Syria: Vague Victories

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December 15, 2017: Russia and Iran are both deploying their considerable disinformation and Information War capabilities in (or about) Syria. Both countries have used the disinformation for a long time and Russia is considered something of a pioneer in the development of modern disinformation techniques. In Syria (and the Middle East in general) the most effective disinformation techniques are the “barely plausible but unverifiable lie”. Most disinformation is based on some real events. For example Russian claims that their new Su-35 fighter has encountered and chased away American F-22 fighters more than once. What is really going on is an effort to shift attention away from daily efforts by Russian warplanes to interfere with American air operations east of the Euphrates River. Russia and the United States agreed that this river in eastern Syria would serve to define the “deconflicition zone” boundary that neither nation would cross except by prior agreement. Yet Russia has been violating that agreement several times a day as their aircraft “accidentally” wanders across the river or chases American warplanes back to where they belong. Russia insists that it is the Americans who are deliberately crossing the line and being chased away by Russian aircraft.

This sort of thing was a favorite Russian tactic during the Cold War, at least until American fired back (sometimes literally). That led to binding treaties and the incidents disappeared. That’s what happened in late 2015 when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russia fighter-bomber that entered Turkish air space despite multiple warnings to not do so. Russia still denies they were at fault but there were no more “navigation errors” involving Russian warplanes and the Turkish border. In general Russia is doing what it can to persuade the Americans to get out of Syria and the “navigation errors” are part of the playbook. Other persuasions include declarations of victory in Syria and holding peace conferences with the Assads and trusted foreign allies to make it look real.

The Israelis know about this Russian tactic as it was widely used in the Middle East long before Russia existed. So despite previously negotiated “deconfliction” agreements with Russia over use of Syrian air space by Israeli and Russian aircraft the agreements were tested using Iranian and Russian UAVs operating in southern Syria. When any of these UAVs get too close to the Israeli border the Israelis shot them down without comment. The Russians keep trying, especially in situations they have nothing to lose. Thus the recent claims that Russian air defense systems have shot down Israeli ballistic missiles used against Iranian targets in Syria. Russia also continues to test it electronic weapons near American aircraft, with frequent GPS jamming and less frequent efforts to jam radars and other sensors. This actually serves another purpose; to test the capabilities of electronic warfare equipment on both sides. If nothing else this has been a big help increasing Russian arms exports.

Another ancient but still useful technique is the “secret conspiracy”. Thus Russia has been propagating several versions of how the United States secretly got 4,000 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members out of Raqqa and out of Syria before the U.S. backed (and mainly Kurdish) SDF rebels completed their capture of the ISIL capital. This disinformation item is particularly popular in the Middle East because many Moslems (especially Arabs) believe al Qaeda and ISIL were created by the U.S. and Israel and that major ISIL attacks (like the September 11, 2001 ones) were staged by the CIA.

Increasingly these disinformation efforts are proved false. But that is a minor setback because disinformation succeeds because the original lie persists, to a certain degree, forever. One recent example of how this works in Syria occurred when Russia accused the United States of committing atrocities in Syria by using American warplanes disguised as Russian ones while bombing civilians, hospitals and the like. To carry out this disinformation the Russians used photos from an American pilot training exercise in which some F-18s, which are somewhat similar in appearance to Russian Su-30s, were given a Russian Air Force paint job and flown by American pilots who knew Russian fighter tactics and techniques. This was part of the “dissimilar training” the U.S. Navy revived (from a World War II practice) in the late 1960s to better prepare American pilots to deal with North Vietnamese fighter aircraft encountered over North Vietnam. This led to regular Red Flag and Top Gun training programs that evolved as potential enemy air forces did. The Russians claimed these photos showed American aircraft operating over Syria and bombing forbidden (by international law) targets, in order to blame Russia. Because of widespread use of cell phone cameras and the Internet many disinformation efforts are encountering this sort of thing. Iran and the Palestinians have been busted so often that intelligence analysts find it best to assume that surprising claims by Russia, Iran or the Palestinians are disinformation and insist on verification. Usually what is found is proof of another lie but that is a minor setback for those who regularly employ disinformation because the lie flies while the truth never seems to catch up much less get ahead of the distorted version of reality. That’s why among Russians the concept of “trust but verify” has long been applied because one of the frequent victims of disinformation are the Russians themselves.

