Russia and the Syrian Assad government have declared the rebellion is over and attention must be turned towards reconstruction. The reality is that the fighting is far from over and the Assad government only controls about half the country. Everyone agrees that Islamic terrorist rebels still control most of Idlib province in the northwest and that the Kurdish led SDF separatists control Hasaka province in the northwest, as well as parts of
Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces
Many of the Idlib rebels are backed by Turkey while the SDF is backed by the United States. The Assads control the Mediterranean coast (
Latakia province), which is the homeland of the Syrian Shia and the Shia Assads, but it is Russian troops and bases that guarantee the security of Latakia province. The Assads have a large payroll (the military and civil servants in areas they rule) and it is Iranian financial aid that enables the Assads to meet that payroll each month. In return, the Assads cede control to Iran for areas along the Israeli, Iraq and Lebanon borders. In those areas, Iranians or Iran backed Iraqi or Lebanese militias have the final say on who enters and who does not.
The only thing that keeps the Syrian Army capable of offensive operations is Russian, air, artillery, logistics, training and special operations support. Destroying the Idlib rebels and intimidating the separatist Kurds would not be possible without that Russian support. Turkey, Russia and Iran agree with the Assads that the Americans have to leave eastern Syria and cease carrying out airstrikes in Syria. The Americans refuse, as do the Israelis. While Israel has no troops in Syria it is Israeli warplanes and artillery that constantly attack Iranian backed forces in Syria. The Assads don’t like to discuss the fact that Iran is at war with Israel and getting Israel to stop defending itself is not going to happen. The Assads also prefer to not discuss the fact that they would like the Turks and Iranians to leave. That is not practical at the moment and is the cost of victory over the rebellion that almost drove the Assads out of power after 2011.
A Fine Mess We Have
Turkey has backed off on its threats to Russia over Idlib province. Currently, Russia-supported Syrian troops are attacking Turkish-backed rebels as well as the Islamic terror groups. This comes after Turkey threatened to attack Russian and Syrian warplanes in late August after the mid-August Syrian airstrike on a Turkish supply convoy in Idlib. The Syrians attacked because they believed the weapons and supplies were intended for HTS Islamic terrorist rebels who were fighting Syria troops for control of the nearby town of Khan Shaikhun and the M5 highway that goes from Turkey to Jordan via Damascus. Russia wants to keep Turkey as an ally but cannot afford to go along with the Turkish plan to tolerate Islamic terrorists in Idlib for months more or longer. Turkey decided it needed good relations with Russia and Iran more than it did Syrian rebels. The Islamic Turkish government is in trouble at home, having lost the support of most voters with its ineffective economic and security policies. Another problem, which has nothing to do with religion, is the three million Syrian refugees in Syria. Turkey is getting billions in cash from the EU (European Union) to keep its borders closed to any of these Syrians trying to enter the EU illegally. A minority of the returnees were voluntary and many of those regretted doing so. Turkey wants to get rid of these Syrian Sunni Arabs, who are largely anti-Assad and do not want to return to Syria. Many have a good reason not to return; the Assad secret police has a long list of “enemies” who fled the country because they supported the rebels. Such enemies face death or imprisonment if they return. Turkey has forced many, if not most, of the 330,000 Syrians who have returned because the Turks accused the refugees of illegal activity. The Turks have a long history of treating Arabs harshly but that does not pacify all the refugees. Some will fight back and that tempts the Turks to force all the Syrian refugees back into Syrian while they can. Sure there will be a lot of international criticism but the Turks also have a long history of ignoring that sort of thing when they believe the safety of Turks, or at least key Turkish politicians, is the issue.
The Russians have specific objectives in Idlib and these are clearing rebels from the M4 highway that connects Aleppo (the second largest city in Syria) to the coastal province of Latakia, where the Russian bases are. This operation would also clear the M5, which connects Aleppo to the south, as in Hama province, Damascus and the Jordan border. Shutting down the Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib is seen as essential for the safety of nearby Russian basis in Latakia province.
The Hmeimim airbase there was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim. As long as the rebels are active in Idlib they will try attacking the Russian bases.
