Syria: Turkey Versus Everyone

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December 12, 2019: Since early November Israel has launched multiple airstrikes on Syria five times and smaller, one target missions much more frequently. The multiple airstrikes were different in that they went after the best defended Iranian targets and that meant attacking Syrian air defenses in a big way. Russia did not like this because Syrian air defense systems are almost entirely Russian and the apparent ease with which Israel destroyed these targets was an embarrassment for Russia. There were public protests from Russia but no threats as Russian and Israeli leaders remained in contact. Apparently Israel convinced Russia that the Iranian threat was still serious and required decisive and destructive action.

Israel believes that Iran is continuing to try to prepare for major attacks on Israel from Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Iran and Russia are backing Syrian forces coming to the aid of the Kurds against the Turks. Russia needs to remain on good terms with Israel despite the fact the Russian allies (or “partners”) in Syria (Turkey, Iran and Assads) all want Israel destroyed. Israel will continue to attack any Iranian moves towards Israel, especially the Israeli border and those attacks have recently become more intense.

The Cost Conundrum

Iran was surprised by the Americans withdrawing their troops from Syria and leaving the Kurds without American air support and the presence of U.S. troops. That was not entirely true as the Americans are keeping some troops, and air support, to protect the Kurdish run oil fields in eastern Syria. The Americans moved their withdrawing troops to the Iraq border. Finally, the official American policy is to stay in Syria until assured that locals can handle counter-terrorism operations, especially against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Americans admit that this may keep their troops in Syria for years, but the U.S. does not see any alternative.

The Iranians have more than Turkey and Israel to worry about. The Syrian effort is costing Iran a lot of money, which they cannot afford. This has led to a major reduction in Iranian mercenary forces in Syria, and the Quds and IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) forces there are mainly concerned with carrying out attacks on Israel. The humiliation of constant defeats in the form of Israeli airstrikes and loss of Iranian lives has enraged the Iranians. But it has not empowered them to do any better. So far Iran has tolerated the losses and continues to pour resources into permanently establishing itself in Syria. Iran is determined to finally achieve a victory over Israel using the growing presence it has in Syria, but is encountering resistance from Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and most NATO nations. Now there is the Turkish invasion that has made the Iranians a potential battlefield opponent of the Turks. Iran made it clear it was not willing to do much about halting the invading Turks. Over the last four centuries, Iran has fought the Turks many times and usually lost. The same pattern exists with Israel and over the last two centuries Russia has also been a difficult foe. Back in Iran most Iranians are more willing to recognize what a bad place Syria is for Iran and since 2017 there have been more and more public protests about that, and other shortcomings of the Iranian government.

The Invaders

The Turks are not invading Syria with Turks alone. Most of the invaders are Syrian mercenaries working for Turkey. These Syrians even have their own government. For years the Turks have employed thousands of Syrian refugees as mercenaries, and a smaller number to run a pro-Turkish Syrian government. This is nothing new but now these Turkish-backed Syrians are the key to establishing and operating the Turkish "Safe Zone" 30 kilometers from the border into Syria.

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. In 2018 FSA was officially renamed the SNA (Syrian National Army) to better reflect their future role as defender of the SIG administered Safe Zone. Financial support for SIG is much less than for the SNA and some of that financial support comes from the United States. The families of SNA mercenaries are among the Syrian refugees most willing to return to Syria and settle in the Safe Zone. Turkey expects that will eventually encourage more refugees to settle. For the Kurds, this is unwelcome because most of the refugees are Sunni Arab Syrians while the native population of Hasaka province is largely Kurd and other non-Arab minorities.

The Turks also backed one of the many Islamic terrorist factions that displaced the SIG after 2013 and is now trapped in Idlib province. 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. 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. Currently, Turkish forces are monitoring Idlib because Russia and Iran are backing Syrian forces seeking to defeat the Islamic terrorist groups there and return Idlib to Syrian control. The Turks are on the defensive in Idlib because they want to concentrate on preventing any of the two million Syrians in Idlib from fleeing to Turkey. Getting across the heavily guarded border would be difficult, but not impossible. The Turks want to extend the Safe Zone into Idlib and maintain some control over the Islamic terror groups in Idlib.

