Russia is currently the best friend the Assads have. But that is not enough. As much as the Assads want Iranian forces out of Syria that is not going to happen unless the Iranians decide to leave. At the moment the Iranians are reinforcing their presence, despite growing problems back home. Turkey is seen as a foreign invader by the Syrians while Iran is appreciated for all its help in defeating the rebels but resented for trying to turn Syria into an extension of Iran rather than treating Syria as a sovereign nation. Syria cannot ignore Iran because the Iranians still have a large force of mercenaries in the country. Asking the Iranians or Turks to leave is not really an option.
The Syrian War has been difficult for Russia because of their need to maintain good relations with Israel. There are very practical reasons for that. So far Israel has regularly demonstrated it can shut down (permanently with bombs or temporarily with countermeasures) Syrian air defense systems. The Israelis don’t destroy all the Syrian air defense systems because that would be expensive and Israel only needs to shut down systems that attempt to interfere with Israeli airstrikes or surveillance missions. This approach intimidates the Syrians and Russians and anyone else using Russian air defense systems. The Israeli policy is to avoid damaging Russian air defense systems as long as Russia does not try to interfere with Israeli air operations. One reason Russia is exasperated with Iran is because the Iranians fail to appreciate the technical and military superiority the Israelis have when it comes to air defenses and how to defeat them. The Russians are being practical while the Iranians are believing their own press releases.
Iran is not without allies in the region. In Lebanon there is Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia that was created in the early 1980s. Hezbollah has been increasingly dependent on Iranian cash subsidies to maintain itself. Somewhat abruptly, in 2019, those cash subsidies were cut in half. The main reason for this is Iran is broke. The 2019 financial aid cuts have cost Hezbollah over $30 million a month and Iran warns that it is liable to get worse. As of May 2019 this has caused massive pay and benefits reductions to Hezbollah members and families of Hezbollah members killed in Syria since 2012. These survivor payments have been cut in half and the several thousand families involved are not taking this quietly. That’s because of the Hezbollah participation in Syria fighting to keep the Iran backed Assad dictatorship alive. This was never popular with most Hezbollah members and even less popular with Lebanese in general. Thousands of Hezbollah employees have had their pay cut and all this has triggered a very visible economic recession in southern Lebanon, which Hezbollah dominates the local government and economy.
Syrians opposed to the Assads, or just the Iranian influence, still exist in Syria and quietly observe what the Iranians are up to and get that information out of the country for the rest of the world to see. One of the latest revelations are the locations of remaining Iranian stockpiles of Iranian missiles. This includes small anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems as well as mobile Fateh-110 ballistic missiles and their transports. Some of these have been quietly moved to areas that Israel had previously bombed. Most of these new storage sites are i n eastern Syria (Homs province) at the previously bombed T4 airbase as well as some new sites. Syria warned Iran that such stockpiles, so close to Israel, would be destroyed if discovered. New deliveries of Iranian flown into T4 are being hit with Israeli airstrikes, including some new UAVs that arrived in May and June.
Most Lebanese are hostile to more Iranian presence in Lebanon and Syria but Hezbollah continues to exercise a veto over any Lebanese government moves to curb Hezbollah or Iranian activity in Lebanon. Israel does not want war with Lebanon but the Hezbollah political power, backed by the Iranian threat, prevents the Lebanese majority from acting against Iranian and Hezbollah threats to Israel. If Hezbollah does get involved in another war with Israel (as happened in 2006), all of Lebanon will suffer, as it did in 2006 and as Israel assures Lebanon it will in any future war. At this point Lebanon and Israel see another Hezbollah war less likely. That is because Hezbollah has tarnished its reputation as “the defender of Lebanon” by fighting to keep the hated (by most Lebanese) Assads in power next door. The Assads have never been a friend of Lebanon and regularly mention that Lebanon is really part of “Greater Syria” and an artificial creation of the French and British who reorganized this area in the 1920s once they drove the Turks out. The Assads were responsible for creating and driving two million Sunni Arab Syrian refugees into Lebanon. Half of those refugees are registered (with the UN) but the other half are illegals and inclined to stay if the Assads remain in control of Syria. If the Syrian refugees remain in Lebanon that will weaken Hezbollah. Those two million Syrian refugees are a huge presence in a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems that radically changes the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination of 47 percent Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation because if the Sunnis are nearly half the population. That is because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis since 2011. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions (especially Christians) to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. But even those allies are abandoning Hezbollah, which, along with its patron Iran. Hezbollah leaders fear that this will not end well for them, their organization and Lebanese Shia. After decades of bullying the other minorities in Lebanon the tables have turned and by Hezbollah reckoning that will not end well for Hezbollah.
