UN foreign aid officials complain that Russia is threatening to block renewal of UN authorization to send foreign aid to northern Syria via Turkey. There are a million Syrians, most of them civilians in Idlib province where some 20,000 rebels and Islamic terrorists are holding out in the half of Idlib province they still control. The civilians are in desperate need of this aid but Russia sees that aid as sustaining the Islamic terror groups who keep attacking Russian bases in adjacent Latakia province.
There are many rebel and Islamic terrorist factions in Idlib and by the beginning of 2021 these had overcome enough of their internal disputes so they could maintain more effective resistance to the slowly advancing Syrian troops and growing number of Russian airstrikes. The leaders of this opposition are Syrian al Qaeda members, some with a decade of combat experience. At the beginning of the 2011 civil war al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate formed and, under different names, remains the largest Islamic terrorist organization in Syria. Al Nusra evolved into a larger coalition (Tahir al Sham) which has been leading the rebel effort to hold onto some of Idlib province while trying to keep the rebels from fighting each other. During 2020 new leaders and new realities reduced the number of mutually hostile factions. The factional fighting became a major problem in 2017 and during 2020 the factions came to realize that without one “rebel leader”, or at least some form of ceasefire between factions, the Syrians, Russians and Turks could negotiate with or crush the factions separately.
Currently the one large dissident group remaining is Hurras al Din (“Guardians of Religion”) with about ten percent of the rebel manpower in the northwest. Hurras and al Sham leave each other alone and to help with that Hurras has moved a lot of its operations out of Idlib into Raqqa, Hama and Homs provinces. This includes attacking Turks and Kurds. This brings Hurras into proximity of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) activity but these two groups also appear to be leaving each other alone. Unofficial truces between rival Islamic terror groups are common, but nearly always temporary. Once one of these factions gains a degree of dominance anywhere, they will attack rival Islamic terror groups nearby. Hurras al Din has not made a big difference in eastern Syria.
What originally triggered the splits was disagreements over negotiating with Turkey to prevent the rebels and their families in Idlib from being massacred by the Assad government forces. Such deals were being offered and some rebel factions were always willing to talk. Because of those divisions there has been fighting between the “talk to Turkey” and “no talks” factions since early 2017. Idlib province has long been one area that remains under the control of rebels. Since most of those rebels belong to Islamic terrorist groups that means they have a hard time determining who is in charge. There is a lot of hostility between Islamic terrorist rebels because of their defeats between 2015 and 2017. Many rebel groups lost more than half their strength by 2017 because of combat losses, desertions and a lack of new recruits.
In early 2017 the Ahrar al Sham faction tried to convince the Turks and the Americans that their battle was with the Syrian government, not other rebels. That led to years of feuding and fighting with the larger Tahir al Sham faction. That faction is a coalition of Islamic terror groups that underwent two name changes since 2016 when al Nusra renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al Sham and claimed it was no longer connected with al Qaeda or ISIL. In mid-2016 there was another name change to Tahir al Sham which insisted it was now a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, was full of devout Moslems who really wanted to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” and not to be bombed. But the Americans still considered al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders admitted publicly that the al Nusra split was temporary. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. Even before mid-2016 al Nusra tried to distance itself from ISIL and began openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. In late 2016 more than half the Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels belonged to groups hostile to ISIL and most of these are controlled or allied with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/al Sham Fatah rebels. By 2017 ISIL was much weaker and the al Qaeda affiliated component split and looked for a way out of a civil war the rebels had apparently lost. The problem, as always, is that the rebel factions cannot agree on who to surrender to and what terms, if any, to insist on. The Russian and Assads agree that the best solution is to kill them all. For the Russians, blocking food and other aid might make enough of the rebels desperate enough to surrender. Not likely, because the fighters get first priority on food and other essentials. Civilians who die because of this are considered involuntary martyrs to the cause of defending Islam, or what is left of Islam in Idlib.
The Iranians are very much still in Syria, and the primary target of Israeli air attacks. Current Iranian forces are fewer than in 2017 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 using missiles or rockets. 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.
Russia Makes A Deal
Russian forces have been in Syria for seven years and the objective is to keep an old Cold War era ally, the Assad Clan, in power. The Assads and Russia share a common threat from ISIL, Iran and the Turks. A major problem is that everyone (Iran, Turkey, ISIL, the Assads and Russia) is broke. Russia kept rebuilding Syrian security forces, which now get budget priority from the Assads for protection from any who would support organized opposition. The army has been downsized and the Assads depend on Russian airstrikes and local anti-terrorist tribal militias to keep remaining ISIL 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. Russia helps the Assads with the massive air support and also by hiring Syrians who have joined Iran-backed militias. Russia offers about $200 a month compared to $100 a month the Iranians pay. Both sums are attractive to unemployed Syrians.
