Syria: Better To Be Feared Than Loved

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February 27, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province), two more Turkish soldiers were killed, and two others wounded, by a Russian airstrike. So far this month about twenty Turkish troops have died in Syria. The Turks seek to avoid these casualties because they are very unpopular with Turkish voters who, in general, do not support getting involved in Arab civil wars or rebellions. For centuries, before the Turkish Ottoman Empire was dissolved in 1918, the Turks tried to use local forces to keep the peace in the many Arab provinces of their empire. This was not always possible and Turk troops had to be sent. Although these troops were more effective than their Arab counterparts, the Turks were not bulletproof and there were usually a lot of casualties, not to mention losses from disease and the perils of chasing Arab rebels through the unfamiliar and often barren territory. While the Turks enjoyed doing business with the Arabs, trying to rule them was seen as a hopeless task and, even before the Ottoman Empire fell, many Arab provinces were abandoned as not worth the trouble and expense of holding onto them.

The Turks have been using their traditional solution again and hiring Syrians to serve as their mercenaries. These FSA (Free Syrian Army) troops are veteran rebel fighters who oppose Islamic terrorists and recognized a well-paid opportunity to keep fighting but under Turkish direction. Over 90 percent of the “Turkish” ground forces in Syria are FSA and so far this month they have suffered over 120 dead. The Turks provide death benefits including a cash payment to next-of-kin as well as permission to live in Turkey. Wounded FSA are also well taken care of. These days service in the FSA is considered a favorable option for most Sunni Syrians because the Turks otherwise do not want any more Syrian refugees.

The confrontation is northwest Syria (Idlib province) is closer to home for Turkey because Russian support for the Syrian (Assad) government offensive, to eliminate the last rebel (and Islamic terrorist) stronghold in Syria, is driving hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees, along with many Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees, towards the nearby Turkish border. The Turks are on good terms with some of the Islamic terror groups in Idlib, as they are with Islamic groups in Libya. The Russians are generally hostile to all Islamic terrorist and Islamic political groups. For that reason, the Turks are openly calling on the Russians to decide if they are a friend of Turkey or not. The Russians don’t want to make an open declaration, at least not yet. Turkey is a new customer for Russian weapons and helpful against the sanctions Russia is operating under. The Turks have already proved a troublesome ally for the United States and other NATO members. Turkey is in real danger of being expelled from NATO. While the Russians would love that, they are finding that being a Turkish ally is a risky and expensive undertaking.

The Russians have refused to consider a ceasefire and are apparently prepared to back Syria with whatever it takes to regain control of the entire province. At this point, Russia and Syria both claim that Syrian troops are firmly in control of the southern half of Idlib province and are continuing to advance on the other half.

The Turks insist they won’t halt their efforts to block and roll back the Syrian offensive. So far the Turks have been taking casualties while the Russians are not. The Russians have pilots and some special operations troops on the ground who are at risk. Russia also uses mercenaries, but they are former Russian troops now working for Russian military contractors. Most of the Russian losses so far have been among the contractors. The Turks threaten to send their U.S. made F-16 fighters into Syria to confront the Russian jets. That would be dangerous because the Russian S-400 air defense system has been operational in Syria for several years and is considered quite formidable, at least compared to older Russian systems. Turkey recently purchased the S-400 from Russia but it is not operational yet and, if the Russians decide to bomb targets inside Turkey, the Turks will have a hard time opposing them. The Turkish air force has been weakened over the last decade by several purges as the current Islamic government accused many pilots of plotting against the government. So many pilots were dismissed that there are not enough to fly the hundreds of combat aircraft the Turks have. The Russians know this and are apparently willing to endanger their S-400 sale to Turkey.

Iran

Iranian efforts to expand their control in Iraq and Syria are not producing the desired results. Despite the much reduced budget for operations in Syria, the Iranian Quds Force officers in charge convinced their bosses back in Iran that more cash was needed in Syria to prevent the Iranian effort there from collapsing. The cash has apparently come though because the Iranians have increased the pay and benefits for many of the mercenaries, including the local Syrian Sunni militias it has been recruiting. The Syrian economy is still a mess and good jobs are hard to come by. While being an Iranian merc can be dangerous the Iranians tell the new Syrian recruits that they want them to keep doing what they have always been doing; protecting their own town or neighborhood.

