Since mid-2020 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has been more active in the east (Raqqa,
Deir Ezzor and Homs provinces). Between 2017 and early 2020 ISIL was on the run from Kurdish and Syrian forces that had taken control of what used to be ISIL controlled territory stretching from central Syria to the Iraqi border. This did not include Kurd dominated Hasaka province in the northeast. A Kurd/American offensive captured the ISIL capital Raqqa in 2017 and by the end of 2017 ISIL no longer controlled territory or possessed any large combat forces in the east. ISIL raids continue to threaten traffic on the main road that goes to the Euphrates River Valley and Deir Ezzor province. This was in the Badia Desert area, which extends into nearby Jordan and is thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks are directed at military targets and not local civilians. The main job of the security forces was to keep the main road open. This vital route passes through Homs province from the Euphrates to more populated (and pro-government) areas to the west. It was believed that ISIL was growing weaker in their Badia Desert refuge because of constant clashes with Syrian troops and airstrikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft. That was not the case. ISIL still had plenty of experienced leaders, fighters and new recruits as well as lots of cash to buy more weapons and loyalty from Badia tribes. As their opponents were weakened by fighting each other and the remaining rebels in Idlib province, ISIL began taking advantage and taking key territory held by the Syrian Army. Syrian troops were still the most vulnerable. The Kurds were dangerous, but many of them had been withdrawn from the Badia area to confront the aggressive Turks in the north. Many Syrian Army units were sent to Idlib where a major offensive against the rebels was underway. The Iranians had far fewer mercenaries in Syria since the economic crisis back home grew worse. What forces Iran did have were stationed near the Israeli and Lebanese borders.
In effect Iran and ISIL were staying away from each other. Since mid-2020 the ISIL raids in the east have become larger and more effective. The Turks have cooperated by putting more pressure on Kurdish forces near the Turkish border. Russia has a small but growing number of troops in the east and these are capable of calling in Russian airstrikes. These Russians are now directing more airstrikes against ISIL combat groups in the east. That is not having the desired effect as ISIL has adapted to the constant threat of American, Russian or Syrian air strikes and provide no easy targets, only elusive ones. ISIL sees the squabbling between Turkey, Iran, the Assads and Kurds as an opportunity.
It was known that ISIL still possessed large (over a hundred million dollars) cash reserves. In 2020 more and more of that cash was being spent in eastern Syria to finance a counteroffensive and so far that has been working. This is not a major counteroffensive but it is noticeable, especially to the hapless Syrian forces, who are worn down by nine years of hard fighting and many defeats. If ISIL scores some major wins in the east, there will be major push back. So far ISIL is trying to grab as much as it can without triggering a major backlash.
The Troublesome Turkish Empire
Turkish military involvement in Syria is but one of many such commitments. Turkish troops are also present in northern Iraq, Azerbaijan/Armenia, the eastern Mediterranean (against Greece and NATO), Libya and Somalia. Those neo-Ottomans are busy fellows indeed and feeling the ill effects of over extension.
The original Turkish mercenaries in Syria were former members of its FSA (Free Syrian Army). 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, about $2,000 a month for serving in Libya plus a large payout to next of kin if they are killed. Wounded mercs receive medical care from the Turks, including long-term care if badly wounded. All this is to maintain morale and reliability. Turkey cannot risk a lot of its own troops because Turkish troops killed or wounded in these foreign wars are a political liability for the Turkish government. Most Turks do not want a lot of Turkish troops fighting outside the country. In part this is because most of the Turkish troops are conscripts. They make good soldiers, but their families expect their sons to fight in defense of Turkey, not their government’s foreign policy.