Turkish troops entered Syria in 2016 in an effort to keep terrorists away from the border. This invasion only involved a few thousand Turkish troops, on both sides of the border. Most of the fighting was done by the local Turk-backed FSA (secular Free Syrian Army rebels). What the Turks do want is to get the Kurds, especially YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist) forces, away from the Turkish border. Going much further than 20 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy. Turkey wanted to use over 10,000 FSA fighters against the Kurds, along with Turkish tanks, artillery and air power. That offensive has been postponed indefinitely by the U.S.-backed SDF which controls northeast Syria ( Hasaka provi nce and parts of Deir Ezzor province to the south). The Syrian Kurds appear to be cooperating with the Turks in that there has not been any evidence the YPG (Syrian Kurd separatists) working with their Turkish counterparts (PKK, which currently at war with Turkey). The Turks see that as temporary because the Turks have a long and violent history with the YPG.
The Turks only administer about 4,000 square kilometers (1,500 square miles) of Syria. This area contains about 600,000 people who are government by local “councils” which are recognized by the Syrian government. Turkey indirectly controls (or contains) Idlib province which has over two million Syrians. Half of them are refugees from elsewhere and this populations contains over 20,000 armed rebels (most of the Islamic terrorists). In addition to the nearly three million Syrians in Idlib and the border zone there are also nearly four million Syrian refugees in Turkey. This includes 400,000 children born to refugees since 2011. The Turks are encouraging the revival of the local economy in their zone as a way to entice Syrians in Turkey to return home. So far over 300,000 Syrians have returned from Turkey to Syria.
While the economy in the Turkish zone is flourishing, Idlib is more of a war zone with Russian-backed Syrian forces attacking and, in effect, trying to trigger a mass movement of civilians towards and across the Turkish border. So far at least 300,000 Idlib civilians have fled their homes and headed north to escape the Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery fire. The Turks have kept these Syrians out of Turkey so far but that becomes more difficult as more refugees flee towards Turkey. The Turks are blocking access to the border and pressuring, without much success, Russia and the Syrians to suspend their offensive. Liberating Idlib from rebel control is a big deal for the Syrian government as it is the last rebel controlled part of Syria. The Turks and Kurds are willing to negotiate, the remaining rebels are not.
The Turks have reputation for patience and prudence, backed by their powerful military. This is the basis of their current operations in Syria and takes advantage of the fact that the local population along the border has a favorable attitude towards Turkey because it has long been obvious to these Syrians that Turkey was more peaceful and prosperous than Assad ruled Syria. Many of the Turks on the other side of the border are ethnic Arabs who are seen as fortunate to have been on the Turkish side of the border when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 and the borders of modern Turkey were established in the early 1920s. That meant millions of Arabs were finally free of centuries of Turkish imperial rule. The post-empire Arab governments turned out to be less effective than the Turkish imperial rule and the last eight years of civil war in Syria was just the latest reminder. Arabs and Turks agree, for different reasons, that there will be no more Turkish rule in Arab state. But commercial connections are welcome and that seems to be what the Turks are concentrating on. One thing the Turks leaned during those centuries of administering much of the Arab world is that ruling Arabs was a difficult and expensive undertaking they do not want to repeat.
In early May Iran resumed smuggling oil to Syria and has sent five large tankers of Iranian oil so far. The Americans have not been able to halt these oil shipments because someone (Syrians, Iranians or Russians) has persuaded Egypt to allow tankers with (so far) five million barrels of Iranian oil for Syria to pass through the Suez Canal. That oil is worth several hundred million dollars. The Americans have a hard time interfering by going after money because Iran does not sell this oil to Assads but provides it as part of the economic air Iran has provided since the civil war began in 2012. Some of the tankers are Iranian but some are not and are hired by a Syrian businessman. These Syrian businessmen apparently arrange cashless deals that are basically barter, to pay for the use of foreign tankers. Egypt cooperated with the American during the first four months of 2019 and blocked Iranian tankers headed for Syria from using the canal. Iran resorted to smuggling oil in via truck from Iran to Syria but this is not sufficient to make up for the deliveries via seagoing tankers.
