Syria: As A Bonus It Annoys The Turks


December 1, 2015: After initially avoiding ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) targets in Syria Russia has switched its air power from attacking Syrian rebels doing the most damage to the Syrian government to ISIL. The switch came in early November when Russia realized that it was indeed, as ISIL claimed, a terrorist bomb that brought down an airliner full of Russian tourists over Egypt on October 31st. Then came the ISIL Paris attack on the 13 th and suddenly France and Russia were allies in Syria and going after ISIL targets together. France is now using the same (but not identical) ROE (Rules of Engagement) Russia uses against ISIL targets and ignoring the use of human shields. Since the middle of November Russian aircraft have been hitting over a hundred targets a day and concentrating on ISIL finances. That means hitting the oil production and smuggling (oil into Turkey) operation. The American led coalition had also been attacking these oil targets but under the much more restrictive ROE and despite a year of effort had not hurt the oil income substantially. Russia also accused Turkey of quietly helping to finance ISIL by not doing more to halt the smuggling of oil into Turkey and sale of it on the black market. The anti-Turk angle has become more prominent since Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 on November 24th.

Russia and France have agreed to coordinate air operations in Syria. Russia has similar deals with the United States and Israel but the French arrangement goes farther than just avoiding friendly fire and collisions. Any closer cooperation with France will be difficult because France still opposes Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Russian insistence that ISIL is all an invention of the United States. This is Cold War type propaganda as is the Russian accusations that NATO and the United States are plotting to conquer (or at least seriously weaken) Russia. Meanwhile Russia sees other opportunities in the ISIL situation. Because of the ISIL threat more Western countries are willing to ignore the Assads, at least for the moment, and concentrate on ISIL. This is what Russia wants because this gives Russia an opportunity to pour more military and economic aid into Syria to make the Assads stronger. Russia points out that the Assads are still the recognized (by the UN) rulers of Syria and Russia is there at the invitation of the Assads. NATO and the United States are not, nor is Turkey which had been flying some bombing missions against targets in Syria. Technically Russian warplanes and air defense systems could be used to attack aircraft that are illegally (according to the Assads) operating in Syria. Yet Russia does not want war with NATO or Turkey because the Turks control access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and that is the shortest water route to Syria for the Russians. Moreover Russia knows that, despite all its boasting about rebuilding the Russian military these forces are still no match for NATO, especially in Syria. 

In one case the Russians and Americans are definitely on the same side. This involves supporting Syrian Kurds fighting ISIL. This is going on near the Turkish border and as a bonus (for the Russians) it annoys the Turks. The Syrian Kurds are technically rebels but were always mainly out to protect the Kurdish minority (ten percent of the population) in Syria. Thus the Kurds would work with rebel groups sometimes, especially against common threats like ISIL. But the Kurds would do the same with the government and neither rebels nor the Assads held it against the Kurds because the Kurds are the only non-Arab minority in Syria and thus normally attacked by everyone. This includes the Turks, who are hostile to Kurds in general because the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran have long wanted to unite the territory where they are the majority into a separate Kurdish state. All the countries involved oppose this, none more strenuously than the Turkey which hosts the largest Kurdish minority in the region. Thus Turkish aircraft will sometimes cross into Syria and attack the Kurds, even as those Kurds are getting air support from Russia and the United States. The Kurds are Indo-European and ethnic cousins of the Iranians. Stuff like that counts for a lot in this part of the world. 

Shia militia and Syrian Army forces are negotiating with rebel forces in Homs province to evacuate this provincial capital. Since early October, largely because of Russian air support, government forces have advanced in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo as well as in the south near the Israeli border. As always, the government forces are willing to negotiate terms with rebels to gain control of a city or town in order to minimize damage to the place and avoid casualties. Government forces have also cleared most rebel forces out of Latakia province. This is where the Syrian ports are and a major objective of a rebel advance halted largely because of the Russian intervention. That has made it easier for the government forces to regain ground in nearby Hama and Idlib provinces. There are still a lot of Russian airstrikes against Hama and Idlib because the rebels there are more numerous and better organized than around Aleppo (where there has been a lot of fighting between ISIL and other rebel groups). Encouraged by its success Russia is sending more troops (several hundred intelligence, maintenance and support specialists) as well as 30 or more combat aircraft plus some more helicopters.