There are 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, most of them Sunnis who do not want to go back to Shia-ruled Syria. Over half the Syrians who fled their country since 2011 headed for Turkey. That was because the Turks are Moslem and the most modernized of the Moslem states in the region. Better yet, Turkey is one of the few Moslem majority nations that gives Moslem refugees the opportunity to become Turkish citizens. To do that you first must get a residency permit and one way for the average Syrian refugee to do that is to do something for the Turks. For most of the refugee families that permit is only available if one or more of their men join the mercenaries. Turkish army recruiters are present in the camps but they are not overwhelmed with volunteers. The Turks recruit enough for now to maintain over 15,000 active mercs in Syria, Libya and a few other places. Most of these mercs are still in Syria. Those who volunteer for Libya or Azerbaijan got paid more. While the casualties in Libya were higher than in Syria during early 2020, the violence declined until now there is a nationwide ceasefire. In Azerbaijan it’s been different, with about a quarter of the 2,000 Syrian mercs sent there so far having been killed or wounded.
When foreign journalists in Libya 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. These mercenaries are accompanied by some Turkish officers and NCOs. Turkey has a training program for their mercenaries which allows the Turks to measure their basic combat capabilities. These trainees are then taught how to operate according to Turkish tactics and communications protocols. The mercenaries serve on contracts lasting three months or more. The mercs can leave at the end of their contracts rather than signing up for another one. To earn a Turkish residency permit for themselves and their families, and the possibility of Turkish citizenship, they have to serve faithfully for several contracts.
Russia The Kingmaker
Russia is trying to persuade or manipulate the various factions in Syria to preserve the rule of the Assad clan and its decades-old alliance with Russia. To that end Russia wants Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria and the Turks refuse to leave. Russia also wants the Americans out of eastern Syria and the Americans won’t leave. In the south Russia wants the Iranians out of Syria. The Iranians won’t leave. The Assads want the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province eliminated and the surviving Islamic terrorist rebels pushed out of the country. Turkey, Iran and the Americans have other priorities.
Too many of these Russian, Turkish, Iranian, American and Syrian goals contradict each other. There are other parties that must be paid attention to, like ISIL and Israel. ISIL is still a violent presence in eastern Syria and Israel continues to carry out airstrikes on Iranian forces as long as the Iranians are in Syria demanding that Israel be destroyed.
In Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran continue to pretend they are all friends and allies of Syria but the reality is different and is becoming more visible and violent. Syrians fear Russia and Turkey will join forces to extract what they can from Syria. Although Russian and Turkish forces are confronting each other in Libya, Russia recently played a major role in obtaining a nationwide ceasefire followed by peace negotiations between the major factions.
October 26, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) a major Russian airstrike caused over a hundred casualties among Faylaq al-Sham personnel. This group is an al Qaeda affiliate that has been very cooperative with Turkey. The airstrike took place while the Islamic terrorists were assembled for some kind of ceremony and thus very vulnerable.
October 24, 2020:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the largest oilfield in Syria is being fought over by ISIL, Syrian and Kurdish forces. Currently ISIL occupies the oil field but Kurd (SDF) forces are likely to drive them out again. Syrian Army forces are not strong enough to hold the oilfield by themselves.
October 23, 2020: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Turkish forces launched an attack on SDF (Kurds) despite a ceasefire. The offensive consisted or artillery and airstrikes follower by ground forces that contained Turkish and Syrian mercenary forces. The offensive did not get very far, yet.
October 22, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) American UAVs attacked a meeting of local Islamic terrorist group commanders. Seven of the commanders were killed along with eight associates, five of them foreigners. This meeting was to negotiate better coordination between these groups as they sought to halt a new Syrian army offensive. In the last moth many of these Islamic terrorist groups have been feuding with each other about who should be the supreme leader of the defense of Idlib. This has led to some of these feuds escalating into gun battles.
In the south (
Quneitra province) an Israeli airstrike in the Syrian Golan Heights killed several Hezbollah members who were their trying to prepare attacks on Israel.
Elsewhere in the south (Damascus) Mohammed Adnan Afiouni, the senior Sunni cleric for the Damascus region, was killed by a bomb planted under his car. Afiouni was a long-time ally of the Assads but considered a traitor by the Sunni majority in Syria.
