Peace is elusive in Syria because of Iran. In the 1980s, the new government in Iran, which emerged from the 1979 revolution that ousted the monarchy, had quickly evolved into a religious dictatorship and declared itself the protector of Shia throughout the region. Most of these Shia were persecuted religious minorities in Sunni dominated nations. Two exceptions were Syria and Lebanon. In Syria the ruthless and resourceful Shia Assad clan had managed to take control of the government despite the Sunni majority population. During the 1980s Iraq and Iran fought an eight-year war after an Iraqi surprise attack sought to grab oil-rich Iranian territory near the border where most of the locals were Arabs. Iran was still suffering from the aftereffects of their revolution and Iraq thought they had a rare opportunity here. The majority of Iraqis were Shia Arabs but the government was dominated by a ruthless Sunni minority, now led by Saddam Hussein. The Sunni majority nations in the Persian Gulf area, especially the ones that controlled most of the region’s oil wealth, rallied to the support of Iraq, which was now the “Defender of True Islam” against the Iranians, who in addition to being Shia, weren’t Arab either, but Indo-Europeans, like those heathen Indians and Europeans.
Assads rule of Syria was assured when they became allies with Iran. This move included support for the Shia minority in neighboring Lebanon, where a civil war between Sunni, Shia and Christians had been going on since 1975, and didn’t end until 1990. The Shia were about a third of the population but taking a beating. Iran supplied cash, weapons and military trainers and advisors. The result of this was the Hezbollah militia, which came to control southern Lebanon and the Israeli border. While this Iranian intervention was good for the Shia, it was bad for the non-Shia majorities in Syria and Lebanon. The Iranians also supported the revival of “Greater Syria” which included Lebanon as well as chunks of Jordan, Israel and Turkey. ISIL calls Greater Syria the Levant. This is the only thing ISIL and Iran agree on. Beyond that, the Iranian influence is seen as a malign presence in the Levant.
The latest example of this is the fact that Iran has major, and expensive, problems in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon and Yemen. All these Iranian trouble spots are managed by the Iranian Quds Force as part of its ongoing wars against Israel and Saudi Arabia. None of these conflicts are doing well for Iran, which provides some comfort for the people in Syria, now being torn apart by its own endless civil war. The most damage to Iran is occurring in Syria. The core problem is that if Sunni Islamic terrorists remain in northwest Syria (Idlib province), while ISIL is active in eastern Syria and Iranians near the Israeli border, there will be no peace and rebuilding. While the Islamic terrorist and the Iranian presence persists, the Syrian civil war will not be over. Officially, Iran needs this civil war to end so they can concentrate on Israel. The key role of Iran in Syria has been noted and no one, not even Iranian allies, are cooperating with Iran. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Syrian Assad government, Turkey and Israel.
Syria has been at war with Israel from the beginning, when modern Syria was created in 1946 and Israel in 1948. Israel would like to make peace with Syria but will settle for a quiet border. Russia depicts itself as an old (since the 1950s) Syrian ally interested only in peace and prosperity for Syria. Russia has treaties with Syria justifying their presence. That leaves Iran as the real interloper and troublemaker. Dealing with Iran has been a headache for Turkey and Russia for centuries while the Arabs have several thousand years of bad memories created by Iran. In other words, Iran is difficult to deal with, something everyone can agree on. That is a common problem, not an incentive to violently gang up on Iran. Yet there is an unofficial anti-Iran coalition in Syria, with Israel, Russia, Turkey and the Assad Syrian government as active members. Israel is doing most of the fighting and hurts Iran in a major way. Russia, Turkey and Syria sympathize with their “ally” Iran but do little beyond that and Iran does not like this sort of thing because it is straight out of the ancient Iranian/Persian playbook. The Syrian mess makes Iran, and especially the Quds Force, look bad to Iranian supporters in Iraq (Shia radicals on the Iranian payroll), Yemen (more Shia rebels), Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Sunni Hamas).
