The consensus is that the Assad government has won the civil war, after a fashion. With the fall of rebel enclaves outside Damascus (80 percent of the Ghouta suburbs), the defeat of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in eastern Syria and Kurdish losses in the northeast (Afrin) the only active rebel areas are some ISIL pockets in the east and various rebels along the Israel and Jordan borders. The Kurds and their American allies (over 2,000 U.S. troops) hold the northwest while Turkey has made it clear they are keeping much of the Syrian side of the Turkish border west of the Euphrates River. Most of the “lost territory” is in Eastern Syria. In part this is because it was the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, predominately Kurdish rebels) that took Raqqa city from ISIL but SDF and Assad forces share control of Raqqa province. East of Raqqa province is Hasakeh province, which borders Turkey and Iraq and is now mostly controlled by SDF. South of Hasakeh is Deir Zor province, which only borders Iraq and is where most of the remaining ISIL forces in Syria are hiding out. All three of these eastern provinces are largely desert and thinly populated. Most of the people are in the Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf into Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through major Iraqi cities like Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and, once in Syria Raqqa (and several smaller cities).
The Assads have deliberately driven millions of anti-Assad civilians out of the country and apparently is fine if that exile is permanent. But the Assads have lost control of a third of Syrian territory and are not likely to regain that land any time soon. In addition to about eight million Syrians who fled the country at least half a million have been killed. About 20 percent of the dead have been civilians and nearly all those were pro-rebel civilians. Some 85 percent of the civilian dead were victims of Assad forces, which deliberately bombed and shelled residential neighborhoods to encourage civilians to flee rebel territory and, preferably, the country.
Despite that loss of population and territory the pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey and Iran continue meeting with the Assads for “peace talks” in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). The U.S. and rebels have been invited in the past but now the only rebels invited are the neutral or pro-Assad ones (like FSA). These “Astana Peace Talks” began in January 2017 and are now seeking UN approval for some of their decisions, like a new constitution for Syria. There are tensions among Russia, Turley and Iran about what “peace” should look like. Iran has been the biggest contributor to the Assad cause, spending over $14 billion in Syria since 2012. Russia only got involved in 2015 and has spent about a third of what Iran has. Turkey has been involved since 2011, but until 2016 that was mainly in dealing with the growing number of Syrian refugees seeking refuge. Israel has also been involved dealing with refugees but only to the extent of providing emergency medical aid to Syrians (usually pro-rebel civilians, family members). Israel also regularly fired back at anyone who deliberately, or even accidentally, fired into Israel. In addition Israel airstrikes regularly destroyed Iranian weapons intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Euphrates River Valley Blues
In the northwest American and SDF forces expand and improve their fortifications in southeastern Deir Zor province, specifically the new U.S. base at the al Omar oilfield. The Assads want this but the Americans are backing Kurdish efforts to hold on to al Omar and the valuable oil it can produce. Currently Assad, Russian and Iranian forces are gathering five kilometers from the new American base. This was the same areas where the February 7th battle took place. The advance by Russian and Syrian forces was quickly repulsed by American firepower. The Russian force had no air support or anti-aircraft weapons and no backup plan other than for the survivors to retreat as quickly as possible. The Russians were hoping to push American troops out of al Omar, which is east of the Euphrates. The Russian force suffered heavy losses (over 300 dead) most of them Russian military contractors. The American did not publicize this but the Russians did because it was a great embarrassment for the Russians. The Russian government continues to play down the casualties and the obvious defeat but it is big news back in Russia where there are more ads for experienced combat veterans to work as contractors in Syria. Internet chatter in Russia is mostly about getting revenge against the Americans rather than questioning government policy in Syria. There is criticism inside Russia but the government has always discouraged it and stressed that so few Russian military personnel (about fifty so far) were being killed in Syria. It was an open secret that the losses were much higher if you counted the Russian military contractors. Now that fiction is shredded even though the Russian government does not seem to have a plan to deal with the public anger and the reality that open war between Russian military personnel (as in air support) would be extremely risky because the Americans have far more air power in the area as well as more ground forces in addition to powerful allies like Israel.
