Syria: Welcome To The Quagmire

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June 26, 2017: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Kurdish led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) have been fighting their way int0 the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) held city of Raqqa for nearly three weeks. During that time over 500 ISIL defenders were killed and about a dozen taken alive. SDF losses were less than a fifth of that. The worst may be get to come.

SDF are now preparing to enter the downtown “Old City” which is likely to be heavily defended by as many as 3,000 (or more) ISIL fighters. SDF is encouraging those fighters to surrender (via an amnesty program for those locally recruited) or desert. To encourage flight SDF forces do not completely surround the city. ISIL, either as a group or individually (with or without permission) can still retreat south, away from the Euphrates River valley and into a largely desert area controlled by Syrian Army forces (including Shia mercenaries supplied by Iran). Further south is Jordan and Iraq, two countries that are not going to allow ISIL forces in. Meanwhile some Iranian backed Shia militias are trying to enter Raqqa from the east via Iraq but are reluctant to press SDF too much because of the American air support SDF has been using very effectively for years.

By the end of May SDF forces, advancing mainly from the north had driven ISIL defenders back to within three kilometers of Raqqa. This came after an offensive that began in November 2016 and has already driven ISIL out of over 3,000 square kilometers of Raqqa province. By the end of May the rebels were close enough to see the city. SDF forces are also advancing from the east but the main effort is from the north. After halting the advance for nearly a week, to bring up reinforcements, additional weapons and collect more information on what is in front of them, the final advance began on June 6th. ISIL is preparing to defend Raqqa to the last man but they have not got many men left and many of those in Raqqa are of questionable loyalty. SDF has been offering locally recruited ISIL members amnesty and many have accepted. About half the foreign volunteers for ISIL have left the region and the number of new volunteers entering Syria has declined by some 90 percent in the last year. The Assads, Iran, Russia and Turkey do not want the SDF to take Raqqa, even though the SDF has been the most effective (and often the only) force advancing on Raqqa and are now in a position to take the entire city. The SDF has already promised to turn Raqqa over to Syrian control once ISIL is no longer a threat. But there is still a civil war on and SDF are technically rebels. Although the Syrian Kurds have been more flexible in dealing with the Assad forces they have always identified as part of the rebel coalition. Iran and Russia are in Syria to keep the Assads in power and Turkey does not want the Syrian Kurds to, well, succeed.

The Turks have refused to take part in the Raqqa battle and the Assads and their Iranian sponsors are certainly not welcome. So it’s basically up to the U.S. backed SDF and various local tribal militias that have been increasingly at war with ISIL since 2015. The Turks fear the SDF will turn into an American backed force that, like the Iraqi Kurds in the early 1990s, turned northern Iraqi into an autonomous Kurdish region. Most of the world wants the murderous Assads gone but first the even more horrific ISIL (which began as a part of the rebel coalition in 2013) has to be eliminated.

Russia

Russia is trying to playing peacemaker between U.S. backed Syrian rebels and Iran backed Syrian government forces and losing. Same with efforts to mediate between Turks. Americans and Kurds. The Iranians say they will attack the Americans if they must (or have a chance) and the Americans warned Iran and everyone else that force will be met with more force. So far Iran has taken that, and not Russian diplomacy, as good reason to hold fire. This is easier if they can pretend the Russians are holding them back. The Russians find themselves in a similar position with Turkey and the Syrian Kurds. Russia is quite open about its good relationships and cooperation with Israel while Turkey is making it clear that if pressed to choose sides, they would prefer Israel to Iran. Nevertheless Turkey is still run by an Islamic political party that is highly critical of Israel, and the West in general. But that’s another problem. A growing number of Russians (and non-Russians) see Russian forces in Syria as stuck in a quagmire that everyone benefits from except Russia.

Meanwhile Russia is still providing lots of air support and material assistance (new weapons, help in maintaining existing ones) for the Assad forces but is concentrating its media coverage on the Russian efforts to pacify and rebuild Aleppo and other areas “liberated” by the Assad forces. The Russians supplied most of the air support that enabled the Assad forces to retake Aleppo, which used to be the second largest city in Syria but has been largely depopulated and destroyed by five years of fighting. Rebuilding Aleppo is a big deal for most Syrians and the Russians publicize their efforts, like the largely Moslem military police battalions they sent in to help maintain order, and the Russian explosives removal experts provided to deal with all the explosives still in the rubble or other areas as ISIL traps. What Russia can’t provide is the billions of dollars it will cost to actually rebuild much of the city. Iran is also strapped for cash and no one else wants to finance rebuilding what is now a city controlled by a government of war criminals.

