Syria: Deals To Be Made

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May 18, 2022: Since 2018 the Assad government has regained control over about 80 percent of 2011 Syria. The exceptions are most of Idlib province in the northwest and the Kurdish controlled northeast, including Hasaka and parts of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo provinces. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) also continues to contest control of remote areas in eastern Syria. Most of this occurs in the Badia Desert south of the Euphrates River Valley. ISIL or associated groups have long used 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. 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. An exception to this rule has ISIL waging an assassination campaign against Islamic clergy and staffs of religious schools who teach that Islamic terrorism is wrong. Turkey is striving to achieve control of a 20-kilometer-deep (into Syria) border strip along the length of its Syrian border. The Assads and Kurds agree that this border strip is a bad idea.

The Assads are now willing and able to fight to subdue the Idlib Islamic terrorists, the Kurds, and ISIL. Iran is backing the Assads as part of their efforts to establish a military presence on the Israeli border. The Russians are trying to play peacemaker to preserve their relationships with the Assads, other Arab states and even Israel. The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib would prefer to be anywhere but Syria, No one wants them. The Kurds are willing to make peace with the Assads in return for an autonomy deal similar to what the Iraqi Kurds have had for over two decades. The Assads are willing to make a deal but Turkey and Iran oppose that because of problems with their own Kurds.

Turkey is desperate to gain an edge over the separatist Kurds of Turkey and Syria. The latest effort involves Turkey threatening to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. New members must be approved by all existing members and Turkey is threatening to use its veto to coerce other NATO members to halt support for Kurds in Syria. The Turks have become cozy with Russia in Syria and violated NATO rules by purchasing and receiving Russian S400 air defense systems. Turkey has not activated the S400 system because other NATO members agreed that they could no longer allow Turkey to participate in the joint NATO air defense system if they used S400. Turkey has already been barred from purchasing F-35 stealth fighters or participating in manufacturing components. The latest misbehavior over allowing Finland and Sweden to join has revived calls for developing a mechanism for expelling an existing NATO member. Introducing such a mechanism might take a while depending on how unanimous other members are to do it.

Turkey is also in trouble for tolerating Islamic terrorist activity (smuggling, not arresting known terrorists) and reneging on agreements. For example, the Turks regard American support for the Syrian Kurds as condoning the actions of one faction of Syrian Kurds; the separatist YPG (People’s Protection Units). Turkey considers the YPG an arm of the more violent and radical Turkish Kurd PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The U.S agrees that the PKK is radical, violent and a regional menace, but disagrees with Turkey about YPG/PKK cooperation and has found the YPG an effective and reliable component of the SDF militia that controls much of northeast Syria, which is mainly Kurdish 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 SDF territory. One thing Turkey and the U.S. do agree on is that the YPG is the most unpredictable faction of the SDF, but also the most effective in combat. The Americans also point out that the separatist Iraqi and Iranian Kurds also cooperate with the PKK. In Iraq that means the autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq will not fight the PKK but will not interfere with Turkish operations against PKK camps in northern Iraq. The Arab Shia dominated Iraqi government also protests, but does not interfere with Turkish air and ground operations against the PKK in the north. The Iranian Kurd separatists have a similar policy towards the PKK, which does not try to operate in Iran because the Iranians are more violent in their response to such incursions.

Last week a Russian bulk-cargo ship arrived in Syria carrying 27,000 tons that was stolen from Ukraine during the Russian offensive against southern Ukraine. The Ukrainians are demanding that such shipments be seized rather than used by Russia to support Syria. Russia has also assisted Iran in smuggling oil to Syria.

May 15, 2022: In the north (Aleppo and Hasaka provinces) during the last three days Turkish artillery fired on more than fifty towns controlled by the Kurdish led SDF . The fire was not heavy, consisting of about a hundred shells or rockets per day. in several places. This is a violation of a ceasefire agreement agreed to in 2019 with Russia and the United States providing ceasefire monitors to monitor any violations. Since March Russia has withdrawn most of its ground troops from Syria and there are not enough American troops to protect villages and investigate violations. So far this year Turkey has violated the ceasefire over 300 times and killed at least 18 civilians and wounded nearly 300. The targets are often SDF positions near these towns but the SDF forces are entrenched and protected from that firepower while nearby civilians are not.