Law And Disorder
The Assad government has rebuilt its military but not its national police and ability to administer local affairs. Local security and administration has been left to “local councils” that are elected locals or, increasingly, officials selected by local militia leaders. The local militias ns councils are legal but only loosely monitored and supervised by the central government. That is a task the military will help with once Idlib is conquered and some kind of peace deal is negotiated with the Kurds. A growing number of those local governments are suffering from rampant corruption that is often tolerated to enrich the local militia leaders. The longer this is allowed to fester the longer it will take to sort it out eventually. This is a major reason the Assads are in a hurry to deal with Idlib. The local disorder is often made very newsworthy when it involves clashes between Syrian militias clashing with Russian forces or Iranian mercenaries.
June 20, 2019: In eastern Syria ( Deir Ezzor province) ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is still active, especially in its former capital of Raqqa. There are two reasons for that. First, ISIL is no longer trying to control territory but rather carry out terror attacks against the “occupiers.” ISIL depicts the SDF as a Kurdish group trying to rule over Sunni Arab native to the area. Kurds are also Sunni but Arabs see them as alien because Kurds are Indo-European (like Iranians, Indians and Europeans). Local Arab tribes joined the SDF to eliminate the harsh ISIL rule and now many of these Arab SDF members are going back to their tribes leaving the SDF more Kurdish than ever. ISIL concentrates its terror attacks on Kurds and the SDF doesn’t have the manpower to provide the kind of security in Deir Ezzor province that they do to the north, in Kurdish majority Hasaka province. Deir Ezzor province has always been largely Arab and until 2017 largely controlled by ISIL. The SDF is also suffering from a reduction of American military support.
These SDF problems have made it possible for the Iranian “land-line” from Iran to Syria and Lebanon to actually operate. But this Iran to Lebanon highway currently uses a lot of detours and is subject to ambush and air attack. At the moment the major obstacle is the American controlled crossing in eastern Syria (Homs province) 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 effort 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.
June 19, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) fighting between Syrian troops and Islamic terrorists has been particularly intense during the last week, with over 500 casualties and as many as 200 dead. This occurred despite a ceasefire that is supposed to be calming things down.
June 15, 2019: In the south (outside Damascus) there were some large explosions after dark in an area controlled by Iran. This appears to have been another Israeli airstrike.
In western Syria Iran has built a small airfield next to the Lebanese border. One feature of this new airfield are tunnels leading from the airport to the other side of the border. Iran is apparently trying to take advantage of the fact that Israel is reluctant to bomb Iranian facilities in Lebanon. Even Hezbollah tends to be immune to airstrikes in Lebanon unless Hezbollah has been caught attacking Israel.
June 14, 2019: In the west (the port of Tartus) two Russian amphibious ships arrived, apparently with reinforcements (combat vehicles) for Russian forces in Syria.
June 13, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province), near the Turkish border someone fired on a Turkish observation post, wounding three Turkish soldiers. Turkey blamed nearby Syrian army forces and demanded something be done. Russia said the attackers were Islamic terrorist rebels and Russia gave the Turks the location of where Russian was carrying out air strikes to hit the rebels responsible. Russia said Turkey had actually asked them to do this. Turkey let that slide because of greater concern for how Russia was not doing anything to stop Syrian air strikes on areas that were supposed to exempt because of ceasefire agreements. Turkey refuses to accept Russian explanations that they cannot control the Assads. Turkey is probably right but also wrong. The Russians don’t want to get into a major dispute with Iran, which is urging the Assads to be more aggressive in Idlib. While Russia provides vital assistance to the Assads, Iran supplies more assistance and has been doing it for longer.
