Syria: Welcome To The Mad Max Zone

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February 9, 2021: While the situation is relatively calm in Idlib province, in the east (Deir Ezzor province) there is a multi-sided battle between ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), SDF (Syrian Kurds), the Syrian army, Iranian mercenaries and Russian forces. The Russians are using a combination of special operations troops, military contractors and Syrian mercenaries. To simplify a bit, it’s mostly ISIL versus everyone else. ISIL survives because it still has access to millions in cash it stole during 2014-17 when the Islamic terrorist groups controlled much of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Another ISIL asset is that Sunni Arabs are the majority in Deir Ezzor and most of eastern Syria. These Sunni Arabs have been ruled since the 1970s by the Assad clan, a Shia group that maintained power using a combination of terror for those who resisted and relative freedom and prosperity for those who cooperated. The Assads were also rather secular and wore their Islamic religion lightly. The Assads allied themselves with Shia Iran in the 1980s. While Iran had become a religious dictatorship, they had few allies in the region and gaining the loyalty of Assad Syria was seen a major win. The Assad’s secular ways were tolerated as long as they remained loyal to Iran and in control of Syria.

Forever War

A decade of fighting has changed the ethnic and religious composition of Syria. In 2011 the country was about 70-75 percent Sunni. Most of these were Arabs but over ten percent of the Sunnis were Kurdish, Turkomen and other minorities. The largely Sunni Kurds were about nine percent of the population. The Assad clan is Shia, a minority that comprised about 13 percent of the population. Various Christian groups totaled about ten percent of the population. Another religious minority were somewhat Islamic groups like Druze and Yazidis who are considered heretics by conservative Moslems but tolerated in many Moslem majority nations.

The Assads turned these other minorities into loyal allies who could be relied on to serve in key government jobs. Some of the Sunni minorities were more reliable than others. The half million Palestinian refugees were well educated Sunni Arabs and willing to serve a Shia government. Some minorities didn’t want to be Syrians and the chief among these was the Kurds, who yearned to unite with Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds to create an independent Kurdistan. The four nations these Kurds lived in cooperated in blocking and suppressing these Kurdistan ambitions.

The war has changed the ethnic profile of Syria in a big way. Since 2011 about two percent of the population has died from the fighting and over six million Syrians have been forced to leave. Nearly all of those who fled the country, and won’t be coming back, are Sunni. That means the Sunni majority of the Syrian population goes from over 70 percent in 2011 to 58 percent in 2020. To make matters worse, Iran is encouraging Shia from other countries (Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq) to settle in Syria and take over the homes and property of the departed Sunnis. So far that offer has not attracted many willing to settle in a war zone. While the Assads deliberately attacked Sunni civilians and encouraged them to flee the country, an autonomy deal was possible with the Kurds. One reason for this is that the Kurds are almost all Sunni and, like their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraq, not fanatic about their religion. In 2020 Syria the Kurds comprise about 17 percent of the Sunni majority. But if the Kurds are allies of the Assads, the remaining Sunni Arabs are no longer a majority. The Sunni Arabs also have factions and some are more inclined to work with and for the Assads than others. This is how the Assads have ruled Syria for two generations and they will have an easier time doing so because of the war.

A major obstacle to continued Assad rule is the destruction of the Syrian economy and lack of economic assistance for rebuilding. GDP is less than half of what it was in 2011. Over half the pre-war population of 23 million are refugees. Half are displaced inside Syria and half outside the country. While most of the country is now controlled by the Assad government, most of that territory is shared with foreign troops; Iranian, Turkish, Russian and American, in that order. Syrian forces have to be wary of these allies, as well as the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL is particularly active in attacking Syrian troops.

The damage done to Syria by ten years of war is worse than realized when you take into account expected (normal) growth in the economy (GDP) and the population if the war had not happened. This data assumes a decade of some post-war reconstruction for the real Syria. In contrast, a Syria without the war would have a population of 32 million by 2030. Because so many (over six million) Syrians fled the country and fewer were born and more died, the most likely population of war-ravaged by 2030 is 22 million. Most of the refugees (Sunni Arabs) do not want to return to a homeland dominated by a Shia government and occupied by Iranian (and Shia) forces. In these “war/no-war” comparisons, the economic projections show the country even worse off. Currently GDP is less than half, perhaps just a third of what it was in 2011. No one is sure because the economic damage is so extensive. Even with a decade of post-war reconstruction 2030 GDP would only be about 74 percent of what it was in 2011 and about 35 percent of what it would have been in 2030 without a war. Without the war GDP would have doubled by 2030. It is possible that Syria might now grow (in terms of GDP and population) at a faster rate, but that is unlikely since not a lot of nations are lining up to donate to or invest in reconstruction. In part that is due to the expected long-term presence of Iran or, even without that, the Assads would probably remain in power and still be accused of war crimes during the war. There is no statute of limitations on that sort of thing. Meanwhile the years of war have destroyed structures, infrastructure and businesses that will cost several hundred billion dollars to replace. That will be hard to do for a nation that had a 2011 GDP of about $60 billion and not a lot of natural resources other than its people and their many skills.

