Syria: Dead or Fled


April 7, 2020: Bombing hospitals, clinics and other health facilities has been a standard tactic for the Syrian government in order to drive pro-rebel Syrians out of the country. It worked but now there is a serious health crisis, because of the covid19 virus, that the country is unprepared for. Not only are most of the health facilities gone but so are the medical personnel. Even many of those loyal to the government have left, usually for economic reasons. The virus may never reach many of the more remote parts of the country but in the major towns and cities, there is enough traffic coming in to bring infected travelers. Most of those who get infected and require a ventilator (a machine costing several thousand dollars that assists breathing) won’t have access to one and that will increase the death toll. Currently, all of Syria has fewer than 400 ICU (Intensive Care Unit) beds, which usually means access to a ventilator. It is estimated Syria will have ten to twenty times as many covid19 patients needing ICU care. As a result, a thousand or more Syrians will die over the next few months because of the virus and lack of medical facilities. Syria is still at war. The monthly deaths are way down because the war is winding down but there are still several hundred war-related deaths a month. Civilian deaths have been way down with less than 300 in February and about a hundred in March. Covid19 deaths will be blamed on the war. At its worst the war was causing several thousand deaths a month so covid19 is seen as a minor disaster, not a major event as other nations portray it. Covid19 will cause some fear and actual sickness but 80 percent of those exposed to the virus feel nothing and half those infected show no symptoms. Most of the deaths are to patients who are already in poor health. The virus will pass through Syria leaving behind more anxiety than agony. Since 2011 the fighting in Syria has killed nearly 400,000 people, many of them civilians.

In some cases, as with prisons, the Assads see the covid19 threat as a bonus, not a problem. Many prisoners will die and for those being interrogated, there is a new incentive to talk; removal to a safe area until the virus passes.

Nationwide the covid19 threat has slowed down military operations. Troops are reluctant to invade areas where the virus may be rampant. Airstrikes and artillery are relied on more, with troops moving in only after everyone in the target areas is dead or fled. Even Islamic terrorists are warning their members to take precautions to avoid getting infected. The civilians most at risk to covid19 are the million or so living in rebel-controlled parts of Idlib province.

Turk Tribulations

Because of Syria, Turkey is now fighting a multi-front war. The most obvious front is in northern Syria where there are now over 10,000 Turkish troops plus even more FSA mercenaries facing Syrian troops backed up by Russian airpower and some Iranian mercenaries on the ground. Turkey, Iran and Russia are supposed to be allies but that alliance was never stable, and now it is dysfunctional. The less publicized war is with NATO, which has turned hot on the Greek border. Turkey sought to extort more cash and cooperation from the EU (European Union) by allowing thousands of Moslem illegal migrants in Turkey to get to the Greek border and try to cross. The Greeks, fed up with the rest of the EU abandoning Greece despite promises to accept most of the illegals who had gotten into Greece, sent troops and paramilitary police to the Turkish border with orders to fire on illegals trying to force their way in. Turkish troops threw teargas, and a few bullets, at the Greek forces to help the illegal get into Greece. The few that made it found themselves under arrest and on their way back to Turkey or country of origin.

The 2016 plan in which the EU paid the Turks nearly $7 billion to keep their Greek border free of illegals was no more. At the same time, the EU had finally united to oppose the continuing invasion of largely Moslem illegal migrants. The Moslem migrants had proved resistant to assimilation and produced a large number of Islamic terrorists and gangsters. In some EU nations that accepted a lot of Moslems the crime rate more than doubled within a decade. The cause was Moslem migrants and, even with most of the prison population now Moslems, the mayhem continued with little prospect of change. The EU had recently lost one of its largest, most prosperous and oldest members over these issues. Britain became the first EU member to quit the organizations and several others were threatening to do likewise. And the most obvious result of all this is the armed confrontation between Greeks and Turks on their common border.