Russia is also upgrading its air defenses in Syria to include the new S-400 anti-aircraft (and missile) system. The S-400 entered service in 2007 when the first units were deployed around Moscow. Russia claimed the S-400 could detect stealth aircraft, implying that the hypothetical enemy is the United States. Russia also claims the S-400 can knock down short range ballistic missiles (those with a reentry speed of up to 5,000 meters a second, in the same way the similar U.S. Patriot system does.) Russia is offering the S-400 for export, an effort that is limited by a lack of combat experience for the system. Patriot has knocked down aircraft and ballistic missiles, S-400 has not. Moreover, Russia anti-aircraft missile systems have a spotty history (especially when confronted by Western electronic countermeasures.) The S-400s based around Moscow are part of a project to rebuild the Soviet era air defense system, which has fallen apart since the early 1990s.  Russia continues to bring in more EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment. This gear was first noted in October as Russian electronic jamming equipment was used to jam ISIL and NATO communications. Some NATO radars and satellite signals are also being jammed. NATO is already familiar with some of these jammers, particularly the truck mounted Krasukha-4, which has been encountered in eastern Ukraine (Donbas). Russia has also brought in a lot more electronic data collection and analysis equipment to listen on ISIL and NATO communications when not jamming them. This involves jamming low orbit space satellites as well. In response NATO and Israel have deployed more EW gear and personnel and this has led to a generally unseen (and unreported) electronic war over Syria.

The Russian intervention has also helped the Kurds (and their mostly non-Moslem Arab allies) who have been able to push back Islamic terrorists they face (both ISIL and others). Russian airstrikes now include ISIL forces which had been attacking Syrian rebels who oppose ISIL (who believes it should command all rebels). The Russians were initially willing to leave ISIL alone as it attacked other rebels. One thing everyone understands is that ISIL is the primary rebel threat to the Assad government and would be the main target of Russian air attacks once the other rebels were out of the way. The problem is that non-ISIL rebels are mainly operating against or near territory that is vital to the government (the land connecting Damascus and the Israel/Jordan borders with the Syrian coast and Turkey.) Controlling the Turkish border means regaining control of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria.

The Russian air strikes have killed about 1,500 so far, a third of them civilians, 27 percent ISIL and the rest other Islamic terrorist rebels. The civilians were being used as human shields or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Over a year of American and allied air strikes have killed nearly 4,000 and less than ten percent were civilians. The American have more restrictive ROE that seeks to keep civilian deaths to a minimum. That appears to be changing, in part because the Russians and Arabs are much more effective and because it is obvious that the old ROE greatly limited the damaged that could be done to the enemy. Because of the old American ROE ISIL (and some other Islamic terrorist groups) used a lot of human shields, often quite blatantly (like putting them in metal cages and posting pictures on the Internet). The Russians openly ignored human shields and that means the ISIL (and other rebels) suffered much greater losses and became are more cautious when warplanes were about. Meanwhile ISIL has killed nearly 4,000 people in Syria in the last 18 months, about half of them civilians. Many of the civilians were executed for rebellion or not adhering to the strict lifestyle rules imposed by ISIL.

There are no winners in Syria but plenty of losers. The country has been devastated. What Syria has lost since 2011 includes some 300,000 dead and over 700,000 wounded or injured. Some 55 percent of the population now needs of some kind of aid (food, medical, fuel, shelter). About 35 percent of the population has been driven from their homes meaning they have no jobs and lost most personal property. Since 2011 life expectancy has been cut from 75 to 62 years. Half the school age population no longer have access to a school. Over four million Syrians have fled the country, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. GDP has shrunk by at least half since 2011 and over 70 percent of the population reduced to poverty.  The economic damage can be seen in satellite photos which show that, compared to similar nighttime pictures from 2011, only about 20 percent of the lights are still visible at night. Many of the Syrians who fled the country (over 20 percent so far) will never return. There is little to return to in part because some Islamic terror groups admit that they are not attacking towns and villages in order to occupy them but simply to hurt the troops or pro-government militiamen guarding them. The rebels loot and trash the places they take and then depart before the government can organize a counterattack (by land or air). These raids also look for people worth kidnapping and holding for ransom. There are still many Syrian families with assets, although most of these are living in government controlled territory (about a fifth of the country). But there are still people you can get a decent ransom for so this is yet another reason for people with any resources to get out of Syria. What assets the family has are often then spent on smugglers who will get all or some of the family into Western Europe, where jobs and public assistance are available.

