In the northeast (Hasaka province) American and Kurdish SDF forces are still processing the results of a week-long counterterrorism operation in the al Hol refugee camp. The week-long search ended five days ago and the processing of prisoners and data will go on much longer. About 5,000 armed personnel were used to conduct a tent-by-tent search of the al-Hol camp and its residents. The search force was about ten times the size of the usual SDF security force in the camp. The search was for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and gangster personnel hiding in the camp. The operation resulted in 125 arrests and seized weapons and illegal drugs as well as paper and electronic documents (from laptops and cellphones). Five ISIL mid and high lever leaders were arrested and several others managed to get out of the camp once the lockdown and search began.
Of particular interest was the ISIL intimidation force inside al Hol, which was responsible for several dozen assassinations and many death threats so far this year as part of the ISIL program to maintain control of the camp. Several of the intimidators were arrested. The identities of the intimidators were widely known in the camps because most of the time they were just threatening camp residents, resorting to violence (a beating or murder) against those who did not do what ISIL demanded of them
Since 2018 the SDF has been maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL fighters and their families. The SDF kept pointing out that without some help in dealing with the growing number of these captives the situation would get out of control. By 2019 the SDF had over 50,000 prisoners held in a large refugee/prison camp and various governments were asked to verify who was a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. That process was slower than expected. There are still over 40,000 of these prisoners at the al Hol camp. Many of the ISIL wives are obviously still active ISIL members and many were caught smuggling weapons into the camp when they were searched before entering. These ISIL women are terrorizing other camp residents and seeking to intimidate the camp guards. The Kurds needed help paying for the camp and wanted the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. All of the camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them that is unclear. In 2019 the ISIL leader released an audio message in which he urged all ISIL members to assist in getting the ISIL men, wives and children out of the SDF camps. Efforts to attack the camp to enable a mass escape have so far failed. ISIL did not want the camp destroyed because they had come to use the camp as a base for some of their key support operations, like managing the millions of dollars in cash and assets ISIL still holds in Syria and elsewhere. ISIL also makes money by smuggling people and goods in and out of Syria. This use of a refugee camp is quite common in areas where war has generated a lot of refugees and refugee camps are established to sustain the dispossessed. It has long been known that local gangsters or members of the armed factions causing all the death and destruction, will eventually become a presence in the camps.
In the north the Turks have ordered their Syrian mercenaries to increase attacks on Kurdish forces near the border. The heaviest attacks have been in Aleppo province, the most populous of the fourteen provinces with over 20 percent of the population. There is a lot less population to the east in Raqqa province and east of that is Kurdish majority Hasaka province. These two provinces are where Kurdish, Russian, American/NATO and Syrian forces try to coordinate operations against ISIL. Turkey sees more opportunities and less resistance in Aleppo and its western neighbor Idlib province.
Turkey has other distractions. They are having problems with its Syrian Arab mercenaries in Syria and in Libya. The mercs are angry over Turkish policies in Syria, where the Turks are not helping much to achieve an end to the ten-year-old civil war there. The Syrian mercs are literally in it for the money, which the Turks provide on time. But when it comes to peace in Syria, the Turks are unsure because Turkish goals in Syria are more about Turkey than Syria.
The current (since 2000) Turkish government is “Islamic” and increasingly unpopular with Turkish voters. This government is facing reverses in upcoming Turkish elections and many Turks fear their government will rig the elections to remain in power and get Turkey involved in more foreign wars. These are unpopular with most Turks, which is why the Turks do most of their fighting in Syria, Libya and elsewhere with mercenaries. The Turks are increasingly the main obstacle to units and peace in Libya, as well as Syria and elsewhere.
April 7, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed an Iranian ammunition storage sites, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city. Four soldiers were wounded. The airstrike was apparently launched from aircraft in Lebanon and the Israeli Golan Heights, where they launched their air-to-ground missiles.
April 6, 2021: In the west (Hama province) ISIL attacked a town and in addition to looting the place, kidnapped over 60 civilians. The kidnappings and threats of more are a means to intimidate local civilians into supporting, or at least tolerating the ISIL presence in the area and not informing security forces about what the Islamic terrorists are up to. At the moment most ISIL factions in eastern Syria are just trying to survive relentless air and ground attacks. So far they are succeeding.