Further east, in Kurd-majority Hasaka province SDF attacked Turkey backed Syrian mercenaries, wounding two of them. These Syrian Arab mercenaries have also been used by Turkey in Libya and some have been hired by Russia to reinforce Russian forces in Ukraine. It is unclear if any of those Syrian mercs have arrived in Russia because the Russians are losing and taking heavy casualties. The Syrian mercenaries are not effective combat troops. The Turks and Russians have found the Syrian mercs useful for providing security in areas where they do not have to face experienced combat forces. Islamic terrorists and armed gangsters are about the most these mercenaries can handle. The Russian Wagner Military Contractor group has hired these Syrian mercenaries for security work. It’s about the best paying job a Syrian can get these days and as long as it is not too dangerous, there is no trouble recruiting. Many of these Syrians once belonged to Syrian rebel coalitions that cooperated with the Kurds against the Assads and the Islamic terrorist rebels, especially ISIL. Divisions among the Syrian rebels are the main reason they failed to overthrow the Assad government. The Kurds and non-religious rebel groups the current Syrian mercenaries once worked with made peace deals with the Assads while most everyone else informally cooperated to curb ISIL activities. While Russian and Iranian forces are in Syria to help the Assads, the Turks are there mainly to destroy Kurdish separatists from Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

May 17, 2022: In southern Syria (Daraa province) a Syrian intel official was killed by a bomb hidden in his car. There has been a lot of similar violence in Daraa this year, with over 200 attacks leaving over 160 dead and many more wounded.

May 13, 2022: In northwestern Syria (Hama province) an Israeli air-strike against Iranian targets left five dead and seven wounded. Most of the casualties belonged to Iran-backed militias or the Syrian army. These men are used to guard Iranian facilities in Syria. One civilian was killed and another wounded. Many of the Iranian SAM (surface to air) and anti-ship missiles and other weapons destroyed are headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for use against Israel. Another target of these airstrikes was the underground Syrian chemical weapons research center at Masyaf. Israel has been monitoring and occasionally attacking Masyaf for years. Since 2017 Iran has been actively assisting Syria in expanding the Masyaf operation, resuming the manufacture of chemical weapons and moving more of that to underground bunkers that are resistant to airstrikes. The recent attacks destroyed all the entrances to the underground facilities and apparently collapsed some of the underground spaces. Israel makes it clear that such attacks will continue as long as Syria and its patron Iran try to attack Israel and openly call for the destruction of Israel.

It was later revealed that the defense of Masyaf included at least S300 Russian air defense missile being fired at the Israeli aircraft. The S300 missile was ineffective.

May 11, 2022: In the south (Quneitra province) an Israeli airstrike and artillery fire hit Iranian forces preparing to fire on Israel. When Iran-backed forces move too close to the Israeli border they are attacked.

May 10, 2022: In the northwest (Idlib province) HTS Islamic terrorists used ATGM (anti-tank guided missiles) to kill fifteen Syrian soldiers travelling by road near the front line. The Syrians and Turks often use artillery to attack HTS forces in the area. The artillery fire often continued for several hours forcing HTS members to take shelter. The fighting was about who controls territory in the province and has been going on for years in Idlib as well as Aleppo province, which is adjacent to Idlib province. The Turks are advancing from the north and the Syrians from the south.

May 8, 2022: Syrian leader Bashar Assad made an unannounced visit to Iran, apparently to negotiate how Syria and Iran would take over Russian bases, and some Russian equipment left behind. Most Russian ground forces in Syria are returning to Russia because of the war in Ukraine, which the Russian are losing. These Russian troops consist of special operations forces, military advisers and tech support personnel who help maintain Russian weapons used by Syria. The departing Russian troops are first moved to a Russian controlled airbase near the Mediterranean coast and then flown back to Russia. Some of the abandoned bases were transferred to Iranian control and used by Iran-backed militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran is one of the few countries that support the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has even sent the Russians some weapons via the Caspian Sea, which Russia and Iran border. The Assad visit was announced after he left Iran to return to Syria.

The Assads are more cooperative when it comes to foreign aid, which is largely supplied by everyone, including oil-rich Gulf Arabs. Russia and Iran are less useful when it comes to foreign aid because these two countries are suffering from heavy economic sanctions for their support of terrorism and attacks on neighbors. The Assads keep their Russian and Iranian allies informed of their aid arrangements with countries that see Russian and Iran as enemies.

