With Aleppo back in hands of the government the war is going in several directions as ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and the rebels in general weaken and retreat. One of the last rebel strongholds in Aleppo province, al Bab, was finally taken from ISIL over the weekend. It’s apparent that the Assad government, backed by Iran, Russia and Turkey are concentrating on clearing remaining rebels out of the northwest. That means Aleppo, Hama, Latakia, Homs (especially the key town Palmyra) and Idlib provinces. This includes coastal areas like Latakia where the Assads always had the most support. Turkey is intent on getting any anti-Turk (pro-PKK) Syrian Kurds out of northwest as well. Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey, remains a primary target because it was long an area held by al Qaeda affiliated rebels. There are still some rebels (few of them ISIL) west of Aleppo. Meanwhile everyone wants to eliminate the ISIL presence in Iraq and eastern Syria (namely Raqqa). ISIL is rapidly shrinking. Desertions are increasing and foreign fighters are suffering from poor morale in the face of ISIL defeat. Fewer new recruits are getting into Syria. A year ago over 2,000 foreigners a month were joining ISIL in Syria. That is down over 90 percent and falling. Despite that Syrian ISIL forces are actually advancing in a few areas. Although ISIL lost a lot of territory in and around Aleppo (including al Bab, an eastern suburb of Aleppo) ISIL is still holding on in central Syria and keeping the roads open outside Raqqa.
Russia sees all this as an opportunity to get start negotiations on a long-term Syrian peace deal. In part this is motivated by the Russian realization that its alliance with Turkey and Iran is not normal for any of the nations involved and not likely to last. It is an unnatural alliance that is not meant to last and exists to deal with the Syrian civil war. The “unnaturals” see ISIL being defeated (losing control of any territory and reduced to another Islamic terrorist group without a permanent base area) by late 2017. Since ISIL represented more than half the “combat power” of the rebels and the pro-Assad coalition (Iranian mercenaries and weapons, Russian air support and tech assistance) is now strong enough to defeat the rebellion. Some rebel factions like the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and Syrian Kurds) understand that and are willing to make a deal to get what they can. Success for the unnaturals isn’t guaranteed, but at this point is seems likely.
The Russian Solution
There are two separate efforts to negotiate a peace deal in Syria. One is backed by the UN and the next meeting is on the 15th in Switzerland. The UN has no troops in Syria and can only persuade and offer emergency aid (food, medicine and so on). Russia has set up another peace effort that largely involves Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Syrian government and a coalition of agreeable (to a compromise deal) rebel groups. This effort has been meeting in Kazakhstan since January. The apparent goal here is to put together a peace deal the UN will eventually agree to support (or at least not oppose) and then the Syrian government and its patrons (Russia, Iran and Turkey) will try to implement it by force. The official obstacle is ISIL and most of the other Islamic terrorist rebel groups (mainly the ones associated with al Qaeda). These groups want to overthrow the Assads but also want to do the same to the entire world. The problem is that most Arab and Western nations want the Assads replaced with something less unsavory. There is general agreement that ISIL and its ilk be destroyed but after that it is unclear who will do what to whom. The Russian coalition assembled representatives from fourteen Syrian rebel groups that are just interested in overthrowing the Assad clan but this rebel group only represents about a third of the rebel fighters. The majority of the rebels are Islamic radicals (like ISIL) and that has been the problem in Syria from the beginning.
Turkey is pressuring the new American government to drop its military support for the Kurds in general and those in Syria in particular. The United States is still very popular in Turkey but the current Turkish government is very (more than usual) hostile to Kurds. The Arab states that are working with NATO to destroy ISIL back continued support for Kurds in Syria. This annoys the Turkish government. Many Turks have demonstrated against and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey. In early January Turkey threatened to withdraw from the temporary alliance with Russia and Iran in Syria. Turkey was angry at Iran for tolerating repeated violations of the recent ceasefire deal by Iranian mercenaries (mainly Hezbollah) in Syria. The Turkish government justifies the alliance with Iran and Russia in Syria by referring to increased cooperation with Russia and Iran since the 1990s. But in Syria the Turks have to deal with the fact that Iran is run by a religious dictatorship and Turkey and Russia are not. Iran justifies breaking agreements by blaming it on the many religious fanatics in its government and military. Russia is willing to ignore that sort of thing, Turkey isn’t. At the same time a growing number of Iranians openly demonstrate against the alliance with Russia, especially highly visible things like the continued use of Iranian airspace by Russian military aircraft travelling to and from Syria. For decades Russia was depicted (by Iranian media, governments and personal experience) as a dangerous enemy of Iran. Russia and Iran also openly disagree over some key items. Russia openly supports Israel’s efforts to defend itself from Hezbollah or Iranian missile attacks. Russia is also willing to have the Americans join in the effort to craft a peace deal at the conference going on now in Kazakhstan. Iran insisted that the Americans not show and the new U.S. government was OK with that.