Turkish public opinion is hostile to the Syrian refugees they host, as well as the smaller number of Afghan, Iraqi and other Moslem refugees. Many of these are not refugees but economic migrants willing to do whatever it takes to get into a wealthier Western nation. Europe no longer tolerates these refugees and Turks are not happy about getting stuck with them. This problem gets worse, especially for the Islamic government Turkey has had for the last two decades. This government became allies with Russia and Iran, two traditional enemies. To no one’s surprise, these alliances did not work out. In order to please these new friends, Turkey risked being expelled from NATO. Worst of all, expulsion from NATO would mean the West would regard Turkey as just another poorly managed, Islamic terrorists-tolerating and unreliable Middle Eastern nation. One thing most Turks can agree on is NOT wanting to turn away from the West. The policy of being closer to Arab nations and tolerant of some Islamic terrorist or radical groups has also lost any popularity it once held. Turks have long (since World War I) been hostile to getting involved in foreign wars, especially when it involved Turkish troops getting killed. So far in 2020, Turkey has sent a lot more Turkish troops to Syria and more of them are getting killed. The Turkish voters have made it clear that the current government is likely to lose the next elections if the Syrian involvement continues. With Syria, Turkey cannot just walk away. Syria is a neighbor and over three million Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Syria itself is still a mess. Turkish and Russian forces have been shooting at each other and the Iranians are not much better.

Turkey has also gotten itself involved in the Libyan civil war. This conflict has been going on as long as the Syrian war but has been a lot less destructive. Turkey has sent about 5,000 troops to Libya, but 90 percent of them are Syrian mercenaries, which Turkey has long used in Syria. So far this year about 200 of those mercenaries have died in Libya. These mercenaries are paid more to serve in Libya, so there is no shortage of volunteers.

In Syria, these mercenaries have been getting into disputes with each other. Some of the Syrian mercs serve in units based on rebel factions they originally joined, before agreeing to work for the Turks. Some of these factions have disputes that have escalated and Turkish troops have had to be used to calm things down. It would be a public relations disaster for the Turk government if Turkish troops got into a gun battle with some of these mercenaries.

Iranian Intrigues

Iranian efforts to expand their control in Iraq and Syria are not producing the desired results. Worse, the Iraq and Syrian involvement is causing more anti-government activity inside Iran. Iran is hard hit by covid19, in part because the government dismissed the virus as a serious threat.

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.

Iran is also having more problems in Lebanon. There, the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia is losing more support because the first case of covid19 in Lebanon was traced to a Lebanese woman who had just returned (in late February) from Iran, where covid19 was infecting and killing lots of people, including senior clerics and politicians. Hezbollah was held responsible for covid19 breaking out in Lebanon because Hezbollah has long been recognized as an extension of the Iranian government and a threat to democracy in Lebanon. In response to this Hezbollah has gone full “public servant” inside Lebanon. Hezbollah members are visibly providing assistance to those who have caught covid19 and helping to maintain a nationwide quarantine. So far Lebanon has had about 500 confirmed cases and fewer than twenty deaths. In Iran, there have been nearly 50,000 infected and about 3,000 deaths. Lebanese never liked Iran very much and now there is one more reason to crank up the dislike.

April 5, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the Syrian government is technically in control but the lack of security forces has enabled some of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups hiding out there to assert themselves and terrorize civilians with kidnappings and murder. ISIL wants civilians to provide support and not cooperate with police or soldiers who come after the Islamic terrorists. In the last week at least nine civilians have been murdered and in over a dozen rural towns and villages

April 4, 2020: The Turkish military revealed that Turkish forces in Syria had been ordered to slow down operations in order to minimize the chance of troops getting infected with the covid19 virus.

April 3, 2020: In the north (Kurdish city of Manbij) Turkish and Syrian forces confront each other and periodically open fire on each other. Usually, the only casualties are local civilians. Many of the Turkish troops are actually FSA (Syrian mercenaries) who are anti-Assad Syrian Sunnis. The Assad forces are Shia and make for a tense situation. Two senior Syrian officers were recently wounded by some Turkish shelling. This is the Euphrates River Valley and Manbij sits on the M4 highway. That highway is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports.

Further east, in majority Kurd Hasaka province Turkish mercenaries confront Kurdish SDF rebels. Technically both the SDF and FSA are Syrian rebels against the Syrian government but things have changed since 2011 and now the FSA fights to keep their families safe in Turkey while the SDF fighters to keep its families safe in northeast Syria. The fighting between FSA and SDF is low key and the Turks know they have a problems with that as the SDF and FSA really do not want to fight each other. Besides the SDF has accuses to American air support that the Turks do not want to see used on the FSA, an attitude the Syrian mercs agree with.

