The ruling Assad clan has been making visible, and some less public, moves to demonstrate their efforts to curb Iranian activity in Syria. There is a lot of that in Syria and not all of it has anything to do with the Assads. Iran does not, and never did, share details of all its operations in Syria with the Assad government. That was how the Iranians operated and the Assads were expected to accept that. The Assads are now attempting the difficult, and often fatal, act of leaving a partnership with Iran.
One of the problems the Assads have to deal with is that many parts of Syria now controlled by the Syrian government are not obeying the Assads. In these cases, local security is handled by Iran-backed militias, who answer to Iran first and the Assads second, if at all. Israeli forces help with local security on the Syrian side of the Israeli border. Russian backed militias help with some areas in eastern Syria and Turkish backed militias do the same in the northwest. In the northeast most local security is provided by the Kurdish led (and American supported) SDF. In practical terms the Assads preside over most of pre-war Syria but local security is often not Assad controlled. The Assads do provide local security in the most densely populated areas, including Damascus and the Mediterranean provinces. As a result, the Assads do control most of the remaining pre-war population.
One area the Assads are determined to liberate and take control of is the rebel-held portions of Idlib province in the northwest. This is being done with a lot of material assistance from Russia in the form of airstrikes and resupply of artillery shells and rockets fired by the Syrians into Idlib. Taking Idlib has to be done with the cooperation of the Turks, who do not want the 30,000 or 40,000 armed rebels trapped in Idlib and parts of adjacent Aleppo province, along with over a million pro-rebel civilians, forcing their way into Turkey. Why risk death from Turkish border guards and defenses? Because if the Assads get control of Idlib and its current population, the justifiably feared Assad secret police will arrive and interrogate (torture) those with a record of rebel activity. In other pro-rebel areas where the Assads took control, the secret police did their work and a lot of local civilians disappeared. This is not an issue with the Arab League, Turkey, Russia or Iran because all use similar techniques. The Assads simply do it more often.
Counting The Dead
War-related deaths in Syria were lower in each of the last three years, with less than 4,000 in 2021 and it was about the same in 2020 but nearly twice as high in 2019. In 2018 there were about 20,000 dead. As usual about a third of the dead were civilians. The death toll in 2017 was 34,000, with about 30 percent civilians. Since 2011 over 500,000 have died in Syria. While most were Syrians anywhere from 10 to 20 percent were foreigners. The total deaths each year are estimates because few of the grounds involved, including the Syrian government, release all the data they have.
A third of the 2011 Syrian population has fled the country and most are reluctant to return. That is confirmed by the number of Syrian refugees registered (to receive economic aid) in Turkey, Lebanon and a few other countries.
Counting the Corruption
Syria has become one of the most corrupt nations in the Middle East. The latest annual
Transparency International Corruption Perception Index showed that Syria is the third most corrupt nation in the world, surpassed only by South Sudan and Somalia.
Transparency International measures corruption on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The nations with the worst score are currently Syria (score of 14), South Sudan (12) and Somalia (12). The least corrupt nations are currently Denmark and New Zealand, each with a score of 88.
The war has greatly increased corruption.
The Syrian corruption score was 26 in 2012, which today would put it right next to Bangladesh, Central African Republic and Uzbekistan who were all tied at 146th place. The current high level of corruption makes it difficult for anyone to justify investing in Syria or even providing foreign aid, which is not likely to reach those it is intended for.
While the Middle East has a lot of corruption, there are exceptions. In the Persian Gulf the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is the least corrupt nation in the region, followed by Israel. The UAE achieved the most favorable corruption score in the region because it has long depended on foreign trade to survive and to make money in that business you must be known as an honest trading partner. The UAE is also different in that it is a federation of formerly independent “emirates” that realized the wisdom of joining forces. Laws and customs vary somewhat among the emirates and some are more gangster than others. Overall, the UAE is a place where foreigners feel comfortable doing business.
