The end of the war leaves Syria and Lebanon dangerously different. This is because of population shifts and the growing animosity between Sunnis and Shia because of the civil war and the intervention of Iran and its Shia mercenaries (mainly from Lebanon and Afghanistan). Iran motivated the mercenaries with cash and a cause, to protect the Shia minority of Syria from annihilation. Iran encouraged its mercenaries to go after Sunnis in general, not just the ones belonging to Islamic terror groups, especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Since 2011 over six million Syrians have been forced to leave Syria because of the war. 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 70 percent in 2011 to 58 percent. 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. The Assads deliberately attacked Sunni civilians and encouraged them to flee the country. The Assads are willing to offer an autonomy deal with the Kurds in part because they are mainly Sunni and, like their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraq, not fanatic about their religion (like the Arab Sunnis are). In 2018 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 their 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.
Most of the rebels were 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 for the Shia minority they represent. But 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 two million 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.
The Troika Totters
The alliance between Russia, Iran, and Turkey is coming apart because all three nations have different goals even though the three have been cooperating with the Assad government since 2015 to win and end the war. The Russian term for this triple alliance is troika, which also refers to the three horse team Russians used for large sleighs when there was snow everywhere. Troikas can be difficult to manage and the one in Syria is in real danger of coming apart. With the rebels no longer a major threat to the Assad government each of these three allies are more interested in their own objectives in Syria. For Russia, it is to maintain its two bases their and that is only possible if the Assad government (which granted the use of an airbase and port facilities) survives. Iran is in Syria to keep the Assads in power so Iran can mass forces there to attack and destroy Israel. Turkey is mainly there to destroy Turkish and Syrian Kurdish separatist groups, as well as any Islamic terrorists that are seen as a threat to Turkey. To accomplish this Turkey wants to clear all Kurdish separatists and from the Syrian side of the border and turn that “security zone” over to the FSA (a Syrian rebel group that not works for the Turks).
All three of these unlikely allies have run into different, although sometimes interrelated, problems with achieving their goals. The Russians want an end to the seven years of fighting and are now in conflict with Iranian plans to attack Israel. Russia and Israel have long been on good terms and the Russians want to keep it that way. Iran doesn’t really care much what the Turks do in the north and are more concerned with their growing (and so far failed) effort to do some damage to Israel. Russia is trying to convince Iran that the Israelis are really, really serious about getting Iranian forces out of Syria. Israel demands this. Turkey agrees with it and the Assads would prefer that.
It is generally accepted (and Syria even admits it) that Iran does have thousands of trainers, advisors, technicians and other support specialists in Syria to make the Syrian Army and their Iranian allies (mainly Shia mercenaries recruited by Iran and controlled by Iranian trainers and advisors) a formidable force. The chatter from Iran (Internet postings or street talk) confirms that and the number of these Iranians were killed. Most of the dead belong to the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Over a hundred IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. But a growing number of non-Quds personnel are dying as Israel attacks Iranian bases in Syria. Quds supervised the creation of the huge (over 50,000) mercenary force in Syria. Quds recruits these foreign Shia (mainly Afghans and Lebanese), trains, arms, equips, supplies and pays them (including death benefits) and usually has Quds (or IRGC) officers leading the mercenary units. Iranian advisors are also embedded with most Syrian Army units. These Quds, IRGC and Iranian army personnel have rotated in and out of Syria since 2012 and when they get home they talk about their experiences and that (usually via friends or kin) gets posted on social media or emailed to friends and kin overseas (usually via encrypted apps like Telegram). All this is great for intel agencies and journalists with contacts in the overseas Iranian community and a knowledge of Farsi (the major Iranian language). As a result, we know that morale in the Syrian army is real bad because the troops are recruited from the minority (no more than 15 percent of the pre-war population) that supports Assad (usually because they are not Sunni Arabs, who comprised 70 percent of Syrians in 2012). These Syrians often go to great lengths to avoid getting conscripted and if they do end up in uniform few are eager to see combat. Thus the Iranian mercenaries are the key to whatever combat capabilities the Assad forces have. This is why the Assads also want Iran to withdraw its forces once all the rebel forces are destroyed, disarmed or otherwise neutralized. Otherwise, the Iranian led mercenaries will be the real power in Syria.
