Syria: The War Should Be Over By Now

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August 18, 2020: The war isn’t over yet, although peace has broken out in most of Syria. The fighting is concentrated in a few places, like Idlib province on the Turkish border. There is a lesser number of deaths to the east in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces, especially along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. In the south there is still fighting along the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

Over the last few months there have been 10-12 deaths a day. This is about a third as many in 2019 and much less than the peak year of 2014 when about 210 a day were dying. Since 2011 about 400,000 have died in the civil war, which is far less than in Iraq since 2003. The war in Syria was more violent because more countries were involved, and still are. Moreover, Syria provided recruiting opportunities for Islamic terrorist groups and allowed ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) to emerge. ISIL and al Qaeda were a major factor in the nine years of Syrian violence and that brought in Iran to a much greater extent than in Iraq. Syria also saw major involvement by Russia, Turkey and Israel. The U.S. was also a presence, but mainly in the form of airstrikes, particularly against ISIL.

The war should be over by now but it isn’t because the foreign factions, especially the Iranians and Turks have unresolved issues. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and is not having much success at all. Turkey wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists (both Turkish and Syrian) from Syria and that is proving very difficult. The Americans want to keep ISIL down and support their Kurdish allies while Russia wants to prop up the Assad government in order to keep the airbase and port facilities arrangements they have obtained from the Assads.

Which is the most dangerous faction in Syria? Probably Iran, which is becoming increasingly aggressive and desperate. Iran needs a win against Israel and all it is getting in Syria is an endless string of defeats. Because of the “death to Israel” obsession Iran is destroying its alliance with Turkey and Russia. Yet Iran is not the only one with an Israel obsession.

Turkey would prefer that Iran go home. Many Iranians and Syrians openly agree with Russia and Turkey on this point. The Iranian government responds with “Israeli airstrikes are killing people in Syria.” Syrians note that most of the dead are Iranians or mercenaries (usually Arab) on the Iranian payroll. The Iranian government deliberately keeps as few Iranians as possible in Syrian bases likely to be hit. Iranians getting killed in Syria, even if they are IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Iranians, is very unpopular back in Iran.

Syrians just don’t like all these Syrians who are working as mercenaries for Iran or Turkey getting killed by whoever. Similar situation with Russia and Turkey. Both nations keep as few of their own troops in Syria as possible. Russia and Turkey both have the majority of voters back home hostile to their soldiers getting killed in Syria. Russia uses a lot of Russian military contractors; whose deaths are less of an issue in Russia. The Turks, as they have done for centuries, use Arab mercenaries to fight other Arabs. There are lots of Turkish troops in Syria providing support, and ensuring that Turkish mercs do what they are paid for.

Iran wants a more “Islamic” government in Syria, which has long been a secular dictatorship led by the Shia Assad clan. The Assads always hated Islamic movements, be they Moslem Brotherhood or anything else with “Islamic” attached to it. Israel sees this Islamic angle as the key reason why so many Moslem states are so unstable and close to another revolution or civil war. There is no easy solution to this “Islamic” problem and more Moslem majority states are at least admitting the problem exists and trying to do something about it. That takes time and is prone to creating more violence.

There are other sources of disagreement. Turkey, Iran and Syria are angry at Russia over the poor performance of Russian air defense systems. The Syrians frequently claim to have intercepted Israeli air-launched, often from inside Lebanon or Israel, missiles but the reality is that few of the Israeli missiles fail to hit their targets. Commercial satellite photos are available to determine damage and there is always a lot of it. Iran and Syria complain that the formidable Russian air defense system in Syria is not used to stop the Israelis. The Russians don’t want a fight with the Israelis, if only because the Israelis might publicly demonstrate the ineffectiveness of Russian air defense systems. These systems are a major export item for Russia and the Israelis could reduce those export sales with demonstrations of how Israelis get past the Russian air defenses. Iran offered to provide Syria with Iranian made air defense systems. That was not appreciated because the Iranian systems are seen as old tech and more propaganda than performance.

Idlib Deadlock

Turkey and Syria disagree over what to do with the million pro-rebel civilians trapped in Idlib. The Turks have backed one of the many Islamic terrorist factions that became dominant in the rebel coalition after 2013 and is now trapped in Idlib province. While secular groups 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. That did not work and 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 control of over who gets into Turkey. 

Meanwhile Turkey has recruited over 30,000 Syrians to serve as mercenaries in Syria and Libya. Turkey has worked with Syrian Arab mercenaries for a long time, not just in the last few years in northern Syria, but for centuries before that. Turkey offers acceptable terms and tends to fulfill its agreements. Despite all that Turkish military efforts in Syria (and Libya) are stalled.