Meanwhile neighboring Iraq has slipped into an unofficial civil war between pro and anti-Iran factions. Iran has used force against anti-Iran protesters and is responsible for most of the 700 protesters killed since the protests began in October 2019. These deaths have exceeded the casualties caused by Islamic terrorists. Half the deaths have been in Baghdad and Iraqis know Iran is a big fan of shooting protesters. In the same time period over a thousand protesters in Iran were killed. The Iraqi government is in chaos because the parliament contains a mix of pro and anti-Iran members plus a lot of members who are pro-Iran only because they are being bribed or intimidated by Iran. The parliament has called for the departure of all American troops but only the prime minister can approve that and make it law and at the moment there is only an interim prime minister because parliament is deadlocked in selecting a new prime minister. The stalemate is influenced by Iranian pressure but the major disputes are about corruption and who gets to control the most lucrative (for thieves) ministries.

Israel And The Americans

With some Israeli assistance, by way of carefully monitoring what goes in Lebanon and with Hezbollah for decades, the Americans are now concentrating on what Hezbollah is up to in Iraq. There has long been some Hezbollah activity and influence in Iraq. Despite that, few Iraqi Shia saw the need to follow the Hezbollah example and establish a private army to intimidate the government to favor the Shia. In Lebanon, the Shia were a minority while in Iraq they are the majority and have controlled the government since the last Sunni dictatorship was eliminated, along with Saddam Hussein, in 2003. The U.S. wants to keep any flavor of Hezbollah out of Iraq and the Israelis help when they can, usually with intel on current Iranian and Hezbollah activities and plans.

Both Israel and the U.S. will continue their efforts to support the Kurds. Despite this arrangement, the Americans were recently drawn in by Turkish demands that Russian airstrikes killing Turkish troops in Syria constituted a reason to invoke the NATO mutual defense pact. Turkey asked the U.S. to send Patriot air defense batteries to protect Turkish air space from possible Russian attack. Turkey also requested American troops be sent to help defend the Turkish border from attacks. NATO members agreed with the U.S. that this situation does not qualify as a “mutual defense” situation. The Turks have intervened in Syria and it is their responsibility alone to handle whatever happens.

The U.S. is still carrying out airstrikes in Syria against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets. This is sometimes misinterpreted as an Israeli airstrike because the Americans and Israelis use the same types of warplanes. The U.S. and Israel will only say 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 Israelis are more concerned with Iranian activities and that is reflected in where the Israeli airstrikes occur.

Israel recently revealed that it has established a separate command to deal with operations against Iran in Syria. Israel is treating that as an active war with Iran and so far Israel is winning. As part of that Israel is reorganizing an existing infantry brigade to one trained and equipped to operate deep inside Syria, as needed, to deal with new Iranian threats.

February 26, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) the Turkey-backed NLF Islamic terrorist coalition claim they have recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, which the NLF had lost to Syrian forces earlier in the month. With this the M5 highway is again blocked, as is the M4 which is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports. Given the importance of the M5, it was believed that Syrian troops and Russian air support would try to regain control of the town. Instead the Russians and Syrians denied that the control of the town had been lost. So far no one else has been able to confirm who is in control.

The NLF serves as a Turkish military auxiliary force that will carry out missions the NLF believes are in its interest. At the moment preventing the Syrians from regaining control of Idlib. If the Syrians do manage to conquer the entire province the NLF (about 50,000 armed men and their families) face death at the hands of the Syrian secret police which have been quick to kill even suspected Sunni Islamic terrorists elsewhere in Syria where the Assads regained control. This was brutal even by Russian standards and the Russians brought in Moslem police battalions, mainly from Chechnya, to get the Syrians to ease up on the mass murder. The conquest of Idlib will put the largest, so far, number of Islamic terrorists and their dependents under the control of the Syrian secret police. In the past, the Assads have not hesitated to kill large numbers (at least 10,000 in one case) of opponents in one place after a failed uprising. Russian military police will be insufficient to block this, especially when Iran agrees with and encourages the Assads use of mass-murder to remind rebellions Syrians what is at stake here. The NLF does have the possibility of being allowed to find refuge in Turkey. While the current Turkish government favors that approach, most Turks do not and the Islamic Turkish political that has been in power since 2000 is in danger of losing control of the government in upcoming elections. That is not good news for the desperate NLF.