Iran insists it will not officially leave Syria until all the rebels have been defeated (preferably by killing them) and Israel is destroyed. The remaining rebel groups are being destroyed, especially the many that are Sunni Islamic terrorist groups aligned with al Qaeda or ISIL. The Kurds and Americans, with some help from Iraqi forces, are going after the remaining ISIL personnel in eastern and northeastern Syria. The Assads, with the help of Iranian mercenaries and Hezbollah, are clearing areas along the northern and southern borders of remaining rebels. These rebels are non-ISIL groups, many of them aligned with al Qaeda. Many, if not most of these groups have finally united in a new coalition called the NLF (National Liberation Front). This did not make it much more difficult for the Assads to eliminate the remaining rebels because the NLF also opposes Kurdish autonomy (which the Assads will tolerate) the Assads are not facing a very formidable opponent in the NLF. This coalition would have been decisive six years ago but now it is largely meaningless. In the end, the Assads did not win this war but took advantage of the inability of the rebels to unite. The rebels spent a lot of time fighting each other and that alone made it possible for the Assads to survive long enough for Iranian mercenaries and Russian air power to become a decisive factor. Because of the rebel factionalism, no foreign nations could offer decisive support, especially not any Western nation. That’s because so many of the rebel factions were Sunni Islamic terrorists who saw the West as an enemy that Islam must conquer. Moslem nations were in a similar position because most Islamic terror groups see the current government of these Moslem nations as illegitimate.
One thing most everyone can agree on, including most European and Middle Eastern nations, is that Iran should get out of Syria. The Iran dominated (and created) Hezbollah in Lebanon has been around since the 1980s and provides a grim example of what happens when Iran is allowed to maintain a large armed presence in a country. Iran is threatening to establish its forces on the Israeli border and start launching attacks. Israel is preparing for war and a growing number of Israeli allies (especially the United States) are admitting that there is definitely a problem here. Israel’s new Sunni Arab allies are allies because of the mutual Iranian threat. It gets worse in that the current Turkish government has announced that one of its goals is to form an Islamic (presumably Sunni) coalition to destroy Israel. But this is not an immediate threat. One positive development is that most Iranians oppose war with Israel and for the second time since December 2017 there are nationwide anti-government demonstrations in Iran. This time the government has ordered troops to open fire on threatening crowds and some of the demonstrators are now shooting back.
So far this year about half the Hezbollah forced has returned to Lebanon and more are leaving. This is largely because sending Lebanese Shia to fight for Iran and the Assads in Syria was never popular with Lebanese Shia (who are over a third of the Lebanese population and provide the militiamen for the Hezbollah “army’). Hezbollah was created in the 1980s due to massive amounts of Iranian cash, weapons, and training. Hezbollah has been sustained ever since by Iranian aid. Lebanese Shia are uneasy with being dependent on Iran but it does provide the Lebanese Shia with more political power than they have ever had in Lebanon so they have remained loyal. But over the last five years, just about every armed Hezbollah member has served in Syria, often multiple times. Over 12,000 Hezbollah have been killed or wounded in Syria and while Iran provided cash for death benefits and medical care the thousands of visibly crippled Hezbollah Syrian war veterans are a humiliating reminder that Hezbollah is a “servant” of Iran. Even the Iranian advisors with Hezbollah are aware of this attitude and that is why the size of the Hezbollah force in Syria has been reduced by about half so far in 2018. Iran hates giving up the Hezbollah fighters because they are the most effective Iranian mercenaries in Syria and the ones most suited to successfully using Syrian army uniforms and pass as Syrian troops so Iran can establish forces right on the Israel border. Most of the Iranian mercenaries are Afghans, who have a hard time passing for Syrians. There are still about 4,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria but many are assigned to Lebanese border areas where they help enhance the Hezbollah reputation back in Lebanon by visibly keeping Islamic terrorists and other bad people out of Lebanon.
Restoring The M5
With the recent conquest of Daraa province down south, the Assad government not only regained control of the last major rebel-controlled area in the south but also, regained control of the major commercial border crossing with Jordan at Nassib. This enables Syria to resume trade with Jordan and oil-rich nations of Arabia because it now has a government controlled road link from Turkey to Jordan. This is an essential element in reviving the economy in southern Syria. The land route from Europe to Arabia via Turkey and Jordan had, since the 1990s, became a very lucrative business for Syria. It was called the M5 highway and went from the Turkish border, through Aleppo, Hama, Homs and Damascus and became the most heavily used in the country. It may not be lucrative anymore if the hostility between Iran and Sunni Arab states does not diminish.
