The last major rebel presence is in the northwest where Idlib province is largely controlled by various rebel groups. Over half of Idlib is controlled by the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) coalition. This is the main al Qaeda organization which evolved from al Nusra by absorbing (willingly or otherwise) many other like-minded groups over the years. About a third of the province is controlled by several other Islamic terrorist groups. Last week the largest six of these factions merged to form the NLF (National Liberation Front). This merger was arranged by Ahrar al-Sham, a longtime rival of HTS. About ten percent of the province is controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred kilometers long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast).
The Assads fought hard to gain control of southeast Idlib because they restore access to the M5 highway, the main route from Turkey, through Aleppo down to Damascus and to the Jordan border. The section of the M5 pass through southeastern Iblib (and north to Aleppo) is monitored by Turkish and Russian observers, both of whom can call in air strikes if anyone tries to disrupt the M5. In part that is because most of the 2.5 million people in Idlib depend on foreign aid (especially food and medicine) to survive. About half the people in Idlib are Syrians who came here because of peace deals that allowed the Assad forces to take back areas they had surrounded but did not want to suffer the casualties among its own troops if they had to go after defenders willing to fight to the death. This was especially true after 2015 when the Assad forces, with help from Iran (large numbers of fanatic mercenaries) and Russia (air power and all manner of specialists), began regaining ground. The Syrian military was barely holding it together with desertions and draft dodging common. With the help of Russian monitors and UN organizers, rebels and their civilian supporters could choose being moved (via UN bus and truck) to Idlib where the civilians would be refugees and the rebels could rearm and be available for more fighting. Syria and their allies Russia and Iran understood that they would eventually have to deal with Idlib and now that time has come. The usual Assad tactic is to force most of the rebel civilians (and rebel fighters, if possible) to flee Syria. This tactic was not popular with countries bordering Syria and the main reason Turkey invaded in 2016 was to close its borders to such refugees and create a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey is also building a border wall.
If the Assads attacked Idlib the only place the pro-rebel civilians could go is north, into Turkey. The Turks have made it clear they will not allow this and they have (next to Israel) the most powerful military force in the region. The Turks are willing to take on the Iranian and Russian forces as well as the Assads. The Turks are willing to let the Assads take back control of Idlib, but not if that means over a million more Syrians refugees trying to get into Turkey. This means a deal of some sort must be negotiated. This will be difficult because no one wants another million Syrian refugees. Even the Europeans have closed their borders to these refugees, who tend to bring along with them a lot of radicalized young men and teenagers. Many Iranian commanders in Syria believe the Russians would quietly side with the Assads and Iran and do nothing if the Assad forces moved into Idlib. It is unclear exactly what the Russians or Turks will do if the Assads attack. In the past, the Turks have shown themselves unwilling to back down when pushed by Russia or Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranian and Syrian forces continue to gather on the Idlib border.
Many of the Islamic terror groups in Idlib are still capable of launching attacks on the Russians (major bases in neighboring Latakia province) and the Assads (and their Iranian allies) to the west and south. Russia reports that their air defense forces at their Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) air base near Idlib have shot down about 30 Islamic terrorists UAVs sent their way in the last two months.
Shutting down those Islamic terror groups means attacking and destroying specific groups in Idlib and that has been possible without causing a major stampede of Idlib civilians for the Turkish border. These tactics require support from Russian airpower and Iranian mercenary ground forces. The Russians are now doing their part, carrying out airstrikes on Idlib based terror groups believed responsible for attacks this year on Russian bases and troops. The Assad forces are also having problems with these Islamic terrorists getting back into Aleppo and trying to reestablish themselves there.
For its part, Turkey has been negotiating with some of the less radical Islamic terror groups in Idlib and that support apparently played a part in the recent formation of the NLF coalition in Idlib which contained some rebel factions that are not fanatic and willing to negotiate. The objective here is rather vague but apparently involves most of the 100,000 or so armed rebels in Idlib somehow defeating the most radical factions and then agreeing to some peace deal that would allow them to find exile somewhere. But who wants to accept over 50,000 disarmed Islamic terrorists who now insist they were really just rebels opposed to the Assad government. Russia has made this more interesting by proclaiming that it supports the Syrian people, not the Assad dictatorship. Whatever happens in Idlib it will probably be interesting and full of unpleasant surprises.
