Syria: What Causes A Lethal Stalemate


January 6, 2023: The Assad family that has run Syria since the 1960s did so by creating a large, loyal and well-organized military force. In 2011 Syrian security forces had over 500,000 personnel (50,000 secret police, 300,000 troops and 100,000 police plus reserves). Most of this force was gone by 2015. Over 70,000 had been killed or badly wounded and over 200,000 deserted, while nearly 100,000 troops were in units that the government is reluctant to send into combat because of loyalty or morale issues. Between 2011 and 2015 over 200,000 armed men have joined the Assads, mostly as local militia. There’s another 100,000 that are, in effect, garrisons in places like the east (near the coast), Damascus and towns and cities in central Syria that will fight defensively, but will not (or the government will not order them to) move elsewhere.

To defeat the rebels the Assads relied on forces supplied by Iran (mercenaries), Russia (air support, military aid and more mercenaries), the Turks (more mercenaries and air support) and finally American and other NATO nation special operations troops plus lots of air support for the Syrian Kurds who had become autonomous and played a leading role in defeating ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Kurds were, and still are, willing to negotiate a peace deal with the Assads. They want autonomy, which the Assads will tolerate but the Turks and Iranians will not. The major obstacle to a peace deal in Syria is Iran. The Iranians are in Syria to establish a forward military base for attacks on Israel. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and no one else in the region agrees with them on that goal. To make a peace deal the Assads have to somehow survive declaring their independence from Iran.

Israel recognizes this plight and in mid-2022 sent Basher Assad an ultimatum that, if he did not cease cooperating with the Iranians (especially the movement and storage of Iranian missiles to Syria), Israeli airstrikes would go after Assad and family members by bombing the many luxury residences (“palaces'') used by the Syrian family in and around Damascus. The Assads had earlier denied this degree of cooperation but this time Israel pointed out it was sharing intel with Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies and that means it is a lot more difficult for Assad to get away with lying to the Israelis. Arab nations and Israel were trying to get the Assads to switch sides and the Assads made a decision to stick with Iran without telling the wealthy Gulf Arab states he was hoping would invest in rebuilding the Syrian economy once the war was finally over. The Israelis did not follow through on their threat and it was believed that the Iranian threat to kill Assad and his family was a more compelling offer. While Israel and its Gulf Arab allies can agree on supporting the Assads, the United States cannot and continues to oppose any peace deal with the Assads. Israel and the Arabs can afford to quietly ignore the Americans on this. The current American government has managed to damage relations with Arab oil states and that is unlikely to change until the 2024 American presidential elections put a new government in charge.

In early 2023 it is unclear what the real situation is between the Assads and their other real or potential allies and not-unfriendly neighbors, as in (Russia, Turkey, the Arabs states and Israel. Iran is on good terms with Russia and Turkey but not the Arab states, Israel or Western nations in general. Iran is weakened by four months of internal protests and growing economic sanctions. Most Iranians want to end the “war” with Israel. The Iranian religious dictatorship has an irrational hatred for Israel, the United States and many of its Arab neighbors. The Iranian government is justifiably paranoid about what Israel may be up to when it comes to resolving this deadlock. The Israelis do not release any information about their operations against Iran and there have been some spectacular ones in the last few years. There is growing popular support for Israel inside Iran and that has made it easier for Israel to recruit Iranians to assist them for operations inside Iran. Few would mourn the sudden demise of the Iranian religious dictatorship but that would be difficult to carry out because of the homicidal fanaticism regularly demonstrated by the religious government and their IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) enforcers.

Meanwhile Israel treats Iran as a major threat, especially because of the Iranian presence in Syria. Israel has been at war with Iran in Syria for nearly a decade, during which Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes and a few commando operations against Iranian operations in Syria. This cost Iran a lot of lives and money, and is one of the things restive Iranians want to halt by pulling Iranian forces out of Syria and Lebanon. But first the Iranians have to shut down the Iranian religious dictatorship, which, as expected, resists efforts to shut down operations in Syria.

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. In 2014 the exchange rate for the Syrian pound was currently 140-150 pounds to the dollar. 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 but now, a few months later, 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 maintenances. 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.

