Syria: Peace, Poverty and Puzzling Politics


May 9, 2023: In the last week Syria was visited by the president of Iran reaffirming support for the Assad government. Without the $30 billion Iran spent since 2011 to keep the Assads in power, the Assads would have lost. Currently the Assad government is technically in control of 90 percent of Syria but that control is weaker than it was before 2011. There are not enough trained police and soldiers to maintain order throughout Syria, so many areas are still generally lawless and dominated by Islamic terrorists, outlaw militias and gangsters of all sorts. To survive, the Assads have to maintain relationships with the Iranians, Sunni Arabs, Turkey, Russia, Israel and the Americans.

The fighting in Syria is sharply down from the high experienced in 2014-15. Nearly 6,000 died in October 2014. About 17 percent of those dead were civilians, 15 percent from government forces and the rest from various rebel groups. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is believed to have suffered over 2,000 dead in October 2014, mainly because they were fighting everyone else simultaneously. The highest annual death toll was in 2014, when at least 100,000 died. Annual deaths declined after that, reaching about 3,800 in 2021 and the decline has continued to the present. This year the death toll is much lower and will probably be a few thousand for all of 2023. This includes Islamic terrorists, Syrian security forces and civilians. Last month (April) was an exceptionally bloody month with 407 deaths. That’s the highest in 14 months.

Since the civil war began in 2011 the death toll is estimated to be between 400,000 and 500,000. Iran wanted the civil war to end so they could concentrate on Israel. The key role of Iran in Syria has been noted and no one, not even Iranian allies, are cooperating with Iran. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Assads, Turkey and Israel.

Syrians in general and particularly the Assads are aware of the damage done to Syria by a decade of war. The best evidence of the performance of the Syrian economy is the strength of the Syrian currency. The exchange rate was 50 pounds to the dollar before the violence began in 2011. In late 2022 it was 5,000 pounds to the dollar and currently it is 7,000 pounds to the dollar. The average monthly income is under $200 a month and much of that comes from expatriates sending remittances. The loss of oil shipments from Iran is a major factor in the collapse of the economy. The change in exchange rates also reflects the failure of the Assads to make much progress in the last few years. Aid from Russia and Iran had kept the Assad government and the Syrian Air Force going. The loss of Russian and Iranian support over the last few years was catastrophic because no one else stepped up to replace that aid.

The damage is worse than most outsiders can appreciate 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, 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 Syria 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 a third of what it was in 2011. But 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 will 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 would 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.

China recently brokered a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This had nothing to do with Syria and was meant to ensure the flow of Persian Gulf oil to China. Iran was willing to behave so that it could concentrate on supporting the Russian war effort in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine 14 months ago and lost what they believed would be a quick victory. Iran turned out to be one of the few nations willing and able to supply the Russians with weapons. Russia paid for this with weapons technology, including some modern Su-35 jet fighters and spare parts for some of their older Russian made warplanes. In addition, Iran expects Russia to be more helpful in Syria, where Russia already has an understanding with Israel that involves Russia not interfering with Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets. In return Israel does not supply Ukraine with weapons. Most Israelis support the Ukrainians but they also recognize the threat from Iranians in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Russia and Iran are still negotiating terms for this issue.

The Assads, a long-time client of oil-rich Iran, managed to keep the Syrian economy going after a Syrian civil war began in 2012. Aid from Iran and Russia was substantial until recently, and there was a measure of security and prosperity in areas where the Assads regained control. No more. Without Russian and Iranian aid, the security and prosperity campaigns are on hold. Russian and Iranian aid has declined sharply since 2014, when Iran supplied needed foreign currency and Russia helped the Assad government reconnect with the international banking system. Aid from Russia and Iran had kept the Assad government and the Syrian Air Force going. The loss of Russian and Iranian support over the last few years was catastrophic because no one else stepped up to replace that aid. Oil-rich Arab states are a potential source of cash for rebuilding the economy. Syria is rejoining the Arab League and negotiating the nature and scope of Arab investments in Syria during the rebuilding effort. Arab states want Syria to be strong enough to eliminate the thousands of Islamic terrorists still active in northwestern and eastern Syria. The Turks are helping in the northwest, mainly because they want the Syrian side of the border pacified enough to send back hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have been living in Turkey.

There are some American troops, and air support, in eastern Syria to help fight the Islamic terrorists there. Israel is also involved, using missile armed UAVs to attack terrorist targets and Iranian efforts to move more weapons into Syria. Iraq also hosts several thousand American troops. These are part of an effort to reduce growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Arabs see Iran as a major troublemaker in the region. The Turks, Americans and Israelis agree and are all doing something to keep the Iranians out. The Assads are somewhere in the middle when it comes to Iran.