Currently the Assad government is so bankrupt they cannot support their currency, the Syrian pound. Because of that it is harder for the average Syrian to buy consumer goods and basic items. This can be seen in the exchange rate; how many Syrian pounds it takes to buy a dollar. In 2011 it was 47 pounds, now the official rate is it is 500 pounds to buy a dollar but that is artificially low. The black market demands over 3,000 pounds . Dollars are needed to pay for imports and the dollar shortages for everyone, even the wealthiest, are a daily reminder that the war may be won but the peace and reconstruction that was to follow are not happening. In response, more Syrians are doing business in dollars. The Assads have responded by arresting those caught using dollars. This does not end well for any government that cannot support its own currency. Iran is suffering from the same problem, as is North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. No wonder all these countries are allies. They are all desperate to get their hands on more stable currency, the dollar and euro being the most favored with the Chinese yuan considered a useful, if less acceptable, substitute. Iran is trying to get the American economic sanctions lifted, which would give Iran access to over a hundred billion dollars in frozen assets and a lifeline for its war effort in Syria.

The Arab Gulf states are willing to finance reconstruction, but the cost of that is cutting ties with Iran. The Assads are open to that and they have the support of Russia, Turkey and most Arab states. Iran is unlikely to cooperate as the loss of Syria would be a major financial and political blow to the Iranian religious dictatorship, which is increasingly unpopular at home. The loss of Syria puts Hezbollah in danger. Doing nothing about reconstruction because Iran refuses to leave and cannot afford to finance rebuilding means Syria becomes a failed state where there is widespread poverty and little in the way of government services. All of Syria’s neighbors would support Syrian warlords along their borders simply to contain the chaos and the number of desperate refugees trying to cross that border. Turkey or Iraq might be called on by neighboring Syrians to annex Syrian territory. Turkey is not interested because they don’t want more Arabs in Turkey. Shia majority Iraq is also reluctant to accept more Sunnis, as the Syrians on their borders are all Sunnis.

The Lost Rebellion

Since 2011 most of the rebels have been anti-Shia, mainly because the Assads are from a Shia minority that has ruled Syria for decades. The Assads had always been brutal towards any Sunni opposition. This has been a problem for Iran in Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia continues to expand its control of the entire country in the name of the Shia minority they represent. Because of the two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees that have fled to Lebanon since 2012, the Lebanese Shia are now a smaller minority. Lebanon is overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the Syrian refugees it is hosting. That’s in a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, that radically changes the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination. With the refugee influx there are now over seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent are Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and trained fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions (especially Christians) to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. Now even these Christian factions are backing away from Hezbollah.

The region-wide Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 inspired over a dozen Moslem majority nations in North Africa and the Middle East to openly call for reforms or new governments. The Assads thought they could handle it but they were wrong and the situation spun out of control as even the rebels were unable to get organized to take down the Assads quickly. Islamic terrorist groups exploited the situation the most and destroyed the rebel chances for victory in the process. Islamic terror groups have a self-destruct aspect where various groups cannot agree who is in charge or whether other Islamic terror groups are sufficiently “Islamic.” That led to ISIL, which demanded that all other Islamic terror groups join them or be considered heretics and subject to execution.

Turkey, Iran and Russia entered Syria for different reasons and generally supported the Assads. The Americans supported the Kurds as part of a campaign to destroy ISIL. Israel opposed the Iranian presence, who stated objective was to attack Israel.

Most of the remaining Sunni Islamic terror groups are trapped in the northwest (Idlib province) while ISIL battles on in eastern Syria. The Kurds, with American support, hang on to the northwest.

Russia, Turkey and America cooperate to try and maintain ceasefires. Currently it is joint Russia/American patrols that are trying to prevent more fighting between Turks and Kurds. Similar but less successful efforts sought to keep Iranians from going after Israel and Idlib Islamic terror groups from going anywhere.