The prevalence of disinformation is one reason for “secret negotiations”, especially in the Middle East. During such meetings it is understood that nothing serious can be accomplished unless both sides have a rare moment of honesty with each other. It is understood that once the meeting is over everyone resumes whatever distorted reality they normally operate in. This is Russia is trying to decide who is the best long-term partner in the wreckage that was once Syria. For Russia it is still unclear who to move forward with.

War Goes On

Nationwide the fighting is killing about 1,000 people a month at the end of 2017, which is about half the number of monthly dead earlier in the year. The fighting was pretty intense until October, especially in the east, as ISIL control of that third of the country ended as did the ability of ISIL to operate as a major military or terror force in Syria (or Iraq). But the fighting continues because most of the rebels were not ISIL or allies of ISIL. Since 2011 the fighting in Syria has killed about 350,000. Some 33 percent of the dead are civilians while 35 percent are split evenly between Syrian security forces and pro-government irregulars (local militias, Iranian mercenaries) and 32 percent various rebel factions (many killed fighting other rebels). About half the rebel dead belonged to ISIL.

Russia has lost about 40 military personnel plus about twice as many Russian military contractors (usually working for the Wagner Group). The Russian losses, both military and contractor, are reported or discussed in the Russian language Internet and the government apparently does not interfere with that as long as the Internet chatter is about morning the departed, not criticizing the government or its foreign policy.

The secular rebels and Islamic terror groups that opposed ISIL still want the Assads gone and Iran has 24,000 fighters in Syria to make sure that does not happen. Some 62 percent of the Iranian forces are Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Another 35 percent are Hezbollah (Lebanese Shia) and the rest are Iranian trainers and technical advisors. The Syrian armed forces have about 200,000 men on the payroll but most are not effective for offensive operations (that’s what Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries are for) and useful mainly to provide local security. As ISIL loses control of eastern Syria the Assads are finding it more difficult to provide enough loyal Syrians to maintain order in the expanding Assad territory. Iran sees this as an opportunity to provide Iranian Shia mercenaries on a long term basis to deal with that. This gives Iran more control over eastern Syria and the Iraqi border. This is key to maintaining a land route from Iran to Lebanon for the coming battle with Israel. Finally Russia has about 5,000 military and contractor personnel in Syria providing the Assads with air, intel and logistical support. This plays a major role in keeping the Syrian army and air force operational, if nothing else.

It is unclear what Russia hopes to gain in Syria and the Russians appear uncertain as well. Turkey and Iran are their traditional enemies, while Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia are trying to negotiate a deal to prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans (already announced and underway) to establish bases in Syria and organize anti-Israeli forces. Thus for Israel any long term Iranian presence in Syria is intolerable. Russia says it can work out such a deal but many Israelis are skeptical and Iran says such a deal is not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran Israel has some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this puts Russia at odds with their two other allies (Turkey and Iran) in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey.

The Israelis keep pointing out that Iran and their dependency Syria have, since the 1980s, openly called for the destruction of Israel. Many Westerners saw this as absurd while Russia sees it as an opportunity and the Israelis point out that they have nukes, the most effective military (and economy) in the region and no tolerance for more Iranian forces moving into Syria or agreeing that the Assads are a legitimate government. For Russia this is a challenge since as outsiders they realize that Israel is right and long-term a more dependable and desirable ally. But the current Russian government is getting by on uncertainty, deception and hope that something will work.

While Russian and Turkish officials have privately disapproved of Iranian plans to establish more direct control in Syria and Lebanon the U.S. and most European nations openly object to this Iranian strategy. France has been particularly opposed to the Iranian plans, in part because France has itself been involved in what is now Syria and Lebanon (the “Levant”) for nearly a thousand years. Over the last century Islamic radicals in the region have been more energetically trying to drive all non-Moslems out.

December 14, 2017: Lebanon and Syria agreed to reopen a major border crossing (Al Qaa/Jussiyeh) that was closed in 2012 when the Assads lost control of their side of the border. Since then various Islamic terror groups have controlled the area, until the last few months when the Assads and Lebanese troops cleared Syrian rebels from the area.

