There is general agreement that the rebels have lost the seven year civil war but the fighting is far from over and several major unresolved issues remain. In the northeast, there are the remaining non-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) Islamic terror groups (over 20,000 fighters) that are currently surrounded in Idlib province. Turkey is trying to broker a deal to disarm and demobilize them. Many in the region find that improbable if not impossible.
In the southeast there a few thousand armed ISIL members fighting to the death. This is seen as an inspiration to some of the Islamic terrorists trapped in Idlib. No one is making deals with these fanatics and their only options are surrender or death.
In the northwest, there are the Syrian Kurds, who are seeking an autonomy deal from the Assads. That is violently opposed by Turkey, which is risking its NATO membership as it tries to force out two thousand American troops who advise and assist the Syrian Kurds and then eliminate armed Kurds in the area.
In the south there are the Iranians, seeking to build bases and establish pro-Iran forces on the Israeli border. Iran and Israel are actually at war and Iran has been losing. Iran does not like to lose but is trapped by its own decades old “Israel must be destroyed” rhetoric. Iran is also at war with America and Sunni Arabs in general. Iran’s allies in Syria (Russia, Turkey and the Assads) prefer to avoid these other conflicts Iran has created.
The Assads also have lots of problems restoring law and order to Syria. The war killed over half a million people (most of them Syrian civilians) and drove a third of the population into exile. There are dozens of pro-Assad Syrian militias that have to be demobilized. Since many of these militias exist mainly to protect a specific part of Syria (where the militia members and their families come from) there will be a reluctance to demobilize until it is safe. Then there is the economy, which is a mess. GDP is about half what it was in 2011 and limping along because of economic aid from Iran.
Israel accuses Hezbollah of hiring about 2,000 unemployed (or at least unpaid) FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels to secretly switch sides. There still plenty of FSA rebels in nearby Daraa Province were a mix of secular FSA groups and Islamic terrorist factions still exist, quietly so as not to attract attention. 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 Assad June 2018 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). Apparently, Hezbollah is going to maintain control of their new FSA employees by carrying out bloody reprisals against any of the new hires who demonstrate divided or insufficient loyalty.
Threats, Warnings and Misunderstandings
Israel is warning Lebanon and Iraq that Iranian use of their territory to upgrade unguided rockets with GPS guidance kits will result in Israeli airstrikes to destroy those operations unless local governments act. Lebanon is more of a problem because of its relationship with Iran and Syria. Hezbollah, a 1980s creation of Iran, is an autonomous military force in Lebanon and dominates local politics via terror and threats of violence against those who resist. Hezbollah, like its patron Iran, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Iran is currently trying to turn Syria and Iraq into subject states similar to Lebanon. Most Syrians and Iraqis want to avoid this but it isn’t easy because Iran is clever, determined and fanatic about the “destroy Israel” thing. What complicates the situation in Syria is that there a lot of major players.
Although Russia, Turkey and Iraq are technically allied with Iran in Syria the historical record shows Iran is historically hostile, and often at war, with these nations and that has been the case for centuries, long before Israel came along in 1948. What makes the unusual alliance possible is that everyone can agree on the need to get rid of the remaining Islamic terrorist rebel groups in Syria. Most of these are currently surrounded in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. There are some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups hiding out in eastern Syria but these are seen as much less of a threat than the tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Despite the remaining Islamic terrorist threat in Syria, everyone in and bordering Syria would like to see the Iranians go back to Iran and stay there. The few hundred Iranian troops and over 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria are seen as a constant source of trouble. Iran realizes that their allies in Syria have, and will probably continue, to collaborate with Israel if an opportunity presents itself. Yet Iranian leaders fail to see the absurdity of this situation and despite the widespread popular protest in Iran against the Syrian operations the Iranian leaders continue to operate like its forces in Syria are on the verge of destroying Israel.