The Russians and Americans both provide lots (hundreds a week if needed) air strikes to the people on the ground they support. The Americans take care to avoid injuring civilians while the Russians find “collateral damage” (civilian casualties) a benefit. The Assads want to drive pro-rebel civilians, especially Sunnis, out of the country. Americans are sensitive to international criticism; the Russians are not.

February 8, 2021: It’s been a month since the Assad government ordered the military to reduce costs by having most military units return to lower peacetime (pre-2011) levels of readiness. Syria is not at peace but the Assads cannot afford to keep most of the military combat ready. The cutbacks are dictated by the sharp reduction in financial support from Iran. The American economic sanctions have, in the last three years, greatly reduced the amount of money Iran could spend on its foreign wars. Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen are all feeling the impact. Iran is hoping the new American government will relax the sanctions. While the Americans are now saying nice things about Iran, the sanctions are still in place and enforced. In Syria that means the troops have less ammo and fuel for patrols and combat. As was the case in peacetime, more soldiers and officers were given leave, to spend a few weeks visiting families or even taking a vacation.

February 7, 2021: Turkish mercenaries are regularly skirmishing with Russian and SDF forces, and winning. The stakes are not large, usually the possession of a checkpoint that both sides claim. Turkey does not want to escalate when that might involve Russian or American airpower being called in. Turkey can get away with using the Predator-like UAVs for recon and surveillance as long as Russian and American warplanes to not use those UAVs for target practice.

February 6, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) SDF forces shot down a Turkish UAV that was carrying out a reconnaissance and surveillance mission. Syria has become a hostile and dangerous environment for all sorts of UAVs. Everyone uses them, even if all they got is some cheap quad-copters.

February 3, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) Abu Mohammed al Golani, leader of HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) shocked many of his followers and supporters by appearing in a recent TV interview wearing a business suit and not holding an assault rifle. His interviewer was an American journalist. Golani justified the non-terrorist attire by describing his recent efforts to make alliances with foreign nations. To do this he had to convince them he was serious of turning HTS into an unarmed political movement in return for sanctuary. His enemies had always accused Golani of secretly doing that. Until now Golani denied the accusations but now he embraces them. Golani has a $10 million price on his head as the leader of HTS. The Americans offer the reward for capturing or killing Golani, no matter what he is wearing or saying at the time.

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 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. During 2020, the steady advance of Syrian forces, accompanied by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire plus the inability of the Turks to do anything about it, has led to the unravelling of the HTS coalition.

February 2, 2021: In the south (Quneitra province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian forces near the Israeli Golan Heights. Like so many recent Israeli airstrikes this was targeting Iranian rockets or missiles being moved to Lebanon or firing positions near the Israeli border.

January 31, 2021: In the north (Aleppo province) someone had the cash and resources to create, place and detonate three car bombs north of Aleppo city. The explosions took place in the last 24 hours, in an area largely controlled by the Turks and left 19 dead and 69 wounded. Most of the casualties were civilians, including women and children.

January 27, 2021: Syria continues to be one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. For 2020 Syria ranked among the three most corrupt nations on the planet. These ratings and ranking are updated each year for the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/12) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are both 88.

For 2020 the least corrupt nation in region was UAE (United Arab Emirates), which ranked 21st out of 180 nations. The current UAE score is 71 (same as 2019) compared to 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.

The Syrian corruption score was 26 in 2012, which today would put it right next to Bangladesh at 146th 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 25, 2021: In southern Lebanon six Israeli F-35s were seen in the air where they could be easily photographed. This F-35 mission was to demonstrate to Lebanese and Iran-backed Hezbollah that Israel still rules the skies. The F-35 usually fly at night where neither eyes nor radar can spot them, much less stop them. Operations over Lebanon and Syria are common for the F-35, which regularly carried out missile attacks on Iranian targets throughout Syria. Most of the missiles are launched from Israeli aircraft inside Lebanon, Israel or Jordan and, rarely, from inside Syria. Syrian and Russian air defense system keep trying to bring down an Israeli aircraft and keep failing. Russia has its latest S400 air defense systems guarding its bases in northwest Syria. The S400 radar can see almost all of Syria and into adjacent nations. The Russians have had a hard time detecting Israeli bombers, especially the F-35s. Syria is armed with the older S300 systems and they regularly fire lots of missiles at the Israelis and have yet to bring down an aircraft. The Syrians have shot down some Russian aircraft by accident. Syria urges Russia to at least try but the Russians know that if they try and fail it will a lot more difficult to get export orders for the S400. Russia watches and continues seeking a way to defeat Israeli aircraft,