Turkey, which currently hosts over two million Syrian refugees, is now planning to absorb many of them since it looks like it will be a long time (probably decades) before the Syrian economy is capable of taking them back. Turkey has also been allowing Syrian refugees to leave (illegally) to try and reach a Western European country. These nations recently made a deal with Turkey that would pay the Turks a lot of money ($3.2 billion for starters) to at least try and block the Syrians to heading for Western Europe. This deal is also supposed to involve Turkey taking back some of these refugees.

In Syria Russia and Iran apparently agree that a negotiated peace deal is possible. Iran has persuaded Russia to drop support for removing the Assad government from power in order to get a peace deal. At one point Russia was proposing a deal that would remove the Assads but leave the Shia dominated Baath party in charge. Iran did not believe abandoning the Assads was a price worth paying to achieve such a deal and now Russia openly agrees. Currently Russia and Iran are confident that they can arrange a local ceasefire outside Damascus and then expand that deal between government forces and non-ISIL rebels. Iran is taking advantage of the growing international anger at ISIL because of that group’s use of attacks against civilians (Sunni, Shia and non-Moslem, as in Paris). In Syria one thing everyone can agree on is that ISIL has to go. The main stumbling block here is that many of the non-ISIL Islamic terrorist groups are not in agreement with each other or anyone else and believe they are on a Mission From God and cannot be expected to compromise. Negotiating with these groups is difficult and often impossible. Iran is also an Islamic terrorist organization, but one that is willing to make deals. This involves negotiating settlements in disputes with allies. One such dispute involves the Iranian supported and trained Shia militias in Syria. Russia wants to incorporate these into the Syrian armed forces, which makes sense from a military point of view. But Iran wants to maintain Iranian control over these militias and turn them into something similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would mean the Syrian Hezbollah would be, like the Lebanese original, dependent on Iran for much of its cash and supplies and would, in turn, obey Iran even if asked to do something the Syrian government opposed. The Assads do not want this but given their current desperate situation they have to depend on Russia to oppose Iran on this issue.

November 30, 2015: Iran revealed that 67 Iranians had died in Syria since October. Before the Russian intervention there the government played down Iranian deaths in Syria and denied there were many Iranians there at all. Now Iran admits that their troops have been actively involved in Syria since 2013 and nearly 300 have died so far. A thousand or more Iran recruited and supported foreign mercenaries in Syria have also died.

November 29, 2015: A Russian warplane briefly entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. An Israeli air controller was able to contact the Russian pilot, who acknowledged his error and immediately returned to Syrian air space. Russia later reported that it was a navigation error and the Israelis accepted that. This was all quickly resolved because Russia and Israel had already agreed to procedures for situations like this. Israel will attack intruders and shot down a Syrian warplane in September 2014 that had entered Israeli airspace over Golan.

Turkey managed to get the body of the Russian pilot killed after landing safely on the 24th. The pilot was killed by Turkish supported Syrian Turkmen rebels. The body was turned over to Russia today.

November 27, 2015: In the north, near the Turkish border, Turkmen rebels continue to push back the Assad forces. This is despite increased Russian bombing of the Turkmen. As a result of the increased fighting in Turkmen territory about 10,000 more Turkmen have fled to Turkey. Russian air attacks against the Turkmen (who are ethnic cousins of the Turks in Turkey) has caused a lot of popular anger in Turkey.  The Turkmen are four percent of the Syrian population and Turkey has been secretly supplying Turkmen rebels in Syria with weapons. Not all Turks agree with this policy and the government has prosecuted media officials and police commanders who have reported on this illegal arms smuggling or tried to interfere with it. The weapons are usually shipped across the border hidden in legal aid supplies provided by the Turkish government. More Russian warplanes have been operating in this border area to support efforts by the Assad forces to regain control of the border with Turkey and thus cause supply difficulties for the rebels.

