ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has lost most of its territory in Syria. Most ISIL personnel are trying to reach ISIL controlled portions of the Euphrates River Valley. This are goes from the city of Raqqa (which ISIL has 70 percent of since April) to the Iraq border and into Iraq (the town of Rawa). ISIL has apparently ordered all ISIL members that can to head for the Euphrates River valley for a last stand. Iraqi forces are concentrating on Rawa and other ISIL held parts of the Euphrates River valley in Iraq. With that done ISIL will be left with only scattered remnants of personnel operating as terrorists and trying to rebuild with new recruits and financial supporters. ISIL apparently still has over $100 million in cash hidden in banks (including informal ones like the halwa networks). ISIL was successful because it was able to hide a lot of cash in banks. Since 2010 most Islamic terrorists have preferred to use
couriers for moveing cash because using the international banking system had gotten too dangerous. So has the unofficial (and often illegal) traditional halwa (informal letters of credit) system. For the last year ISILs financial system has been under heavy attack and how successful that effort is may end up being more important than anything else ISIL is currently up to.
Since 2014 ISIL has concentrated on dominating the Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and Raqqa. While Iraqi forces moved up the valley from the south the offensive from the north, towards Raqqa has been mainly the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) rebels. This organization is composed of Syrian Kurds and their Arab Moslem and Christian allies. Most of the SDF forces advancing on Raqqa are Arab, the rest are from various Kurd factions (including the YPG). At the moment the only ones concentrating on Raqqa are the SDF, with support by Western and Arab air power and some commandos. Most importantly SDF has American support on the ground as well as from the air.
The success of this campaign (ISIL holds less than 30 percent of Raqqa now) and the recent loss of Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq have most everyone (including the United States) openly acknowledging that the “Islamic State” ISIL created in 2014 was out of business and would soon control no territory at all and be just another Islamic terror group hiding where it can and attacking when able. Many ISIL members are fleeing rather than fight to the death. Some are trying to switch sides, which is possible for those who belong via tribal militias persuaded (often coerced) to side with ISIL.
It appears that ISIL still has as many as 10,000 armed men in Iraq and Syria, mainly in the Euphrates River valley with fewer in pockets of control in central Syria (Homs), outside of Aleppo and near the Israeli border. About a thousand of these gunmen are still defending parts of Raqqa but the SDF has proved to be a formidable killing machine, taking few casualties as they advance, seeking to discover where ISIL fighters are and then call in an air strike. The biggest threat to the Kurds is the ISIL landmines and explosive traps left behind.
Over half the SDF is now Arab as the SDF attracted more Arab recruits the closer it got to Raqqa. Many of the Arabs in the SDF come from tribes that have worked with the Kurds in the past. But the Kurds know that Raqqa is largely an Arab city and that the main threat to the Kurds is Turkey, which would prefer that Syrian Kurds controlled no territory at all. The SDF and the Syrian Kurds are based in Hasakah province, which has largely been under Kurdish control since 2012. This province has long been majority Kurd and borders Turkey and Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Syrian Kurds have warned everyone, including Assad, Turkey and Iraq to stay out of Hasakah. As long as the SDF has active American military support the Turks are reluctant to make a move on Hasakah province but there are smaller Kurdish enclaves along the border west of the Euphrates River that the Turks are willing to clear of all rebel forces and open discussions with the reestablished Assad Syrian government about when the Turkish troops will withdraw and under what conditions.
For decades the Assads gave sanctuary to Kurdish (separatist) and Arab (Islamic terrorist) groups that made trouble in Turkey. The Assads need to make some convincing commitments to eliminating those problems if they want the Turks to leave. That will be difficult because the SDF is dominated by Kurdish separatists, many of them with ties to the Turkish Kurd separatists (the PKK) and the Iraqi Kurds (who have had autonomy since the early 1990s). Further complicating all this is that Turkey is on its way towards leaving NATO. That’s because the current Turkish government is pro-Islam, not pro-secular as all Turkish governments had been from the 1920s until 2000. For nearly a century democratic Turkey was a bastion of stability in the Middle East. That ended with the election of an Islamic government and the subsequent efforts by that government to make their rule permanent and decidedly undemocratic. That in itself is a problem for NATO, Israel and the Middle East in general.