Since Aleppo was taken earlier in the year Russian air power and ground forces (advisers and special operations troops) are helping the Assad forces deal with the remaining ISIL fighters in western Syria and move some troops towards the ISIL capital, Raqqa, in eastern Syria.

Russian casualties in Syria remain low. In May several more Russian soldiers were killed in Syria while working with Syrian soldiers fighting rebels and ISIL. Few if any were killed in June. That makes 33 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The Syrian war effort, despite the low number of Russian casualties, is not popular with most Russians who see Assad and most other Middle Eastern governments (especially former Soviet allies) as losers and more trouble than they are worth. The one exception is Israel, which Russia finds more reliable and determined to succeed than other nations in the region.

Iran

Iran is losing this war with Israel and seeking a way to do better by establishing a base in Syria. This is important inside Iran where the government has long publicized victories (usually invented) over Israel. Highly visible defeats inflicted by Israel, as are happening in Syria, does little to prop up the unpopular religious dictatorship that has been running the country since the 1980s. Another embarrassment is the success of Russian air power and ground forces (mainly special operations and artillery) to help the Assad forces win back territory. Until 2016 Iranian forces were seen as the key to Assad survival and the Assads were not shy about praising their Iranian saviors. But that changed in 2017 as the Iranian alliance with Turkey and Russia began to come apart. Iran blames this on Israel which, in this case, is partially correct. Israel knows that Iran wants to establish a pro-Iranian militia in Syria similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Assads know this would mean they would have to share power in Syria with Iran. Most Syrians don’t care for this, just as most Lebanese don’t care for the Hezbollah presence since the 1980s. No one, including Russia, Turkey and Israel, want another Hezbollah established in Syria. Iran will not back down on this and that has damaged their relationships with their allies.

Meanwhile Iran continues to suffer embarrassing setbacks in Syria. For example, in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Iran backed Shia mercenaries seeking to open a highway link from Iran to Lebanon are being blocked by U.S. backed rebels who control parts of the road.

June 24, 2017: In the south Syrian troops, trying to stop a rebel (al Qaeda affiliate formerly called al Nusra) offensive in Quneitra province that threatened Assad control of a key road fired into Israel. The army troops fired at the rebels who were close to the Israeli border and 10 mortar and tank shells landed in the Golan Heights. No one was hurt but Israel decided that this was not all accidental because several of those shells were from Syrian tanks and tank guns are fired directly at a target, not over a hill or building at something the mortar crew can’t see. Normally if rocket or mortar fire from Syria lands in an uninhabited area of Israel (Golan Heights) there was no return fire. When the fire from Syria is deliberate the Israelis always fire back. In this case the Israelis sent in a helicopter gunship to destroy two Syrian tanks and a machine-gun firing from a bunker. The next day several mortar shells also landed in the Golan Heights. There were no injuries and an Israeli airstrike destroyed two artillery positions and a large truck carrying ammunition. The Syrians and Iranians make a lot of threats after this sort of thing, like they always do. The Israelis note the threats and ignore them, as always.

June 23, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) a force of Iraqi Shia militia crossed the border and joined with Syrian Army troops to push ISIL forces further away from the Iraqi border.

Turkey says the United States yesterday promised that it would retrieve the heavy weapons it has been turning over to the Syrian Kurd rebels starting in May and would provide the Turks with a monthly list of what weapons it had “loaned not given” to the Kurds. In response the Turks are demanding that they participate in the tracking and retrieval of these weapons. That is not practical, which is probably why the Turks are demanding it from the Americans. The Turks never agreed with Americans working with the Syrian Kurds and threatened to attack American forces in Syria over the issue. So far Turkey has made a lot of threats against the United States but has not taken the drastic step of actually attacks American troops. That would have serious consequences because both nations belong to NATO.

Russia again used the hotline it maintains with the United States to notify the Americans that a surprise cruise missile attack on ISIL targets was being launched from Russian warships (six missiles from two frigates and a sub) in the Mediterranean. This use of the hotline prevents the Americans from misinterpreting the incoming missiles. Russia has threatened to shut down the hotline several times but never has.

