Syria: There Are Other Complications

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November 12, 2019: Turkey has, since 2013, supported the SIG (Syrian Interim Government), providing it with sanctuary in Turkey and adopting its military arm, the FSA (Free Syrian Army), as a paid and equipped auxiliary of the Turkish Army. The Turks also backed one of the many Islamic terrorist factions that displaced the SIG after 2013 and is now trapped in Idlib province. There is a more radical al Qaeda faction in Idlib that is less willing to make any deals with the Turks or anyone else. While SIG and FSA were the most prominent rebels initially (2011) the Islamic terrorist groups quickly turned the rebellion into a religious war because the Assad government was socialist, not religious. The Turks backed al Nusra, the local al Qaeda affiliate. Another al Qaeda affiliate, from Iraq, attempted to displace and absorb al Nusra. Al Qaeda supreme leadership ordered Iraqi al Qaeda to behave and instead the Iraqi al Qaeda turned itself into ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Turks tried and failed to establish some sort of relationship with ISIL. As a result, al Qaeda-related rebels became the only ones the Turks could deal with. That led to a faction of those Syrian al Qaeda Islamic terrorists being unofficially and discreetly recognized by Turkey as the ruler of Idlib province, where most of the remaining Islamic terrorist rebels are trapped in northwest Syria. The Syrian Kurds were willing to cooperate with anyone who would respect their autonomy, and for a long time that included the Assads. The exception was ISIL who saw the Kurds as heretics and degenerates who worked with non-Moslems (local Christians, Druze and the Americans).

Six years later the Assads control most of Syria, except for most of Idlib province in the northwest and the Kurdish controlled northeast (Hasaka and parts of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces). The Assads are now willing to fight to subdue the Idlib Islamic terrorists, the Kurds, the FSA and the Turks. Iran is backing the Assads and the Russians are as well, while also trying to play peacemaker.

In Idlib province, a six year old feud is being resolved. In early 2013 the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) as unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group; Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI leaders and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. But ISIL was apparently just an attempt by ISI, which was having a real hard time in Iraq, to grab some glory, recruits, cash and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. One of the major weaknesses of Islamic terror groups is that they often get into vicious and destructive feuds with each other. This nearly destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq and played a major role in the recent defeat of al Qaeda in Mali. This curse played out again with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, and will happen again. This periodic Islamic terrorist feuding has been an integral part of Islam from the beginning. The Islamic scripture, the Koran, explicitly encourages and approves of this radicalism. Despite most Moslems wanting nothing to do with terrorism, that is not enough to prevent the regular outbreaks. These are coming more frequently now because of more money (mainly from oil) and better communications.

All those involved in Syria (Turks, Assads, Kurds, Iranians, Russians and Israelis) have their own way of dealing with Islamic terrorism. The Turks simply killed those involved whenever there was an outbreak. That worked but made the Turks unpopular with Arabs in general. The Arabs preferred to try and talk the radicals out of their murderous ways. That rarely worked but did so often enough to be the preferred approach for Arabs. The Kurds tolerated Kurdish Islamic terrorist factions, which were rare, as long as they did not attack fellow Kurds. There were always a few individual Kurds who would go off and join Islamic terror groups but that was not considered acceptable behavior among Kurds. The Iranians have historically been hostile to Islamic terrorism and most Iranians regret allowing Islamic clergy to take control of the government in the 1980s, during a war with Iraq. The clerics had promised democracy but changed the constitution so that when that war ended in 1989, Iran was controlled by a religious dictatorship that could not be voted out of power. Internal rebellion is forming inside Iran and that has, since 2017, limited what Iran can do in Syria. Iran and the Assads agree that the best way to deal with Islamic terrorists is to kill them all and as soon as possible. The Russians and Israelis also agree with that method and it works for them. The Israelis will prosecute Islamic terrorists they capture and put most of them in prison. This is counterproductive because few of these Islamic terrorists come out of prison cured of their murderous ways but the Israelis can afford to use this approach. The Russians often go through the motions of prosecuting and imprisoning but will often just kill unreformable Islamic terrorists.

Fighting continues, at a reduced intensity, in Idlib province, Russia continues pressuring Turkey to fight the Islamic terrorists in Idlib instead of trying to negotiate with them. The Turks want to negotiate the surrender of Idlib province to avoid more Syrian civilians from trying to cross the border and join the millions of Syrian refugees already in Turkey. Syria would prefer that the largely pro-rebel civilians in Idlib leave the country. Syria also wants the Turks out of Syria. Russia is OK with the Turkish presence in Syria. So is Iran, mainly because the Turks are also in Syria to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not support the PKK separatist Turkish Kurds. Iran also has rebellious separatist Kurds.