Turkey is increasingly unsure about its alliance with Russia. Turkeys’ decades of membership in NATO has given Turks a different, and more professional, military experience than their Russian and Iranian counterparts. For that reason, the Turks have attempted to run their own operation along the Syrian border and most of their disputes were with fellow NATO members, mainly the Americans. With the Russians, the Turks are concerned about the Russian tendency to fantasize, especially when it comes to tech. The Russians and the Iranians have a tendency to announce new military gear that does not perform as advertised. This is particularly the case with weapons sold to Arab nations. The Russians have been doing this since the 1950s and found the Arabs are even more into self-serving fantasy than the Russians. The latest example is the recent delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Syria. The arrival of these S-300s was officially prompted by a September incident when, in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli airstrike, a Syrian S-200 SAM (Surface to Air missile) shot down a Russian four-engine Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft off the coast. Russia blamed Israel and Turkey kept quiet because the Turks knew what happened and were appalled that the Russians would not recognize the problems and try to fix them.
There were three issues the Russians ignored. First, the Israeli warplanes were back in Israel when the Il-20 was shot down. Second, the Syrians frequently launch lots of SAMs right after an Israeli airstrike even through Syrian radars provide no evidence of where any Israeli warplanes are. The Syrian air defense commanders fire lots of missiles to show that they are “doing something” even though they never manage to shoot down any Israeli warplanes. Third, the Syrians and Russians are supposed to have an IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) system whereby Russian aircraft carry an IFF transmitter that will tell Syrian SAMs (or SAM unit commanders) that the Russian aircraft is “friendly” and not to be fired on.
Russia and Syria imply that the Israelis somehow deceived Russian and Syrian equipment and were at fault for the Il-20 loss. The Turks know better, and so do many Russian and Syrian officers. But the official line for Russians and Syrians is that the Israelis are somehow responsible and don’t bother us with reality because that’s not how we roll. By bringing in the more advanced and powerful S-300 systems and giving them to the same Syrians who cannot handle S-200s correctly what can one expect? Nothing good, especially since the Russians are also bringing in more of their EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment and promise to use it. This bothers the Turks because the Russian EW gear is often quite powerful but also tends to produce unexpected (and unfavorable) results in a combat zone. This puts Turkish aircraft and troops at greater risk and also sets the Russians and Syrians up for even more embarrassment. That also makes Russian assurances of how they will aid the Turks in dealing with the last rebel stronghold in Syria (Idlib province) more of a risk. The Turks have always considered the Syrians unreliable and unpredictable and were hoping the Russians would be an improvement. Improving is not what Russia does these days. Mostly it is improvising and that is a riskier and more uncertain approach to anything. Meanwhile, the Israelis are quietly continuing to launch airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah operations in Syria. At the end of October, the Russians admitted that they were still training the Syrian S-300 crews.
Iran is finding less consideration and cooperation from its allies in Syria. Russia, Turkey and the Assad government see the continuing Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria as a matter between Israel and Iran. The obsession with destroying Israel is seen as an Iranian weakness. Discussions continue on how Russia, Iran and Turkey will operate in Syria once the civil war is officially over. Iran insists that it will still be in Syria at that point. Syria is negotiating peace deals with Kurds (who control the northeast), Druze (who occupy much of the Israeli-Jordan border) and Sunni groups (tribal leaders and local leaders who have not been hostile). Syria also sees itself in trouble with the Turks, who appear to be doing whatever they like in the north.
Syria wants to attract a lot of foreign aid for reconstruction but that is complicated by Turkish operations in the north and Iranian plans to establish a permanent military presence and continue threatening Israel. Several members of the Assad clan are facing war crimes charges and Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan want to send back several million Sunni Arab refugees (which the Assads do not want). The war will not end quickly or in a tidy fashion.
November 2, 2018: In the east (Raqqa) Sheikh Bashir Faisal Al Huwaidi, a prominent local Sunni tribal leader was assassinated by a gunman armed with a silencer equipped pistol. ISIL took credit even though this is not how ISIL carries out assassinations. This killing was celebrated by Assad controlled media because Huwaidi had long been hostile to the Assads, as well as ISIL. Yet his family points out that Huwaidi was willing to work with the Assads as well as ISIL. He remained in Raqqa throughout the ISIL occupation and ISIL had plenty of opportunities to kill him. Family members believe the Kurds (SDF) did it.
