Syria: Strange Brew Smells Like Peace

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October 27, 2021: Israel and Russia have become more open about their cooperation in Syria. Russian and Israeli senior officials frequently meet in Russia and Israel to discuss details of this partnership and often release details of their Syria alliance and any new developments. Israel and Russia have been cooperating in Syria for decades but in 2015 that relationship had to be modified. For the first time Russia had substantial combat forces in Syria and at a time when Israel was carrying out airstrikes against Syrian or Iranian forces that were threatening Israel.

Soon after Russian ground and air forces arrived in Syria during September 2015 it became apparent that Russian and Israeli forces were behaving like allies. Russia later revealed that this intervention was carefully planned and those plans included negotiating an agreement with Israel on how to avoid Israelis and Russians from accidentally firing on each other. With this agreement Russia recognized the Israeli need to stop Iran or Syria from transferring weapons to Hezbollah or attacking Israel. Russia agreed to not interfere with Israeli aircraft or ground forces attacking Iranian munitions being transported into Syria. Russia recognized the Israeli need to retaliate against rebel and Syrian forces that were fighting near the Israeli border, with bullets, rockets or shells from Syria landing in Israel. Israeli warplanes had carried out dozens of retaliation attacks in Syria since 2013. Several airstrikes destroyed Russian weapons being moved to Lebanon by Hezbollah. Israel made it clear that it would not back off on using air power to protect their Syrian and Lebanese borders and Russia later revealed that it understood the Israeli situation and did not want any problems with Israel defending itself. Part of the Russian planning for entry into Syria was establishing procedures with Israel to keep each other informed when Russian and Israeli warplanes or ground forces might encounter each other. This involved a hotline and frequent meetings between Russian and Israeli officials.

As time went on more details of this alliance became public. In 2017 Russia revealed that their forces would remain in Syria for as long as required to end the civil war there. Russia also revealed details of their cooperation with Israel since 2015. Many people had figured out that Russia and Israel seemed to be cooperating in Syria but official confirmation of that cooperation was not available for nearly two years. By 2017 senior Russian military officials were openly visiting Israel to meet with their Israeli counterparts. One of those meetings was the first time a Russian Minister of Defense had visited Israel to discuss anything, much less “the agreement”. Some details of what the two nations agreed to were made public. Israel and Russia confirmed some modifications to their agreement on what Russia would do to keep Iranian forces (including Iranian backed Shia militias like Hezbollah) away from the Israeli border. Israel wanted the Russians to keep the Iranians at least 60 kilometers from the border but the Russians have agreed to smaller buffer zones (10-20 kilometers) and were willing and able to enforce those buffer zones. In part this was done by telling the Assad government that continued Russian assistance for the Assads was contingent on the Assads cooperating with the Russians in keeping the Iranians away from the Israeli border. At the same time the Russians would continue not interfering with Israeli air and missile strikes on Iranian weapons shipments moving from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah. Syria protests via the media but does little beyond that. This cozy relationship with Israel is more valuable to Russia than any deals it has with Iran. Russia recognizes that Israel has the strongest economy in the region as well as the most capable military power. Israel also has nuclear weapons. After the Russian delegation left, a senior Israeli official visiting Japan repeated that Israel would, if necessary, use military force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

In 2018 Israel and Russia revealed that there was no Russian blanket pledge to not interfere with Israeli attacks inside Syria. There was, however, no change in the existing policy of Russian forces not confronting Israeli attacks on Iranian targets. Russian diplomats told Israel that Russia would support Israel if Iran attacked Israel directly. Russia revealed that their cooperation with Israel sometimes had to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. The Russians made it clear they did not want to fight the Israelis, especially when the Russians have growing evidence that Russian military equipment would not do well if there were clashes. Israel later revealed cases where they cancelled an airstrike at Russian request. Apparently, there were Russian troops in the target area and Israel, once informed, was able to divert that airstrike to another area in need of attention.