The recent return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan is also having an impact on the Syrian Civil War. Afghan refugee resettlement is a major domestic political issue in Turkey, which already has too many Syrian refugees. Economic stress from hosting Syrian refugees is a major reason for getting directly involved in the Syrian civil war since 2016. More Afghan refugees would bring more violence, from cultural differences and the threat of Islamic terrorists using refugee status as a cover. Turkey currently hosts over four million refugees. About 92 percent of them are Syrian. Over 200,000 Afghans were already living in Turkey when the Taliban returned to power in August. Many of the current refugees have been in Turkey since mid-2011. Refugees, legal and illegal, have put a major stress on the Turkish economy and many individual Turks. Over 500,000 Syrian school children attend Turkish schools and will get worse if more Afghan refugees get in. Some Turkish provinces are feeling the stress more than others. In southern Turkey, on the Syrian border, Kilis province has a population of 140,000 Turks and provides refuge for 105,000 Syrians. Fear of Islamic terrorism is another reason Turks are concerned about an Afghan refugee influx. Al Qaeda and ISIL have launched attacks within Turkey for years. Turkey is seen by smugglers as a gateway to Europe, especially for the lucrative business of smuggling people. Often the refugees fail to get into Europe and end up stuck in Turkey. All this puts more pressure on the Turks to end the Syrian Civil War and give many of the refugees an incentive to go home.
September 20, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) an American UAV destroyed an automobile carrying two senior al Qaeda officials. The U.S. admitted the attack but did not provide data on exactly who the targets were. That is usually revealed quickly by locals who can tale cellphone photos and either identify the dead or provide visual evidence to help other do so. In this case the local chatter was that the three men in the car were all from a large independent (dissident) al Qaeda faction called
Hurras al Din (“Guardians of Religion”). One was a senior Hurras commander Al Bara al Tunisi, a Tunisian who had been in Idlib at least four years and been the target of assassination several times. One man in the car was the driver and the third was believed to be a close associate of al Tunisi. Locals also report that large UAVs had been circling overhead for days and many thought it was probably Turkish or one of the new Russian Predator size UAVs. American UAV attacks in Syria are usually only for senior terrorist leaders or key technical experts.
Huras is one of the largest al Qaeda factions trapped in Idlib, with about ten percent of the rebel manpower there. Hurras and the larger al Qaeda alliance HTS leave each other alone and to help with that Hurras has moved a lot of its terror attack operations out of Idlib into Raqqa, Hama and Homs provinces. This includes attacking Turks and Kurds. This brings Hurras into proximity with 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 but still controls a significant portion of al Qaeda gunmen in Idlib.
September 18, 2021: Israel announced that it was not attacking Iranian tankers delivering oil products to Syria because most of it is sent to Lebanon where Iran is blamed for the collapse of the economy and inability of the Lebanese government to pay for oil imports. Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria are popular with most Lebanese, who are increasingly threatened by the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia. Syria gets a portion of these oil shipments, which are moved to Lebanon via tanker trucks. The Syrian government uses local pipelines as well as tanker trucks to move its share of the oil throughout Syria. These shipments are generally safe from attack, except in areas where ISIL is still active. ISIL attacks the oil and natural gas pipelines frequently enough to cause periodic electricity shortages in government controlled area. Recently the capital, Damascus, suffered blackouts because of several attacks on pipelines supplying the city.
ISIL sees Damascus as a prime target because it is dominated by the Shia minority, which the Assad clan belongs to. There are also numerous Iranian military facilities in the Damascus area. ISIL is particularly hostile to Iran in particular and Shia in general. The fanatically Sunni ISIL considers Shia heretics, a death penalty offense under Sunni Islamic law.