The Turks still support the main Islamic terror group in Idlib. 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, has made 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 Turks. Russia and Syria have reason to believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but for many shortsighted politicians, it is still an attractive option.

Border Battles

After a month of fighting Turkish forces have not been able to establish control over their 30 kilometers security zone on the Syrian side of the border. Continued resistance by SDF and Syrian forces has blocked the Turkish advance. Some Russian and Turkish troops have been jointly patrolling security zone areas already under Turkish occupation. This is supposed to prevent fighting between Turkish and stubborn locals (SDF, Syrian troops and a few other factions). The Turks are mad at the Americans for still maintaining some forces and considerable military capability (air power) in Hasaka province. The Turks and Syrians agree that the Americans are illegally protecting the Deir Ezzor province oil fields for the SDF. These three oil fields there produced over 300,000 barrels a day before the civil war began in 2011 and were a major source of Syria's foreign currency for buying foreign goods. Syrian oil is known as “light crude” and can be burned for heating or cooking as it comes out of the ground. These oilfields were operated (before 2011) by the the Assads who want the oil fields back. So do the Russians, who have the contract (from the Assads) to rehabilitate the oil fields and operate them. That translates to over $30 billion and a large chunk of that goes back to Russia. After seven years of fighting the oil fields only produced about 20,000 barrels a day but that has more than tripled in the last year as the Syrian Kurds have made some repairs and continue to do so. Holding these oil fields puts the Kurds in a strong bargaining position versus Syria. The Turks do not want to give the Kurds autonomy but the Kurds will settle for nothing less.

Syria welcomes the American presence in the northeast, as do the Kurds. Syria also doubts that ISIL leader Baghdadi is really dead and believe he fooled the Americans by using a body double or something. This sort of thinking is common in the region, where many believe al Qaeda and ISIL are creations of the U.S. and Israel and are controlled by the CIA and Mossad (Israeli intel). Iran continues to condemn the United States as the worst possible enemy of Islam but does not interfere with Syrian officials who say nice things about the U.S. and SDF, two groups that Iran sees as archenemies.

Damascus Bombed Again

Early in the morning, there was an airstrike against targets outside Damascus. Israel said nothing, which is normal, but one of the airstrikes was against the home of an Islamic Jihad leader. Syria reported that its air defense systems fired on a “hostile target” to no effect. This was apparently Israel again attacking an Iranian facilities despite Iranian efforts to hide these warehouses, compounds and bases from Israeli surveillance and informants on the ground. To further anger Iran this airstrike came an hour after Israel had killed a senior commander of the Gaza based Islamic Jihad Islamic terror group. Islamic Jihad is backed by Iran and kept operational in Gaza with Iranian cash and equipment smuggled in. Islamic Jihad has its external headquarters in Syria, as many Islamic terror groups have for decades.

November 11, 2019: The United States, speaking as a member of the worldwide anti-ISIL coalition, confirmed that American forces would continue to work with the SDF against ISIL forces still in northeast Syria ( Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces). There are still a few hundred American troops in Syria but most of the support comes from airpower and special operations troops based elsewhere in the region.

Elsewhere in Hasaka (the border city of Qamishli) three car bombs went off, killing eleven and wounding many more. Qamishli is on the Turkish border and the capital of the Kurdish northeast. No one took credit for these bombings but ISIL is the main suspect. There have long been some Syrian troops in the city and they are tolerated as long as they do not interfere with Kurdish security operations. Qamishli is also within the Turkish security zone but Turkish troops have not moved on the city in part because the Kurds have invited more Syrian troops to the city. Syria refuses to recognize the Turkish security zone and call the Turkish forces in Syria “foreign invaders." Syria is cooperating with Kurdish forces to defend several border towns, including Kobane, from the Turks. Syria describes the Turkish occupation of Syrian territory as no different from the Israeli occupation (since 1967) of the Golan Heights. The Syrians fear the Turks will stay as long as they want because, like the Israelis, the Turks have powerful military forces and a reputation for winning most of their battles. The Turks are also feared because they ruled most Arab countries for centuries until the Ottoman Turk Empire collapsed in 1918. The Americans have not blocked Turkish efforts to establish the security zone but are not assisting them either.