June 12, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Russia and Turkey managed to persuade Syrian forces and Islamic terrorist factions to accept another ceasefire. This only applies the “de-escalation” zones established in early 2017 by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government to as a ploy (according to the Idlib Islamic terrorists) to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces. By the terms of this the zones would be “no-fly” zones for all aircraft except those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. The Assads and their supporters (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would establish checkpoints around the zones to control ground access. This would, in theory, allow emergency aid to get in (or be blocked) and eliminate air attacks on civilians. But the rebels pointed out that during previous ceasefire agreements the Russians and Assads ignored the terms and attacked rebels and civilians claiming they were reacting to rebel violence. In the case of the four de-escalation zones that’s exactly what happened. One aspect of the de-escalation zone agreement that was honored and that was safe passage arrangements for rebels and their civilian supporters who surrendered and were transported to Idlib province. This new ceasefire, like earlier ones, didn’t last long and within hours there were some violations. That was because the Russian and Syrian airstrikes are continuing, usually at civilians and Islamic terrorists close to the de-escalation zones. The airstrikes, and less frequent artillery (cannon and rockets) fire has been going on since April. There have been a lot of civilian casualties, because the Assads have found that attacking hostile civilians forces them to move and often leave the country. This is considered a war crime but that has never stopped the Assads, who have been using these tactics since the 1980s.
June 11, 2019: In the south (Golan Heights and the Israeli border) an Israeli airstrike hit targets on Tel al Hara, a 1,100 meter (3,500 foot) high hill (and extinct volcano) that is the highest point on either side of the border. Before the civil war Tel al Hara was the site of visual and electronic equipment for monitoring the Israeli side of the border. The Assads allowed Iran and Russia to set up equipment there. For most of time from 2012 to 2018 Tel al Hara was occupied by rebels affiliated with al Qaeda but willing to make deals with the Israelis to keep Russian and Iranian observers off the hill and provide Israel with copies of documents and pictures of the interior of the observation facilities the rebels captured. By 2018 rebels were driven away from Tel al Hara by Assad forces, with the help of another agreement with the Israelis. If the Assads kept the Iranians away from the hill, Israel would not attack. That agreement held for a while but eventually the Assads let Iran and Hezbollah back on the hill where the hill was used by Iran to gather information of attacks on Israel. Russia was unwilling to try and get the Iranians and Hezbollah removed but apparently had no objection to Israel attacking the hill. Israel implied that they would continue attacking the hill as long as their enemies were using the observation post to plan attacks.
June 9, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Iranian support for an offensive against the 20,000 or so Islamic terrorists trapped there has failed to make a difference, mainly because can no longer provide much infantry. Since late April Russian and Syrian airstrikes and artillery have forced over 300,000 Idlib civilians from their homes and killed over a thousand people (40 percent of them civilians). The Syrian and a few Iranian mercenaries gained some ground but not enough and in the last week the Islamic terrorists have been launching more counterattacks. The Turks have allowed military supplies to reach the Islamic terror groups in Idlib, with the understanding that this military aid would be used to halt the Syria-Iran efforts to destroy the Islamic terrorist control over most of the province. This is a win for the Turks, who do not want over a million desperate Idlib civilians trying to force their way into Turkey.
The main problem Syria has is a growing shortage of effective combat troops. The Syrians long depended on Iranian mercenaries to do the aggressive and dangerous ground fighting for them. But money shortages back in Iran have cut the budget for Iranian mercenaries and many mercenaries have been laid off and sent home. The Syrians have managed to keep the post effective militia units on the payroll. This selection process was aided by the Russians, whose military advisors and ground controllers (for calling in air strikes) advised on which militia units were most worth keeping.
Iranian efforts to bring in Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias to replace the unaffordable mercenaries has not worked. Iraq is reluctant to see pro-Iran Iraqi militiamen heavily involved in the Syria fighting. So is Israel, which will bomb any pro-Iran forces if they become a problem. In effect the Syrian army can no longer depend on Iran mercenaries to help out with the high-risk combat operations. Russia has stepped in and increased their training efforts for Syrian soldiers and has increased the effectiveness of Syrian artillery, armor and infantry units. This does reduce infantry casualties but is not as effective as using Iranian mercenaries, who tended to be fanatically aggressive and not discouraged by the risk of heavy casualties. Few Syrians have that kind of enthusiasm after nearly a decade of civil war. Worse, the Russian training program has only produced about 20,000 graduates so far. The training takes months and not all the trainees are successful. The training program remains popular because it does turn dispirited Syrians soldiers (veterans and conscripts alike) into capable and confident troops. But that confidence will only last as long as there are no heavy casualties. Meanwhile Iranian trainers and advisors are still working with the Syrian armed forces. The Russians are more popular but the Iranians can use their presence to retain control, or at least access, to key support operations (like intelligence) and headquarters.
