The rebels are falling apart. Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Assads have used their “de-escalation” zones into slaughterhouses by resuming attacks on pro-rebel civilians and any rebels they can catch. ISIL is rapidly losing it personnel and territory because of constant attacks by just about everyone (Turks, Kurds, Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies as well as the Americans and sundry other minor players). As ISIL is being put down everyone is thinking about the next phase of the civil war. The winners want to get rewarded for their service. The Syrian Kurds want autonomy in the northeast (mainly Hasakah province) and protection of Turkish efforts to keep the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border. That’s going to be a problem. There are more problems in the north, such as the FSA (Free Syrian Army). This group was a major player early on because it was largely secular and popular with Western nations. But most Syrian rebels preferred more radical groups like al Qaeda and eventually ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). FSA continued to exist and eventually found a patron in Turkey, which apparently plans to turn over control of the Syrian side of the border to FSA, if the Assads and Syrian Kurds can be taken care of.
FSA has long received assistance from the U.S. and Jordan as well but has apparently decided to stick with Turkey as their new sponsor and has refused recent American requests hat FSA work with the SDF in the continuing battles for control of Deir Ezzor province, which is the southern neighbor of SDF controlled Hasakah province.
There are still FSA forces operating out of Jordanian bases and these have to be more careful because the Turks can’t help them much. The Syrian Kurds and SDF want to make peace with Turkey but this is increasingly difficult. Diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United States keep getting worse because of American support for local Kurds and refusing to extradite back to Turkey those who Turkey believes were responsible for an alleged coup in 2016. The Turks can provide the Americans with no convincing evidence (which is essential to get someone extradited). Then again the U.S. has been making and breaking promises to the local Kurds for over a century now. But the Kurds have few choices because reliable foreign backers have always been in short supply. The Syrian Kurds have been discussing a post-war deal with the Assads and seem to think they will have a better chance with that than trying to negotiate with the Turks. At the moment the Turks are going after the remaining Kurdish controlled areas in Idlib province near the Mediterranean coast. Apparently the Turks will only tolerate the Syrian Kurds if they stay in Hasakah province on the Iraq border. The Syrian Kurds (the SDF and its American air and special operations support) have been responsible for taking the ISIL capital (Raqqa) without any help from the Assads, Russia or anyone else.
Turkish relations with Europe are better, mainly because Turkey hosts over three million Syrian refugees and has been keeping the deal it made with Europe to prevent those refugees from heading for Europe via Turkey. In return the Europeans pay Turkey billions of dollars a year.
Then there is the Iranian situation. Iran wants to turn Syrian into a “protectorate” where Iran will establish military bases and organize a Shia militia similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. No one besides Iran is particularly fond of this plan, even current Iranian allies Turkey and Russia. The Iraq government, despite, being controlled by Iraqi Shia Arabs, does not want to submit to any form of Iranian control and Israel has made it clear it will fight rather than allow Iran to set up shop in Syria.
Israel Will Not Be Moved
Israel remains openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Turkey quietly agrees and Russia is seeking opportunities for itself but seems to dislike the Iranian long range plan. Israel is quite blunt about describing Iran as replacing ISIL as the new threat to just about everyone. Russia sometimes supports that openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government. Meanwhile Iran keeps moving in.
Iran and Russia have both signed deals with the Assads to establish military (mainly naval) bases in Syria. Iran and Russia are doing this for different reasons. Russia has always wanted a secure Mediterranean naval base. Iran wants bases in Syria because Iran has openly called for the destruction of Israel since the 1980s and is now seeking leadership of the Islamic world and control of Mecca and Medina.
It is possible for Russia and Israel to continue working together, as they have done since Israel was created in the late 1940s. Even during the communist period (that ended in 1991 along with the Soviet Union) Russia often worked closely with Israel while also courting Arab states that wanted Israel to disappear. Russia continues this policy of maintaining multiple alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region. Give the Russians credit, they are getting away with it.