The situation is quite different for the Turks who wanted to negotiate the surrender of Idlib province to avoid more Syrian civilians from trying to cross the border into Turkey. Syria would prefer that the largely pro-rebel civilians in Idlib leave the country. Syria also wants the Turks out of Syria. Russia is OK with the Turkish presence in Syria. So is Iran, mainly because the Turks are also in Syria to ensure that the Syrian Kurds do not support the PKK separatist Turkish Kurds. Iran also has rebellious separatist Kurds.
The Turks still support the main Islamic terror group in Idlib.
Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS
(Hayat Tahrir al Sham), which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions never did trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turks. The August attack on the Turk convoy indicates Russia and Syria believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well. It rarely does but for many shortsighted politicians, it is still an attractive option.
Turkey feels this is the best choice in a bad situation. There are over 20,000 heavily armed and desperate Islamic terrorists in Idlib and Turkey believes the Syrian offensive, supported by Russian airstrikes and some ground support, will result in more civilian deaths and a mass exodus of a million or more Idlib civilians, in addition to many Islamic terrorists pretending to be civilians, for the nearby Turkish border. While border defenses have been improved that border is not impregnable. Turkey also has to worry about the millions of Syrian refugees already inside Turkey. Half a million of them came via Idlib, most of them this year. Turkey wants to persuade or force all these refugees back across the border. The refugees are reluctant because, among other things, Syria believes in killing all the Idlib Islamic terrorists and any civilians that get in the way. Russia and Iran go along with that. This disagreement over strategy and tactics has been present ever since all those refugees and Islamic terrorists were trapped in Idlib, and now that disagreement is coming to a potentially messy resolution.
Russian forces in Syria have been reinforced this year because Russians are once more fighting in Syria. Since May the major fighting has taken place in northwest Syria (Idlib province). Most of the Idlib borders (east, south and some of the west) are controlled by Syrian forces (army and militias). The Syrians want to regain control over Idlib but have not got the military power themselves to do it, at least not quickly. Syrian troops are largely demoralized by eight years of fighting. Until 2018 Iranian mercenaries provided the offensive ground forces for the Syrian army. Since early 2018 most of those mercenary units have been disbanded because of cash shortages, or reassigned to operations against Israel. That means remaining Iranian forces are largely in the south, around Damascus and the southeastern borders (Jordan and Iraq). The Syrian Kurds are still handling ISIL remnants in eastern Syria. That means the Syrian army can concentrate its best using in an effort to regain control of Idlib. That requires a lot of help from Russian troops. The fighting is going slowly because the Syrian commanders accept that they have to keep Syrian casualties low to maintain morale and prevent massive desertions, as have occurred in the past.
The Russians have provided about a thousand ground troops (special operations, ground controllers and military contractors) to help with calling in airstrikes and putting in teams of Russian troops to handle difficult and dangerous (especially for the Syrian troops) situations. This is similar to what a few hundred American Special Forces troops and CIA field agents did in Afghanistan in late 2001. Back then a small number of Americans provided specialized services to the Afghan anti-Taliban forces and that made an enormous difference.
The fighting in Idlib is leaving about a thousand dead a month. Most of these are civilians or armed rebels. The Russian and Syrian aircraft attack the enemy wherever they believe they are. That includes residential neighborhoods, mosques and hospitals. Currently, the airstrikes and ground operations are as intense as ever and Turkey is angry about that and the possibility of a massive surge of Idlib civilians trying to get into Turkey. So far over 500,000 civilians have been driven from their homes. The Turks have been unable to persuade anyone to help with halting the Idlib violence and potential refugee crisis. Despite that, the Turks keep trying and the latest gambit is a threat to attack Kurdish controlled northeast Syria (Hasaka province) if something is not done about the Idlib mess. The problem is there no solution to the Idlib problem that will satisfy everyone. For Russia and Syria the priority is shutting down the Islamic terrorist threat there, something Turkey is less concerned about because the current Turkish government is more “Islamic terrorist friendly” than anyone else in the region.
Israel is doing whatever it can to make Iran feel unwelcome in Syria. The question is, how much is enough? The Syrian effort is costing Iran a lot of money (which they cannot afford), reputation (not much to lose) and lives (more affordable). So far Iran has tolerated the losses and continues to pour resources into permanently establishing itself in Syria. Iran cannot afford to contribute large sums for reconstruction in Syria but is allowing Iranian entrepreneurs to build factories and other commercial operations in Syria. Some of these commercial activities will be, as is the case inside Iran, partly owned, or controlled by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). These Iranian businesses will also end up on the Israeli target list, especially because of the IRGC connection. Iran is determined to finally achieve a victory over Israel using the growing presence it has in Syria but is encountering resistance from Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and most NATO nations, in addition to Israel.
