Syria: The Least Worse Choice


July 21, 2023: In the northwest (Idlib province), the Syrian government is planning to take over the management of foreign aid delivered to the 2.9 million refugees in Idlib. Turkey has, with UN approval, managed the flow of aid from Turkey to Idlib. Russian used its UN veto to prevent that UN approval from being extended another six months. This makes it possible for Syria to take control of the aid and who gets it in the Idlib refugee camps. Many of the refugees are living in tents and the current summer heat is at record highs (over 40 degrees Celsius/104 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s as a secular dictatorship. The Assads belong to a Shia minority in a country that is over 80 percent Sunni. The widespread outbreak of violence in 2011-2 was not unexpected, only the extent of the fighting and how the rebels were soon dominated by al Qaeda Islamic terrorists and in 2014 by an even more violent al Qaeda faction known as ISIL. Since 2011 the Syrian revolt against Assad rule has left 500,000 Syrian dead, while seven million fled to neighboring countries and 13 million are internal refugees (displaced inside Syria) after they had been driven from their homes. The current ruler of Syria is Bashir Assad, a son of Hafez Assad who took control of the Syrian government 1971 and held onto that position until his death in 2000. He was succeeded by one of his sons Bashir, who promised reforms. But while there was some more economic freedom, Syria remained a dictatorship dominated by the Assad family, the Alawite minority and the Baath Party. Bashir has now demonstrated that he can be as brutal and ruthless as his father, whose signature repressive act was the 1982 destruction of a town held by Sunni Islamic radicals. That attack crushed the Sunni opposition. Hafez Assad was not challenged for the remaining 18 years of his life, and he died in bed, with his son Bashir succeeding him. But that was a more tyrant-friendly time. The Arab Spring has made it clear that democracy is now the preferred method of governing. Bashir believes that old-school violence will crush the opposition. Bashir has the tools to apply lots of pain.

The police state, perfected by the 20th century communists, was designed to keep democrats, and other threats, from overturning a dictatorship. The Assads, and the Baath Party, learned from the Russians (when they ruled the Soviet Union from 1922-91), as did most other Arab dictators. Actually, many of the communist techniques were ancient (secret police, informer network), and the Arab tyrants had some ancient techniques (nepotism) that the communists had tried to discard. However, communist and traditional police states still had a major weakness; poor economic performance. In the 21st century, with its pervasive media and social networking, that has become a fatal distraction. Dictators stay in power by being feared, not loved. But when the population grows angrier and angrier about their poverty and lack of opportunity, they develop something worth dying for.

Police states are now under more pressure from popular unrest, and Syria is a test of whether the traditional means of repression will work. In economic terms, only about ten percent of the population benefit from a dictatorship. This fraction of the population supplies the manpower for the secret police, armed forces leadership and essential civilian leaders. In Syria that is 50,000 full-time secret police (mostly Alawite) and whatever portion of the 300,000 active-duty military and 100,000 paramilitary forces constitute the leadership. A majority of the military and paramilitary are Sunni Arabs led by Alawite officers. The Alawites are five percent of the population. Sunni Arabs are about 75 percent. Other minorities (Shia, Druze, Christian) will, up to a point, side with the Alawites (a common pattern in the Middle East, where non-Sunni minorities have long been persecuted).

The Alawites fear retribution, and for good reason. The Alawites have used terror to maintain power for decades. Most Syrians have good reason to hate the Alawites, as well as all those (mostly other minorities) who have supported the government. While some of the protestors are minorities, most of them are Sunnis. Al Qaeda, which is basically a radical Sunni group, tried to hijack the revolution without much success because there were several Islamic terrorist factions and they fought each other as often as they did the Assad government. For a decade the revolt against the Assads has failed to overthrow the Assads and has devastated Syria and caused enormous damage to Syria.