April 5, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), Russian airstrikes and aerial recon missions continue, especially in the Mayadeen Desert, a thinly populated region near the more populous Euphrates River Valley. The largest town in the area is called Mayadeen as is the largest military base. Since 2018 Deir Ezzor province has been the scene of a multi-sided battle between ISIL, SDF (Syrian Kurds), Syrian army, Iranian and Russian mercenaries as well as smaller numbers of Russian special operations troops and lots of Russian warplanes overhead. For about a year now the Russians have been are using a combination of special operations troops, military contractors and Syrian mercenaries. The Syrian mercs on the Russian payroll include at least one unit comprised of Palestinian refugees, who have lived in Syria for decades. When the civil War began in 2011 most of the Palestinians sided with the rebels, a betrayal the Assads, their long-time host and protector, was understandably bitter about. Signing up as Russian mercs was a way for Syria based refugees to win back the trust of the Assads.
To simplify a bit, in Deir Ezzor it’s ISIL versus everyone. ISIL survives because it still has access to millions in cash it stole during 2014-17 when the Islamic terrorist groups controlled much of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Another ISIL asset is that Sunni Arabs are the majority in Deir Ezzor and most of eastern Syria. These Sunni Arabs have been ruled since the 1970s by the Assad clan, a Shia group that maintained power using a combination of terror for those who resisted and relative freedom and prosperity for those who cooperated. The Assads were also rather secular and wore their Islamic religion lightly. The Assads allied themselves with Shia Iran in the 1980s. While Iran had become a religious dictatorship, they had few allies in the region and gaining the loyalty of Assad Syria was seen a major win. The Assad’s secular ways were tolerated as long as they remained loyal to Iran and in control of Syria. Most Syrian Arab Sunnis are disillusioned with ISIL but some are will willing to support these extreme Islamic terrorists.
The fighting in Deir Ezzor is more about ISIL surviving and gaining media attention. Over the last two years there have been about a hundred deaths a month because of ISIL activity in eastern Syria, mainly in Deir Ezzor and the Mayadeen Desert. The Islamic terrorists suffer most from American and Russian airstrikes. The Russians supply the most airstrikes, as many as seventy or more a day for days at a time. The Syrian air force is still active put delivers about at tenth of as many airstrikes as the Russians. The American airstrikes are more selective, concentrating on key ISIL leaders and technical specialists. There is some cooperation between the Americans and Russians in eastern Syria, but no one will admit to how much.
There are not enough Syrian or Russian troops on the ground to go looking for ISIL hideouts in the hill caves or with rural villagers who have been terrorized into tolerating the Islamic terrorist presence. Most of the military aircraft activity is about reconnaissance and surveillance plus moving troops and supplies by air. On the ground ISIL also spends most of its time gathering information on hostile ground forces, manly the Syrian or local militia forces. The Syrian troops, suffering from low morale because of a decade of fighting, are the most vulnerable to ISIL surprise attacks. These attacks are the most certain to gain media attention, which helps keep the new recruits and other support coming. While ISIL suffers losses from all this activity, their losses account for only about 35 percent of the people killed every month in the east. The casualties in the war with ISIL currently account for about a quarter of the nationwide deaths, which are nearly 5,000 a year now. The deaths have been declining in Syria over the last five years. The total for the last decade is nearly half a million. During the first five years the losses were much heavier, sometimes reaching a thousand or more dead a week for months on end. Now deaths are down to about a hundred a week. In other words, nationwide casualties are now between 20 and 25 percent what there were during the early years. A lot of the deaths are assassinations or executions by Islamic terrorists in Idlib or elsewhere as well as by the Syrian security forces. The “Assad Method” for restoring order depends on the usual suspects being arrested, tortured for information and then ”disappeared”. The many enemies of the Assads remaining in Syria fight back using similar tactics. In many parts of Syria it is very dangerous to be working for the Assad government.