January 4, 2022: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the U.S. led coalition carried out several airstrikes against suspected rocket launching sites near the American Green Village base. This base east of the Euphrates River keeps Russian and Syrian forces away from the Omar Oilfield, which is controlled by the Kurd-led SDF forces. Pro-Iran militias are a threat as well because Iran is still seeking revenge for the death of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani a year ago via an American UAV missile attack near the Baghdad (Iraq) airport. Iran found that Soleimani was more valuable to Quds operations than realized and his successor has so far failed to exact a suitable revenge attack on the Americans in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.
Elsewhere in the east (Hasaka province) SDF and American forces landed from helicopters to surround a search a village for evidence of Islamic terrorist or other hostile (to the Kurds and Americans) groups.
January 3, 2022: In the northwest (Idlib province) HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), the umbrella organization for most of the armed rebels in Idlib, suffered a lot of defections in the last year and is recruiting new members willing to take combat training and serve as part of the armed branch of HTS. Currently HTS has about 10,000 armed members, having lost as many as 5,000in the last year. HTS had a peak strength of 30,000 in 2017 but it has been downhill since.
The most recent decline was caused by HTS leaders trying to make the people trapped in Idlib more acceptable as refugees. This was made very visible a year ago when Abu Mohammed al Golani, leader of HTS, shocked many of his followers and supporters by appearing in a TV interview wearing a business suit and not holding an assault rifle. His interviewer was an American journalist. Golani justified the non-terrorist attire by describing his recent efforts to make alliances with foreign nations. To do this he had to convince them he was serious of turning HTS into an unarmed political movement in return for sanctuary. His enemies had always accused Golani of secretly doing that. Until the interview Golani denied the accusations but suddenly, he embraced them. Golani has a $10 million price on his head as the leader of HTS. The Americans offer the reward for capturing or killing Golani, no matter what he is wearing or saying at the time.
A few months later there was a major, and sometimes violent disagreement between the decade old Salvation Government rebel provincial administration and HTS. There are 1.5 million civilians in Idlib and the Salvation Government makes itself essential by coordinating foreign aid that keeps people alive. The aid also sustains a local economy because the Salvation Government and HTS cooperate to maintain a degree of order. Factional frictions within both HTS and the Salvation Government are threatening what stability there is in the half of the province that is still rebel controlled. The rest has been occupied by Turkish forces in the north and Assad forces in the south.
Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS, which al Qaeda supported but did not entirely trust. HTS was 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 unraveling of the HTS coalition. HTS officially ditched any cooperation with al Qaeda, a move many HTS factions did not agree with.
January 2, 2022: In the northwest (Idlib province) Russia increased its airstrikes on Islamic terrorist targets in or near Idlib city, the provincial capital. Several bombs damaged water supply facilities and Russia and Syria pointed out that they use air strikes and artillery to attack rebel forces wherever they are. The rebels often hide in residential areas or near hospitals and key water, sewage and power supply facilities.
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL rockets hit a military bus, leaving five Syrian soldiers dead and twenty wounded. Russian air power is periodically unleashed on ISIL targets in eastern Syria, but it takes weeks or months of aerial reconnaissance and collecting tips from locals to compile a list of targets. These airstrikes are expensive but the Russians justify it because it gives Russian pilots valuable combat experience in a combat zone where aircraft losses from enemy air defense forces is negligible.
The ISIL attacks in eastern Syria are not a major threat and have occurred about twice a week for the last few months. In some weeks there are three or four attacks. Going after ISIL forces in eastern Syria is one activity that everyone participates in. There are dozens of American, Russian and Syrian airstrikes against ISIL targets each month and a lesser number of ground operations by American, Kurd, Russian and Syrian forces. ISIL remains a threat to traffic on the main roads as well as villages in remote areas, which ISIL raids for supplies and to persuade civilians to not report ISIL activities to local security f0rces.
