Syria: Eastern Distractions

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August 25, 2021: While Turkey faces a major refugee threat northern Syria, from nearly a million civilian and thousands of Islamic terrorists trapped in Idlib province, and a growing number of Afghan refugees elsewhere, Turkish combat operations in the northeast (Hasaka province) SDF Kurdish forces and about a thousand American troops are disrupting and stalling Turkish efforts to create their 30-kilometer-deep border “security zone”. The Turkish plan has always been to establish an area on the Syrian side of the border where they can move millions of unpopular (with most Turks) Syrian refugees. The EU states are threatening sanctions and other economic retaliation over what the Turks are doing in Syria. The Turks respond with threats of allowing the refugees, most of them Syrian, to cross into EU (European Union) territory. The EU pays the Turks several billion dollars a year to keep the refugees in Turkey.

In Syria the Turks keep increasing the pressure on the ground, using lots of Syrian mercenaries supported and supervised by a smaller number of Turkish personnel. In the last week three of these Turkish troops were killed by SDF and this caused the Turks to use their missile-armed UAVs and artillery on both sides of the border against the SDF. For the Turkish government, Turkish soldiers killed in Syria is very bad news because the five years of Turkish operations in Syria has been expensive and caused much public anger whenever a Turkish soldier is killed or badly wounded. There have been about a thousand casualties among Turkish troops in Syria since 2016 and over 200 of them were fatal. Government controlled or influenced media in Turkey have been ordered to play down the deaths and the well-attended funerals but this bad news eventually gets out, despite efforts to crack down on Internet-based treason (anti-government messages). Opinion polls show most voters want to oust the current government during the next (2023) national elections, where the voting will be for the president and members of parliament.

Anxious Angry Allies

In Syria, Russia and Turkey are supposed to be Iranian allies but are less frequently acting the part. Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 to help preserve its old Cold War era ally the Assads. This was done for the benefit of Russia, not Syria, Iran or Turkey. Russia was the second foreign power to come to the aid of the Assads. Since 2012 Iran has been helping keep their old Shia ally, the Assads, in power. Iran had more ambitious goals, as in increasing its threat against Israel once the rebels were defeated. A year after the Russians showed up, the Turks sent in troops, but actually depended on Syrian mercenaries.

The Russians hoped to rebuild the Syria military and get out. Reviving the Syrian military sufficiently to allow the Russians to leave proved impossible. The only alternative was hiring local or foreign mercenaries, which the Iranians, Turks, Americans and Syrians all relied on this approach in Syria. The pre-2011 Syrian military was gone when the Russians arrived and took a good look. Russia concentrated on improving the Russian weapons and equipment of the Syrian forces while providing air and artillery support for the Syrian forces. This made it possible for remaining Assad troops to defend themselves, their families and communities. This was all they really wanted to do after several years of civil war. Eventually Russia began hiring some Syrian mercenaries as well, if only to help eliminate the last remnant of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in eastern Syria. Russia was content to let the Israelis keep the Iranian forces busy and taking heavy damage while trying to destroy Israel.

For centuries Turkey, Iran and Russia were all antagonists, not allies, and their seeming “alliance” in Syria was largely a mirage. All three of these allies continue scheming against each other. Russia notes that Turkey is selling weapons to Ukraine, where Russian forces are still at war with Ukraine. Turkey is also trying to repair its damaged relationship with NATO, and that means reneging on weapons purchases from Russia. There have been other forms of anti-Russian behavior that must be tolerated by Russia to keep the “alliance” with Turkey in Syria viable. Russia is sticking it to Iran by backing Israel and the efforts of Arab states to replace Iran as the protector of the Assad government.

As long as the Islamic terrorists remain in Idlib, ISIL in the east and Iranians near the Israeli border, the Syrian civil war will not be over. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Assads, Turkey and Israel. Russia depicts itself as the good guy interested only in peace and prosperity. That leaves Iran as the real interloper and troublemaker. Dealing with Iran has been a headache for Turkey and Russia for centuries while the Arabs have several thousand years of abuse from the Iranians. In other words, Iran is difficult to deal with, something everyone can agree on.

Iran wants to repeat in Syria what it has been doing in Yemen for several years. In Yemen Iran perfected an effective way to attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen with over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs during the last seven years. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence. Iran is seeking to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran backed militias in Syria. That has not been working out so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen. This despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.

Now Iran has another threat on their eastern border as the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban took advantage of a disorganized American withdrawal and grabbed control of most of the country. Local anti-Taliban militias did not respond immediately but after about a week the Taliban suddenly lost control of areas they were unable to conquer before 2001. Iran is under pressure from Iranians to defend the 20 percent of Afghans who are Shia. Iran is also not having much success in getting economic sanctions lifted and that means more protests inside Iran over the growing poverty rate and declining living standards for everyone.

August 24, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) Russia airstrikes and Syrian artillery fire have been used almost daily against Islamic terrorist rebels seen moving towards the forbidden “de-escalation zone”. Russian airstrikes also hit targets inside rebels controlled Idlib, trying to disrupt factions that are believed to be planning attacks against the Russian airbase in adjacent Latakia province.