June 8, 2019: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) Islamic terrorists counterattacked Assad forces that had taken Islamic terrorist positions on the border between Idlib and Hama province to the south. The fighting has lasted for at least three days and resulted in several hundred casualties (including about a hundred dead) equally split between the Syrian army and Islamic terrorist forces. The army had help from Russian advisors and ground controllers to call in air strikes and that enabled the soldiers to hang onto the ground they had gained and push the rebels back a little more.
June 6, 2019: In Syria Israeli air defense radar spotted several Syrian anti-aircraft missiles being launched towards the Israeli Golan Heights. The S-200 missiles were launched from outside Damascus and Syria was apparently hoping that these largely unguided (for a surface-to-surface attack) missiles would hit targets on the Israeli side of the border. That did not happen.
June 2, 2019: In Syria (Golan Heights) Israeli airstrikes against at least six Syrian and Iranian military targets was retaliation for two rockets fired from near Damascus into Israeli Golan Heights territory the day before. Israel acknowledged these airstrikes and openly declared that there would be more of them as long as Iran and Hezbollah threaten Israel. Israel also pointed out Iranian and Hezbollah attack have been ineffective because of Israeli defenses and Syria is unable to stop Israeli airstrikes and Israel intends to keep it that way. This sort of public criticism is very annoying to Iranian leaders, who cannot afford to be identified as weak and powerless, not with the growing internal unrest over poor economic performance and government corruption.
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another clash between an Iran-backed militia and a pro-Assad one. Heavy weapons were used and there was some street fighting. This caused over a dozen casualties before it was halted. Iranian forces, including IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel supervising pro-Iran militias from Syria and Iraq dominate the area and often keep Assad forces out.
Elsewhere in the northeast SDF controlled areas are seeing a revival of feuds by local Sunni Arab tribes. Now that the major fighting against ISIL is over the pro-SDF tribes are sometimes receiving help from SDF forces to settle (via negotiation or combat) these disputes. Usually SDF forces deliberately stay out of these fights, although sometimes the action is close enough that nearby SDF troops in outposts or checkpoints can observe the fighting. Many factions of the SDF are Arab, although the majority are Kurds.
May 29, 2019: In Lebanon the Hezbollah leader held a press conference in which he assured the world that Hezbollah would attack Israel if Israel attacked Iran. But right after that he announced, in Arabic, to a Lebanese audience that Hezbollah would never attack Israel unless Israel attacked Lebanon first. That is an important point for Hezbollah because since 2011 local support for Hezbollah has declined considerably. Hezbollah never had the support of the majority of Lebanese and maintained its political and economic power through the use of force, or they threat of that. Hezbollah has been responsible for the assassination of several prominent local politicians who opposed them and the Iranian influence in the country. The Hezbollah role in keeping the hated (by most Lebanese) Assad government in Syria in power hurt, as did the fact that the years of violence in Syria sent millions of refugees into Lebanon, where they were the cause of many problems. In 2006 Hezbollah attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers near the border led to a massive Israeli attack. Hezbollah blamed Israel but many Lebanese blamed Hezbollah for that short war and all the damage it did to Lebanon overall. The Lebanese government is still officially hostile to Israel and not critical of Hezbollah. But anyone who pays attention to public opinion, as Hezbollah leaders do, know that Hezbollah is more disliked and hated in Lebanon than ever before and any talk of starting a war with Israel is not well received in Lebanon. As a result Iran sees Hezbollah as much less useful. This is the fault of Iran, which insisted that thousands of Hezbollah fighters be sent to Syria to prop up the Assads. Iran paid for combat bonuses, medical care and life insurance for the Hezbollah gunmen but there was no way to buy the affection of all the Lebanese who wanted Hezbollah disbanded and Iran out of the region (Syria and Lebanon). Iran has cut its cash subsidies to Hezbollah by half, saying it was necessary because the Iranian economy was in bad shape. While that was true, the value of Hezbollah to Iran was in even worse shape not worth the $700 million a year Iran was paying to make Hezbollah worth the cost.