In the northwest (Idlib province), Russian and Syrian warplanes continue attacking Islamic terrorist targets. Turkey objects because these airstrikes violate the ceasefire agreement worked out between Turkey, Russia, Syria and the remaining Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Syria and Russia point out that the Islamic terrorists violate the agreement by attacking Syrian and Russian forces. Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries are slowly taking back Idlib, one village at a time. Some of these micro-offenses are triggered by an Islamic terrorist attack on government forces. The Islamic terrorists have one major disadvantage; air support. Government use airstrikes frequently and to good effect, even when it results in civilian casualties. The airstrikes, which have increased in number and intensity throughout May, are mainly directed at civilians in Idlib, many of them related to the Islamic terrorists there. Making life miserable for pro-rebel civilians has been a favorite, ruthless, successful and illegal tactic of the Syrian government. It is also a war crime but the Assads have been using this sort of violence for decades and never paid much attention to foreign critics.
Most of the air support comes from the Russians. Turkey opposes this violence because it threatens to trigger a panic that could send several hundred thousand civilians towards the Turkish border. That border has been fortified and is guarded by Turkish troops with orders to fire on anyone trying to force their way into Turkey. In other words, shoot to kill. More war crimes, but at least the Turks would prefer to avoid that sort of thing.
Russia is supporting the Syrian government offensive in northwestern Syria against the last bit of rebel-controlled territory (Idlib province) for a number of reasons. Russian warplanes are flying a lot more bombing missions and, for the first time since 2018, Syria is again concentrating its airstrikes on pro-rebel civilians using barrel bombs (an empty oil barrel filled with explosives and whatever else was available). These barrel bombs are pushed out of helicopters or transports and are equipped with a contact fuze so they explode on impact. These attacks are mainly to force civilians to flee their homes and, eventually, Syria.
Turkey would prefer to negotiate a surrender with the Idlib Islamic terrorists, who are largely al Qaeda affiliated and not ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Turkey is not trusted to do that because the current Islamic government in Turkey has a history of providing sanctuary for some Islamic terror groups. In return, the hosted Islamic terrorists direct some of their attacks (all outside Turkey) at nations Turkey is not on good terms with. Everyone in the region does not want Turkey hosting more Islamic terrorists.
Russia is becoming the most reliable ally of the Syrian government. Turkey is seen as a foreign invader by the Syrians while Iran is appreciated for all its help in defeating the rebels but resented for trying to turn Syria into an extension of Iran rather than treating Syria as a sovereign nation and ally. Syria cannot ignore Iran because the Iranians still have a large force of mercenaries in the country and these are useful in dealing with the remaining Islamic terrorists.
Syria still has a major problem with the Syrian Kurds and their demand for autonomy. That is opposed by Iran and Turkey but not so much by Syria or Russia (or Israel for that matter). Russia 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 Kurds now believe that Russia is offering to back Turkish plans to attack Kurds all along the border area (from the Euphrates River Valley to the Iraqi border) once the Americans pull their troops out of Syria. This is expected to happen within two years unless the Kurds can persuade the Americans to do what they did for the Iraqi Kurds in the early 1990s and establish a permanent military presence among the Syrian Kurds as well as the Iraqi Kurds. This could go either way because the U.S. has traded away support several times in the last century. But the sustained support of the Iraqi Kurds since the early 1990s has proved a wise and useful move. The Kurds are, like Israel, more militarily effective than Arab nations and Turkey, despite being a NATO ally, has become very hostile to the U.S. and the West since the late 1990s. Russia is trying to improve its standing with its traditional Turkish enemy and has no vested interest in Kurdish autonomy. The Kurds have also received assistance from Israel, one of the few Moslem peoples in the region to do so. Very few Kurds ever really got behind Islamic terrorism. Kurds, in general, look down on Islamic terrorists and have been very effective in fighting them.