The NLF (National Liberation Front) is an Islamic terrorist coalition formed in August 2018 with the help and approval of Turkey. This merger was arranged by Ahrar al-Sham, a longtime rival of HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), and backed by Turkey. At that point about ten percent of the province was controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred kilometer long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast). HTS recently convinced the NLF to join a larger coalition, under the leadership of HTS which would be better able to defend Idlib. Despite its Turkish ties, NLF was persuaded after HTS attacked and eliminated NLF factions who opposed the deal.

Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS , 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 has 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.

February 25, 2020: In Damascus, there is growing concern that Islamic terror attacks may be returning to the capital. In the last two weeks, there have been six roadside bombs used against security forces outside the city. So far five people have died and 15 wounded. No one has taken responsibility for the bombs.

In Libya, the Russian-backed LNA (Libyan National Army) repeated its demand that the Turks leave the country. As long as the Turks are in Libya there can be no peace. The LNA also pointed out that the Turks are not the invincible imperial conquerors of old. The LNA claims to have killed at least 17 Turks and nearly a hundred of their Syrian Arab (FSA) mercenaries. Several Turkish UAVs have been shot down and photographed. The Turks deny these claims but back in Turkey, the government is doing its best to suppress news of Turkish military personnel who have died in Libya and buried back in Turkey without any admission of where they died and how.

Turkey claims to have killed at least a hundred LNA personnel so far. If the casualty reports are to be believed then the Turks are taking more of a beating than the LNA, which has always stressed keeping its casualties low. According to Turkish claims, the LNA has lost less than one percent of its strength in the same period that the Turkish mercs lost over three percent and the smaller Turkish military contingent suffered about the same casualty rate. The Russian mercs have casualty rates similar to the Turks while the Russian and Gulf Arab military personnel providing logistical and tech support for the LNA have suffered very few casualties. Most Libyans oppose the Turks and welcome assistance from other Arab states as well as the Russians, who got on well with Libyans on a personnel level. Russian support for the Kaddafi dictatorship came from the Soviet Union, which itself disappeared in 1991. After that, the Russians were no longer as eager to back Kaddafi who seemed to be following the same self-destructive trajectory as the Soviet Union. The GNA is being propped up by the Turks and still depends on independent-minded Islamic militias as well as some militias that are basically criminal gangs with heavy weapons.

Historically the Turks and Russians were always rivals and often at war with each other. Although the Russian and Turk empires dissolved a century ago, the ancient animosities did not. Now Turkish and Russian forces are fighter each other in Syria and Libya. Both areas used to be part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and both because close to Russia during the Cold War, buying most of their weapons from Russia and cooperating diplomatically. Most Syrians and Libyans are more interested in reviving the Russian relationship than the Turkish one.

February 24, 2020: Outside of Damascus an Israeli airstrike destroyed a Palestinian Islamic Jihad facility. Most Islamic Jihad personnel are in Gaza where they are currently trying to carry out attacks inside Israel. Israel believes the Syrian facility is supporting the Gaza efforts.

February 20, 2020: In the north (Idlib province), Turkish forces attacked Syrian army positions near the town of Nayrab, which had recently been held by Idlib based rebels. While Turkish troops operated the artillery they did not provide air support. That was because Russian fighters and air defense systems dominated the air space in northwest Syria. Russian warplanes provided air support for the Syrian troops who were fighting the Turkish ground forces. These were not Turks but veteran Syrian mercenaries of the FSA. These mercenaries felt pretty confident because of the massive and accurate artillery support and could have defeated the Syrian troops if it were not for the Russian air support the Syrian forces, in addition to some Syrian Air Force aircraft that Russian technical personnel helped keep flying. The Turkish military announced that two Turkish soldiers had been killed and three wounded by a Russian airstrike in Idlib province. The Russians admitted that their Su-24 fighter-bombers were involved. So far fifteen Turkish troops have died from Syrian artillery fire and Russian or Syrian airstrikes.