Israel sees itself at the greatest risk because Iranians in Syria might do something desperate, and stupid. Over the last year, the IRGC has suffered multiple defeats, usually delivered by Israel or the Americans. Many of these embarrassments have occurred in Syria, where Israel finds and destroys IRGC projects will great regularity. Many Iranians do not see this as an Iranian defeat but just another reason why the IRGC is hated by most Iranians. Blame is most often directed at the IRGC and the Islamic dictatorship that has ruled (and mismanaged) Iran since the 1980s. Iranians see corrupt IRGC men and Shia clergy in general as responsible for their current economic and diplomatic woes. The IRGC is not seen as the protector of the Iranian people but rather the source of growing violence against Iranians who protest the proliferating poverty. The IRGC is accused, by Iranians and the rest of the world, of trying to taunt someone, preferably the United States or Israel, into attacking Iran itself. That would make the IRGC more popular inside Iran, but many Iranians are not so sure. Meanwhile, the Americans concentrate their sanctions on Iranian leaders, including senior IRGC commanders, which is a popular move to most Iranians.
And then there is the Turkish problem. Russia and Iran oppose Turkish plans for northwest Syria (Idlib province) and Kurdish held areas to the east (all the way to the Iraq border). The Turks want permanent control over the Syrian side of the border to improve their own border security and, more importantly, cripple Syrian Kurdish efforts to establish an autonomous Kurdish region in the northeast. This puts the Turks at odds with Syrians in general and especially the Iran backed Assad dictatorship in Syria. Now into its second generation, the Assad clan feels it has won a major victory that will not be complete until all foreigners (Turks in the north, Americans in the east and Israelis in the Golan Heights) are out of Syria. None of those foreigners want to cooperate because they feel the Turks, at least the current Islamic government, cannot be trusted.
September 16, 2019:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province), an Israeli airstrike hit a pro-Iran PMF (Iraq militia) near the al Bukamal crossing into Iraq.
Turkish, Russian and Iranian presidents met in Turkey to coordinate operations in Syria. Not attending are representatives from the Assad government. Also not attending are anyone from the Syrian Kurd SDF. The Americans and Israelis are not there either
While Syria was not at the meeting, the Assad government notified the UN, in writing, that they considered the Kurdish dominated SDF in northeast Syria to be separatists and terrorists. The Assads believe the SDF has connections to the Turkish Kurdish separatist PKK and should be eliminated.
The Americans and Turks have an agreement to establish a safe zone in the northeast, where Kurdish majority Hasaka province has been under SDF control since 2012. Turkey accuses the United States of backing the Syrian YPG, a Kurdish separatist group that is part of the SDF and, according to the Turks, an ally of the PKK. The Americans and Turks disagree on this point.
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi issued his first recorded message since April. The 30 minute audio recording cited areas in the Middle East and elsewhere (like Mali) where ISIL was still active. He also urged his followers to free ISIL wives and their children who are held in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq. Baghdadi is believed to be hiding out in eastern Syria or western Iraq. Security forces from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Russia and just about every nation in the world are looking for him. So Baghdadi spends most of his time hiding from all those who want him dead or alive. That search has captured or killed more and more of his key associates, including several killed this year in Syria or Iraq.
September 12, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), the Russian August 31 ceasefire ended as Russian airstrikes hit targets in the western portion of Idlib province. Syrian troops are assembling nearby to advance and drive rebels out of the bombed areas.