In Lebanon, Iran is trying to revive Hezbollah power by sending several illegal oil shipments to Syria rather than Lebanon because Syria is already under sanctions and Lebanon is not, at least not yet. Iran hopes to change that, in order to make Lebanon easier to control because Hezbollah already controls many of the black market and outlaw enterprises in Lebanon. Iranian interference did help achieve a negotiated end to the civil war. This involved Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, cooperating with Iran. This settlement came with a catch that meant the civil war had not ended but just paused while Iran expanded Hezbollah power via cash and weapons. Hezbollah soon became a state within a state by controlling large portions of southern Lebanon and acquiring veto power over the elected Lebanese government. Iran also acquired Syria as an ally in the 1980s and got away with having Syrian troops part of the peacekeeper force that occupied much of Lebanon to prevent the civil war from restarting. Most Lebanese saw the Syrian troops as an occupation force that was there to protect black market and drug smuggling operations that enriched Hezbollah and Syria at the expense of most Lebanese. Over the decades the Lebanese government sought to reduce the Iranian influence and illegal Hezbollah control of the south. Iran helped Hezbollah exploit the complex and often corrupt factional politics of Lebanon, which had a population where no one was a majority. Christians were the majority after World War II but that changed as Palestinians moved in as refugees and formed armed militias that became a threat to Lebanese as well as Israel, which until the last decade was generally considered the enemy by most Moslems in the region. That began to change in the 21st century when more and more Arab states realized that Israel was more valuable as an ally than the target of violence that always ended up hurting the Arab attackers much more than the Israeli defenders. The Israelis were also the most effective nation in the region against the growing Iranian threat. Iran and Hezbollah are seen as the cause, and chief beneficiary of the recent collapse of the Lebanese economy and continued political chaos. The non-Shia majority in Lebanon realize that the fuel shipments to Lebanon are not “free” but do fill an immediate need because the Lebanese currency is worthless and the economy unable to function. With control of the black market for fuel, Hezbollah and Iran can expand their power, as they did in Syria until 2011 when the non-Shia majority rebelled.
For the moment
Iran cannot call on Hezbollah to carry out any sort of major military operation against Israel. First, Hezbollah must deal with local problems because most Lebanese want Hezbollah gone and getting Lebanon involved in another war with Israel might see Hezbollah fighting Israel and Lebanese at the same time. Iran wants to destroy one enemy at a time. Iran hopes a major war with Israel will result in more popular support from all Moslems in the region. That’s more of a gamble than a sure thing as Iran has replaced Israel as the designated “enemy”.
September 17, 2021: In the northwest (Latakia and Idlib provinces) there has been another round of Russian airstrikes on Islamic terrorist rebels trapped in Idlib and ignoring the 2020 cease agreement with Turkey, Russia and Syria that only worked if everyone stopped attacking each other and not enter territory they did not already control. The key weapon of reprisal for Syria has been Russian airpower. This time some of the Russian airstrikes were on rebels who were very close to Turkish positions, risking Turkish casualties. Russia blames Turkey’s more accommodating attitude towards Islamic terror groups that were willing to work with Sunni Moslem governments, which Russia is not. Everyone in Syria agrees that ISIL is bad and most everyone is hostile towards Iran. While Turkey and Russia try to maintain some kind of military alliance, the two governments still have fundamental differences about how to handle Islamic terrorism. Increasingly those differences get Turkish forces killed or wounded by Russian airstrikes and artillery fire.
September 16, 2021:
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) there have been more ISIL clashes with Syrian troops trying to establish control over remote rural areas that are technically controlled by the Syrian government but because of ISIL, or sometimes tribal feuds, are not. The current clashes have been on the border with Homs province that is west of Deir Ezzor. This is a desert area that has long provided hiding places for outlaws and rebels who had some local support. ISIL often obtains this support via intimidation and the locals would acknowledge the hated Assad government if the Assads could send enough army troops to eliminate ISIL. Iran is taking losses in this area as well because Iran assigns some of its Syrian mercenaries to help keep key roads, between Iraq and Damascus and Lebanon, open. These roads are also subject to ISIL attacks in this area. One recent clash left 17 of the Iran mercenaries killed (eight) or wounded (nine).
