Syria: Zealots Loose Upon The Land


January 29, 2020: The Assad government has won the war but is finding that victory very bittersweet. The economy has collapsed and is propped up by Iranian cash. In some respects that makes things worse because the Iranians are not providing as much money as they used to because of severe economic problems back in Iran. The economic investments only work in areas where the Assads have a lot of popular support. That means western Syria, mainly the Mediterranean coast and Damascus. Most of the remaining territory is populated with a Sunni Arab majority that includes a lot of people who still support the rebels. Syria, or rather the Assad government, are subject to severe American economic sanctions. The Syrian economy is a total mess, with rampant inflation, little foreign investment, high unemployment and not much economic activity compared to pre-war (2011) Syria.

The more hard-core rebels, and their families, often moved to Idlib province as part of surrender deals. The majority of Sunnis remained where they were and, when the Assad secret police arrived, it was discovered that many still willing to support supported the rebels. In response, the Assads did what they have done successfully before. They made deals with local Sunni leaders who were willing to work for the Assads as counterterror terrorists. In effect, these Sunnis act as spies and executioners of fellow Sunnis who are or might be, engaged in anti-Assad violence. That does not solve the problem but it keeps it under control for a while.

The government also uses Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq as well as Syria to round up and kill Sunni Arabs suspected of anti-government activities. The militias usually carry out the killings where other civilians can see it, or quickly realize who did it. The Russians have tried to limit these atrocities by deploying police battalions of Russian Moslem troops. This worked, but only in the few places the Russian police could monitor,

The Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces also attack any ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters they encounter, although ISIL is not considered a major concern at the moment. For the remaining American troops destroying ISIL is their primary task, followed by assisting Kurdish allies who are also fighting ISIL. The Syrian Kurds are mainly concerned with Turkish aggression and trying to negotiate an autonomy deal with the Assads. The Syrian Kurds and Americans have been working together since 2012, assisted by the decades of American efforts with Iraqi Kurds. The American ground troops are special operations personnel who also control considerable American airpower in the region. As a result, the United States is still a major military factor in Syria and major players (Russians, Assads and Turks) avoid clashing with them. That works for now because the Americans are in Syria mainly see ISIL diminished to relative insignificance.

ISIL Isolation

The Americans made it clear that they will remain active in Syria until assured that locals can handle counterterrorism operations, especially against ISIL. The Americans admit that this may keep their troops in Syria for years, but the U.S. does not see any alternative. To accomplish their goal the Americans keep a low profile.

Because the Americans and Israelis often do not announce airstrikes they have carried out and both nations use the same types of warplanes, it is often unclear whose aircraft hit a target. One thing you can be sure of is that if the target was ISIL, it was probably an American airstrike. ISIL targets tend to in remote areas or in unexpected places because ISIL is hated by most everyone and must maintain a very low profile to avoid detection and attack. The Americans have an  extensive array of intelligence sources (electronic, agents in Syria and worldwide and satellites) that enable them to find well-hidden ISIL locations, and then carry out an airstrike. The Israelis are more concerned with Iranian activities and that is reflected in where the Israeli airstrikes occur.

ISIL is not the threat it was a few years ago, but in Syria there are still a lot of ISIL zealots loose upon the land. ISIL would like to hit targets in Israel but that has proved virtually impossible. Continued Israeli military actions in Syria have been officially noted by ISIL, which recently declared war on Israel. In part this was to boost morale among the Sinai (Egypt) branch of ISIL, which has taken a considerable beating from Egyptian, Israeli and Iranian (Hamas) forces in the last few years. At least the Sinai faction still manages to carry out one or two attacks a month. ISIL is lucky to organize one or two a year inside Israel and these are often partial failures. While Israel doesn’t launch many airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, it has hit ISIL targets in Sinai more than a hundred times since 2018.

Keeping the organization alive is the main reason for remaining in Syria. There are still a lot of angry and desperate Sunni Arabs and some of these still support and even join, ISIL. Despite the Americans finding and killing their leader Baghdadi last October, Syria is still considered more “ISIL-friendly” than anywhere else in the region. This is also where ISIL was created in 2013 and over the last eight years, many enduring local relationships have been created. Eventually, ISIL will have to leave, once the Assads once more control the entire country and rebuild their secret police and internal intelligence organizations. That means in five years, or sooner, ISIL will have to move. At the moment no one, including ISIL, is quite sure where that will be. There are no appealing alternatives to the Middle East. But desperation breeds attempts so the Americans will remain as long as ISIL does and then follow the Islamic terror group to whatever new hideout they choose.