April 2, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) fear of the covid19 virus getting out of control has helped maintain a fragile ceasefire. A record low hundred or so civilians died in Idlib during the last month as fighting was minimal as efforts to deal with covid19 were underway. Ground troops did not want to advance into areas where the virus was present so the few civilian casualties were from airstrikes. Covid19 kills less than one percent of those infected and will compete with all the other sicknesses and diseases already present in Idlib. The scariest aspect of covid19 is that it exists and can cause flu-like symptoms along with breathing problems. In an area where death from random gunfire, bombs and shells is a constant threat, covid19 is one of many fatal threats.

March 31, 2020: In central Syria (Homs province) another Israeli airstrike that hit the Shayrat airbase with at least eight missiles.

March 26, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province), Turkey moved at least one American made Hawk Air Defense battery into Syria. The Turks are believed to have brought a Hawk battery into Syria (north of Aleppo) in 2018 but the Hawk unit was soon sent back to Turkey. The recent arrival of Hawk batteries is part of a major buildup of Turkish forces in Idlib and adjacent Aleppo provinces. There appear to be at least three Turkish combat brigades in Syria now, with thousands of armored and unarmored vehicles. The latter include tanks, self-propelled artillery and infantry vehicles.

March 23, 2020: The Russian Defense Minister visited Damascus to meet with the Syrian president Hafez Assad and work out the details of Russian-Syrian cooperation in Idlib province and future Russian economic projects in Syria. Assad wants to resume his offensive to clear the M4 highway between Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast. Assad also wants on understanding with Russia and what kind of peace terms Syrian will offer the Kurds.

March 22, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This border crossing is vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has bombed it before and will apparently continue doing so. That is what will also happen to the new military base Iran is building here 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.

For the first time the Assad government admitted that the covid19 virus has reached Syria. Unofficially the virus had been encountered in Syria over a month earlier. The Assad government denied this for as long as they thought they could get away with it. There are still a lot of anti-Assad Syrians in Syria and they believe Assad looked the other way as Iranians infected with covid19 were allowed into the country. This happened before these Iranians experienced symptoms. One can get covid19 and not feel it for a week or two. Most countries avoid letting infected people in by imposing a two week quarantine on visitors to verify they are virus free. No such quarantine was imposed on any Iranians coming in.

March 19, 2020: Iranian military advisors are continuing to recruit local Shia into new mercenary units based in the south, near the Israeli and Jordan borders and the northeast, near the autonomous Kurdish provinces. Some of these units are for local defense but the better paid ones will get more training and better weapons so they can be moved around the country as needed.

March 18, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) two Turkish soldiers were killed and one wounded by a rocket or mortar shell fired by Islamic terrorists.

March 17, 2020: An Iranian IRGC commander, Mehran Azizani, had been killed while a captive of an al Qaeda group. Azizani had been captured three weeks ago and it was unclear how he died. One rumor is that it was covid19 because Azizani could be exchanged for something the al Qaeda group needed.

March 11, 2020: Outside Baghdad (Camp Taj) Iran-backed militia fired twenty rockets at NATO forces there. Two Americans and one British soldier were killed. The Katab Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi group based on the Lebanese Hezbollah, took credit for this attack. The next day the U.S. carried out airstrikes on five Katab Hezbollah facilities. One the airstrikes was across the border in Syria near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This attack killed 26 pro-Iran PMF men, who are increasingly showing up in Syria, despite Iraqi laws that prohibit that.

March 6, 2020: In northwest Syria, the last concentration of Islamic terrorists is making a last stand in Idlib province. The Syrian Army, with Russian support, has been slowly clearing the province of Islamic terrorists, despite resistance by the Islamic terrorists and Turkish forces. Suddenly there are a lot more dead terrorists and efforts are made to identify them or see if families or countries want the bodies back. So far about fifty of the dead Islamic terrorists have been identified as Pakistani. But Pakistan refuses to comment or take any action to deal with the situation.

March 5, 2020: In the south (outside Damascus) Farhad Dabiryan, an IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) commander, was killed in combat.

March 4, 2020: There were two Israeli airstrikes overnight. One was in central Syria (Homs province) and the other in the south (Quneitra province) near the Israeli Golan Heights. Both attacks apparently involved Iranian rockets or missiles being moved to Lebanon or firing positions near the Israeli border. Syria said its air defenses intercepted some of the Israeli missiles but there was no proof. Satellite photos usually show if attacks are successful by revealing destroyed buildings or other obvious damage.