September 15, 2021: The safety of Afghan Shia, now that the Taliban are back in control of Afghanistan, has become a major issue in Iran and a minor one for Syria. The new Taliban government, now more openly controlled by Pakistan, is not seen as an improvement by most Iranians or the 20 percent of Afghans that are Shia. Many of those Afghans served as Iranian mercenaries in Syria and some are still in Syria because they are the best, and most expensive, mercs. The new hardline Iranian government regards “defending all Shia” as one of its core functions. Doing that in Afghanistan and Pakistan, two nations that have been notorious for persistent anti-Shia violence, is going to be difficult. So far, the Taliban have not gone after Afghan Shia, but Iran knows that could change quickly. The centuries old Sunni animosity towards Shia remains. As in the past, Iran will try to get what it can from the Taliban while remembering that many Taliban factions and individuals see tolerance for Shia as bad for Afghanistan.
September 12, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) the March 2020 agreement with Russia to establish de-escalation zones has failed. No one has officially called the agreement a failure but the increased Russian airstrikes in Idlib and the inability of the Islamic terror groups to control their more radical factions justifies increased Russian airstrikes. Turkey is less tolerant of Syrian troops resuming their efforts to push the rebels back after Russian airstrikes and artillery fire have weakened the Islamic terrorist defenders. Turkey overestimated its ability to negotiate deals with the Idlib Islamic terrorist rebels that control half the province and have nowhere to go, except Turkey.
September 10, 2021: Russia warplanes carried out over a hundred airstrikes in the last week against Islamic terrorist targets in northwest Syria (Latakia, Idlib and Homs provinces) plus ISIL targets in eastern Syria. Russian warplanes are based in Latakia, where Russia has built a large airbase on land provided by the Syrian government on a long-term lease. Russian military aircraft have been active in Syria since 2015 and by 2021 had flown over 40,000 sorties. Most of these sorties were non-combat operations by helicopters, military transports and combat support aircraft carrying out reconnaissance missions seeking out targets and keeping track of enemy, and friendly activity on the ground. Russia does not have many UAVs for recon or ground attack. Using manned aircraft for any sorties is expensive, the combat sorties are just more expensive because they deliberately expend most of their cargo.
The Assad government wants the Russians to stick around to deal with the long-term threat from Islamic terror and secular rebels. The airstrikes and maintaining an airbase and nearby port facility are expensive but easier to hide in the budget than Russians getting killed in Syria. Nearly all the Russian military personnel in Syria are volunteers or military contractors, who are also more expensive than sending conscripts, which still comprise over half the armed forces. Families of conscripts are unhappy with conscription in general and get agitated if their sons are sent overseas and even more angry, and outspoken locally and on the Internet, if their conscript son is wounded or killed overseas.
September 9, 2021: In southern Syria (Daraa province) there was a little noticed (especially by Iranian media) incident where Iranian forces were forced to leave the border area because of Russian and Syrian pressure. Russia and Syria have been seeking to get Iranian forces (Arab Shia wearing Syrian army uniforms) away from the Israeli border. This is a big deal for Syria and Israel and a major embarrassment for Iran, which is why Iran has not cranked up its usual media outrage to complain. Negotiations are underway between Iran and Russia/Syria but are not making much progress.
This seemingly sudden move by Syrians and Russians is the result of years of effort working to gain the support of the largely Sunni and Druze civilian population along the border in (from west to east); Quneitra, Daraa and Suwayda provinces. This is a joint effort to block Iranian efforts to gain the support of the border population. Total population of these provinces in 2011 was 1.4 million but only about 20 percent of that was on or near the border. After the 2011 Civil War began much of the Sunni population fled. How much remains on the border is unclear but is apparently at least 100,000. Only Queneitra and Daraa border Israel. Israel has occupied most of Queneitra province since the 1967 War and the Israeli controlled area is mostly the Golan Heights. This is the high ground overlooking northern Israel and the Syrians made a major and ultimately failed effort in the 1973 War to retake Golan. Control of the Daraa border with Israel was sought by Iranian forces but Russian and Syrian troops blocked many of the Iranian efforts and are now pushing away Iranian-backed forces already there.