Turkey denied reports that it had suspended air strikes in Syria. Nevertheless there has been little Turkish air force activity in Syria since the 24th. Elsewhere in Turkey there were several demonstrations to protest the recent arrest of two journalists who reported on how the Turkish government was supplying some Syrian rebel groups with weapons and doing it by hiding the weapons in aid shipments. As a result of that Syrian (and apparently Russian) air strikes now target trucks carrying food and other humanitarian supplies.

November 24, 2015: In Syria a Russian Su-24 operating near the Turkish border was shot down by a Turkish F-16. The Turks say the Su-24 entered Turkish air space and ignored warnings to stay out. The Turks later released recordings of Turkish air controllers trying to contact the Su-24 and warn it to stay away from the border. Turkey has been threatening, since early October, to shoot down Russian warplanes that continue to slip in and out of Turkish air space. Russia appeared to take that threat seriously and apologized for several such incidents which appear to have been accidental. Russia says bad weather is often at fault but the main problem is Syrian rebels operating close to the Turkish border and often crossing it unexpectedly. The Russian pilots will often lose track of the border when going after rebels who may have recently slipped across the border. There is another element in all this. Russia and Turkey are ancient enemies and Turkish public opinion backs using violence against Russian incursions, even accidental ones. The Su-24 crashed in Syria and both the pilot and weapons officer were able to eject and land safely. The pilot was then killed by Syrian Turkmen rebels while the weapons officer was eventually rescued by Russian commandos. One of the helicopters involved in the rescue operation was forced down by small arms fire and one Russian marine was killed.

Iranian media revealed that the commander of the Quds Force, general Suleimani, was wounded in Syria on November 12th. Suleimani has spent a lot of time in Syria since 2012. He is responsible for creating the Iranian mercenary force (currently over 10,000 fighters) all recruited and trained by the Quds Force. The Quds Force specializes in this sort of thing. In 2012 the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment.  As part of his duties in Syria Suleimani has made at least two semi-secret trips to the Russian capital recently. Suleimani is currently back in Iran receiving medical treatment in a hospital. The government denied that Suleimani had been injured.

November 23, 2015: As expected the U.S. has changed its ROE and now goes after ISIL trucks that transport oil from Syria and Iraq to Turkey where it is sold on the black market. This has long been a major source of income for ISIL but the American ROE prevented attacks on much of the ISIL oil operations because ISIL used civilians as human shields. Thus the civilian drivers of the oil trucks make them immune to American air attack. But today nearly 300 of these trucks were destroyed by American AC-130 gunships and A-10 ground attack aircraft. The U.S. has not completely abandoned its old ROE because pamphlets were dropped beforehand where the drivers could find them warning of attacks and advising the driver to stay away from their vehicles. That could, of course, put the drivers at risk of execution by ISIL for deserting their posts. Using AC-130s and A-10s also give drivers in trucks a chance to jump out and run when their cargo was hit by the autocannon fire. If the drivers compartment is hit it’s all over for the drivers and some were killed. All this makes it more difficult for ISIL to find drivers. Now ISIL will have to hold hostage family members of drivers and murder hostages if drivers run away. This is an ancient technique that is still widely used in the Middle East.

November 22, 2015: In the northeast, a bomb hidden in a motorcycle went off in a Kurdish controlled town near the Turkish border. Three people were killed and twenty wounded. This happened at a checkpoint and ISIL was believed responsible. That’s because a Kurdish led coalition of rebels have been advancing south into ISIL territory.