There are other complications. Turkey is proceeding with its plan to force two million Syrian refugees in Turkey to move to the new security zone in Syria. This is not working out so well as surveys of the refugees indicates most do not want to return, even to a safe (but not as safe as Turkey) security zone. Turkey is having a difficult time occupying the security zone with Turkish and Syrian force successfully blocking the Turkish advance. At one point Turkey considered granting most of those refugees Turkish citizenship. That was dropped when the government realized it was losing elections because most Turks wanted the refugees gone.

November 10, 2019: In the northeast (Raqqa province) a car bomb went off in Turkish occupied border town of Tal Abyad, killing eight civilians and wounding at least twenty. The Turks accused the Kurds but ISIL was more likely as ISIL is blaming Turkey for the recent death of ISIL leader Baghdadi.

November 9, 2019: Along the Turkish border there continue to be clashes, usually just brief exchanges of machine-gun fire that usually result in few, or no, casualties. Such a clash today, near the border town of Ras Ayn, left four Syrian soldiers dead and even more wounded.

November 8, 2019: The Israeli government went public with its support for the Syrian Kurds. Israel had long unofficially and discreetly supported the Syrian (as well as the Iraqi) Kurds. The Americans have made the same declarations and provided more substantial aid to the Syrian Kurds. The Americans are also trying to convince the current Turkish government, an Islamic one led by Recep Erdogan, to get along with Israel and the Kurds. That will be difficult but this will take place while Erdogan visits the United States and meets with the American president, who backs Israel and the Syrian Kurds. The Americans are willing to go to war to protect Israel but not to assist the Syrian Kurds in fighting Syria, Turkey and Iran.

November 7, 2019: The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria is now four weeks old. There have been over a thousand deaths, about 15 percent of them civilians. The rest are Turkish or Syrians (Kurds and Syrian Army). After the first week, the intensity of the combat declined as the Turks realized it was not going to be over quickly. There is no stalemate yet but there is not a lot of progress by Turkish forces during the last few weeks.

November 6, 2019: The SDF (Kurdish led rebels) has agreed to resume active operations against ISIL. This is apparently part of the cost of retaining American support. The Kurds were never going to stop fighting ISIL but the American campaign against ISIL is more aggressive and the Kurds were backing away from that when they thought the U.S. was completely abandoning them in Syria.

November 5, 2019: In Syria, the second joint Turkish-Russian patrol began and while the patrol was not fired on, local civilians were seen throwing rocks at the patrol vehicles as they passed. Kurdish forces appear to have withdrawn, ahead of schedule, from much of the 30 kilometer Turkish security zone. But there are still some armed Kurds in that zone and these are not all rogue YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatists) factions that are determined to fight on. There are now Syrian troops and SDF forces defending many urban areas in the zone.

November 4, 2019: In Iran, Syrian officials signed a deal with the Iranian government that will allow the Iranians to take the lead in rebuilding the Syrian electrical power system. This includes power plants and distribution networks.

The sister or dead ISIL leader Abu Baghdadi was found and arrested, along with her husband and daughter-in-law in a Turkish controlled Syrian border town.

November 1, 2019: In eastern Syria, Russian and Turkish troops began joint patrols to verify that Kurdish forces had withdrawn from the 30 kilometer deep security zone Turkey is establishing on the Syrian side of the border.

October 31, 2019: The United States revealed that it estimates Iran has spent $16 billion since 2012 to supply Shia mercenaries for the Assad forces. Iranian spending on these mercenaries has declined sharply since 2017 when economic sanctions on Iran were revived and anti-government protests broke out in Iran. In the last year, there have been major anti-Iran protests in Iraq and Lebanon.

ISIL confirmed the death of their founder and leader Abu Baghdadi and announced a successor; Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Quraishi. The new leader is generally unknown outside of ISIL and is now being actively sought for capture or killing.

October 30, 2019: In Switzerland Russian sponsored peace talks about post-war Syria began. This is more propaganda than practical and in support of Assad’s promising free and fair elections eventually.

October 29, 2019: Turkey released 18 Syrian soldiers it had captured during the recent fighting. Russia negotiated the prisoner release.

October 28, 2019: The U.S. has moved several hundred troops from Iraq to the Kurdish occupied oil fields in eastern Syria. This was apparently in response to Kurdish assistance in finding, and recently killing, ISIL leader Baghdadi.

October 27, 2019: Russia and Iran were not pleased as the U.S. returned some troops to eastern Syria to help the Kurds protect, and operate, the Syrian oil fields. There is not much Russia, Iran, the Turks or Syria can do about it.

The U.S. announced the death of the ISIL leader and announced that it would return some troops to eastern Syria to help the Kurds protect, and operate, the Syrian oil fields.

