Syria: Brutal And Hated Shia Overlords


January 12, 2021: In the south (Golan Heights) Israeli aircraft continue to drop thousands of leaflets on Syrian villages near the border warning residents to stay away from Iranian or Hezbollah bases near the border. The civilians know where these bases are and some will do business with those in the bases. These leaflets made it clear that Israeli airstrikes on these Iranian bases and camps would be a regular occurrence. Some leaflets also call on individual Syrian unit commanders in the area to stop cooperating with the Hezbollah and Iranian Quds Force men in their area and order them to leave and not endanger local civilians.

Despite, or because of, the increased Iranian presence in southern Syria a lawless chaos exists in the Damascus suburbs and gets worse south of the city along the Israeli border area. This is where Iran is making an intense effort to gain the support of Sunni Arab civilians. The hostility and violence are a side effect of the poverty, high unemployment and hostility towards the Assad government and their Iranian sponsors. In this respect the local gangsters see their crimes as patriotic resistance to their brutal and hated Shia overlords.

The Iranians are spending a lot of money to buy, or just seize, and rehabilitate abandoned property for the locals. Iran seeks to encourage new businesses to start or defunct ones to revive. Iran will supply loans and access to supplies. The Assad government can’t do any of this and can’t openly criticize the Iranians either for seeking to buy the loyalty of Syrians along the border.

Israel is seeking to support this resistance but is silent about details, other than the constant airstrikes against Iranian targets and seeking to maintain their informant network along the border. The informants make it possible to hit Iranian targets with smart bombs, missiles or artillery even if the Iranians have gone to great lengths to conceal the locations. This includes storing missiles, rockets and other weapons in residences and commercial buildings. In an effort to evade the precision, attacks the Iranians are storing weapons shipments in civilian warehouses closer to the Iraq border, where the Israeli intel is less effective. Israeli airstrikes have reached the point where just about any concentration of Iranian forces or stored weapons Israel can locate is attacked. This is an endurance contest in which Israel has an edge. Iran has money problems and maintaining a military presence in Syria is not a necessity. For Israel it’s essential to keep the Iranians out of Syria, at least as long as Iran openly calls for the destruction of Israel. The Iranian war effort in Syria has another problem in that more and more Iranians openly oppose the expense and risk of operations in Syria. No such domestic opposition in Israel. This is why Israel keeps carrying out the airstrikes in Syria and doing so more often and accurately because a lot of Syrians are willing to provide target information.

Idlib Rebels Rally

The remaining rebels in Idlib province have managed to overcome some of their internal disputes in order to maintain more effective resistance to the advancing Syrian troops. The leader of this opposition are Syrian al Qaeda members, some with a decade of combat experience. At the beginning of the 2011 civil war al Nusra, formed an al Qaeda affiliate formed and now under different names, remains the largest Islamic terrorist organization in Syria. Al Nusra evolved into a larger coalition (Tahir al Sham) which has been leading the rebel effort to hold onto some of Idlib province while trying to keep the rebels from fighting each other. Over the last year new leaders and new realities have reduced the number of mutually hostile factions. The factional fighting became a major problem in 2017 and during 2020 the factions came to realize that without one “rebel leader”, or at least some form of ceasefire between factions, the Syrians, Russians and Turks could negotiate with or crush the factions separately. Currently the one large dissident group is Hurras al Din (“Guardians of Rligion”) with about ten percent of the rebel manpower in the northwest. Hurras and al Sham leave each other alone, to help with that Hurras has moved a lot of its operations out of Idlib into Raqqa, Hama and Homs provinces. This includes attacking Turks and Kurds. This brings Hurras into proximity of ISIL activity but these two groups also appear to be leaving each other alone. Unofficial truces between rival Islamic terror groups are common, but nearly always temporary. Once one of these factions gains a degree of dominance anywhere, they will attack rival Islamic terror groups nearby.