The restoration of M5 has long been an Assad goal. The M5 ceased to be a major transportation or economic asset by 2012 as various rebel factions took control of sections. That process continued for the next few years. That was reversed starting in late 2016 when the Assads regained control of the northern city of Aleppo. During the first five months of 2017 the Assad forces advanced south on M5 and eventually controlled M5 from the Turkish border south to the city of Homs. It took another year to clear rebels from M5 south to Damascus and then the eastern suburbs of Damascus that that had been under rebel control for years. The rebels were cleared out of the Damascus suburbs by May 2018 and a month later Daraa Province and the Jordan crossing were opened as well. It required two years of fighting and substantial assistance from Russia and Iran to regain control of the M5 and the Assads consider this a major achievement.
While the M5 has economic potential, it has immediate military value because now it is much easier to move troops and supplies from the Syrian coast (which the Assads never lost control of) to Damascus (the capital) in the south or points east. Damascus and the coastal region has always contained a major concentration of military bases and supply stockpiles. Although the Assads now have a highway to the Turkish border that still requires moving through areas still subject to rebel and ISIL activity as well as the Turkish troops and their rebel allies who control the Syrian side of the border. Rebels still control or threaten large areas of eastern Syria, especially the area where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq intersect. In the northeast, there are the American supported Kurds, who are at least willing to negotiate with the Assads (which has been the case throughout the civil war.) With control of the M5 the Assads can now quickly concentrate and supply ground forces against any of the remaining areas that are outside of government control.
July 9, 2018: In the south (Daraa province) over a thousand rebels still hold part of Daraa city, the provincial capital. These rebels don’t trust the Russians to uphold surrender terms. But another reason for holding out is that Daraa City is where the rebellion began in 2011. Now it will most likely end in the northwest (Idlib province) which is where many peace deals have allowed rebels and civilians supporters to go to.
Israel again warned that any attempt to bring military forces into the 1974 UN demilitarized zone (24 kilometers from the Israel-Syrian border) would be considered an act of war and would be met with force from Israel. That zone is filling up with civilian refugees from the recent rebel defeats in Daraa province.
July 8, 2018: Israel apparently carried out another air (and missile) strike on the Syrian T4 airbase. Syria claims to have shot down some of the Israeli missiles and damaged an Israeli warplane. There is no proof of these claims but when one of your largest bases has been recently trashed three times by the Israelis, claiming to have made the attackers suffer sounds good in the press release acknowledging the attack. Israel had carried out similar attacks in February and April. Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel for the first two attacks on Iranian facilities at T4. These threats were not unexpected but so far Iran has not been able to carry out an attack on Israel itself. Iran has been supporting efforts from its allies in Gaza but there has been nothing but failures so far. Israel recently revealed that the Iranian UAV shot down on February 10th as it entered Israeli airspace was armed with explosives. The UAV incident prompted the attack on Iranian UAV bases in Syria. Another reason for the T4 attack was also revealed; Iran had just set up a new air-defense system that might have made a later attack less successful. Meanwhile, the Iranian inability to strike a blow against Israel is making the Iranian radicals (IRGC, Quds) back in Iran look bad at a time when they are under attack for corruption and brutally suppressing widespread protests by Iranians against the misrule of the Iranian radicals and the religious dictatorship the radicals serve. To make matters even worse the radicals campaign against Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states has resulted in the Saudis openly siding with Israel and reveling in the apparent Iranian ability to hurt Israel. All this makes for a dangerous situation as the Iranians are notorious sore losers and far more adept with technology than the Arabs.
July 7, 2018: In the east (Deir Zor province), near the Iraqi border Iraqi (and apparently American) artillery hit three buildings in the Syrian town of Sousa. These buildings were used by ISIL as safe houses and the artillery fire killed the ISIL head of security along with up to twenty other Islamic terrorists, some of them foreigners (not from Iraq or Syria). There is apparently a combined Iraqi/U.S. 155mm artillery unit operating on the Syrian border and firing on targets inside Syria. It is not known if the Iraqis are also using the GPS guided 155mm shells American artillery has used regularly in Iraq and Syria. GPS guided shells would make sense if trying to hit a few buildings and destroy them before the people in them can flee to take shelter.
