Syria: The Crumbling Continues

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December 1, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) the shrinking portion of the province still controlled by Islamic terrorist rebels has led to more fighting between the various rebel factions. That in turn has led to the appearance of rebels who have turned to banditry. This is usually in the form of robberies and kidnappings for ransom or intimidation. These bandits exploit insider knowledge of how the various rebel groups distribute cash and there have been several robberies that targeted payroll deliveries. Intimidation of businesses to pay for protection are also on the rise. These activities are at the expense of the older and more established rebel groups but these rebels can no longer adequately police areas of the province they occupy.

The Idlib rebels don’t have many good options. The Syrian army keeps attacking from the south and east and for over a year have been slowly making progress. In the north the Turks are not attacking but are making it very difficult to get into Turkey, the last possible escape route for the Idlib civilians and rebels. The Syrian and Russian attacks are technically violations of a ceasefire. Five to ten ceasefire violations are reported each day and most have to do with one side or the other retaliating for a previous attack. Negotiations have generally been ineffective as everyone sees the war as a deathmatch. Meanwhile communities, economies and infrastructure nationwide crumbles to dust.

The Crippled Coalition

Earlier in the year the Turkey-backed NLF (National Liberation Front) Islamic terrorist coalition claimed some gains against the Syrian forces. That didn’t last long as Russian air power and artillery forced the NLF back and put the rebels on the defensive for the rest of 2020.

The NLF was meant to serve as a Turkish military auxiliary force that carried out missions the NLF agrees are in its interest. At the moment preventing the Syrians from regaining control of Idlib is what the Turks and NLF agree on. If the Syrians do manage to conquer the entire province, the 50,000 rebels and several hundred thousand civilians associated with the NLF face death at the hands of the Syrian secret police. This is not a threat but a certainty as the Assad forces have been quick to kill even suspected Sunni Islamic terrorists elsewhere in Syria after the Assads regained control. This was brutal even by Russian standards and the Russians brought in Moslem police battalions, mainly from Chechnya, to get the Syrians to ease up on the atrocities.

The conquest of Idlib will put the largest, so far, number of Islamic terrorists and their dependents under the control of the Syrian secret police. In the past the Assads have not hesitated to kill large (thousands) numbers of opponents in one place after a failed uprising. Russian military police will be insufficient to block this, especially when Iran agrees with and encourages the Assads use of mass-murder to remind rebellions Syrians what is at stake here.

The NLF does have the possibility of gaining refuge in Turkey. While the current Turkish government favors that approach, most Turks do not and the Islamic Turkish political party that has been in power since 2000 is in danger of losing control of the government in upcoming elections. That is not good news for the desperate NLF. Another option is resettlement of NLF civilians and disarmed rebels in Syrian border areas the Turks control. This resettlement effort it meant to dilute the Kurdish population along the Turkish border. Many of these Kurds back the formation of a Kurdish state incorporating portions of eastern Turkey, northeast Syria, northern Iraq and northwest Iran. All four of those nations oppose this Kurdish state.

The NLF is an Islamic terrorist coalition formed in August 2018 with the help and approval of Turkey. This merger was arranged by Ahrar al Sham, a longtime rival of Sunni terrorist coalition HTS, and backed by Turkey. At that point about ten percent of the province was controlled by Turkey (in the north along the hundred-kilometer-long border with Turkey) and Assad forces (several towns and villages in the southeast). In late 2019 HTS persuaded the NLF to join a larger coalition, under the leadership of HTS which would be better able to defend Idlib. Despite its Turkish ties NLF agreed after HTS attacked and eliminated NLF factions who opposed the deal.

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. 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. During 2020, the steady advance of Syrian forces, accompanied by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire plus the inability of the Turks to do anything about it, has led to the unravelling of the HTS coalition.

There are also lots of secular rebels remaining in northern Syria. In the northwest there are the Syrian Kurds belonging to the SDF (Kurdish led Syrian Defense Forces rebels). The SDF also contains some Arabs and dominate the northeastern Hasaka province that borders Iraq as well as Tukey. The SDF has American support, which helps keep the Russians and Syrians out. The Kurds are trying to negotiate a peace deal with the Assads. Both SDF and Assads see Turkey as a common enemy.

The Russian Gambit

Russia has been trying to persuade or manipulate the various factions in Syria to preserve the rule of the Assad clan and its decades-old alliance with Russia. To that end Russia wants Turkey to withdraw its troops from Syria and the Turks refuse to leave. Russia also wants the Americans out of eastern Syria and the Americans won’t leave. In the south Russia wants the Iranians out of Syria. The Iranians won’t leave. The Assads want the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province eliminated and the surviving Islamic terrorist rebels pushed out of the country. Turkey, Iran and the Americans have other priorities.

Too many of these Russian, Turkish, Iranian, American and Syrian goals contradict each other. There are other parties that must be paid attention to, like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Israel. ISIL is still a violent presence in eastern Syria and Israel continues to carry out airstrikes on Iranian forces as long as the Iranians are in Syria demanding that Israel be destroyed. In Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran continue to pretend they are all friends and allies of Syria but the reality is different and is becoming more visible and violent. Syrians fear Russia and Turkey will join forces to extract what they can from Syria.