September 10, 2019: Britain accuses Iran of violating a written agreement to not sell the oil in its tanker Adrian Draya-1 to Syria. Iran recently announced it had found a customer for the Adrian Draya-1 oil cargo but would not say who. The Americans say they have photographic and electronic evidence that the customer was Syria, despite efforts by Iran to conceal the transfer of oil via the Syrian offshore oil transfer terminal. This all began earlier in southern Spain where a British court in Gibraltar agreed to allow the Iranian tanker Grace 1 to go free because of written assurances its cargo of Iraqi oil would not be delivered to Syria in violation of sanctions. The tanker had been seized on July 4th by British commandos because of evidence that was transporting Iraqi oil to Syria. The Iranian supertanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria. This was part of an enormous (and expensive) Iranian effort to get the Syrian government the oil it needs to continue fighting rebels and Islamic terrorists. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided traveling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker if it had used the canal. The U.S. promptly issued a warrant for the seizure of the oil on the Grace one, plus $995,000 as part of a forfeiture (of Iranian assets) so satisfy American financial judgments against Iran. The Gibraltar court refused to hold the Iranian tanker any longer and the tanker renamed Adrian Draya-1 and with its registration changed to Iranian, said was going to Greece. Adrian Draya-1 left Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean where it moved towards Syria. On September 2nd the tanker turned off its AIS tracker (a violation of international law) and was eventually spotted off Syria. But there were no aerial or satellite photos of the actual unloading of the oil. The Americans will not reveal the exact nature of their evidence or how they obtained it, apparently to prevent Iran from knowing how their tanker had been tracked. With that knowledge, the Iranians could more easily come up with ways to avoid such detection.
September 9, 2019:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province), an Israeli airstrike hit a new pro-Iran PMF (Iraq militia) base near the al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were about twenty dead and much property damage. Israel did not take credit. The next day there was another airstrike across the border in Iraq (Anbar province) that hit a weapons warehouse, which caused a large secondary explosion.
In the south (the Israeli Golan), Israeli sensors detected rockets fired by a pro-Iran militia from a base outside Damascus. The rockets were aimed at Israel but fell short and landed on the Syrian side of the border. This was apparently an Iranian effort retaliate for the earlier al Bukamal airstrike.
September 5, 2019: In the north (Idlib), a Russian vehicle hit an anti-vehicle mine. The explosion killed three Russian soldiers and wounded two others. Since Russian ground forces entered Syria in 2015, over 160 have been killed.
In the south, across the border in Jordan local police arrested dozens of Israeli Druze who were attempting to get to Syria via Jordan for an illegal meeting with fellow Druze in Syria as well as Syrian officials. In late 2018 several dozen Israeli Druze held a pro-Assad demonstration that was acknowledged by Syrian soldiers guarding the border and shouting encouragement. The Israeli border police did not interfere because even though most of the 20,000 Druze living in Israeli controlled (since 1967) Golan Heights have retained their Syrian nationality they have been loyal to Israel. A growing number of younger Druze are accepting the offer of Israeli citizenship. Many of the Druze in Syria (about five percent of the population) had turned against the Assad government by 2015. Since late 2014 al Nusra and other Syrian rebels controlled most of the border adjacent to Israel. This created problems with the Israeli Druze who feared for the safety of the 500,000 Syrian Druze. The 130,000 Israeli Druze have been pressuring Israel since 2013 to rescue or help protect Druze living across the border in Syria. Israel has agreed to help but never released a lot of details. The solution apparently involved quietly making deals with Syrian rebels. This solution meant there was no need to allow lots of Syrian Druze into Israel or send Israeli troops across the border to establish a “safe zone” for Syrian Druze. This would preserve the lands of Syrian Druze and not turn them into refugees, but would also be more expensive (in cash and lives) for Israel by establishing a new border. That never happened. In 2015 Al Nusra was temporarily allied with ISIL and both these groups, especially ISIL, were very hostile to Druze (a semi-Islamic sect considered heretical by most mainline Moslems). By 2015 over a hundred Druze had already been murdered by Islamic terrorists in Syria and there was a sense of desperation among Israeli Druze. Al Nusra apologized for Druze their men killed but ISIL was unapologetic. Other Syrian rebel groups were willing to leave the Druze alone and even protect them in order to gain immunity from Israeli attacks. With ISIL gone from the Israeli border by late 2017, al Nusra and Assad forces controlled most of the border. Al Nusra was driven away from the Israeli border by Syrian soldiers and Iranian mercenaries in early 2018 and now the entire southern border is controlled by the Assad forces. Druze occupy much of the Syrian side of the Israeli-Jordan border and are trying to negotiate a new loyalty deal with the Assads.
September 4, 2019: In the south, across the border in
Israel, the Israelis has moved a Patriot air defense battery to the north, apparently in preparation for possible Iranian missile and rocket attacks from Syria or Lebanon. Patriot has an anti-ballistic missile capability but the Patriot missiles used for this have a shorter range.
