Syria: A Bitter Aftertaste

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July 23, 2019: While the Assad government has regained control of more than 70 percent of Syrian territory, they only have about half of the pre-war population (23 million). About 20 percent of that population fled the country, often deliberately encouraged by Syrian and Russian airstrikes and liberal use of artillery on residential areas. About two percent of the population has died in the fighting. About 11 percent of the population is in the Kurdish controlled northeast while 14 percent are in rebel controlled Idlib and nearby Turkish controlled areas in the northwest. Most of those in Idlib are anti-Assad Sunni Arabs and a few percent of those are armed rebels. Assad does not want these Syrian Sunni Arabs, but no one else does either. The Kurds are also armed and the best Syrian fighters in Syria. Plus the Kurds have American military support. The Kurds are willing to rejoin Syria as an autonomous Kurdish region similar to the deal the Iraqi Kurds have had since the early 1990s. Assad is inclined to accept that but Turkey, Iran and Iraq are not. In short, putting Syria back together again maybe a work-in-progress for some time to come.

Battle For Idlib

Since May the major fighting has taken place in the northwest (Idlib province). The last large concentration of Islamic terrorist rebels is trapped there along with over a million pro-rebel civilians. The Turks have militarized their zone to eliminate Islamic terrorist activity and prevent refugees from getting to and across the Turkish border. Most of the Idlib borders (east, south and some of the west) are controlled by Syrian forces (army and militias). The Assads want to regain control over Idlib but have not got the military power to do it, at least not quickly. Syrian troops are largely demoralized by eight years of fighting. Until 2018 Iran mercenaries provided the offensive ground forces for the Syrian army. Starting in late 2018 most of those mercenary forces have been disbanded (because of cash shortages) or reassigned to operations against Israel. That means Iranian forces are largely in the south, around Damascus and the southeastern borders (Jordan and Iraq). The SDF is still handling ISIL remnants in the northwest and that leaves the Syrian army to try and regain control of Idlib. The fighting is going slowly because the Syrian commanders accept that they have to keep Syrian casualties low to maintain morale and prevent massive desertions, as have occurred in the past.

The Russians have provided about a thousand ground troops (special operations, ground controllers and military contractors) to help with calling in airstrikes and putting in teams of Russian troops to handle difficult and dangerous (especially for the Syrian troops) situations. This is similar to what a few hundred American Special Forces troops and CIA field agents did in Afghanistan in late 2001. Back then a small number of Americans provided specialized services to the Afghan anti-Taliban forces and that made an enormous difference.

Afghanistan and Idlib are different in some key respects. The Afghans, even the Taliban, avoided “fighting to the death” and were more practical about combat. If they believed they were up against someone they could not beat, like American smart-bombs, they would retreat to fight another day. The Afghans knew about the Arab Islamic terrorist custom of suicide bombers and fighting to the death and though it was stupid. Arabs and Afghans disagreed on a lot of things. In Idlib not only do the Islamic terrorist forces fight to the death but they have nowhere to retreat to. No one wants these last rebels and the civilians trapped with them. The Assad solution, based on past performance, is to keep attacking until organized resistance is eliminated and then send his police to seek out and arrest suspected Islamic terrorists pretending to be civilians along with any civilians suspected of being active supporters of the rebels. Some of these will be killed quickly, after interrogation. Some will be released but most will be imprisoned where the majority will eventually die or be killed.

The fighting in Idlib is leaving about a thousand dead a month. Most of these are civilians or armed rebels. The Russian and Syrian aircraft attack the enemy wherever they believe they are. That includes residential neighborhoods, mosques and hospitals. Currently, the airstrikes and ground operations are as intense as ever and Turkey is angry about that and the possibility of a massive surge of Idlib civilians trying to get into Turkey. The Turks have been unable to persuade anyone to help with halting the Idlib violence and potential refugee crisis. Despite that, the Turks keep trying and the latest gambit is a threat to attack Kurdish controlled northwest Syria (Hasaka province) if something is not done about the Idlib mess. The problem is there no solution to the Idlib problem that will satisfy everyone. For Russia and Syria the priority is shutting down the Islamic terrorist threat there, something Turkey is less concerned about because the current Turkish government is more “Islamic terrorist friendly” than anyone else in the region.