The Assads have already demonstrated a willingness to do anything to regain Idlib. UN investigators confirmed that the Assad government used nerve gas against a pro-rebel village in Idlib province during an early 2017 attack that killed over 83 (30 of them children) and left over 300 with nerve gas-related injuries. This is a war crime that many UN members demanded be prosecuted. As expected the Assads denied the charges safe in the knowledge that their ally Russia would use their veto to block any major war crimes prosecution. The UN investigators concluded early on that the April 2017 attack used nerve gas and a later report confirmed that the nerve gas was delivered by the Assad forces.
When it comes to dealing with Iran the Americans and Israelis are on a roll and intent on exposing much more Iranian bad behavior and take advantage of the growing popular unrest inside Iran. In some cases, Iranians will be a source, but in all cases, Iranians will be consumers of such news and that weakens the control the Iranian clerics have over the Iranian government. More and more evidence of Iranian bad behavior surfaces. This is largely because Israel is allowing the European nations to send their own intel and nuclear weapons experts to examine the huge trove of Iranian documents Israel got out of Iran earlier in 2018. So far these documents have been toxic for Iran and any Iranian claims to never having had a nuclear weapons program.
Many older Iranians, who were young when the monarchy was overthrown in 1979 now admit that the religious dictatorship that replaced the Shah (emperor) was worse and many believe it will be even more difficult and costly (to Iranians) to remove than overthrowing the imperial government was. These older Iranians also speak of a time when Israel was an Iranian ally. That has not been forgotten in Israel. That explains the recent appearance of a two-minute video by the Israeli prime minister in which he offered to share Israeli tech used to deal with water shortages (especially low use and recycling tech). This is a growing problem throughout Iran (and in neighboring countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey) but Israel has been dealing with far worse situations for decades. Iranian leaders angrily refused the Israeli offer but the average Iranian, especially one personally suffering from the current water problems is willing to take help from whoever offers it. While the Iranian government angrily dismissed the Israeli offer hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the Internet, and eventually to the streets, to back the offer. This has led to a new catchphrase in Iran; “We (Iranian government) offer them death, they (Israel) offer us life”. The Iranian government was further rattled by this response and insisted that Iran had all the technology it needed to deal with the growing water shortages. The average Iranian doesn’t see it that way and the nationwide protests continue. Iranian leaders need a win against Israel and they are not having much luck in getting one.
All these problems inside Iran are one reason Russia made it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Despite that Israel has concluded that Russian pressure will not persuade Iran to back off on their efforts to increase Iranian controlled military forces in Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. But Russia will cooperate with Israel and has an open channel with Iranian military leaders. This means the Russians can explain, in terms the Iranians can understand and accept, what their military position is versus Israel. That explains the recent Iranian withdrawal of its mercenary and special operations forces from the Israeli border. As a practical matter, this means Iran withdrew the easily identifiable and resolved to work on new techniques to better disguise its forces so they can get near the Israeli border. Iran takes advantage of the fact that Russian aircraft handle most of the aerial and electronic reconnaissance for the pro-government forces. The Russians can show what their high-res and multispectral photos of Iranian troops revealed and add what their electronic eavesdropping picked. All the Russians will say about the Israelis is that the Israelis are even better at this stuff. How much better the Russians won’t say. In part that’s because they are not sure and Russia does not want to anger Israel, which has been on good terms with Russia far longer than Iran.
Russia demonstrates its pro-Israel proclivities by openly accepting Israeli use of Jerusalem as their capital and moving functions normally held in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This angers many Moslems, and especially Iran. This support for Israel is one the few things the United States and Russia agree on these days. The durability of this alliance is mainly a matter of paying attention to who can do what. For example, unclassified rankings of “the most powerful nations” tend to include tiny Israel in the top ten, as in; U.S., Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). These rankings combine economic, technical, military and diplomatic capabilities. Israel may be small in population but they are world class in many technology areas, have nukes and the most capable armed forces in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and UAE have much of the world oil reserves and armed forces they have built up over decades at great expense and, to the surprise of many (including Iran) made it work. Their combat pilots are competent and their anti-missile defenses work (as they have intercepted over a 100 ballistic missiles, many of them Iranian made, fired by Yemeni Shia rebels at targets in Saudi Arabia.) Iran and Turkey are not in the top ten and Russia notices that. Despite all that the Israeli alliance with Russia is unwritten and has limits. Yet it is real because Israel has not attacked any Russian targets with its growing air offensive against Iranian forces.
