In the south (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 Daraa/Israel border area 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 uniform 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.
This 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.
The Turkish Front
In the north, Turkish border policy has made Turkey unpopular, unwanted, and diplomatically isolated. Most of the violence is in northwestern Idlib and northeastern Hasaka provinces. Russian airstrikes against the Syrian Islamic terrorist rebels concentrated in Idlib have been particularly frequent in November. The rebels are surrounded by Syrian troops in the south and Turkish forces in the north. Russia provides air support for the Syrian Army but not for the Turks, and often bombs Islamic terror groups facing the Turks because these rebels are close to Russian bases near the Mediterranean coast and continue to threaten those bases. Russian airstrikes often take place when Turkish forces are nearby and sometimes the Turks as well as the rebels suffer casualties. The Russians attribute these accidental attacks to difficulty positively identifying who is down there and the fact that most Russian bombs are unguided, but accurate enough, compared to GPS and laser guidance because modern FCS (fire control systems) can handle attacks on larger targets, like groups of hostile troops. Turkish armored vehicles are rarely attacked, but anyone in or near rebel territory is a potential target. A few Turkish troops and a lot of their Syrian mercenaries have been hurt and the Turks are sensing that Russians and Syrians (both Assad and Kurdish forces) all agree that the Turks should get out of Syria.
Turkey puts some of the blame for its unpopularity in Syria on the United States. 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 (Syrian Defense Forces) 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.
Although Israel has no ground forces in Syria, their frequent airstrikes against Iranian forces have made it necessary to develop good relations with nations with troops in Syria and a hostility to the presence of the Iranian or Turkish presence. Israel and Russia have a history of cooperation and that was used when Russia decided to intervene in 2015 to rescue the beleaguered Syrian Assad government. The Syrian civil war forced Israel and Russia to eventually become more open about their unofficial cooperation agreement in Syria. This included Russia taking more active measures to keep Iranian forces, especially the Hezbollah militia, away from the Israeli border. Russia agreed to establish a 10–20-kilometer buffer zone and enforce it. A key aspect of this was telling the Assad government that continued Russian assistance was contingent on the Assads cooperating with the Russians in keeping the Iranians away from the Israeli border. At the same time the Russians would continue tolerating Israeli air and missile strikes on Iranian weapons shipments moving from Syria to Lebanon for Hezbollah. Syria protested all this via the media but did little beyond that. Since 2019 it has become obvious that the Assad government was also cooperating with Israel. This was part of an effort to get the Assads free of Iranian control. That means the Assads needed a new protector and the Russians, Israelis and Arab Gulf States were willing to cooperate in making that happen.
Iran might still turn to their Plan B for dealing with the Assads if they became a liability. Plan B involves removing the Assads from power and putting some other clan in charge. There was no other clan with enough clout to make that work and the Assads deliberately eliminated or weakened rival clans to avoid any Iranian Plan B. Iran also recognized that the cozy relationship Russia had with Israel was more valuable to Russia than any deals it had or could have with Iran. Russia recognizes that Israel has the strongest economy in the region as well as being the most capable military power. Israel also has nuclear weapons. In 2018 Russian diplomats told Israel that Russia would support Israel if Iran attacked Israel directly. The Russians made it clear they did not want to fight the Israelis, especially when the Russians had much evidence that their most modern military equipment would not do well if there were clashes with Israel. It eventually became known that Israel would cancel or reschedule an airstrike at Russian request. This was usually because there were Russian troops in the target area and Israel, once informed, was able to divert that airstrike to another area in need of attention.
The Assads want the same deal but Russia and Israel agreed that this would only happen if Russia or Israel could confirm the situation. The Assads also had to understand that there were Syrians who wanted Israel destroyed along with the Assads and all foreigners in Syria. Israel and the Assads are still working out the details of their new agreement.
By 2019 Russia had treaties with the Assads that included a long-term lease for a major airbase and a smaller port facility in western Syria. Israel had no formal objections, apparently because this arrangement was made after consultations with Israel. Russia agreed to these treaties to give the Assads an opportunity to move away from its long dependence on Iran. As far as the Assads were concerned the Iranians were trying to turn Syria into something like Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia Iran helped create in the 1980s and has sustained ever since. That turned southern Lebanon into a region controlled by Hezbollah which, in turn, took orders from Iran rather than any Lebanese government. Israel had long sought to get Iran out of Lebanon and now most Lebanese agree are openly fighting with Hezbollah over the issue. Iran could not make Hezbollah irreplaceable in Lebanon but were able to sabotage the 1990 peace treaty that ended its fifteen-year civil war. Iran saw to it that the post 1990s Lebanon discouraged cooperation between minorities. This cooperative spirit had made Lebanon a political and economic success story after World War II. Iran did not want a return of a united, prosperous Lebanon and four three decades they got their way. Now Lebanon is descending into chaos, with most Lebanese blaming Iran.