July 6, 2018: After days of heavy Russian air strikes, rebels in Daraa province accepts the peace terms Russia has offered to guarantee. Since June 19th a major offensive by the Assads had Syrian troops advancing deep rebel areas along the Jordan border, assisted by Russian air strikes. The rebels have not been able to put up much resistance and over 300,000 civilians have fled their homes to avoid the combat. The terms of the peace deal allow rebels, and pro-rebel civilians to either accept Assad rule (and submit to security screening, meaning some time under guard in a camp and subject to punishment if you are deemed disloyal. The other option is to accept safe passage into rebel-controlled areas in northwest Syria. Many of the civilians fear retribution by Syrian secret police if they stay in Syria and are trying to get into Jordan or Israel. Most of these refugees are on the Jordan border but Jordan is not letting any refugees in because they already have a million of them already and allowing anymore in is considered (by most Jordanians) a very bad move. There is a similar attitude in Israel, not because there are too many Arab refugees but because Israel has found that a percentage of any Arab refugees will eventually turn to Islamic terrorism and no one has found a way to avoid that except by keeping the refugees out. The rebels in Daraa Province were a mix of secular FSA (Free Syrian Army) groups and Islamic terrorist factions. The U.S. trained and equipped many of the FSA fighters but eventually withdrew support because of factionalism and general unreliability.
The FSA was a major player early on because it was largely secular and popular with Western nations. By late 2917 it was split with about 10,000 FSA working for the Turks and about 5,000 in the south still fighting the Assads. From 2012 through 2016 FSA was in decline because most Syrian rebels preferred more radical groups like al Qaeda and eventually ISIL. FSA persisted and eventually found a major 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. The Turks can promise FSA fighters support in the northern Syria border zone that is controlled by Turkey and may remain under Turkish control (or “protection”) for some time to come. The Turks want a stable government in Syria that is not hostile towards Turkey. That could include the Assads, or not. At the moment the Assads are under the control of Iran. After its first appearance in 2011 the FSA grew largely by forming a coalition. The basic requirement for FSA membership was opposition to the Assad government and support of democracy (not religious or secular dictatorship) in Syria. About a third of the FSA was in the south and those rebels were more inclined to work with the Americans or even Israel. FSA has long received assistance from the U.S. and Jordan as well but in 2017 the northern faction made it clear that Turkey was their new sponsor and in the south the FSA factions were even more difficult to deal with and the U.S., Jordan and Israel refused to deal with most of the FSA factions in Daraa because of trust issues. When the June offensive began the FSA in Daraa was told there would be no American support because many of the FSA units had proved untrustworthy (especially when it came to selling off military aid for some quick cash).
East of Daraa Province, in Quneitra province an Israeli airstrike hit a Syrian army position near the Israeli border. This was in retaliation for Syrian Army mortar shells landing in Israel during a battle with rebel forces near the border. The Israeli border with Syria is covered by a UN sponsored ceasefire agreement that bars foreign forces from either side of the border and limits the size of Israeli and Syrian forces. The UN peacekeepers are gone from the Syrian side of the border because of the fighting and Israel wants the UN to resume monitoring the ceasefire. The UN is reluctant to do that because Iran appears intent on getting forces to the Israeli border and trying to carry out attacks on Israel. The UN knows that Israel has said it would police the ceasefire zone if the UN was unwilling or unable to do so. That means the border will become a war zone, especially on the Syrian side.
July 4, 2018: In the southwest (Daraa Province) Russian warplanes began an air offensive that would, in the next 24 hours carry out over 600 airstrikes against rebel targets in Daraa, including residential areas, hospitals and food supplies. This was meant to get the deadlocked peace negotiations going again and it worked. The airstrikes ceased three days later as the peace deal went into effect.
Russia made it clear that it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to withdraw completely from Syria. However, Russia still willing to recognize Israeli demands that Iranian forces stay away from the Israel border and that the terms of the 1974 ceasefire on the Israeli border and whose forces can be near the border, be observed.
July 3, 2018: In the southwest, Israel was believed responsible for airstrikes across the border in Daraa province. The targets were military warehouses belonging to the Syrian Army and supply Assad forces and pro-Assad militias. The missiles that hit these warehouses detonated explosives and ammunition stored within and the noise could be heard (and the rising smoke could be seen) far away. Israel has moved more artillery, tank and infantry units to the Syria border.
July 2, 2018: in the southwest, Russia brokers peace talks between Daraa Province rebels and the Assad government.
June 26, 2018: In Iran large demonstrations in the capital (Tehran) continued into their second day, triggered by a collapse in the value of the Iranian currency. People are also protesting the poor state of the economy and most Iranians. Israeli officials issued Farsi (Iranian) language messages on social media pointing out the Iranian government had agreed to spend at least $2.5 billion in 2018 supporting foreign terrorists like the Assads in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Shia rebels in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq. This is in addition to over $14 billion Iran admits it has already spent on supporting the Assads in Syria since 2012. The Iranian protestors need little encouragements as they have been shouting “Down With The Palestinians” and criticism of the Syrian War as well.