Israel has told the Assads that if they stick with Iran they will be destroyed. The Assads realize that the Iranians are fanatics about destroying Israel and that the Israelis have demonstrated their ability to counter any move the Iranians make. Moreover, all the other Arab states consider the Assads traitors for aligning themselves with the Iranians, who are quite openly at war with Arab control of Arabia and much else. Worse, no one has much sympathy for the Assads, who have very few good qualities. Despite this, the Assads apparently try to side with Russia and Israel rather than Iran. What this comes down to is the fact that Iran is a foreign (Indo-European, not Arab) power that wants to increase its direct control over Syria. Russia and Israel do not. Many Iranians (but few of their leaders) note that the three most powerful Middle Eastern states (Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE) are now allies, mainly against Iran. While the Turks are now led by a nationalistic Islamic leader who also wants to destroy Israel. The Turks also admit that Iran is a traditional rival and the Arabs are not as weak as they were during the centuries the Turks (the Ottoman Empire) ruled them. Many Turks are smitten with the nationalism thing, just as they once were when they had an empire. But the Turks didn’t get their empire and then transition to a modern, industrial age state when the empire collapsed a century ago by being stupid. The only dummies at this point are key factions of the religious dictatorship that rules Iran. Right now that the Iranian dictatorship is under a lot of pressure to justify all the money they have been spending on these “foreign adventures.” Iran is especially keen to strike a blow against Israel but has so far failed. This encourages the protestors inside Iran who admire a winner and despise losers. In Syria, the Assads, Russia and the Turks are well aware that the current Iranian government is in trouble back home and if there another major uprising in Iran, the Iranian mercenaries in Syria, as well as the advisors and specialists, might be quickly gone. That would change a lot of things in Syria.
August 6, 2018: In the east (Deir Zor province), an American airstrike near the Iraqi border killed nearly 30 ISIL gunmen. Iraqi and American artillery was also involved with Kurdish led SDF troops advancing on the Syrian side of the border to clear more territory of any ISIL presence. This makes it much more difficult for ISIL personnel to move between Syria and Iraq.
August 5, 2018: In the northeast, the Kurdish led SDF commanders announced that it had cleared ISIL from the Jazeera Desert, an area near the Iraq border that, along with the Yarmouk Basin down south (near the Israeli and Jordanian borders) provided ISIL with its last two base areas in Syria. With no base areas left ISIL is even more disorganized and ineffective in Syria. There are still some organized groups of ISIL men active in the south ( Suwayda province which borders Jordan). This area contains most of the Druze population in Syria and ISIL kidnapped and killed several Druze in an effort to get some cooperation. That failed and now Assad forces are moving in to hunt down and kill the remaining ISIL men in the area. While there are still hundreds of ISIL men in Syria they are on the run in a very hostile (to ISIL) environment. More of these ISIL men may move to Iraq, where ISIL is more active and has better prospects of creating another base area.
August 4, 2018: In the northwest (Hama province), Aziz Asbar a senior Syrian scientist died when his car exploded in the city of Masyaf, where he ran many programs at the main government research center for advanced weapons. Israel is the prime suspect, although it could have been any number of rebel groups because this research center was also in charge of developing and manufacturing chemical weapons. The Aziz Asbar was linked to design and construction of new underground factories for assembling Iranian ballistic missiles. Asbar also got credit for designing the “barrel bombs” shoved out of helicopters and transports onto pro-rebel civilians to encourage them to flee the country. Even the Assads believe Israel carried out this attack because it requires skilled operatives and planners to make it work as well as agents apparently able to operate anywhere in Syria. Killing Asbar not only removes a key person in the Syrian special weapons effort but also reminds the Syrians that cooperating with Iran will lead to more targeted assassination and airstrikes on Syrian locations used by Iran. Asbar was known to have worked closely with Iran on various projects including delivering weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon via Syria.
August 3, 2018: Lebanon has not had much success in persuading its 1.5 million Syrian refugees to return home to areas that are again under Assad control and generally free of fighting. Opinion surveys indicate that over 90 percent of the refugees do not want to return under any conditions. Several thousand have returned but not many more are even willing to consider it.
August 2, 2018: In the south Russian military police are operating with UN peacekeepers so that, for the first time since 2014, the peacekeepers can patrol the 1974 UN demilitarized zone (extending 24 kilometers from the Israel-Syrian border). By the terms of the 1974 deal, any Syrian violation of that zone would be considered an act of war and would be met with force from Israel. Russia has also agreed to keep Iranian forces as far from the Israeli border as they can. This includes Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries. The Russian military police are also taking possession of the abandoned Syrian observation positions which, along with their Israeli counterparts, monitored the border and the actions of the UN peacekeepers. The Russians will soon turn over these observation posts to the Assad forces.