The unusual alliance of Iran, Turkey and Russia is seen by all three countries as historically unnatural and unsustainable. Iran has long been fighting the Russians and Turks over who had the most power, control and influence in the areas where they were neighbors. Each of the three still have fundamental differences with the other two and popular opinion in all three nations shows widespread distrust of these “unnatural” allies. But most Iranians also remember that many times in the past Iran has made such unstable alliances work, for a while at least.
Fate of the Safe Zones
The new American government has expressed support for the establishment of “safe zones.” This is something the Turks have long backed. The current Turkish ground operations in northern Syria are supposed to make that happen. Turkey wants the FSA rebels to run as a Turkish “safe zone”. This area will be along about a 98 kilometers of the border and extend about 25 kilometers into Syria so that millions of Syrians now in Turkish refugee camps could be moved to camps on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey would still support the camps and the FSA would help run them. Turkey is also pressing the UN to declare a “no-fly” zone over Syria, or at least the “safe zone” but Russia, Iran and China are blocking that. Few Syrian refugees want any part of a safe zone, which they see as a UN sanctioned prison camp. The problem is that Islamic terrorist groups and other criminal gangs tend to dominate refugee camps unless the camps are adequately policed. That means putting movement and other restrictions on all the residents of these camps and the refugees don’t like that. They generally don’t like the Islamic terrorists and gangsters either but cannot control these outlaws and that’s the basis for the mess in Syria and many other war zones.
The Ancient Curse
While there is no agreement on who should run Syria there is consensus on what is wrong with the place, no matter who rules. Corruption played a major role is enabling the Assad dictatorship to survive for decades and that enabled ISIL to so easily gain recruits and allies in Syria since 2013. What is now Syria has long (for thousands of years) been one of the most corrupt nations in the region. This is not surprising as Syria was recently rated as one of the ten most corrupt (173 out of 176 countries) nation in the world for 2016. Somalia was rated the most corrupt nation in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current Iraq score is 13 compared to 17 for Iraq, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 48 for Jordan, 28 for Lebanon, 29 for Iran, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 25 for Afghanistan. 32 for Pakistan, 40 for India, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, 72 for Japan and 74 for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.
While it may take another few months for Iraqi forces to take west Mosul there is little doubt that ISIL will lose control of the second largest city in Iraq sooner rather than later. There is much evidence to back this up. For one thing inside Mosul a Syrian ISIL leader, Abu Abdullah al Shami, has split from ISIL founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and potentially triggered a civil war within the organization (or at least within west Mosul). Baghdadi is reported (but not confirmed) to have been killed or badly wounded in a recent airstrike. Yet most of the ISIL men in and around Mosul continue fighting despite squabbling leaders or no leaders at all. This is particularly true with all (over a third) of the ISIL men who are not from Iraq or Syria and stand out when they speak because of their accent, dialect and mannerisms. Some, like the Chechens (from the Caucasus) or Asians are visibly not Arabs. A number of these foreign fighters were cut off in east Mosul during the ISIL retreat to the west bank and are the core of small groups of ISIL gunmen who continue to fight in east Mosul. Many of the Arab ISIL fighters stranded in east Mosul can join the refugees, although some of them still have pistols, grenades or other weapons. But the foreigners have no choice but to fight. Surrender is not an option. For ISIL men in Syria options remain.
Iran boasts of victories in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, alliances with Turkey, China and Russia to oppose the West plus the end of sanctions has not had the desired effect on most Iranians. Opinion surveys showed that 90 percent of Iranians backed the Syrian operations in 2015 but that dropped to 73 percent in 2016 and is now less than 30 percent. There were similar declines regarding Iranian support for Hezbollah and Shia militias in Lebanon, Syria. Yemen and Iraq. Most Iranians are more concerned with own circumstances, which have not improved much despite all the government boasting of victories elsewhere. Despite this Iran has maintained its military presence in Iraq even if it causes friction with new allies like Turkey. Iran is trying several solutions to this morale problem. It is encouraging (apparently with some cash) Hezbollah fighters operating in Syria to join Syrian Army units and wear Syrian uniforms. These Lebanese “soldiers” apparently operate together in small units (like a platoon of 20-30 men) under Hezbollah leaders (wearing NCO or officer uniforms). It is believed that Hezbollah is using a similar technique in Lebanon as part of its effort to take control of the Lebanese Army. It is also easier for Hezbollah men to get training in new weapons when doing so in Syrian uniforms. The Israelis appear to have developed techniques that enable them to see through this deception and that apparently accounts for the growing number of Israeli air and artillery attacks on “Syrian troops.” The use of Lebanese and other non-Syrians (like Russians) in Syrian uniforms also accounts for the sudden improvement in the performance of many Syrian units.
