Turkey is threatening to attack Russian and Syrian warplanes after yesterday’s Syrian airstrike on a Turkish supply convoy in Idlib. The Turks still support the main Islamic terror group in Idlib. Technically all Islamic terrorists in Idlib belong to the HTS (Hayat Tahrir al Sham), which al Qaeda supports but does not entirely trust. HTS is a coalition of coalitions and many of the factions never did trust each other. The major fear is that another faction, or even HTS leadership, has made a deal with Turkey which, so the story goes, wants to control HTS as a sort of Sunni Hezbollah and use it to drive Shia Iran and its Lebanese Hezbollah out of Syria. Many HTS leaders do have a history of working with the Turkish government. The attack on the Turk convoy indicates Russia and Syria believe the Turks are actually supporting some of the HTS factions in Idlib. The Turks do support “moderate” Islamic terror groups but refuse to outright admit it. This policy is unpopular with Israel and Western nations as well as Syria, Iran and Russia. Many Turks also oppose any pro-terrorist policy but the current Turkish government is controlled by an Islamic party that favors “cooperation” with some Islamic terror groups to protect Turks from the more rabid Islamic terrorists. Syria used to play this game and it did not work out well.
Turkey feels this is the best choice in a bad situation. There are over 20,000 heavily armed and desperate Islamic terrorists in Idlib and Turkey believes the Syrian offensive, supported by Russian airstrikes and some ground support, will result in more civilian deaths and a mass exodus of a million or more Idlib civilians, in addition to many Islamic terrorists pretending to be civilians, for the nearby Turkish border. While border defenses have been improved that border is not impregnable. Turkey also has to worry about the more than three million Syrian refugees inside Turkey. Turkey wants to persuade or force all these refugees back across the border. The refugees are reluctant because, among other things, Syria believes in killing all the Idlib Islamic terrorists and any civilians that get in the way. Russia and Iran go along with that. This disagreement over strategy and tactics has been present ever since all those refugees and Islamic terrorists were trapped in Idlib and now that disagreement is coming to a potentially messy resolution.
After The Massacre
With the resolution of the Idlib stalemate looming there are other disputes over how to handle the peace. GDP is less than half of what it was in 2011. Over half the pre-war population of 23 million are refugees. Half are displaced in Syria and half outside the country. While most of the country is now controlled by the Assad government, most of the territory is occupied by foreign troops (Iranian, Turkish, Russian and American, in that order). Most (about 3.6 million) of the exiles are in Turkey and now the Turks want them to go home. Previous to the current economic recession the Turks were considering offering citizenship to most of these Syrians but now the popular opposition to that is too great. Most of the Syrians have settled in cities and towns where they make the economic situation worse for Turks seeking work or operating retail businesses.
Historically the Turks and Arabs don’t like each other much. The Turks consider Arabs nothing but trouble and in 1918 many Turks saw the bright side of losing their empire; no more Arab subjects to worry about. Because of centuries of Turkish rule Arabs see the Turks are arrogant and brutal overlords. Modern Turkey is still an empire as far as population goes. Only about two-thirds of the population are ethnic Turks. The rest are over a dozen minorities, with Arabs (before 2011) comprising about two percent of the population and largely assimilated and accepted by the ethnic Turks. The large influx of Syrian refugees more than doubled the percentage of Arabs in Turkey. Initially most were in refugee camps, at great expense to the Turkish government. Over the last few years most have left the refugee camps and settled in urban areas, usually ones with existing Arab neighborhoods. Many of the Syrian Arabs had businesses in Syria and used those skills and experience to start businesses in Turkey. Soon these operations, especially the retail shops, were competing with Turkish owned shops. As the economy stopped growing over the last few years this Arab competition for business and jobs became personal for a lot of Turks. In response the government recently banned the use of Arabic shop signs. This was unwelcome by Turkish Arabs who have long run shops catering to Arab tourists and commercial travelers. Aside from that the Turkish Arabs would also prefer that the Arab refugees went back to Syria. That will be difficult to make happen because Syria is much less attractive than Turkey because of the wrecked economy and hostility towards Syrians who fled. These refugees were usually rebel supporters and many face police scrutiny (at the very least) if they go back. The Turks hope to overcome this problem by putting large parts of Syria under Turkish administration. The local government would be local Syrians but the Turks would be there to assist local police in maintaining order. That would enable renewed economic growth. This is not acceptable to the Syrian government, although Iran and Russia are more tolerant towards Turkey in this respect. Then there are the Syrian Kurds, who oppose Turkish efforts to occupy areas in northeastern Syria traditionally (and currently) occupied by Kurds. The Syrian Kurds have some American troops among them and have long worked with the Americans and NATO to eliminate ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) from eastern Syria.
