Syria: Changing The Rules


April 18, 2018: The Syrian government considers the loss of their chemical weapons facilities a minor setback. Russia or Iran will pay to have the facilities replaced. Meanwhile the April 7 th chemical weapon attack on Douma caused rebel resistance in the area to collapse and within a few days Syrian troops were able to move in, even though that violated terms of a peace deal the Russians had worked out. That was nothing new, Syria had regularly violated the Russian peace deals and it was no secret that the Russians created these “ceasefires” and “safe zones” mainly as propaganda and never as something that would prohibit Syrian forces from advancing. The civil war is not over but there is little to stop Assad from regaining control over most of Syria.

About a third of the pre-war population is gone but nearly all of those exiles are anti-Assad so their departure is a good thing for the Assads. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan ended up with most of these refugees and would like to see them return home. That could be a problem with Turkey, which is the only host for these refugees that could force Assad to take the largely Sunni Arab refugees back. The Turks see that as impossible as long as the Assads are in power. Another problem for Assad is Iran which, as the price of bailing him out, insists on establishing military bases in Syria and organizing a Hezbollah-like organization in Syria. The Assads are not happy with either of those developments because those Iranian moves could put Syria in the middle of a war between Iran and Israel.

Israel (quietly) and Saudi Arabia (openly) are trying to persuade the Americans to keep their troops in Syria. The U.S. recently announced that withdrawing American troops was a possibility although it appears all this has more to do with negotiations with Turkey over a number of issues, like membership in NATO and relations with the EU and America. There is also little enthusiasm in the United States for continued American troop presence in Syria. The popular attitude is that Syria and Iraq are regional problems. The U.S. helped to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and that effort continues around the world. The U.S. remains committed to the defense of Israel and any Arab states who agree with that, but permanently stationing troops in the Middle East is very unpopular with Americans.

Russian Bots Unleashed

Russia continues pushing the accusation that the “Syrian chemical attack on Douma” was actually a fake. Syria has joined in and made a film about this fraud. But the Syrian video was quickly exposed as providing fake evidence of the staged attack when it was pointed out that the video proof the Syrians broadcast was from an earlier Syrian propaganda film that was presented as staged. The Russians were somewhat more successful as they unleashed an enormous “bot campaign” in support of its conspiracy theory. This bot campaign could be seen throughout the English language web as robotic accounts quickly provided scripted messages in support of the conspiracy theory in any public site where people were discussing the Syrian chemical attacks and using certain words and phrases that the Russian Internet monitoring system was set to seek out so the bots (programs pretending to be people posting messages) could be sent to support the claim that the chemical attack was faked to justify illegal air strikes on Syrian. It was an impressive disinformation campaign and part of a larger Russian effort to distract those asking why Russian air defense systems failed to perform when the air strikes hit and have been similarly ineffective against Israeli attacks.


The American campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria continues, especially the intelligence collection and air strikes. American forces in Iraq work with their Iraqi counterparts to search for and attack remaining ISIL personnel and a lot of this action is taking place close to the Syrian border. There are several air strikes a day (in Iraq and Syria) and these are often against major targets. ISIL no longer controls any territory in Iraq but Syria is another matter with several remote areas in Syria known to be under ISIL control. The Assads have never been particularly eager to go after ISIL base areas, preferring to let others do it. The Assads concentrated on the rebel groups that were more determined to overthrow the Assads rather than, like ISIL, control all the Islamic terror groups in the area. Most of the damage done to ISIL in Syria was inflicted by the Americans, Syrian Kurds (and their non-Kurd allies) and more recently the Turks. This situation has not changed and the Assads still expect to take control of areas cleared of ISIL occupation.

Recent American reminders that U.S. forces will leave Syria once ISIL is eliminated has the Syrian Kurds worried that the Americans have made a deal with the Turks. There’s been no confirmation of that and the Kurds don’t want to believe that there is little popular support in the United States for keeping American troops in Syria any longer than required to deal with ISIL. The Americans were annoyed at how the Kurds halted their operations against ISIL three months ago to fight the Turks at Afrin. The Turks won and now the Kurds are looking to the Americans to protect them from Turkish retaliation. This is the sort of local politics the Americans in general want no part of.

April 17, 2018: Syrian media announced two more airstrikes on Syrian air bases (one in the north near Homs and the other outside Damascus). No one took credit for these attacks, there were no photos of any after-effects and Syria claims to have shot down some of the attack missiles. Syria has to be careful with false claims because Israel has its own photo satellites passing over Syria several times a day. This has made it difficult for Syria to stage faked events. The Israelis have also made it clear they keep tab on who has what where and that is causing problems for Iran and Russia as well.