August 1, 2018: In the south, near the Israeli border, an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian side killed seven ISIL men belonging to the Khaled Bin Walid Army as they approached Israeli territory. A larger number of ISIL men were trying to get into Israel and Jordan and most were heading for Jordan. All these ISIL efforts were apparently failing because Israel and Jordan knew ISIL was coming. Syrian and Iranian forces have driven rebels out of the border areas and while most rebel fighters could accompany pro-rebel civilians out of the area (via a surrender deal) many ISIL men could not because they are at war with everyone and many of them are not even Syrian. The Israel border with Syria is much shorter than the Jordanian one but both countries share surveillance and intelligence information about Islamic terrorists in southern Syria so over the last two days Jordan has also reported intercepting even more of the Khaled Bin Walid Army men. This appearance of ISIL men on the Israeli and Jordan borders was not unexpected. The Assad forces, assisted by Russian air power and Iranian mercenaries have been fighting for weeks to force ISIL out of their last stronghold (the Yarmouk Basin) near where Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders meet. In late July the Assads announced that the thousand or more ISIL men in the Yarmouk Basin had been defeated and the survivors were on the run.
Elsewhere in the south ( Suwayda province which borders Jordan) ISIL attempted to get into Khalkhalah Airbase and do some major damage. The attackers were detected and defeated before they could do much damage. Some aircraft and UAVs were damaged.
July 31, 2018: In the south, on the Israeli border, Iranian forces appear to be pulling back. Russia says it has persuaded the Iranians to stay at least 85 kilometers from the Israeli border. The problem is constantly monitoring and verifying compliance. The Iranians regularly make peace deals like then and then devote a lot of effort to developing ways to violate the terms of their agreement and not get caught. Russia has also told Israel that Iran has rebuffed Russian suggestions that Iran withdraws its forces from Syria.
July 30, 2018: Russia declared that its participation in the fighting along the southern border was over. That meant no more Russian air strikes or special operations troops down there. Russia will keep its military police down there, along the Israeli border, to help keep Iranian forces from the Israeli border. Russia is concentrating its forces in the northwest, for the coming battle for Idlib province.
July 27, 2018: Kurdish SDF negotiators finished another several days of discussions in Damascus, where terms for Kurdish controlled northeast Syria rejoining a post-war Assad controlled Syria are worked out. Although technically rebels the SDF and the Assads have been frenemies through most of the war and often cooperated with each other, and occasionally fought.
July 26, 2018: In the south Syrian troops raised the Syrian flag over the main crossing between Syria and Israel. The Syrians had lost control of this crossing to rebels in 2014.
July 25, 2018: In the south ( Suwayda province which borders Jordan), ISIL attacked several Druze towns and villages using gunmen and suicide bombers, killing nearly 300 people and kidnapping 30 men, women and children. The Druze, who are usually pro-Assad, were often less so after 2011, especially as Suwayda province and most of the areas bordering Jordan and Israel were occupied by rebels. The Druze are again very pro-Assad and these attacks are intended to force the Assads to allow ISIL personnel to escape the offensive being waged against them.
Elsewhere in the south, Israeli artillery hit an ISIL rocket launcher near the Israeli border. ISIL had intentionally fired some rockets into Israel in an effort to get Israel to retaliate against nearby Syrian army forces. The Israelis were not deceived and went after the ISIL forces and not the Assads. Israel informed Russia about this and the Russians told the Assads what was going on.
July 24, 2018: The American commander of operations against ISIL in Syria and Iraq reported that his forces had confirmed the deaths of six ISIL leaders in the last three months. Most of these were killed by airstrikes and it took time to confirm that a senior leader was indeed killed.
July 23, 2018: In the south, the new Israeli David’s Sling (formerly Magic Wand) anti-aircraft system experienced a system failure during its first combat test. The fire control computer miscalculated where a Syrian SS-21 ballistic missile fired towards Israel would land. The SS-21 has a range of 120 kilometers and Syria has had at least forty of them since the 1990s. In this case, two Syrian SS-21 s were launched at targets in Syria near the Israeli border. Two David’s Sling missiles were launched to intercept the SS-21s but both missed because the SS-21s were not headed for Israeli territory. One of the David’s Sling's missiles did not self-destruct and crashed in Syria (where debris could be collected for analysis.) Israel successfully completed tests for David’s Sling in early 2017 and planned to deploy the first battery of the system by the end of the year. This was a year later than expected because earlier testing had revealed some potential problems that required fixing. Israel is very exacting about such technical problems because these weapons are the first line of defense against threats that are very real and openly calling for the destruction of Israel. David’s Sling is the Israeli replacement for existing American Patriot and Hawk systems. The first battery was deployed in northern Israel but now the use of that battery will be restricted until the investigation is complete and any recommendations tended to.
