Syria: Sympathy For The Devil


May 20, 2021: The Assad government is bankrupt because of lost Iranian subsidies and the need to concentrate on paying its security forces rather than rebuilding infrastructure to restore electricity and improve the roads damaged and neglected since 2011. As the Assads seek to regain control over more territory, improving standards of living has low priority. The Assads currently rule sixty percent of pre-war territory and an even higher percentage of the population. Unfortunately for Syrians, the Assads are skilled at running a police state, not an economically strong one.

While many Syrians welcomed the return of peace over the last few years, the economic conditions have steadily deteriorated. The government makes an effort to prevent starvation, especially in Damascus, the capital and long a peaceful and prosperous island in a desert of warfare and scarcity. While most of Syria is no longer a warzone, that has turned out to be a liability as well. For example, more European countries agree that parts of Syria are no longer a warzone and have stopped granting asylum to Syrians based on people living in a warzone.

The Assads prevent starvation by distributing free or low-cost bread and other basic foods that will keep you alive and not much else. Get in trouble with the police and your family loses access to even that. Inflation reduces the buying power of even those with good government jobs. Most of these civil servants make the equivalent of under a hundred dollars a month while prices for food are similar to what they are in Western countries. Some expenses are lower. Because over a fifth of the population has fled the country since 2011, there is plenty of empty housing. The government supports people just moving in and living rent free. This is essential for those who need to walk to work because public transit is much more expensive. Inflation has driven up the price of fertilizer and fuel farmers need to produce a lot of food locally. Many people now cultivate private vegetable gardens.

While the security forces get budget priority, that is meant to maintain a threat to any who would support organized opposition. The army has been downsized and the Assads depend on the Russian airstrikes and local anti-terrorist tribal militias to keep the remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) terrorists under control in eastern Syria. Iranian mercenaries still provide some security, but only in areas of interest to Iran, like the Israeli border and the network of roads and storage areas for weapons moving by truck from Iran to Syria and Lebanon. Sometimes Iranian mercs share bases with Assad troops. This is dangerous for the Syrians because any area with Iranian forces or equipment is subject to frequent Israeli airstrikes.

One Syrian base that is attracting more such Israeli attention is T4, in central Syria near Palmyra. Israeli airstrikes have hit T4 regularly since 2019. T4 is the largest airbase in Syria and Iran has built, or rebuilt after airstrikes, new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel. This is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. Meanwhile Israel is gradually destroying most of Syria’s Cold-War era SAM (Surface-To-Air Missile) capability. Iran is attracting more Israeli attention of late because Iran has been using T4 as a base for larger UAVs being sent into Israel on reconnaissance or one-way missions carrying explosives. So far Israel has shot down all these attempts but if one of the armed UAVs gets through it could mean the end of T4.

What Syrian troops are still available are mostly in the northwest, keeping thousands of Islamic terrorists and their families isolated in Idlib province and away from the coastal provinces that are full of Assad loyalists.

The financial needs of the government have led to new taxes on those most likely able to pay. This includes Syrians returning from exile. For a long time, they were exempt from custom duties, as an encouragement for politically acceptable exiles to return. No more. Now getting back in will cost you a hefty tax on any personal goods you bring with you. That includes furniture and even tools of your trade. As long as more people grumble and pay rather than stay away, this new re-entry tax will remain. Automobiles are exempt because that’s a major item most returnees bring with them. However, every returnee must exchange $100 dollars’ worth of stable currencies for the official exchange rate for Syrian lira. Most of that hundred dollars is lost to a grossly overvalued exchange rate.

There have been some public protests to price increases in areas where the Assad secret police have no authority, like northeastern Hasaka province, which is protected by a Kurdish militia that keeps Islamic terrorists and Assad police out. But Hasaka depends on the Assads for some imports and is forced to pay as part of the unofficial peace the formal Kurdish rebels have with the Syrian government.

The Iranians are very much still in Syria, but in reduced numbers because of the cash crisis back home. The Iranian mercs and their IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) supervisors are mostly concerned with establishing a military presence near the Israeli border so they can carry out terror attacks via the use of missiles or rockets. So far this has proved slow going and expensive. The Israeli airstrikes regularly hit weapons shipments from Iran and “secret” Iranian bases. Israel has more friends in Syria than Iran does in Israel, or Syria for that matter. Israel is not alone in wanting the Iranians to just go home. That sentiment is shared by many Syrians, Lebanese, Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, Russians and Americans.