December 11, 2017: Russian leaders announced that the withdrawal of Russian forces in Syria was beginning. Some warplanes and their ground crews will be gone by the end of the year and most of the troop reductions will take place by mid-2018. At least half the Russian forces are expected to remain, including about 1,200 military contractors from the Wagner Group. Russia will concentrate on its new naval base and air base in western Syria. The naval base will be able to handle about ten large warships at a time, including nuclear powered ones. The U.S. has noted that Russian ground troops, including special operations ones and contractors, are deliberately avoiding ISIL forces as long as those Islamic terrorists leave the Russians alone and appear to be heading for a border and leaving Syria. The Americans believe there are still about 2,000 ISIL fighters in Syria, scattered throughout the country, many of them seeking to leave.

December 10, 2017: Neighboring Iraq officially celebrated the defeat of ISIL in Iraq. The U.S. believes there are still 500-1,000 ISIL members active in Iraq and because of that threat plus a growing Iranian presence, the Iraqis are fine with most of the 5,300 American troops now in Iraq remaining.

December 7, 2017: In eastern Syria SDF reported it had received another shipment of weapons and ammo from the United States. These came with more detailed instructions about which SDF faction was to get what.

December 4, 2017: In the south Israeli missiles struck three military facilities on the outskirts of Damascus. Two are believed to be rebuilt or under the control of Iran while the third target was an SA-5/S-200 SAM (Surface to Air Missile) base. The SA-5 is a 1960s Russian design that Russia has updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010. Each seven ton S-200 missile has a range of 300 kilometers but Israel has apparently developed effective countermeasures for the anti-aircraft capabilities.

December 3, 2017: In the south (Golan Heights) another mortar shell fired from Syria landed in Israel. It was apparently not intentional.

General Qassem Soleimani was proclaimed (via Iranian TV) the best Iranian armed forces commander during the last year. Soleimani commands the IRGC Quds Force and has been regularly praised as responsible for victories in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Soleimani is seen as some sort of master of mayhem and an ideal Iranian hero. The United States and many other nations consider Soleimani an international terrorist. To that end the head of the CIA recently warned Soleimani that he and his Quds Force associates would be held personally responsible if the Iran backed forces in Iraq or Syria attacked American troops. Soleimani had recently said that would happen if American troops did not leave Iraq and Syria. Most Iraqis want the Americans to stay until the Iranian threat is diminished.

December 1, 2017: In the south (Damascus) several Israeli missiles struck a new Iranian base under construction south of Damascus. Later reports indicated that seven building were destroyed, seven heavily damaged and twelve Iranian personnel killed (plus a larger number of non-Iranian personnel). Russia said its anti-aircraft systems shot down some of the Israeli missiles but presented no proof (like missile fragments that can be identified as Israeli).

November 27, 2017: The U.S. announced that it would be reducing shipments of military equipment to the Kurdish led SDF rebels in northeast Syria. The Americans were also asking for SDF help in preventing one of the Kurd factions (the YPG separatists) from getting any additional military supplies. This is apparently part of a deal with Turkey to enable American military forces to remain in northeast Syria without interference from the Turks. This unannounced arrangement means the Turks will hold the U.S. forces responsible to prevent Kurdish separatists (especially the Turkish PKK) from using Syria for bases. The U.S. still has about 2,000 troops in Syria, most of them working with the SDF. The Americans have been one of the few major powers to support Kurdish statehood and have done so since the early 20th century. But without much success. The Russians and Israelis have also been helpful at times. Then there is the key problem of the Kurds inability to agree among themselves. Nevertheless the Kurds played a key role in defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria and the U.S. is using that to persuade others to show some gratitude. Along those lines the U.S. points that to keep ISIL (and similar groups) away you need some American presence in Iraq and Syria and the American prefer to operate from bases in Kurdish controlled territory because it is safer.