The Assads agreed to informally make peace with Israel in an arrangement that would be monitored and enforced by Israel and Russia. Russia considers this a major achievement in Syria and most of the world will agree if the changes do not prompt Iran into starting a major war over it.
November 29, 2021: In the south (Suwayda province which borders Jordan) a Russian patrol arrived to distribute aid. They were met by locals protesting the Russian presence, even if was soldiers in armored vehicles delivering aid supplies. The locals are loyal to the Assads but fear that the Russians are looking for some of the many Syrian army deserters in the area. There are men who returned home and depend on family and local elders to protect them. The Russians left peacefully. The new governor of the province is related to the Assad family.
November 28, 2021: In the east (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces), Russian warplanes carried out over sixty air strikes in the last week against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets. Dozens of Islamic terrorists were killed and even more wounded. Some of the bombs set off secondary explosions indicating that a lot of ammo and fuel supplies were destroyed. So far this month there have been over 500 Russian airstrikes against ISIL in eastern Syria. Target information comes from many sources, including Syria, Kurds, Turkey, Israel, and the Americans.
In the north (Aleppo province) there has been more fighting between groups of Syrian mercenaries who want to leave Turkish service and fellow Syrian mercs who are following orders and trying to stop the desertions even if it means opening fire. For all the bullets used there appear to be few casualties. It does take the deserters longer to reach Assad controlled territory, where they are welcomed.
In neighboring Idlib province the Assads are using rocket fire and Russian air strikes to drive pro-rebel civilians out of their homes and north towards Turkish forces, where the Turks are building a new town closer the Turkish border and within the 30-kilometer security zone Turkey wants to establish on the Syrian side of the border where Syrian refugees in Turkey or residents of Idlib who will accept Turkish terms (no more support of rebels and keep the peace in the security zone). In return the Turks provide new housing and protection from attacks by the Assad forces or the Russians.
November 27, 2021: The SDF was the force mainly responsible for destroying ISIL control over eastern Syria by 2017. That means that the SDF is still trying to deal with the dark side of victory; what to do with captured ISIL members. A minority if the ISIL members were locals. There were enough Kurd and Arab members of SDF to determine which ISIL prisoners claiming to be locals who knew local tribal leaders who were anti-ISIL but could determine if someone from their tribe was really done with ISIL and could be released. SDF has already released several hundred of these local men, who often provided valuable information about how the remaining ISIL factions continue to operate. There are still 800 locals left in captivity and SDF and local tribes expect to get nearly all of them free within the next few months.
Since 2018 the SDF has been maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL fighters and their families. The SDF had to keep pointing to their allies that without some help in dealing with the huge number of ISIL captives they ended up with 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 50,000 of these prisoners at the al Hol camp, most of them women and children that no one wanted to take back. 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. Nearly all camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them it is unclear exactly where they come from. Some active ISIL terrorists are in the camps and are the source of much violence. Nearly a hundred prisoners were killed in al Hol this year and ISIL leadership keeps calling for members inside and outside the camps to cooperate to create a major uprising in the camps.
Any peace deal ending the ten-year-old Syrian civil war will probably involve the Assads inheriting the remaining prisoners in the Hol camp. If that happens the Assads will eventually announce that nearly all the prisoners have been taken care of. For the Assads that means some deniable mass-murder via executions and lack of food and medical care. The prospect of this happening gives nations where the women and children are from one last chance to take them back or be held accountable for what happens next.
November 24, 2021: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), near the Tanf /Walweed border crossing, four American guided rockets or missiles were fired from the American base near Tanf. The target was the camp of an Iran-backed militia responsible for recent attacks on the Tanf base. Syria, Russia and Iran all want the American Tanf base gone and their ground forces have tried to get close but are usually turned back by American airstrikes. Recent attacks used Iranian UAVs and rockets. The UAVs are used as cruise missiles, carrying explosives, and programmed to go to a GPS location, drop to the ground and explode. Iran has several local militias on the payroll that they use to carry out attacks. 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.
In central Syria (Homs province) an Israeli airstrike hit an Iranian facility, killing two and wounding at least a dozen people.