July 22, 2018: In the south, a Syrian Su-22 light bomber flew across the Israeli border and was shot down by Patriot missiles after it had gone about two kilometers inside Israel. Syria denied that the Su-22 had crossed the border and said it would retaliate.
Israeli again attacked an Iranian run missile assembly plant in northwest Syria. Several Hezbollah personnel were killed. This is the fourth such attack on Syrian targets so far this month.
July 21, 2018: In the south, Israel allowed 400 Syrians to enter Israel on their way to sanctuary in Jordan. These Syrians consisted of 98 Civil Defense volunteers (“White Helmets”) and their families who were fleeing rebel-held areas near the border that had recently been by conquered by Syrian troops. The While Helmets operated mainly in rebel-held areas and got a lot of good publicity for their selfless efforts to assist wounded or homeless civilians in combat zones. Hundreds of the several thousand While Helmets known to exist were killed or wounded in action. The Syrian government considered the While Helmets rebels and traitors and killed them whenever possible because they made the Syrian government look bad because the government has, since 2011, deliberately used artillery fire and airstrikes against civilians in rebel-held territory. Israel did not take credit for allowing the White Helmet busses to move through Israel to get to Joran in order to deny Syria another reason to hunt down and kill While Helmets.
July 18, 2018: In the east, on the Iraqi border the Iraqi military was alerted by an informant that a large (about 60 vehicles) ISIL convoy had crossed the border from Syria near Baaj (Nineveh province, 160 kilometers southwest of Mosul). In mid-2017 Shia militias declared the border town of Baaj clear of ISIL forces and now occupied by government forces to keep it that way. Iraqi ground and air forces went searching for the convoy but it had apparently already dispersed after crossing the border and reinforced various ISIL cells operating in Nineveh province.
July 17, 2018: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkish and Iranian negotiators worked out a deal that would allow for 6,000 Shia civilians in two villages surrounded by rebel (HTS) territory would be allowed to leave, along with 300 Shia prisoners held by the rebels. In return, the Assads will release over a thousand rebels and pro-rebel civilians held in prison camps. Deals like this have been made before but the negotiations often go on for months.
July 15, 2018: In the north (outside Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike destroyed part of an Iranian base. Iran denied this initially but two days later Israel released “before and after” satellite photos confirming the damage. Israel has its own photo satellites, built in Israel and put into orbit by Israeli rockets. Locals reported that nine Iranians were killed (and a dozen others) by the airstrike, which basically wiped out an Iranian military supply facility near an airport.
July 13, 2018: In the east (Deir Zor province), American airstrikes near the Iraqi border killed about 40 Syrian soldiers who attempted to cross the Euphrates River despite American warnings not to. Iraqi and American artillery, firing from Iraq, was also used to force the Assad forces to stay on away from American bases and areas used by American troops. The Americans are in Syria to support Kurdish led SDF forces that are clearing ISIL from northeastern Syria.
Satellite photos of Syria show that the Iranian warehouses and other facilities destroyed at the Damascus airport during a May Israeli airstrike have been rebuilt. That was quick, and bold as well since the Israelis have continued to attack similar Iranian facilities all over Syria.
July 12, 2018: In the south Israeli airstrikes were carried out against Syrian forces along the Israeli border. This was in retaliation for an Iranian made UAV that entered Israeli air space yesterday. The UAV was shot down and it was believed to be one the Iranian made UAVs the Assad forces are using for surveillance.
Israel announced it had an agreement with Russia to deal with Iranian efforts to move troops to the Israeli border. Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from the Israeli designated security zone and allow Israel to do whatever it thought necessary to deal with the Iranian threat. Russia had warned Iran not to take on the Israelis and now was telling Iran that if they went to war with Israel in Syria they were on their own. This Russian warning came after the third meeting this year between the Israeli and Russian leaders.
The United States is building a new base in the Euphrates River Valley of Syria. The Americans have also built a third base across the border in Anbar Province, near the Syrian border, to support counter-terror operations in western Anbar as well as in Syria. The other two American Anbar bases are at the Al Asad airbase and near the city of Ramadi.