Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States and Israel are all present in Syria along with the Assad government and a considerable number of Syrian rebel groups who are still not united . Everyone has different goals and a different (often constantly shifting) set of allies. Keeping track of who is doing what to whom and why (and for how long) has become increasingly difficult. A current summary of allies, foes, frenemies and chimeras goes like this;
Israel wants to keep Iran out of Syria and Lebanon and avoid a war with Iran. For this has the support of the U.S., Russia and most Gulf Arab states. None of these supporters is willing to provide any military assistance, at least not until Iran actually attacks Israel.
Russia wants to get Turkey out of NATO, to keep the Iranians from starting a war with Israel and make the Americans look bad. At the same time Russia needs to do this on the cheap and make Russia look good, especially to Russians back home. That is proving difficult as most Russians were not enthusiastic about the Syrian operation in the first place and popular support has been declining.
Turkey wants to create a security zone on the Syrian side of the border that has no Kurds or Islamic terrorists in it. Turkey also wants to show the Sunni Moslem world that it can handle Iranian aggression (without going to war with Iran) and keep the Israelis out of Lebanon and Syria. Turkey is willing to play diplomatic games with Russia and Iran to achieve these goals as well as send troops into Syria to fight, and get killed. .
The U.S. wants to ensure that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) does not reestablish itself in Syria. To help with that the American are doing what they can to help the local Kurds maintain autonomy in northeast Syria (east of the Euphrates) where the Kurds have always been dominant. Secondary objectives are keeping Iran, Turley and Russia out of Syria. The U.S. and Israel are allies and any attack on Israel will trigger American intervention on the Israeli side. But short of that the Americans are quite blunt about stating that their troops are in Syria to deal with terrorists, not Iranian preparations for an attack on Israel. The Americans will not stop Kurds in the northeast from going to the aid of Kurds defending Afrin. The Turks asked the Americans to stop the Kurds and the U.S. refused.
Syria in general wants all the fighting to stop but the minority Assad dictatorship wants to resume ruling all of Syria and the Syrian rebels want Assad gone.
Iraq would like less violence in Syria and less Iranian interference in Iraq. Iraq also wants its Kurds to be less independent and reduce Islamic terrorist activity in Iraq.
All this can get confusing. For example Israel has persuaded Russia to do what it can to prevent Iran from assembling, arming and positioning a large force of non-Iranian forces to attack Israel. Russia has limited ability to block Iranian efforts but does what it can. Iran is building bases to support a large force of Lebanese (Hezbollah), Syrians (whichever Shia Syrians it can recruit) and lots of foreign Shia mercenaries (mainly Afghans, Iraqis other non-Iranian Shia) in parts of Syria where Russia does not have much military power on the ground and Russian air power cannot occupy ground or otherwise interfere with what Iran is doing. Russia does not want Iran starting a war with Israel but as a practical matter Iran is pretty irrational when it comes to Israel and cannot be stopped by Russian, Turkish or American threats. Russia has publicly criticized Iran for regularly calling for the destruction of Israel. Russia has also sided with Turkey in disagreements with Iran over strategy and tactics in Syria. Russia still considers Iran an ally, but a flawed one that really should work on their bad habits. Currently Turley, Russia and Iran all say they are working out their differences and continuing to cooperate in Syria.
The Afrin Angle
On January 20th Turkey began an offensive into northwest Syria against Afrin a town northwest of Aleppo city and long controlled by Syrian Kurds. Turkey is determined to make Afrin part of a buffer zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border. The Assads and Iran are supporting Syrian Kurds defending Afrin. The Assads, Iran and the Syrian Kurds can all agree that keeping the Turks out is a good thing. So far the Turks have suffered about 300 dead but 80 percent of those are FSA rebels working with the Turks. The defenders have suffered heavier losses and continue to hold onto most of the territory they controlled before the Turkish offensive began with FSA (non-sectarian Free Syrian Army) and Turkish forces attacking in at least five different columns. The Turks have air support and larger numbers, or did until Kurdish and Syrian reinforcements showed up in late February. The Turks claim they have killed, captured or chased away about 3,000 Kurdish fighters in and around Afrin since January.
