of the aiming point). Iskander is transported and launched from an 8x8 40 ton truck that carries two of the missiles. Iskander was first used against Georgia during the brief 2008 war (to annex two portions of Georgia). Iskander has been exported to Algeria and Armenia. Exports are modified so their range is 400 kilometers. The Russian military has 136 launcher vehicles in service. Iskander is probably going to be used against the Islamic terrorist held area in nearby Idlib province.

April 16, 2019: In Syria (Aleppo), eleven people were killed when Russian troops clashed with an Iran backed local militia. Three of the dead were civilians while the rest were militia (nationality not mentioned). Russia has sent military police battalions, composed of Russian Moslems, to Syria to deal with troublesome pro-government militias. The most bothersome militias tend to be the ones created by Iran using foreign mercenaries and the Russian military police have orders to arrest or open fire on any of these militias that misbehave. Syria cannot do this without offending Iran while the Russians can and everyone understands that the Russians are performing a needed service.

April 14, 2019: American sanctions enforcement officials are pressuring India to crack down on Indian shipping companies who break the law (several laws actually) by having their tankers move Iranian oil to Syria. This is done by shutting off AIS (legally required tracking system) as it approaches Syria, unloading the oil and then leave. The Americans have identified many of the Indian owned tankers doing this sort of thing, including one that ran aground on the Syrian coast and was stuck there for months before tugs could be brought in to pull it off the beach.

April 13, 2019: In western Syria (Hama province) Israel launched another airstrike, from Lebanese airspace, on Iranian guided missile facilities. This site is rumored to be where Iran is carrying out nuclear weapons research. Foreign technical experts have been seen at the site, including some North Koreans and “Russian speakers.” Several people were killed, including two Iranians, and possibly other foreigners. Numerous structures were destroyed. Israel apparently coordinated this attack with Russia, which is according to an understanding Russia has with Israel. This attack apparently used the new Rampage air-to-ground missile, which arrives at the target at very high speed (similar to ballistic missile) and is very difficult to intercept. Syria had an S-300 air defense battery in the area. The S-300 could, in theory, intercept a Rampage missile but apparently the Syrian S-300 batteries, although manned by Syrian troops, cannot be used without Russian permission. The Israelis are said to provide Russia with 15 minutes advance warning of attacks so the Russians can ensure there troops are out of the target area and S-300 systems are not used. Although Russia has tested S-300 and S-400 systems against ballistic missiles they do not want to be tested against Israeli high-speed missiles. S-300 would likely do poorly and that would be bad for export sales.

April 12, 2019: In the northwest, more Turkish troops arrived at the Syrian border near areas (the northern portion of the Turkish Hatay province) that are close to Kurds. This put the additional Turkish troops opposite Kurdish forces in Syria. Turkey has been threatening to attack the Kurds for over year but has not yet made a major move.

April 10, 2019: Recent national elections in Turkey resulted in many anti-immigrant officials getting elected. Provincial governors and mayors of large cities have a lot of power to make life uncomfortable to the many Syrian refugees. A growing number of Turks want the Syrians to go home. The Islamic government that has ruled Turkey since 2000 is in decline, partly because of the refugees. Most of the six million Syrians who fled to other countries since 2011 were Sunni Arabs deliberately encouraged to flee by the Assads. About two-thirds of these refugees ended up in Turkey where the Turks have offered to absorb most of them (Turkey already has an Arab minority). Most of the Syrian refugees would like to go home but since the rebels have been defeated the refugees realize that Syria is not a welcoming place for Sunni Arab refugees. About a third of the Syrian refugees are in Lebanon where they have shifted the ethnic balance of a much smaller country than Turkey. The refugees in Lebanon are not welcome at all and the ones in Turkey are feeling less and less welcome because of the economic recession in Turkey.

