Syria: The Iran Problems


February 21, 2023: Iran remains obsessed with destroying Israel though no one else in the region has agreed with that for many years. Iran’s presence in Syria is Israel’s chief threat, so Israeli efforts to make a peace deal with the Syrian Assad government depend on convincing the Assads that with Israeli help they can survive declaring their independence from Iranian domination. Israel has long recognized this opportunity and in mid-2022 sent Basher Assad an ultimatum that, if he did not cease cooperating with the Iranians (especially the movement and storage of Iranian missiles to Syria), Israeli airstrikes would go after Assad and family members by bombing the many luxury residences (“palaces'') used by the Syrian family in and around Damascus. The Assads had earlier denied this degree of cooperation but this time Israel pointed out it was sharing intel with Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies and that means it is a lot more difficult for Assad to get away with lying to the Israelis. Arab nations and Israel were trying to get the Assads to switch sides and the Assads made a decision to stick with Iran without telling the wealthy Gulf Arab states he was hoping would invest in rebuilding the Syrian economy once the war was finally over. The Israelis did not follow through on their threat and it was believed that the Iranian threat to kill Assad and his family was a more compelling offer. The Assads are survivors and apparently continuing their negotiations with Arab nations and Israel. The Iranians are increasingly preoccupied with problems inside Iran as well as their new military alliance with Russia, This makes Iran a participant in the Ukraine war on the Russian side. That makes Iran even more unpopular internationally. Despite that, Iran is determined to hold onto its current power in Syria.

Israel treats Iran as a major threat, especially because of the Iranian presence in Syria though Iran’s nuclear program is starting to rival that. Israel has been at war with Iran in Syria for nearly a decade, during which Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes and a few commando operations against Iranian operations in Syria. This cost Iran a lot of lives and money, and is one of the things restive Iranians want to halt by pulling Iranian forces out of Syria and Lebanon. But first the Iranians have to shut down the Iranian religious dictatorship, which, as expected, resists efforts to shut down operations in Syria.

Iran controls irregular forces in Syria along with the more organized Hezbollah in Lebanon and the inept Hamas in Gaza. Iran also has short-range ballistic missiles that can reach Israel and keeps trying to smuggle guided rockets and short-range ballistic missiles into Syria and Lebanon. Hundreds of Israeli air strikes have prevented the guided weapons buildup and formidable Israeli BMD (ballistic missiles defense) systems neutralize the use of missiles launched from Iran. So far the defenses have worked. Israel has offered to sell BMD systems to their new Arab allies and help them use whatever BMD systems they obtain to keep the Iranian missiles out.

February 19, 2023: In the south (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike at night damaged a ten-story building in a residential neighborhood that was being used as the headquarters for Iranian and Hezbollah operations in Syria. Iran believed that a building in a residential area would discourage Israel from carrying out an air strike. The upscale residential area is where a lot of senior government officials and their families live. Israeli aircraft used at least two air-to-surface guided missiles for the attack. The building was not completely destroyed, but much rubble fell into surrounding streets and windows in some adjacent buildings were broken. The airstrike took place after midnight when February temperatures are near freezing and not many people are on the streets in residential neighborhoods. Iran tried to use civilians as human shields by placing this headquarters in a residential area and it is unclear if the Syrian government agreed with this policy or were forced to go along. In Gaza the Hamas government regularly puts key military facilities in residential areas and Israel attacks them, usually after first hacking the telephone system to call all the civilians who might be and danger and warning them to leave their building. This reduces civilian casualties and annoys Hamas. The situation is different in Syria where Iranians are an unwelcome guest the Assad government cannot refuse.

February 17, 2023: In the east (Homs province) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) carried out an attack on Syrian soldiers in the city of Homs, leaving 53 dead, most of them civilian bystanders to an ambush of a military convoy.

February 16, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) American and Kurdish forces carried out an airborne (via helicopters) raid on an ISIL safehouse and killed Hamza al-Homsi, an ISIL leader who supervised ISIL operations in eastern Syria. The surprise raid hoped to capture Homsi alive but, as with most ISIL leaders, he killed himself with explosives to avoid capture. The explosion wounded four American soldiers and a military dog that accompanied them. These dogs can locate hidden people and attack on command anyone who appears willing to put up a suicidal resistance. Arabs are generally not fond of dogs.

February 15, 2023: In the northwest (Idlib province) fighting resumed in the northern part of the province where there was much damage and over 20o deaths as a result of the February 6 earthquake. There was also damage to local housing and buildings used by relief agencies. The families of the Islamic terrorists depend on food aid trucked in from Turkey. The road has been closed because the quake damage most much more severe in Turkey. The informal truce in Idlib province was a day-to-day thing and was not expected to last long.

February 14, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) American troops shot down an Iranian UAV that was collecting information on an American base.