The plight of ISIL is one reason why global Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014 when there were 35,000 fatalities. The decline was largely attributable to one Islamic terror group in particular, ISIL that suffered major setbacks. As a result global terrorism deaths fell to 19,000 by 2017, less than 16,000 for 2018 and the decline continued into 2019. This activity is most visible in the GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism. But Islamic terrorism is the main cause and for years ISIL was the deadliest practitioner. That led to a curious situation in Egypt which in 2018 dropped out of the top ten as they suppressed most ISIL activity in Sinai. In 2017 Egypt was number three but now it is at eleven.

The top ten consists of 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. Somalia is one of the areas where there have been fewer deaths in the last few years. Al Shabaab has learned that the most profitable approach is to carry out fewer dramatic, high visibility attacks and otherwise conserve its manpower and resources. Thus the emphasis on spectacular attacks in major cities like Mogadishu or against an American military base.


Iran continues to justify its growing presence in Syria because of its decade’s old obsession to carry out the destruction of Israel. Syria was supposed to be a step in that direction. Instead, Syria has been a money pit and graveyard for expensive efforts to bring in missiles and other weapons for use against Israel. These imports are regularly blown up by Israeli airstrikes. Iranian efforts have faltered a bit as anti-government protests grow in Iran, Gaza, Lebanon and Iraq. All this opposition makes it more difficult to justify the money spent in these places to “destroy Israel.”

For the first time, Israel revealed actual numbers for airstrikes in Syria and Gaza. During 2019 there were 54 airstrikes against Syrian targets and 900 in Gaza. Israeli UAVs also spent 40,000 hours in the air during the year carrying out surveillance in Gaza and along the northern border. The airstrikes in Syria tended to be larger, involving more aircraft and weapons (missiles, smart bombs) used. In Gaza, an airstrike was usually one missile or smart bomb against a Hamas or Islamic Jihad facility in retaliation for a rocket, mortar and fire balloon attack against Israel.

Traumatized Turks

Turkey accuses Russia of responsibility for the current Syrian offensive against the Idlib rebels, which has sent about 400,000 Idlib civilians towards the Turkish border. Without Russian support, Syria could not have carried out such an effective offensive, which began in May 2019. Turkey thought they had Russian agreement to a ceasefire in Idlib, but that never worked and the Syrians keep advancing.

January 28, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province), the government offensive into the last rebel stronghold has accelerated in the last five days as Syrian troops, preceded by over a hundred airstrikes a day, have driven rebels from 22 towns and villages and are now 30 kilometers from the provincial capital Idlib city. The last town captured was Maaret al Numan, which is near the Turkish border and on the M5 highway, Maaret al Numan was captured by rebels in late 2012. By occupying this town the rebels blocked the highway. That meant government troops in the northwest faced a growing shortage of food, fuel, ammo and reinforcements. These shortages hurt morale and encouraged more soldiers to desert. This led to a collapse of government control in the northwest and Aleppo. Over seven years later the primary objective is to clear the main road (the M5) that runs from Turkey to Damascus. Making the M5 safe for regular commercial traffic has been a Syrian goal for years.

The land route from Europe to Arabia via Turkey and Jordan had, from the 1990s to 2011, become a very lucrative business for Syria. It was basically the M5 highway that went from the Turkish border, through Aleppo, Idlib, 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 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 nearly all 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 most of the M5 and the Assads consider this a major achievement. The main problem was that rebels in Idlib province advanced and again threatened any passing M5 traffic.

While the M5 has economic potential, it has immediate military value because control makes it 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 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. While the overall campaign in Idlib is to destroy the last rebel stronghold, the day-to-day goal is to make the M5 safer to use. The battle for the highway means more fighting next door in Aleppo province, where the rebels still hold some territory.

January 26, 2020: In the east (Hasaka province), a Russian convoy was stopped by an American checkpoint and turned away. The road led to a Kurdish controlled oilfield. This is the fourth time since the 18th that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to drive past Kurdish oil facilities in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces.

