Syria: Bluff Called, Reply Awaited


April 7, 2017: The Syrian government is accused of using nerve gas in a recent attacks on a rebel village in Idlib province. This would be a clear violation of the 2013 Russian brokered deal where Syria surrendered all its chemical weapons in return for no foreign intervention (as the U.S. has promised) because chemical weapons were used. An August 21 2013 attack used nerve gas to kill over 1,400 people in a rebel controlled village outside Damascus. The evidence was overwhelming for the 2013 attack and this latest one in Idlib is equally incriminating. This time the United States quickly retaliated by launching sixty cruise missiles (from two warships in the Mediterranean) at the Syrian Shayrat air base in Homs province. Most of the Syrian air strikes in northern Syria are flown out of Shayat, which is now inoperable. Russia and Iran, the two major allies of the Assads, are under pressure to make a suitable response. Initially both nations simply condemned this violation of Syrian sovereignty and warned of serious consequences. This could be serious, or not. Iran has been calling for the destruction of the United States (and Israel) since the 1980s but so far, aside from a few terror attacks, it’s been mostly talk. Russia has become more hostile to the United States since a new government took power in 1999 and revived the old Cold War attitude that the Americans were out to destroy Russia in any number of devious ways and were responsible for most of the internal and external problems Russia faced. As with Iran, this attitude had more to do with local politics (keeping an unpopular ruler in power) than with reality. The “blame America” angle only works if you can convince your people that the U.S. will back off if confronted. That’s what happened when Iran (in 2012) and Russia (in 2016) openly intervened to support the Assads. The Russians were quite proud of themselves for how they get the Americans to back down in 2013 in the aftermath of the Assads using nerve gas. Neither Russia nor Iran want outright war with the United States, even though Russia has threatened to use nukes against the United States to discourage too much military support for Ukraine (which Russia is trying to annex parts of). Russia may be able to get some support (in forcing the Americans to back off) by appealing to the NATO countries that criticized the recent American cruise missile attack. In other words Russia and Iran don’t have any good options here.

Meanwhile Turkey, which has also been hostile to the United States since 2000, supported the American air strike, if only because the nerve gas attack took place about a hundred kilometers from the Turkish border and the Turks won’t miss the Assads, who have caused problems for Turkey in the past and were considered unreliable. Turkey is actively helping care for the casualties of the nerve gas attack. Turkey also wants to prevent another wave of Syrian refugees trying to get into Turkey. In the last few weeks over 50,000 of these refugees returned to areas in northern Syria that Turkish and rebel troops had liberated from ISIL or Assad control.

Chemical Warfare In Syria

After the 2013 agreement there were still chemical weapon attacks in Iraq and Syria and the Assad government was always suspected of carrying out some of them but there was no conclusive proof. In 2015 it was believed that 69 attacks occurred and about the same number in 2016. Most of these attacks used toxic industrial chemicals (usually chlorine) rather than stuff designed to be a weapon (like mustard or nerve gas). It is believed that the Syrian Army used mustard gas in July 2015 but there was not enough proof that Syria had made that particular attack. Most of the incidents where Syrian artillery or aircraft were suspected of using chemical weapons were in rebel territory where collecting timely and convincing evidence was difficult. Most of the other attacks were apparently the work of ISIL, which appears to have used mustard gas during August 2016. The story going around was that this chemical weapon was part of some secret supply of mustard gas that the Assad government did not surrender and that ISIL captured.

It is possible that someone stole some Syrian chemical weapons in 2013 and later sold it ISIL or even to someone who got it back to the Assads. Back then the UN was having a hard time getting some rebel factions to allow UN chemical weapons destruction teams to reach bases where some of these weapons were stored. In 2013 Syria appeared to have had 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin) and 300 tons of mustard gas and agreed to have them destroyed by the UN. This was completed by June 2014.

Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and Syrian patron Iran was believed to have let the Syrians know details of how nerve gas worked in combat. In 2013 the Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It was believed that the Assads would not hold onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it would likely be used against them. But in late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for. The Americans doubt that ISIL is having any success in manufacturing chemical weapons. It was already known that ISIL was creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals (like chlorine or grain fumigant). Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on.

Nerve gas is different and the effects are unmistakable, gruesome and often fatal. Moreover the ability to accurately identify the composition or chemical weapons residue has improved greatly since the 1980s. Each batch of chemical weapons is a little different, especially rarely manufactured items like mustard or the various nerve agents (some are a gas some are an aerosol). Chemical analysis can quickly identify the type and identifying profile of the samples taken from a victim or the vicinity of the attack. This analysis was done to some of the Syrian stuff surrendered and destroyed in 2014. That means any use of chemical weapons leaves an informative data trail that can be read and followed.