And then there are the Sunni Arab states, who want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. As part of this the Arab Gulf states are moving closer to an open alliance with Israel. That includes diplomatic relations and dropping the decades of Arab sponsored boycott against Israel. A major reason for these changes is the need to prevent Iran from establishing a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries and see the current Iranian strategy as eventually taking down Turkey (for being Sunni and an ancient rival) and Russia (for not being Moslem and defeating Iranian attempts to expand in the 19th and 20th centuries). But at the same time Russia and Turkey will play Israel and Iran off against each other to do what is best for Russia or Turkey.
Although Iran backed Hezbollah in Lebanon is increasingly active in the media about how soon its next war with Israel will happen, the reality is somewhat different. Israeli wargames and monitoring of attitudes in Lebanon (among Hezbollah supporters and the majority of Lebanese who are hostile or neutral) indicates that another Hezbollah war now would be unlikely. At the moment Hezbollah military power is crippled by losses in Syria and the continued deployment of about a third of their available forces there. In addition a significant number of veteran personnel are working in Iraq and Yemen supporting local pro-Iran Shia militias. More Hezbollah personnel will be heading back to Gaza now that Hamas has resumed its alliance with Iran.
But in the long term (the 2020s) Iran is building something that threatens Israel in a big way. By establishing military bases in Syria and organizing a branch of Hezbollah in Syria Iran has legal justification for stationing Iranian troops in Syria. Unless Israel interferes Iran could rebuild the Syrian military, especially the Syrian ballistic missile stockpile. Iran would have time (and money) to deal with the financial problems that are crippling Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus by the mid-2020s Iran would be in a much stronger position for attacking Israel. That would include the new Israeli natural gas fields off the coast near the Lebanese border.
The UN has told Israel that UNIFIL (the 12,000 UN peacekeeper force on the Israeli border) will now be more assertive on dealing with violations on the Lebanese or Syrian side of the border. Even the UN has to acknowledge that Iranian plans for Syria, and the use of Hezbollah in Syria, is a threat to peace. Yet the UN still refuses to declare Hezbollah an international terrorist organization, despite the fact that Hezbollah has been caught carrying out terrorist operations in several foreign countries and openly calls for the destruction of Israel. The U.S. and a number of other nations have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization but the UN refuses to do so. The UNIFIL force has been in place since 1978 and was expanded after the 2006 war. It will probably expand again after any peace deal in Syria. The question will the new UN resolve to make UNIFIL do its job be sustained.
Russia continues having problems with Israel over where Iranian forces can go in Syria. Russia is enforcing the “no-fly” aspect of the “de-escalation” and ceasefire zones that are being set up in parts of Syria that rebels have lost control of. This includes parts of the Israeli border (the Golan Heights) and Hezbollah leaders can’t help themselves and boast to the media that Hezbollah has thousands of troops on the Golan Heights border and more are moving in daily. This issue becomes a news item every few weeks because that’s how often Russian and Israeli officials meet to discuss mutual concerns about what is going on in Syria and to ensure that Russian and Israeli forces avoid firing on each other. Israeli air attacks still take place in these ceasefire zones but less frequently than outside these zones. The main problem is that Israel detects Hezbollah and Iranian forces using the “ceasefire” zones, has compiled evidence and is pressuring Russia to stop supporting these ceasefire zones. Israel has said it will attack any Iranian forces (especially Hezbollah) that get within 40-80 kilometers of the Israeli border. Currently Russia says it will only agree to five kilometers and implies that Russian warplanes and air defense systems will side with Iran if there is a problem. That has not been the case so far as long as Israel restricts its airstrikes to some limited list of items Israel and Russia have informally agreed on. This is not working for Israel because five kilometers is close enough for Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias to fire mortar shells and portable rockets into Israel.