In the north (Aleppo province), a vehicle bomb went off in the border city of Azaz, leaving one person dead and several others.

January 25, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), near the Mayadeen army base, unidentified (but apparently Israeli) aircraft attacked two targets. One contained Iranian troops and the other Iranian Afghan mercenaries.

January 23, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province), rebels launched an offensive against Syrian troops and drove them back enough so the rebels could again occupy two villages. This was a rare setback because for the last few months the government forces have been slowly but relentlessly pushing the Islamic terrorist rebels back. This is with the assistance of Russian and Syrian airstrikes, often over a hundred a day. As a result, many rebels who do not retreat are killed by the many airstrikes. The rebel advance was followed the next day but massive airstrikes and attacks by Syrian and Russian ground forces.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) there was another airstrike against Iraqi Hezbollah militia on the Iraqi side of the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. It was unclear if this attack was carried out by American or Israeli aircraft as both nations have attacked this Hezbollah group here before.

January 21, 2020: Russia has shipped 120 S-400 missiles to Turkey, which received two battalions of S-400 systems in mid-2019. Turkey expects to have these two battalions operational by mid-2020. The new S-400 equipment cost the Turks $2.5 billion, which included training, technical assistance and a 20 month warranty. These S-400 systems are not expected to become operational until mid-2020 or later.

Russia revealed that it had moved one of its own S-400 batteries to eastern Syria (Hasaka province). The battery is stationed outside the border city of Qamishli, which is controlled by Kurds but also has Syrian troops present to prevent an attack by the Turks. This S-400 battery is now 100 kilometers from the Iraq border and the S-400 search radar has a range of 600 kilometers, meaning it now covers most of the Iraqi border with Syria.

Russia claims that it tracked six American F-35s flying along the Iran-Iraq border on the 7th. This was when Iran fired 16 ballistic missiles at American bases in Iraq. The U.S. had no comment on the F-35s.

January 19, 2020: In the north, near the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) Russian airbase Syrian troops activated at least one battery of their new Russian S-300 air defense systems. It has taken nearly a year for the Syrian crews to be trained. Russia is believed to still have a veto over when the Syrian S-300s can be used.

January 18, 2020: In the east (Hasaka province), a Russian convoy taking a Russian general to the Turkish border was stopped and rerouted when the convoy sought to drive near Kurdish controlled oil fields. This was apparently the result of poor planning because the Kurdish held oilfields have been off-limits to Russians since 2018 when Russian military contractors tried and failed, to take control of the oilfields in neighboring Deir Ezzor province.

January 16, 2020: In the northeast (Raqqa province), a car bomb went off near the Turkish occupied border town of Tal Abyad, killing three Turkish soldiers and five of their Syrian mercenaries. The Turks had stopped two cars and the occupants but the two vehicles exploded. This indicated Islamic or Kurdish (YPG) terrorists were responsible. The Turks prefer to accuse Kurds but ISIL was more likely as ISIL is still angry at Turkey for the October 2019 death of ISIL leader Baghdadi. The Kurds are still angry at the Turkish attacks in the last two years which have led to the Kurds losing control of territory in Aleppo, Raqqa and Hasaka provinces.

January 14, 2020: In central Syria, Israeli airstrikes again hit the T4 airbase in Homs province, killing at least three pro-Iran soldiers and destroying a lot of structures and equipment. 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 Syria and Iran is building new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.

There were also more airstrikes to the east ( Deir Ezzor province) where American and Israel's airstrikes are hitting Iran backed militias on both sides of the Iraqi border. The increased airstrikes are part of the aftermath of the killing of Iranian IRGC general Soleimani 11 days ago. Soleimani was seen as an inspirational leader by many of the militiamen he recruited and organized. While some of these militiamen and mercenaries want revenge, many others are demoralized. The airstrikes have been going on for some time and there is less cash and supplies coming from Iran. To these men, Soleimani appeared to have lost his touch and then he lost his life to the Americans. The demoralized fighters are deserting in greater numbers, having lost faith in the Iranian cause.