Raqqa And ISIL

The current offensive to capture the ISIL capital of Raqqa began in November and moved towards the city from the east, north and west. Most of the non-Kurds in the attack force are local Sunni Arabs eager to get ISIL out of the area. These Sunnis are also hostile to the Assads. By the end of December advance was closing in on the Baath Dam which supplies electric power to Raqqa and surrounding areas. The dam also regulates the water flow to farmers along the Euphrates River and ISIL has threatened to damage or destroy the dam to punish the disloyal farmers. Thus the rebels, if they want to maintain the support of most of the Syrians in the area, have to capture the dam largely intact. That would put the advance within 22 kilometers of Raqqa. Several other Euphrates River dams, especially the nearby Tabqa dam, have to be freed from ISIL control first. Meanwhile a lot depends on what happens to the battle for Mosul across the border in Iraq and whether or not the Turks join the advance and the Kurds continue to. Finally there is the question of who will run Raqqa once ISIL is gone. The Assads have always claimed jurisdiction but have not been able to muster the forces necessary to take part in the battle for Raqqa, especially the bloody fighting inside the city. The Kurds are not eager to run Raqqa, which has traditionally been a Suuni Arab town. The Kurds are OK with letting Raqqa stay that way but unlike the Kurds (who are united) the Sunni Arab Syrians have fragmented into many factions, most of them fans of one Islamic terrorist group or another. The worst part of this is that these Sunni Arab Islamic terror groups all believe they are the ones who should be in charge. ISIL is the worst example of this “we are the ones, the only ones” mentality. Before that it was al Qaeda, which was willing to make compromises. This offended a lot of hard core Sunni Arabs and led to the creation of the ISIL, which gives priority to dealing with potential rivals and basically goes to war with every other Islamic terror group. But even with ISIL gone there are a lot of Sunni Arabs left who would join s similar but more effective replacement for ISIL.

The Syrian rebels and their Western allies (especially the United States) consider the Syrian Kurds the most effective rebel force and key to driving ISIL out of Raqqa city and the rest of eastern Syria. To this end the U.S. has established seven bases in Kurdish controlled areas of northern Syria. This includes airstrips at Kobane and Rumelan that are long enough to handle large (C-17) transports. The U.S. still relies on the Turkish airbase at Incirlik in eastern Turkey (150 kilometers north of Syria). Most (1,500 of 2,200) of the Americans (military and contractors) in Turkey are at Incirlik. A small, but important, number of air strikes (against ISIL targets) come out of Incirlik. This is in addition to a larger number of reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Incirlik is where NATO warplanes have operated for decades and has been a major base to attacks against Islamic terrorist targets in Syria as well as Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq. In August 2015 American warplanes began operating out Incirlik against ISIL targets in Syria. In late 2014 the U.S. announced an agreement with Turkey to use Turkish bases (including Incirlik) to support the fight against ISIL. The next day the Turkish government denied that this was the case. While the Turkish parliament had approved such cooperation, the anti-American Turkish president Erdogan had to agree to implement these new rules and until the PKK (Kurdish separatist rebels) broke their ceasefire with the Turks in July 2015 (and reignited the three decade old war between Turkey and its Kurdish minority) the Turkish leader had refused to do so. Erdogan relented once PKK was once more a threat. Technically Turkey is not considered a war zone, but Incirlik is located in an area where secular Kurdish separatist terrorists as well as Islamic terrorists are increasingly active. Incirlik is also one of the six air bases in Turkey where American nuclear bombs (for NATO aircraft) are stored. The base normally has about 5,000 personnel in residence, about 60 percent of them civilians (workers and service personnel families). The number has since been greatly reduced. Incirlik is located in an area long dominated by conservative Moslems. U.S. Air Force personnel have long considered Incirlik a hardship posting because it was so difficult to get a drink, or a date, off base.

