Syria: Peace Will Have to Wait

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April 6, 2022: A decade of civil war has left Syria with a lot of losers and no clear winner. The Assad government is technically in control of 90 percent of Syria but that control is weaker than it was before 2011. There are not enough trained police and soldiers to maintain order throughout Syria and many areas are still generally lawless and dominated by Islamic terrorists, outlaw militias and gangsters of all sorts.

Arab states are willing to revive diplomatic and economic relationships with Syria, but only if the Assads break their ties with Iran. That can be announced but not enforced because there are thousands of Iranian-backed militias in Syria, who are occupied with carrying out attacks against Israel. If the Assad forces try to eject the Iranians, the Assad government becomes an enemy of Iran and subjected to all sorts of military, economic and terrorist retaliation. The Assads want to avoid that until they have solid links with Arab countries and Israel. The Arabs are willing but the Israelis are already at war with the Iranians in Syria and are no longer interested in establishing diplomatic relations with Syria. That means Syria remains a battlefield for Islamic terrorists and Israeli, Turkish, Russian, Iranian, Syrian, and American forces to fight each other in a constantly changing web of alliances. For Syria peace will have to wait, possibly for a long time.

The Missing Russians

Russians, Ukrainians and just about everyone else were surprised at the poor performance of Russian commanders, troops and equipment in Ukraine. Part of this was due to overestimating the value of combat experience Russian pilots and commanders gained in Syria and Libya. This was supposed to make a difference when fighting Ukrainians but did not. In 2021Russian openly boasted of the experience gained in Syria. Russia believed time spent in the Syrian fighting would prove invaluable in any future war. That was because 90 percent of Russian military pilots now had combat experience. Since 2015 many pilots have flown over a hundred combat sorties in Syria and a few of them over 400. This would account for so many Russian aircraft types showing up in Syria, sometimes in small numbers for short periods. Russia had earlier revealed that they combat tested a lot of new equipment and weapons in Syria, enabling the new gear to use a sales inducement of “combat tested”.

Russian aircraft have flown over 40,000 sorties in Syria so far, providing lots of opportunities for Russian pilots to get some combat experience. There was one catch, most of the sorties did not involve engaging the enemy. In Syria that meant lots of reconnaissance sorties and combat sorties where there was no combat, as in nothing to bomb or weather that prevented such attacks. The combat experience of the pilots wasn’t all that dangerous because there were no enemy aircraft while the Islamic terrorists and irregulars below only had short range anti-aircraft weapons like heavy machine-guns and some portable heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles that were out of date compared to the missile defenses in Russian helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Many of the targets in Syria consisted of pro-rebel civilians Russia was trying to force out of Syria. Most of the combat experience came in the form of finding designated targets and bombing them, often with unguided bombs that had to be dropped from low altitudes.

As of late 2021, nearly 70,000 Russian troops had served in Syria, many more than once. Both pilots and ground troops served in Syria for short periods, like three to six months at a time. Since Russia had been in Syria for six years, a growing number of Russian pilots and ground forces officers have served more than one tour.

Russia also confirmed that promising ground forces officers were also sent to Syria for some combat experience and currently most of the commanders and chiefs of staff of units from battalion size up to the divisions, armies and military districts have had some experience in Syria. For the ground force officers the experience often meant going into action as advisors to Syrian officers. This was often in the form of Russian officers leading by example because most Syrian officers had become reluctant to lead their troops into combat due to heavy casualties the Syrian army has suffered since 2011. Russia special operations officers got the most combat experience because they led Russia spetsnaz commandos on combat missions and took a few casualties. But for most Russian pilots and ground combat officers, experience in Syria was not much help in Ukraine because the opponents in Syria were far less capable and determined than those encountered inside Ukraine.

The increased economic sanctions applied to Russia after the Ukraine invasion has hurt Syria in other ways. Russia demanded that Syria assist Russian efforts to evade the new sanctions. This is done by spending Russian aid money in such a way that it launders Russian funds so they can be used freely outside Russia. There is a similar arrangement for assisting the Russians with oil smuggling. Syria loses the economic benefits of over a billion dollars in Russian aid but keeps the Russian air strikes coming. This air support is also useful to protect the Assads from Iranian retribution for cooperating with Gulf Arab states now under attack by Iran.