Since July Russia and the United States have agreed with Israeli concerns about Iran setting up bases in Syria and Lebanon. This is another way of saying Russia and the U.S. will not try to block Israeli attacks against Iranian forces getting too close to the Israeli border or Iranian efforts to establish new facilities in Syria and Lebanon. Russia does not want to put this to the test and understand that Israel has more at stake here than anyone else. In other words, nothing has changed and Iran has been officially reminded that they are on their own when they threaten Israel.
Russia and the Syrian government realize that Iran intends to control a post-war Syria and attempt to turn it into a Shia majority nation (via forced conversions and expulsions of stubborn Sunnis). That would make the Assads totally dependent on and subservient to Iran, something that most Assad supporters are not in favor of. But defying Iran does not appear to be a practical option because the most effective troops the Assads have are the 20,000 or so Iranian supplied Shia mercenaries. Israel is also aware, as are Russians, Turks, the Assads and nearly all Syrians, that Iranian efforts to take control of Syria are unwelcome. Since Iran is currently run by a religious dictatorship any opposition in Syria must be overcome because Iran is on a Mission From God and not to be interfered with. The Iranians, as far as everyone but Iran is concerned, are simply replacing one brand of Islamic fanaticism with another as ISIL power is extinguished in Syria.
October 8, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL counterattacked the Assad forces that had entered Mayadin city two days earlier and the government troops retreated to about six kilometers outside the city to await reinforcements while Russian warplanes bomb ISIL troops in the area. Iran fired ballistic missiles at Mayadin in June and Russia may fire more cruise missiles at the city as well.
Mayadin is on the Euphrates River, between Deir Ezzor city (the provincial capital) and the Iraq border. Peacetime population is about 45,000 but since ISIL took control in 2013 many natives have fled and been replaced by ISIL members, refugees and foreigners. ISIL is believed to have moved its headquarters from Raqqa to Mayadin over the last few months, in part because Mayadin was about 44 kilometers from Deir Ezzor city and closer to the Iraq border, where thousands of ISIL fighters and families were fleeing the recent defeats in Mosul. Tal Afar and Hawija. ISIL no longer controls any cities or large towns in Iraq. In addition Iraqi forces are clearing ISIL forces from the Iraq side of the Iraq-Syria border. This makes it possible for Iran to establish their Iran-Lebanon highway even though U.S. backed forces block use of the most direct route via the Tanf crossing near the Jordan border. ISIL has ordered its remaining forces to concentrate in the Euphrates River Valley on the Syrian side of the border.
ISIL had told its supporters in Iraq to head for Raqqa via the Euphrates River valley and Mayadin became a destination. At this point was largely occupied by the Kurdish SDF forces. There are only a few hundred ISIL gunmen left in Raqqa and they are confined to a small portion of the city. SDF commanders expect this last ISIL remnant to be gone with within a few days. At that point the SDF has to decide what to do about the next obstacle, the Syrian Army around Mayadin.
Mayadin and Deir Ezzor city became a major goal for the approaching Assad forces. Syrian forces had been fighting their way towards Deir Ezzor city for months and Mayadin was an intermediate target. ISIL had controlled Deir Ezzor province since 2014 and retaking the province has the main goal of the Assad forces in eastern Syria for over a year.
In Raqqa SDF forces announced they were starting their final operation to wipe out the last ISIL fighters in the city and that this should over by mid-October.
In the north (Idlib province) Turkish engineers removed portions of the new border wall so several thousand Turkish troops and their vehicles could quickly enter Syria to assist the Turkey backed FSA rebels to attack the last Islamic terrorist (Tahir al Sham/al Nusra) strongholds in the province. The Islamic terrorist rebels have been growing weaker from constant defeats and retreats but not so weak that they could not get some men to the site of the new border crossing and open fire on the Turks working on that. In response Turkish troops opened fire with machine-guns and mortars and the hostile rebels withdrew. The Turkish troops are expected to enter Syria eventually but the Turkish government appears eager to delay that as long as possible or even avoid sending in reinforcements at all.