The Rest Of Assad Syria

In other parts of Syria where the Assads are back in control the civilians, especially the Sunni ones, are given a choice; either accept Assad rule or be declared enemies of the state. Tribal and other local leaders are held responsible and must actively support the Assads or be declared an enemy. That has largely eliminated armed resistance but in some areas, like down south in Daraa province, that was not enough. The Assads found regaining control of the last major rebel-controlled area in the south in 2018 left a bitter aftertaste. The main reason was that the Iranian mercenaries provided to speed up the conquest of Daraa were gone by the end of the year because of the Iranian financial crises. This left the Assads shorthanded but still determined to maintain control of Daraa and the major commercial border crossing with Jordan at Nassib. This enables Syria to resume trade with Jordan and oil-rich nations of Arabia because it now has a government-controlled road link from Turkey to Jordan. This is an essential element in reviving the economy in southern Syria. The land route from Europe to Arabia via Turkey and Jordan had, since the 1990s, became a very lucrative business for Syria. It was called the M5 highway and went from the Turkish border, through Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus and became the most heavily used in the country. It may not be lucrative anymore if the hostility between Iran and Sunni Arab states does not diminish.

The restoration of M5 has long been an Assad goal. The M5 ceased to be a major transportation or economic asset by 2012 as various rebel factions took control of sections. That process continued for the next few years. That was reversed starting in late 2016 when the Assads regained control of the northern city of Aleppo. During the first five months of 2017 the Assad forces advanced south on M5 and eventually controlled M5 from the Turkish border south to the city of Homs. It took another year to clear rebels from M5 south to Damascus and then the eastern suburbs of Damascus that that had been under rebel control for years. The rebels were cleared out of the Damascus suburbs by May 2018 and a month later Daraa Province and the Jordan crossing were opened as well. It required two years of fighting and substantial assistance from Russia and Iran to regain control of the M5 and the Assads consider this a major achievement.

While the M5 has economic potential, it has immediate military value because now it is much easier to move troops and supplies from the Syrian coast (which the Assads never lost control of) to Damascus (the capital) in the south or points east. Damascus and the coastal region have always contained a major concentration of military bases and supply stockpiles. Although the Assads now have a highway to the Turkish border the route still passes through or near areas still subject to rebel and ISIL activity as well as the Turkish troops and their rebel allies who control the Syrian side of the border. With control of the M5 the Assads can now quickly concentrate and supply ground forces against any of the remaining areas that are outside of government control. But traffic, be it military or commercial, is still subject to occasional attack by angry locals and several times a month military vehicles are hit by a roadside bomb or gunfire. These are locals who do not take credit for their work but want to let the Assads know that there is still resistance. The Assads put pressure on local leaders and make arrests, or simply kidnap and kill suspects. The Assads know that things will eventually calm down. The Assads have been doing this since the 1970s and ignore international criticism because they believe that is how you survive in what is a rough neighborhood.

Turks Standing By

The Turks in Syria directly control and administer about 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) of Syria. This area contains about 600,000 people who are governed by local “councils” which are recognized by the Syrian government. Turkey indirectly controls (or contains) Idlib province which has over two million Syrians. Half of them are refugees from elsewhere and this population contains over 20,000 armed rebels (mostly Islamic terrorists). In addition to the nearly three million Syrians in Idlib and the border zone, there are also nearly four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. This includes 400,000 children born to refugees since 2011. The Turks are encouraging the revival of the local economy in their zone as a way to entice Syrians in Turkey to return home. So far over 300,000 Syrians have returned from Turkey to Syria.

While the economy in the Turkish zone is flourishing, Idlib is more of a war zone with Russian-backed Syrian forces attacking and, in effect, hoping for a mass movement of civilians towards and across the Turkish border. So far over 300,000 Idlib civilians have fled their homes and headed north to escape the Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery fire. The Turks have kept these Syrians out of Turkey so far but that becomes more difficult as more refugees flee towards Turkey. The Turks are blocking access to the border and pressuring, without much success, Russia and the Syrians to suspend their offensive.