The Iranians are still in Syria, but in reduced numbers because of cash crisis back home. The Iranian mercs and their IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) supervisors are more concerned with establishing a military presence near the Israeli border and carry out terror attacks via the use of missiles or rockets. So far this has proved slow going and expensive. The Israeli airstrikes regularly hit weapons shipments from Iran and secret Iranian bases. Israel has more friends in Syria than Iran does in Israel, or Syria for that matter. Israel is not alone in wanting the Iranians to just go home. That sentiment is shared by many Syrians, Lebanese, Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, Russians and Americans.
April 3, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) there continues to be a lot of rocket and artillery fire in the southern Idlib “de-escalation zone” where such attacks are technically forbidden. This zone is near the main Russian Hmeimim airbase in neighboring Latakia province. 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. For years Syrian forces used artillery against Idlib Islamic terrorist bases identified Russian aerial reconnaissance. Recently Russia has reinforced the security around Hmeimim airbase by bringing in an FSB (former KGB) border surveillance aircraft and a detachment of Hezbollah gunmen to increase ground patrol around the base.
The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib are losing control of their half of Idlib province. This bothers the Turks the most because that means there is no one group to negotiate with. It also means Idlib will become so chaotic that it can no longer defend itself. Turks, Syrians and Russians can move in a take possession of an area populated by thousands of Islamic terrorists. their families and remaining supporters. Not what you would describe as a victory, but then nothing in Syria is.
April 2, 2021: Syria and Russia signed a long-promised deal for two Russian companies to explore offshore Syrian waters for oil and natural gas. There are already large natural gas deposits being extracted by Israel in an offshore near the Lebanese border. It turns out that these large deposits of natural gas, because of new exploration tech, can be found offshore (and a few on shore) throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, especially coastal areas from Egypt to Greece. This has caused a growing number of disputes about exactly where the maritime borders are and who actually owns which offshore area. The two Russian exploration firms were assigned areas near the Lebanese border and Lebanon has already disputed the Syrian interpretation of the maritime border. Russia and Syria signed the original offshore exploration agreement in 2013 based on the huge proven (with exploratory drilling) fields found and being developed off northern Israel. One reason Russia intervened militarily in Syria during 2015 was to protect their exploration rights off Syria. Israel has confirmed that its offshore natural gas wealth off the coast was enormous and keeps getting better.
In late 2014 Israel announced a third major natural gas discovery off their coast. This one was worth over $100 billion dollars. The two previous ones were worth over a trillion dollars. By 2918 Israel found that their natural gas fields were actually 14 percent larger than earlier estimated. These discoveries make Israel largely energy independent and a major exporter of natural gas. This is a recent development as serious exploration for natural gas off the Israeli coast only got started in the late 90s and since then more and more natural gas has been found offshore in the eastern Mediterranean, from Lebanon to Egypt. Israeli commercial production began in 2013 with the completion of pipelines extending 150 kilometers offshore. Israeli GDP was continuing to grow without the natural gas discoveries but with the natural Israel becomes largely energy independent and an energy exporter as well. Israel went on to signs long-term natural gas export deals with Jordan and Egypt worth nearly $20 billion.
Syria is hoping for a trillion-dollar natural gas bonanza offshore. The Russians firms will earn billions if they find that gas and supervise the drilling and construction of infrastructure to extract, store and distribute, inside Syria and to export customers, the natural gas. Having Russia as a partner in this means Russia has something worth fighting for in the eastern Mediterranean and Syria. This offshore natural gas wealth is another reason why Russia maintains good relations with Israel, even if that angers Iran and Turkey.
March 31, 2021: In the south, in Sweida and Quentera provinces along the Israeli and Jordan borders the Iranian presence has become visibly unpopular. Anti-Iran graffiti is showing up in border villages. The main complaint is the Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah mercenaries. Iran has tolerated Hezbollah raising money by distributing illegal drugs. This is something Hezbollah has done in Lebanon and other countries for decades. This, and large annual Iranian subsidies, have paid for Hezbollah becoming the most powerful armed group in Lebanon and de-facto ruler of southern Lebanon. The drug business has made Hezbollah unpopular with most Lebanese and people in the many countries where Hezbollah is active in the drug trade. This includes some African and South American countries as well as the United States and Canada.