February 6, 2023: A massive earthquake registering 7.8, on a scale where anything over six is considered major, devastated the Turkish-Syrian border in northeast Syria. Iran ordered its Islamic terrorists support units (Quds Force) in the area to provide any quake relief they are capable of. Some other Islamic terrorist groups did the same. This has long been a major combat zone on the Syrian side of the border. Most of the earthquake damage took place on the Turkish side. Total deaths are expected to exceed 50,000 and the total won't be known until the massive numbers of collapsed structures, especially in residential areas, are searched. The quake brought a halt to combat in Syria and Turkish military operations in the area as well as the food and other aid for the many civilians trapped in the Syrian Idlib province combat zone. This disrupts the operations of Islamic terror groups in the area. Islamic terrorists in other parts of Syria, particularly near the Israeli and Iraqi borders, reduced or suspended operations because of fears they would be subject to more attacks as a result of the temporary neutralization of Islamic terrorist operations in northern Syria. Israel and Iraq have both sent rescue and relief aid to Turkey.

February 5, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Hezbollah forces left the province and headed back to Lebanon on, where this group comes from. Hezbollah was organized in the 1980s with help from Iran and has been supported by Iran ever since. Increasingly, most Lebanese saw this support as Iranian interference in Lebanese affairs.

In Russia the Israeli prime minister met with Vladimir Putin to discuss their arrangement in Syria. Russia does not use its air defense systems against Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets and Israel does not supply Ukraine with weapons. Before Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Ukraine was a regular customer for Israeli military equipment and weapons. That stopped because Russia began buying weapons from Iran and Russia would only maintain their informal ceasefire with Israeli airstrikes in Syria if Israel halted weapons shipments to Ukraine. The Ukrainian was not happy with this change and diplomatic relations with Israel were disrupted for a while until Israel and Ukraine agreed that both nations were under attack by Iran and had the right to defend themselves any way they could. This apparently included Israel quietly advising Ukraine on the methods Israel developed to block Iranian UAV attacks or reconnaissance efforts.

January 29, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) unidentified armed UAVs attacked a convoy of trucks that had just left Iraq and were moving towards a nearby base used by Iran-backed militias. Many of these militiamen are from Iraq or Lebanon (Hezbollah). Sometimes the UAVs are American but sometimes they are Israeli, which has UAVs capable of doing this and intelligence assets (photo satellites and local informants) to detect and track such Iranian supply convoys. Iraq doesn’t care who does it as long as the attacks take place on the Syrian side of the border.

January 26, 2023: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is still active in adjacent portions of Syria and Iraq where the group was founded in 2014, but its affiliates in other parts of the world are the sources of more attacks and casualties. After its founding in 2014, ISIL violence and casualties grew until their peak in 2018, when there were 3,7oo attacks (80 percent in the Middle East) and then progressively fell with 2022 seeing 1,400 attacks with only 26 percent in the Middle East while most were elsewhere, most of (45 percent) them in Africa. The number of dead and wounded declined even more between 2018 and 2022.

Despite all this, the major American counter-terrorism effort is still in the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq. While ISIL no longer controls any territory in these two nations, that area still contains the largest concentration of ISIL members and is thus a “target rich” environment for counter-terror operations. This area is still where the senior ISIL officials live (and more frequently die) because of 3,400 American troops and even more from local organizations that are very good at finding, fighting and killing or capturing ISIL members. In 2022 that amounted to 1,100 ISL members killed or captured. Nearly 60 percent were killed because even when cornered, ISIL members tend to fight to the death.

While most of the ISIL losses were suffered by ISIL affiliates, none were as concentrated as the ISIL activity and losses in Syria and Iraq. There are over a dozen ISIL affiliates outside Syria-Iraq, most of them in Africa (from North Africa to Mozambique and South Africa). There are affiliates in Arabia, Israel (Palestinian territories), Afghanistan and South East Asia. In short, ISIL is becoming small but more dispersed and much less active.

January 25, 2023: During 2022 Turkey became a major player in Syria, which previously depended heavily on Iran for assistance. Back in the 1980s Iran became a patron of the Shia minority government of Syria. It was only natural for Iran to come to the aid of the Shia Assad government when most of the Syrian population (Sunnis) went to war with the Assads. In 2015 Russia got involved too as the Assads were its reliable partner in the Middle East. Then there was Israel, which Iran wanted to destroy but the Russians wanted to protect and Turkey was somewhere in the middle. Now Turkish and Russian mercenaries in Syria are fighting each other. Iran has become a major ally of Russia because of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey is trying to exploit this, if only because Turkey and Russia have been rivals for centuries. Reviving diplomatic and economic ties with Israel is part of that. Historically, what is going on in Syria is an unnatural act. Russia, Turkey and Iran have centuries of mutual hostility and frequent wars defining their relationship. That made their alliance in Syria unusual and now things are returning to the usual state of mutual hostility and competition. Russia and Turkey want Israel on their side while Iran only wants to destroy Israel.




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