During this Syrian civil war, some 5.5 million Syrians fled to neighboring countries. Turkey received 3.6 million, Lebanon two million and Iraq 250,000. There are also several million Syrians in Saudi Arabia, who are considered part of the large (over six million foreigners) expatriate workforce. About a third of those workers are Syrians. While many fled to Saudi Arabia because of the war in Syria, they were not treated like refugees and have jobs and status in Saudi Arabia. Countries bordering Syria want their refugees to go home. That cannot happen without the cooperation of the Syrian Assad government. Syria needs a lot of those refugees to revive the economy and the Arab League agreed to allow Syria to rejoin if they reduce their cooperation with Iran. The Assads said they would but have acted slowly on that. The Iranians have enough armed operatives inside Syria to threaten the lives of key Assad clan members. Currently, Iranian power is unusually weak inside Iraq and Syria. Now is a good time for the Assads to make a break from Iran, especially with the support of the Arab League and assurances that the League will help, not hinder, the Assads’ continued brutal use of force to maintain their rule in Syria. Turkey does not belong to the Arab League but agrees that it is time to send its Syrian refugees home. The Assad offer is acceptable if it will finally get those Syrians out of Turkey. The Assads appear to have decided in favor of the Arab League. That outcome of that decision will become known and put into effect sometime this year but has not happened yet. The Assads have survived during the last decade because of Iranian support, and Iranians are prone to strike back if betrayed. Iran could strike back by simply backing several opposition groups and further reducing support for the Assads (a lot was cut back earlier for simple Iranian lack of funds, which is a major reason for the Assads imminent change of position). The Iranians are better at this sort of thing than Arabs and have demonstrated that for centuries. The Assads have survived for so long because they make realistic assessments of what their opponents can do and act accordingly. The Assads promise the Arab League one thing and the Iranians something else in the hope of avoiding trouble from both groups. Since the 1970s the Assads have remained in power by choosing correctly whenever faced with a situation that could be a disaster if they make the wrong choice. At the moment, making the wrong decision could be the end of Assad rule in Syria. There is no obvious successor to the Assads. Because of that the Assads remain in power because the alternative could be a lot worse. That’s how the Assads survived the last decade of rebellion and civil war.

The deplorable state of the Syrian economy is a major problem for Syrians and the Assads. The way to measure the state of the Syrian economy is the strength of the Syrian currency; lira (or pound). The exchange rate was 50 pounds to the dollar before the violence began in 2011. In late 2022 it was 5,000 pounds to the dollar, rose to 7,000 pounds in early 2023 and is currently nearly 10,000 pounds to the dollar. Average monthly income is under $200 and much of that comes from expatriates sending remittances. The loss of oil shipments from Iran is a major factor in the collapse of the economy. The change in exchange rates also reflects the failure of the Assads to make much progress in the last few years. Aid from Russia and Iran had kept the Assad government and the Syrian Air Force going. The loss of Russian and Iranian support over the last few years was catastrophic because no one else stepped up to replace that aid.

July 18, 2023: In the south (near Damascus) an Israeli airstrike was carried out against Iranian (Hezbollah) targets. One Syrian militiaman and two Iranians were killed. Fires could be seen and explosions heard for several hours. The was the 20th Israeli airstrike in Syria this year.

July 17, 2023: In the east (Homs province) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on four Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) trucks carrying food and fuel for IRGC outposts in Homs. Several IRGC men were wounded. ISIL hit and run attacks like this in eastern Syria have been increasingly common this year. Over 349 people have been killed and included 18 ISIL members, 178 Syrian soldiers or members of Syria-backed militias, and 154 civilians.

July 16, 2023: In the south (Daraa province), despite the presence of Assad forces, random violence continues. The Syrian troops can occupy the area bur have proved incapable of policing and pacifying it. This is a major problem for the Assad government, because Daraa and several other provinces in eastern and southern Syria are technically government controlled. That has not stopped the continued low-level violence that includes kidnappings, shootings and some deaths. There are factions in Daraa that continue to fight each other and the Assad government to determine who has what. Some of the factions don’t use violence but offer aid to those who behave. Russia has been using this approach and distributes aid in nearby Deir Ezzor province despite the threats from Islamic terrorist and Iran-backed local militias.

July 14, 2023: In the east (Homs province) a Russian AN-30 surveillance aircraft flew over the American controlled crossing at Tanf (or Tanaf) near the Jordan and Iraq borders. The Americans have too much airpower and too much aerial and ground surveillance around Tanf for anyone to successfully attack it. The U.S. has declared a “free fire” zone that means any Assad/Iranian forces getting within 30 kilometers of Tanf are automatically attacked. This often does not apply to unarmed surveillance aircraft, especially if they are Russian. American and Russian forces in Syria sometimes cooperate with each other.