Israel continues to quietly provide medical care for badly hurt Syrians who show up (usually at night) on the Israeli border. Since 2011 nearly 3,000 Syrians have been treated, most of them in the last two years. Israeli border guards regularly allowed badly wounded Syrians in and sent them to Israeli hospitals for medical care. Until mid-2015 Israel would transport badly wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals after they showed up at border crossings on the Golan Heights. After 2015 treatment was provided at the border, using a temporary hospital set up there. By 2015 over a thousand Syrians had received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians. Israel lets some of these in for treatment but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So a heavily guarded field hospital right near the Syrian border is now used to treat all the injured. No Syrians will be moved to the interior because of fears that Islamic terror groups are seeking to infiltrate their people into Israel via the hospital care program.
February 12, 2017: In the east SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) rebels drove ISIL forces out of a key town 11 kilometers east of Raqqa. The SDF pointed out that 70 percent of their forces advancing on Raqqa are Arab, the rest are from various Kurd factions. At the moment the only ones concentrating on Raqqa are the SDF coalition of Syrian Kurd and local Arab groups supported by Western and Arab nations. The SDF advance has been slow but that has kept SDF casualties down. Since the advance began in November the SDF has driven ISIL out of 3,400 square kilometers of territory, over 260 towns and villages and killed over 700 ISIL fighters and captured several dozen. The SDF suffered a few hundred casualties (less 80 dead) but recruited over 3,000 additional fighters from the liberated populations as well as Arab tribes throughout eastern Syria. Most of this progress was made in 2017. The SDF has Western (mainly American) special operations troops assisting, mainly to call in airstrikes from the U.S. led air coalition that includes warplanes from several Western nations as well as Arab Gulf states. The SDF does not plan to take Raqqa by itself and is concentrating on surrounding the city. Then SDA expects the Turks and the Assads (or even the Iraqis) to join the effort to clear the city of ISIL forces. Iraqi participation less likely because the Iraq government has been saying publicly and more frequently that they will keep the Iraqi Shia militias out of Syria, despite pledges by some militia leaders that they would enter Syria in their continuing search for revenge against Sunni Islamic terrorists (especially (ISIL).
February 11, 2017: In the north Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies from FSA finally entered northern areas of ISIL held al Bab. Syrian army units have advanced to the southern edge of al Bab to cut off ISIL retreat. Now comes several days of fighting the remaining ISIL defenders. Turkish forces have been fighting to take al Bab for over a month. In November 2016 al Bab was largely surrounded by Turk-backed FSA rebels. Al Bab was always about Turkey preventing the SDF rebels from reaching al Bab and taking the town. Yet the Turks also don’t want their troops, or the FSA rebels to fight the SDF because that would cause friction with the other NATO countries, especially the Americans. The Syrian government preferred that the Kurd dominated SDF take al Bab because the Kurds in general, and the more radical YPG Kurds in particular were willing to work with the rebels or the Assads in order to protect Kurds in Syria. The Turks won this dispute and had their ground and air forces heavily involved in the al Bab fighting. The Syrian government has proclaimed that their forces would begin advancing on Raqqa from the west once al Bab was free of ISIL forces. Russia, Iran and Turkey are not in agreement on how to handle the conquest of Raqqa except that the Assad government should have control of the city once ISIL is gone. That is not what the SDF and other rebels want.
February 9, 2017: In the north, outside al Bab, a Russian airstrike, in support of Turkish troops hit a building that Turkish troops were in and killed three Turkish soldiers and wounded 11. Turkey and Russia did not agree on who was at fault here in a case of bad information or miscommunication. Elsewhere in the area Russian troops intervened and halted fighting between Syrian troops and FSA rebels who are working with Turkish forces to drive ISIL out of al Bab. Syria has tolerated rebels who will, at least temporarily, cooperate in going after common foes (usually ISIL).
February 7, 2017: A Russian ship delivered fifty SS-21 missiles. This is the largest Russian ballistic missile shipment to Syria in decades. Originally introduced in 1976 the SS-21 has long been a popular export item. Russia still maintains a force of 300 SS-21 launchers (a special truck design for carrying and launching one missile). Before 2011 Syria had 210 SS-21 missiles and a smaller number of launchers. There used to be more but Syria apparently sold North Korea some SS-21 launchers and missiles in 1996, for the purpose of allowing North Korea to copy the design. The original SS-21 model had a range of 70 kilometers, but the current one is good for 120 kilometers, or as much as 185 kilometers for the model Russia will not export. SS-21s weigh two tons and carries a half ton warhead. The SS-21 warheads can land within 75 meters of its aiming point and apparently all of the pre-2011 Syrian ones were used or destroyed on the ground since 2011.