May 17, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) a natural gas pipeline, which supplies local customers from a Syrian natural gas field, was cut with explosives. No one took credit for the attack, but it was likely ISIL.

In the north (Aleppo province) two Turkish mercenaries (local Syrian Arabs) were killed by a roadside bomb. Aleppo province is technically Assad territory but part of it is occupied by the Turks who are seeking to establish a 20-kilometers deep “safety” zone on the Syrian side where they can export most of the several million refugees they have accepted. Most of these are Sunni Arabs, who have long been the majority in Syria and unhappy with their government because for decades it has been run by the Shia Arab Assads. Most of these refugees are subject to investigation and punishment by the Assad security forces if they return to Assad returned territory. The Turks are not clear on how long they will provide the safety in the safety zone.

May 16, 2021: In the east (Homs and Raqqa provinces) Russia increased its air operations against ISIL groups in the Badia Desert south of the Euphrates River Valley. Over the last two days Russian has carried out about 180 airstrikes in this desert area that extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria and 85 percent of Jordan and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Russia devotes even more air effort to surveillance and reconnaissance to find and track ISIL groups out there. The Baida desert was long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against and between Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. In response ISIL has been waging an assassination campaign against Islamic clergy and staffs of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong.

Further west (Latakia and Idlib provinces) Russian warplanes struck ten suspected Islamic terrorists camps of groups suspected of threatening Russian bases in Latakia province.

May 15, 2021: In the south (Quneitra province) more Syrian secret police have arrived to find and arrest families associated with known Islamic terrorists. Syria has previously forced most such families to move to Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of pro-rebel and Islamic terrorist family members were sent as part of deals that were offered as an alternative to staying in an area that was going to be attacked by ground troops, artillery and airstrikes.

May 14, 2021: In the south (Golan Heights) someone, probably an Iran-backed group, fired three rockets into Israel. One rocket was faulty and landed on the Syrian side of the border while the other two landed in uninhabited areas of the Israeli Golan Heights. Someone was seeking to trigger another front in which Iran organized mass rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

May 13, 2021: In the northwest (near the Lebanese border) an Israeli airstrike destroyed a smuggler truck headed for Lebanon, apparently carrying Iranian weapons for Hezbollah.

In the northeast (Hasaka province) Russian military police halted an American convoy (eight MRAP wheeled armored vehicles) and forced them to turn around. Russia said the American vehicles were travelling on a route that the U.S. and Russia agreed would only be used with the agreement of both countries.

May 11, 2021: In the east (the border between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) Russia carried out nearly fifty airstrikes on suspected ISIL hideouts, including caves as well as buildings. Targets were selected during the last few weeks by UAVs, ground patrols and tips from local civilians.

In the east (eastern Deir Ezzor province) SDF (Syrian Kurdish militia) began a three-day search of the town of al Shuhay, where many ISIL members or sympathizers were believed to reside among the other 14,000 residents. Since 2018 Deir Ezzor has been the scene of a multi-sided battle between ISIL, SDF, Syrian army, Iranian and Russian mercenaries as well as smaller numbers of Russian special operations troops and lots of Russian warplanes overhead. Since 2020 the Russians have been using a combination of special operations troops, military contractors and Syrian mercenaries. The Syrian mercs on the Russian payroll include at least one unit comprised of Palestinian refugees, who have lived in Syria for decades. When the civil War began in 2011 most of the Palestinians sided with the rebels, a betrayal the Assads, their long-time host and protector, were understandably bitter about. Signing up as Russian mercs was a way for Syria based refugees to win back the trust of the Assads.