By 2019 Russia had treaties with the Assads that allowed Russia to lease territory for a major airbase and a smaller port facility in western Syria. Israel had no formal objections, apparently because this arrangement was made after consultations with Israel. Russia agreed to these treaties to give the Assads an opportunity to move away from the long dependence on Iran. As far as the Assads were concerned the Iranians were trying to turn Assad-controlled Syria into something like Hezbollah, the Shia militia Iran helped create in the 1980s and has sustained ever since. That turned southern Lebanon into a region controlled by Hezbollah which, in turn, took orders from Iran. Israel had long sought to get Iran out of Lebanon and now most Lebanese agreed and were openly fighting with Hezbollah over the issue. The Assads agreed to informally make peace with Israel in an arrangement that would be monitored and enforced by Israel and Russia. Russia considers this a major achievement in Syria and most of the world will agree if the changes do not prompt Iran into starting a major war over it.

October 25, 2021: In the south (Quneitra province) an Israeli airstrike using missiles hit Syrian and Iranian targets outside the town of Baath. One of the targets was a SAM (surface to air missile) anti-aircraft battery recently moved to the area, which is too close to the Israeli border for such weapons.

October 24, 2021: In the northwest (Latakia and Idlib provinces) pro-Turkey Islamic terrorists from Idlib have been actively going after smaller factions that refuse to cooperate with Turkey in order to be allowed to leave Syria as refugees. Some of the unacceptable factions still committed to continuing their terrorist activities. Many foreign critics accuse the Turks of supporting terrorism but the alternative is to kill several hundred people trapped in Idlib in order to eliminate the Islamic terrorist threat resident there. Nearly all the 20,000 or Islamic terrorists in Idlib ended up there because of the Syrian tactic of avoiding costly (to Syrian troops) attacks against Islamic terrorists surrounded and willing to fight to the death. The deal used time and again was that the Islamic terrorists and their families would be given safe passage to Idlib province, a rebel stronghold throughout the civil war. Russia later stepped up to guarantee safe passage when some Islamic terror groups refused to trust the Syrian offer. There was no plan about how the concentration of determined Islamic terrorists in Idlib would ultimately be resolved. Syria and Russia were willing to kill them all and let the Turks deal with those who tried to cross the heavily protected Turkish border. Turkey persuaded Russia and Syria to wait while the Turks used their influence with the more moderate Islamic terror groups who were willing to deal with the more extreme groups in Idlib. Many of these groups were already waging a low-level war with the Islamic terrorist government of Idlib. There is still a problem with the fact that no country really wants to offer asylum for the Idlib “moderate” Islamic terrorists. Turkish voters will not accept these Islamic terrorist Syrians as long-term residents and the current Turkish government risks getting voted out of office if these unwanted Idlib Syrians are allowed in.

October 23, 2021: In the north (Aleppo province) a Turkish UAV used a missile to destroy a vehicle outside the border town of Kobane and kill the three people in it. The target was apparently the leader of a local group that cooperated with the Kurdish SDF (Syrian Defense Forces) militia. The Turkish UAVs resemble the American Predator and have been conducting surveillance in this area for nearly a week, apparently in preparation for more attacks like this as well as gathering information for another ground offensive in the area.

In neighboring Raqqa province an American UAV used a missile to kill Abdul Hamid al Matar, a senior al Qaeda leader who was in charge of planning and organizing attacks in foreign countries, especially Europe or the U.S. The pro-Turkish Islamic terrorists in Idlib are also providing Turkey with information on Islamic terrorists who are still actively planning terror attacks in Syria and elsewhere. Turkey shares some of their information with their allies, including NATO nations it wants to improve relations with.