April 5, 2022: The Assad government supports Russian military operations in Ukraine and has agreed to supply as many Syrian soldiers and experienced militiamen the Russians can afford. Those accepted for the program must pass a Syrian background check and are given six-month contracts at the rate of $1,200 a month plus a $2,000 bonus if they complete their six-months and even larger payments if they are badly wounded and disabled or killed. The Assads take a large chunk of this as a commission but the volunteers are making a lot more than the $100 a month they get from the army or the more successful militias. The pay is also higher than what Russia pays for Syrians serving in Libya because service in Ukraine is a lot more dangerous. The Syrians will probably not be front line troops but rather replace Russian soldiers now used to guard rear areas or recently captured territory.

April 4, 2022: In the east (Homs and Raqqa provinces) operations against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups in the Badia Desert south of the Euphrates River Valley. So far in 2022 Russian airstrikes and ground operations have left nearly 150 dead, most of them ISIL or associated groups using the largely empty desert as a sanctuary. This desert area 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 supplies most of aerial 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.

In the northeast (Hasaka province) Turkish UAV missile attack against SDF (Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces rebels), wounding three Kurds. Elsewhere in Hasaka Turkish artillery fire on SDF positions continued for a second day.

April 3, 2022: In central Syria (eastern Homs province) Iran took advantage of Russia withdrawing its forces from Mahan, where a major weapons storage complex has long existed. Providing some protection from surrounding hills, the Mahan complex consists of 25 underground bunkers where weapons and ammunition are stored. Until recently a few Russians troops and a lot of Russian backed local mercenaries provided security. Some Assad forces, in the form of Lebanese Shia Hezbollah gunmen as well as some Syrian troops replaced the Russian force. But then several hundred Iran=backed mercenaries arrived to share the security duties, and exercise some control over how the Mahan complex would be used. The withdrawal, to Ukraine, of Russian troops and cash (for paying local mercenaries) provided several opportunities for Iran and Mahan was one of them. The Hezbollah forces took orders from Iran so now Mahan was controlled by Iran and the Assads lost exclusive control of a vital weapons and ammo storage site. Moreover, Mahan now becomes a major target for Israeli attacks, which can overcome the protection usually provided by the hills and underground bunkers. Until the departure of Russian forces the Mahan complex supplied Iranian, Assad and Russian attacks on ISIL operations in central and eastern Syria.

In the northeast (Hasaka province) a Turkish UAV missile attack and artillery fire wounded several people and damaged electrical distribution systems.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) disputes between Iran-backed militias led to gunfire and one militia leader was killed.

April 2, 2022: In the northwest (Idlib province) Syrian artillery fire killed three HTS Islamic terrorists and wounded at least five. The artillery fire continued for several hours as HTS members took shelter. The fighting was about who controls territory in the province and has been going on for years, Aleppo province is adjacent to Idlib province.

April 1, 2022: In the northeast (Hasaka province) a Turkish TB2 UAV missile hit a vehicle on the M4 highway, killing an SDF member and wounding two Kurdish civilians. This is the 22nd TB2 attack so far in 2022 six TB2 attacks have occurred in Kurdish majority Hasaka province. SDF forces have clashed with Turkish troops and their Syrian mercenaries frequently, usually in response to a Turkish attack or attempt to gain control of more SDF territory.

In the north (Aleppo province) there is continued fighting between HTS Islamic terrorists and a faction of the Turkish backed SNA (Syrian National Army). The violence today left one SNA member dead, five wounded and over twenty SNA members captured.

March 31, 2022: In southern Syria (Daraa province) the violence continued with 45 incidents of violence in March leaving 39 dead. So far in 2022 there have been 117 attacks leaving 97 dead and many more wounded. been nearly twenty assassinations (of Syrian army officers) and related acts of violence so far this month. This level of violence remained fairly constant for three years until 2022. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there 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. There are also attacks against former members of ISIL and other militant groups. These victims had accepted amnesty. 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. Israel sometimes fires 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 since 2020 but have not made much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area. In 2022 much of the violence is from other groups, some of them criminal gangs retaliating against those who refuse to pay for protection from the violence.

March 28, 2022: In the north (Aleppo province) Russian air strikes and Syrian army artillery fire during the last 48 hours against Turkish forces caused several casualties among the Syrian mercenaries working for the Turks. These were the first Russian air strikes in Syria since the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Iranian backed Syrian militias joined in the attacks on the Turkish forces. The attacks attempt to dislodge the Turkish Syrian mercenaries and their families who now live in areas near the Turkish border that are meant to remain under Turkish control to keep Islamic terrorists out of Turkey. The Turks have established local governments in these border areas that collect taxes and operate municipal services.