August 17, 2020: In the northeast (Hasaka province) an SDF (Kurd)/American patrol was fired on by someone at or near a Syrian Army checkpoint outside the Kurdish controlled border city of Qamishli. The patrol had communicated with the checkpoint and were assured of safe passage. But as the patrol passed the checkpoint someone opened fire and the troops in the patrol returned fire. Within 30 minutes two American helicopter gunships showed up and fired on the checkpoint. At least two Syrian soldiers were killed and several others wounded. The Syrians abandoned the checkpoint and the patrol returned to its base. Russian, American, Kurdish and Syrian forces control different stretches of main roads and that has been the cause of many incidents, although few of them involve casualties. Hasaka is the home province for Syrian Kurds and there are over 40,000 armed Kurds there plus about 600 American troops. Russians are in Hasaka for joint patrols with Turkish forces near the Turkish border.

To the west, in Idlib province, a roadside bomb was used against a joint Russian-Turkish patrol. There were no casualties but some vehicles were damaged.

Further east (in neighboring Aleppo province) Russian troops shot down a Turkish UAV flying near the border town of Kobane. The Turks had been firing artillery at Kobane recently and the Kurds demanded that Russia do something. The Russians were obliged to act because of an agreement with the SDF that allowed Russians to have a base near Kobane and patrol the area in return for protecting the Kobane residents from Turkish attack.

August 15, 2020: In the north (Aleppo) a motorcycle bomb went off in a market killing one civilian and wounding several others. No one immediately took responsibility.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently by armed Israeli UAVs, attacked an Iranian base, killing 23 Afghan and Iraqi mercenaries and destroying large quantities of ammo and weapons. This could be seen by the number of secondary explosions (caused by the UAV missiles).

August 14, 2020: In the north (Idlib province) Russia and Turkey announced they had halted the joint patrols, especially along the M4 highway. The problem was the growing number of attacks on the patrols. In mid-July a roadside bomb on the M4 highway injured members of joint Russian-Turk patrol. Three Russians and several Turks were wounded. The bomb was apparently planted by Islamic terrorists in the half of Idlib province still controlled by Islamic terrorist rebels. Syria controls about half of Idlib and Turkey occupies much of northernmost Idlib.

Further east (in neighboring Aleppo province) Turkish troops shelled Kurdish SDF forces near the border town of Kobane. There were no casualties.

August 13, 2020: In the north (Idlib province) an American UAV used a R9X version of the Hellfire missile to kill a military training expert working for al Qaeda factions in Idlib. The R9X missile does not use explosives but instead penetrates a vehicle and then activates several sharp blades that kill anyone in the vehicle without harming anyone near the vehicle. Th R9X “Ninja Hellfire” has been used several times since 2017.

Israel and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) agreed to establish diplomatic relations. Other Arabian states are expected to follow. Israel and the UAE have had covert relationships for over a decade but making it formal is all about Iran and Turkey. These two nations aspire to “lead” the Moslems in the region, at the expense of Arab Moslems. This new alliance is, in part, because of the realization that Israelis are also Semites while the Turks are Turks and the Iranians are Indo-European. Such differences matter, especially in the Middle East.

August 12, 2020: Israel has reduced the number of airstrikes inside Syria because there are fewer targets. Meanwhile there is more activity on the Israeli border with Syria and Lebanon as well as in the south (Gaza) where Hamas and other Gaza-based Islamic terror groups have become more active. During the past three years Israeli forces, mainly the air force, have used over 5,000 missiles to hit about 950 Iranian targets in Syria. During this period Syria fired 844 SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) at Israeli aircraft. Only one of these missiles damaged an Israeli F-16 and that was in 2018 because the pilot did not, as he was trained to do, carry out evasive maneuvers when his missile warning system alerted him to the threat. The pilot tried to complete his mission first and then evade. The F-16 was damaged and crashed in northern Israel. The pilot safely ejected. This incident demonstrated that the Syrian Air Defense systems could be dangerous if a pilot did not pay attention. As a result, more attacks (firing long range missiles) were carried out from Israel, Lebanon or Jordan, with missiles launched near the border. With new missiles Israeli aircraft were still able to hit anywhere in Syria. Israeli did attack Syrian air defense units that were particularly dangerous. These SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions are difficult and dangerous but Israel managed to destroy a third of Syrian air defense systems (launchers and radars) without losing any aircraft.