At the same time the Turks could be seen building watchtowers along the 911 kilometers long wall along the Syrian border.
October 7, 2017: Turkey announced that it had begun a major military effort to clear Idlib province, which borders Turkey, of all terror groups, especially PKK, YPG (both Kurdish groups), ISIL, al Nusra and so on. The Turkish advance would be led by Syrian FSA rebels.
October 6, 2017: There has been a lot more activity in the east (the Euphrates River Valley) recently as Assad forces moved to capture the nearby city of Mayadin and actually got troops inside the city today. ISIL forces in the area responded aggressively to this.
Elsewhere in the east (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike hit a convoy of Syrian government forces (and Iran backed Shia mercenaries) who had moved too close to the U.S. controlled Tanf border crossing. This airstrike killed seven and wounded sixteen and occurred two days after these forces came closer than 55 kilometers to Tanf. The Americans had an arrangement with Russia that if anyone came closer than 55 kilometers the U.S. would first call the Russians (on a special hotline) to warn them that the Americans would attack the intruders. Apparently the Russians could not get the Iran-backed forces to retreat and the U.S. struck. Airstrikes like this have occurred since late May despite repeated warning to the Russians to persuade their allies (the Assads and Iran) to remove forces from the area. The first airstrike (May 20) was carried out because a convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and the Tanf base near the Iraq border. The Iranian mercenaries (Hezbollah and Shia from other nations) militia did not try to advance again for a while.
In response to the American air strike the Russians accused the U.S. of allowing ISIL and other Islamic terrorists to take shelter in the Tanf “no-go” zone and from there make attacks outside that zone. No evidence of this has been presented but the Russians have to say something that won’t offend their Iranian ally.
Tanf is the Syrian side of the main border crossing for the Baghdad-Damascus highway. This is the Syrian Homs province and American special operations forces, working with Iraqi Sunni tribal militias, have occupied the Tanf area since mid-2016. ISIL forces were still in the area and the American presence provided information on targets for air strikes. The air attacks were mainly against ISIL targets, who were much hated by the local Sunni tribes. But since early 2017 ISIL has been replaced by the Shia threat. Iran backed Iraqi Shia militias have been kept way from the Iraq side of the border by American pressure on the Iraqi government. So Iran has used its Assad, Hezbollah and Shia mercenaries to try and force the Americans out of Tanf and Syria in general. The U.S. wants to keep Iran backed forces away from the Iraq-Syria border to prevent Iran from established a road link from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon. The Tanf crossing is also near the Jordan border. The U.S. is not interfering with Assad efforts to take control of Homs and Deir Ezzor provinces, which contain most of the Iraq-Syria border. To the north is Kurdish controlled Hasakah province which borders Iraq and Turkey and has been quiet lately. That may change if Turkey, Iran and the Assads can agree on how and when to take back control.
October 5, 2017: September was the bloodiest month so far this year with about 3,000 killed. A third of the dead were civilians and most of the rest were ISIL. As bad as that was for ISIL and other Islamic terrorist rebels they apparently took heavier losses from desertion. Total deaths for the Syrian civil war are nearly 400,000 over six years of fighting. That’s nearly two percent of the 2011 population. Meanwhile about 20 percent of the population has fled the country. Most want to return home but the Assads will resist that because most of those who fled the country were Sunni. Syria has long been run by the non-Sunni minorities so the fewer Sunnis the better. The same for Iraq and Lebanon. Turkey does not like Arabs in general and Jordan has kept most Syrians out and would prefer those it has to leave when the war is over.