Lebanon has started registering and attempting to deport Syrian refugees. The nearly two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees that fled to Lebanon since 2012, radically changing the demography of Lebanon. Before 2011 the Lebanese population was only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, it 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 were now seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent were Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This put 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 and it was becoming 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. By 2023 Lebanon felt itself capable of dealing with the refugee crisis, especially since large-scale violence in Syria has largely disappeared. There are 5.5 million refugees in neighboring countries. Turkey has 3.6 million, Lebanon two million and 250,000 in Iraq. There are also several million Syrians in Saudi Arabia, who are considered part of the large (over six million foreigners) expatriate workforce. About a third of those workers are Syrians. While many fled to Saudi Arabia because of the war in Syria, they were not treated like refugees and have jobs and status in Saudi Arabia. Countries bordering Syria want their refugees to go home. That cannot happen without the cooperation of the Assads. Syria needs a lot of those refugees to revive the economy and the Arab League is willing to allow Syria to rejoin if they reduce their cooperation with Iran. That has always been a dangerous option for the Assads because the Iranians have enough armed operatives inside Syria to threaten the lives of key Assad clan members. Currently, Iranian power is unusually weak inside Iran and inside Syria. Now is a good time for the Assads to make a break from Iran, especially if he has the support of the Arab League and assurances that the League will help, not hinder Assad use of force to maintain their rule in Syria. Turkey does not belong to the Arab League but is eager to send its Syrian refugee’s home. The Assad offer is acceptable if it will finally get those Syrians out of Turkey. The Assad’s appear to have decided in favor of the Arab League. That outcome of that decision will become known and put into effect sometime this year.

May 8, 2023: In the south (Daraa province) Jordanian jet aircraft bombed a Hezbollah facility used to make illegal drugs. These drugs are them smuggled out of Syria via Jordan. Some of those drugs stay in Jordan, creating and sustaining local addicts. The Jordanian airstrikes also killed the man who controlled and managed drug smuggling in the area, who ran the smuggling operation through Jordan.

May 7, 2023: As expected, the Arab League voted to allow Syria to rejoin.

May 6, 2023: In the south (Daraa province) there has been a lot of random violence in the province so far in 2013, with at least 181 separate incidents of violence that left 136 dead and hundreds wounded. The violence is mainly against Syrian army personnel. This level of violence remained fairly constant since 2018. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there since 2018. Anonymous assassins use pistols and hidden bombs to kill those who work, or worked for government forces or Russia and Syria backed local militias. There are also attacks against former members of ISIL and other militant groups. These victims had accepted amnesty. Russian and Assad forces openly force Iran-backed groups and individuals out of the area. There is no open violence because Iran, Syria and Russia are still officially allies. Israel sometimes fires on Iranian forces operating in Daraa, especially near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel will sometimes release evidence of this to the media, so that Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iranian foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria since 2020 but have not made much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area. In 2022 and 2023 much of the violence is from other groups, some of them criminal gangs retaliating against those who refuse to pay for protection from the violence. Daraa is the most violent province but similar violence continues in many parts of Syria.

May 5, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) two gunmen on a motorbike killed a local oil field worker and wounded another. The attackers were believed to be ISIL.

May 4, 2023: Visiting Syria for two days, Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, met with key members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These two terror groups are based in Gaza and depend on Iran for financial support and weapons. Raisi discussed planned terror attacks in southern Israel, the West Bank, Jerusalem and now from Lebanon. Iran forced Hamas to establish a partnership with Hezbollah to recruit Palestinians living in Lebanon to carry out rocket attacks into Israel. The Lebanese are not happy with this because Hamas could get too aggressive and trigger a major Israeli response against Hamas and the larger Hezbollah in southern Lebanon as well as terrorist targets throughout Lebanon. Iran is using a complex and dangerous strategy with all these terrorist groups. For one thing, these groups are divided by religion. Hezbollah and Iran are Shia while Palestinians are Sunni or Christian. Then there is the ethnicity problem. All the Arabs are Semitic while the Iranians are Indo-European and have a history of treating Arabs poorly. Most Lebanese want Iranian and Palestinian radicalism gone from Lebanon, or at least kept quiet. Firing rockets into Israel is dangerous for all Lebanese. Iran is playing a dangerous and explosive game here, one that could backfire on Iran. Most Iranians oppose these expensive sponsorships of Arab terror groups that cost a lot, make a lot of noise and don’t seem to be hurting the Israelis. The popular anger against the government in Iran grows and Raisi has to keep that in mind while working with all these Arab terror groups and their demands for more money.

Raisi also met with the Syrian president Bashar Assad to discuss continued cooperation between Syria and Iran as well as problems with Israeli, Islamic terrorist and Turkish operations in Syria, especially the ones aimed at Iranians in Syria. Then there is the Syrian effort to get back in the Arab League and accept large amounts of Arab aid and investment to rebuild Syria’s shattered economy. Iran does not get along with many members of the Arab League while Syria wants to get cozy with the League. In late 2011 Syria was suspended from the Arab League and many of the 21 other League members cut diplomatic relations or imposed sanctions. The Arab League was unable to do much more. By early 2013 the Arab League was still unable to muster enough unity to call for international (Western) intervention in Syria. The Arab League did that in 2011 for Libya and many Arabs considered it shameful that the Arab world could not handle the military intervention itself. Despite trillions of dollars in oil income and hundreds of millions of Arabs demanding something be done, the Arab League had to call on outsiders to save Libya from degenerating into an interminable bloodbath. That is what happened in Syria and many Arabs refused to accept responsibility and just blamed the West and Israel for the mess. Given that toxic atmosphere, Western nations, including NATO member Turkey, were reluctant to do what the Arabs wanted done but would not admit they cannot do it themselves. Iran and the Russians intervened in support of the Assads and the slaughter of pro-rebel civilians continued as did Assad efforts to force pro-rebel civilians out of Syria.

