The alliance between Russia, Iran and Turkey is coming apart because all three nations have different goals even though the three have been cooperating with the Assad government since 2015 to end the civil war. But with the rebels no longer a major threat to the Assad government each of these three allies are more interested in their own objectives in Syria. For Russia, it is to maintain its two bases their and that is only possible if the Assad government (which granted the use of an airbase and port facilities) survives. Iran is in Syria to keep the Assads in power so Iran can mass forces there to attack and destroy Israel. Turkey is mainly there to destroy Turkish and Syrian Kurdish separatist groups, as well as any Islamic terrorists that are seen as a threat to Turkey. To accomplish this Turkey wants to clear all Kurdish separatists and from the Syrian side of the border and turn that “security zone” over to the FSA (a Syrian rebel group that not works for the Turks).
All three of these unlikely allies have run into different, although sometimes interrelated, problems with achieving their goals. The Russians want an end to the seven years of fighting and are now in conflict with Iranian plans to attack Israel. Russia and Israel have long been on good terms and the Russians want to keep it that way. Iran doesn’t really care much what the Turks do in the north and are more concerned with their growing (and so far failed) effort to do some damage to Israel. Russia is trying to convince Iran that the Israelis are really, really serious about getting Iranian forces out of Syria. Israel demands this. Turkey agrees with it and the Assads would prefer that.
It is generally accepted (and Syria even admits it) that Iran does have thousands of trainers, advisors, technicians and other support specialists to make the Syrian Army and their Iranian allies (mainly Shia mercenaries recruited by Iran and controlled by Iranian trainers and advisors) a formidable force. The chatter from Iran (Internet postings or street talk) confirms that and the number of these Iranians killed. Most of the dead belong to the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Over a hundred IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. But a growing number of non-Quds personnel are dying as Israel attacks Iranian bases in Syria. Quds supervised the creation of the huge (over 50,000) mercenary force in Syria. Quds recruits these foreign Shia (mainly Afghans and Lebanese), trains, arms, equips, supplies and pays them (including death benefits) and usually has Quds (or IRGC) officers leading the mercenary units. Iranian advisors are also embedded with most Syrian Army units. These Quds, IRGC and Iranian army personnel have rotated in and out of Syria since 2012 and when they get home they talk about their experiences and that (usually via friends or kin) gets posted on social media or emailed to friends and kin overseas (usually via encrypted apps like Telegram). All this is great for intel agencies and journalists with contacts in the overseas Iranian community and a knowledge of Farsi (the major Iranian language). As a result, we know that morale in the Syrian army is really bad because the troops are recruited from the minority (no more than 15 percent of the pre-war population) that supports Assad (usually because they are not Sunni Arabs, who comprised 75 percent of Syrians in 2012). These Syrians often go to great lengths to avoid getting conscripted and if they do end up in uniform few are eager to see combat. Thus the Iranian mercenaries are the key to whatever combat capabilities the Assad forces have. This is why the Assads also want Iran to withdraw its forces once all the rebel forces are destroyed, disarmed or otherwise neutralized. Otherwise, the Iranian led mercenaries will be the real power in Syria.
Iran insists it will not officially leave Syria until all the rebels have been defeated (preferably by killing them.) To achieve such a goal the remaining rebel groups have to be destroyed. Most of these holdouts are Sunni Islamic terrorist groups aligned with al Qaeda or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Kurds and Americans, with some help from Iraqi forces, are going after the remaining ISIL personnel in eastern and northeastern Syria. The Assads, with the help of Iranian mercenaries and Hezbollah, are clearing areas along the northern and southern borders of remaining rebels. These rebels are non-ISIL groups, many of them aligned with al Qaeda. Many, if not most of these groups have finally united in a new coalition called the NLF (National Liberation Front). This will make it more difficult for the Assads to eliminate the remaining rebels although, because the NLF also opposes Kurdish autonomy (which the Assads will tolerate) the Assads are not facing a very formidable opponent in the NLF. This coalition would have been decisive six years ago but now it is largely meaningless.