The Turks believe they can manipulate and use some Islamic terrorist groups. They also believe autonomous Kurds are a threat to Turkey because many Turkish Kurds want autonomy and some want an independent Kurdish state incorporating Kurds and territory from Iraq, Syria and Iran. Naturally, this is opposed by Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Turkey is the most active in using force to oppose Kurdish separatism and that has been Turkish policy (and a popular one with most Turks) for decades. This has created hostile relations with Syria and Iraq because Arabs and Turks have a long and unpleasant relationship. Syria and Iraq were part of a Turkish empire for centuries until 1918. The Turks still tend to treat the Arabs with disdain and the situation with Syria and Iraq is typical. Turkish troops operate across the border in Syria and Iraq with impunity as they attack Turkish Kurdish separatist bases in Syria (not so much) and Iraq (still there). The Turks consider the main Kurdish Syrian separatist group (the PYD) as a component of the Turkish Kurd PKK. There is some truth to that as the PKK and PYD have worked together more often than the PKK did with the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks insist the PYD is a major threat to Turkey. The Americans and Israelis, who have worked with Kurds for a long time, especially in the last few decades, have an outsiders (“Man From Mars”) view and consider the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds more interested in their local situations and not eager to get into a military alliance with the PKK. That is an old habit and one reason the Kurds, who have been in the region for thousands of years, have never managed to unite and establish their own state. The Americans noted that for nearly three decades the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq have been a net plus for local peace and stability and see no reason why the Syrian Kurds could not do the same. The Turks are adamant and what else is new.
The Idlib Conspiracy
In the northwest (Idlib province) the largest number of surviving Islamic terrorists have been trapped and contained for over a year. There are disagreements between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia on how to deal with this. This is all about choosing between a major offensive and killing all the Idlib Islamic terrorists, or seeking to make a deal with some of them in order to take control of Idlib without a costly offensive. The situation inside Idlib is also somewhat troubled.
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 never did 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. At the moment the Iranian backed Syrians are unofficially, but very effectively, using airstrikes and limited ground offensives to destroy the Islamic terrorists in Idlib.
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 Iranian 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.
The Syrians are again using their “terrorize the civilians” with airstrikes tactics, including the use of chemical weapons (chlorine). Russia is going along with this because the Idlib Islamic terrorists continue to attack the nearby Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase. Iran is unwilling (and increasingly unable because of Israeli air attacks and financial problems) to fully get behind a Syrian offensive to retake Idlib. This is the last major combat zone in Syria and like much else in the Syrian War, offers no straightforward options for anyone involved in this final battle for Idlib.
It is likely that Turkey will lose this fight as Turkey has few reliable allies here and there is more support for shutting down Idlib as the last stronghold of Islamic terrorist rebels.
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. Many of the foreign mercenaries (especially Afghans) are receiving their last monthly pay and being sent home (to an Iranian refugee camp). Hezbollah forces are less visible in Syria because most have been ordered back to Lebanon where many are taken off active duty and placed in the reserves, where most receive no pay at all. The Hezbollah bureaucracy in Lebanon has suffered considerable downsizing, mainly because the Islamic terror group could no longer meet the payroll. Hezbollah has several sources of income but until recently (and for decades previously) most of the Hezbollah budget was taken care of by Iranian cash. Recently the Iranian contributions accounted for about two-thirds of the Hezbollah budget. Those Iranian payments have been cut by at least a third and Hezbollah has had to scramble to adjust.
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 so drastically. The appeal for donations apparently brought in very little. Hezbollah is not very popular in Lebanon and Iran even less so. 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, and a need to radically change spending patterns.
The economy of Syria may be in ruins and unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon but the Syrian armed forces has undergone considerable reconstruction since the Russians showed up in 2015. Before the war began in 2011 the Syrian forces had 450,000 personnel, although 77 percent of them were short term conscripts. When the Russians showed up Syria was depending mainly on Iranian mercenaries for combat troops. About 70 percent of the Syrian military manpower had disappeared (dead, badly wounded, deserted or refused to extend their conscript service). The Russians emphasized rebuilding the technical services first, especially air power, artillery and logistics. Currently, the Syrian armed forces have about 100,000 personnel, few of them conscripts. The Syrians tried enforcing conscription after 2011 but it didn’t work. The next best thing was suggested by Iranian IRGC advisors; let the conscripts join local militias whose main job was protecting the area the conscripts were from. This worked but at the expense of rebuilding the personnel strength of the military. Meanwhile, Russia has rebuilt Syria's air force and technical services. Many airbases, shut down or destroyed by the fighting, have been rebuilt. Older aircraft were repaired and refurbished and additional aircraft and helicopters brought in. The air force is now training more pilots and conscripts don’t mind serving in the air force or tech services. There are some army combat units but not many.
May 22, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Syrian troops defeated three separate attacks by hundreds of HTS Islamic terrorists. It appears that HTS is trying to provoke Syria and Russia to defy Turkey and launch a large offensive against HTS forces and trigger a move by many of the three million civilians in Idlib to try and get into Turkey.