Turkey accuses Russia of violating an Idlib ceasefire agreement both had signed in late 2018. The Assads were not a party to that deal and continued to prepare for the current offensive to regain control of Idlib province even though it has caused nearly a million civilians to head for the Turkish border. Syrian claims and the Russians concur, that Turkey did not keep its end of the ceasefire deal by controlling the heavily armed Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib who continued to fire on Syrian and Russian forces. The Turks and Russians are technically allies but they couldn’t agree on how to handle these ceasefire violations which were caused by Turkish inaction.

Now the Turks are complaining about “Russian aggression” and asking NATO allies to help them out. The Turks even asked the Americans to provide some Patriot batteries to protect Turkey from possible air raids. Turkey chose Russian S-400 air defense systems over the American Patriot (or similar European or Israeli systems) and has received much of the S-400 equipment but the Turkish crews and maintainers of the S-400 have not completed their training yet. Since the Syrians began their current offensive on January 16th they have regained control of 1.500 square kilometers of rebel territory in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. But now Russia and Turkey are technically at war with each other. Diplomats and senior officials from each country were on the phone talking to each other soon after the Russian airstrikes against Turkish forces took place. The situation is further complicated because two thousand of the Turkish FSA mercenaries volunteered to serve in Libya, where their opposition is assisted by Russian troops (veterans serving as military contractors for the Wagner Group). The FSA mercs are Syrian Sunni Arabs who oppose the Assads and Islamic terrorism. But in Idlib and Libya, they are supporting Russian allies who see Islamic terrorists as potential allies not relentless foes. Many FSA men are beginning to doubt the wisdom of trusting the Turks. That is a common attitude throughout the Arab world.

In the west (Latakia province), one kilometer from the Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) Russian airbase Syrian forces report being hit by missiles fired by unidentified aircraft off the coast. The Syrians have some of their S-300 air defense batteries in this area but since their arrival in late 2018, these S-300 systems have not been used in combat. It took about a year for the Syrian crews to be trained and out of that came Syrian complaints that the S-300 radar could not find or track Israeli F-35 stealth fighters. The Syrian S-300 operators doubt the S-300 is very effective against any Israeli weapons, including the less stealthy cruise missiles and F-16 fighters. The Syrians claim the Israelis have EW (electronic warfare) equipment that can jam or deceive the S-300 radars and guidance systems in S-300 missiles. Russia is believed to still have a veto over when the Syrian S-300s can be used and apparently has not yet allowed the Syrian S-300s to fire on Israeli attackers. In China, a recent article in a state-controlled newspaper came right out and said the S-300 does not work and that the Chinese should know because they bought the system from Russia and fixed the problems by developing their own, improved version of the S-300 called the FD-2000. This system is available for export, to just about anyone can pay, including the Syrian government.

February 19, 2020: In the southeast (Daraa province), two foreign aid workers were killed when their vehicle was fired on. That was not unusual in Daraa. The Assads found regaining that regaining control in 2018, of this last major rebel-controlled area in the south, 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 2018 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. In the last year, local violence against the Assads has left about 200 dead from about 300 incidents against the government and Iranian forces. Iran has disbanded the more expensive foreign (mainly Afghan) mercenary units and replaced them by recruiting cheaper locals. These are often Sunnis, who are the majority in this area. Iran brought in Hezbollah to handle this because Lebanon has some Christian and Sunni allies and Hezbollah has worked hard to hang on to these non-Shia groups. In Daraa Hezbollah personnel made the same pitch, but the main attraction was getting on the payroll. The money wasn’t much (a few hundred dollars a month initially) but given the devastated economy and the Syrian secret police again rounding up real or suspected enemies, it was safer to take the money and act loyal. Still, the violence continues. Some of the newly hired locals are believed to part of the problem, either by ignoring rebel activity or actually carrying out some of the violent attacks. The Syrian government ignores the fact that its secret police is a problem here. The secret police are ruthless and often reckless in pursuing and arresting anti-Assad civilians. Innocents often suffer but the Assads don’t care. The Assads have always been believers in “it is better to be feared than loved.”

February 18, 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 fifth time so far this year that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to drive past Kurdish oil facilities in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces.

February 17, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) a Turkey backed Syrian militia (the FSA) attacked members of an Iran-backed Shia militia near Tanf base (close to where Syrian, Iraq and Jordan borders meet). Twelve Shia militiamen were killed and one captured. Turkey and Iran are supposed to be allies in Syria but battles like this have become more common and the Turks are not pleased with this development. The Turks aren’t getting along well with the Russians or Americans either. Iran currently has about 20,000 Shia mercenaries on the payroll in Syria, supervised by nearly a thousand Quds personnel.