Elsewhere in the east ISIL also (Deir Ezzor province) someone (probably ISIL) set off a bomb at a Russian military headquarters on the west bank of the Euphrates River. Seven Russians were killed along with several Syrian soldiers. Some or all of the Russian dead were believed to be contractors.
In the northwest, joint U.S.-Turkish patrols began around Manbij. Back in June, the Kurds agreed to withdraw from Manbij while leaving it under the control of Kurdish and American troops and governed by a local council representing the ethnic population of the town. This eliminates the risk of a clash between American and Turkish forces over Manbij. Turkish forces had been stalled since March in the nearby, and formerly Kurdish controlled, town of Afrin. The Turks wanted to move 100 kilometers to the east and take Manbij (northeast of Aleppo city, 40 kilometers south of the Turkish border and near the west bank of the Euphrates River). But the American backed SDF controls Manbij despite the fact that it is west of the Euphrates. The U.S. said the American troops with SDF in Manbij were staying, mainly because most of the SDF fighters in Manbij are Arabs, not Kurds. SDF is mainly Kurdish but also contained large numbers of Arabs (Moslem and Christian) and other minorities. Moreover, the SDF is composed of militias that were among the first to rebel against the Assads and remained focused on the rebellion and did not get involved with Islamic terrorism (which many Syrian rebels did). The Turks insist that they are going to control the Syrian side of the border from the Euphrates River west to the Mediterranean but have apparently made a deal (“an understanding not an agreement”) with the Americans that will allow the SDF and U.S. forces to remain in Manbij as long as all the SDF fighters in Manbij (and west of the Euphrates) are non-Kurds. This was apparently acceptable to the Kurds because it appears to reinforce their position in northwest Syria. The Turks also made it clear that they intend to clear PKK and Islamic terrorist bases from all areas on the other side of their borders. That would include all of Syria and Iraq as well. But for now, the Turks are depending on the American troops east of the Euphrates to make sure the SDF keeps the Syrian side of the Turkish border secure.
In the northwest (Idlib province) Syrian artillery fired at a village in the neutral zone because of suspected rebel activity (which is not supposed to take place in the neutral zone). The shelling left eight dead and over 20 wounded, most of them civilians. Some of the rebel factions in Idlib do not agree with the ceasefire agreement and continue carrying out attacks, especially against Assad forces.
October 31, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) SDF forces halted their offensive against an ISIL stronghold near Hajin city and the Iraqi border. In response Iraq sent over 20,000 more soldiers and militiamen to the Syrian border, especially the area near Hajin. The Iraqi reinforcements included artillery units that, using UAVs or helicopters as spotters, could hit ISIL targets in Syria that are 10 kilometers or more from the border. This is to discourage the ISIL forces from trying to establish themselves too close to the Iraqi border. The ISIL forces near Hajin are the last organized group of ISIL fighters in Syria and have been putting up stubborn resistance to the SDF. Further north Turkey has been firing on SDF forces near the Turkish border. Today Turkish artillery fire killed four YPG fighters and wounded another four. The Americans have not been able to get the Turks to stop this. The Turks say they are firing on the YPG faction of SDF. While SDF is largely Kurd most of the Syrian Kurds have not been active supporters of Kurdish separatism. The Syrian Kurds in YPG are active separatists and the Turks consider them a branch of the larger PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) and there is some truth to that because the Assads supported any Islamic or Kurdish terrorist groups that would carry out attacks against the Turks and not reveal the support (often just sanctuary) they received from Syria. The Turks were well informed about this Assad policy and would occasionally move troops to the border and threaten to invade unless the Assads reduced their support for anti-Turk groups.