June 21, 2017: In the north (near the Turkish border, north of Aleppo) more Turkish ground troops entered northern Syria, to reinforce those already facing Kurdish forces near the town of Azaz. This town has been frequently fought over since 2013. The battles involved al Nusra and ISIL forces as well as the Syrian Army and U.S. backed FSA (secular) and SDF rebels. Now the Turks are involved.

June 20, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an American F-15E shot down an Iranian Shahed 129 UAV. This was the second one U.S. aircraft have destroyed this month, the first one was shot down June 8th in the same area by a F-15E. This was the third Shahed 129 lost this month, with one being shot down in Pakistan (by a JF-17 fighter) on the 21st. In late 2016 Iran confirmed that it had been using its Shahed 129 UAVs in Syria. This is one of the largest (over half a ton) UAVs Iran has developed and built. It entered service in 2012 and since 2014 has been spotted in Syria and Iraq (near Iranian border) doing surveillance. In early 2016 video on Iranian TV showed the Shahed 129 using laser guided air-to ground missiles. These attacks have not apparently been very successful otherwise Iran would have publicized them.

At the same time the U.S., Russia and Jordan agreed that Iranian backed (and often led) forces would not be allowed within 30 kilometers of the Jordanian border. This includes the Syrian city of Daraa. This would prevent the Hezbollah and Iran supported Shia mercenaries from interfering with American and Jordanian operations on the Syrian side of the border. The Jordanians are mainly concerned with the many Syrian refugees that continue to head for refuge in Jordan. The American backed secular Syrian rebels who operate from bases in Jordan and now on the Syrian side of the border can also use this safe zone. These rebels are often accompanied by American advisors and air controllers. This area has seen a lot of fighting since 2011. In late 2016 it was estimated that about eight percent of the casualties since 2011 occurred down south (Daraa Province and along the Israeli and Jordan borders).

Israel is a silent partner in this agreement because of similar discreet links with Jordan (going back to the 60s) and Russia and more open ties to the United States. Some Syrian factions accuse Israel of supplying cash and other items to some Syrian rebels. Israel denies this but does admit to a very public program of allowing over 3,000 (so far) badly wounded Syrians, especially women and children, into Israel for free medical care. The Syrians benefitting from this may feel obliged to return the favor in some way (like providing information on what Iranian and other Islamic radical groups are up to) and that could be described as a relationship. But that has a different meaning in the Middle East than in other parts of the world and is often misinterpreted in the West and misrepresented in places like Russia.

June 18, 2017: In the east (near Raqqa) a Syria Su-22 light bomber was shot down by an American F-18E. The Su-22 was attacking Syrian rebels (Kurdish led SDF) closing in on Raqqa. The U.S. had warned Russia and Syria not to direct airstrikes at the SDF or there would be consequences. Russia responded with threats to attack American aircraft in eastern Syria (where Raqqa and the Iraq border are).

Iran fired six of its new Zulfiqar ballistic missiles at ISIL targets in Syria (Palmyra and Deir Ezzor). Only two of the missiles hit anything of value but some of them travelled about 620 kilometers. Four apparently landed in western Iraq. Iran denied this Israeli claim and Israel dismissed that as more Iranian posturing. For a nation constantly threatened with attack by Iranian ballistic missiles the Israeli observation of the Zulfiqar performance is yet another embarrassment for Iran. The Iranian media described (and published pictures) of the Zulfiqar ballistic missile. This appeared to be another version of the Fateh-110 which is a 3.5 ton, solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 250 kilometers and a half ton warhead. Iran first revealed Fateh-110 in 2002. These missiles were also manufactured in Syria (as the M-600). The Iranian version appeared to be based on the Chinese DF-11, which entered service in 1979 and continues to be used by China and was exported to Pakistan. The DF-11 (also known as the M11) is a single stage solid fuel missile that weighs 4.2 tons, has a range of 300 kilometers, and carries a .8 ton warhead. By 2011 there were reports of a DF-11A which used a smaller warhead and larger solid fuel to achieve a range of over 700 kilometers. Several years later an update of the DF-11A entered service with a more accurate and reliable guidance system. By 2013 Iran was airlifting in more Fateh-110s to Syria, apparently meant for Hezbollah. These longer range missiles, that can reach all of Israel’s major cities, are a primary target for Israeli forces in any future war with Hezbollah and some were destroyed by during at least one of the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria.