November 22, 2021: In central Syria (Homs province) Iranian forces are leaving the T4 airbase for the Shayrat airbase further south in Homs. Shayrat is considered safer for Iranian forces because it is regularly used by Russian aircraft and better defended than T4. The movement is being carried out using individual heavy trucks or small convoys of no more than five vehicles. At T4 the targets were the Iranian training areas and weapons warehouses. The Israeli attacks are launched from jets flying over the areas just outside Syria. Air-to-surface missiles are used and some are intercepted by Syrian S-200 SAMs (Surface-to-Air missiles) that have less success against Israeli fighters. The T4 airbase, near the ancient ruins of Palmyra, has been hit at least three times a year since 2018. T4 is the largest airbase in Syria and Iran has constantly built new structures for storing weapons and housing personnel, usually to replace buildings destroyed by the air strikes. T4 is where Iran moved its UAV operations in 2018 after its original UAV base in Syria was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.
In the north (Aleppo province) Turkish and Russian forces have resumed their joint patrols near the largely Kurdish town of Kobane (Kubani). This is an effort to reduce clashes between the Turkish and SDF forces.
November 15, 2021: In western Iraq (Anbar province) the border crossing at Iraqi Qaim/Syrian Bukamal (Deir Ezzor province) has, since 2011 been the scene of violence and currently Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias in Syria are suffering more airstrikes as Iranian warehouses they guard in Syria are attacked. In the last month the Shia militias in Syria have been busy moving Iranian weapons from warehouses to multiple storage sites to reduce the losses from these constant airstrikes. This imposes a higher workload on the Iraqi militiamen and they are vulnerable to attack by ISIL groups still in the area as well as Sunni tribesmen who are extremely hostile towards Shia in general and foreign Shia in particular,
This important border crossing was officially closed in 2012 as Syrian rebels battled the Syrian army for control. Possession changed hands several times but the area remained a combat zone and had not quieted down sufficiently until it could be declared officially reopened until 2019. The highway going through this crossing allows trucks to travel from Iran, through Iraq, across Syria and into Lebanon.
Iraqi militias loyal to Iran were increasingly common after the 2019 reopening. Less than a year later Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and several prominent Iraqi pro-Iran militia leaders were killed by an American UAV missile attack outside Baghdad. The road from Anbar to Lebanon was unofficially named the Soleimani Road or Highway and the Syrian side of the border became an increasingly dangerous place for Iraqi militias. In the last few months there has been at least one airstrike against Iraqi militia targets near the border crossing each week that were believed to be Israeli as the Israelis do not attack in Iraq, while the Americans will occasionally hit Iranian targets on the Iraqi side of this crossing in addition to the Syrian side.
November 14, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) an investigation by military intelligence resulted in the arrest of the senior ISIL logistics official for Anbar. Taking him alive was important because that provided an opportunity to gain more information about how the ISIL supply and financing system works. The arrested man was responsible for getting supplies and cash to ISIL camps out in the desert areas that comprise most of Anbar.
November 12, 2021: Responding to pressure from the EU, Turkey halted airline ticket sales to citizens of Iraq, Yemen and Syria who want to travel to Belarus. Middle Eastern migrants are traveling to Belarus with the intention of entering Poland, Lithuania, or Latvia, with the help of the Belarus government and military.
November 10, 2021: Syria has been 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 else. 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.
November 9, 2021: Iran is trying to establish bases close to existing Russian ones to provide some protection from the constant Israeli airstrikes. This apparently explains the growing number of Israeli airstrikes near Russian bases, attacks that are carried out with Russian cooperation.
November 8, 2021: In Syria two Israeli airstrikes were carried out against targets in central Syria (Homs province) and the other against targets outside the Syrian port of Tartus. This is where Russia has taken over a portion of the port and expanded it into a naval base that has a long-term lease. This base handles the needs of Russian warships operating off the coast and in the Mediterranean.
November 7, 2021: In northeast Syria, Russia negotiated more cooperation between the Syrian army and the Kurdish led SDF militia to block a buildup of Turkish forces. This is another aspect of the Russia/Syria/Israel coalition that is opposing Turkish and Iranian operations in Syria.
November 5, 2021: In the northwest (Idlib province) Turkey is organizing a major military operation to expand its neutral zone. The Turkish Army moved more tanks in Idlib as well as infantry reinforcements. There are reports that Turkey will expand its buffer zone east of Ras al-Ain.
November 3, 2021: In southern Syria (between Damascus and the Golan Heights) Israeli missiles hit warehouses in Zakiyah that contained Iranian missiles and other military supplies stored there for use by Iran-backed militias operating along the Israeli b0rder. Near the destroyed warehouses is the headquarters of the Syrian Army 4th Division, which suffered no damage or casualties.
October 30, 2021: In southern Syria, an Israeli airstrike outside Damascus destroyed an Iranian convoy transporting weapons and missiles. Hezbollah was operating the convoy and six of their men were killed and several wounded. At least two Syrian soldiers were also wounded. It was later revealed by Israel that the airstrike was carried out by a helicopter launched Spike NLOS missile, which was cheaper than using an F-16 and more expensive missiles.