April 16, 2018: Iran has threatened to retaliate against Israel for the latest attack on Iranian facilities at the T4 base in Syria. These threats were not unexpected but so far Iran has not been able to carry out an attack on Israel itself. Iran has been supporting efforts from its allies in Gaza but there have been nothing but failures so far. Israel recently revealed that the Iranian UAV shot down on February 10th as it entered Israeli airspace was armed with explosives. The UAV incident prompted the attack on Iranian UAV bases in Syria. Another reason for the T4 attack was also revealed; Iran had just set up a new air-defense system that might have made a later attack less successful. Meanwhile the Iranian inability to strike a blow against Israel is making the Iranian radicals (IRGC, Quds) back in Iran look bad at a time when they are under attack for corruption and brutally suppressing widespread protests by Iranians against the misrule of the Iranian radicals and the religious dictatorship the radicals serve. To make matters even worse the radicals campaign against Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states has resulted in the Saudis openly siding with Israel and reveling in the apparent Iranian ability to hurt Israel. All this makes for a dangerous situation as the Iranians are notorious sore losers and far more adept with technology than the Arabs. .

April 15, 2018: A Russian cargo ship was seen headed for Tartus with a cargo of armored vehicles (mostly various wheeled armored vehicles), heavy trucks and at least one coastal patrol boat.

April 14, 2018: The United States, Britain and France launched 105 cruise missiles and glide bombs at three Syrian facilities that developed, produced and stored Syrian chemical weapons. Satellite photos later showed that all of the missiles and smart bombs apparently hit their targets. This was backed up by cell phone photos that got out of Syria showing the damage in great detail. Russia had immediately announced that the Russian supplied Syrian air defense system had performed as designed and shot down 71 of the missiles. This was an attempt to protect the reputation of the Russian air defense systems and even though there will be no wreckage of the 71 missiles Russian insists their systems shot down they will continue with the invented story. The Americans revealed that the Syrian air defense system went into action after the missiles hit and the coordinated attack had all the missiles hitting their targets with a few minutes of each other. French, British and American aircraft delivered some of the missiles and they all returned safely. There was no response from Russian naval forces against the American and British warships that launched most of the missiles.

The only one to keep believing the Russian version are many Russians who depend on state controlled media for all their news. There Russians are also told that the Syrian use of chemical weapons in Douma was a hoax perpetuated by the British, as was the earlier incident in Britain where someone (apparently a Russian agent) tried and nearly succeeded in killing a former Russian intelligence agent who had defected to the British. The failure of Russian air defense systems in Syria is going to cost Russia export sales as well as much embarrassment. All Russian claims about the success of their new weapons in Syria will be devalued. This is something Russia can’t even discuss publicly because the official Russian position is that none of their systems have failed. Iran has been a big customer for Russian air defense systems and Turkey has indicated interest in buying the S-400 system. Turkey and Iran have to reconsider in light of recent experience.

Later today there were reports of explosions at an Iranian base outside Aleppo. Iran denied that this was the result of another Israeli air strike and insisted the explosions were part of rebuilding the base.

April 13, 2018: Turkey reports that it has “neutralized” (killed or captured) 4,157 terrorists (Kurds, their Arab allies and some ISIL and other Islamic terrorist fighters) since their operation against Afrin began on January 20th. So far the 6,000 or so Turkish soldiers lost 52 dead and the three times more numerous FSA rebels who are allied with the Turks. Most of the troops involved in this operation are from FSA, who are believed to have suffered several hundred dead so far. The Turk/FSA forces finally captured Afrin on March 18th. Now the force is preparing to advance east, to the Euphrates River.

April 11, 2018: The Turkish foreign minister accused the Assad government of having killed over a million Syrians since 2011 and that it had no legitimate claim on being the government of Syria. Turkey has never had good relations with the Assads but was thought to have eased up a bit to get along with their Russian and Iranian allies, who are strong supporters of the Assads. But now Turkey has reverted to its normal attitude, that the Assads are a bunch of opportunistic, unreliable and murderous thugs. The current Turkish government has been unpredictable but the distrust of the Assads is a lot older than the Erdogan government, which took power in 2003. The Turks later elaborated that they are still Russian allies, aside from the support for Assad issue. The Turks would be pleased if the Russians arranged some other group to take control of the Syrian government.

April 10, 2018: In the north (Syria) Russian ships have left the Russian naval base at Tartus. This is considered a standard move if major attacks are expected. European air control warned airlines to be careful over the eastern Mediterranean for the next 72 hours because there might be more air or missile strikes that would result in electronic countermeasures that could disrupt commercial navigations systems on airliners. Russia admitted that its electronic countermeasures were unable to stop the missiles, which they say were launched over Lebanon by Israeli F-15Is, during an earlier attack.

April 9, 2018: In central Syria several missiles hit the Iranian T4 airbase near Palmyra. Four Iranian IRGC personnel were killed, including a colonel known for his work with Iranian UAVs. There were at least ten other dead, all believed to be Iranian mercenaries. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on February 10th. The Americans said they had advance warning of today’s attack while Russia complained that it was not advised even though it has some personnel at the T-4 base. Israel did not take credit for the attack, which is how Israel handles most of its airstrikes in Syria. Russia later revealed that its electronic jammers, which were supposed to disrupt the guidance systems of missiles attacking Syrian bases failed to do so during the T-4 attack. Details were not given, only that the Russian jammers were “interfered with by external forces.”