January 24, 2021: Iran, frustrated by Israeli air strikes and some commando raids, have backed off on their efforts to establish a clearly “Iranian” presence on the Israeli border. Instead, the Iranians are playing a long game and attempting to gain the support of the largely Sunni and Druze civilian population along the border in (from west to east); Quneitra, Daraa and Suwayda provinces. Total population of these provinces in 2011 was 1.4 million but only about 20 percent of that was on or near the border. After the 2011 Civil War began much of the Sunni population fled. How much remains on the border is unclear but is apparently at least 100,000. Only Queneitra and Daraa border Israel. Israel has occupied most of Queneitra province since the 1967 War and the Israeli controlled area is mostly the Golan Heights. This is the high ground overlooking northern Israel and the Syrians made a major, desperate and ultimately failed effort in the 1973 War to retake Golan.

Since 2018 the Iranians have unofficially taken control of the border area, usually while wearing Syrian Army uniforms. Most of the Syrian rebels and civilians fled the area leaving a much smaller native population. This helped make the Iranian long-term plan to control the area possible. Iran started providing jobs and reconstruction materials and money to improve the lives of the remaining civilians. This means rebuilt clinics, schools, mosques, housing and government buildings. There’s a downside to this. Anyone suspected of disloyalty is swiftly punished, usually by expulsion from the area or execution for anyone caught aiding the Israelis. Another problem is that the Iranians are trying to convert the largely Sunni Arabs to the Shia form of Islam.

As long as Iran provides desperately needed economic aid to Syrian civilians along the border, they gain a measure of cooperation and support from civilians. But those Syrians know that long-term the Iranians intend to convert most or all of the Sunni Arabs on the border to Shia Islam and use those civilians a human-shields to protect weapons storage sites placed inside residential areas, sometimes in bunkers underneath homes and apartment buildings. This is what Hezbollah has done in south Lebanon and those civilians found that when Hezbollah went too far and provoked another war with Israel in 2006, the weapons storage sites were bombed or shelled anyway. The Israelis have already let the border population know, via radio broadcasts and leaflet drops, that the same rules apply along any portion of the Israeli border controlled by Iran. This threat did not stop the Iranians in Lebanon and it is not stopping them in Syria. Everyone understands that if Iran launches attacks on Israel from these border areas, human shields won’t work because otherwise the attacks would kill Israeli civilians.

January 23, 2021: In Syria Iran is trying to organize a Syrian version of Hezbollah with the formation of the Sayyida Zaynab Brigade. To do this Iranian spends a lot of money on hiring Syrian mercenaries who are deemed likely to become loyal and reliable true believers in Iranian goals. The same thing is underway in Iraq. Both efforts depend on lots of cash incentives, especially at the beginning. To pay for this Iran has reduced the budget for bribes and less-special mercenaries.

January 22, 2021: In western Syria (Hama province) Israel launched another airstrike against Iranian forces. Five separate targets were hit, one of them a missile storage warehouse. There were over fifty casualties, most of them Syrian army soldiers, the rest Iranian mercenaries. There were some civilian casualties, caused by fragments of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles fired at the Israeli air-to-ground missiles. Syria claims the fatal fragments were from Israeli missiles destroyed by Syrian missiles.

January 17, 2021: In southern Syria (Quneitra province) gunfire could be heard near the Israeli Golan Heights. Some unidentified gunmen attacked a Syrian army checkpoint and killed three soldiers. The attackers apparently were not Israeli or Iran-backed militia, which leaves rebels who controlled this area until 2018. Not all of the rebels left, usually because many of them were from this area.

January 13, 2021: The U.S. announced sanctions on the chief-of-staff of the Iraqi PMF militias, declaring the PMF official a supporter of international terrorism and loyal to Iran, not Iraq. This is the second PMF official to be so designated in the last week. Many of the PMF gangs, especially the Iran-backed ones, are concentrating on making money rather than making Iraq safe for Iraqis. The criminal militias often make money via smuggling or providing guarded border crossings where smugglers can pay a fee to get past. This works best on the Syrian border because there are a lot of Iran-backed militias in Syria. This “smuggler’s gate” scam works less well on the borders of Iran, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

January 12, 2021: Almost a decade after the Syrian civil war erupted, over 3.5 million Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Over 500,000 Syrian refugee children are enrolled in Turkish schools. Turkey has spent over $40 billion on Syrian refugee support. This effort includes 26 Syrian refugee centers located in ten different provinces. Turkey also hosts an estimated 700,000 Iraqi Arabs.

 

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