Inside Idlib province there was an explosion in a rebels held area that was apparently caused by rebels making a mistake while trying to disarm or remove an artillery shell that did not detonate when it hit the ground. At least eight rebels were killed and even more wounded.

In the southwest (Daraa province) weeks of attacks on a rebel enclave ended when the rebels agreed to leave the area and be moved north to Idlib province. At least that’s the plan Russia is trying to make happen. The rebels don’t trust the Assad forces but the Russians have Syrian mercenaries and Moslem Russian troops to assist negotiations and reassure the rebels. Russian troops will also supervise the surrender and movement of rebels and civilian supporters to another area, apparently Idlib province in the northwest. The alternative was more artillery and airstrikes and the deaths of civilian supporters as well as armed rebels. The Syrians and Russians have been working 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. This is a joint effort to block Iranian efforts to gain the support of the border population. 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. Control of the Daraa border with Israel was sought by Iranian forces but Russian and Syrian troops blocked many of the Iranian efforts.

August 23, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) Turkish and Kurdish SDF forces continue using artillery fire against each other. Civilians are usually the only victims because the troops build bunkers and trenches for protection from the shells.

August 21, 2021: In the northeast an American F-15 shot down an Iranian UAV that was getting too close to a base where about 900 American troops were stationed. This is only the second time this has happened since 2017.

In the northeast (Hasaka province) Turkey carried out three attacks over the last three days against SDF leaders. The most damaging one was on the 19th when a UAV launched missile hit a local headquarters, killing nine and wounding ten. Some of the dead were local combat commanders. The other attacks, against individual commanders, failed.

In northern Iraq and northern Syria Turkish airstrikes killed seven PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) fighters. These attacks are usually carried out by F-16s.

August 20, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) two Kurdish controlled towns were hit with Turkish artillery fire, killing four SDF militiamen and two civilians.

In central Syria (Homs province) and further south near the capital (Damascus) Israeli airstrikes hit several Iranian targets. At least four Iranian mercenaries were killed in Damascus. There were a lot of people in the Damascus region, including foreign reporters, who got out their cell phones and took videos of action. This involved Israeli air-to-ground missiles hitting their targets while Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were launched but not hitting anything. Russia later reported the air defense systems they provided to Syria had again destroyed most of the Israeli missiles.

August 19, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) a roadside bomb killed a Turkish soldier and three mercenaries. Elsewhere in the area three Turkish mercs were killed by landmines.

August 17, 2021: In the south (Golan Heights) Israeli missiles hit several Iranian bases near a village where Hezbollah personnel wearing Syrian army uniforms were trying to conceal their nationality and efforts to prepare attacks on Israel. Until 2017 Israel regularly and discreetly provided medical care for badly hurt Syrians who showed up (usually at night) on the Israeli border. From 2011 to 2017 about 3,000 Syrians were treated, most of them between 2015 and 2017. Israeli border guards regularly allowed badly wounded Syrians in and sent them to Israeli hospitals for medical care. Until mid-2015 Israel would transport badly wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals outside the Golan Heights. After 2015 treatment was provided at the border, using a temporary hospital set up there. By 2015 over a thousand Syrians had received such treatment. By 2017 Iranian mercenaries and some Iranian operatives gained control of the border and fighting in the area died down. There were few civilian casualties and helped revive the medical care in the border area to discourage “fraternizing with Israel.” The Iranians are seen as another bunch of foreign invaders endangering the local Syrians.

August 14, 2021: In the south (Golan Heights) an Israeli UAV crashed on the Syrian side of the border because of equipment failure. This happens regularly as the number of UAV operations along the Syrian border have increased. Israel doesn’t lose any tech secrets because of these crashes because there have been several already meaning Iran and Russia don’t offer as much money for the wreckage.

In neighboring Lebanon there was another warehouse explosion, this one near the Syrian border. There were 28 deaths and nearly a hundred injured. The warehouse stored large quantities of gasoline, kerosine and diesel fuel that was repackaged so that it could be smuggled across the border into Syria, where there is a growing shortage of such fuels. At first it was thought that the warehouse owner and smugglers were working for Hezbollah but that was apparently not the case. Some other influential faction in northern Lebanon was protecting, and profiting from this operation. There have been smaller explosions in similar situations recently, indicating growing smuggling operations along the border. Lebanon is suffering from a severe economic recession and growing public hostility towards Hezbollah and Iran.

August 12, 2021: In Turkey riot police arrested around 80 people in the capital (Ankara) after a crowd of Syrian refugees attacked businesses. Turkey currently hosts an estimated four million refugees. Most of the refugees are from Syria and are no longer welcome.

August 10, 2021: In the west (port of Latakia) an Iranian tanker docked there experienced an onboard explosion that led to a fire and some casualties. The tanker was smuggling oil to Syria. Israel has interfered with these tankers in the past. Now Iran is threatening retaliation for any more Israeli interference. Another tanker is on its way to Syria carrying Iranian oil for the Assads.