The Security Zone
The threat of American and Turkish troops fighting each other has deterred the Turks from trying to implement their security zone on the 600 kilometers of border controlled by the Syrian Turks. The U.S. has proposed that American troops monitor the border zone within five kilometers of the Turkish border and Turks and SDF patrol a somewhat larger 32 kilometer deep zone. The Americans and Turks disagree over which Kurds in the SDF are affiliated with the Turkish PKK Kurdish separatists. The Turks want a 32 kilometers zone that is free of Kurdish forces. The Americans point out that the Syrian Kurds are currently the main force keeping ISIL out of Turkey and it is unlikely the Turks will be able to handle the ISIL threat as effectively as the Kurds. The Security Zone issue remains unresolved.
Russian forces in Syria have been reinforced this year because Russians are once more fighting in Syria. Since May the major fighting has taken place in northwest Syria (Idlib province). The last large concentration of Islamic terrorist rebels is trapped there along with over a million pro-rebel civilians. The Turks have militarized their zone to eliminate Islamic terrorist activity and prevent refugees from getting to and across the Turkish border. Most of the Idlib borders (east, south and some of the west) are controlled by Syrian forces (army and militias). The Syrian Assad government want to regain control over Idlib but have not got the military power themselves to do it, at least not quickly. Syrian troops are largely demoralized by eight years of fighting. Until 2018 Iran mercenaries provided the offensive ground forces for the Syrian army. Over the last year most of those mercenary units have been disbanded because of cash shortages, or reassigned to operations against Israel. That means Iranian forces are largely in the south, around Damascus and the southeastern borders (Jordan and Iraq). The Syrian Kurds are still handling ISIL remnants in the eastern Syria. That means the Syrian army can concentrate its best using in an effort to regain control of Idlib. That requires a lot of help from Russian troops. The fighting is going slowly because the Syrian commanders accept that they have to keep Syrian casualties low to maintain morale, and prevent massive desertions, as have occurred in the past.
The Russians have provided about a thousand ground troops (special operations, ground controllers and military contractors) to help with calling in airstrikes and putting in teams of Russian troops to handle difficult and dangerous (especially for the Syrian troops) situations. This is similar to what a few hundred American Special Forces troops and CIA field agents did in Afghanistan in late 2001. Back then a small number of Americans provided specialized services to the Afghan anti-Taliban forces and that made an enormous difference.
The fighting in Idlib is leaving about a thousand dead a month. Most of these are civilians or armed rebels. The Russian and Syrian aircraft attack the enemy wherever they believe they are. That includes residential neighborhoods, mosques and hospitals. Currently the airstrikes and ground operations are as intense as ever and Turkey is angry about that and the possibility of a massive surge of Idlib civilians trying to get into Turkey. So far about 400,000 civilians have been driven from their homes and more of them are trying to move towards the Turkish border. The Turks have been unable to persuade anyone to help with halting the Idlib violence and potential refugee crisis. Despite that the Turks keep trying and the latest gambit is a threat to attack Kurdish controlled northeast Syria (Hasaka province) if something is not done about the Idlib mess. The problem is there no solution to the Idlib problem that will satisfy everyone. For Russia and Syria the priority is shutting down the Islamic terrorist threat there, something Turkey is less concerned about because the current Turkish government is more “Islamic terrorist friendly” than anyone else in the region.