October 4, 2017: In central Syria (eastern Hama province) the Assad government claimed it had defeated the last ISIL fighters in that area and now controlled the entire province. That’s not entirely true because there are still a few towns and villages held by non-ISIL rebels but as a practical matter the government controls Hama for the first time since 2013. Located south of Aleppo and astride several main roads (to Damascus and to the coast) Hama has been the scene of constant fighting since 2012. In part that’s because neighboring Latakia province is a major center of government support as a result of being largely Alawites (Shia) and where the Assad clan comes from. Latakia contains the Syrian coastline on the Mediterranean. The last two months of heavy fighting in eastern Hama province left over a thousand dead, most of them rebels, most of them Islamic terrorists from ISIL or al Qaeda affiliated groups.
October 3, 2017: In the north (Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey) a Russian airstrike badly wounded Abu Mohammad al Jolani, a senior leader of a rebel faction allied with al Qaeda. Jolani was meeting with his subordinates and the air strike killed or injured twelve of them as well as about fifty bodyguards. Jolani apparently had an arm blown off and was in critical condition. Jolani was one of the founders and senior leaders of al Nusra. This group evolved into a larger coalition (Tahir al Sham) which is now leading the rebel effort to hold onto some of Idlib province while trying to keep the rebels from fighting each other. With Jolani out of action (temporarily or permanently) the rebel resistance becomes much weaker. Already some rebel groups have accused Tahir al Sham of making a deal to give most of Idlib province to Turkey and the Assads in return for certain favors. Such deals are being offered by the government and some rebel factions have been willing to talk.
Since March 2017 Tahir al Sham has been fighting to gain control over all of Idlib province from pro-government factions. Tahir al Sham managed to push Ahrar al Sham and their pro-Turkish allies out of Idlib city and much of the surrounding area. Idlib province is one area that was still largely controlled by rebels until recently but the rebels are mostly Islamic terrorist groups and that means they have a hard time determining who is in charge. There is a lot of dissention among Islamic terrorist rebels because of the recent defeats and most of these groups have lost more than half their strength in 2017 from combat losses, desertions and a lack of new recruits.
In early 2017 Ahrar al Sham tried to convince the Turks and the Americans that their battle was with the Syrian government, not other rebels. Al Qaeda pretends to do that but has not been convincing. In Syria the main al Qaeda presence is now Tahir al Sham, which is still the largest rebel coalition and composed mainly of Islamic terrorist groups. In January it expanded to include four new member groups and adopted a new name; Tahir al Sham. This was the second name change since July 2016 when the Al Nusra rebel coalition renounced any connection with al Qaeda, adopted a new name (Jabhat Fatah al Sham) and declared it was now simply a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, was full of devout Moslems who really wanted to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” (and not to be bombed). But the Americans still considered al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders have admitted publicly that the al Nusra split was temporary. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. Even before mid-2016 al Nusra tried to distance itself from ISIL and began openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. As recently as late 2016 more than half the Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels belonged to groups hostile to ISIL and most of these are controlled or allied with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah rebels.
Elsewhere in central Syria ISIL claims it executed one of the two Russian soldiers it captured in September. The problem is that Russians say the two men are not exactly soldiers. One of them has been identified as Grigory Tsurkanov. He is an active member of a very pro-Russian government Cossack military veterans group. Apparently the two captives belong to one of the several military contractor firms Russia employs to provide experienced military personnel in Syria to supplement active duty Russian troops. It is an open secret that the 38 Russian military personnel killed in Syria since 2015 does not include contractor personnel and if contractor casualties were counted the number of Russian dead in Syria would be 50-100. In late September Russia revealed that a Russian general had been killed while advising Assad forces in Deir Ezzor province. Before coming to Syria that general had commanded Russian troops on the Ukraine border (and apparently inside eastern Ukraine as well).