What originally triggered the splits was disagreements over negotiating with Turkey to prevent the rebels and their families in Idlib from being massacred by the Assad government forces. Such deals were being offered and some rebel factions were always willing to talk. Because of those divisions there has been fighting between the “talk to Turkey” and “no talks” factions since early 2017. Idlib province has long been one area that remains under the control of rebels. Since most of those rebels belong to Islamic terrorist groups, they have a hard time determining who is in charge. There is a lot of dissention among Islamic terrorist rebels because of their defeats between 2015 and 2017. Many rebel groups lost more than half their strength by 2017 because of combat losses, desertions and a lack of new recruits.

In early 2017 the Ahrar al Sham faction tried to convince the Turks and the Americans that their battle was with the Syrian government, not other rebels. That led to years of feuding and fighting with the larger Tahir al Sham faction. That faction is a coalition of Islamic terror groups which underwent two name changes since 2016 when al Nusra renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al Sham and no longer connected with al Qaeda or ISIL. In mid-2016 there was another name change to Tahir al Sham, which insisted it was now simply a Syrian rebel group that, like most Syrian rebel organizations, was full of devout Moslems who really wanted to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” and not to be bombed. But the Americans still considered al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders admitted publicly that the al Nusra split was temporary. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. Even before mid-2016 al Nusra tried to distance itself from ISIL and began openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. In late 2016 more than half the Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels belonged to groups hostile to ISIL and most of these are controlled or allied with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/al Sham Fatah rebels. By 2017 ISIL was much weaker and the al Qaeda affiliated component split and looked for a way out of a civil war the rebels had apparently lost.

Kurds Against The World

The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib are not the only organized resistance to the Syrian government. There are some even more powerful secular rebels remaining in the northeast. These are the Syrian Kurds belonging to the SDF (Kurdish led Syrian Defense Forces rebels). The SDF also contains some Arabs and dominates the northeastern Hasaka province that borders Iraq as well as Tukey. SDF has American support, which helps keep the Russians and Syrians out. The Kurds are trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Assads. Both SDF and Assads see Turkey as a common enemy while the Assads and Turkey regard the SDF as a potential troublemaker. The Kurds feel they can negotiate a deal with the Assads, but the Turks are less willing to consider anything less than submission or elimination.

To this end the Turks are seeking to resettle Syrian Sunni refugees and even disarmed rebels in Syrian border areas the Turks’ control. This resettlement effort is meant to dilute the Kurdish population along the Turkish border. Ultimately the Turks want to control both sides of their Syrian border all the way from the Mediterranean coast to Iraq, and to a depth of 20-30 kilometers from the Turkish border. The Kurds have so far blocked several Turkish offensives. Many SDF Kurds back the formation of a Kurdish state incorporating portions of eastern Turkey, northeast Syria, northern Iraq and northwest Iran. All four of those nations oppose this Kurdish state and the Turks are the most violent and aggressive about it.

The Syrian Kurds and the SDF has American support, which helps keep the Russians and Syrians out. The Americans are less willing to take on Turkey, which is still, technically, a NATO ally.

The Mercenary Muddle

Turkey is having corruption problems with some of its Syrian mercenaries. The immediate problem is that many of the mercs, especially those in Libya, are not receiving their monthly pay on time or in full. That’s because in many cases the Turks pay the leader of a group of mercs and that leader is supposed pass on the money. The problem is that some of these leaders are corrupt and keep the payroll for a few months so they can use the cash for currency speculation or to finance various business schemes, some of them illegal. Sometimes the “borrowed” payroll cash was lost in those speculative ventures and the Turks are left to deal with a messy problem. Another scam is that merc leaders deducted “handling fees” from their subordinates pay. Some of these “fees” were quite high and seen as theft, not pay for any service. The leaders were paid more per month that the average merc and the corrupt leaders were seen as, well, corrupt. The Turks are having a hard time dealing with this problem.

In the last year the demand for Syrian Arab mercenaries has been enormous and the Turks soon ran out of reliable sources. In response the Turks approached less-secular or reliable Syrian militias and hired them, usually as a group. The militia leaders insisted that the Turks deal with the leader most of the time and have minimal contact with the militiamen. These militia leaders do not trust the Turks and the Turks had to accept that if they wanted to make their recruiting goals. The Turks have hired over 30,000 Syrian Arabs as mercenaries so far, most of them for operations in Syria as well as Libya and, in late 2020, Azerbaijan. The mercs demanded short-term contracts, especially for work outside of Syria. That meant the Turks needed a lot more mercs on the payroll than the number actually at the front lines. There is a constant stream of mercs being processed into Turkish service, a process that verified the combat skills of each merc and provided additional training if needed.