In coastal Syria (Latakia province)
the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase came under attack twice by Islamic terrorists using rockets. The first attack used 17 rockets while a later one used only four. 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.
May 21, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province) Islamic terrorists fired rockets into the government controlled town of Saraqib, killing four civilians and wounding 20. Islamic terrorists also advanced into the de-escalation zone and seized some territory. Russia and Syria responded with more airstrikes. So far three of the four de-escalation zones have been occupied by government forces. These four zones contain about 300,000 civilians as well as key roads. The rebels are simply not strong enough to halt the government offensive, but the Islamic terror groups keep trying. That is all they can do because they are surrounded and surrender is not much of an option. That’s because your fellow Islamic terrorists consider desertion worthy of immediate execution and the enemy often shoots first just to make sure the “surrender” is not a trick to carry out a suicide bombing.
May 20, 2019: In the east (Deir al Zour province), SDF rebels are having problems managing Arab majority areas where ISIL maintained its last stronghold. ISIL lasted so long in this area because they had many supporters among the Sunni Arab residents. Local tribal leaders and most Sunni Arabs were fed up with ISIL and were pleased to see the Islamic terror group lose its hold on the area. But there are still ISIL supporters among the local Arabs and all the Arabs resent how the Kurdish dominated SDF has established strict security in the area and continue to carry out aggressive patrols and searches of villages. There are still hidden stockpiles of ISIL weapons and equipment that local Arabs will not assist the SDF forces in finding. In some cases the reason is economic. Once things have died down and it is clear that ISIL is not going to return and claim their gear, the locals can seize it and sell the stuff. The weapons alone are worth a lot of money. This sort of thing was common in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the SDF knows that some of the locals are keeping quiet about these stockpiles because they support ISIL and are hoping the Islamic terrorists return to reclaim and use this stuff. The SDF is trying to negotiate some form of compromise with local tribal leaders. One suggestion is to persuade the American Special Forces advisors to obtain cash for rewards to those who reveal the location of these stockpiles. Americans are wary about providing reward money because this sometimes becomes abused. The corruption in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan is epic and a major reason those areas are unstable.
May 19, 2019:
In the northwest (Idlib province), the United States is trying to determine if Syria has again used chlorine gas to attack Islamic terrorist targets. This is the second time in the last six months that Syria has been accused of using chemical weapons. Back in November 2018
fighting between government and rebel forces lead to a government held residential area being hit by what appeared to be rockets with warheads containing poisonous gas which many in the target area suspected was a noxious industrial chemical, probably chlorine. At least fifty people in the area fell ill and received medical treatment but none died. Chemical tests were carried out to discover out what happened but the results were not conclusive. The government blamed the rebels and the rebels blamed the government. This was the second incidence of chemical weapons use in 2018. Syria has often been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. But the April 2018 attack and one before it apparently also included some nerve gas. Since 2016 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 or anywhere else. Syria apparently plans to do so in order to reduce casualties among their own troops. Thus the belief that the Aleppo incident was the work of government forces, not rebels and done in such a way as to avoid retribution (as was the case in April). Russia believes that industrial chemicals (like chlorine) don’t count as chemical weapons (according to the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care. The Aleppo attack was not investigated as thoroughly as the April one because there were no outside observers and the Syrians can control what information gets out. Russia believed the Syrian version of what happened in Aleppo and broke the truce and launched several airstrikes on rebel positions in Aleppo and nearby Idlib province. The same thing is happening again and because of the difficulty of investigating the allegations, there will probably be no retaliation by the Americans.
May 18, 2019:
In southern Syria (Quneitra province), an Israeli airstrike apparently destroyed at least two targets that were probably Iranian.
May 17, 2019: Syrian air defenses near the Israeli border reported “strange objects” coming from Israel. The next day the Syrians fired anti-aircraft missiles at more of the “strange objects” but did not report anything shot down. Foreigners in Damascus report hearing two explosions outside the city, indicating another successful Israeli air strike. Israel rarely comments on its airstrikes at the time they occur. These days Syria always reports that its air defense systems have shot something down after each Israeli airstrike, but do not present any evidence (like the wreckage of what was shot down). So far Israel has regularly demonstrated it can shut down (permanently with bombs or temporarily with countermeasures) Syrian air defense systems. The Israelis don’t destroy all the Syrian air defense systems because that would be expensive and Israel only needs to shut down systems that attempt to interfere with Israeli airstrikes or surveillance missions. This approach also intimidates the Syrians and Russians (and anyone else using Russian air defense systems). The Israeli policy is to avoid damaging Russian air defense systems as long as Russia does not try to interfere with Israeli air operations. One reason Russia is exasperated with Iran is that the Iranians fail to appreciate the technical and military superiority the Israelis have when it comes to air defenses and how to defeat them. The Russians are being practical while the Iranians are believing their own press releases.