One thing most everyone can agree on, including most European and Middle Eastern nations, is that Iran should get out of Syria. Iran dominated (and created) Hezbollah in Lebanon has been around since the 1980s and provides a grim example of what happens when Iran is allowed to maintain a large armed presence in a country.
Russia The Realistic Opportunist
Russia has made it clear that it sides with Israel when it comes to Syria and a long-term peace deal. Russia backed this up by openly accepting Israeli use of Jerusalem as their capital and moving functions normally held in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This angers many Moslems, and especially Iran. This support for Israel is one the few things the United States and Russia agree on these days. But the alliance with Russia is unwritten. Yet it is real as Israel has not attacked any Russian targets with its growing air offensive against Iranian forces. During May the Russian president met separately with the Israeli and Syrian leaders and apparently worked out terms of a peace deal that Israel and the Assads can live with. Turkey is willing to follow as long as Turkish border security measures (a security zone on the Syrian side of the border patrolled by Turk supported Syrian militias) are left alone. In the northeast, the Syrian Kurds could have their autonomy as long as they kept the peace. Basically, the Russian proposal is that “all foreign troops” leave Syria. That will include the Americans but not those that now have treaty rights (Russia has an airbase and part of a port). The Americans have no interest in a permanent presence they just want to deal with some Islamic terrorists and then leave. Israel insists that Iran have no treaty rights and get out completely, along with their local affiliate Hezbollah. Russia has specifically called on Iran get its foreign mercenaries (including Hezbollah) out of Daraa province, which borders Israel. The Russians did this by referring to all “foreign forces” in Daraa and those are all Iranian. Russia knows that Iran has already made a big deal about being near the border and attacking Israel. But so far attempts to attack have only resulted in heavier Iranian losses from Israeli air and missile attacks.
The Assad government denies there is any cooperation between Israel and Russia, despite the very visible signs. The Assads depend on both Iran and Russia for the unexpected comeback from certain defeat. Iran has been backing Assad since the 1980s while the Russians largely stopped supplying Assads with much material aid after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The Russians returned in 2015 and the air and tech support put the Assads on the road to victory. But now Russia is siding with Israel on the issue of Iranian efforts to take control of Syria. The Russians have also acted against bad behavior by Assad forces. Russian military police assigned to supervise surrender agreements between rebels in Damascus suburbs have been seen (in late May) arresting pro-Assad militiamen caught looting homes in neighbors recently controlled by rebel forces. The surrender deals guaranteed residents would be left alone and the Russian troops were enforcing those terms. No one else was. Russia did not publicize these actions and the Assads made no public statements. But cell phone videos of the incidents got out and that was followed with Internet chatter confirming it.
The Assads would like the Iranian forces (most of them Iranian paid and led mercenaries) to leave but the Iranians refuse. Israel has told the Assads that if the stick with Iran they will be destroyed. The Assads realize that the Iranians are fanatics about destroying Israel and that the Israelis have demonstrated their ability to counter any move the Iranians make. Moreover, all the other Arab states consider the Assads traitors for aligning themselves with the Iranians, who are quite openly at war with Arab control of Arabia and much else. Worse, no one has much sympathy for the Assads, who have very few good qualities. Despite this, the Assads apparently side with Russia and Israel rather than Iran. What this comes down to is the fact that Iran is a foreign (Indo-European, not Arab) power that wants to increase its direct control over Syria. Russia and Israel do not.
While the Syrian government is close to winning the seven year long civil war there are still substantial rebel forces that will not surrender. The most formidable rebel bastion is in northwest Syria where Idlib province, on the Turkish border, is largely controlled by rebels and protected from attack by several agreements and the presence of UN and other aid operations to keep the two million Sunni Syrians there supplied. Russia, Iran and Turkey all declared Idlib one of the “de-escalation zones”
In early 2017 the rebels saw the decision by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government to establish “de-escalation” zones in rebel held areas as a ploy to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces. By the terms of this, the zones would be “no-fly” zones for all aircraft except those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. The Assads and their supporters (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would establish checkpoints around the zones to control ground access. This would, in theory, allow emergency aid to get in (or be blocked) and eliminate air attacks on civilians. But the rebels pointed out that in previous ceasefire agreements the Russians and Assads ignored the terms and attacked rebels and civilians claiming they were reacting to rebel violence. In the case of the four de-escalation zones, that’s exactly what happened. One aspect of the de-escalation zone agreement that was honored and that was safe passage arrangements for rebels and their civilian supporters who surrendered and were transported to Idlib province.