Currently there is not much cash being offered to finance reconstruction. The Iranian budget for Syrian operations has been cut sharply since 2018 and the IRGC is doing what it can to build grassroots support for Iran by handing out favors to any Syrians seen as likely to reciprocate. The IRGC efforts include trying to convince Sunnis to convert to Shia Islam. This doesn’t bother the Sunni Turks and Kurds but it infuriates the Arab oil states, a potential major source of reconstruction cash. Iran has the Assad family by the throat and even if some members of the Assad clan favor rebuilding relationships with the Sunni Arab world, Iran has convinced some Assads that Iran is the best bet. Meanwhile Syria will remain an economic and social disaster area for some time to come.

In the last year Turkey has become a major player in Syria, which previously depended heavily on Iran for assistance. Back in the 1980s Iran became a patron of the Shia minority government of Syria. It was only natural for Iran to come to the aid of the Shia Assad government when most of the Syrian population (Sunnis) went to war with the Assads. In 2015 Russia got involved as the Assads were its reliable partner in the Middle East. Then there was Israel, which Iran wanted to destroy but the Russians wanted to protect and Turkey was somewhere in the middle. Now Turkish and Russian mercenaries in Syria are fighting each other. Iran has become a major ally of Russia because of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey is trying to exploit this, if only because Turkey and Russia have been rivals for centuries. Reviving diplomatic and economic ties with Israel is part of that. Historically, what is going on in Syria is an unnatural act. Russia, Turkey and Iran have centuries of mutual hostility and frequent wars defining their relationship. That made their alliance in Syria unusual and now things are returning to the usual state of mutual hostility and competition. Russia and Turkey want Israel on their side while Iran only wants to destroy Israel.

January 4, 2023: In the south (Damascus), an Israeli airstrike shut down the main international airport while also killing two Syrian soldiers and wounding another two. The runways were damaged by anti-runway bombs that create deep craters in the cement runway that must be able to handle the weight of landing aircraft. Despite persistent Israeli airstrikes, Iran continues to fly in missiles and other weapons for use against Israel. Iran is unable to deliver oil to Syria anymore and that has caused major economic problems.

January 3, 2023: In the northeast (Turkish controlled Hasaka province) another Turkish missile attack, via armed UAVs, has killed three Kurdish military commanders. There were 99 such attacks in 2022 and they will continue in 2023. The 2022 attacks killed 96 people and wounded 126. While most of the victims belonged to the Kurdish forces, fifteen civilians were killed.

January 2, 2023: In the northeast (Kurdish controlled Hasaka province), Kurdish security forces have arrested 45 people and accused most of being ISIL members while at least eleven were locals who operated a logistic network that supplied ISIL with supplies as well as assistance in moving ISIL members safely around the province.

In adjacent Raqqa province the Kurds declared a curfew in the city of Raqqa, which is run by the Kurds and is usually peaceful. Recent ISIL violence has changed that. ISIL claims the attacks are in retaliation for the way the Kurds run the al Hol prison camp. Kurdish security forces regularly search the al Hol camp for Islamic terrorists and gangsters hiding out there. Several suspects are arrested during each arrest. Since 2018 the SDF has been maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL fighters and their families. This includes persistent problems with criminal activity taking place among the prisoners. The SDF has to keep pointing to their allies that without some help in dealing with the huge number of ISIL captives they ended up with the situation would get out of control. By 2019 the SDF had over 50,000 prisoners held in a large refugee/prison camp and various governments were asked to verify who was a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. That process was slower than expected. There are still about 56,000 of these prisoners at the al Hol camp, most of them women and children that no one wanted to take back. Many of the ISIL wives are obviously still active ISIL members and many were caught smuggling weapons into the camp when they were searched before entering. These ISIL women are terrorizing other camp residents and seeking to intimidate the camp guards. The Kurds needed help paying for the camp and wanted the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. Nearly all camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them it is unclear exactly where they come from. Some active ISIL terrorists are in the camps and are the source of much violence. Nearly a hundred prisoners are killed in al Hol some years and ISIL leadership keeps calling for members inside and outside the camps to cooperate to create a major uprising in the camps.

January 1, 2023: In the east (Raqqa and Hasaka provinces) two policemen were killed when their vehicle was hit by an ISIL roadside bomb. ISIL is also believed responsible for the apparent murder of a local man. In Hasaka the Kurdish SDF militia suffered casualties while searching for ISIL members.