April 7, 2018: In Syria an airstrike against Douma, a rebel held town east of Damascus, apparently involved some type of chemical weapon. Medical aid workers report at least 70 dead, including many civilians. The airstrike, like many Syria carries out against pro-rebel civilians, involved a barrel bomb (an empty oil barrel filled with explosives and whatever else was available). These are pushed out of helicopters or transports and are equipped with a contact fuze so they explode on impact. Russian and Iranian military personnel work closely with the Syrian air force and know what goes on (and into barrel bombs). Iran has military advisors assigned to all the senior Syrian military commands and many of the lower level ones. Syria has been accused of using primitive (World War I type) chemical weapons that attack the respiratory system. These older chemical weapons are often nothing more than industrial chemicals (like chlorine) in large (and dangerous) doses. But this new attack and one before it apparently also included some nerve gas. Russia believes that industrial chemicals (like chlorine) don’t count as chemical weapons (according the 2013 Russian brokered deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons) and the Iranians apparently don’t care. When pressed Iran will blame Israel or the Americans. In response the United States said it would retaliate if the Douma attack did involve any kind of chemical weapon. The evidence indicates that the Douma attack involved a combination of chlorine and a nerve gas. Israel fears Iran is permitting Syria to use these chemical weapons to test their effectiveness and the degree of international outrage. Israel has always believed Iran planned to provide Syria and Hezbollah with chemical weapons for use in a major attack on Israel.

April 6, 2018: The Syrian Army launched an assault on the remaining portions of the Ghouta suburb that are still held by the rebels. The main objective here is the Douma neighborhood, which sits astride a key highway that the rebels have blocked for years.

April 5, 2018: In Syria Turkey, Russia and Iran again agreed to put aside their differences and help each other in order to defeat the remaining rebels while also preventing Syrian Kurds from controlling any part of the country. The three agreed to tolerate Turkish operations (to build a Turkish controlled buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border) and cooperate to force American forces out of Syria. While this session was held in Turkey this is an extension of the talks that began in late 2017 in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). There the pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government began their negotiations (also called “peace talks”) with each other about how to achieve everyone’s goals. From the beginning Iran wanted access to the Israeli border and suppression of the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wanted an end to Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. Russia wants to get whatever it can at the least cost. The public sessions were propaganda and details of the private meetings, the ones that mattered, were largely kept secret but it has always been clear that the Astana talks are about how to restore Assad rule to Syria, or at least most of it.

April 4, 2018: In the north (Syria) Assad forces have begun moving reinforcements towards the Israeli border, apparently with the intention of destroying rebel groups that have come occupy most of the southern border since 2011. This has been accompanied by increased Syrian air strikes against rebels near the border. This move by Syria alarms the UN because they fear for the safety of their peacekeepers. In late 2016 UN Peacekeepers returned to the Syrian side of the Israeli border for the first time since 2014. Initially only 127 peacekeepers crossed the border and wasn’t until the end of 2016 before the full force of over a thousand troops returned to their Syrian positions. Back in 2014 UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines were forced out by al Qaeda (al Nusra) rebels, who wanted to ensure that the UN peacekeepers did not interfere with the rebel takeover of a border crossing. The Islamic terrorist rebels looted the UN camp. The rebels were driven away from the border in 2016 by the Syrian Army, which had regained control of the entire 70 kilometer long border with Israel. Up until 2014 the UN had 1,223 peacekeepers monitoring the Syrian/Israeli border and wanted that force returned. The UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights from Syria. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace. From 2014 to 2016 the peacekeepers were only able to operate on the Israeli side of the border.

March 28, 2018: Israel revealed that it had resumed airstrikes against targets in Syria. These air operations had been halted for several weeks after an F-16I crashed after returning from one of those missions. Israel rarely releases details of these missions but observers in Syria usually do and there have been reports in the last week that Hezbollah and Iranian targets are being hit from the air again.

March 26, 2018: In the northeast (Deir Ezzor province) the American commander for Syria spoke with his Russian counterpart and that led to the withdrawal of Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces that had gathered near the new American base that had been attacked unsuccessfully on February 7th. Further south, outside Damascus, Russia reports that their aerial bombing effort against a rebel controlled (for over five years) area east of the city was largely back under government control. Russia was criticized for its ruthless bombing of residential areas but the Russians agreed with the Assad strategy of going after pro-rebel civilians to weaken the resolve of the rebels there to keep fighting. It worked again in Ghouta, where many of the civilians and most of the surviving rebels have agreed to leave for northwest Syria where Idlib province, on the Turkish border. Idlib is the last major stronghold for rebels. About ten percent of the Ghouta suburb is still held by rebels who refuse to leave but are still negotiating. These areas are still being hit with artillery and airstrikes.

March 24, 2018: In the west, on the Lebanese border, locals report that there were several Israeli air strikes on Hezbollah border positions.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close