The February battle led to more veterans of the contractor forces speaking out and making public details that were long known to many in Syria as well as foreign intel agencies. It now appears that over 400 contractors have died since 2015, most of them in the recent battle. The Russian contractors are not often used as assault troops but as trusted and capable security forces for Russian bases and key locations controlled by the Assads as well as senior Assad government officials. The contractor units often have some Russian soldiers attached, to deal with calling in artillery or air strikes and maintaining communications with the Russian military headquarters in Syria. In light of all this the February battle appears to have been based on someone assuming that the American and SDF forces based around the nearby oil field would fall back with the approach of the largely Russian contractor force. This was a major mistake and it is unclear who on the Russian side allowed it to happen.
Meanwhile the Americans are building smaller bases in the nearby Koniko and al Jafreh oilfields. These three oil fields produced over 300,000 barrels a day before the civil war began in 2011 and was a major source of foreign currency for buying foreign goods. Syrian oil is known as “light crude” and can be burned for heating or cooking as it comes out of the ground. These oilfields were operated (before 2011) by Alawites (the minority the Assads belong to). The Assads want the oil fields back. So do the Russians, who have the contract (from the Assads) to rehabilitate the oil fields and operate them. That translates to over $30 billion and a large chunk of that goes back to Russia. After seven years of fighting the oil fields only produce about 20,000 barrels a day and control of these oil fields puts the Syrian Kurds in a strong bargaining position.
Turkey Keeps Afrin
In the northwest Turkish forces have taken the Kurdish held town of Afrin and despite efforts of Syrian forces to interfere Turkey announced that it will retain control of Afrin. Now the Turks are preparing 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). SDF controls Manbij despite the fact that it is west of the Euphrates. According to the senior U.S. general in the region the American troops with SDF in Manbij are 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 is apparently acceptable to the Kurds because it appears to reinforce their position in the 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.
The Assads and Iran supported the Syrian Kurds defending Afrin and agreed the town is part of Syria. While most Kurds see the loss of Afrin as another case of Western betrayal their blame is mostly on Russia which had established six checkpoints around Afrin to enforce its promise to assist the Kurds in remaining in Afrin. But just before the Turkish offensive began Russia removed those checkpoints.
The Assads, Iran and the Syrian Kurds can all agree that keeping the Turks out is a good thing. The Turkish offensive began with FSA (non-sectarian Free Syrian Army) and Turkish forces attacking in at least five different columns. Most of the ground forces were FSA (about 10,000 fighters). The Turks had air support and larger numbers, or did until Kurdish and Syrian reinforcements showed up in late February. The Turks claim they killed, captured or chased away about 4,000 Kurdish fighters in and around Afrin during the effort to take the town. This included several prominent PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) leaders and their associates. The presence of PKK and YPG (Syrian Kurd separatists) personnel in Afrin justifies the effort for the Turks, who consider the YPG allies of the PKK. The Turks have been at war with the PKK since the 1980s.
The Kurds east of the Euphrates have less to worry about because the presence of American troops there (to supply air strikes, training and advice) keeps the Turks out, as well as the Assads, Russians and Iranians. The Syrians have always been practical when it came to forming needed alliances and this is especially true with the Kurds. But there are different groups of Kurds. Thus the Kurds west of the Euphrates are not “American supported” and vulnerable while those east of the river definitely are. The Kurds on both sides of the river share the same goal of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria but the Turks have insisted that there be no Kurdish forces west of the river and are willing to go to war over that and they are doing so with the help of thousands of FSA rebels who have become Turkish allies in return for future support.
SDF considers the Turkish capture of Afrin as another Turk move to help ISIL and other Islamic terrorists in Syria. Much of the fighting for the Turks is being done by Syrian FSA rebels who had once been allies of the SDF. But the FSA and SDF were also rivals and many FSA rebels accepted Turkish offers to work with Turkish troops to clear Kurdish forces from the Syrian side of the border and then run this “neutral zone” under Turkish protection.
