In the northwest (Idlib province) the February ceasefire is still technically in effect. That has only slowed down the fighting and military buildup. Since February the Turks have sent more than 3,000 more military vehicles into Syria and more than a brigade of troops. There are over 10,000 Turkish troops in Idlib and adjacent Aleppo provinces, along with nearly as many Syrian mercenaries. In March Turkey and Russia forced Syria to agree to a ceasefire in Idlib. That agreement has been increasingly violated by uncooperative Islamic terror groups in Idlib. Turkey is held responsible for this as it is the Turks who support trying to negotiate with the disunited Islamic terror groups trapped in Idlib.
Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS
(Hayat Tahrir al Sham), which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions still do not trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turks. Russia and Syria have reason to believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but, for many shortsighted politicians, it is still an attractive option. Currently, HTS is trying to crack down on uncooperative Islamic terrorist factions in Idlib. This is difficult and so far not completely successful. HTS wants to do this without triggering major armed resistance. So far the worst resistance has been a few bombings. This is a favorite for Islamic terror groups who are feuding. That and assassination of each other’s leaders.
The Iranian Fade
Israel believes Iran is backing away from Syria. Not exactly abandoning Syria, but not replacing personnel and material losses, mainly from the Israeli bombing campaign. The primary Iranian problem is financial. The sanctions, lower oil prices, mismanagement of the economy back in Iran and now the coronavirus losses have substantially reduced the amount of cash Iran can spend on foreign wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Syria is the most expensive of those foreign adventures and the most unpopular one with most Iranians. Over $15 billion has been spent on keeping the Assads in power and Iranians note that their current poverty would be much more tolerable if all those billions were spent on problems most Iranians face daily. In the last year, Iran has cut payments to Hezbollah by more than fifty percent and reduced the number of mercenaries in Syria as well as cash support for the Syrian economy. Iran is still providing free oil, which the Assads often sell on the black market.
The Quadruple Alliance of Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran that defeated the Syrian rebels is coming apart on how to deal with the last two rebel concentrations. Russia is threatening to cut much, or all, if its support for the Assad government if the Assads do not cooperate and back off on their attacks in Idlib province. Al Qaeda groups hold about half of Idlib province in the northwest and small portions of adjacent Aleppo and Hama provinces. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) still has scattered, but active, factions in the east
(Deir Ezzor province)
Iran still backs the Assads but is not willing or able to force the Russians to remain in Syria. What also annoys the Russians is the extent of the corruption by the Assads, who have been stealing Russian and Iranian aid as well as portions of the government's budget. The Assad clan seems more concerned about their own survival than they do of Syria’s. Iran has been the powerful patron of the Assads since the 1980s and now have more influence over Syrian affairs than the Russians. The Iranians are not willing to do anything about the Assad Clan misconduct, at least not right now.
The Russian alliance with Turkey is coming apart over differences in how to deal with the war in Syria. For Russia, it is a foreign affairs sort of problem. For Turkey, it is very much a domestic issue. The major issue is refugees from Syria. These refugees are not a problem for Russia, but for the Turks it is very different. Turkish public opinion is hostile to the Syrian refugees they host, as well as the smaller number of Afghan, Iraqi and other Moslem refugees. Many of these are not refugees but economic migrants willing to do whatever it takes to get into a wealthier Western nation. Europe no longer tolerates these refugees and Turks are not happy about getting stuck with them. This problem gets worse, especially for the Islamic government Turkey has had for the last two decades. This government became allies with Russia and Iran, two traditional enemies. To no one’s surprise, these alliances did not work out. In order to please these new friends, Turkey risked being expelled from NATO. Worst of all, expulsion from NATO would mean the West would regard Turkey as just another poorly managed, Islamic terrorist tolerating and unreliable Middle Eastern nation. One thing most Turks can agree on is NOT wanting to turn away from the West. The policy of being closer to Arab nations and tolerant of some Islamic terrorist or radical groups has also lost any popularity it once held. Turks have long (since World War I) been hostile to getting involved in foreign wars, especially when it involved Turkish troops getting killed. So far in 2020, Turkey has sent a lot more Turkish troops to Syria and more of them are getting killed, often by Russian airstrikes. The Turkish voters have made it clear that the current government is likely to lose the next elections if the Syrian involvement continues. With Syria, Turkey cannot just walk away. Syria is a neighbor and over three million Syrian refugees are in Turkey and Syria itself is still a mess. Turkish and Russian forces have been shooting at each other and the Iranians are not much better. Russia does not have much they can afford to offer Turkey as a solution. That makes this a more difficult situation for Russian diplomats, who are under orders to maintain good relations with Syria and Israel first and everyone else after that.