In coastal Syria (Latakia province)
the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase came under attack by Islamic terrorists using armed UAVs and mortars. Most of the attacks were blocked or shot down by base defenses but one person on the base was killed and another wounded.
The commander of the Iranian IRGC alerted all his forces (mainly those who are armed and on the payroll) in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to prepare for war with the West. This is because Iran is now in a lot more trouble back home. The IRGC is not declaring war, just rattling the saber to see what happens. In addition to killing people the IRGC likes to make threats.
May 15, 2019: Syria announced that, in cooperation with Iraq, a third border crossing between the two countries will soon open. This one will be controlled by the Syrian government on the Syrian side. The other two active border crossings are in the northeast (Hasaka province), which is controlled by the Kurds (the SDF rebels) on the Syrian side. The other crossing is in the east (Homs province) at Tanf (or Tanaf) near the Jordan border. The American forces have the support of some Syrian Sunni tribes that are not friendly to the Assads. In addition, the Americans have some allies on the Iraqi (Anbar province) side of the border from other Sunni Arab tribes. Iran 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.
The third crossing (Qaim) is also in Anbar, but much further north in the Euphrates River Valley that stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. The Qaim crossing has been destroyed in fighting over the last two years and is closed. Qaim was always a major border crossings into Syria. Iraqi troops drove ISIL out of the Qaim in late 2017. ISIL held onto Qaim as long as it could because it was a key link in the main road from Mosul to Raqqa. A new Qaim crossing is being built nearby with Iranian help. This Qaim crossing was deliberately placed in an area where Syrian forces control the Syrian side and Iranian backed PMF (Iraqi government militia) control the Iraqi side. The U.S. has forces nearby and the Iraqi government is under pressure by the Americans to block Iran from using the new Qaim crossing to smuggle weapons and other contraband from Iran, via Iraq, to Syria and Lebanon. Israel also has a stake in this new route, which Israeli airstrikes could interfere with.
May 14, 2019: The United States released aerial photos of an IRGC (Quds force) training camp in Lebanon, near the Syrian border. The camp was apparently set up just over the border in the hope that it would not be bombed by the Israelis.
May 5, 2019:
Iran has resumed smuggling oil to Syria with two tankers arriving with Iranian oil. One tanker was Iranian but the other was hired by a Syrian businessman. The Iranian oil shipments to Syria have been halted so far in 2019 because of American sanctions but now Iran has found ways to resume deliveries to Syria.
In January a storm hit the Syrian coast and an Indian tanker (Tour 2) that had just delivered Iranian oil to Syria went to sea despite, or perhaps because of, the bad weather. As the ship was leaving the storm drove the tanker ashore. Tugs did not arrive until April to pull the tanker off the beach near the Syrian port of Latakia.
Iran has resorted to smuggling oil in via truck from Iran to Syria but this is not sufficient to make up for the deliveries via seagoing tankers.
May 2, 2019:
In the northwest (Idlib province), Russia and Syria began a major offensive against the Islamic terrorists in Idlib and their civilian supporters. This went on for three weeks before the airstrikes, artillery fire and ground attacks subsided. The Islamic terrorists took heavy losses and Turkey fears an imminent stampede of Idlib civilians heading for the Turkish border. There the Turks will stop many of the refugees with newly constructed physical barriers but some will find a way through and the Turks will have to open fire or accept a lot of new refugees. The Islamic terrorists said the main reason for the new offensive was to improve the security of road routes from the Turkish border to Damascus and Syrian southern borders. There is some truth in that but the main reason is to eliminate the Islamic terrorist presence in Idlib.
April 28, 2019: In coastal Syria (Latakia province), the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase came under attack by Islamic terrorist UAVs (carrying explosives) twice in the last two days. The attacks failed, as did the last such attacks back in January. These attacks have been going on since 2017 and despite about 24 attempts, have had little impact. The first such attacks did some damage but after that Russia developed the ability to detect and defeat these efforts. These attacks are the work of Islamic terror groups in Idlib, which take credit for them.