In the south (the Ghouta suburbs 15 kilometers east of Damascus) two weeks of heavy fighting have left some 300 people dead (most of them civilians) as the Assads seek to capture what is one of the last rebel strongholds around Damascus and was the scene of the chemical weapons attack in 2013. In mid-2017 the Ghouta area was controlled by over 10,000 armed rebels and still contains about 350,000 civilians. Despite ceasefires and heavy losses (mainly from civilians leaving the area and fleeing as far from all the fighting as possible) at least half of the civilians are still there. Also present are about six rebel factions, most of them Islamic terror groups divided between those associated with al Qaeada and the rest supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states. These factions have spent a lot of time fighting, or feuding, with each other. This has tied down a lot of Assad forces to keep an eye on them and the rebels will cooperate in defending the area if attacked. In July Russian military police established about a dozen checkpoints in the Ghouta area and that was as much to reassure the people in the area that Russian and Syrian air strikes would not return but to also monitor movements of known rebels. But the rebels kept shooting, despite ceasefires and more pro-government forces set up patrols around the rebel controlled area. By October nearly all the smuggling routes were no longer safe (or reliable for regular use) and since early November airstrikes and artillery fire intensified, against both military and civilian targets. But the government forces could not make major gains and the government tightened the blockade in an effort to literally starve the rebels out. This works better during the cold weather, which will be the norm for the next four months.

November 25, 2017: Iranian, Russian and Turkish leaders met in southern Russia (Sochi) to work out how the three nations will continue to cooperate in Syria. More of these meetings will be held and will become more contentious as Iran carries out its plan to take complete control of Syria.

November 22, 2017: Russia has shut down the UN investigation into violations of the 2013 deal Russia negotiated with the Assads to get rid of Syrian chemical weapons. Russia used its UN veto twice in the last week to prevent continued UN investigation of the violations of that agreement. Russia apparently concluded that UN investigators were getting too close. This became obvious when the UN investigators released another report a month ago on continued chemical weapons use in Syria. The report confirmed that the Assad government used nerve gas against a pro-rebel village in Idlib province during April 2017, 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. Another part of this report confirmed that ISIL used mustard gas in several September 2016 attacks.

Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) and Syrian patron Iran was believed to have let the Syrians know details of how nerve gas worked in combat. In 2013 the Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It was believed that the Assads would not hold onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it would likely be used against them. But in late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for. The Americans doubt that ISIL had any success manufacturing chemical weapons. It was already known that ISIL was creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals (like chlorine or grain fumigant). Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on.

Nerve gas is different and the effects are unmistakable, gruesome and often fatal. Moreover the ability to accurately identify the composition or chemical weapons residue has improved greatly since the 1980s. Each batch of chemical weapons is a little different, especially rarely manufactured items like mustard or the various nerve agents (some are a gas some are an aerosol). Chemical analysis can quickly identify the type and identifying profile of the samples taken from a victim or the vicinity of the attack. This analysis was done to some of the Syrian stuff surrendered and destroyed in 2014. That means any use of chemical weapons leaves an informative data trail that can be read and followed.

November 21, 2017: The Assad government began another effort to persuade thousands of men in pro-government communities to report for duty in an army reserve unit. Nearly all of these “deserters” are men who completed the mandatory military service before 2011 and subsequently sided with the government (as did at least 20 percent of the population). But as the rebellion went on the Assad government called up just about all reservists and a growing number of reservists realized they could get killed or maimed in combat and could either flee the country or bribe some official (or call in a favor) to be kept off the list of those citizens eligible to be called up. The government tolerated this for a long time realizing that it needed all the pro-government civilians it could get. But now the civil war is apparently ending and the government will have a lot of former rebel territory to police and would prefer that this was done by pro-government Syrians and not the Iranian mercenaries who have been doing most of the fighting since 2013. Many reluctant reservists have turned up for duty and sent off to man checkpoints or patrol some largely depopulated area that used to be home for pro-rebel civilians who have fled the country to escape the government tactic of deliberately using airstrikes and artillery against pro-rebel civilians to persuade them to leave the country.

November 19, 2017: In the south (Golan Heights) Israeli tanks fired on Syrian troops attempting to build a fortified outpost in the UN mandated demilitarized zone. This was the second day in a row Israeli forces fired on this illegal outpost.

In the east Syria (Deir Ezzor province) five IRGC personnel were killed over the last few days. One of them, Kheirollah Samadi, was a general and another was a retired colonel. The five all appear to be involved with a fierce battle with a group of ISIL fighters holding Bukamal a small town on the Euphrates River near the Iraq border. Earlier Iran had declared the area free of ISIL presence.