The Kurds east of the Euphrates have less to worry about because the presence of American troops there (to supply air strikes, training and advice) keeps the Turks out, as well as the Assads, Russians and Iranians. The Syrians have always been practical when it came to forming needed alliances and this is especially true with the Kurds. But there are different groups of Kurds. Thus the Kurds west of the Euphrates are not “American supported” and vulnerable while those east of the river definitely are. The Kurds on both sides of the river share the same goal of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria but the Turks have insisted that there be no Kurdish forces west of the river and are willing to go to war over that and they are doing so with the help of thousands of FSA rebels.
SDF considers the Turkish offensive against Afrin as another Turk move to help ISIL and other Islamic terrorists in Syria. Much of the fighting for the Turks is being done by Syrian FSA rebels who had once been allies of the SDF. But the FSA and SDF were also rivals and many FSA rebels accepted Turkish offers to work with Turkish troops to clear Kurdish forces from the Syrian side of the border and then run this “neutral zone” under Turkish protection. At the same time American forces in the northeast note Assad forces are massing near American bases and may attempt to advance. The Assads are willing to have an autonomous Kurdish northeast but want Syrian troops to have at least a token presence in the northeast and want the Americans gone. That last condition will be difficult to achieve. The Americans have made it clear they are in Syria to deal with ISIL and other Islamic terrorist threats. Syria has long been a sanctuary for Islamic terror groups and the United States plans to stay in Syria until convinced that the traditional Syrian policy of offering sanctuary to all manner of terrorists is a thing of the past. That may be difficult because the Assads have long depended on that policy for all sorts of reasons.
Russia Makes A Big Mistake
Russia took a chance trying to embarrass American troops in northeast Syria. The February 7th advance by Russian and Syrian forces was quickly repulsed by American firepower. The Russian force had no air support or anti-aircraft weapons and no backup plan other than for the survivors to retreat as quickly as possible. The Russians were hoping to push American troops out of a base near oil fields east of the Euphrates. The Russian force suffered heavy losses which included about 200 Russian military contractors. The American did not publicize this but the Russians did because it was a great embarrassment for the Russians.
Iran Makes A Bigger Army
Iran appears to control most of the military forces available to the Assads but is careful how these forces are used. The Iranian controlled militias are better armed, trained and led than the Syrian military. The Iranians maintain strict standards. Local militias who will not cooperate are cut off. Since Iran pays its irregulars this Iranian support is often critical. When a local militia cannot pay its fighters the group often falls apart. The Assads take advantage of this by allowing the unpaid militiamen to join the Syrian Army (which these militiamen are technically deserters from.)
The Iranian forces includes 3,000 Iranian personnel, 8,000 Hezbollah fighters (with more on call in Lebanon) and some 70,000 pro-Iran militias. About a fifth of these are foreign Shia mercenaries recruited, armed and led by Iranians. The rest are local pro-Assad militias that are equipped (and often paid) by Iran. Russia is the main source of logistic, technical, air and diplomatic (via a UN veto) support. But Iran has the most armed people on the ground. To make matters worse the main function of the Iranian ground forces is to prepare for a war with Israel.
While there are only about two thousand U.S. troops in Syria there are more than five times as many providing support from nearby airbases and even more distant facilities, including intel and other analysts back in the U.S. but on call 24/7 via satellite comms. In this way the United States continues to monitor ISIL activity in Iraq and Syria and conduct airstrikes daily. So far this year this has been 2-4 airstrikes a day. Most of these airstrikes are still in Syria while in Iraq F-16s, ground attack and armed helicopters from the Iraqi air force provide dozens of sorties a day. There are some American helicopter gunships stationed in Syria but otherwise the airpower comes from Iraq or other bases in the region.
Grinding Down Ghouta
Ignoring the bad publicity over airstrikes against civilians, Syrian troops split the rebel-controlled Ghouta suburbs (15 kilometers east of Damascus) district outside Damascus apart. The ground advance came after two weeks of artillery fire and airstrikes that began on February 18th. At first the Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries could not move forward but in the last week that changed and now the rebels holding Ghouta abandoned territory to better defend two isolated rebel controlled areas. The bombardment and ground fighting has left nearly 900 civilians dead.