March 21, 2021: In the north (Idlib and Aleppo provinces) several large missiles hit Islamic terrorist locations. The impact explosions were similar to those caused by earlier use of Russian air or ship launched cruise missiles or some of the larger guided rockets Russia has positioned inside their airbase near the Mediterranean coast.
March 16, 2021: In southern Syria (Damascus) an Israeli airstrike near the Damascus airport destroyed two Iranian ammunition storage sites, setting off large secondary explosions and fires which were visible from the city.
March 9, 2021: The fighting in Syria has been going on for ten years and there is no end in sight as long as Iran continues to use Syria as a staging area for a direct attack on Israel. This has turned Iran into the widely accepted bad guy in Syria. This was something Iran sought to avoid but Iran’s “allies” Russia, Turkey and the Assads are all working against Iran. Popular opinion and governments in Iraq and Lebanon are now actively hostile towards Iran. Back home most Iranians see the Syrian War as a disaster for them. The cost of the war is pushing more Iranians into poverty and the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s considers the destruction of Israel as worth any cost. Most Iranians, and everyone in the region, disagrees with this. The Iranian leadership is not dissuaded because they are on a Mission From God which means no earthly power can interfere. This will not end well.
Israel is quietly working on a peace deal with the Assads by first consulting Russia, Turkey and the Arab nations Israel has diplomatic relations with. If Israel can achieve a consensus on how to offer and deliver the the Assads a workable peace deal, Iran could be driven out of Syria. Israel and the Assads have been, since the 1970s willing to leave each other alone and make mutually acceptable deals. The Assads would often threaten another war with Israel but did not pose as determined a threat as Iran. The Assads became allies of and dependent on Iran in the 1980s, mainly for protection from chaos in Iraq and Lebanon. In return the Assads had to at least pretend to support the Iranian obsession with destroying Israel. The Assads knew better but until the Assad police state failed in 2011 and a rebellion got going, the Assads were unable to resist Iranian presence and control of Syria.
The UN is also involved in this stealthy peace effort because Iranian interference has blocked the UN effort to create a new constitution for Syria that would assist efforts to end the civil war. The Assads are also hostile to the new constitution which would mean national elections monitored by the UN. The Assads cannot afford to lose control of the government because that would make them more vulnerable to arrest and prosecution for war crimes. The accusations continue to pile up against the Assads, which always treated Syrians who opposed them with brutality and terror. So far this year, over a hundred Syrians a month get arrested and brutally interrogated, or simply murdered, by the Assad security forces. Yet doing business with Iran can also be fatal for the Assads.
March 14, 2021: This month marks the 66th month Russian forces have been in Syria. Russian intervention, added to the earlier Iranian assistance, enabled the Assad government to survive what at first appeared to be almost certain defeat. In those 66 months Russia also negotiated treaties with the Assad government to obtain Russian use of a major airbase and part of one of Syria’s Mediterranean ports. Russia pays modest rent for these bases, because the Assads want Russian forces present in the long term to keep the Assads in power. Russia is also assisting the Assads in persuading the Turks, Iranians and Americans to pull their forces out of Syria and for a long-term peace deal with Israel. That last bit depends on getting the Iranians to leave. Once, and if, that happens it becomes a lot easier to negotiate the departure of Turks and Americans, leaving the Russians as the only legal foreign troops in Syria. Until all this happens, the civil war is not really over and currently Russia carries out lots of airstrikes on the remaining ISIL and al Qaeda forces in the country and operates joint patrols with Turkish, American and Syrian forces, especially in eastern Syria where ISIL is still active.
Russian forces are also active in Libya, Armenia and, as military contractors, in Africa. The Armenian deployment proved effective recently when it played a role is halting the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan and working out a peace deal acceptable to both combatants.
March 13, 2021: In the east (Raqqa province) Russian troops forced Iran-backed militias out of two small oil/natural gas fields. These two fields have been largely shut down since 2011 and are being brought back into production. Together the two locations produce about 6,000 barrels of oil a day and similar amounts of natural gas. The Kurds control most of the active oil/natural gas fields in eastern Syria. The Kurds depend on the U.S. to supply air support and other assistance to hold on to their oil/natural gas resources.