The Safe Zone is still under construction. The Turkish October offensive has so far cost the Turkish forces 265 dead, but 95 percent of those are SNA mercenaries with the remainder Turkish troops. The Syrian defenders are largely Kurdish factions that refuse to pull out of the Safe Zone, a policy the Americans back. Those defending the Safe Zone have suffered more than twice as many dead as the Turkish forces and many of those dead are civilians.

December 11, 2019: In the northeast (Hasaka province) the latest Turkish offensive to take control of territory 30 kilometers into Syria ran into problems, mainly because of growing resistance by a larger anti-Turk coalition. Kurdish factions have put aside their differences and united to oppose the Turkish “invasion”. That unity has made the Kurds more confident in negotiating a peace deal with the Syrian government, which is also much opposed to the Turkish plans for long-term occupation of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. Russia, Iran and the United States also agree that the Turkish border “safe zone” concept is unrealistic and prone to create more violence. Russia and the United States have forces in the security zone, as part of agreements with the Turks to guarantee the safety of Syrian civilians. Those patrols have not prevented the mistreatment of civilians. Cell phone and satellite photos show Turkish forces abusing civilians. The abusers are usually Syrian mercenaries of the SNA, who comprise about 90 percent of the Turkish force and treat the local civilians like an enemy. This is true in terms of sentiments but those civilians are largely unarmed and not looking for a fight. The SNA terror is driving many civilians out of the Safe Zone, which appears to be an unofficial policy to make way for the settlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey. Most of these Syrians are not native to the Safe Zone area but the Turks want them out of Turkey.

December 10, 2019: Commercial satellite photos clearly show Iran building tunnels in the east (Deir Ezzor province) near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. These border crossings are vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. The new tunnels are apparently large enough for trucks to drive into, for refuge from airstrikes as well as for getting across the border unseen. Israel has bombed this area many times and continues doing so. Because of that Iran is constructing the tunnels to better conceal the cargo trucked in from Iran and moved into Syria via this crossing. The tunnels are near the new military base Iran is building on the Syrian side of the border. The base is nearly complete despite several Israeli airstrikes. At that point, the Israeli airstrikes usually intensify in an effort to obliterate the completed base. Probably the same for the tunnels. Israel has had to deal with cross-border tunnels before, on its Lebanon and Gaza borders.

For the second time since July Turkish officials have threatened to order American forces out of the Incirlik airbase. While this is not the only Turkish airbase NATO forces use but it is the largest and most important for supporting operations in Syria. The Turkish threats come in reaction to American opposition to the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria. The Americans, and other NATO members, also oppose this Turkish aggression as well as Turkish threats against fellow NATO member Greece because of overlapping claims to offshore waters that might contain natural gas deposits. NATO members are also opposed to Turkish intervention in Libya. That intervention has also killed Russian troops who are supporting the faction (HoR/LNA) that is active in eliminating local Islamic terror groups. The Turks back the GNA faction that is more “Islamic:” and chaotic. Turkey now threatens to send combat troops to Libya while also starting and air and naval war with Greece. Turkey says they do not want to leave NATO but they don’t act like they mean to stay.

December 9, 2019: Russian and Iranian media claim that on December 6th Russian jet fighters, operating from the Russian airbase in northwest Syria, intercepted Israeli warplanes that appeared to be on their way to attack the T-4 airbase, and forced the Israelis to turn back. There was no comment from the Israelis. This airbase, in central Syria near Palmyra, has been hit by Israeli airstrikes several times in 2019 and many more times in earlier years. The T4 airbase is the largest in Syrian. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Russia later revealed that its electronic jammers, which were supposed to disrupt the guidance systems of missiles attacking Syrian bases failed to do so during the 2018 T-4 attack. Details were not given, only that the Russian jammers were “interfered with by external forces.” Russia is embarrassed by the apparent ineffectiveness of its air defenses when used against Israeli airstrikes. The Israelis don’t rub it in and generally respond with “no comment” when asked about it.

Russian troops did enter the Raqqa today, to distribute food and other aid to civilians trying to rebuild the place. This city, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria, used to be the ISIL capital. ISIL was driven out in late 2017 by Kurdish ground forces assisted by American artillery and air support. The Kurds agreed to allow Syrian troops to share control of Raqqa as a result of the October Turkish offensive into northeast Syria. This means Russian and Iranian forces could also enter Raqqa but until now only Syrian troops have been there.