April 9, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Syrian troops launched a large operation to find out where a group of ISIL members was hiding. This is in response to a night attack by ISIL yesterday that left six soldiers, and the three suicide bombers (also armed with guns) dead. In the last few days there have been several ISIL attack in the northeast (Kurdish controlled) and the northwest (in and around Idlib province). The Kurdish led SDF captured the last ISIL controlled territory on March 23rd but interrogations of the many ISIL fighters along with wives and widows taken earlier it was known that ISIL had long been trying to set up smaller, clandestine, operations elsewhere in Syria. Those secretive groups were apparently responsible for the recent attacks and both Syrian and SDF forces are out searching for ISIL hideouts. Russians air and missile strikes are supporting the Syrian army while the U.S. led air coalition is supplying air support for the SDF. Most of the remaining Syrian ISIL appear to be in eastern Syria. That is where many actual or potential supporters (Sunni Arabs) live and where a lot of territory has never been heavily policed and there are a lot of places to hide.

April 8, 2019: The United States designated the Iranian IRGC as a terrorist organization. This is expected to interfere with Iranian arms smuggling operations. For example, Iran’s second largest airline, Mahan Air, began scheduled service to Venezuela recently. Iran is believed to already have some IRGC personnel in Venezuela and has discussed sending more, but openly. The Quds Force supports many illegal, and some legal Iranian and Hezbollah operations in South America. These are no secret and one of the few countries where Quds and the IRGC can operate openly is Venezuela. The U.S. blacklisted Mahan in 2011 because it was being used to support Quds Force operations. In January 2019 Germany banned Mahan Air from landing in Germany and in March so did France. All this means Mahan has few places where it can use air space or even land. The IRGC was shown to be operating Mahan Air to move equipment and personnel for terror operations in and out of Germany before the German ban. The IRGC operates several freighter aircraft, most of them B-747s. The IRGC owns several Iranian airlines, including Mahan Air. The IRGC has been noticed using two B-747 freighter air aircraft they acquired in early 2017 when the IRGC revived a bankrupt Iranian air freight company. At first, it was thought this was simply another example of the IRGC taking over more of the Iranian economy. But by studying how the two 747s were used Israel concluded that these air transports were being used to move military equipment. One clue was the fact that so many flights tried to stay as far away from Israeli air space as possible even if it meant greatly increasing the cost of the flights. When flying to Venezuela Russian and Iranian aircraft use Syria as a stopover area, to refuel or take on or discharge personnel and cargo.

In response to IRGC being declared a terrorist organization China, a key Russian and Iranian ally, has openly suggested that Iran undertake a “strategic retreat” from Syria to prevent further chaos in the region that would endanger Chinese investments in Iran and, eventually, post-war Syria. China believes Iranian aggressiveness against Israel and Sunni Arab states is self-defeating and potentially trouble for nations, like China, that do business with Iran despite the sanctions.

March 27, 2019: Israel launched another airstrike on Iranian facilities in Syria, this time outside Aleppo. Seven people were killed and at least one warehouse full of weapons and explosives blew up. Israel apparently coordinated this attack with Russia, which is according to an understanding Russia has with Israel. Russian media later revealed that the Israeli warplanes had flown over Jordan and western Iraq to enter Syria. This avoided any interaction with Russian S-400 air defense systems in western Syria or the Syrian S-300 batteries covering the rest of the country.

March 25, 2019: Iran and Syria have made it official; Iran will assist the Assad government in regaining control of all of Syria and will back efforts to reopen all border crossings with Iraq.

The United States officially backed the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, which Syria still considers Syrian. Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967 when they took the area after Syrian used these heights to attack Israeli territory to the south that was on lower ground. In 1981 Israel annexed the area. The UN opposed this but that had no impact on the situation. Israel points out that Syria has never made a serious efforts to retake the Golan Heights since 1973. In that respect Israel considers the Golan Heights abandoned property and has absorbed it. Iran has told Syria that Iranian forces will help return Golan to Syrian control. Syrian leaders are nervous about that offer because the Iranians don’t seem any more likely to take Golan back than anyone else.

 

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