October 22, 2021: In Russia, the Israeli and Russian leaders met to discuss their cooperation in Syria and Russia agreed to the unofficial cooperation agreement

October 20, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), near the Tanf /Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing (on the Iraqi side) border crossing explosions were heard in the American base near Tanf. The Americans confirmed the explosions but said there were no casualties. The U.S. later revealed that they had advance warning of the attack and flew out 200 of American troops at the base, leaving only a few dozen who took shelter in fortified bunkers. Civilians in the area reported that the attacks came from several small UAVs carrying explosives and several rockets which appeared to have been launched from the ground. Syria, Russia and Iran want the American base gone and their ground forces have tried to get close but were turned back by American airstrikes. The attacker in this case used Iranian UAVs and rockets and the UAVs were used as cruise missiles. Iran has several local militias on the payroll that they could have used to carry out the attack. The Americans have controlled the Syrian side since 2017 while a pro-American Iraqi militia controls the Iraqi side. This is one of the three main Syria/Iraq border crossings and controls access to the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The crossing is near where the borders of Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet.

In the west, (Damascus) three roadside bombs were used against a Syrian army bus that was used to transport Iranian officers to work. Two of the three bombs went off and killed fourteen of the Iranian passengers. A third bomb did not go off and was disabled by army bomb disposal specialists. No one took credit for this attack but Israel was at the top of the usual suspects list.

October 17, 2021: So far this year 21 Turkish soldiers have been killed in Syria and another 73 wounded. President Erdogan is being challenged by a coalition of opposition parties who want to remove him as the Turkish president before 2023 elections. Sending Turkish troops to Syria in 2016 and Libya three years later were unpopular moves for most Turks. Erdogan has been in power since 2003 and one of the first things he did was to get parliament to approve increasing the power of the presidency. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but this made it possible for Erdogan to send Turkish troops quickly and quietly into Syria and Libya. Erdogan believed these decisive actions would increase his popularity. It did not because as more Turkish soldiers were killed in Syria and the cost of the five years of Turkish operations in Syria mounted so did public anger whenever a Turkish soldier was killed or badly wounded. There have been about a thousand casualties among Turkish troops in Syria since 2016 and over 200 of them were fatal. Government controlled or influenced media in Turkey have been ordered to play down the deaths and the well-attended funerals but this bad news eventually gets out, despite efforts to crack down on Internet-based treason (anti-government messages). Opinion polls show most voters want to oust the current government during the next (2023) national elections, where the voting will be for the president and members of parliament. The new political effort to remove Erdogan is made possible by his reluctance to bring Turkish troops home. Erdogan has hired over 20,000 Syrian Arabs as mercenaries to do most of the ground combat and the cost of payroll and medical care (and death benefits) has been an economic scandal in Turkey.

October 16, 2021: In the south (Quneitra province) an Israeli sniper killed Midhat as Saleh, a Syrian Druze politician who was working for Iran in southern Syria to establish an Iranian military presence on the Israeli border. Saleh was born in the Israeli Golan Heights and was jailed several times for anti-Israel activities. After getting out of jail he moved to the Syrian side of the border and went to work for the Assad government, a position he held until his death. Syrian and Israeli Druze have become more pro-Israel over the last decade and Saleh was one of pro-Assad Druze trying to change that by any means necessary.

October 15, 2021: In central Syria (Homs province) Israeli airstrikes hit the T4 airbase for the second time this week. The targets were the same’ Iranian training areas and weapons warehouses. One Syrian soldier was killed and five wounded. The attacks were launched from jets flying over the area where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Jordan meet. Air-to-surface missiles are used and some are intercepted by Syrian S-200 SAMs (Surface-to-Air missiles) that have less success against Israeli fighters that are equipped with countermeasures and pilots who know how to avoid the SAMs. The T4 airbase, near the ancient ruins of Palmyra, has been hit at least three times a year since 2018. T4 is the largest airbase in Syria and Iran has constantly built new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel, usually to replace buildings destroyed by the air strikes. T4 is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.