Russian troops brought some SS-21 missiles and launchers with them as well as the similar and more recent Iskander missile. Both have been used recently against rebel targets in Idlib provinces where Syrian troops are trying to push ISIL forces out of Palmyra.
February 4, 2017: In the north (Idlib province) an American UAV used missiles to kill al Qaeda leader Abu Hani al Masri. The day before a similar UAV attack in Idlib killed ten other al Qaeda personnel.
In the northwest (Latakia province) five Russian soldiers died when the armored vehicle they were transporting ammunition in exploded. This was believed to be an accident, not deliberate.
February 2, 2017: In the south mortar shells were again fired at the Russian embassy in Damascus. One such shell fell within the embassy compound and caused some minor damage to a building. Another shell landed 29 meters away from the compound entrance. These attacks have happened several times since 2011. None have done any serious damage.
January 28, 2017: Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the largest rebel coalition and composed mainly of Islamic terrorist groups, has expanded to include four new member groups and adopted a new name; Tahir al Sham. This is the second name change since July 2016 when the Al Nusra rebel coalition renounced any connection with al Qaeda, adopted a new name (Jabhat Fatah al Sham) and declared it was now simply a Syrian rebel group which, 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 have 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. As recently as 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/Jabhat Fatah rebels.
January 24, 2017: Russia sent six Tu-22M3 bombers, escorted by four Su-30SMs, from an airbase in the Caucasus to hit ISIL targets in eastern Syria. Russia has been working its Tu-22M3M long-range bombers hard over Syria since mid-2016, flying several dozen sorties from Russian bases to hit targets in Syria. That’s a lot of work for the ten or so Tu-22M3Ms in service that have to fly all the way from southern Russia to Syria and back to deliver a few tons of bombs. While smart bombs were used in some of the 2016 missions the recent attacks involved unguided (dumb) bombs. But the Tu-22M3M proved to be effective during its first sustained combat experience since Afghanistan in the 1980s.
January 23, 2017:
The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government held peace talks with the Syrian rebels beginning today in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). Nothing was achieved after two days but the major powers congratulated each other for getting this far. The U.S. was not invited when these talks were announced in December but Russia later asked that someone from the new (after January 20th) U.S. government attend. In the end the U.S. declined to send anyone. Most of the rebels were not invited either. Only the FSA rebel coalition was, because it does not support Islamic terrorism. Three rebel larger groups (Ahrar al Sham, Fatah al Sham Front and the Kurds) were not invited, nor was ISIL, the group everyone hates. At the end of 2016 discussions between Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government apparently agreed to some general terms for a peace deal. It would consist of a ceasefire with groups now in control of parts of Syria recognized as the temporary ruler of those areas. If the ceasefire held, there would be new elections. The Assads would not participate, but only if they were granted immunity from prosecution (for war crimes and corruption) so the Assads could go into comfortable exile. All this assumes that ISIL control of any territory in Syria is eliminated. This is an old proposal, but it always depended on ISIL not being part of the mix. That is now a possibility that still doesn’t have enough support within Syria to work. So far it looks like the Astana talks will produce nothing of value.
January 20, 2017: Russia and Syria signed an agreement that allows Russia to use a portion of the Tartus port as a naval base for 49 years. The base area will be given diplomatic status (considered Russian territory) and Russia can keep up to eleven warships there at one time. The Tartus Russian naval support facility that has been under construction for years. This deal only works once the rebels have been defeated and the Assads back in power. Russia will also continue to use the Hmeimim airbase the port city of Latakia. Some (85 kilometers to the south.
January 18, 2017: Syria signed economic deals with Iranian organizations controlled by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). The IRGC is the primary security force keeping the religious dictatorship in control of Iran. The IRGC has also become one of the most corrupt institutions in Iran, owning billions of dollars in assets and demanding deals like this one with the Assad government as payment for their services. The IRGC has been essential in creating an army of Shia mercenaries to keep the Assads in power. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. The IRGC expects to get paid.
January 17, 2017: Iranian military commanders appeared on a video posted to a government news site to describe the number of Afghan and Pakistani Shia mercenaries fighting for Iran in Syria against rebels (most of them Sunni) trying to overthrow the Shia government there. The video commentary described there being 18,000 Afghan Shia currently fighting in Syria and far fewer (less than a thousand) Pakistani Shia. Some 20 percent of Pakistanis are Shia and that comes to ten times as many Shia as Afghanistan has. Most of the Pakistani Shia Iran recruited are Baluchis who are 3.5 percent of the population. The disparity here can be explained by the fact that Iran pays well for those who sign on to fight in Syria and most of these “volunteers” are from Afghan refugees living in Iran. Many of these Afghans are apparently not Shia but need a job. In Pakistan a major source of Islamic terrorist violence has long been Sunni Pakistani zealots killing Pakistani Shia. Sunni religious conservatives believe that Shia are heretics and must die for that.