December 31, 2021: Many of the 7,000 Syrian Arabs hired by Turkey to serve as mercenaries in Libya report that they have finally gotten some of the seven months of unpaid wages. Only partial payments were made and four months of unpaid wages are still overdue. These Syrian Arabs are paid $600 a month while Turkey handles living expenses, medical care and military supplies for their Syrian mercenaries. This adds up to a tot of at least a thousand dollars a month per man. Turkey suffered severe economic setbacks in 2021 which impoverished a lot of Turkish voters and forced the Turkish government to cut expenses where it could, usually without prior notice of explanation about when delayed payments to foreign suppliers (like the Syrian mercs) would be made good. Turkey has hired at least 20.000 Syrian Sunni Arabs mercenaries since 2016 to serve in Syria and later Libya. The Syrian mercs in Syria could more effectively complain about back pay and other problems while those who volunteered for duty in Libya are literally cut off from home. In addition to back pay issues, many of these mercs were not provided with brief trips back to Syria to visit families. These visits, at Turkish expense, were part of the deal for those signing up to serve in Libya for up to a year. Turkey says it will pay these back wages but won’t say when because the economic problems in Turkey are getting worse and the Turkish government has to concentrate on that before dealing with its unpaid mercenaries in Libya.
December 28, 2021: In coastal Syria an Israeli airstrike hit a target very close to Russian forces. The target was a storage area in the port of Latakia. Israeli airstrikes in this area used to be rare because Russia uses the port for bringing in cargo. This is the second Israeli airstrike here in December and Israel said that it would attack Iranian weapons shipments wherever they were found There were no casualties from this attack but there was a fire and secondary explosions in a cargo container storage area. It was later revealed that Israel had alerted Russia shortly before the attack to confirm that no Russian in the target area. Russian air defenses did not act against the Israeli strike, which annoyed the Syrians and Iranians for different reasons. Iran was angry because the target was ballistic missiles for Hezbollah. Syria was annoyed because Syrian port storage facilities were damaged. Russia reminded the Syrians that the Israelis were going after any Iranian target that is a threat to Israel.
These attacks are another example of how Israeli, Russian and American airstrikes in Syria appear to be coordinated. The Americans are even more secretive about their airstrikes in Syria than Israel but each month there are three or four airstrikes by unidentified aircraft or UAVs in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) against Iranian weapons storage sites outside Al Bukamal City, which is on the Euphrates River and as well as the Bukamal border crossing into Iraq. Israel and the U.S. use the same type of aircraft (F-15s) for these attacks and the attacks involving UAVs are not Israeli because the Israelis don’t use armed UAVs, which is an American specialty. In the rest of Syria similar strikes on Iranian targets are Israeli. The U.S. and Israel have a strong military, economic, and diplomatic relationship and often quietly cooperate in areas of mutual interest. The Russians are apparently part of the airstrike coordination in Deir Ezzor province where most of the airstrikes against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets are Russian, but some are not and are often claimed by the United States.
December 25, 2021: In the north (Aleppo province) a Turkish UAV used missiles to attack a camp used by the PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists). The missiles left four dead and five wounded. This particular PKK group had been recruiting local Kurds, often teenagers, to take military training and fight for the PKK. Over the last year the Turks have used their armed and unarmed UAVs more frequently in Syria to find and attack PKK targets.
December 20, 2021: In the east, at the Tanf /Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing four explosions were heard in the American base near Tanf. 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.
December 19, 2021: Turkey reports that they continue to host over five million migrants and refugees. About a quarter of these come from around 190 different ethnic and national groups while most are from Syria. Including unregistered refugees, that means nearly four million Syrians living in Turkey. In response to that the Turk government demanded more money from EU (European Union) nations to help pay for the support of nearly four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Since 2010 Turkey has received over $6 billion from the EU for this. Turkey threatened to open its borders for these refugees if the EU did not pay and this threat is apparently still active as new demands are made. Turkey also blames the West for much of the violence in Syria and that justifies paying Turkey more to clean up the mess. Other foreign nations dealing with the Syrian mess have different interpretations of who was responsible for what but everyone agrees the decade of war has been a human, diplomatic and economic disaster.