To simplify a bit, in Deir Ezzor it’s ISIL versus everyone. ISIL survives because it still has access to millions in cash it stole during 2014-17 when the Islamic terrorist groups controlled much of eastern Syria and western Iraq, including many banks captured intact, with vaults full of gold, foreign cash and all manner of salable valuables. Another ISIL asset is that Sunni Arabs are the majority in Deir Ezzor and most of eastern Syria. These Sunni Arabs have been ruled since the 1970s by the Assad clan, a Shia group that maintained power using a combination of terror for those who resisted and relative freedom and prosperity for those who cooperated. The Assads were also rather secular and wore their Islamic religion lightly. The Assads allied themselves with Shia Iran in the 1980s, because of a feud with Saddam Hussein, the Sunni leader of Iraq. While Iran had become a religious dictatorship, they had few allies in the region and gaining the loyalty of Assad Syria was seen as a major win. Assad's secular ways were tolerated as long as they remained loyal to Iran and in control of Syria. Most Syrian Arab Sunnis are disillusioned with ISIL but some are still willing to support these extreme Islamic terrorists.

The fighting in Deir Ezzor is more about ISIL surviving and gaining media attention. Since 2019 there have been about a hundred deaths a month because of ISIL activity in eastern Syria, mainly in Deir Ezzor and the Mayadeen Desert. A growing number of the ISIL attacks are assassinations of key military or intelligence officers and tribal leaders. These attacks are carried out by small death squads who are supposed to do the job and not get spotted and killed while doing so. The Islamic terrorists suffer most from American and Russian airstrikes. The Russians supply the most airstrikes, as many as seventy or more a day for days at a time. The Syrian air force is still active put delivers about a tenth as many airstrikes as the Russians. The American airstrikes are more selective, concentrating on key ISIL leaders and technical specialists. There is some cooperation between the Americans and Russians in eastern Syria, but no one will admit to how much.

May 10, 2021: In the north (Idlib province) someone fired rockets at a Turkish military convoy, killing one soldier and wounding four others. The Turks returned fire at where the rocket apparently came from but were unable to immediately identify the attacker.

In the west (Hama province) Syrian Army troops and Assad-backed militias have been more aggressively seeking out ISIL forces and there have been some days, like today, when dozens of casualties occur, most of them among the ISIL forces. The Assad forces suffer most from ISIL landmines and roadside bombs. Many of the Assad forces are local defense militias who are wounded by the mines and bombs while patrolling their rural neighborhoods looking for these hidden weapons and often not detecting them until they go off. Finding and disposing of these explosive devices is crucial because their presence inhibits farming and herding as well as the movement of commercial traffic on the roads.

May 9, 2021: In the west (Latakia province) an oil tanker anchored offshore suffered an explosion that caused a fire in the engine room. The fire was put out and the tanker remained where it was, resuming the engine maintenance work already underway. The tanker was believed to be Iranian and used to smuggle oil to Syria. The explosion was believed to be caused by the Israelis, who recently admitted that they have been attacking Iranian ships smuggling oil and other goods into Syria. Iran denied that the damaged tanker was theirs, but that’s what Iran always says when one of their maritime smuggling operations is revealed.

In the north (Idlib province) Assad forces fired over a hundred mortar and artillery shells at Islamic terrorists who have been violating the “de-escalation zone” that is supposed to keep the Assad/Russian and Islamic terrorists forces separated. The attacks sometimes employ Russian ATGMs (Anti-tank missiles) at visible targets.

May 8, 2021: China joined the United States and Western Europe in refusing to contribute to the nearly half trillion-dollar cost of rebuilding the Syrian economy. Not as long as the Iran-backed Assad government is still running things. China claims it agrees that the Assads are an obstacle, and not because the Assads are ruthless dictators. China is more concerned about how long it will take to reunite and pacify Syria. China also believes several thousand Chinese Uighur Islamic terrorists are trapped in northwest Syria where the most of the remaining Islamic terrorists are cornered and no one can agree on how to deal with this. While China recently signed a 25-year economic cooperation with Iran, that deal is contingent on Iran keeping its own restive population under control and being able to defy Western anti-smuggling efforts. Iran is as much risk as China will deal with in the Middle East.

May 6, 2021: In the east (Hama, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) the Syrian army has been taking heavy losses over the last few years fighting the remaining ISIL groups out in the desert. It is getting harder to obtain new recruits for the army. In response the Assads have been sending more of their military budget to hire tribal militiamen to augment the army. In addition to monthly pay, for largely unemployed young men, the army often supplies some weapons and army combat uniforms, which are worn without the usual insignias of ranks and unit. Many of these militiamen are from Sunni tribes trying to win back the support of the Assads and that is taken into account when the intelligence operatives determine if a tribe is loyal and reliable enough for the government payroll.