Turkey and the Assads oppose these American bases in northern Syria but the bases remain because the Americans, and most of the world, no longer consider the Assads legitimate rulers of Syria. The Assads and their allies Iran and Russia disagree. As long as the American bases were there to support the fight against ISIL Iran and Russia did not make an issue of these bases or the thousand or so U.S. troops in Syria. But now that the U.S. has, for the first time, carried out a major military attack on the Assad forces and may continue to do so, a suitable response is necessary. There is not much the Assads can do. They have not been able to prevent regular Israeli air attacks (to prevent Iranian advanced weapons from being moved to Lebanon) and it is no secret that the U.S. and Israel are close allies. The Russians have already made it clear that they will side with the Israelis if forced to decide between the Assads and Israel. This has put Iran in a difficult position and the latest American move makes that worse. All foreign forces operating in Syria are supposed to be there to deal with ISIL but Iran and Russia only pretended and were often criticized because most of the military activity in Syria was to weaken rebels (mainly non-ISIL) fighting to overthrow the Assads.

This even applied to NATO member Turkey. The Turks are, on paper, the strongest military force in the area. But all Syrians, both the Assad government and the rebels oppose the Turkish air and ground intervention. The Turks are mainly doing this because of domestic politics in Turkey. The Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) are again openly fighting the government and often use bases in Syria. While the Kurds of northern Iraq will cooperate with the Turks in controlling the PKK, some of the Syrian Kurds (the YPG) have worked closely with the PKK before and the Turks do not trust them to behave like the Iraqi Kurds. In the past Turkey was willing to work with Kurdish militias not associated with the YPG but that pragmatism was dropped in August 2016 when Turkish ground forces entered Syria with the stated intention of driving all Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border. The Turks have been blocked by the American from carrying out that program. The Kurds have backed off from some areas in northern Syria but are stubbornly holding onto most of it, backed by their American allies. In large part this American support is because the Kurds are largely responsible for the continued (since last November) advance on ISIL-held Raqqa.

Meanwhile ISIL Fades Worldwide

In February American intel analysts estimated ISIL had only about 12,000 armed members in Syria and Iraq. This means ISIL has lost at least half the armed personnel it had in early 2016. That number has since shrunk to 10,000 or less and most (at least 6,000) are in Syria and most of these are in or near Raqqa and preparing for a final battle. ISIL forces in Iraq are in worse shape. Only about a thousand are left in downtown Mosul and about 2,000 are operating in smaller concentrations along the border trying to keep roads open to Syria. A thousand or more are in still smaller groups in or near cities to plan, prepare and carry out terror attacks. Most of the ISIL fighters left in Mosul (and Raqqa) are young men from other countries. These would stand out to anyone guarding a checkpoint and would not withstand interrogation. So these foreigners are inclined to fight to the death. At the same time ISIL leaders have been trying to get their key personnel (and their families) out of Iraq and Syria. Many of the lesser known ISIL personnel are advised to return to their homeland and establish more of an ISIL presence there. Efforts to establish another base area for ISIL have, so far, failed (in Libya. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt) so the “disperse and raise hell at home” seems to be the official plan. In response the Iraqis fighting in Mosul and the Kurdish led forces closing in on Raqqa are resigned to a slow, methodical advance. Nevertheless ISIL is expected to lost both Mosul and Raqqa by the end of 2017.

Stranger Things

While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power they (semi-officially) also want to maintain good relations with Israel while doing it. This annoys Iran. Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they are in Syria to stay and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel and a centuries old effort to make the Shia form of Islam dominant in the Islamic world (that is over 80 percent non-Shia). Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is not maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point and newly elected U.S. government has come out strongly against any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. The Americans still want the Assads gone but despite that the U.S., Israel and Turkey agree on some key goals.

Turkey is also having problems with Iran because senior Turkish leaders openly accuse Iran of attempting to destabilize Syria and Iraq in order to increase Iranian influence in those countries. While many people in those countries, both pro and anti-Iran, would agree, the official Iranian line is that their military efforts in Syria and Iraq are simply to help fight ISIL. Turkey is largely Sunni and has been trying to improve its relations with all Moslem majority nations in the region since 2000. That is proving difficult with the growing struggle between Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia). Turkey has tried to stay out of this conflict but that is proving impossible.

The Russian intervention appears to be permanent (as far as the Russians are concerned) and the Assads agree. Turkey and Iran are not so sure and Iran is openly opposed to Turkish troops being in Syria at all. At the same time Iran is demanding the right to establish a naval base in Syria. This is not a new idea. In 2011 Iran pledged to pay for the construction of a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. That proposal was put aside as the rebellion against the Assads grew but now Iran wants some payback for playing a key role in maintaining the Assads in power. All these overlapping and often contradictory goals and alliances may seem odd to an outsider but this is the Middle East, where such complex arrangements are the old normal.