December 14, 2021: In Saudi Arabia a meeting of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) and some delegations were critical of the efforts to support the Syrian Assad government in return for the Assads endling their decades-old alliance with Iran. Saudi officials were opposed to trusting the Assads and wanted some concrete actions by the Assads to demonstrate their dependability as an ally of their fellow Arabs. The Saudis had been one of the prime movers in getting the GCC to declare the Lebanese Arab Hezbollah declared a terrorist organization in 2016. Unlike Assad controlled Syria, Hezbollah was not a country, just an Arab military that controlled most of southern Lebanon. The Assads have to deal with Hezbollah as well as Iran and other Iran-backed Arab militias in Syria and Iraq. Most GCC members agree with supporting the Assads in shedding their Iranian ties but no one is certain the Assads can deliver. Israel and Russia also support the Assad effort to break with Iran and are more confident the Assad’s can pull it off.
In November Syria was invited to attend the March 2022 Arab League meeting of all 22 members.
President Assad has been negotiating with
Arab League members since 2017 about abandoning Iran and rejoining the league. Syrian membership was suspended in 2011. Assad went public about this effort in late 2018 and has been
speaking with other Arab League members more frequently ever since. Syria has obtained offers of assistance in rebuilding Syria as well as assisting Syria in becoming an active member of the Arab League once more.
In late 2011 Syria was suspended from the Arab League and many of the 21 other League members cut diplomatic relations or imposed sanctions. The Arab League was unable to do much more. By early 2013 the Arab League was still unable to muster enough unity to call for international (Western) intervention in Syria. The Arab League did that in 2011 for Libya and many Arabs considered it shameful that the Arab world could not handle the military intervention itself. Despite trillions of dollars in oil income and hundreds of millions of Arabs demanding something be done, the Arab League had to call on outsiders to save Libya from degenerating into an interminable bloodbath. That is what happened in Syria and many Arabs refused to accept responsibility and just blamed the West and Israel for the mess. Given that toxic atmosphere, Western nations, including NATO member Turkey, were reluctant to do what the Arabs wanted done but would not admit they cannot do it themselves. Iran and the Russians intervened in support of the Assads and the slaughter of pro-rebel civilians continued as did Assad efforts to force pro-rebel civilians out of Syria. In 2020 the U.S. negotiated the Abraham Accords, which made it possible for Arab League members to establish diplomatic and other relations with Israel. The League sees Iran as a very dangerous foe and only the unity of all Arab states, including Israel, can deal with Iran. Arabs have long known that over half the Israeli population is ethnically Arab, the descendants of Middle Eastern Jews forced from Arab nations where they had lived for over a thousand years and most came to Israel. The Assads have accepted all this but must preside over a formal rejection of Iran, or at least an expulsion of Iranian forces from Syria.
December 6, 2021: In coastal Syria an Israeli airstrike hit a target very close to Russian forces. The target was a storage area in the port of Latakia. Israeli airstrikes in this area are rare because Russia uses the port for bringing in cargo.
December 2, 2021: In southern Syria (Daraa province) there has been an undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces since 2018. Anonymous assassins use pistols and hidden bombs to kill those who work, or worked for government forces or Russia and Syria backed local militias. Russian and Assad forces openly force Iran-backed groups and individuals out of the area. There is no open violence because Iran, Syria and Russia are still officially allies. Near the Israel border Russian and Syrian pressure has prevented Iranian attacks on Israel. Russia and Syria have also been checking locals to see if they are Syrian Shia wearing authorized Syrian army or police uniforms rather than Lebanese Shia using stolen uniforms as disguises. This border security operation 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. Israel will sometimes fire on Iranian forces operating in Daraa, especially near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel will sometimes release evidence of this to the media, so that Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iranian foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria for over a year but are not making much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area.
Border security effort by Syrians and Russians is the result of years of 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.