Aside from sealing their border the Turks are not interested in Idlib and leaving to the Assad forces to take back control of the province. Turkey has established forces on the Syrian side of the border and built several watch towers and stationed border guards on both sides of the border. Since the border was sealed in 2015 several hundred Syrian civilians have been killed by Turkish troops for trying to force their way into Turkey
With a pro-rebel population of about two million, Idlib is the last major stronghold for rebels. In reality, it is a “kill zone” because the Sunni Arabs crowded into Idlib have nowhere to go. No Moslem country (especially Turkey and Lebanon) want them. There are a few Western nations that might accept some of the Idlib refugees but none of these potential Western sanctuary states will send go and get them. Given the high concentration of Islamic terrorists and radical Moslems among the Idlib population many would not get past any Western screening process. That’s why many want to get into Turkey where there is s network of people smuggling gangs that, for a price, can get you to a Western country where you lie your way to asylum and a new home.
Meanwhile, many of the Islamic terror groups in Idlib are still capable of launching attacks on the Russians and the Assads (and their Iranian allies). Shutting down those groups means attacking and destroying specific groups in Idlib. That would require support from Russian airpower and Iranian mercenary ground forces. The Russians are now doing their part, carrying out airstrikes on Idlib based terror groups believed responsible for recent attacks on Russian bases and troops. The Assad forces are also having problems with these Islamic terrorists getting back into Aleppo and trying to reestablish themselves there.
A major operation against the active Islamic terror groups in Idlib is not likely right now because Iran is distracted by Israel. Fortunately, the rebels in Idlib are not united. A few are ISIL and some are FSA (secularists allied with the Turks). While weapons and reinforcements are no longer getting into Idlib from Turkey, food and other essential supplies are and the Turks can cut that off if any of the Idlib rebels cause problems. Meanwhile, Turkey is using that access to supplies to gain the cooperation of more rebel groups. The Turks may never get much cooperation from ISIL, but ISIL is a minority in Idlib and hated by all other rebels. Assad forces still carry out some airstrikes against Idlib targets and use artillery as well but keep their troops out. The Turks won’t risk their own ground forces in Idlib but apparently won’t mind if Iranian mercenaries go in and do the dirty work. After all, those mercenaries are all Shia and the Idlib Islamic terrorists are all Sunni who consider Shia heretics who should be killed. That’s what traditionally happens to “The Unwanted” in this part of the world.
The Manbij Compromise
In the northwest, the Kurds have agreed to withdraw the town of Manbij while leaving it under the control of Kurdish and American troops and government and governed by a local council representing the ethnic population of the town. This eliminates the risk of a clash between American and Turkish forces over Manbij. Turkish forces had been stalled since March in the nearby, and formerly Kurdish controlled, the town of Afrin. The Turks wanted to move 100 kilometers to the east and take Manbij (northeast of Aleppo city, 40 kilometers south of the Turkish border and near the west bank of the Euphrates River). But the American backed SDF controls Manbij despite the fact that it is west of the Euphrates. The U.S. said the American troops with SDF in Manbij were staying, mainly because most of the SDF fighters in Manbij are Arabs, not Kurds. SDF is mainly Kurdish but also contained large numbers of Arabs (Moslem and Christian) and other minorities. Moreover, the SDF is composed of militias that were among the first to rebel against the Assads and remained focused on the rebellion and did not get involved with Islamic terrorism (which many Syrian rebels did). The Turks insist that they are going to control the Syrian side of the border from the Euphrates River west to the Mediterranean but have apparently made a deal (“an understanding not an agreement”) with the Americans that will allow the SDF and U.S. forces to remain in Manbij as long as all the SDF fighters in Manbij (and west of the Euphrates) are non-Kurds. This was apparently acceptable to the Kurds because it appears to reinforce their position in northwest Syria. The Turks also made it clear that they intend to clear PKK and Islamic terrorist bases from all areas on the other side of their borders. That would include all of Syria and Iraq as well. But for now the Turks are depending on the American troops east of the Euphrates to make sure the SDF keeps the Syrian side of the Turkish border secure.