April 4, 2017: In the northwest (Idlib province) Syrian warplanes apparently used chemical bombs to attack a rebel controlled village. The attack killed 85 people, most of them civilians, including 20 children. The victims showed symptoms of nerve gas being used. The Syrian government accused the rebels of making the attack or having stored chemical weapons in one the buildings the bombs hit. But the U.S., NATO and Israel soon confirmed that it was the Assad forces who delivered the nerve gas.

April 1, 2017: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Kurdish led rebels have surrounded the town of Tabqa. ISIL has held Tabqa since August 2014. Tabqa is 50 kilometers west of Raqqa city and next to the Tabqa dam. Tabqa was the last government controlled military base ISIL seized in Raqqa province. With rebels in control of Tabqa city and the nearby dam the next objective will be Raqqa itself.

March 31, 2017: In the east, on the Iraqi border, Iraqi warplanes attacked an ISIL convoy near the town of al Qaim and killed Ayad al Jumaili (the ISIL “War Minister”) along with several other senior ISIL leaders. Jumaili was believed to be next in line to replace ISIL founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, whose health status has been a mystery for months. Baghdadi appears to still be alive but may have been badly injured in one of the many airstrikes directed at ISIL leadership. Al Qaim is the main border crossing between Iraq and Syria and is often the scene of battles and airstrikes. Compound in area are often used to shelter convoys of vehicles carrying the ISIL personnel between Raqqa and Mosul.

March 27, 2017: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Kurdish led rebels captured the Tabqa airbase as part of their effort to surround and take the nearby town of Tabqa from ISIL.

March 25, 2017: In the east, on the Iraqi border, a coalition airstrike destroyed a vehicle carrying Ibrahim al Ansari, the ISIL “propaganda minister” and at least four key members of the ISIL propaganda team. These men were responsible to maintaining the ISIL recruiting and propaganda efforts. This operation has been a frequent target of airstrikes and casualties among known members of the propaganda ministry have been high even though none of these radicalized Internet geeks is expected to serve in combat or as a suicide bombers.

March 24, 2017: The United States imposed sanctions on 30 companies and individuals for illegally transferring weapons technology or weapons to Iran, North Korea or Syria. Those sanctioned were from China, North Korea or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). Iran responded by imposing sanctions on fifteen American companies.

March 21, 2017: Iranian military officials accuse Russia of providing Israel with technical information about Russian made air defense radars and air defense control systems used by Syria and Iran. Iranian experts say that this explains how Israeli aircraft always manage to avoid being spotted or effectively fired on by Russian made Syrian air defense systems. Specifically Iran accuses the Russians of providing IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) codes to the Israelis. The IFF beacon every combat aircraft carries broadcasts a coded message to friendly aircraft and anti-aircraft systems. The Iranians say they can prove this because they secretly helped the Syrians change some of their IFF codes without the Russians knowing and suddenly the Israeli aircraft were being spotted. Russia denies the accusation and Israel has no comment.

March 20, 2017: Russia is setting up a base in northwestern Syria to train members of YPG Kurdish militia. This will cause problems with Turkey. Since late 2016 Turkish troops in northern Syria have been seeking to avoid conflict with the Russians while attempting to intimidate some of the Kurds who have long controlled much of northern Syria. What complicates this is that the Syrian rebels and their Western allies (especially the United States) consider the Syrian Kurds the most effective rebel force and key to driving ISIL out of Raqqa city and the rest of eastern Syria. The Turks are, on paper, the strongest military force in the area. But all Syrians, both the government and the rebels oppose the Turkish intervention. The Turks are mainly doing this because of domestic politics. The Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) are again openly fighting the government and often use bases in Syria. While the Kurds of northern Iraq will cooperate with the Turks in controlling the PKK, some of the Syrian Kurds (the YPG) have worked closely with the PKK before and the Turks do not trust them to behave like the Iraqi Kurds. Meanwhile Turkey is willing to work with Kurdish militias not associated with the YPG. Russia and Turkey are allies at the moment, but very confrontational with each other about it. The YPG has long been sheltered by the Assad government and used for annoying the Turks.