To further complicate the situation Iran and Russia have both signed deals with the Assads to establish military (mainly naval) bases in Syria. Then there is the fact that Iran openly calls for the destruction of Israel while Russia and Israel have often worked together, even during the communist period (that ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union did). Russia tries to maintain its alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region.
Israel is also aware, as are Russians, Turks, the Assads and nearly all Syrians, that Iranian efforts to take control of Syria are unwelcome. Since Iran is currently run by a religious dictatorship any opposition in Syria must be overcome because Iran is on a Mission From God and not to be interfered with. The Iranians, as far as everyone but Iran is concerned, are simply replacing one brand of Islamic fanaticism with another as ISIL power is extinguished in Syria.
The Syrian Army Advance
In west central Syria (Homs province) Assad forces have captured most of the province but are having problems eliminating the few remaining ISIL strongholds. East of Homs in Deir Ezzor province Assad forces have finally reached the provincial capital (also called Deir Ezzor or just “Zour”) that is southeast of Raqqa. Until recently ISIL had surrounded the city of Deir Ezzor since 2014. Syrian forces were largely absent from Deir Ezzor province until March 2016 when Syrian troops retook Palmyra, held by ISIL since May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory in 2015 and since early 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and Deir Ezzor province in general. By mid-2017 this advance had ended ISIL dominance in Deir Ezzor province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Today Assad forces cleared the southern entrance to Deir Ezzor city and that gave the Assad forces control of the main highway from Damascus to Deir Ezzor city. On the 5th Assad forces broke the siege of Deir Ezzor city but via an area north of the Damascus highway. Four days later Assad forces broke the siege of the Assad held airbase north of Deir Ezzor city.
This shows how much has changed in two years. Assad lost Palmyra in mid-2015 and that was one of the events that triggered Russian intervention shortly thereafter. Syrian troops have been fighting ISIL in Deir Ezzor province ever since in preparation for an advance on the ISIL capital of Raqqa (227 kilometers to the northwest). The city of Deir Ezzor is halfway between the ISIL capital Raqqa and ISIL controlled (until recently) areas of Iraq. The Assad forces were in no hurry to drive ISIL away from the city of Deir Ezzor because the arrival of Russian troops in August was accompanied by boatloads of much needed spare parts and maintenance supplies for the Syrian armed forces.
The Russians knew that their warplanes could grab headlines with some airstrikes in support of the depleted Assad forces but that it would take a year to rebuild the Assad forces and once that was done the Syrian Army began to gain ground. The Syrian Army was still fragile because three years of defeats before the Russians arrived had done some long-term damage to the morale and loyalty of many core Assad supporters. Casualties had to be kept down for the Assad forces and that meant a slow, methodical advance. It also meant the Assads did little but verbally protest the Kurdish (SDF) effort to move south and take Raqqa from ISIL. The Assads are confident that their Russian and Iranian allies will force the SDF to turn Raqqa over to the “legitimate government of Syria” (the Assads) once ISIL has been cleared out. There is some truth to that but the SDF expects some concessions from the Assads (like recognition of an autonomous Kurd region in the northeast).
Russia and Iran are pushing, with some success, the idea that Syrian civil war is over and the rebels defeated. Early on (like 2013) it was obvious that while most Syrians opposed the Assads they could not form a rebel coalition to defeat the minority Shia government the Assad clan had created to rule the nation since the 1960s. What destroyed the rebels was the proliferation of Islamic terror groups competing to lead the revolution and next government. Islamic radicals have, for over a thousand years, been unable to agree on which version of Islam should be used to rule the Islamic world. This is a dispute too many Moslems are willing to die for, usually while fighting other Moslems. As a result it has been very difficult to create democracies in Moslem majority nations because eventually Islamic radical groups will trigger very destructive periods of Islamic terrorism.