March 23, 2022: In the north (Aleppo province) several Syrian Army officers were killed by assassins.

Syrian leader Bashir Assad attended a conference in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) where countries that already had established diplomatic relations with Israel agreed that Syria, or at least the Assad government controlled most of the country after ten years of civil war, receive backing in establishing diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. Until recently this was possible in 2018 where American, Israeli and Russian officials met and agreed that a deal with the Assad government was preferable to continued chaos, and an Iranian presence in Syria. That changed in mid-2021 when a new government took power in Israel and abandoned the Syrian deal. The current UAE conference lacked Israeli participation. There was unanimous agreement that an American effort to restore the 2015 treaty that lifted sanction in Iran was a bad idea. Many Americans oppose restoring the 2015 treaty, as do other nations in the region including the e=new Israeli government.

March 22, 2022: Over the last few weeks Russia has been transferring the few troops (mainly military police) it had in southern and eastern Syria to the Russian Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province, on the Mediterranean coast. Latakia is vital to the Assad government because it is the most loyal province and contains the Mediterranean ports and the Russian airbase. Most of the Latakia population is Shia, as is the Assad clan.

March 20, 2022: According to the 2021 Transparency International Corruption survey, Syria remains one of the three most corrupt nations in the world. Syria was 177 out of 180 nations. Neighboring Iraq ranked 157 . 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 above Iraq, with a score of 23, 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.

March 13, 2022: Because of a recent Israeli airstrike in Syria, Iran launched a dozen cruise missiles at targets in or near Erbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. Some of the missiles landed near the American consulate but caused no damage or casualties. Other missiles did hit buildings and the damage was substantial for the palatial home of a wealthy Iraqi Kurd. Iran later took credit for the attack, explaining that it was directed at a mythical Israeli Mossad Base near Erbil. The mansion, used by the wealthy and influential Iraqi Kurd and his family, was demolished when no one was home. The bombed-out ruins were open for the media, who took lots of pictures. Iran had no explanation why their guided projectiles seemed to land randomly, except on the mansion. Iran said the attack was revenge for an Israeli airstrike in Syria last week that killed two senior Quds Force commanders. Kurdish officials speculated that the attack was made at a time when no one was in the mansion and avoiding any casualties was an objective, so the attack would serve as a warning rather than something demanding a retaliatory attack. The Kurds believe the attack was more about Iran reminding everyone that Iraq is subordinate to Iran and foreigners as well as Iraqis must remember this.

March 12, 2022: In the south Russian troops are now patrolling the Golan Heights border. Russia says it has expelled all Iran forces from the border region and will keep them out. This is part of an effort to reduce the need for Israeli attacks on Iranian forces operating in Syria. This is part of an effort to enable the Syrian government, still a dictatorship run by a Syrian Shia Arab Assad group, to abandon decades of dependence on Iranian military and diplomatic support. The Assads are seeking to joint an Arab alliance that is cooperating with Israel against Iran. Israel does not want to ruin its relationship with Russia, which is an unofficial ally of Israel against Iran.

March 7, 2022: In the south (Damascus) another Israeli air strike against Iranian targets left two Iranian Quds Force colonels dead and six Iran-backed militia wounded. Iran responded with threats of retaliatory attacks to avenge the loss of two Quds Force officers. This was the seventh Israeli airstrike in Syria for 2022.

February 28, 2022: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkish and Syrian Assad forces have the remaining rebels and their supporters trapped. Syria continues their campaign to liberate and take control of the rebel-held portions of the province. 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.

February 24, 2022: In the south (Damascus) there was an Israeli air strike against Iranian targets. Three Syrian soldiers died. This was the seventh Israeli airstrike in Syria for 2022.

February 22, 2022: In Turkey, the government closed 16 provinces to “newly arriving” foreign residents. New arrivals include refugees. There will also be new residency quotas in other areas. The government plans to relocate Syrian refugees from districts where they currently make up more than 25 percent of the population.

February 16, 2022: In the south (Israeli Golan Heights) several Israeli surface-to-surface missiles were launched against targets near Damascus.

 

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