Can Iran Take The Heat
Israel is doing whatever it can to make Iran feel unwelcome in Syria. The question is, how much is enough? The Syrian effort is costing Iran a lot of money (which they cannot afford), reputation (not much to lose) and lives (more affordable). So far Iran has tolerated the losses and continues to pour resources in into establishing itself in Syria. Iran cannot afford to contribute large sums for reconstruction in Syria, but is allowing Iranian entrepreneurs to build factories and other commercial operations in Syria. Some of these commercial activities will be, as is the case inside Iran, partly owned, or controlled by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). These Iranian businesses will also end up on the Israeli target list, especially because of the IRGC connection. Iran is determined to finally achieve a victory over Israel using the growing presence it has in Syria but is encountering resistance from Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and most NATO nations, in addition to Israel.
Israel sees itself at the greatest risk because Iranians in Syria might do something desperate, and stupid. Over the last year the IRGC has suffered multiple defeats, usually delivered by Israel or the Americans. Many of these embarrassments have occurred in Syria, where Israel finds and destroys IRGC projects will great regularity. Many Iranians do not see this as an Iranian defeat but just another reason why the IRGC is hated by most Iranians. Blame is most often directed at the IRGC and the Islamic dictatorship that has ruled (and mismanaged) Iran since the 1980s. Iranians see corrupt IRGC men and Shia clergy in general as responsible for their current economic and diplomatic woes. The IRGC is not seen as the protector of the Iranian people but rather the source of growing violence against Iranians who protest the proliferating poverty. The IRGC is accused, by Iranians and the rest of the world, of trying to taunt someone, preferably the United States or Israel, into attacking Iran itself. That would make the IRGC more popular inside Iran, but many Iranians are not so sure. Meanwhile the Americans concentrate their sanctions on Iranian leaders, including senior IRGC commanders, which is a popular move to most Iranians.
ISIL Settles In
In the east ISIL remains a menace, that’s less than a threat, in much of the rural areas. The Islamic terrorists have allies among the rural Sunni Arab tribes out there and expect that, and continued access to the large ISIL cash stash, to conduct a forever war against the Assads, the Kurds and any foreign troops they encounter. ISIL concentrates on punishing (via death or kidnapping) tribal opponents while also killing any government officials or troops to seek to establish themselves nearby. ISIL expects to wear down the Assads and regain control of territory. How ISIL is going to handle the standard Assad counter-terror techniques, if the Assads establish control, is another matter. The Assads apply scorched earth and mass murder when they can get away with it. ISIL has not yet faced anyone who can out-ISIL them in the terror and mayhem department. Then again the Assads would be willing to trade some Kurdish autonomy for continued Kurdish efforts to make life miserable for ISIL. That is what the Iraqi Kurds have been doing for years.
August 19, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Syrian warplanes attacked a Turkish army convoy carrying weapons and ammunition for Turkish supported Islamic terrorists trapped in Idlib. Three civilians were killed and twelve wounded and the convoy halted and has not advanced further while awaiting for the air threat issue to be resolved. Meanwhile the Islamic terrorists defending Khan Sheikhoun remain in desperate need of more ammo.
The convoy apparently carried much needed (by the Islamic terrorists) mortar shells. The mortar fire was a key element in slowing down the Syrian advance from By the 19th Syrian troops were in the town, mainly due to the frequency and accuracy of air and artillery support the troops were receiving. At the same time the defending Islamic terrorists made good use of their mortars to delay the advance of Syrian troops from the village of Hobeit along a major road to the key town of Khan Sheikhoun. Apparently the defenders had slowed, but not stopped this advance, which began on the 11th. Syrian troops now occupy part of Khan Sheikhoun but are slowed down by the difficulty of fighting Islamic terrorists in a built up area. Once rebels are cleared from Khan Sheikhoun and any other nearby areas close to the main road (the M5) between Aleppo and Damascus, a major objective will have been achieved. Making the M5 safe for regular commercial traffic has been a Syrian goal for years.