March 19, 2017: Israeli aircraft hit another Hezbollah convoy inside Syria during the night in an operation the Israelis would not take credit for. The Israelis did warn the Syrian government that, if necessary, they would destroy the Syrian air defense systems (bases, radars and missile launchers around Damascus and in other areas the government has retained control of since 2011) if the Syrians tried to again use their antiquated anti-aircraft missiles against Israeli aircraft. Syrian ally Russia felt compelled to publicly chastise Israel and ordered the Israeli ambassador to explain this bad behavior. Israel and Russia are also allies and do not want to fight each other. That would be expensive for Israel and probably embarrassing for Russia. Despite this public demonstration of anger Russia understands that Israel has a legitimate need to protect itself from Iranian attack via Hezbollah or similar Assad forces.

March 18, 2017: Russia announced that in Syria the government forces had completely cleared ISIL forces from the town of Palmyra and that this effort was made possible by Russia military assistance, primarily air support. For the first half of March Russian warplanes and armed helicopters carried out about 60 sorties a day in support of Syrian troops. Most of this air effort was against ISIL forces defending Palmyra.

March 17, 2017: A n Israeli Arrow 3 anti-missile missile was used to shoot down a Syrian SA-5 anti-aircraft missile that had been fired at four Israeli jets bombing a target (new weapons for Hezbollah) in eastern Syria near Palmyra. Apparently several SA-5 SAMs (surface-to—air) missiles missed the Israeli jets and instead of detonating anyway (as these missiles are built to do) were headed into Israeli air space and Arrow 3 was fired just in case it was a ballistic missile. The implication was that Syria might have deliberately modified some of their SA-5 missiles to operate as a surface-to-surface missile. This has been done before with Russian SAMs, usually as an unofficial (and crude) modification by Arab users. But there have been some modern SAMs with a built-in surface-to-surface mode. This was done for the U.S. Nike-Hercules system used during the 1960s and later. Other users of the Nike-Hercules (like Taiwan and South Korea) have made this modification and produced an accurate, if expensive, surface-to-surface short range ballistic missile. The Nike-Hercules was designed to be used in surface-to-surface mode. In American service that meant the standard anti-aircraft warhead was replaced with a nuclear one set for air burst over a distant surface target. While the SA-5 is a 1960s design it is one that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010. This seven ton missile has a range of 300 kilometers but Israel has apparently developed effective countermeasures. In 2016 Russia sent in an SA-10 (S-300) anti-aircraft system to protect their troops in Syria. These missiles have about the same range as the SA-5 but are more accurate and resistant to jamming. They may also have a surface-to-surface mode installed, just in case. Mainly the Russians are trying to arrange peace deals in Syria. Israel believes Iran was responsible for persuading the Assad government to fire its SA-5s at Israeli aircraft today.

March 16, 2017: A company (150 men) of Russian Army engineers arrived in Syria. These troops are trained and equipped to remove mines and other explosives safely. They were immediately sent to Palmyra, a recently liberated area that ISIL has planted a lot of landmines in.

March 15, 2017: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government ended two days of peace talks with each other about how to settle the Syrian mess. This took place in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). Nothing was achieved, in large part because all the rebels refused to attend. In January there was another two days of peace talks in Astana with some rebels present and nothing could be agreed to. The major powers involved congratulated each other for getting this far. Another two days of peace talks in Astana are to begin on May 3rd with or without any rebel participation. The ceasefire each of these meetings proclaim has had no impact on the fighting because few rebels will even participate in the talks and the pro-government groups that will do not observe the terms of the ceasefire agreements they sponsor.

March 12, 2017: Russia announced that work had resumed on the new Russian naval base in Syria. At the end of 2016 Russia revealed a recent agreement with the Assad government to expand the current Russian navy facility at Tartus. Before 2011 Russia was building a small, but technically permanent naval support facility in Tartus. By 2012 the several hundred Russians who there working on the project were largely gone from Syria and the Tartus project suspended until the war was over. That changed in mid-2015 when Russia intervened with several thousand air force, special operations and support troops. Russian construction personnel returned to Tartus but work was not resumed in a big way. The current Russian Tartus facility can handle only four medium-sized (under 100 meters long) vessels. That’s because the Russian base only has two 100 meter (325 foot) long floating piers inside of the northern breakwater of the Tartus port. The non-military port activities have been very busy since Russian troops arrived in mid-2015 along with a need to be regularly supplied by sea. A lot of those “supplies” were actually for Syrian military and Iranian mercenaries in Syria. Recent satellite photos show that work has indeed resumed on the Russian naval facility in Tartus.

March 11, 2017: In Damascus two bombs went off near a popular Shia shrine, leaving at least 40 dead and over a hundred wounded. Most of the casualties were Iraqi pilgrims and either al Qaeda or ISIL was believed responsible.




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