May 5, 2021: In the northwest (Latakia and Hama provinces) Israeli air strikes destroyed several Iranian targets, most of them warehouses for storing newly arrived weapons. Five Iranian IRGC and three Afghan mercenaries were killed. Latakia, which includes the Syrian Mediterranean coast, has a large pro-Assad population and two Russian bases (one air and the other naval). These areas are rarely hit with Israeli airstrikes. That may be changing because Russian warships have been seen escorting Iranian ships illegally delivering petroleum and weapons to Syria and that means Iran has more targets in the province that the Israelis go after. This is the tenth such Israeli airstrike in Syria so far this year.

May 3, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) Russian and Turkish troops have been conducting more joint patrols along the border with Turkey to keep Islamic terrorists out of Turkey and preventing more fighting between Turks (or their mercenaries) and the Kurdish forces that control Hasaka. The latest joint patrol was the longest yet, covering over a hundred kilometers. Russian troops also seek to keep the peace between the Kurds and aggressive Syrian Army soldiers.

April 22, 2021: Down south, across the border, a missile from Syria landed thirty kilometers from the Israeli Dimona nuclear research center before dawn. There was no damage because Dimona is 200 kilometers south of the Syrian border in a rural desert area. First thoughts were that this was another Iranian attempt to carry out some credible revenge for the April 11th Mossad operation that destroyed the underground Natanz nuclear fuel enrichment facility. If this was a deliberate missile attack it failed but it will mean Israel spending a lot of money firing expensive ABM (anti-ballistic-missile) missiles at more Syrian anti-aircraft missiles that cross the border either accidentally or on purpose. Israel can solve this problem by modifying its ABM fire control software to discriminate between the trajectories of SAMs that are not headed for civilian or military targets and those that are. The Israeli Iron Dome system has long used such a method to only shoot down targets headed for targets that must be defended.

Initial examination of the impact area debris near Dimona revealed it was the kind of SAM (surface-to-air missile) that had landed in Israel accidently for years. One of the first incidents occurred in 2017 and Israel used an Arrow 3 anti-missile missile to intercept what turned out to be Syrian SA-5 SAM that had been fired at Israeli jets bombing a target in eastern Syria near Palmyra. Apparently, several SA-5s missed the Israeli jets and instead of blowing themselves up, as these missiles are programmed to do, continued into Israeli air space and an Arrow 3 ABM missile was fired just in case the incoming threat was a ballistic missile aimed at a vital target. At the time it was suspected that Syria might have deliberately modified some of their SA-5 missiles to operate as surface-to-surface missiles. This has been done before with Russian SAMs, usually as an unofficial (and crude) modification by Arab users. There have been some modern SAMs with a built-in surface-to-surface mode. This was done for the U.S. Nike-Hercules system used during the 1960s and still around. Other users of the Nike-Hercules (like Taiwan and South Korea) made this modification and produced an accurate, if expensive, surface-to-surface short range ballistic missile. The Nike-Hercules was designed for potential use as a surface-to-surface weapon.

The 2017 incident was the first time the Arrow 3 has been used in a combat situation and it was also implied that the Arrow fire control system was programmed to automatically assume that anything resembling a ballistic missile headed for Israel, whether intentional or by accident, was a danger to Israel and should be shot down just to be on the safe side. Syria responded by announcing that if Israel continued carrying out these air raids in Syria, then the Assad government would use hundreds of ballistic missiles (most SCUDs and other Russian designs) against Israel without warning. This is what Arrow was designed for and what the Israeli forces constantly prepare for. The recent Dimona incident was promptly claimed by Iran as a revenge attack. Syria has very few of its 2011 (pre civil war) ballistic missiles left. Most were either captured by rebels and destroyed, or used against Assad forces, used by the Assads against rebels or destroyed when in danger of capture.

April 10, 2021: In the south (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed an Iranian ammunition storage site, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city. Three Iranian personnel were killed.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close