The Assads are willing to have an autonomous Kurdish northeast but want Syrian troops to have at least a token presence in the northeast and want the Americans gone. That last condition will be difficult to achieve. The Americans have made it clear they are in Syria to deal with ISIL and other Islamic terrorist threats. Syria has long been a sanctuary for Islamic terror groups and the United States plans to stay in Syria until convinced that the traditional Syrian policy of offering sanctuary to all manner of terrorists is a thing of the past. That may be difficult because the Assads have long depended on that policy for all sorts of reasons.
Measuring the Misery
It came as no surprise that the UN sponsored World Happiness Index put Syria at 150th place (out of 156 countries). What was more interesting was how the neighbors did in this survey. Israel came in at number 11. The top ten are all the usual suspects (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia) and then comes Israel, the happiest country in the Middle East as well as being the most powerful militarily and one of the least corrupt. The other Syrian neighbors had rankings similar to the corruption survey. Turkey is at 74th, Jordan at 90, Iraq at 117, Lebanon at 88, Iran at 106, Palestinian Territories at 104, Egypt at 122, UAE at 2o, Saudi Arabia at 33, Kuwait at 45, Russia at 59, the U.S. at 18, Japan at 54, South Korea at 57, Libya at 70, China at 86, Pakistan at 75, Venezuela at 102, Somalia at 98, Bangladesh at 115, Burma at 130, India at 133, Afghanistan at 145, Yemen at 152, and at 156 (last place) Burundi. Communist dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba block access to data needed for the survey and were not rated.
March 22, 2018: In the south (15 kilometers east of Damascus) Syrian troops continued advancing into the rebel held Ghouta suburbs. At this point the rebels have lost 80 percent of their Ghouta territory since the February 18th offensive began. Worse the remaining rebels are surrounded in three pockets and are being offered terms that allow them and civilians to leave or face continued air and ground attack.
March 21, 2018: Israel admitted that it was responsible for the 2007 airstrike on a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in northern Syria. There was never much doubt that Israel was responsible but it wasn’t until early 2011 that the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) announced that it believed the Syrian structure destroyed by an Israelis in 2007 was a nuclear reactor under construction. This was nothing new, as details of the IAEA have been leaked, but now the conclusion is official and shortly thereafter the UN released the official report on the Syrian nuclear facility. Israel apparently made this admission to send a message to Iran, which is building a lot of military facilities in Syria and still proclaims that Israel must be destroyed.
March 19, 2018: The United States, France, Germany and Britain have openly accused Iran of violating the 2015 treaty (that lifted economic sanctions) with continued Iranian covert support of Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran responds to this criticism of Iranian actions in Yemen (as well as Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon) by insisting that it had an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli threats. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of Iran backed groups in Syria, Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas in Gaza and Shia rebels in Yemen openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran and continue to receive it.
March 18, 2018: In the northwest (Aleppo province) Turkish troops and their Syrian FSA allies declared the town of Afrin (northwest of Aleppo city) captured. Thus ends an offensive that began on January 20th. This campaign left about fifty Turkish soldiers dead and several times as many FSA fighters. Turkey declared that it will now advance on Manbij, which is 100 kilometers east of Afrin and held by some American troops as well as a large SDF force.
March 17, 2018: In the south (15 kilometers east of Damascus) Syrian troops supervised the evacuation of 30,000 civilians from formerly rebel-controlled towns in the Ghouta suburbs. These civilians are screened for known rebels and sent to refugee camps elsewhere outside the city. So far the fighting in Ghouta has killed over a thousand civilians because of the airstrikes and artillery fire on residential areas.
March 13, 2018: Turkey is offering Turkish citizenship to the families of FSA rebels killed while supporting Turkish operations in Syria. Families also receive a free apartment and a $7,600 payment. FSA rebels who are disabled in combat now have the option to become a Turkish citizen. The disabled also receive a $3,800 payment. FSA fighters already receive pay and other support from Turkey as well as medical treatment in Turkish medical hospitals. Most of the “Turkish” forces fighting in Syria are actually FSA and most of these have families living as refugees in Turkey.