June 19, 2021: In the northeast (Hasaka province) a Russian military patrol intercepted and turned back an American patrol trying to enter a town on the M4 highway that is claimed by the Assad government. This is also about control of the M4 highway. In January Russia announced it had negotiated the reopening of the M4 highway for commercial traffic after being closed for a month while Turkish forces cleared some Islamic terrorist rebels who were periodically attacking traffic. The M4 is the main east-west highway from Aleppo to the Assad stronghold Latakia province and its Mediterranean ports.
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL forces carried out four attacks today, including an SDF patrol and a Syrian secret police vehicle. One civilian was murdered for opposing ISIL operations and another man was accused of heresy and had his home bombed. ISIL maintains control of many small areas in eastern Syria. That control depends on intimidating local civilians to cooperate and keeping out Syrian or Kurds forces.
June 17, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) locals and SDF (Syrian Kurdish militia) forces still in the province noted that it was four years ago today that the SDF began its battle to clear ISIL forces out of Raqqa. That was accomplished after a nasty battle that cost the SDF a lot of casualties but that was celebrated by SDF and locals as a major victory. Now locals and SDF members are complaining that they are still in Deir Ezzor province. That is because 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.
In the south (Quneitra province) locals are attacking Syrian and Iranian forces operating near the Israeli border. There have been three attacks so far this month.
June 16, 2021: In the south (Daraa province) a Syrian army vehicle encounters an anti-vehicle mine on a dirt road. Two Syrians were killed and two wounded. ISIL has been planting these mines.
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) American transport and gunship helicopters participated in an operation against ISIL in the town of al Shuhay. A month ago the SDF raided the town seeking ISIL members or sympathizers believed to reside among the other 14,000 residents.
June 14, 2021: At a NATO conference in Belgium the American and Turkish leaders met to discuss the many disputes that have arisen between the two countries and between Turkey and NATO. Several days before this meeting Turkey issued statements defining the Turkish view of the situation. Turkey believes that NATO is a central element in Turkish security and a key element in NATO security. This includes contributing troops or bases for many NATO missions. Turkey accuses NATO of not supporting Turkey’s battle with Syrian Kurdish separatists, especially the armed YPG (People’s Protection Units) forces in Syria. Turkey considers the YPG a component of the Turkish PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists). The U.S disagrees with Turkey about YPG/PKK cooperation and has found the YPG an effective and reliable force in the fight against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).
June 13, 2021: In the north (Aleppo province) Iranian mercenaries and trucks full of Iranian weapons, including guided and unguided rockets set up a camp near the Euphrates River. Iran has about 25,000 mercenaries in Syria and most of them are still in the east (Deir Ezzor province) and Iran is seeking to safely move more of them to new bases in northern and southern Syria.
June 10, 2021: In the north (Idlib province) Syrian, Russian and Turkish forces have resumed attacks on the Islamic terror groups that still hold half the province.
June 8, 2021: In the north (southern and central Syria) Israeli air strikes hit targets in Damascus, Tartus (a Mediterranean port with a Russian naval base) and the T4 airbase in Homs province. These attacks killed at least eleven Syrian troops and militia.
June 3, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) two IRGC officers were killed by an ISIL ambush.
June 1, 2021: Israel carried out three air strikes against Syrian targets in May, which is about average for 2021 so far. Most of the targets are Iranian.
May 31, 2021: In the north (Golan Heights) Israeli troops attacked and destroyed a Syrian army observation post that was too close to the Israeli border.
May 26, 2021: A presidential election was conducted in most of Syria, for the first since 2007. There was a presidential election in 2014, but only in a few areas the Assads controlled. Under the Assads the voting is largely rigged, with Assad getting over 90 percent of the votes when running for reelection as president-for-life. This time around he got 95.1 percent of the votes with 78 percent of registered voters participating
There were three other candidates allowed to run, lose and survive. There were several other potential candidates who were prevented from running, for their own safety and that of voters who might be tempted to do something foolish.
Regional and local elections allow some choice in selecting local officials and members of the national legislature. Holding these elections legitimizes the return of Assad rule to most of the country. This has caused problems because fewer security personnel and lingering violence means “control” isn’t what it used to be.
May 22, 2021: In west Iraq (Anbar province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were apparently some casualties as well among the Syrian and Iraqi pro-Iran militiamen who guard such Iranian facilities in Syria.