September 3, 2019:
The U.S. is offering up to $15 million for information on Iranian smuggling methods or direct help in thwarting such smuggling. Since the Iranian smuggling network depends on a lot of non-Iranians who have less loyalty to, or fear from Iran these bounties are more likely to work than those for Islamic terrorist leaders who are well connected and protected. In addition, the Americans are using what they already know about non-Iranian participants in current Iranian smuggling schemes and hitting those foreigners with sanctions. This is particularly effective against those firms that obtain most of their business from nations that are not subject to sanctions. The U.S. is particularly interested in shutting down smuggling schemes that help keep the Assad government of Syria or the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon afloat or directly benefit Iran. These cash offers and sanctions threats have played a role in preventing the Iranian tanker seized at Gibraltar and later released, from unloading its oil cargo at Syria.
September 1, 2019:
In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah fired several ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) at an Israeli border post. Israel ran a deception, with a fake helicopter medivac, to persuade Hezbollah to not fire anymore. In the meantime, Israeli artillery nearby fired over a hundred shells at Hezbollah targets. Iran decides what actions Hezbollah takes against Israel and this exchange was apparently ordered to test Israeli responses because Israel has been reinforcing the troops it normally has along the Lebanese border. Hezbollah also wants to demonstrate it is not intimidated by the growing number of Israeli attacks on Hezbollah personnel in Syria and Lebanon. It is telling that Iran won’t allow Hezbollah to fire any rockets at Israel. The ATGMs are a short-range (about five kilometers) weapon.
August 31, 2019:
In the northwest (Idlib province), a Russian sponsored unilateral ceasefire began at 6 AM. Russian sponsored ceasefires and truces have a poor track record because few of them actually take place on the appointed date. This one did, with no Russian or Syrian airstrikes. Later in the day, there was an American airstrike against an al Qaeda headquarters in Idlib. Russia complained that they were not notified in advance, as per an agreement with the Americans and that this attack could be seen as a violation of the ceasefire. The Americans were not part of this ceasefire and the airstrike was kept secret because the targets were some al Qaeda leaders who were planning attacks against American targets. These airstrikes killed at least 40 people, including several terror group leaders. It was unclear if the dead included any or all of the people the Americans were after. Over the next few days there were several artillery strikes in Idlib but no other airstrikes. A similar truce a month ago collapsed after three days.
August 30, 2019: Russian Su-57 stealth fighters are returning to Syria. In Russia t
he export version of the Su-57 was presented at a Russian air show. China, India and Turkey expressed interest. To encourage potential buyers it was announced that two Su-57s were being sent to Syria where the usefulness of the Su-57 as a fighter-bomber could be tested. Su-57s were in Syria during 2018 but just to see how they would operate in a combat zone.
August 29, 2019:
In the northwest (Idlib province), Russia provided more ground forces (special operations, artillery, advisors) and air support to the Syrian effort to advance into Idlib province. This has succeeded and in the last week Islamic terrorist rebels have been forced out of several towns and villages. The increased bombing of civilian targets is part of a strategy to demoralize the defenders. A week earlier Syria announced that they had finally cleared all rebels out of Hama province, which is south of Idlib.
August 25, 2019:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province), across the Iraqi border in Anbar province, an unidentified (probably Israeli) UAV attacked a pro-Iran PMF convoy, killing six militiamen, including a PMF commander. The pro-Iran PMF leaders blamed Israel. The attack took place near the border that the PMF convoy was apparently going to cross into Syria. The Americans deny any involvement and the Israelis say nothing about airstrikes in Israel but did reveal that a recent attack in Syria was to halt an Iranian UAV attack on Israel.
August 24, 2019: In the south (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike outside the city hit an Iranian base that was described as preparing Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives that were going to be used for an attack on Israel. It was believed that Iran had resorted to these UAV tactics because of desperation for a win against Israel, which was continuing to attack Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq with impunity and without suffering any losses. Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen had used the explosives equipped UAVs for attacks on Saudi Arabia, with some success, as had an Iran-backed Iraqi militia in southern Iraq. These UAVs do less damage than ballistic missiles but are more difficult to detect and intercept. The Saudis have adapted but one of the many UAVs launched for each attack can still get through from time to time. Israel has detected and shot down these UAVs, launched by Hezbollah from Lebanon. But the small, low flying UAVs remain difficult to detect and intercept so the Israelis, like the Saudis, find it easier to bomb the bases the UAVs operate from.