December 7, 2019: In the north (Idlib province), Syrian and Russian forces carried out another offensive against Islamic terror groups still in control of most of the province. The fighting in Idlib has been more spasmodic. The new offensive is similar to a three day campaign in November. Like the new attack, the November effort was in southeast Idlib and left about 150 dead, most of them the Islamic terrorists blocking the advancing Syrian troops. Both times the attackers had the advantage of plentiful airstrikes and artillery fire. This also caused over a hundred civilian casualties, about a quarter of them dead. The airstrikes are often directed at residential areas to force the civilians to leave. Over 10,000 civilians a week do just that. The Syrian offensive is heavily dependent on Russian air support as well as a few hundred Russia special operations troops advising and assisting the Syrian forces. There are also over a thousand Russian technical advisors helping to maintain the growing number of aircraft, tanks, artillery and other equipment the Syrian forces use.

Russia continues to pressure 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 into 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 main problem with the Turks remaining in northwestern Syria is that the Turks refuse to go after the Islamic terror groups in the area.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province), there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were four or five deaths, all of them pro-Iran militiamen.

December 6, 2019: The U.S. announced that it completed its “withdrawal” of its troops from northeastern Syrian combat zones. There are still 600 American troops in Syria, down from a thousand and they are now stationed in less volatile areas to keep an eye on things, especially the continuing anti-ISIL operations carried out by the Syrian Kurdish forces. The U.S. still stands ready to intervene if that operation is threatened.

December 5, 2019: An opinion survey of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey showed that 40 percent would not return to Syria, not even the Turkish Safe Zone. Thirty percent might return to the Safe Zone, apparently depending on how effectively the zone is established and managed. So far the zone is not safe at all. A Turkish offensive that began on October 9th has resulted in a lot of fighting and nearly two thousand casualties so far. Few of the refugees felt unsafe in Turkey and 85 percent were satisfied with life in Turkey and would prefer to stay. Since 2016 only 365,000 refugees have returned to Syria. Most refugees are getting by economically, using a combination of foreign aid and jobs they create for themselves or obtain locally by working for less than Turks. This has made the refugees very unpopular in Turkey, which has been undergoing an economic recession for several years and it is worst in areas with a lot of refugees. So most Turks want the Syrians gone and do not back earlier plans to grant many of the refugees’ Turkish citizenship. So far only 80,000 have obtained citizenship and few more are expected to do so.

December 4, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq.

December 3, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province) and American UAV used a non-explosive Hellfire missile to attack a van carrying two local Islamic terrorist leaders. Both men died as the missile penetrated the roof and deployed rotating blades that hacked the men to death without causing any damage outside the van. This is the second time this version of Hellfire is known to have been used. The attack took place eight kilometers from the Turkish border in areas controlled by an al Qaeda affiliate.

December 1, 2019: SDF and Russian commanders negotiated an arrangement that would enable Russian troops to get between SDF and Turkish forces. The largely Kurdish SDF agreed to withdraw as the Turks sought to establish their Safe Zone but wanted someone like the Russians to police the operation and maintain a presence along the line separating Turkish and SDF forces. The factions still fighting the Turkish advance are not under SDF control.

In the northwest (Idlib province), a two day battle between Syrian troops and Islamic terrorist groups left over 200 dead or wounded after two days of fighting.

November 30, 2019: Syria remains firmly entrenched in the top ten of the 2019 GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. The top ten were Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. In the last year worldwide terrorism deaths declined 15 percent to 15,952. This decline is, so far, a four-year trend and Syria is one of the areas where there have been fewer deaths in the last few years.

November 29, 2019: In the northeast (Hasaka province), a Turkish surveillance UAV was shot down near the border city of Qamishli. At first, it was thought the Russians downed the UAV, fearing it was an Islamic terrorist attempt to attack the Russian airbase outside the city. It turned out that the Turkish UAV was shot down by Syrian troops stationed in the vicinity.

November 27, 2019: In Turkey, the Libyan GNA (Government of National Accord) and Turkey signed defense and economic agreements. Apparently in return for surrendering offshore claims to Turkey in return for Turkey sending troops to help defend Tripoli from the LNA (Libyan National Army) that controls most of the country. The GNA agreements with Turkey also support overall Turkish offshore claims which overlap the Greek claims. Greece is threatening war with Turkey over this.