May 3, 2023: In the northwest, a missile armed American UAV carried out an attack against an Islamic terrorist leader in the area. The Americans pay well for reliable information on the location of Islamic terrorist leaders. This is done to reduce civilian casualties during these attacks. As a result of this effort the Americans have built a network of reliable informants in Syria. The Assads leave this network alone as long as the Americans leave the Assads alone. The American effort against ISIL in northwest and eastern Syria have been successful. On the ground the Americans have trusted and effective allies in the form of the Kurdish dominated SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). Northeastern Hasaka province is largely Kurdish and the Kurds are trying to negotiate an autonomy deal with the Assads. In return the Kurds will continue assisting the Assads against ISIL and the Turks.

May 1, 2023: In the north (Aleppo) Israeli airstrikes against targets at the international airport destroyed Iranian weapons recently flown in. Iran claimed the lost material was earthquake aid but the secondary explosions (by the Iranian weapons) indicated otherwise. One soldier was killed during this attack and the airport was closed temporarily. Three members of an Iran backed militia and one Syrian soldier were killed. This was the 16th Israeli airstrike against Iranian targets in Syria so far in 2023.

April 29, 2023: In central Syria (Homs province) an Israeli airstrike hit an airport Iran has been using to fly in weapons for Hezbollah and the new Lebanese branch of the Gaza-based Hamas.

In the north (Aleppo province) Turkish forces located and surrounded the leader of ISIL forces in Syria. Rather than surrender, the ISIL leader detonated his explosive vest and died.

April 27, 2023: In the east (Raqqa province) an ISIL roadside bomb killed two Kurdish SDF troops and wounded three others. This is the 57th ISIL attacks in eastern Syria. These actions have left 39 dead and many more wounded.

April 26, 2023: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkish troops carried out a raid on an ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) hideout and the senior man there detonated his explosive vest before he could be captured. The Turks announced that they had killed the local ISIL leader (Caliph) but there was no positive identification and other Islamic terrorist experts believe the Turks had killed a senior ILIL official but not the caliph. This identification error was influenced by the fact that the Turkish president is up for reelection and the voting takes place on May 14th. Erdogan is behind in the polls.

April 25, 2023: In Turkey, defense ministers from Iran, Russia, Syria and Turkey met to discuss ways to improve relations between Turkey and the Iran-backed Assad government in Syria. Russia also seeks to resolve problems it is having in Syria with Turkey and Iran. These discussions also discussed the withdrawal of Iranian and Turkish forces from Syria and economic aid to rebuild the shattered Syrian economy. Another meeting is planned for May and held in Russia.

April 23, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Iran brought in over 600 soldiers and their equipment over several days using commercial buses.

April 21, 2023: In the east (Homs province) several days of fighting between Syrian forces (army and Russian Wagner group) and local ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces ended in a stalemate, with the Islamic terrorists holding on to their strongholds in mountains of the Badia Desert. ISIL and associated groups have long used the largely empty desert as a sanctuary. This desert area extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria, 85 percent of Jordan, and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Baida desert has long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against and between Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. An exception to this rule has ISIL waging an assassination campaign against Islamic clergy and staff of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong.

April 19, 2023: In the south (Syrian Golan Heights) Israeli artillery fired on stockpiled equipment and supplies belonging to Iran-backed Hezbollah.

April 17, 2023: In the northwest (near the Turkish border) an American airmobile raiding party landed near a village where Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali, chief ISIL attack planner, lived and worked. Ali was wearing an explosive vest and used it to kill himself to avoid capture and interrogation. Three of his associates were also killed. Documents retrieved at the scene confirmed that attacks in the Middle East and Europe were being planned, some of them aimed to kidnap people for ransom.

April 10, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Iran-backed militia fired several mortar shells at an American base near an oilfield. There were no injuries. There are about a thousand U.S. troops in Syria but air support and airstrikes against hostile militias are flown in from bases in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan or Kuwait. Russia does have an airbase in Syria and the jet fighters from this base have been harassing American aircraft for the last two months. The Russian jets fly too close or pretend to be attacking. This violates a long standing agreement the U.S. had with Russia to not interfere with each other’s aircraft over Syria. Russia won’t say why they are violating this agreement.

April 9, 2023: In the south (Syrian Golan Heights) three rockets fired into Israel from Syria landed in uninhabited areas. Later Israeli artillery was fired into Syria near where the rockets were launched.

April 7, 2023: Turkish UAVs struck targets near the Sulaimaniyah airport (northern Syria). The senior commander of Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was in the area. The SDF is allied with the Americans and usually operates with a contingent of American troops.




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