June 25, 2018: In Turkey president, Recep Erdogan won the presidential and parliamentary elections yesterday with more than half the vote and the ability to add even more power to the presidential form of government he has introduced over the last decade. Because of the vote, Erdogan will now be president until 2023 and will have more political power to do whatever he wants. At the same time, Erdogan cooperates with Iran in shutting down the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) headquarters and other bases in northeastern Iraq. These PKK facilities are also close to the Iranian border, where less numerous Kurdish separatists often work with the PKK. The Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran have been kept down, often with force, for centuries. This is one of the few things Turkey and Iran agree on. Erdogan recently announced that Turkish air and ground operations against the PKK in northeastern Iraq had led to the deaths of dozens of PKK members, including several senior leaders.
June 23, 2018: In the northeast, near the Iraqi border, another IRGC general (Shahrokh Daiepour) was killed while working with Hezbollah forces. These IRGC officers have been key in making the thousands of Iranian mercenaries (mainly Lebanese and Afghans) the most effective troops available to the Assads. Daiepour was killed in the same area where fifty Iraqis were killed by an Israeli airstrike on the 18th. This area has been much fought over with remaining ISIL forces.
June 22, 2018: In the east (Deir Zor province) Iraqi F-16s attacked a meeting of ISIL leaders in the town of Hajun, near the Iraqi border. ISIL was known to maintain a base there and section bombed consisted of three buildings connected by tunnels. The airstrike appears to have killed over 40 ISIL members including a known courier for ISIL supreme leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi along with the ISIL deputy war minister, police chief and a senior member of the ISIL media department. The rest of the dead were bodyguards and support personnel. This attack was done with the approval of the Assad government and the American led air coalition (which controls the airspace over much of eastern Syria).
Israel spotted pro-Assad militiamen occupying an abandoned UN observation post in the neutral zone established along the Golan Heights at the end of the 1973 war. The Israelis are threatening to remove the militiamen by force. The UN was also trying to get some construction work done at the compound containing the observation tower. The rebels were driven away from this border in 2016 by the Syrian Army, which had regained control of the entire 70 kilometer long border with Israel. Up until 2014 the UN had 1,223 peacekeepers monitoring the Syrian/Israeli border and wanted that force returned. The UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace. From 2014 to 2016 the peacekeepers were only able to operate on the Israeli side of the border.
In the east (Homs province) one Syrian soldier was killed and seven wounded when they were attacked by an American airstrike for getting too close to the American special operations base of Tanf, on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border in Homs province and near the Jordan border. The American forces have the support of some Syrian Sunni tribes that are not friendly to the Assads. In addition, the Americans have some allies on the Iraqi side of the border from other Sunni Arab tribes. Iran has assisted (with its mercenaries) Assad forces in trying to eliminate the Tanf base but these efforts have failed. The Americans have too much airpower and too much aerial and ground surveillance around Tanf. The U.S. has declared a “free fire” zone that means any Assad/Iranian forces getting within 30 kilometers of Tanf are automatically attacked. Iranian and Assad forces rarely test this free-fire zone. They know it works. But west of Tanf there is a lot of rebel-held border areas that the Assad forces can regain control of, as is happening in Daraa province.
June 18, 2018: In eastern Syria, an Israeli airstrike hit an Iraqi pro-Iran PMF unit assisting Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries fighting Syrian rebels. Over fifty Iraqis were killed in the air strike which Israel did not take credit for. Iraq had always maintained that it would not allow Iraqi forces to enter Syria but some pro-Iran PMF units have ignored that. The U.S. later denied any involvement in the air strike while Arab and Israeli media pointed out such an Israeli airstrike would have needed permission from the Russians and Americans. That permission would not have been difficult to obtain.
June 12, 2018: Syrian leader Bashar Assad was seen in a TV interview on an Iran-backed Arab language news channel. Assad confirmed that Russia was given basing rights because Russian air and technical support is crucial to his survival. He said he would consider an Iranian request for basing rights and that Saudi Arabia had offered to replace Iranian financial support of Assad would cut ties with Iran. Assad said he refused to abandon the decades-old relationship (begun by his father) with Iran. Assad admitted that Syria did not have the means to strike back at Israel in response to Israeli air strikes but was silent about Iranian plans to destroy Israel any way they could. Assad also admitted that Russia had a long-term relationship with Israel that Syria had to respect. In short, Assad was keeping his options open even though the Iranians have the most powerful ground forces in Syria.