October 26, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), American commandos raided the hideout of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While the commandos sought to take Baghdadi alive the ISIL leader fled to a tunnel system under his hideout and was trapped there by the commandos. To avoid capture he blew himself up. Biometric tests of the remains confirmed it was Baghdadi, as did members of his family who shared the compound with him. The death of Baghdadi will have some impact on ISIL, especially since there is no clear successor to Baghdadi, who was also the founder of ISIL and set the tone for the organization from the beginning seven years ago. Baghdadi began in 2010 when he became the new leader for the Iraq branch of al Qaeda. Seeking ways to expand, he split from al Qaeda and formed ISIL, the supreme Islamic terror organizations that all others must follow, or else.

As with bin Laden’s hideout, the Baghdadi compound had plenty of ISIL related documents and those were seized and promptly gone over for information about other ISIL personnel or targets in Syria. Time was important here because many ISIL personnel in the area realized the danger they were in as soon as news of the Baghdadi raids got out. Veteran ISIL members knew from experience that the Americans had perfected this “prompt follow-up with captured intel” technique years ago. Everyone realized it was dependent on speed. Within 24 hours of the Baghdadi raid there were dozens of other raids by American, Turkish, Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian forces to capture or kill ISIL members mentioned in al Baghdadi documents. Baghdadi’s second in command, Abu Hassan al Muhajir was also killed in one of these follow-up raids.

The Baghdadi compound was four kilometers from the Turkish border but not in an area controlled by Turkish forces. The compound was in an area run by an al Qaeda Islamic terror group that sometimes collaborated with the Turks. In this case, the exact location of Baghdadi was confirmed by a joint American-Turkish-Iraqi intelligence effort. Baghdadi stayed in touch with kin and ISIL subordinates in Iraq via trusted men who acted as couriers and their travels could be detected and tracked. That’s how bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were found.

October 23, 2019: Because Iraqi officials were not consulted on the matter the American plan to move the thousand troops based in Syria to Iraq will not be possible. Iraqi ordered those troops to leave Iraqi within four weeks. This can probably be negotiated and in the meantime, the thousand American troops can operate from existing American bases on the border, but the troops meant to leave Syria will have to stay on the Syrian side of the border. In issuing this “leave in four weeks” order Iraq gains some goodwill from Iran but also earns more hostility from the United States, which is continuing to pressure Iraq about its rampant corruption, especially when it comes to American aid.

October 22, 2019: Russian and Turkish leaders met and agreed that Turkish forces would halt their advance in northeast Syria and allow Russian to supervise the retreat of Kurdish and Syrian forces from the 30 kilometer security zone the Turks want to establish south of the Turkish border. The next day Iran agreed that this was a good solution. Iran does oppose Turkey establishing a permanent military presence in northern Syria. That is subject to future negotiations.

Russia and Turkey agreed to jointly patrol the 30 kilometers deep security zone Turkey has established inside Syria along the entire Syrian border. Turkish forces entered this area on the 9th after American troops withdrew. The Syrian government has agreed to go along with this for now.

October 19, 2019: In eastern Syria, Iranian mercenaries have, for the first time entered Raqqa province to support Syrian army troops stationed there. This is in anticipation of the Syrian government troops returning to areas in Raqqa and neighboring Hasaka province. When the Turks advanced into Hasaka province recently the Kurds made a deal with the Syrian government to surrender their autonomy in return for protection from any further Turk advances. The Turks say they will only advance 30 kilometers into Syria.

Kurdish leaders in Syria and Iraq are calling on Israel to help the Syrian Kurds resist the Turkish invasion. There is little Israel can do as they never had troops stationed with the Kurds and Israeli airstrikes are directed at Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq.

October 17, 2019: The United States negotiated a temporary halt to the Turkish offensive in Syria by persuading the Kurds to pull their forces out of the 30 kilometer security zone voluntarily. The Turks agreed to halt their operations for 120 hours so the Kurds can complete their withdrawal in peace. This also led to a massive movement of nearly 300,000 Kurdish civilians from the zone. About ten percent of them entered Iraq. Iran does not back this agreement but is in no position to block it. Meanwhile, there is ISIL and the Syrian Kurd run prison camps for captured ISIL members as well as their wives and children. These camps have largely remained intact. There were some escapes but many of those escapees were quickly killed or captured. ISIL is hated by almost everyone in the region and has been reduced to a scattered Islamic terrorist group in parts of Iraq and Syria.

In Lebanon, anti-Iran protests broke out and continued for the rest of October.

 

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