Most UN members agree with Russia and Iran that the Syrian rebellion has been defeated but there is still no widespread support for the Assads, which most UN members want to prosecute for war crimes. As long as Russia and China make their UN vetoes available to Iran (since the 1980s the main Assad backer) the UN will not be able to make a serious effort to take down the Assads. Moreover, even with the Assads, the largely Moslem Syrian population has not demonstrated any willingness to try democracy. The United States has said it does not want to use its armed forces to fight the Assad government, even though the U.S. and most Western nations agree that the Assads are unfit to run Syria and should be removed from power. So American forces will remain active in Syria until ISIL is eliminated and then, as the current thinking goes, withdraw. The Syrian Kurds and Turkish efforts in Syria may delay the American departure.
Although Iran backed Hezbollah is increasingly active in the media about how soon its next war with Israel will happen, the reality is somewhat different. Israeli wargames and monitoring of attitudes in Lebanon (among Hezbollah supporters and the majority of Lebanese who are hostile or neutral) indicates that another Hezbollah war now would be unlikely. At the moment Hezbollah military power is crippled by losses in Syria and the continued deployment of about a third of their available forces there. In addition there are significant veteran personnel working in Iraq and Yemen supporting local pro-Iran Shia militias. More Hezbollah personnel will be heading back to Gaza now that Hamas has resumed its alliance with Iran. But in the long term (the 2020s) Iran is building something that threatens Israel in a big way. By establishing military bases in Syria and organizing a branch of Hezbollah in Syria Iran has legal justification for stationing Iranian troops in Syria. Unless Israel interferes Iran could rebuild the Syrian military, especially the Syrian ballistic missile stockpile. Iran would have time (and money) to deal with the financial problems that are crippling Hezbollah and Hamas. Thus by the mid-2020s Iran would be in a much stronger position for attacking Israel. That would include the new Israeli natural gas fields off the coast near the Lebanese border.
Thus it is no surprise that Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Turkey quietly agrees and Russia is seeking opportunities for itself but seems to dislike the Iranian long range plan. Israel is quite blunt about describing Iran as replacing ISIL as the new threat to just about everyone. Russia sometimes supports that openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government.
There have been secret meeting between Israeli, American and Russian officials over the issue but it is obvious Russia is seeking short-term opportunities and will on occasion openly support Iran if that will serve Russian interests. Meanwhile the only reason Russia, Iran and Turkey are currently allies is their desire for the Assads to stay in power and keep Syria free of Sunni Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists. Turkey, Iran and Russia back the Assads directly (with cash, personnel and weapons) and coordinate their military operations to help the Assads survive.
In contrast the Sunni Arab states want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even some Iranian allies Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries and see the current Iranian strategy as eventually taking down Turkey (for being Sunni and an ancient rival) and Russia (for not being Moslem and defeating Iranian attempts to expand in the 19th and 20th centuries).
The UN Tries To Help
The UN has told Israel that the UNIFIL (the 12,000 UN peacekeeper force on the Israeli border) will now be more assertive on dealing with violations on the Lebanese or Syrian side of the border. That will be a big change, and major challenge, because now Hezbollah is showing up on the border in Syria as well as Lebanon. In the past, when the Israelis reported a particularly obvious example of Hezbollah misbehavior on the border, Hezbollah gunmen would keep all media out and blame it all on false claims by the Israelis. This sort of thing has been going on since the last war with Hezbollah in 2006. Hezbollah refuses to allow UNIFIL to go near any of its rocket storage sites in Lebanon and insists that the only weapons it has along the Israeli border are those needed to defend itself. But now Hezbollah is preparing to set up shop in the Syrian border. Hezbollah has been bringing in more rockets from Syria since the civil war escalated there in 2012 and there is fear that Hezbollah will also get some of the Syrian chemical weapons. That was apparently a reason for the September Israeli airstrike on a Syrian weapons research facility. Even the UN has to acknowledge that Iranian plans for Syria, and the use of Hezbollah in Syria, is a threat to peace.