All ISIL On The Eastern Front
In the east (Deir Zor and Hasakah provinces) SDF forces, with American artillery and air support, have been going after the remaining ISIL groups based near the Iraqi border. There are two known areas in eastern Syria where ISIL is known to be present. Both of these are in the Jazeera desert. Much of eastern Syria is desert, interspersed by some river valleys and oases. The Jazeera desert, because of its proximity to the Iraqi border, has always been a favorite hideout for smugglers and, since 2003, for Islamic terrorists operating against targets in Iraq. Now that is reversed with American aircraft (and recon satellites) monitoring the area for targets. These are hit by American and Iraqi warplanes and the SDF coordinates its operations with the Iraqis to prevent any friendly fire. ISIL leader and founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is believed hiding in one of these Jazeera desert enclaves, apparently close enough (within 30 kilometers) of the Syrian border to quickly move (or try to) into Iraq is it appears his exact location becomes known to the SDF or the Assads.
In the last few days, SDF forces moved in and cleared ISIL forces from several rural villages and isolated farms. The SDF can all in artillery (often GPS guided shells or rockets) and air strikes as needed. Unlike Raqqa, which the SDF rapidly captured from ISIL by using air and artillery support on a large scale, out in the desert the fire power can be used more precisely and avoid most civilian casualties. The recent SDF operations in Hasaka province have killed 46 ISIL gunmen including four known commanders. There were no SDF losses, mainly because the Kurds were able to call in over 60 American artillery or air strikes any time they encountered resistance or suspicious activity. These recent operations also cut off the remaining land links between ISIL groups in Syria and Iraq. Captured documents provided more leads. The U.S. has told the SDF that they can have as much air support as they need to finish off ISIL. To that end, the Americans are carrying out nearly four times as many airstrikes in Syria now than was the case back in April.
Further south in Deir Zor province the Assad forces and their Iranian mercenaries are having a harder time with the ISIL gunmen operating near the Iraqi border. The Assad troops don’t have as much air support as the SDF, and what they do get is usually unguided bombs dropped by Russian or Syrian aircraft. Since late May the Assad forces near the border have lost nearly 200 men while ISIL has lost about half as many. Some of the Assad loses included Russian advisors and air controllers. At least six Russians have been killed near the border since late May, although two of them were military contractors. The official count of Russian troops killed in Syria is now 92, with about three times as many Russian military contractors dead as well. The Assads have pushed ISIL forces out of many of their rural refuges but ISIL often counter-attacks and sometimes takes the places back. ISIL knows it has a better chance of defeating Assad forces and that is good for ISIL morale.
June 10, 2018: The Syrian Kurds (including the SDF) made public their willingness to negotiate a peace deal with the Assads. This has always been an option and for the Kurds, it means autonomy, preferably similar to what the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed since the early 1990s. The Assads are open to this sort of arrangement and would not mind if the Americans maintained, as they did in Iraq, their support of the Syrian Kurds. The Turks could live with that because it has worked for the Iraqi Kurds. However, Turkey is becoming less willing to accommodate foreign Kurds and is now hinting that perhaps the Turks should deal with the “Kurdish problem” with more force and occupy the Kurdish controlled border areas in Syria and Iraq. This is one area where Turks and Iranians are in agreement. But the Iranians remained focused on attacking Israel do a joint Turk-Iranian war on Kurds will have to wait.
June 9, 2018: In the south, Israel has discovered Iranian forces returning to the Israeli border wearing Syrian Army uniforms and pretending to be Syrian soldiers. Israel warned that it would attack any Iranian forces approaching their border and it doesn’t matter which uniforms the Iranian mercenaries are wearing. This is the Iranian response to the May 28 agreement between Russia and Israel in which Russia will keep Iranian forces away from the Israeli border and in return Israel will tolerate Syrian troops on that border. This puts Russian in an embarrassing situation as the Iranians are obviously willing to sabotage any deals the Russians and Israelis make about Syria, or anything else.