In the northwest (Idlib province) Russian carried out eleven airstrikes against Islamic terrorist targets.

In southern Israel, American jet fighters completed several days of joint training with their Israeli counterparts. This included air-superiority and ground attack operations. This is the first time American and Israeli warplanes had done this sort of thing inside Israel and the goal is to improve coordination against a threat to Israel and America. Iranian forces in Syria are a growing threat, despite heavy losses.

August 7, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), numerous Israeli air strikes against Iranian bases outside Mayadeen city have led Iran to bring in air-defense radars and mobile SAM (Surface-to Air Missile) units to the area. This is an effort to discourage Israel from continuing their airstrikes. The Iranians have also installed a radar for detecting low flying UAVs. Syrian and Russian air defense systems have been unable to stop the Israeli attacks and now the Iranians are seeking to show the Syrians and Russians what effective air defense is. The Israeli response has been more airstrikes. Iran is trying to turn this area, just west of the Euphrates River, as a major logistics and training center for its Syrian operations against Israel. So far that effort has provided more targets for Israel to attack and those airstrikes are increasing.

July 28, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) a Russian patrol was seen blocked by an American patrol. This led to soldiers from both sides getting physical with shoving, pushing and some punches thrown. This soon ended and the Russians turned around and left. Many of these disputes are about preventing Turkish and Russian forces from moving east of the Euphrates River into Kurdish dominated territory. Some of these clashes are also about control of the M4 highway. At the start of 2021 Russia announced it had negotiated the reopening of the M4 highway for commercial traffic after being closed for a month while Turkish forces cleared some Islamic terrorist rebels who were periodically attacking traffic. The M4 is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports.

July 24, 2021: Some unexpected good news for Shia Syrians. Iranian media reports that Iran is establishing explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias in western Afghanistan. Iran wants to protect the Shia minority (about 20 percent of Afghans) from the expanding reach of the Taliban. In the late 1990s the Taliban went after Afghan Shia in a big way and the victims have not forgotten. The new militias are composed of combat experienced Afghan Shia who served as Iranian mercenaries and survived combat in Syria. Oddly enough the name of these militias, Hashd Al Shi’I, does not use one of the local languages (Pushtun or Dari), but a language the Syrian veterans learned a little of in Syria. Hashd Al Shi’I is Arabic for “Shia Mobilization”.

Over 50,000 Afghan Shia served in Syria and, as they returned to Afghanistan, often took the initiative in protecting fellow Shia from increasing violence by Islamic terror groups, including the Taliban. The former mercs asked Iran for help but until now all Iran was willing to do was back anti-Pakistan Taliban factions that, in return for weapons and other aid from Iran, promised to leave Afghan Shia alone. Moving on to explicitly Iran-backed Shia militias is not considered a big surprise. Iran tried to persuade their Shia Afghan mercs to settle in Syria, where the Assads offered free land and homes abandoned by Sunnis Syrians driven out of the country. The Afghans were not interested in moving to an Arab country. Like the Iranians, the Afghans are Indo-European and have not gotten along well with Arabs for a number of reasons.

In 2019 Iran sent most of the Afghan mercenaries in Syria home because the revived American economic sanctions had greatly reduced the amount of money that could be spent on the war in Syria. Iran began building a new mercenary force by hiring Syrians. The best of the Iranian foreign Shia were the Afghans but there was a limited supply of Afghan Shia willing to serve as Iranian mercs in faraway Syria. To entice the Afghans to volunteer they were paid more than other foreign Shia in Syria. While the Afghans were the best fighters, a growing number would not renew their contracts and returned to Afghanistan or Iran, where mercenary service also earned an Iran residency permit. While the Syrian Arab mercs are cheaper, they are adequate. The low cost is largely because of the bad shape the Syrian economy is in and the dire poverty many Syrians live with.

By 2020 there were over 10,000 Syrian mercs on the Iranian payroll. Most were 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, mainly against Israel.

Iran appreciated the efforts of the Afghan Shia in Syria. In early 2018 Iranian media reported that Afghan mercenaries working for Iran in Syria suffered over 10,000 casualties since 2013. Over 20 percent of the casualties were fatal. It was also reported that over 3,000 Afghan Shia mercenaries died fighting against Iraq in the 1980s.

The Iranian mercenary force in Syria was a decisive factor in keeping the Syrian security forces from being completely destroyed. Many of the Afghan mercs who earned residency permits in Iran did not use them because of declining economic conditions in Iran and better prospects back in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the Syrian vets were highly respected and the Afghan government feared that those former mercs would turn into another warlord army, like the ones that tore Afghanistan apart in the 1990s. That was half right, but the commander of this new Afghan Shia force is Iranian, not Afghan. Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel, also veterans of Syrian service and often the same men who trained and led the Afghan mercs in Syria, are back with their Afghan Shia fighters once more fighting Sunni Islamic terrorists. A month after Iranian media reported the existence of this Iran-backed militia, the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban took control of most of the Iranian border, or at least tried to.

 

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