In Libya, the GNA (UN-backed Government Of National Accord) leader admitted that Turkey had brought in Syrian mercenaries to bolster and demoralized GNA militia fighters. It was feared that the Turkish mercs were from Syrian Islamic terror groups Turkey tolerates. That was apparently not the case. While Turkey, like the GNA, is tolerant of Islamic militias the Turks prefer to hire secular Syrians as mercenaries. Turkey does regularly support “cooperative” Islamic terrorist groups but does than trust them as mercenaries. The mercs sent to Libya to reinforce the defense of Tripoli. Instead, Turkey consisted of about 2,000 trusted members of its FSA (Free Syrian Army) mercenary force. For several years the FSA has been doing most of the fighting for the Turks in Syria, in return for good pay and eventual Turkish citizenship. Some of these Turkish mercenaries in Libya already received their citizenship, plus about $2,000 a month for serving in Libya plus a large payout to next of kin if they are killed. When foreign journalists managed to interview some of these FSA men, they admitted they were in Libya for the money and assurances by the Turks that the opposition they would face in Libya would be less dangerous than the Kurds they had been fighting in Syria.

February 16, 2020: In the north (Aleppo province), Syrian troops drove rebels out of several key towns and villages north and west of Aleppo city, which is near the provincial border with Idlib. This advance is part of the offensive to regain control of Idlib province and the vital M5 (Turkey to Jordan via Damascus) highway. Aleppo province is the most populous in Syria and Aleppo city is the second largest in the country.

In the east (Hasaka province), a convoy of 55 American military vehicles (trucks and combat) were seen entering from Iraq and heading west towards an unidentified destination. This could be just a supply run for the few American troops left in Syria as well as Syrian Kurd allies.

February 15, 2020: In neighboring Lebanon farmers in the north have organized local militias to halt the smuggling from Syria. The smuggled produce is sold for much less than what the Lebanese farmers normally get for the same crops. Lebanese officials have been bribed to let the Syrians drive into Lebanon to unload then take other goods back to Syria. The farmer militias have used cellphone cameras to document the blatant smuggling and are now putting armed guards on the roads leading from the Syrian border and turning back any trucks that are in Lebanon illegally. So far the Lebanese government has not responded.

February 13, 2020: An apparently Israeli airstrike in Syria (Damascus) destroyed an Iranian facility, killing four Iranians and three Syrians. Israel would not confirm that this was their airstrike. Satellite photos released several days later showed five warehouses and a nearby Quds headquarters building had all been turned into rubble. A bomb shelter had suffered partial destruction.

February 11, 2020: It’s been eleven months since ISIL declared its caliphate (conquered lands) was temporarily gone but ISIL was still around and members were ordered to switch to guerilla warfare. The caliphate was gone in Iraq by late 2017 but required another 16 months to destroy the Syria portion.

February 9, 2020: Over the weekend Russia again accused Israeli airstrikes of using civilian airliners to mask their airstrikes from Syrian air defense systems. Russia provided no evidence and no civilian airliner has complained. This is apparently another effort to support its ally Iran. Russia is unable to halt the Israeli airstrikes with the many Russian air defense systems stationed in Syria so some anti-Israel propaganda is better than nothing.

February 8, 2020: The United States confirmed rumors that the U.S. and Israel had formally agreed to coordinate anti-Iran efforts. Israel is concentrating on Lebanon and Syria while the Americans concentrate on Iraq in addition to maintaining a presence in Kurdish controlled northeast Syria. It had always been pretty obvious that the U.S. and Israel were cooperating is blocking Iranian efforts to build a “land-bridge” from Iran to Lebanon. That required Iran to get past American efforts in Iraq and eastern Syria to block Iranian road access to Syria and Lebanon.

February 7, 2020: Iran has offered to mediate a compromise between Syria and Turkey. The offer was turned down by everyone.

February 6, 2020: In Syria (outside Damascus), three Israeli airstrikes hit Iranian bases, some of them shared with the Syrian forces. There was considerable property damage and at least 23 Iranian and Syrian personnel were killed and many more wounded.

 

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