August 11, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkish forces have a built a new base near the border with Latakia province. This province is vital to the Assad government because is the most loyal province and contains the Mediterranean ports and the Russian airbase. Most of the Latakia population is Shia, as is the Assad clan.

Further east, where the borders of Aleppo, Hama and Raqqa provinces meet an ISIL attack killed six pro-Assad militiamen.

August 10, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently Israeli, killed 14 Iranians and Iranian mercenaries, some of them from Iraq.

August 7, 2020: In the south (Daraa province) a bomb hidden in a pickup truck went off in a residential area, killing 21, including ten women and children. Nearby Syrian troops were accused of planting the bomb in an area where pro-rebel civilians live. The Syrian troops have been unable to subdue the local rebels, who control some of the nearby Jordanian border.

August 6, 2020: In the north (Aleppo province) Kurdish SDF forces clashed with Turkish Syrian mercenaries in the eastern part of the province. There were several casualties. This apparently not a planned attack but more of an accident. Turkish forces have been halted here for months, unwilling to risk the heavy casualties a major move into neighboring Hasaka province would entail.

August 4, 2020: In Lebanon, a 1.1 kiloton explosion in the Hezbollah controlled port of Beirut triggered another round of anti-Hezbollah and anti-Iran demonstrations in Lebanon. The national government has resigned. Hezbollah is denying any responsibility for the explosion even though Hezbollah has boasted of controlling the port area for years. Everyone blames government incompetence for allowing 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate explosives to be stored in an abandoned cargo ship or locked up warehouse for seven years. The dangerous cargo was no secret and local media reported on the port officials’ warnings of the danger and years of demands that the explosives be removed from the port. A French-led relief coalition has pledged a quarter of a billion dollars in relief money. The Arab oil states have also stepped up. Iran and Syria, who have dominated Lebanese politics since the 1980s, are broke and offering some relief supplies, condolences and blaming it all on Israel and America. Iran accuses the French and Arab relief efforts as an attempt to destroy Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Lebanon. Unfortunately for Iran, most Lebanese appear to agree with that assessment.

In the south, on the Israel border (Golan Heights) Israeli warplanes, UAVs and armed helicopters attacked Syrian Army positions being used to observe Israeli troops in the Golan Heights. These airstrikes were largely in retaliation for Syrian or Iranian efforts on the 2nd to get men across the border to plant bomb. Israeli intel later reported that this attack had been ordered by Iran.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province), near the Iraq border an Israeli airstrike hit several Iranian targets next to the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Fifteen Iranian mercenaries were killed. Since late April Israel has carried out twenty or more airstrikes in Syria. Nearly half the attacks were in Deir Ezzor province, where the Al Bukamal crossing is, as well as other Israeli targets further away from the Iraq border. The rest of the airstrikes were all over southern Syria, wherever Iranian forces were operating.

August 2, 2020: During July there were about 320 deaths in Syria. About 30 percent were government (Assad) forces, 30 percent were civilians, 30 percent Islamic terrorist rebels while the rest were non-Islamic terrorist rebels.

August 1, 2020: In the south on the Israeli border (Golan Heights) a Russia-backed Syrian militia has been taking control of the Syrian side of the border. Called the “Huran Army”, the militia contains many former rebels who are hostile to Iranian influence in Syria but willing to cooperate with the Assads.

July 29, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Iran backed Iraqi Katab Hezbollah have been seen operating 20 kilometers from the Iraq border. The Iraqi government forbids Iraqi militias from operating in Syria without government permission. Iran is increasingly flaunting this rule. Further north (Hasaka province) ten Islamic terrorists were killed when Kurdish forces clashed with ISIL.

July 28, 2020: Since May Israel has carried out at least ten airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. In addition to large quantities of weapons and munitions destroyed, at least sixty Iranian or local mercenary personnel have died. Iran is building a new mercenary force by hiring Syrians rather than bringing in Shia Afghans or Shia from other nations. The Afghans were good fighters but there was a limited supply of Afghan Shia willing to serve as Iranian mercs in faraway Syria. A growing number would not renew their contracts and returned to Afghanistan or Iran, where mercenary service also earned a residency permit. Iran is short of cash and the local mercs are cheaper, especially given the bad shape the economy is in and the dire poverty many Syrians live with. There are over 10,000 of these Syrian mercs in service now and most are based on or near the Israeli or Jordanian borders. Many Syrians see the Iranians and their Syrian mercs as another foreign occupation force. Syrians are tired of war while the Iranians want more of it, against Israel. That is not popular because attacking Israel generally fails but always brings very effective counterattacks. Moreover, a lot of Syrians living along the Israel border befitted from the medical aid Israel provided for badly injured Syrians. S ince 2011 Israel has provided medical treatment to several thousand badly injured Syrian civilians and rebels. This was done at a few border crossings where a field hospital was set up nearby and Syrians were told they could bring badly wounded kin or people they would vouch for to the crossing where Israelis doctors would examine them at the border, admit those who did need care and first try to treat the patient at the field hospital. If that was not possible the patient was sent to a hospital in Israel where specialists could provide the needed care. Family were notified of the progress and when to be at the border to pick up their mended friend or family member. Via this program Israel established contacts on the Syrian side as well as receiving a steady supply of what the chatter was on the Syrian side of the border. Israel has many Arab speaking medical personnel and has no problem treating Arab speaking patients. This medical program earned Israel a lot of good will on the Syrian side of the border. The care was free and there were no strings attached other than no Islamic terrorists were welcome, and these would be arrested if identified as such. There were a few such cases and that was not seen by the Syrians as a bad thing. Same attitude towards the Iranians and their mercs, who are seen as a danger to nearby civilians and an enemy of Syria.