July 12, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Kurdish and Syrian forces regularly exchange fire across the Euphrates River. There are not may casualties because the shooting it about gaining or maintaining control of crossing points for smugglers supported by the Assads or the Kurds.

July 7, 2023: In the north (Aleppo province) an American UAV fired missiles to kill Osama al-Muhajer, the commander of ISIL forces in eastern Syria.

July 6, 2023: In northern Israel, on the Lebanese border, an unidentified group in Lebanon launched two rockets towards Israel. One landed inside Lebanon and the other near a village located on the Lebanon/Syria border. Israel believed the rockets were meant to hit Israel and fired some artillery shells at the location where the rockets were launched. Recently rockets fired at Israel from Lebanon and Gaza have been very inaccurate.

July 5, 2023: In the east (Homs province) an American MC-12 intelligence and surveillance aircraft was harassed by a Russian Su-35 fighter. The MC-12 is a 5.6-t0n twin-engine is a Beechcraft Super King Air 350ER modified for miliary use. The crew consists of two pilots and two sensor operators. No damage was done to the MC-12 but those in the aircraft had to momentarily ignore their mission to deal with what the Su-35 might do next. The Su-35 soon flew away.

Further south (near Damascus) an Israeli airstrike was carried out against Iranian targets.

July 2, 2023: In the south (Daraa province) there was more largely local violence that lasted for three days. These disputes were not about Israel. This often occurs near the Israeli border, where there has been a lot of random violence for the last decade. Daraa is the most violent province but similar violence continues in many parts of Syria.

Elsewhere in Syria, an Israeli airstrike against Iranian targets in central Syria (Homs) Syria left one Iranian was dead and four others wounded. These men were near the warehouses that the Israelis concentrated on. The warehouses contained something explosive because as the warehouses caught fire and burned, items inside continued to explode for hours. Syrian air defense units from Homs to the Israeli borders opened fire on the incoming Israeli missiles. Israel uses high-speed air-to-surface launched from Israeli aircraft across the border in Israel, Lebanon or Jordan. One of those Syrian anti-aircraft missiles missed a target and crossed the Israeli border and exploded in the air. This caused no damage or casualties on the ground. Israeli air defense units located where the S-200 missile that crossed the border came from and attacked the launch site. This is the 19th Israeli airstrike this year against Iranian targets in Syria.

July 1, 2023: An Israeli airstrike in central Syria (Homs) killed Hussein Suhani, an Iranian IRGC general.

June 22, 2023: For the last 30 years Transparency International mas been monitoring corruption worldwide. This is done by measuring corruption on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The nations with the worst score are currently Syria (score of 14), South Sudan (12) and Somalia (12). The least corrupt nations are currently Denmark and New Zealand, each with a score of 88. Iraq had a score of 23 in 2022, up from 21 in 2020, 20 in 2019, 17 in 2017-18 and 16 in 2013.

June 21, 2023: Russia and Israel are both major developers of systems that disrupt satellite navigation systems like GPS or the Russian GLONASS. Both nations use their jamming and anti-jamming tech against each other because Russia maintains a naval base and airbase on the Syrian coast while Israel is constantly under attacks by Iranian UAVs and missiles launched from Syria. Israeli missiles regularly hit Iranian targets in Syria and Russia uses its GPS jamming systems to disrupt these attacks. Israel has responded with new tech installed in the missile guidance systems that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of the jamming. This GPS jamming and counter-jamming competition has been going on for over a decade and became particularly intense when Russian forces arrived in Syria. Before that Russia had provided their ally Syria with these jamming weapons while Israel and the United States cooperated in developing new jamming tech.

June 16, 2023: In the north (Aleppo province) a Turkish UAV fired a missile at a Kurdish SDF military vehicle. The missile missed and injured a nearby civilian. Armed Turkish UAVs have been increasingly active on the Syrian side of the border. Today’s attack was 50 kilometers from the Turkish border.

June 15, 2023: Israeli airstrikes against targets near Damascus resulted in the destruction of many imported Iranian weapons and munitions as well wounding several Iran-backed Syrian militiamen. This was the 18th Israeli operation inside Syria so far this year. Fourteen have been airstrikes while four were carried out by Israeli troops crossing into Syria. Most of this activity has to do with the increased presence of Iran-backed militants near the Israeli border. Iran has long been obsessed with carrying out attacks inside Israel.




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