The land route from Europe to Arabia via Turkey and Jordan has, since the 1990s, became a very lucrative business for Syria. It was basically the M5 highway that went from the Turkish border, through Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs and Damascus and became the most heavily used in the country. It may not be lucrative anymore if the hostility between Iran and Sunni Arab states does not diminish.
The M5 ceased to be a major transportation or economic asset by 2012 as various rebel factions took control of sections. That process continued for the next few years. That was reversed starting in late 2016 when the Assads regained control of the northern city of Aleppo. During the first five months of 2017 the Assad forces advanced south on M5 and eventually controlled nearly all M5 from the Turkish border south to the city of Homs. It took another year to clear rebels from M5 south to Damascus and then the eastern suburbs of Damascus that that had been under rebel control for years. The rebels were cleared out of the Damascus suburbs by May 2018 and a month later Daraa Province and the Jordan crossing were opened as well. It required two years of fighting and substantial assistance from Russia and Iran to regain control of the M5 and the Assads consider this a major achievement. The main problem was that rebels in Idlib province advanced and again threatened any passing M5 traffic.
While the M5 has economic potential, it has immediate military value because control makes it much easier to move troops and supplies from the Syrian coast (which the Assads never lost control of) to Damascus (the capital) in the south or points east. Damascus and the coastal region have always contained a major concentration of military bases and supply stockpiles. Although the Assads now have a highway to the Turkish border the route still passes through or near areas still subject to rebel and ISIL activity as well as the Turkish troops and their rebel allies who control the Syrian side of the border. With control of the M5 the Assads can now quickly concentrate and supply ground forces against any of the remaining areas that are outside of government control. But traffic, be it military or commercial, is still subject to occasional attack by angry locals and several times a month military vehicles are hit by a roadside bomb or gunfire.
August 18, 2019: In the northeast (Hasaka province) an ISIL car bomb was used against Kurdish troops at the entrance to a training facility outside the city of Qamishli. One Kurdish soldier was killed and two wounded.
August 15, 2019: A British court in Gibraltar agreed to allow the Iranian tanker Grace 1 to go free because of assurances its cargo of Iraqi oil would not be delivered to Syria in violation of sanctions. The tanker had been seized on July 4th by British commandos because of evidence that was transporting Iraqi oil to Syria. The Iranian super tanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria for Iran. This was part of an enormous (and expensive) Iranian effort to get the Syrian government the oil it needs to continue fighting rebels and Islamic terrorists. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided travelling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker if it had used the canal. The U.S. promptly issued a warrant for the seizure of the oil on the Grace one, plus $995,000 as part of a forfeiture (of Iranian assets) so satisfy American financial judgements against Iran. The Gibraltar court refused to hold the Iranian tanker any longer and now the tanker, renamed Adrian Draya-1 and its registration changed to Iran, plans to move to Greece. The U.S. plans to ask Greek courts to allow execution of the American warrant. On the 20th Adrian Draya-1 left Gibraltar.
August 14, 2019: In the northwest (Hama province) another Israeli airstrike took place outside the city of Masyaf. It is unclear which of the many Syrian military targets in this area were hit. Syria complained that its new Russian S-300 air defense system cannot detect Israeli F-35 fighters.
Some of the Turkey-backed FSA (secular Free Syrian Army rebels) forces have agreed to assist the Syrian army in its offensive against the remaining Syrian rebels in Idlib. Some of those rebels, defending the town of Khan Sheikhoun, used a portable anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a Syrian Su-22 jet bombing targets in the area. The pilot ejected and was apparently captured by rebels.
August 12, 2019: In the northwest, Idlib based Islamic terrorists tried, three times in the last week, to use explosives equipped UAVs to attack t he Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in neighboring Latakia province. These were the first attacks since early July. Earlier attacks this year used unguided rockets but the most the recent attacks employed UAVs again and failed. The Hmeimim airbase was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Part of the Tartus port has become a long-term foreign base for Russia, along with Hmeimim.