Responding to criticism that Russian airstrikes in Syria (Ghouta) have killed so many civilians since mid-February, Russia pointed out that the Russian airstrikes are directed at Islamic terror groups among the rebels and that Russia has a less restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) and that is not going to change. The Ghouta fighting has been particularly intense so far in 2018 and has left the Assads frustrated in their effort to capture what is one of the last rebel strongholds around Damascus. This 100 square kilometer (40 square miles) enclave held over 300,000 people at the beginning of the year and was the scene of a major chemical weapons attack in 2013. In mid-2017 the Ghouta area was controlled by over 10,000 armed rebels and at the end of the year that had not changed much. There are about six rebel factions, most of them Islamic terror groups divided between those associated with al Qaeada and the rest supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states. These factions have spent a lot of time fighting, or feuding, with each other. Despite that the Ghouta rebels have tied down a lot of Assad forces to keep an eye on them and the rebels will cooperate in defending the area if attacked. In July 2017 Russian military police established about a dozen checkpoints in the Ghouta area and that was as much to reassure the people in the area that Russian and Syrian air strikes would not return but to also monitor movements of known rebels. But the rebels kept shooting, despite ceasefires and more pro-government forces set up patrols around the rebel controlled area. In early 2018 the government tightened the blockade in an effort to literally starve the rebels out. This works better during the cold weather and this has caused growing hardship even though some food and other supplies continue to get into Ghouta. But not enough is smuggled in to support all the people in rebel held areas. Even when the UN is allowed to deliver supplies only food is allowed in with medical supplies being seized as forbidden items. Destroying the rebel presence in Ghouta is a high priority for the government. As long as that rebel presence exists outside the capital Assad claims of having taken back control of Syria are suspect.
For Syrians a major casualty of the civil war has been the growth of corruption. Syria ranks 178th out of 180 countries (173 out of 176 last year). Progress, or lack thereof, can be seen in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where countries are measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.
The current Syrian score is 14 (13 in 2016) compared to 62 (64) for Israel, 18 (17) for Iraq, 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 28 (26) for Bangladesh, 33 (36) for the Maldives, 38 (36) for Sri Lanka, 40 (40) for India, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 30 (28) for Burma, 29 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for China, 17 (14) for Libya, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 75 (74) for the United States, 27 (28) for Nigeria, 43 (45) for South Africa, 73 (72) for Japan, 37 (37) for Indonesia and 54 (53) for South Korea,. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble and problems dealing with Islamic terrorism and crime in general. Syria’s corruption score has gotten much worse since 2012, when it was 26.
March 7, 2018: The SDF in the northeast is sending 1,700 of its fighters to help defend Afrin. These SDF reinforcements are from the Euphrates River Valley, where they were searching for ISIL groups hiding out there. This is the main reason the Americans are in the northeast and the loss of so many SDF forces may be a problem for continued American assistance.
March 6, 2018: In the north, at the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase a Russian An-26 twin-turboprop transport crashed while landing in clear weather. The six crew and 33 passengers (most of them officers including a general) died. The aircraft was coming from Aleppo and the cause was apparently equipment failure.
March 5, 2018: In response to its numerous (over a dozen) tanks losses, mostly from ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) Turkey obtained a manufacturing license to build the Ukrainian Zaslon-L APS (Active Protection System) for at least a hundred of its Leopard 2 and M60 tank. Zaslon consists of a radar to detect incoming missiles and small rockets to rush out and disable the incoming threat. A complete APS weighs between 500 and 1,000 kg (depending on the type of vehicle it is installed on). Zaslon has been available since 2010 and has worked in combat with Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. The Turkish firm that is to manufacture Zazlon had been working on its own APS but had not gotten it to work yet. The Turks were unable to obtain APS from the other two major manufacturers (Israel and Russia) because there are diplomatic problems with those two.
March 4, 2018: In the northeast the American supported military training program for the local Kurds is turning out over a thousand trained troops each month. The Syrian Kurds have over 50,000 experienced fighters (including female units) but the training program turns these fighters (most of them part-timers) into trained soldiers with an understanding of common tactics, weapons and procedures in general.