July 27, 2020: In the southwest Lebanon the Israeli border security system detected a group of armed men crossing the border from Lebanon near the disputed Shebaa Farms (occupied by Israel but claimed by both Lebanon and Syria). Israeli rapid reaction forces drove up and spotted the intruders and opened fire. The men ran back into Lebanon. Hezbollah denied the incident occurred and said they had nothing to do with it. The Israelis have video from their border surveillance system, which they are willing to release, and other electronic evidence, which they are not willing to release. Israel regularly taps into Hezbollah communications, despite frequent Iranian efforts to upgrade the security of Hezbollah comms. It was revealed that a Hezbollah attack was expected, somewhere on the Lebanon border, to coincide with the Moslem religious celebration of Eid al Adha.

July 26, 2020: The Arab world has noticed that Turkey is actively fighting Arabs in Libya, Syria and Iraq and ready to get involved elsewhere as well. Centuries of Turkish rule over Arabs ended a century ago when the Western allies defeated the Ottoman Empire. The Turks are determined to keep their own separatists and Arab Islamic terrorists under control in or near Turkey, no matter what the cost.

July 22, 2020: In the south Israel launched another series of airstrikes on Damascus as well as in central Syria. This time more of the targets were Syrian air defense facilities (radars and missile launchers). Israel is doing this in preparation for Iranian efforts to bring in and use air defense systems similar to the ones Syria already has. Up to a point Israeli air strikes can evade Syrian air defenses but if there are too many air defense systems operational there is more risk of Israeli aircraft being shot down or forced to abort their attack. To deal with that Israel has to carry out a sustained (weeks or longer) SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) operations and repeat that as needed if Iran and Syrian keep bringing in replacement air defense systems. Another new complication was Russia sending a jet fighter to intercept, but not interfere with an incoming Israeli strike force. This was to make the point that Russian radars can track Israeli air operations and intercept them. The Israel strike force did not include any F-35s.

Israeli police revealed that an investigation that began in April had led to the arrest of ten Palestinians who were recruited by an Iran-backed Syrian militia and Hezbollah in Lebanon. There were actually two separate groups operating in the West Bank and their main goal was to kidnap an Israeli soldier and hold him for ransom. That would consist of freeing a lot of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists.

July 20, 2020: In the south an Israeli airstrike south of Damascus killed eight Syrian soldiers, but one of the dead turned out to be a Hezbollah commander. Israel later sent a message to Hezbollah that the Hezbollah commander was not targeted on purpose and Israel did not know he was there. Israel was trying to give Hezbollah an excuse not to retaliate and trigger a series if exchanges that would hurt Hezbollah and Lebanon more than Israel.

July 17, 2020: In the east (Hasaka province) a Russian convoy was stopped by American forces. This is the eighth time so far this year that American troops have blocked Russian efforts to move into Kurdish controlled parts of Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces. Russian and American forces interact regularly in Hasaka and most of the time there are no problems. Russians have even fewer problems with the Turks. Joint patrols with Turkish troops in Idlib province, to prevent fighting between Islamic terrorist forces and Turkish or Syrian forces, have been a success. American-backed Kurdish forces control most of Hasaka province, where the local population is largely Kurdish. Russian. Turkish and Syrian forces are trying to move troops into Hasaka and gradually displace the Kurdish forces. In some cases the Syrians, Russians or Turks are, via negotiation with the Kurds, allowed to base troops or patrol certain areas. The Americans have more surveillance capabilities than the Kurds and more frequently spot Russian troops moving into areas they are supposed to stay away from.

 

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