The Turkish Report

In Turkey parliament received updated statistics on the status of the nearly four million Syrians in Turkey. Officially there are 3.6 million Syrians but it is no secret there are a lot of illegals. Few of these Syrians live in refugee camps, most have adapted to life in Turkey and about half would like to officially become Turkish citizens. Most of the refugees have become productive and non-violent residents of Turkish towns and cities. These refugees tripled the number of Arabs in Turkey to about six percent of the population. Most ethnic Turks are not keen about permanently doubling the number of Arab citizens in Turkey. While about half the Arabs want to return to Syria, they will only do so if it is safe. The percentage willing to return has fallen as the war continues. In 2017 only 17 percent said they would not return to Syria and now that percentage is over fifty percent.

The Turkish military and thousands of Arab mercenaries have not yet created a large “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border. The Assad government is still treating its Sunni population savagely and nearly all the refugees are Sunni. The Assads and Iranians are Shia. The Turkish government is trying to maintain the order and stability among its Arab refugees and these Syrian exiles are eager to cooperate because the Turks are providing more and more Syrians with residency permits or citizenship for those who actively help Turkey. This can be in the form of economic, scientific or security achievements. Many of the Arab refugees owned and operated businesses, or were professionals in Syria. These are the ones that prosper most as they seek to adapt to life in Turkey. There are still a small (under one percent) of Syrians who are actively involved with Islamic terrorists. Because so many refugees see these radicals as a threat to refugees and Turks alike, it is common for Turkish police to get tips on Islamic terrorist activity from Syrian refugees. While there are some Turkish Islamic terrorists, that sort of thing is far less popular in Turkey than in Arab countries. This is not a new situation as ethnic Turks have long been contemptuous of the non-Turks inside Turkey (about 25 percent of the population) and the non-Turkish neighbors.

November 30, 2020: In Switzerland the fourth round of UN sponsored negotiations between Syria and rebel groups took place. These meetings are supposed to come up with a new Syrian constitution. Progress has been slow because no one trusts the Assads and the Assads believe the rebels don’t want peace, just a ceasefire so the rebels forces can rebuild. Meanwhile the Syrian economy is wrecked and no one is willing to invest a lot of money to rebuild it, not while a lot of armed groups are still present.

November 29, 2020: On the Syria/Iraq border an unidentified UAV used a missile to kill an unnamed senior IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) officer whose car was crossing the border after midnight. Three other IRGC men in the vehicle also died. Iran believed Israel was responsible. This “assassination” comes a day after a key Iranian nuclear weapons scientist was ambushed and killed outside the Iranian capital. Iranian officials are openly calling for retaliation but so far have not been able to deliver. This makes the Iranian leadership look weak and that just makes those leaders more determined to make the Israelis and Americans pay for the growing list of successful operations to thwart Iranian efforts in Syria and back in Iran where efforts to build a nuclear weapon plod on.

November 27, 2020: Russia and Turkey appear to have reached an agreement about the growing violence between Syrian troops and Turkish forces (usually Arab mercenaries.) In the last month the Turkish forces have suffered heavy casualties while fighting SDF (U.S. backed Kurds) and Assad (Syrian) forces. Russia actively supports the Assads against the Turks and the Turks now acknowledge that they do not want to go to war with Russia.

November 26, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another airstrike against Iranian mercenaries guarding weapons stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. This time there were about twenty Iranians and Iranian mercenaries killed. There were also secondary explosions as missiles of ammunition stored there was hit.

November 25, 2020: In the south (Golan Heights) Israeli aircraft dropped thousands of leaflets on Syrian villages near the border warning residents to stay away from Iranian or Hezbollah bases near the border. The civilians know where these bases are and some will do business with those in the bases. These leaflets made it clear that Israeli airstrikes on these Iranian bases and camps would be a regular occurrence.

In the north (city of Manbij) ISIL bombed a market near a restaurant frequented by Americans. The explosion killed 16, including four American civilians and wounded many more, including three Americans. Manbij is northeast of Aleppo city, 40 kilometers south of the Turkish border and near the west bank of the Euphrates River. The population is largely Kurdish. ISIL continues to carry out bombing attacks in eastern Syria, mostly in areas controlled by the Syrian military of militias.

November 23, 2020: In the northeast (Hasaka province) a checkpoint near the border was the scene of a car bomb exploding. No one took credit for the bomb, which killed three and wounded five people.

November 22, 2020: Iran announced that it was fed up with unjustified Israeli attacks on Iranian military advisors in Syria. From now on Iran would inflict serious damage on Israel if the airstrikes continued.

November 21, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another airstrike against Iranian mercenaries guarding weapons stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were fifteen deaths of Afghan and Iraqi gunmen working for Iran. The attackers were believed to be Israeli but the Israelis rarely confirm these attacks.