May 10, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) al Qaeda Islamic terrorists launched an attack on Turkish positions, sparking a battle that caused over a hundred casualties before it died down. This was the largest violation of the March 6 ceasefire so far. This battle actually took place in neighboring Hama province where the Islamic terrorist rebels hold some territory. The attackers belonged to Horas al-Din, a rouge faction that refused to recognize the ceasefire.
In Libya the LNA forces ambushed and killed a senior Syrian Turkish mercenary commander and showed off the man’s photo ID as proof. The dead commander, Mohamed Hendawi, was in charge of transporting the Syrian mercenaries from Turkey to Libya. The death of Hendawi makes it more difficult to persuade the Syrian mercs to work in Libya.
May 8, 2020: The United States accused Russia and Syria of organizing an Arab mercenary force to use in Libya to reinforce Russian military contractors already there to oppose Turkish Arab mercenaries. So far none of these Russian backed Syrian mercs have showed up in Libya. There
the Russian-backed LNA (Libyan National Army) is facing a growing Turkish military force. Russia agrees with the LNA that as long as the Turks are in Libya there can be no peace. The LNA also pointed out that the Turks are not the invincible imperial conquerors of old. The LNA claims to have killed dozens of Turks and hundreds of their Syrian Arab mercenaries. Dozens of Turkish UAVs have been shot down and photographed. The Turks deny these claims but back in Turkey the government is doing its best to suppress news of Turkish military personnel who have died in Libya and buried back in Turkey without any admission of where they died and how.
The Turks have about 8,000 of these Syrian Arab mercenaries in Libya with another 3,000 undergoing training. The mercenaries headed for Libya are men already on the Turkish payroll in northern Syria. A first there was no problem getting these Syria based mercenaries to go to Libya. The pay was higher and at first it appeared to be less dangerous. That is no longer the case. The LNA and Libyans in general are growing angrier at the “Turkish invasion” and the fact that Turkey is supporting Islamic militias that are unpopular in Libya. That unpopularity is one reason the LNA now controls most of the country. LNA began in 2014 as an opponent to Islamic terrorists and Islamic political militia. The longer the Turkish mercs are in Libya the more unpopular they become. The Libyans are hostile to foreign invaders, especially one that was a former imperial ruler of Libya. The Turks are violating international law and the UN, which created the GNA government the Turks are propping up, is not applying any real pressure against the foreign invaders. That’s why the Turkish mercs are suffering a casualty rate of nearly 20 percent. The Syrian mercs back in Syria can do the math and some are leaving Turkish service rather than be transferred to Libya.
Russia is providing aid to the LNA, mostly in the form of weapons and technical assistance in repairing and maintaining the largely Cold War weapons the LNA uses. There are about a thousand Russian combat troops in Libya but these are military contractors of the Wagner Group and seen as such by Libyans. The Russians are not perceived as foreign invaders. Nor are the Gulf Arabs and Egyptians who have been backing the LNA for the last five years.