October 2, 2017: In central Syria (Homs province) someone used an air launched missile to kill seven or more Hezbollah fighters recently and Hezbollah is trying to blame it on the Americans. But the U.S. insists, with some credibility, that it wasn’t them and they have video of all UAV strikes and other records confirming where U.S. aircraft were. So do the Russians. Besides missiles leave behind lots of identifiable components after they detonate and Hezbollah has no fresh Hellfire (or other U.S. missile) fragments to offer. What is apparently happening here is there was a “friendly fire” airstrike on Hezbollah forces recently and that usually means Russian or Syrian aircraft. There have been a few of these since 2015 and Hezbollah does not like the bad publicity, mainly because about 1,500 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since 2012 and even more disabled by wounds. These losses have been very bad for Hezbollah popular support in Lebanon and trying to pin it on the Americans was apparently worth a try.
September 30, 2017:
Turkey threatened Israel for its alleged support of Kurdish independence. This comes after the September 25th referendum in autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq where 92 percent of the voters approved of efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This vote was largely to get some publicity for the Kurds and it did. The outcome was no surprise and neither was the outrage from the nations (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) where the regions’ 40 million Kurds live. These nations will go to war to prevent a Kurdish state. Meanwhile Turkey and Iran used the “Kurdish threat” as an excuse to appear on good terms and make some more security and trade deals. Turkish trust in Iran is another illusion as is the Russian alliance with Iran.
September 29, 2017: Satellite photos confirm that Russia has brought in a second S-400 air defense battery. These SAM (surface to air missile) units are guarding Russian bases near the coast but because of the coastal mountains the radars cannot detect low flying aircraft or UAVs (like American cruise missiles) on the other side of the mountains. There appear to have been some other shortcomings with the Russian air defense systems deployed to Syria.
September 28, 2017: In Damascus two suicide bombers attacked a police station killing themselves and ten civilians and police. Such attacks are rare now, but they still occur and will continue to do so for some time (over a year at least).
September 26, 2017: Iran
announced it was going to finance a billion dollar oil refinery in Syria. Enough oil is produced there to keep such a facility going (to produce vehicle fuel and other refined products like heating oil and kerosene.) Earlier in 2017 Russia and Iran agreed to rehabilitate Syrian oil and gas production facilities.
September 25, 2017: Turkey has extended for another year the presence of small Turkish bases and military forces in northern Iraq and northwestern Syria. These are there to help deal with Islamic terrorism and Kurdish separatists (PKK in Iraq, YPG in Syria). In both cases these Turkish bases have been mainly used to fight ISIL over the last year.
September 24, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Russian airstrikes have hit SDF forces again. American troops often accompany SDF troops (as advisors and to call in air strikes) and because of that the U.S. has advised the Russians to leave SDF forces alone.
September 23, 2017: In west central Syria (Homs province) another Israeli Arab was killed while fighting for ISIL. At least fifty Israeli Arabs are known to have joined ISIL and most appear to have died in Syria or otherwise disappeared from view (or at least contact with their families back in Israel).
September 22, 2017: Israel was blamed for a night airstrike that destroyed weapons storage sites near the airport. Israel declined to comment and rarely does except to admit that it does regularly make these attacks to prevent advanced tech weapons from getting to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
September 19, 2017:
In the south a large (apparently Iranian) UAV was spotted close to the Israeli border and was shot down by the Israelis using a Patriot missile. The wreckage was apparently in Syria because the UAV was brought down in Syrian air space just before it would have crossed the border into Israel. Since the Iranians control much of the Syrian side of the border there was no comment from them.
September 18, 2017: Russia has been accused of deliberately launching airstrikes on civilian targets. This comes after several hospitals in rebel held areas were hit. Russia contends that the rebels often base fighters, headquarters and military supplies in hospitals.
September 15, 2017: Russia, Turkey and Iran announced the creation of more de-escalation zones in Syria. The zones now include areas outside Damascus as well as parts of Homs, Latakia, Idlib and Hama provinces, outside Aleppo and along the Israeli border. But the fighting in these areas (except for Latakia) increased as the government forces sought to assert control and the rebels, especially the ISIL and al Qaeda affiliated groups not only resisted but often launched counterattacks.