The Iranian ballistic missile attack was in response to a June 7th attack in the Iranian capital by six ISIL men armed with firearms and explosive vests. The attack went after two targets; the parliament (in central Tehran) and a shrine to religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who established the current religious dictatorship) south of Tehran. All six attackers were killed but not before seven other people died and 43 wounded. It was soon discovered five of the dead ISIL men were Iranians who police knew or suspected had left the country to join ISIL. The five apparently returned to set up an ISIL branch in Iran and ISIL boasts that this is the first attack of many in Iran.

June 17, 2017: In the east the border with the Iraqi Anbar province was largely cleared of ISIL forces by Iraqi Sunni tribal militiamen. The Iraqis were particularly keen to clear ISIL from the main Baghdad-Damascus highway that crosses the border at the Tanf (on the Syrian side) Walweed (on the Iraqi side) checkpoint. The Iraqi army is in the process of clearing ISIL out of Anbar completely and tribal militias are sealing the border as part of that.

June 16, 2017: Russia revealed that it is in the process of verifying that one of their airstrikes in late May killed ISIL founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Syria, along with several other ISIL leaders. Back in April Iraqi intel revealed that it had evidence Baghdadi had left Mosul for Syria in January or February and had not returned to Iraq since.

The U.S. did later confirm that today an airstrike in Deir Ezzor province killed Fawaz Muhammad Jubayr al Rawi, the head of ISIL financial operations. Rawi was responsible for setting up and managing an international network for moving ISIL money around.

June 15, 2017: In the east several hundred members of an Iran-backed Shia militia crossed the Iraqi border west of Mosul into Syria for a second time despite assurances by the Iraqi government that these pro-Iran militias would not enter Syria. As happened on June 2nd the Iraqi militiamen went back to Iraq after a few hours. In both instances the action was justified to deal with ISIL forces on the Syrian side that were firing rockets and shells into Iraq.

Another problem was that the Iraqi militiamen entered an area (Hasakah province) that has largely been under Kurdish control since 2012 and the Syrian Kurds warned Iraqis to stay out. This incursion apparently has more to do with the Iranian goal of establishing a safe (for Iranian arms shipments) land route from Iran to Lebanon. A major highway crosses the border in the area where the Iraqi Shia militia are operating, now on both sides of the border. The Iraqis did not advance far and most returned to Iraq.

June 11, 2017: In the southeast (Daraa province) Jordanian border guards killed five men approaching the Jordanian border and refusing orders to halt. The five were approaching from the direction of the Baghdad-Damascus highway and the American base near Tanf.

June 10, 2017: Russian diplomats told their American counterparts that recent American airstrikes on Russian allies in Syria was unacceptable. Unlike some Russian politicians, the Russian diplomats did not threaten to order their troops to shoot at the Americans. Iran is fine with getting into a fight with the Americans although NATO member Turkey has mixed feelings. In Syria Russians are more concerned about not angering Israel, but then the Americans and Israelis work closely together and Syria is turning out to be less of an opportunity for Russia and more like a deadly trap. The American and Russian diplomats apparently spent a lot of time talking about how to handle the Qatar mess.

June 6, 2017: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Kurdish led SDF forces began their final offensive to take Raqqa.

June 5, 2017: In the east American airstrikes across the border in Deir Ezzor province hit Syrian government forces (Iran backed Shia mercenaries) who had moved too close to the Tanf border crossing. This was the second such attack since late May and carried out after repeated warning (to the Russians, mainly) to remove those forces from the area. The first airstrike (May 20) was carried out because a convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and near the Iraq border. The Iranian militia did not try to advance again for a while. But recently some did move forward and establish a camp within the zone. Iran backed Syrian Army forces have advanced to within 20 kilometers of Tanf and the U.S. wants to keep Iran backed forces away from the Iraq border to prevent Iran from established a road link from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon.

June 2, 2017: In the east several hundred members of an Iran-backed Shia militia crossed from Iraq into Syria despite assurances by the Iraqi government that these pro-Iran militias would not enter Syria. The militiamen did not stay long in Syria.

May 31, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike killed Turki al Binali, the "Grand Mufti" of ISIL and responsible for backing up the religious justifications for ISIL activities. The U.S. was not able to confirm the death of Binali until June 19th. ISIL reported the death of Binali on June 1st but that is sometimes done to deceive enemy intelligence into no longer looking for the “deceased.” The U.S. eventually confirmed that Binali was indeed dead.

 

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