The Turks have a reputation for patience and prudence, backed by their powerful military. This is the basis of their current operations in Syria and takes advantage of the fact that the local population along the border has a favorable attitude towards Turkey because it has long been obvious to these Syrians that Turkey was more peaceful and prosperous than Assad ruled Syria. Many of the Turks on the other side of the border are ethnic Arabs who are seen as fortunate to have been on the Turkish side of the border when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 and the borders of modern Turkey were established in the early 1920s. That meant millions of Arabs were finally free of centuries of Turkish imperial rule. The post-empire Arab governments turned out to be less effective than the Turkish imperial rule and the last eight years of civil war in Syria was just the latest reminder. Arabs and Turks agree, for different reasons, that there will be no more Turkish rule in Arab states. But commercial connections are welcome and that seems to be what the Turks are concentrating on. One thing the Turks learned during those centuries of administering much of the Arab world is that ruling Arabs was a difficult and expensive undertaking they do not want to repeat.

Iran Versus Israel

Israel has to worry about the Iranians in Syria doing something desperate, and stupid. Over the last year, the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) has suffered multiple defeats, usually delivered by Israel or Americans. Many of these embarrassments have occurred in Syria, where Israel finds and destroys IRGC projects will great regularity. Many Iranians do not see this as an Iranian defeat but just another reason why the IRGC is hated by most Iranians. Blame is most often directed at the IRGC and the Islamic dictatorship that has ruled (and mismanaged) Iran since the 1980s. Iranians see corrupt IRGC men and Shia clergy in general as responsible for their current economic and diplomatic woes. The IRGC is not seen as the protector of the Iranian people but rather the source of growing violence against Iranians who protest the proliferating poverty. The IRGC is accused, by Iranians and the rest of the world, of trying to taunt someone, preferably the United States or Israel, into attacking Iran itself. That would make the IRGC more popular inside Iran, but many Iranians are not so sure. Meanwhile, the Americans concentrate their sanctions on Iranian leaders, including senior IRGC commanders, which is a popular move to most Iranians.

July 22, 2019: In the east (Hasaka province), on the Syrian border, a rocket was fired into Turkey and hit a Kurdish majority Turkish village. Four civilians were wounded and Turkey blamed Syrian Kurds belonging to YPG for the attack that no one took credit for.

July 21, 2019: In Damascus, a car bomb killed Mashur Zidan, a senior Hezbollah commander working with pro-Assad Hezbollah forces in Syria. Hezbollah blamed this attack on Israel because Israel had recently killed another Hezbollah commander (using a missile-armed UAV) who was an associate of Zidan. Airspace over Damascus is too dangerous for Israeli UAVs but arranging for a car bomb is something Mossad (the Israeli CIA) has done before. Hezbollah commanders like Zidan are openly complaining about how much damage the sanctions on Iran have done to Hezbollah. In the last few months, the cash received from Iran to maintain Hezbollah has been reduced by half. Despite, or because of, the reduced Iranian aid, Hezbollah has declared that an attack on Iran by anyone will trigger a Hezbollah attack on Israel.

In central Syria (Homs province), Islamic terrorists derailed a train carrying phosphates from a mine that was recently reopened by Russian investors. The phosphates are used to produce fertilizer and Russian investors are involved there as well. Russia cannot afford to give money for reconstruction in Syria but Russia can invest in reviving and operating Syrian businesses that are likely to be profitable.

July 18, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), an ISIL ambush left five Syrian soldiers dead and four wounded. Attacks like this have been killing 40-50 Syrian soldiers a month this year.

July 17, 2019: Syria denied that there were a growing number of Russian ground troops assisting Syrian forces fighting in the northwest (Idlib province). The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib have been seeing more evidence, and sometimes getting cellphone photos). Russia denies it as well but since June more deliveries (by Russian amphibious vessels) of combat vehicles have been arriving the Syrian port of Tartus. In other words, despite denials, the Russians have answered Syrian pleas for more special operations troops and air and artillery spotters to quickly bring Russian artillery or airstrikes on rebel targets.

July 14, 2019: Turkey has received its first battery of S-400 air defense system gear. This will be deployed on the Syrian border sometime in the near future. Turkey has also warned the Assads if attacks on Turkish observation posts do not cease Turkey will retaliate against the Syrian forces.

July 13, 2019: Turkey announced that Syrian refugees convicted of a crime will be deported to Syria and, because of economic problems the free health care for refugees would be ended. The government has also ordered the removal of Arabic shop signs.

July 12, 2019: In the northwest Idlib province, Islamic terrorists again used explosives equipped UAVs to attack he Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in neighboring Latakia province. Earlier attacks this year used unguided rockets but this time the Islamic terrorists tried UAVs again and failed. 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.