November 18, 2015: In the northwest a coalition of fifteen rebel groups (comprising over 10,000 fighters) sought to join the Kurdish led (and American supported) alliance that has been making progress against government forces and ISIL in the northeast and as far west as Aleppo. The Kurds and their largely non-Moslem allies formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October and several anti-ISIL Syrian Arab rebel factions joined. SDF receives active support from the Americans in the form of weapons, trainers and air strikes. The northwestern group has been getting hit hard by ISIL, other Islamic terrorist rebel groups and government forces and have lost ground around Aleppo and Idlib province. The major concern is ISIL and the Russian air power. Thus there is some urgency in being admitted to SDF. This would triple the size of the SDF but the Americans and Kurds want some assurances that the SDF would be trustworthy and not likely to have factions go off and join ISIL. That has happened a lot in the past, first with largely secular rebels joining less extreme Islamic terror groups (like al Nusra) then going to ISIL. Some SDF units are already fighting near Aleppo and they may speed up the process of checking out the groups who want to join.

November 17, 2015: Russia launched its largest aerial bombing operations since the 1980s in Afghanistan. Today 25 heavy bombers used cruise missiles and bombs to attack ISIL targets in Syria. Six Tu-95s, five Tu-160s and fourteen Tu-22s launched 34 cruise missiles and dropped even more unguided bombs in Syria. In addition over a hundred combat sorties were flown by fighter-bombers stationed in Syria. This was the first combat use of the Tu-95MS and the Tu-160 and for one of the several types of cruise missiles employed. Some of the Tu-160 heavy bombers flew from a base on the Arctic Ocean out over the North Sea and entered the Mediterranean via the Strait of Gibraltar in order to fire cruise missiles at ISIL targets in Syria. The Tu-160s could have taken the shorter route directly south, over the Caspian Sea then through Iran and Iraq but used the longer route to show off the long range of the Tu-160. Russia began doing flights like this for about a decade, soon after it finally got its Cold War era fleet of Tu-160s back into service again. The last Russian heavy bomber built, the Tu-160 took over a decade to develop and entered service in 1987. Only 35 were built before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and about half of those are now in service. The aircraft is similar to the U.S. B-1, as the Russians never got to try and build something similar to American B-2. The Tu-160 can carry up to a dozen cruise missiles each.

November 14, 2015: In Austria there was a gathering of nations involved in supporting the Syrian rebels. At the meeting were officials from the United States, the EU (European Union), Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Iran and Lebanon. Iran has long complained loudly and openly about being excluded from these talks and got an invite because of intense Russian pressure and by promising to make a useful contribution.  This meeting is part of ongoing discussions about how to deal with the mess in Syria. Few of these negotiators expect a deal to be made. The Arab Sunnis want no part of Assad but the Iranians need to maintain Shia (as in Assad or a Shia replacement) rule in Syria. The racial and religious animosities between Arabs and Iranians is a major obstacle. This is made worse by the popular belief in the Moslem world that ISIL and al Qaeda are inventions of Israel and the West for the purpose of hurting Islam. The Russians have gotten behind this idea as well, reverting to their Cold War ways by doing so. The West (and a growing number of Moslems) see the main problem as the Arab refusal to take responsibility for their actions. ISIL comes out of the Sunni radicalism tolerated (and subsidized) in Saudi Arabia for decades. Iran, Syria and Russia all have a history of supporting and promoting terrorist groups. Getting past all these bad habits, many of them not the sort of thing the perpetrators are willing to even acknowledge publicly, makes negotiating a peace deal in Syria extremely difficult. Russia proposes internationally supervised elections in 18 months to elect a new Syrian government. That implies rebels will be forced out of most of the territory they now hold by 2017. This meeting ended with West still insisting that the Assads had to go while Russia, Iran and some Arab states wanted to keep that Assads.

November 13, 2015: The U.S. announced that was certain that a UAV missile strike in Raqqa the day before had killed notorious ISIL killer “Jihadi John”. This man was featured in several ISIL videos killing captives (by beheading) and then boasting in his distinctive British accident. Jihadi John was born in Kuwait but his family moved to Britain when he was young and he was raised there. British intelligence eventually identified him (as Mohammed Emwazi) and sought to arrest or kill him for his atrocities.




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