June 8, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL made an unexpected attack on Assad forces holding Abu Kamal, a small town on the Euphrates River near the Iraq border. This town has changed hands several times since 2011 and is currently held by Assad forces and Iranian mercenaries who took it in late 2017. The ISIL attack used as many as ten suicide bombers killed about three dozen of the defenders and seized control over most of the town. ISIL appeared to have lost about twenty men during the attack. But the Syrian forces soon counter attacked and by the next day ISIL had been driven out of the town center to the outskirts. This action is part of a series of clashes that have taken place in the areas since late May.
June 7, 2018: The Russian leader made it clear that Russian forces would remain in Syria. Russia has treaties with the Assads providing Russian forces used of an airbase in northeastern Syria and port facilities at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast.
June 5, 2018: Germany openly called for Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria. This rare criticism of Iran was caused by Israel pointing out that the presence of Iranian forces in Syria is a major cause of Syrians fleeing their country and heading for Germany where it is easy to get asylum. Until there is peace in Syria more Syrians will flee and those that can afford it will head for Germany, which is one of the few European nations accepting Syrian refugees.
May 31, 2018: In Syria, there were more Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah ammunition storage areas outside Damascus. Iran has long flown in long range rockets and other advanced weapons. The Damascus airport and airbases near the city were used and the equipment was usually stored in warehouses and bunkers near the city before the stuff was moved to Lebanon or some combat zone in Syria.
The defense ministers of Israel and Russia met in Russia. After that, there were rumors that Russia had agreed to not interfere with any Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and continue pressuring Iran to withdraw its mercenaries from the Israeli border. Israel and Russia later stated that there was no Russian blanket pledge to not interfere. There was, however, no change in the existing policy of Russian forces not confronting Israeli attacks on Iranian targets. The Russians consider this a case-by-case decision. The Russians clearly do not want to fight the Israelis, especially when the Russians have growing evidence that Russian military equipment would not do well if there were a fight. At the same time, senior officials back in Israel let it be known that Israel would not object to Syrian troops at their border, especially if there were no Iranian forces in Syria.
May 28, 2018: In western Syria (Homs province) Israeli airstrikes hit a Hezbollah base near the Lebanon border. Among the Hezbollah losses was one of their senior leaders. Across the border in Lebanon, two Israeli F-16s encountered two Russian Su-34s near Tripoli. There were reports that the Russian jets were confronting the Israelis but Russia and Israel later denied that and said it was simply a chance encounter.
May 27, 2018: Syria has banned Iranian backed forces from using hangers and others buildings on Syrian bases. The Iranians must stay in a separate area and use structures they have built. This is in an effort to limit Syrian losses when Israeli airstrikes go after Iranian forces sharing Syrian bases. The Syrians apparently believe the Israeli aerial reconnaissance and information from informants on the ground is accurate enough to sort verify this new policy.
May 24, 2018: In western Syria (Homs province) Israel used six missile to destroy a Hezbollah ammunition storage facility at a Syrian airbase.
May 23, 2018: Israel publicly warned Syria that any Syrian air defense system that fired on Israeli aircraft would be destroyed. Those that did not fire would be left alone. Syria has fired over a hundred of its large surface-to-air missiles and only managed to damage one F-16 (which crashed in Israel while trying to land). That loss was attributed to the pilot not following the correct procedure for avoiding these missiles.
May 22, 2018: The Israeli Air Force released photos showing one of their F-35 stealth fighters flying over Beirut, Lebanon. Actually, the photo was shown during a closed conference but quickly made its way to the mass media. The Israelis admitted F-35s had been used in Syria but would not provide any details.
May 21, 2018: In northwest Syria the Russian Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase was again approached by at least one unidentified UAV. Russian forces shot it down and are trying to figure out who it belongs to. Islamic terror groups in the area are the main suspects.
May 15, 2018: An Israeli airstrike in Syria (near the Lebanese border) apparently killed a senior Hezbollah commander.