To make themerc shortage worse, the Russians began hiring them as well, most for service in Syria but at least 2,000 for use in Libya. The Russians had an edge in recruiting the best and most reliable Syrian Arabs because the Turks were detested as an old nemesis once more invading Arab territory. The Russians were seen as true allies because the Russians did not want to control any territory, just rent a few bases and sell military equipment to Arabs. The Russians had been doing this in Syria for over half a century. In contrast the Turks had occupied and ruled most Arab territory for centuries, and were often quite brutal about it. That imperial rule ended only a century ago and is still remembered. The Russian offer the same pay as the Turks, but not the incentive of a residency permit in Turkey. The Iranians are also hiring again, but they, like the Turks, are seen as foreign invaders and don’t get the most reliable recruits.

January 11, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) unidentified UAVs fired eight missiles at Iranian forces near the Syrian side of the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Night attacks by unidentified jets and UAVs in this area are believed to be the work of the Americans. These attacks, which no one takes credit for, have been more frequent in the last few months.

January 10, 2021: In the east (Homs and Raqqa provinces) ISIL gunmen and Syrian security (army and militia) forces clashed numerous times over the last ten days. This turned into a major operation to clear ISIL from the Sukhnah desert in eastern Homs and the adjacent Rasafah desert in Raqqa province as well as the larger Baida desert to the south. The fighting produced several hundred casualties and over a hundred dead, most of them Islamic terrorists. These clashes began with a growing number of ISIL attack along the east-west main highways running through these desert areas. ISIL was also active with raids and assassinations. Russia and Syria had been planning major operation against ISIL and this is what the last few days of fighting consisted of. The final stages of this operation was particularly effective at finding and destroying ISIL camps and safe houses. That was due to Russian air support which included nearly 200 air strikes and equally numerous surveillance missions by UAVs and manned aircraft. If an ISIL group was detected it had fewer places to hide because of the scope of this operation. ISIL raids continue to threaten traffic on the main road that goes to the Euphrates River Valley and Homs province. This is all in the desert areas of eastern Syria. In addition to the Sukhnah and adjacent Rasafah deserts, there is the larger Badia Desert to the south, which extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria and 85 percent of Jordan and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Baida desert was long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against the Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. The main job of the security forces is to keep the main road open. This vital route passes through Homs province from the Euphrates to more populated (and pro-government) areas to the west. ISIL has grown weaker in their desert refuge because of constant clashes with Syrian troops and airstrikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft.

January 9, 2021: In the northwest (Latakia province) Russian aircraft carried out airstrikes on Islamic terrorist operation in the northern portion of the province near the border with Idlib province. The Syrian Army is trying to clear the area of Islamic terrorists if only because these rebels often try to attack the main Russian airbase in Latakia province.

January 7, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an unidentified UAV fired at least one missile at a truck transporting at least ten members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia. The vehicle was crossing the border on a road near the Al Bukamal border crossing with Iraq. Four men in the truck were killed and several wounded.

January 6, 2021: In the south (and Damascus and Suwayda province) several Israeli airstrikes hit Iranian camps and Syrian air defense systems. These airstrikes come after several senior IRGC commanders flew in from Iran to inspect IRGC operations in southern Syria. This included verifying the quality of housing and business structures local IRGC officers wanted to buy and rehabilitate for local Sunni civilians Iran was trying to make peace with. This was proving difficult because there was still a lot of anti-Assad and anti-Iran civilians in the area and that had resulted in nearly 900 attacks on Syrian and Iranian forces since mid-2019. That left over 500 people dead, most of them soldiers and government officials. This over fifty assassinations. Some of the dead were Sunni Arabs because the peace effort had persuaded over a hundred rebels to join the new Iran-sponsored government.

January 3, 2021: Russia announced that it had negotiated the reopening of the M4 highway for commercial traffic after being closed for a month while Turkish forces cleared some Islamic terrorist rebels who were periodically attacking traffic. T he M4 is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports. The Turks have also been fighting the Kurdish led SDF coalition.