May 6, 2022: In the east (Homs province) ISIL and Syrian forces continue fighting near the American controlled crossing at Tanf (or Tanaf) near the Jordan and Iraq borders. The American forces have the support of some Syrian Sunni tribes that are not friendly to the Assads. In addition, the Americans have some allies on the Iraqi (Anbar province) side of the border from other Sunni Arab tribes. Iran assisted (with its mercenaries) Assad forces in trying to eliminate the Tanf base but these efforts have failed. The Americans have too much airpower and too much aerial and ground surveillance around Tanf. The U.S. has declared a “free fire” zone that means any Assad/Iranian forces getting within 30 kilometers of Tanf are automatically attacked. Iranian and Assad forces rarely test this free fire zone. Most of this border area is now back under Syrian administrative control and Syrian ground forces along with Russian and American air strikes attack ISIL forces operating in the area. Small groups of ISIL gunmen ambush Syrian troops and terrorize local civilians into tolerating the ISIL presence.

April 23, 2022: Turkey closed its airspace to Russian civilian and military aircraft that are ferrying ammunition, war material and troops to Syria. President Erdogan personally phoned Russian President Vladimir Putin and informed him of the decision. The official excuse for this move was an “expired license” for overflight rights.

April 12, 2022: Russia has appointed four- star general Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, a veteran of operations in Syria, as the first commander of all operations in Ukraine. Previously all Ukrainian operations were commanded by Stavka (the Russian General Staff) and civilian officials in Moscow. Dvornikov apparently is free to do whatever it takes to turn the defeats in Ukraine into a victory. Dvornikov was the first commander (for a year) of Russian forces that entered Syria in 2015 to rescue their long-time Middle Eastern ally the Assad clan, which was a large and loyal customer for Russian weapons. A major insurrection against the Assads began in 2012 and by 2015 they were facing defeat. Dvornikov noted that one Assad tactic seemed to work was attacking pro-rebel civilians with artillery and air strikes in order to compel migration to neighboring countries. Dvornikov helped with that while also bringing in tech support to rebuild heavily used Russian tanks and artillery and supply ammunition. Russian special operations troops and aerial surveillance aircraft were brought in to find and attack the Islamic terror groups that now dominated the rebel forces. For his achievements in Syria Dvornikov was put on the fast track for promotions and key defense jobs. This included the command of all forces in Ukraine. Suddenly there were more Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilians even though Dvornikov realized that Ukraine was a lot different from Syria. There was no beleaguered Assad government nor were their many Ukrainians who supported the Russian invasion. While the Assads received more Russian weapons, the Ukrainians were not only producing superior versions of Russian weapons but receiving huge quantities of Western weapons from NATO nations that border Ukraine. Dvornikov supported the shift of Russian forces from northern Ukraine, where most Russian units suffered heavy casualties and were stalled, to eastern Ukraine. Here they were to take part in a major offensive to expand Russian control of Donbas and gain control of the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast. The offensive stalled and by the end of April Russian forces were being pushed back and local partisan groups were appearing in many areas that Russia technically controlled. Dvornikov reported that more unified and effective resistance by locals and the poor quality of the troops he was sent made it unlikely that he could deliver a victory. In Syria, Dvornikov had the most effective and enthusiastic Russian troops available, including special operations forces, many of them training and advising dispirited Syrian troops. Russian pilots were eager to serve in Syria where the targets were numerous and unable to shoot back. The air was free of hostile warplanes. Ukraine was very different and Dvornikov was following orders and trying to come up with a plan that would enable Russia to hold on to some Ukrainian territory and thus claim a victory. So far, the Ukrainians are defeating every new plan Dvornikov comes up with. This is partially due to the declining capabilities of Russian troops who have suffered nothing but defeat for 90 days and are less enthusiastic about staying in Ukraine.

April 9, 2022: In northwestern Syria (Hama province) Israeli air-strikes hit five targets associated with Iranian missile assembly and storage operations. Structures were destroyed and some Iranians or Iranian mercenaries were killed. One of the targets was near the main Syrian research center for advanced weapons at Masyaf. This is the eighth day with Israeli airstrikes in 2022. These airstrikes have destroyed a lot of weapons and structures as well as twelve military personnel and wounded at least 19. The attacks are usually made at night to minimize casualties and enhance surprise.

 

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