Historically the Turks and Russians were always rivals and often at war with each other. Although the Russian and Turk empires dissolved a century ago, the ancient animosities did not. Now Turkish and Russian forces are fighter each other in Syria and Libya. Both areas used to be part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and both because close to Russia during the Cold War, buying most of their weapons from Russia and cooperating diplomatically. Most Syrians and Libyans are more interested in reviving the Russian relationship than the Turkish one.
May 7, 2020: Russia issued another order trying to stop its military personnel from revealing details of military operations, especially in foreign combat zones like Ukraine, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in Africa. The ban also prohibits troops and veterans from ever mentioning on the Internet that they were in the Russian military. This is not the first effort to ban the leaking of information via the Internet and won’t be the last. In early 2018 Russian military personnel in Syria were ordered to stop using a smartphone and to replace them as soon as possible with older models that lack GPS, high speeds and other features that are used by many commercial UAVs and quadcopters. The frequencies used by smartphones were being jammed around Russian bases in Syria as part of defensive measures against Islamic terrorist quad copters carrying explosives to be used for mass attacks. It was believed that this would also prevent Russian personnel from posting military information on the Internet. It didn’t. The jamming couldn’t be maintained all the time because it interfered with other military and commercial electronics. Earlier bans on military personnel posting anything on social media did not work either because friends and family would post items sent to them via email.
May 6, 2020:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops are replacing Iranian mercenaries in key areas. Iran appears to have withdrawn some forces from Deir Ezzor province, either to move them closer to the Israeli border or disband mercenary units it can no longer afford to pay and support. Many of these mercenaries re local civilians who go back to lower-paying jobs for local warlords. The Russian presence consists of a few checkpoints and some patrols backed by Russian airpower. The Syrian government is technically in control of Deir Ezzor province but the lack of security forces has enabled some of the ISIL groups hiding out there to assert themselves and terrorize civilians with kidnappings and murder. ISIL wants to civilians to provide support and not cooperate with police or soldiers who come after the Islamic terrorists. In the last week at least nine civilians have been murdered and in over a dozen rural towns and villages
May 5, 2020:
east (Deir Ezzor province)
Israeli airstrikes hit several Iranian targets causing about over 30 casualties and extensive property damage. The explosions were huge and sustained indicating the Israelis had blown up stores of Iranian rockets and ammo.
May 4, 2020: In Syria (outside Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike hit a research center where Syrians and Iranians were working on chemical weapons. Satellite photos later showed the damage was extensive. Further east of Aleppo province, another Israeli airstrike hit an ammo storage site, causing a large explosion.
In the east (Deir Ezzor province), an Israeli airstrike hit the Mayadeen army base and the Iran-backed militia stationed there. Outside Mayadeen ISIL ambushed and killed two Iranian troops.
May 3, 2020: Rami Makhlouf, the wealthy cousin of Syrian dictator Basher Assad, released a video on Facebook in which he pleaded with his cousin Basher to work with him to resolve financial problems Makhlouf is having. This is more than a family feud because Makhlouf was once, and may still be, the wealthiest man in Syria. Much of that wealth is now outside Syria. Basher had Makhlouf detained on corruption charges and is demanding $250 million in cash to release Makhlouf from house arrest. Makhlouf still has Internet access, the better to authorize his foreign bankers and partners to provide the money. Makhlouf says he is broke, having spent most of his fortune to support the fight against the rebels. Basher, or at least his British wife, believes Makhlouf is corrupt as ever and still has considerable assets. Makhlouf is offering to pay the cash to Basher, and not anyone else, especially the British wife, to convince the Syrian leader of his sincerity. This video was very embarrassing for Basher and verified reports that he was losing control of his local allies. A recent opinion poll, conducted in areas where Russia has troops (and could safeguard the pollsters) found that Basher had little support among Syrians, who also blame Assad for the growing corruption and lawlessness in areas under Assad control. Before the 2011 civil war Basher, his brother and Maher and Makhlouf were considered the three most powerful men in Syria and because they were all related, proof that the Assads were still in charge. Maher is still loyal to his brother but serves as a military commander, not a financier and economic expert. Basher also had several Makhlouf allies and subordinates in Syria arrested and Makhlouf wants to get these men freed as well. Makhlouf was supposed to find ways to pay off the nearly $5 billion debt to Russia. While the Russians have provided a lot of free assistance, a lot more of it was provided with the understanding that it would be paid for. Iran was supposed to help with that but Iran is in worse economic shape that Russian and has sharply cut its economic aid to Syria.