November 18, 2020: In an unusual move, Israel revealed much of what it knows about how Iranian operations are organized in Syria. The Iranian Quds Force has established a Unit 840 to control all its activities in Syria. This includes Iranian mercenaries, which comprise most of the Iranian manpower in Syria. The mercenaries are largely Syrians or Lebanese. The Syrians militias tend to be local self-defense groups that have accepted Iranian aid and will undertake Quds Force operations that do not require leaving the area they protect. The more effective mercs are Lebanese Hezbollah. These men have training and often quite a lot of combat experience. Israel reports that Iran has shut own a lot of its bases in Syria and concentrated its forces closer to the Israeli border in bases with more bunkers and other measures to better protect the inhabitants from air strikes. Unit 840 also seeks to recruit individual Syrians for espionage and attacks against Israelis (military and civilian) near the border. Quds spends a lot of time training its Syrian personnel in preparation for increasingly elaborate attacks on Israel. It was not a surprise that Israel knew all this because they have been hitting Iranian targets accurately for years and the Iranians are trying to establish a counterintelligence capability in Syria that will cripple Israeli information gathering efforts. Iran knows the Israelis are very good at this sort of thing and have even managed to maintain a network of agents inside Iran.

November 17, 2020: In southern Syria (Golan Heights) Israeli troops, during an early morning patrol, found and neutralized a roadside bomb that was planted next to border fence near a road. Hezbollah has long used this tactic along the Lebanon/Israel border. Israel accused Syria of responsibility for this latest incident because the Syrians will not block Iran-backed groups from the border and ignores these Iranian supported Islamic terrorists attempts to kill Israelis. Over the next 24 hours Israel carried out airstrikes against the Iran-backed groups responsible. At least ten people were killed and several wounded because of these airstrikes on Iranian bases in Syria. The Iranian Quds Force handles organizing these operations and sustaining the local militant groups working for Iran.

November 15, 2020: ISIL is still active, but not nearly as much as it used to be. In Syria the most active ISIL remnants are in the eastern Syrian desert area west of the well-watered Euphrates River Valley. Because of the a few thousand ISIL members are distributed in rural areas Suwayda, Deir Ezzor, and Homs provinces. This range extends south to the borders of Iraq and Jordan. This thinly populated area is dominated by Sunni Moslems plus a few Shia Moslems and Druze. This area was controlled by ISIL from 2014 to 2017. Since early 2018 the area has been partly controlled by the Syrian Army and some local militias backed by Iran or, in one case, Russia. ISIL has established many hideouts, usually among local Sunnis, which ISIL maintains good relations with.

The targets of ISIL attacks are Syrian government forces and anyone else not native to the area. There is a lot of traffic passing though on a highway stretching from the Iraq border to Damascus. To put this mayhem into perspective consider that from early 2018 to late 2020 (about 18 months) about 1,400 people were killed in this ISIL infested area. That’s about 18 dead a week. Some 60 percent of the dead were government forces, mostly the Syrian Army but about 16 percent of the government losses were among militias. About 35 percent of the dead were ISIL and 5-10 percent were civilians, usually people caught in ISIL attacks on supply convoys or checkpoints along the few main roads. That’s 70-100 casualties a week if you count wounded. The government forces and militias have priority access to what little medical care is available. ISIL has to improvise to care for about ten t0 twenty wounded they suffered a week.

Since 2018 there has been a lot less combat in Syria. This is not just because ISIL has lost control of all the territory it once occupied and administered but because the fighting throughout Syria had declined to levels not seen since 2012. Most of Syria is now back under the control of the Assads, although most of the population is not. In 2011 there were 21 million people living in Syria, now there are about 14 million. Most of the lost population is still alive, but outside Syria; mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The Syrian civil war saw the Assad government deliberately attack pro-rebel civilians. Since that included most of the Syrian population the immediate goal was not to kill them, although over 100,000 direct deaths were probably the result, but to get the pro-rebel Syrians to flee their homes and, preferably, the country. About a third of the population did just that.

The Syrian civil war (2012-present) has been one of most costly, in terms of casualties and economic damage, post-Cold War conflicts. Nearly half a million have died so far, mostly because of democide by the Assad government. The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s as a secular dictatorship. The Assads belong to a Shia minority in a country that is over 80 percent Sunni. The widespread outbreak of violence in 2011-2 was not unexpected, only the extent of the fighting and how the rebels were soon dominated by al Qaeda Islamic terrorists and in 2014 by an even more violent al Qaeda faction known as ISIL

November 14, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was several airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian army targets. The aircraft could not be identified and were thought to be Israeli. However, some of the jets turned north after an attack, heading for SDF territory. Neither Israel nor the U.S. would comment.

November 13, 2020: In the northwest (Idlib province) Russian warplanes carried out several airstrikes outside Idlib City, the rebel held provincial capital. The Syrian forces continue attacking the Islamic terrorist rebels who control nearly half the province. To the west, in neighboring Latakia province, Russian and the Syrian artillery fire is used against rebels from Idlib who are seeking to attack the Russian airbase. Latakia 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.

November 11, 2020: In western Iraq (Anbar province) PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces militias) continued their effort to find and destroy cross-border tunnels ISIL had been building to make it safer to cross the Syrian border.

 

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