Yet the UN still refuses to declare Hezbollah an international terrorist organization, despite the fact that Hezbollah has been caught carrying out terrorist operations in several foreign countries and openly calls for the destruction of Israel. The U.S. and a number of other nations have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization but the UN refuses to do so. The UNIFIL force has been in place since 1978 and was expanded after the 2006 war. It will probably expand again after any peace deal in Syria.
Something else that helped change the UN attitude towards Hezbollah was what happened to their peacekeepers in Syria. In late 2016 UN Peacekeepers returned to the Syrian side of the Israeli border for the first time since 2014. Initially only 127 peacekeepers crossed the border and it wasn’t until the end of 2016 before the full force of over a thousand troops returned to their Syrian positions. Back in 2014 UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines were forced out by al Nusra rebels, who wanted to ensure that the UN peacekeepers did not interfere with the rebel takeover of a border crossing. The Islamic terrorist rebels looted the UN camp. The rebels were driven away from the border in 2016 by the Syrian Army, which had regained control of the entire 70 kilometer long border with Israel. Up until 2014 the UN had 1,223 peacekeepers monitoring the Syrian/Israeli border and wanted that force returned. The UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights from them. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace. From 2014 to 2016 the peacekeepers were only able to operate on the Israeli side of the border.
September 9, 2017: The SDF began an offensive to push ISIL forces out of northern Deir Ezzor province. The SDF troops are coming from Kurdish controlled Hasakah province.
September 8, 2017: Russia confirmed that a recent airstrike outside Deir Ezzor city had hit an ISIL command bunker and killed four ISIL leaders including Abu Mohammed al-Shimali (the senior ISIL leader for Deir Ezzor province) and Gulmurod Khalimov, a former Tajikistan police commander who joined ISIL in 2015 and quickly rose to be their senior military commander and currently the ISIL “War Minister.” The other two ISIL leaders were not identified nor was the exact date of the airstrike. The U.S. did not confirm the Russian claim but did agree that the two ISIL leaders Russia mentioned had apparently met with some misfortune recently. The United States has, since 2016, been offering a $3 million reward for the capture or killing of Gulmurod Khalimov.
Assad forces went around a convoy of busses holding most of the 670 ISIL men and families halted on August 29th before they could reach ISIL the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor province. The destination was too close to the Iraq border. The Americans and Iraq were not consulted about this deal and did not want any more ISIL personnel being allowed to move so close to the Iraq border because when ISIL loses control of Deir Ezzor province some of the surviving ISIL gunmen will flee towards Iraq. At the request of Russia the Americans pulled back their surveillance aircraft from the stranded ISIL busses because of the busses being overtaken by advancing Assad troops headed for Deir Ezzor city. Some Assad troops are had already broken the three year ISIL siege of the city and were doing the same for an airbase outside Deir Ezzor city (that was held by Assad forces resupplied by air.)
The American warplanes had allowed food and water to reach the ISIL busses but had attacked any men approaching the busses or trying to leave. The U.S. was trying to get Russia to take custody of the busses and people in them but so far without success. The Russians have, however, been carrying out airstrikes to prevent ISIL fighters from moving to the Euphrates River valley.
What was surprising about all this was that it was another example of how much Iraq had turned against Iran and Iranian efforts to call the shots in Iraq. Most Iraqis saw this deal to bus hundreds of ISIL gunmen from the Lebanese border to the Iraqi border as an Iranian effort to keep the “ISIL threat” to Iraq alive and thus making the Iraqis more willing to do what Iran wants. The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds were also suspicious of what Iran (which controls Hezbollah) was up to here because that ISIL convoy moved ISIL gunmen closer to Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.
In reality it was just another of the many surrender deals where rebels (not always ISIL) abandon a position for safe passage to another area held by their group. Why the Russians did not consult the Americans (who they have maintained regular communications with) is unclear. But the Russians are not trying to force the issue and are trying to get the stranded ISIL personnel to move another ISIL enclave in Syria.