October 19, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkey has been abandoning a series of observation posts established in 2018 as part of an effort to reduce fighting between rebels and Syrian troops. That did not work so the Turks are moving these troops and preparing for heavy fighting against the Kurds.
October 18, 2020: In the northeast (Raqqa province) ISIL forces captured the Tabqa Airbase after a five day battle that left nearly 200 Syrian defenders dead and many more wounded or captured by the attackers. The government tried to reinforce the defenders by air and also carried out numerous airstrikes, but it wasn’t enough. Earlier ISIL had taken several smaller Syrian army bases but the Tabqa airbase was a major victory.
Back in early 2017 Kurdish led SDF rebels drove ISIL out of the Tabqa area, including a nearby dam. ISIL had held Tabqa since August 2014. Tabqa is 50 kilometers west of Raqqa city and next to the Tabqa dam. With SDF in control of Tabqa city and the nearby dam the next objective was Raqqa itself. The final fight for Tabqa took over a month and was won mostly by SDF and coalition air support directed by special operations troops, most of them American, on the ground. Since 2019 the Kurds have turned over control of most of Raqqa province to Syrian forces, which have proved unable to maintain control.
October 16, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) Russian warplanes have been carrying out more airstrikes at specific Islamic terror groups trapped in the province. This is often done in cooperation with Syrian airstrikes.
October 15, 2020: In the east the Kurds are releasing up to a thousand of the 10,000 ISIL fighters they have imprisoned. The Kurds consider those released as untainted by any atrocities and unlikely to return to the life of an ISIL fighter. The Kurds also plan to release over 10,000 of the 55,000 ISIL wives and children held in the camps.
October 14, 2020: An Iranian tanker entering the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal was met by a Russian warship, which escorted the tanker to the Syrian coast to deliver its cargo or oil. There are sanctions against such oil deliveries and Britain and the United States have been intercepting some of these deliveries. The Russian military escort is apparently an effort to discourage this much sanctions enforcement.
October 13, 2020: Iran confirmed that it had moved some of its air defense systems to Syria.
October 11, 2020:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province), near the Tanf /Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing someone on the Syrian side opened fire on the Iraqi border post, killing one Iraqi border guard and wounding two others. The Americans have controlled the Syrian side since 2017 while a pro-American Iraqi militia controls the Iraqi side. This is one of the three main Syria/Iraq border crossings and controls access to the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The crossing is near where the borders of Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet.
October 7, 2020: In the south (Golan Heights) Israeli commandos crossed into Syria at night and blew up two illegal (according to the 1974 agreement) outposts that Syrian troops had built in an area that was only supposed to contain UN peacekeeper observation posts.
September 29, 2020:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Russian military police arrested an IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) commander and charged him with beating a member of the 5th Corps militia, a local group supported by Russia. IRGC backed (and often led) Syrian and Iraqi militias are being used to establish IRGC controlled territory in Deir Ezzor province. Russia is opposing this effort with local militias that do not want the IRGC disrupting their lives and economy. When the IRGC arrives, some locals are evicted from their homes and farms and movement is strictly controlled by the IRGC militias. Russian and IRGC forces have not been shooting at each other but there has been a lot of intimidation and physical violence.
In neighboring Hasaka province a Russian armored vehicle convoy broke through an American roadblock to use an American controlled road to reach a Russian base. There have been a growing number of such confrontations usually involving American troops blocking 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. 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, are 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.
September 27, 2020: Far to the north, Armenia (adjacent to northeast Turkey) there has been another flareup of violence between Armenia and
Azerbaijan. Turkey promptly promised to send some of its Syrian mercenaries to Azerbaijan to assist in the fighting. This could be a big help for Azerbaijan because the Armenian troops have always been more effective. Russia protested this proposed Turkish use of Arab mercenaries. In any event the Syrian mercs did not have a major impact.