Israel was also aware of what Russia had accomplished here and two days later the Israeli foreign minister was in Russia to discuss this and many other matters of mutual interest with the Russian foreign minister. A key result of these talks was Israel’s willingness to tolerate continued Assad rule in Syria while Russia and the Assads continue to clear anti-Israel groups from the border area. This meeting and its agenda were no secret but Iran had nothing much to say.
September 7, 2021: In northeast Syria (Hasaka province) SDF (Syrian Kurd militia) fighters clashed with Turkish troops and their Syrian mercenaries, leaving one Turkish soldier and four Syrian mercs dead. SDF losses were not revealed. The SDF instigated these clashes in retaliation for earlier Turkish attacks on the SDF. While mainly Kurdish, SDF also includes Syrian Arabs and Turkmen
September 2, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike on a weapons-development and modification facility used by Syria was destroyed. Israeli warplanes over Lebanon fired several air-to-ground missiles that Syrian SAMs (Surface to Air) sought to intercept. The interception efforts largely failed and in this case one of the Syrian SAMs kept going until it self-destructed off the Israeli coast near Tel Aviv. Israeli radars did not detect this wayward SAM but civilians in central Israel reported hearing the SAM exploding in the air. Some of the debris was found in or near Tel Aviv.
Since 2016 Israeli forces, mainly the air force, have used over 5,000 missiles to hit about a thousand targets in Syria. During this period Syria fired about 900 SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) at Israeli aircraft or missiles. Only one of these missiles damaged an Israeli F-16 and that was in 2018 because the pilot did not, as he was trained to do, carry out evasive maneuvers when his missile warning system alerted him to the threat. The pilot tried to complete his mission first and then evade. The F-16 was damaged and crashed in northern Israel. The pilot safely ejected. This incident demonstrated that the Syrian Air Defense systems could be dangerous if a pilot did not pay attention. As a result, more attacks (firing long range missiles) were carried out from Israel, Lebanon or Jordan, with missiles launched near the border. With new air-to-ground missiles Israeli aircraft were still able to hit anywhere in Syria. The Syrian SAMs did shoot down a Russian surveillance aircraft off the coast that year. The Syrians were aiming for Israeli warplanes but the Israeli countermeasures worked and the Syrian SAM turned to the next available target, which was the Russian aircraft off the coast.
Syrian air defenses use the SA-5/S-200 SAM (Surface to Air Missile) system as their primary weapon against Israeli attacks. The SA-5 is a 1960s Russian design that has been updated and Syria received the latest S-200 version of the missile in 2010. Each seven-ton S-200 missile has a range of 300 kilometers but Israel has apparently developed effective countermeasures. Sometimes S-200s fail and do not self-destruct when it has not found a target. Most of these targetless missiles would land in Syria or Lebanon if they did not self-destruct. A few have come across the Israeli border. Most were spotted and shot down by Israeli missile defense systems.
August 29, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) fifty tanker trucks carrying vehicle fuel were allowed into Syria from Iraq, The fuel headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iraqi soldiers and border guards at the Al Bukamal crossing into Syria did not interfere because both sides of the border are dominated by pro-Iran groups. On the Iraqi side there are Iran-backed PMF militias. The Syrian side is controlled by the pro-Iran Syrian government and Iranian Syrian mercenaries. Israeli and American airstrikes often hit the Syrian side, where there are a growing number of Iranian bases, which include warehouses for Iranian rockets and missiles trucked in from Iran via Iraq. Fuel trucks are usually not hit because that cargo is useful to civilians as well as Iranian controlled military personnel. The U.S. recently carried out a rare airstrike on the Iraqi border crossing, in retaliation for an Iranian rocket attack on an American base. Iran wants all American troops out of Iraq but that is not going to happen as long as there is ISIL activity in Iraq. Even after ISIL is suppressed, the U.S. has made it clear it will maintain a force or military trainers and advisors in the autonomous Kurdish north.