August 11, 2019: In the northwest (Idlib province), Syrian troops scored a rare victory by pushing rebels out of the village of Hobeit, opening up an advance on a major road towards the key town of Khan Sheikhoun. Four days later the Syrians were only three kilometers from Khan Sheikhoun.
August 10, 2019: Turkey has begun carrying out UAV surveillance of the hundreds of kilometers of the northeast Syrian border where Turkey plans to establish a 32 kilometers deep, on the Syrian side, security zone.
August 6, 2019: Russian media are describing successful Israeli efforts to defeat the S-300 air defense system. The Russians are less certain about the S-400, which the Russians tend to turn off when warned by Israel of an impending air strike.
August 4, 2019: In in central Syria (Homs province) there were several large explosions at an ammo storage area in the Shayrat Airbase. Syria said it was an accident, which left 31 soldiers and Shia militiamen dead, because they were removing older and defective shells for disposal. Shayrat Airbase is also used to store Iranian missiles and other weapons headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The U.S. attacked the base in 2017 because it was believed to be where chemical weapons were stored. The UN threatens more sanctions against the Russians and Assads if the civilian casualties continue to rise. At the same time Syria and Russia do not want a permanent Islamic terrorist sanctuary in Idlib and at the moment the only way to eliminate the Idlib problem is unrestricted airstrikes against the rebels. At the moment it’s a stalemate.
August 1, 2019: The Assads agreed to another ceasefire in Idlib. This ceasefire is unlikely to work because so far the Turks have not been able to persuade all of the defending Islamic terrorist rebels to withdraw and form the 20 kilometers security zone. There is no overall commander of the rebels in Idlib and so far the rebels have halted Syrian efforts to make major gains on the ground. The Syrians have plenty of air support from Syrian and Russian warplanes but the rebels frequently put their forces and stockpiles of ammo and other gear in residential areas. As a result about a third of the rebel dead since April have been civilians killed when they were too close to rebel fighters.
July 31, 2019: Russia revealed that three Russian military contractors were killed in Syria during mid-July. These three were former Russian military and it was later discovered that some had served in eastern Ukraine (posing as “Ukrainian rebels.”)
July 28, 2019: In the northern Iraq (Saladin Province, some 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) Iranian backed PMF militia complained of their base being attacked by an unidentified aircraft. There were several casualties and damage was done to the base, which is believed to be a storage facility for Iranian ballistic missiles. Israel was blamed for the attack. The bombed base is 80 kilometers from the Iran border and this is the second time this month it has been hit since the 19th. Israel will not comment on these attacks although retired Israeli military leaders believe that Iraqi bases used by Iran for moving modern weapons to Syria and Lebanon are now legitimate targets and capable of being hit. Israeli warplanes now have long range air-to-ground missiles so these attacks could be launched from Israeli warplanes flying over eastern Syria. Speculation is that Israeli F-35I aircraft are being used and Israel is fine with such rumors because it makes the F-35I seem even more formidable. If the F-35I flew into Iraq (as some witnesses of the attacks claim) it would have required aerial refueling. That’s because to operate in full stealth mode the F-35 cannot be carrying any external attachments, like fuel tanks. Some bombs can be carried internally but without external fuel tanks aerial refueling is required to reach Iraq and return.
July 26, 2019: In the east (Deir al Zour province) Yasser al Dahla, a senior SDF (Kurdish rebels) commander and some of his troops were killed during an ISIL ambush. The commander was particularly hated by ISIL, which had tried to assassinate him at least twice before. This attack appears to be a random ambush because the SDF commander was on an unannounced trip to settle a local tribal dispute.
July 24, 2019: In eastern Syria (Daraa province) an Israeli airstrike hit an Iranian base shared with the Syrian Army. It was later revealed that six Iranians and three Syrian military personnel were killed.