January 2, 2021: In the south there was another Israeli airstrike on an Iranian arms warehouse, which also killed three Iranian mercenaries.

December 25, 2020: Russia is trying to make the best of a bad situation in Syria by encouraging peace talks between Israel and the Assad government of Syria. This is referred to as the Russian Plan B, a desperate but plausible ploy to avoid the unwelcome presence of Iran and Turkey in Syria and take advantage of the Israelis eagerness to make peace, even with the Assads, if that got Iran out of Syria. That is something Israel and Syrians (and everyone else) can agree on. The war in Syria should be over by now but it isn’t because the foreign factions, especially the Iranians and the Turks, have unresolved issues. Iran is obsessed with destroying Israel and is not having much success at all. Turkey wants to eliminate Kurdish separatists (both Turkish and Syrian) from Syria and that is proving very difficult. The Americans want to keep ISIL down and support their Kurdish allies while Russia wants to prop up the Assad government in order to preserve the airbase and port facilities treaties, they have obtained from the Assads.

December 24, 2020: In northwestern Syria (Hama province) an Iranian missile assembly was hit by an Israeli airstrike. Several structures were destroyed and at least six Iranian mercenaries were killed. This took place near the main Syrian research center for advanced weapons.

December 23, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) thirteen members of an Iran-backed Syrian militia deserted and fled to Kurdish (SDF) territory with the assistance of smugglers. The deserters are not fans of Iran and only joined the militia because it paid better and Iran said it would protect them and their families from retaliation by Syria for not being available for conscription into the Syrian military. Iranian promises turned out to be false and the work more dangerous than implied. Russia and Syria backed militias have been ordered to confront Iran-backed militias and threaten to open fire if the Iranian mercenaries don’t back down. As a resulting Iran is having a harder time finding recruits in eastern Syria and more problems keeping them on the payroll.

December 22, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike against an Iranian base killed or wounded over a dozen Afghan mercenaries.

December 15, 2020: In the east, across the border in Iraq (Kurdish run Dohuk province) a Kurdish border post on the Syrian border was attacked by over fifty Syrian YPG Kurdish militiamen. The Syrian Kurds were repulsed and came back the next day and tried again at another part of the border and failed there also

December 14, 2020: In the east, across the border in Iraq (Kurdish run Dohuk province) a Kurdish checkpoint on the Syrian border was attacked by Syrian YPG Kurdish militiamen who killed one Iraqi Kurd fighter and then retreated back into Syria.

December 12, 2020: Israel confirmed what journalists and intel agencies in other countries have been reporting about Iranian forces in Syria. Israel revealed that it had carried out over 500 attacks on Iranian forces and bases in Syria during 2020. Most attacks were from the air but artillery (cannon and missiles) was also used as well as a few ground operations. As a result, Iran has reduced the number of locations where it bases troops or stores equipment. There are fewer Iranian troops, most of them foreign mercenaries. The mercs are expensive and Iran is obliged to pay for medical care or death benefits as part of the compensation offered its mercenaries. Over a thousand mercenaries and at least a hundred Iranians have been killed or wounded by these attacks. Iran has not yet found a way to retaliate but so far has remained in Syria and moved most remaining forces to bases in northern and eastern Syria. These are also attacked but it costs the Israelis more to do so. Israel also revealed that it had also been conducting Cyber War attacks against Iran, both in Syria and in Iran itself. The Iranians have responded with its own Cyber War attacks, but these have done little damage until recently when Israel suffered major damage because someone hacked most of the firms that keep the Israeli economy going all the time and the military in wartime.

December 10, 2020: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Russian troops and their local 5th Corps Syrian militia set up a headquarters on the Syrian side near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This is part of an agreement with Iran to reduce the Iranian presence here and give Israel reason to halt its air attacks. The 5th Corps Syrian mercenaries began replacing Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian and Afghan mercenaries working for Iran.

December 1, 2020: In Syria (Damascus) an Israeli air strike killed eight Iranian mercenaries guarding an Iranian arms storage site south of the city.




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