The Turkish Libya intervention is part of a larger conflict. Turkey is allied with Iran and Qatar against the rest of the Moslem world, especially Egypt and the Gulf Arab oil states. That is a major incentive for the Turks to get involved in Libya. One reason for Russia not publicizing their Libyan efforts is because Russia and Turkey are allies in Syria. Turks don’t have any military or contractor personnel at the front lines but some have been killed or wounded by LNA airstrikes.

The Russians are seen as reliable allies of Libya, even though it was Russia which supplied Libya with most of its weapons throughout the Kaddafi era (1960s to 2011) and are now delivering fewer, but more modern ones, like ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) and portable anti-aircraft missiles to bring down UAVs. The Turks are seen as a former imperial overlord trying to make a comeback. The Turks also ignore the fact that most Libyans oppose the Islamic conservative militias that the Turks support and see the Turks as more of a threat than the Russians or Arabs who are backing the LNA.

Escalating the Turkish presence in Libya is apparently not going to happen quickly. The Turkish leader also said he would discuss this matter with his Russian counterpart soon. Closer to home Turkey is threatening war with its neighbor Greece. Turkey is also at odds with the United States in Syria. All these foreign adventures are an effort to distract Turkish voters from the current economic recession they are suffering from as well as their government continuing suppression of internal criticism of the government.

November 26, 2019: In the northeast (Hasaka province), a car bomb went off near the border town Ras Ayn, left 17 dead and 20 wounded. Turkish troops have controlled the area since October and blamed the bombing on Kurdish separatists allied with the PKK Turkish Kurd separatists.

November 19, 2019: In southern Syria, four rockets were fired from outside Damascus at Israel and intercepted by Israeli Iron Dome. These long-range guided rocket attacks are increasingly common because of Iran in getting more of these rockets and ballistic missiles into Syria. This rocket attack was an Iranian effort to do some damage in Israel. While this attack failed Iran has been trying to get Zolfaghar short-range (about 700 kilometers) ballistic missiles into Syria for use against Israel.

In response to the four rockets, over the next 24 hours, dozens of Israeli airstrikes were carried out against Iranian and Syrian military targets in Syria, all within 80 kilometers of the Israeli border. In addition to substantial material damage, at least 24 people were killed, most of them apparently Iranians. Four civilians were wounded but most of the casualties were Iranian or Iranian allies. The main targets were Quds force and IRGC bases as well as Syrian air defense systems and military bases in general. Anything connected with the Iranian effort to attack Israel was more likely to be hit. Some or all of the civilian casualties were the result of Syrian air defense missiles hitting the ground. In several cases, missiles failed to launch properly and fell, intact, into residential areas.

Once the attacks were over the Israeli Defense Minister warned Iranian leaders in Syria and Iran that they were not immune to attack. The implication was that if Iran continued militarizing Syria for attacks on Israel, the conflict would get more personal for the Iranian leadership, who would be considered prime targets. Iranian leaders have already recognized this danger and adopted more security measures to make it more difficult for any form of assassination to take place.

November 17, 2019: Russia criticized the Israeli airstrikes in Syria but that was it. Russia is an ally of Syria and Iran but has made it clear it is not willing to go to war with Israel in support of that alliance. Russia does not want to discuss the ineffectiveness of the Russian made air defense systems Syria uses. Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria over the last few years and the Syrian Air Defenses have not been able to shoot down any Israeli warplanes. One Israeli F-16 did get damaged and crash-landed in Israel but that was more about pilot error than effective air defenses.

November 14, 2019: In the northeast (Hasaka province), Russian troops have set up an airbase outside the border city of Qamishli. The base will mainly support Russian helicopters that are moving Russian troops around the vicinity as they act as neutral observers to prevent a clash between Turkish and SDF forces. Syrian troops will guard the new Russian base. There is also an American landing zone in the area.

November 12, 2019: In the south (Gaza), an Israeli airstrike killed the Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza. 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. An hour later there were more Israeli airstrikes against Islamic Jihad leaders and facilities in Syria (Damascus). Syria reported that its air defense systems fired on a “hostile target” to no effect.

 

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