March 3, 2020: The Libyan HoR (House of Representatives) government opened an embassy in Syria, in part because the Syrian are also fighting the Turks. The Libyan embassy in Syria closed in 2012 and has remained without a Libyan ambassador ever since. The HoR is one of two governments in Libya and controls about 85 percent of the country. The rival, UN backed government called in the Turks in late 2019. This Turk intervention has been condemned by most Arab nations.

March 2, 2020: In Syria, Iran threatened to support the Syrian forces if the Turks attacked. The Iranians apparently fired a ballistic missile at the advancing Turkish forces but the missile did not appear to do any damage. The Turks claim to have intercepted the missile but did not say with what. Beyond that Iranian forces stayed away.

March 1, 2020: The United States received more pleas from Turkey for military assistance to halt Russian attacks on Turkish troops in Syria. The U.S. refused to help with troops or by sending a Patriot air defense battery to Turkey. The Americans said they would do everything they could short of direct military intervention and made it clear they believed Russia was the guilty party. But the situation did not meet the criteria to trigger the NATO mutual-defense clause. That would only happen if Russia attacks inside Turkey itself. The U.S. pointed out that the Turkish presence in Syria was technically illegal, as was past and current Turkish support for Islamic terrorist groups. Other NATO members are offering Turkey military support inside Turkey, but not Patriot batteries (which had been in Turkey after 2014 to protect against possible ISIL attack) on the borders. There are still some foreign Patriot batteries guarding airbases in eastern Turkey that are heavily used by NATO aircraft. Other NATO members are not happy about Turkey letting Syrian refugees enter Europe and resent the Turks demanding more cash from the EU if the Turk border with the EU is to be closed tight one more.

February 29, 2020: Turkey demanded that Russian forces cease supporting the Syrian offensive against rebels in Idlib province. Both Russia and Iran insist they are the only legitimate foreign force allowed in Syria. The Assad government, although widely condemned for past and current atrocities has been the legitimate government of Syria for decades and did invite Russian and Iranian forces in. The Turks were invited in by the Syrian rebels who, since 2011, have been trying to oust the Assads. The problem is that Turkey has backed Islamic terror groups who are at war with the world as well as the Assads. Any nation backing or trying to use Islamic terror groups is deluding itself. Recognizing this the Turks mainly depend on the one secular Syrian rebel group, the FSA, and hire them as mercenaries. The FSA that the Turks are not fighting to overthrow the Assads but rather support Turkish efforts to establish a 30 kilometers deep security zone on the Syrian side of the border in order to keep Islamic terrorists and other undesirables (like Syrian refugees) out of Turkey.

Russia sympathizes with Turkey on the issues of Islamic terrorists and illegal migrants. Russia has to choose between Iran, which wants the Assad rule in all of Syria no matter what the cost, and Turkey while wants its security zone no matter what the cost. Russian and Turkish leaders have agreed to meet soon and discuss possible solutions. The key problem here is that Russian wants a unified Syria under a Russia-friendly government. At the moment that means the Assads and their patron Iran. The only compromise opportunities are a suitable deal on Turkish border security. The only positive factor here is that neither Turkey nor Russia wants to keep fighting each other. That is a losing proposition for both nations but the Turkish leaders have committed themselves to secure the border and the Russian leader cannot afford anything the reeks of defeat in Syria.

February 28, 2020: Russia sent two more frigates to Syria, with both ships coming from the Black Sea via the Turkish controlled Bosporus/Dardanelles channel. By international agreement, Turkey must allow passage of all warships through the Bosporus/Dardanelles route unless that puts Turkey at risk. Turkey told Russia that they would use this clause of the treaty to block all Russian shipping if Russia opposed Turkish forces in Syria. This apparently played a part in the Russian decision to stand aside and let Turkish troops inflict major damage on Syrian forces in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

February 27, 2020: In the north (Golan Heights), Syrians reported that several Israeli helicopters crossed into Syria and attacked several targets. This came several hours after an Israeli UAV fired missiles that hit a vehicle and killed Amad Al Tawil, a senior Hezbollah commander.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close