September 7, 2017: In the northwest (Hama province) Israeli warplanes bombed a government chemical weapons research center at Masyaf. At the same time other Israeli warplanes destroyed a Hezbollah convoy transporting weapons. Syria later confirmed the attack on the Masyaf facility and said two soldiers were killed. Syria also said such Israeli air attacks will be avenged. Israel has already made it clear that such attacks will continue as long as Syria and its patron Iran try to attack Israel and openly call for the destruction of Israel.
September 6, 2017: The UN accused the Assad government of using nerve gas against a pro-rebel village in Idlib province during April, an attack that killed over 83 (30 of them children) and left over 300 with nerve gas related injuries. This is a war crime that many UN members are demanding be prosecuted. As expected the Assads denied the charges safe in the knowledge that their ally Russia would use their veto to block any major war crimes prosecution. The UN investigators had concluded early on that the April attack used nerve gas but the latest report confirms that the nerve gas was delivered by the Assad forces.
September 5, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Syrian forces finally broke the three year ISIL siege of Deir Ezzor city. There are about 90,000 civilians in portions of Deir Ezzor city still held by Assad forces and also surrounded. The civilians get foreign aid food and other supplies by truck. This breaking of the siege ended a two-week long effort that was aided by about a hundred Russian airstrikes a day and a dozen or so a day by Syrian Air Force aircraft. Two days after the siege was broken the first government supply convoy entered the government held portion of the city. Much of the city and Deir Ezzor province are still held or threatened by ISIL forces. ISIL made a major effort to stop the advancing Syrian forces, sending about fifty suicide car bombers but only 22 got close enough to explode and cause losses for to the advancing Assad troops. ISIL is still dangerous but their tactics are known the being defeated by just about everyone ISIL has fought before.
September 4, 2017: Two more Russian soldiers were killed in Syria. Both soldiers were supporting Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor province when their convoy was hit by mortar fire. Russian casualties in Syria remain low with nearly all the fatalities were suffered by highly trained troops advising the Syrians or special operations personnel carrying out recon or other intel gathering missions. By the Russian official count the latest death makes 34 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number is believed to be 30-80 percent higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. 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.
August 30, 2017: After Israeli officials revealed that they regularly conducted airstrikes on targets in Syria Russia told the media that it had warned Israel not to attack Iranian forces or bases in Syria. What the Russians told Israel and Turkey privately is another matter. The problem here is that no one in the region wants Iran turning Syria into another Lebanon. Actually Syria would be worse than Lebanon where there is a local Shia militia (Hezbollah) that is controlled by Iran. Hezbollah does what it wants in southern Lebanon and has a veto on anything the Lebanese government (technically controlled by the non-Shia majority) proposes. That veto is useful but Hezbollah was never able to coerce the Lebanese government to allow Iran to establish bases on the coast or anywhere else. Syria is different as Iran has already made deals to allow Iran and Russia to operate naval and air bases. For the moment Iran, Turkey, Russia and the Assads are all allies but no one expects that to last. The only question is when will Iran get the bad news.
August 29, 2017: In central Syria American warplanes bombed a road and a bridge to halt a convoy of 17 busses carrying 670 ISIL men and families towards the Iraq border. The ISIL men had agreed to give up positions on the Lebanon border in return for safe passage through Hezbollah and Assad controlled territory to ISIL controlled areas in Deir Ezzor province.
August 25, 2017: In the east (Raqqa province) ISIL attacked advancing Syrian troops and in a brief battle killed at least 34 of them while losing twelve of their own. The Syrians abandoned their advance on Maadan (an ISIL controlled town halfway between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor city) and retreated to reorganize and resume the advance.
August 20, 2017:
In Syria the government again thanked Iran, Russia and Hezbollah for defeating the attempt to overthrow Assad family rule. This “overthrow” was a major 2012 rebellion backed by most Syrians. First Iran (and Hezbollah, the powerful Shia force Iran created in the 1980s) came to the aid of the Assads, who had been Iranian allies since the 1980s. Russia entered in 2015 at the request of Iran and Turkey sent in enough ground troops in 2016 to chase ISIL from the border and prevent Syrian Kurds from gaining control of any more of the border area. Technically Turkey is not an ally of Iran, but it often acts like one and doesn’t really care if Assad remains in power or not.