The covid19 virus has also hit Syria, at least urban areas the Assads control. This includes Damascus, Aleppo and major ports and towns in the west. No official data has been released but unofficial sources (phone calls, Internet chatter), indicate that economic activity has been reduced and thousands are ill. Most Syrians consider covid19 no worse than the annual influenza outbreak.
May 2, 2020: The overall level of violence in Syria is way down from levels that had been the norm from 2013 to 2017. Instead of over a thousand civilians killed each month, in April the number was less than 80. Military losses are several times that and all the losses are primarily in the northwest (Idlib, Aleppo and Hama) or the southeast, mainly near the Iraqi and Israeli borders.
May 1, 2020:
In central Syria (Homs province) an Israeli airstrike triggered large explosions at a Hezbollah ammo storage site.
April 30, 2020:
In the south, on the Israeli border (Golan Heights) Israeli helicopters hit Iran-backed militia near the border. The next day more airstrikes hit Hezbollah positions in the Golan Heights.
The U.S. uncovered and disrupted a Quds Force smuggling effort that involved buying a second-hand 150,000 ton oil tanker. Once the tanker was controlled by Quds it could be used to smuggle oil to China, India or Syria. American sanctions officials charged several individuals and companies with complicity in buying the 22 year old tanker for $12 million. The Americans are attempting to seize the tanker and end its smuggling activities. Currently, the tanker is being detailed in Oman.
April 28, 2020: In the north
a bomb in an oil tanker truck exploded
, a Turkish controlled town on the Turkish border. Nearly fifty troops and civilians were killed and many more wounded. The Turks blamed Kurdish separatists for the bombing.
April 20, 2020: The U.S. accused Russia of ordering its Su-35 fighters to threaten American P-8A maritime patrol aircraft in international airspace near the Syrian coast. Today and yesterday Russian fighters flew closer than ten meters (32 feet) to the P-8As in an effort to intimidate them. Despite video evidence, Russia insists it was just making sure the P-8A did not move into Syrian airspace (anything within 22 kilometers of the coast).
April 15, 2020: In the west, on the border with Lebanon an armed UAV, believed to be Israeli, destroyed a vehicle crossing the border illegally. Israel often targets lone vehicles in this area because intel has identified the people inside as Hezbollah, Iranian or Islamic terrorists trying to attack Israel.
April 10, 2020:
Israel has again warned Syria to keep Hezbollah away from the Golan Heights. A recent Syrian news video showed the Syrian corps commander in charge of the Golan Heights sector personally showing a senior Hezbollah commander around the Golan Heights border. If this was meant to taunt Israel it worked as Israel announced that both these commanders were on the target list as were any Hezbollah personnel found near the Golan Heights.
Israel has occupied most of the Golan Heights since 1967 when they took the area after Syrian used these heights to attack Israeli territory to the south. In 1981 Israel annexed the area. The UN opposed this but that had no impact on the situation. Israel points out that Syria has never made serious efforts to retake the Golan Heights since 1973. In that respect Israel considers the Golan Heights abandoned property and has absorbed it. Iran ordered Syria and Hezbollah to assist Iran in turning the Golan Heights into a combat zone. So far that has gotten a lot of Syrians and Lebanese members of Hezbollah killed. Recently Iran spent a lot of money to recruit nearly 4,000 Syrians into a Syrian branch of Hezbollah. A similar effort was undertaken in Iraq.