October 29, 2018: Israel admitted that it continues to carry out airstrikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets. Since Septembers 17 (when a Syrian SAM shot down a Russian recon plane off the coast in the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike) most of the news has been about Russia sending Syria free S-300 SAM batteries (which are still not operational) and openly blaming Israel for the loss of the recon aircraft and its 15 member crew. Israel rarely comments on these airstrikes, at least not soon after they occur or not until someone else (Syria, Iran or Russia) complains. None of these nations mentioned (much less complained of) recent Israeli airstrikes but the news eventually gets out as the aftermath of these airstrikes is very visible and not hidden.
October 28, 2018: Turkish artillery began firing across the border at SDF forces in or near Manbij (east of the Euphrates River) and west of the river Kobane, Qahtaniyah and Tal Abyad. The firing continued until November 2nd. The artillery fire on targets from the Euphrates River east to the Iraqi border indicates Turkish willingness to invade the Kurdish northeast. That appears unlikely because the Kurds would be difficult to defeat and the Turks do not want a lot of Turkish soldiers killed in such an operation. The Turks have ordered about a thousand of their FSA (former secular Syrian rebels) to prepare for action east of the Euphrates River.
October 27, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), hundreds of ISIL fighters, taking advantage of a sandstorm, attacked SDF forces and inflicted over nearly 200 casualties. Many of the SDF units retreated, giving up areas they had recently (September 10th) driven ISIL from. The ISIL forces have taken higher losses but that is partly attributable to the fact that most of them expect to die and many wear an explosive vest into combat so that they can blow themselves up if they get close to the enemy or are in danger of being captured.
Turkey hosted a meeting with leaders from Russia, Germany and France to seek a solution for the problem in northwest Syria where Idlib province holds that last concentration of Islamic terrorist rebels and although a peace deal had been worked out a few thousand of the most radical Islamic terrorists refuse to cooperate. Meanwhile, countries must be found that will accept the less radical Islamic terrorists who have agreed to leave peacefully. It goes without saying that there are few (actually no) countries willing to accept these Islamic radicals. This meeting confirmed that the Assads had defeated the rebels and now everyone could turn towards what to do with the wreckage of post-war Syria.
After the meeting, Russia revealed that its forces at the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase had shot down at least fifty small UAVs that had approached the base and accused (without evidence) that the Americans were behind some of those attacks (which Islamic terror groups in Idlib take credit for). The Hmeimim airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim. Russia does not consider these “defensive airstrikes” part of preparations for retaking Idlib but if those airstrikes are increased and Syrian troops are nearby it is an offensive because the Syrians or Iranian mercenaries will advance.
October 24, 2018: Israel revealed that it had refused Russian demands that Russia be notified about all Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
October 18, 2018: Russia announced that five days earlier ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had kidnapped 700 civilians in northeast Syria, an area controlled by the U.S. backed Syrian Kurds. The Kurds and their American advisors could find no evidence of this.
October 15, 2018: The Syrian government officially reopened two border crossings; one with Jordan (closed since 2015) and one with Israel on the Golan Heights (closed since 2014). Border crossings with Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq are also being reopened.
October 16, 2018: In the east across the border in Iraq (Anbar province), ISIL attacked a home in the border town of al Qaim killing one civilian and wounding another. Elsewhere in the area an ISIL roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded two others. Qaim is also a major border crossing into Syria. Iraqi troops drove ISIL out of the Qaim in late 2017. ISIL held onto Qaim as long as it could because it was a key link in the main road from Mosul to Raqqa. This area was the scene of increasingly frequent and effective air strikes in 2017 using accurate information supplied by locals who had been occupied by ISIL since 2014. The continued ISIL violence comes from groups of ISIL Islamic terrorists hiding out in eastern Syria. While Iraq is largely united and has large and effective security forces Syria is still in the midst of a civil war and much of the country is still unruly, especially the east. This is largely the Euphrates River Valley (where most of the locals live) and the border areas (where Islamic terrorists with cash, guns and attitude can survive). ISIL had already prepared some rural areas along the border with tunnels and hidden bunkers stocked with supplies. These are now bases for remaining ISIL gunmen.