July 11, 2019: In the northeast (Hasaka province), an ISIL suicide car bomb went off near a Christian church wounding 11. Security was too tight for the bomber to reach and damage the church. This took place in a town near the Iraq and Turkey borders. Local Christians are part of the SDF coalition that eliminated ISIL control of territory in Syria.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province), SDF and American special operations forces raided an ISIL hideout and killed Thabit Sobhi Fahad al Ahmad, the ISIL “Oil Minister”. For several years after 2013 Ahmad supervised the operation of captured oil fields and the sale, via smugglers, of the oil. This raised several hundred million dollars a year for ISIL. Since 2018 Ahmad has been on the run and in hiding. Ahmad was a close associate of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who is still alive and hiding out somewhere, perhaps in eastern Syria.

July 4, 2019: At the British port of Gibraltar, 30 Royal Marine Commandos, secretly flown in for the occasion, boarded and seized an Iranian supertanker at 4 AM. The tanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria for Iran. Syria is under sanctions and Iran is making an enormous (and expensive) effort to get the Syrian government the oil it needs to continue fighting rebels and Islamic terrorists. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided traveling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker if it had used the canal. After the British seized the tanker Iran threatened to retaliate by seizing a British tanker and attempted to do just that a few days later but failed. By July 13th Britain was offering to free the tanker if Iran could offer guarantees that the Iraqi oil in the Iranian tanker did not reach Syria. Iran declined and Britain continues to hold the tanker. Meanwhile, Iran seized a small British flagged coastal tanker in the Persian Gulf. Iran appears willing to pay a high price to get oil to its Syrian ally because the seizure of the British tanker in the Hormuz Strait was a direct threat to all ships that use that passage. This attack has united Europe against Iran and reduced European support for Iran (and against revived American sanctions.)

July 2, 2019: Russia criticized the recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Russia did not interfere and Iran sees that as tacit support of the Israeli operations.

July 1, 2019: Israel carried out more airstrikes on Iranian targets. These most recent attacks left 16 dead and 21 wounded. Earlier Russia criticized such Israeli airstrikes but did not interfere. Iran sees that as tacit Russian support of the Israeli operations. Iran is constantly pressuring Russia to be more forceful in dealing with these attacks on Iranians in Syria. The Russians are reluctant to admit that do not want to take on the Israelis and suffer the same embarrassing defeats Iran endures on a regular basis. Russia wants to come out of the Syrian civil war on the winning (Assad) side and with its military reputation largely intact. That requires not angering the Israelis. Angry Iranians are much less of a problem. Actually, given the long and generally hostile history Iran and Russia, have the current pain Iran is suffering in so many areas is seen as good for Russia.

June 30, 2019: Israel released satellite photos showing that Syria had deployed a battery of its new Russian S-300 air defense systems. These arrived in 2018 but have not been used yet. In the past, some of these S-200 missiles fired southward entered Israeli airspace and were destroyed by Israeli anti-missile systems. In a related incident noted by Russia, the U.S. carried out airstrikes in northwest Syria (Idlib province) for the first time in two years, against al Qaeda targets. In the past the Americans had hit ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets all over Syria but in the last two years, American airstrikes had concentrated on supporting Kurdish operations against ISIL groups in eastern Syria. Now the Kurds are dealing with al Qaeda as well and further west.

June 25, 2019: In Israel (Jerusalem), security officials from Russia, Israel and America met to discuss who should do what in Syria. The Russian position was pro-Iran, yet in practice Russia will not confront Israel or the Americans in Syria. Russia criticizes Israel for airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria but will not open fire against Israeli missiles or aircraft. So Russia gets criticized by Iran, Israel and the United States. Iran suspects that Russia has a secret deal with Israel and the Americans but cannot afford to antagonize Russia because Russia does supply considerable support to the Syrian military. Even that can be interpreted as anti-Iran because Russia agrees with the Assads that Syria should not be dominated by Iran and permanently occupied by Iranian special operations troops (IRGC) and Iranian mercenaries.

June 22, 2019: Off the Syrian coast (Tartus province), a pipeline from an offshore oil offloading platform the shore (and the Baniyas refinery) was damaged by an underwater explosion. No one took credit for this but when repairs were conducted it appeared that the attack was carried out by professionals. Some tankers are still reaching Syria with Iran supplied oil but not enough to fuel an economic revival in the war-damaged country.

 

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