December 31, 2022: In the east (Homs, Suwaidaa, Hama, Al-Raqqah, Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces) nearly half the war-related deaths in Syria regularly take place in remote deserts areas of these provinces. The main cause of the fighting is the continued ISIL presence there that causes most of the violence. Most of the ISIL deaths are due to Russian airstrikes and Russian aerial surveillance, which continues despite the withdrawal of most Russian forces because of the war in Ukraine. These desert areas are collectively known as the Badia Desert which is south of the Euphrates River Valley. ISIL and associated groups have long used the largely empty desert as a sanctuary. This desert area extends into nearby Jordan. Badia 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 Badia desert was 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 staffs of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong.

December 30, 2022: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), ten oil field workers were killed when their buses were fired on, apparently by ISIL gunmen.

December 29, 2022: In the north (Aleppo Province) fighting resumed between Syrian troops, Islamic terrorists and Turkey backed Syrian militiamen, leaving four of the militiamen dead as well as four of the Islamic terrorists, including a senior Hezbollah commander. Fighting in this area has become constant lately, with Syrian soldiers, Kurdish SDF militia, Islamic terrorists and Turkey backed militias firing on each other. Turkish sponsored forces have become more aggressive recently.

December 28, 2022: The defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Syria met in Russia in an effort to improve the relations between Turkey and the Assad government. Turkish opposition to the Syrian Kurds and the willingness of the Assads to tolerate Kurdish autonomy have become a major problem between Turkey and Syria. Not much progress was made because the Turks insist that the Kurdish forces move away at least 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. The distance is what the Turks call a buffer zone that Syrian mercenaries will patrol. The Turks will supply artillery and air support. Turkey is moving Syrian refugees in Turkey to the zone. The Kurds and Assads oppose this Turkish policy but the Turks are adamant.

December 11, 2022: In southern Syria (Damascus) Hezbollah has been moving weapons from warehouses near the airport to ones that are more heavily fortified and four kilometers from the Israeli border. These new storage bunkers are guarded by Hezbollah gunmen in Syrian army uniforms and the bunkers identified as belonging to the Syrian military. The immediate Israeli response was to attack a Syrian air defense radar in the area and near the Jordan border. Israeli aircraft also dropped pamphlets throughout areas near the Syrian border warning Syrian troops to stop aiding Hezbollah or Iranian operations if they want to avoid Israeli airstrikes or command raids.

December 10, 2022: Israel ordered an unannounced three-day training exercise that included 5,000 reservists and 8,000 active-duty conscripts. These exercises usually assume an Iranian or Iranian sponsored attack from Lebanon or Syria. The training exposes the troops to the problems involved getting to the combat area and deploying. This is not as simple as it looks when so many troops are involved. Which route each unit uses and the possibility of disruption by traffic jams or enemy fire often means problems during the exercise. In addition to the troops, supplies have to be moved up as well. There are several of these exercises each year and most are a little different and involve a different combination of troops. Some involve close coordination with the air force. The troops' units are trained to be adaptable. The army plans these exercises and keeps the details and timing secret.

November 30, 2022: The United States confirmed that Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, the leader of ISIL was killed in Syria a month ago by U.S.-backed Kurds. ISIL said it had selected a new leader but would not reveal his name. ISIL has fallen on hard times since founder (in 2014) and first leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in 2019. His successor lasted until 2022 and the next leader lasted less than a year, as he was killed in October. The new ISIL leader is probably less experienced than his predecessors. Founder Baghdadi was the most talented ISIL leader and his successor was nearly as competent. After that name recognition and leadership skills declined considerably. There are still thousands of ISIL members in the Middle East, Africa and Asia but they have become more of a local nuisance than a major threat.

November 23, 2022: In southern Syria (Damascus) a roadside bomb killed Iranian colonel Davoud Jafari, an IRGC technical adviser on aerospace matters. Iran blames Israel for the bomb and no one claimed responsibility. Iran openly said it could retaliate against Israel. Iran upgrades to anti-aircraft defenses around Damascus and Jafari appears to have been involved with that.

November 19, 2022: In northwest Syria (Latakia and Hama provinces) Israeli air strikes destroyed several Iranian targets, most of them warehouses for storing newly arrived weapons. Four Syrian soldiers died and one was wounded.




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