The Arab League held an emergency meeting in Egypt to condemn Iran backed Hezbollah for gradually taking control of Lebanon. Arabs also noted that most (about 80 percent) of the Assad forces in Syria are Iranian mercenaries. They are mostly Arab and Afghan Shia recruited, led, armed, trained and sustained by Iran.

November 17, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) across the Iraqi border in Anbar province Iraqi troops drove ISIL out of the border town of Rawa. This is the last large town ISIL controlled on the Syrian border.

November 15, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) s ix Russian Tu-22M3 bombers hit ISIL targets after flying from Russian bases and then over Iran and Iraq on their way to and from the target. Tu-22s have been doing this since mid-2016. The Iraqis believe it best not to complain.

The U.S. revealed that since late October they had found and killed four more senior ISIL personnel in Syria and Iraq. Two of the confirmed kills took place in Iraq (Anbar, near the Syrian border) and the other two in eastern Syria. The latest four dead were known to deal mainly with ISIL recruiting, training and finance outside Iran and Iraq. Before that (from August to late October) 11 senior ISIL officials in Iraq and Syria had been killed and confirmed. Most of these were specialists in areas like weapons development, finance, media and transportation. This is why the ISIL program of arming commercial UAVs with explosives suddenly disappeared and why so many ISIL dead appeared malnourished while captured (or surrendered) ISIL fighters talked of growing shortages of food and all manner of supplies. Large stockpiles of these supplies are being captured in Syria and Iraq but the organization that once arranged for distribution of this stuff was in disarray, in large part because the few senior ISIL officials who knew how it worked had recently been killed (while the few others have disappeared and appear to have used their resources to get out of the region). Another purpose of this decapitation (going after key leaders) campaign was to reduce the number of ISIL fighters getting home, especially if they came from the West. It was also noted that these decapitation attacks were hurting ISIL media operations, which were once the most successful among many Islamic terror groups. As suspected the last of the ISIL media experts were in Raqqa because after that city was captured by Kurd led rebels two weeks ago, ISIL media activity took a sharp drop. It is believed that ISIL still has some media experts out there and that they are seeking a new base of operations.

November 14, 2017: Iranian media featured a photo of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) at a recently captured border crossing (Bukamal) into Iraq. Suleimani proclaimed that Iran now had a clear land route from Iran to the Mediterranean coasts in Syria and Lebanon. Suleimani has been appearing in Iranian media since late 2014 visiting Iraq and Syria.

November 13, 2017: Without admitting it, Iran has been spotted building a military base in Syria, about 15 kilometers south of Damascus and too close (50 kilometers) to the Israeli border as far as the Israelis are concerned. The base is not large and appears to have facilities for about 500 troops. Israel believes this will be a headquarters for Iranian operations against Israel. Normally Israel waits for construction to finish before launching an attack (usually an air strike).

Further south the head of the Russian intelligence agency (the FIS) visited Israel to discuss how to handle the dispute between Israel and Iran over the continued presence of Iran controlled (and often led) irregular forces. There are still as many as 3,000 armed ISIL fighters in Syria and they are scattered in over a dozen locations, none of them close to Israel. Turkey wants Russia to pressure the United States to stop providing weapons and other assistance to Syrian Kurds, something the U.S. has been doing more of since mid-2016 when it became obvious that the Kurdish led SDF rebel coalition had the best chance of driving ISIL out of Raqqa, which the SDF proceeded to do by late 2017. The SDF is still the most effective armed group fighting ISIL in Syria and the U.S. will continue supporting the SDF until ISIL no longer has a presence in Syria. That is fine with Israel but not with Turkey or Iran. Russia is trying to negotiate a peace deal between all the major antagonists and is having some success. But ultimately Israel sees this as a fool’s errand.

November 11, 2017: In the south (Israeli border) Israeli air defenses shot down a Russian UAV carrying out a surveillance mission of the Israeli Golan Heights. Apparently Hezbollah was controlling the UAV and the Israelis continue to investigate who was doing what for whom on the Syrian side of the border to make this happen.

 

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