Elsewhere in Deir Ezzor province when Kurdish and American forces carried out an operation that found an ISIL safe house and after a brief firefight captured weapons and documents. One of the dead ISIL me turned out to be a senior ISIL financial official who also took care of logistics for ISIL attacks in the area as well as recruiting.

January 13, 2020: In the east (the Iraq border), ISIL launched two attacks on border crossings in the past two days. One attack failed the other succeeded and killed one soldier and wounded four. In both operations, all the attackers died.

January 9, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were eight deaths, all of them pro-Iran militiamen.

January 8, 2020: In the northeast (Hasaka province), a checkpoint near the border was attacked by an Islamic terrorist suicide car bomber, leaving four Turkish soldiers dead.

January 4, 2020: One way to measure the effectiveness of governments and the societies they represent is the Human Development Index the UN has compiled for 29 years. The index ranks all the world nations in terms of how well they do in terms of life expectancy, education and income. In 2019 Syria was 154th out of 189 nations. The rank of 0ther nations puts this into perspective; the United States is at 15 (tied with Britain), Russia at 49, China 89, Israel 22 (tied with South Korea), Saudi Arabia 36, Iran 65, India 129, Pakistan 152, Bangladesh 135, Afghanistan 170, Venezuela 96, Colombia 79, Mexico 76. Egypt 116, Lebanon 93, Iran 65 and Jordan 103. The top ten nations are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Singapore and Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mozambique at 180th place (there are a lot of ties) followed by Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and in last place, Niger.

Corruption remains a major problem for Syria. It was bad before war and is now a lot worse. Syria is at the bottom of the list when it comes to clean government. For 2019 Syria ranked 178th out of 180 nations which was the same as in just about every year since 2013 in international rankings. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Syrian score is 13 (versus 14 in 2018) compared 28 (29 for Russia, 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 39 (41) for China, 57 (54) for South Korea, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 26 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, 71 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 60 (64) for Israel, 69 (75) for the United States, 26 (27) for Nigeria, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon.

The Syrian corruption score was 26 in 2012, which today would put it right next to Bangladesh at 150th place. The current high level of corruption makes it difficult for anyone to justify investing in Syria or even providing foreign aid, which is not likely to reach those it is intended for.

January 3, 2020: In Iraq, IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) general (and Quds Force commander) Qassem Soleimani was killed by an American Hellfire missile attack. Soleimani was also in charge of the Iranian military buildup in Syria. This was aimed at Israel, as was a similar mobilization in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Iraq (an Iraqi Hezbollah Iran is trying to create). It was later revealed that Israeli intel contributed to tracking and confirming the presence of Soleimani on an airliner flight from Damascus to Baghdad. Israel also believes the death of Soleimani is a big win for them in its effort to prevent an Iranian military buildup in Syria.

January 2, 2020: It is estimated that about 300 Syrian civilians died during military or Islamic terrorist operations in December 2019. That was about average for 2019. Military casualties were higher and total dead for the year were about 10,000. This is in sharp contrast to the past. Back in 2014, there were nearly 40,000 dead. Some 60 percent were civilians (most of them pro-rebel) and 20 percent were rebel fighters. The rest were pro-government forces. About three percent of 2014 dead were caused by Western and Arab airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria. The next few years also saw heavy casualties and so far the civil war has left over 400,000 dead from nine years of violence.

The 2019 dead do not include the 500 or so who died in the Kurdish Al-Hol refugee camp for ISIL wives and children. The Al-Hol camp holds about 12,000 women and children, most of them foreigners. Most of the dead were young children.

December 29, 2019: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) ,the U.S. carried out five airstrikes against Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah bases on both sides of the Iraq/Syria border, leaving at least 25 dead.

December 25, 2019: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were five deaths, all of them pro-Iran militiamen. Around the same time, there were some explosions in nearby Deir Ezzor city (the provincial capital) that were attributed to another Israeli airstrike.

December 22, 2019: In southern Syria (Damascus), there was an explosion in the city outskirts which killed three Iranian mercenaries. The Syrians attributed this to another Israeli airstrike.

December 19, 2019: In southern Syria (Israeli border), Russian anti-aircraft weapons opened fire on an Israeli UAV that was flying along the Syrian border and strayed into Syrian airspace for about 90 seconds. The UAV was not hit.


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