October 13, 2021: In northern Syria (western Aleppo and northern Raqqa provinces) Turkish airstrikes hit several U.S. backed SDF (Syrian Kurd militia) units. While mainly Kurdish, SDF also includes Syrian Arabs and Turkmen and was a major reason for the defeat of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, leading the offensive to drive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of their capital, Raqqa. The SDF continues to provide security in eastern Syria against the remaining ISIL factions that hide in the mountains and deserts and carry out occasional attacks. The U.S. provides air support for these SDF counterterror operations. Russia has generally stayed out of this war between Turkey and the SDF but recently the SDF warned its senior leaders and other key personnel to avoid travelling. The SDA believes Russia has agreed to target these personnel with attacks using airstrikes. Turkey was already doing this with their own locally made UAVs armed with laser guided missiles. This new UAV policy would also improve relations between Turkey and Russia.

October 12, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike once again hit an Iran-backed militia facility and largely destroyed it. The air strike was near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Iran is seeking to provide a safer environment for its Iraqi militias. Inside Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah is subject to attack by security forces and pro-government militias. In eastern Syria the biggest threat is Israeli airstrikes and the occasional American one. Today’s attack left three Iraqis dead along with one Syrian and several Iranians. These constant attacks are causing Iraqis belonging to pro-Iran militias to reconsider their loyalty to Iran.

October 8, 2021: In central Syria (Homs province) Israeli airstrikes again hit the T4 airbase, with several explosions heard inside the base. There were two dead and several wounded. Israeli warplanes launch air-ground missiles while still in Israel or just across the Syrian border in areas not covered by Syrian air defenses.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) another airstrike hit Iranian weapons storage sites outside Al Bukamal City, which is on the Euphrates River and a few hours by road, to a border crossing into Iraq. The attacking aircraft could not be identified but were believed to be Israeli UAVs and part of a campaign to cripple Iranian efforts to build up a large force in Syria that would be capable of launching thousands of guided and unguided rockets into Israel. There have been several airstrikes like this in 2021 and Israel is the chief suspect because of their frequent airstrikes against Iranian targets throughout Syria

October 3, 2021: In eastern and central Syria (Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces), Russian warplanes carried out over a hundred air strikes against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets over the weekend. Over fifty Islamic terrorists were killed or wounded and secondary explosions indicated that a lot of ammo and fuel supplies were destroyed. There were probably also civilian casualties as Russia ignores their presence even if ISIL is deliberately using the civilians as human shields. Russia also bombed some al Qaeda affiliated Islamic terrorists in northwest Syria, ignoring the neutral zone Russia and Turkey had agreed not to attack if the Islamic terrorists did not enter the zone. Russia says the Islamic terrorists have violated the neutral zone while Turkey considers those violations either minor or accidental. Russia is more inclined to agree with the Syrian (Assad) government, which has never been on good terms with Turkey.

September 30, 2021: In northwest Syria (Aleppo province) Syrian Kurdish separatists of the YPG (People’s Protection Units) fired a guided missile into Turkey, killing two policemen. Turkey said it would retaliate because the YPG had done this before and were warned that a repeat would have consequences. 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 component of the SDF that controls much of northeast Syria (mainly Kurd majority Hasaka province). SDF forces have clashed with Turkish troops and their Syrian mercenaries in Syria frequently, usually in response to a Turkish attack or attempt to gain control of more territory occupied by the SDF. One thing Turkey and the U.S. do agree on is that the YPG is the most unpredictable faction of the SDF.

September 29, 2021: Russian and Turkish leaders met in Russia to discuss economic and military matters. Russia and Turkey have ongoing disputes in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the Caucasus. The two also disagree on Islamic terrorism in general. Russia described the talks as useful but did mention that the Russian leader reminded his Turkish counterpart that Turkish troops were in Syria illegally and should leave, along with the Americans. Only Russia and Iran have Syrian permission to be there. Less was said about Libya. Russia and Turkey both have forces in Libya illegally and Russian and Turkish forces have clashed because they are backing different factions.

September 27, 2021: The recent return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan is 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 mid-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.

 

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