March 3, 2018: Responding to Israeli requests Russia blocked Iranian efforts to set up a naval base at the port of Tartus. This is where Russia has already built a facility (and has a long-term lease) to handle the needs of its warships operating off the coast. Tartus is also where Russian military cargo for Russian and Syrian forces is unloaded. Meanwhile Iran has built a new base 16 kilometers northwest of Damascus and is apparently planning more. These large bases tend to get hit with Israeli airstrikes before long but apparently Iran is hoping to improve air defenses enough to cause the Israelis some losses. Israel believes Iran has three large bases in Syria and seven smaller “tactical” ones near areas where there is active fighting. Iran is also bringing in more rockets, missiles, ammunitions and weapons for the 80,000 militiamen it supports in Syria. In response Israel is preparing for an Iranian attack from Lebanon and/or Syria. In addition to moving more troops to the Syrian border, improving the security fence and anti-aircraft/rocket defense Israel is also making deals with rebels on the Syrian side of the border in an effort to establish a 40 kilometers deep buffer zone. Israel has long provided some support (usually medical, in Israeli hospitals) for cooperative Syrian rebels. Now that support includes material aid and airstrikes and artillery fire against shared threats. Nevertheless Iran keeps pushing its mercenary forces closer to the Israeli border.
March 2, 2018: Deaths from the civil war left over 2,000 dead in February. The Syrian war has killed at least 400,000 since 2011 with 39,000 killed in 2017, down from 49,000 in 2016. While we are at it, how many people has the Assad government of Syria killed so far? By the end of 2017 ISIL lost control of the last bits of territory it had controlled in Iraq and Syria since mid-2014. Most of Syria is now back under the control of the Assads, although most of the population is not. In 2011 there were 21 million people living in Syria, now there are about 14 million. Most of the lost population is still alive, but outside Syria (mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan). The Syrian civil war saw the Assad government deliberately attack pro-rebel civilians. Since that included most of the Syrian population the immediate goal was not to kill them (although over 100,000 direct deaths were probably the result) but to get the pro-rebel Syrians to flee their homes and, preferably, the country. About a third of the population did just that. Many of these refugees want to return, but only if it is safe. That may not be for a while. Over the last three months the Assads have waged an artillery and aerial attack on 300,000 civilians in rebel controlled suburbs of Damascus. That campaign has killed about 3,000 civilians so far.
March 1, 2018: Iran called for negotiations to work out an end to the fighting in Syria and Yemen. This is another way of saying “we can’t win so what will you offer us so we stop trying.” While this means the end of the Shia rebellion in Yemen the Iranians are not likely to give up their military presence in Syria.
February 21, 2018: Two Russian Su-57 stealth fighter prototypes appear to have been flown to the Russian air base in Syria. The Russians apparently plan to test some Su-57 features in a combat environment. The Su-57 is nowhere near ready for combat but it can fly and some of its features (limited stealth, some electronics) are operational. Besides, it is great publicity for an aircraft Russia hopes to export someday. The two American stealth fighters are operational in Syria. F-22s have flown some missions and Israel has declared its F-35I operational, the first non-U.S. user of that new aircraft to do so.
February 20, 2018: Iranian backed Shia militia were sent to Afrin to assist the Kurds there in defending Syrian territory from foreign (Turkish) invasion. The Syrian Kurds have always been willing to cooperate with the Assads as long as it helped the Kurds. Russia opposed this Iranian decision to confront the Turks but did not halt air support for Assad forces.
February 19, 2018: Russian officials admitted that the “dozens” of foreign troops killed in eastern Syria during a February 7th battle were not Russian military personnel but were working for Russia. Many of the dead were Russian and the rest were from nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. The official admitted that the many wounded Russian military contractors were being treated in Russian military medical facilities in Syria. By now the extent of Russian participation, and loss, in the attack became known and it was much larger (about 200 dead) than anyone thought. Initially Russia would admit that only five Russians were killed. But it turned out all the “Russian” casualties were military contractors from the Wagner Group, the largest military contractor in Russia and active in several areas, mainly Ukraine (Donbas) and Syria. The contractors handle security and, in the case of the Deir Ezzor attack, form special combat units normally used to go after ISIL or other difficult foes on the ground. Working for Wagner is not a military secret in Russia and death benefits (up to $88,000 depending on rank and job) are paid promptly and in most cases the body is quietly returned to the family. Friends and family of the Wagner casualties will usually discuss the loss on the Internet and after a while an accurate estimate of contractor casualties is known. The contractors themselves sign a non-disclosure agreement but that does not apply to family and friends. Posts to the Internet or other communications with family tend to become public after a while.
Russian military personnel in Syria are paid nearly as well as the Wagner personnel and receive bonuses in addition to their regular pay. But deaths among Russian military personnel in Syria, even though all of them are volunteers, is a much bigger deal back in Russia than the death of a Russian mercenary.
February 18, 2018: Russian diplomats told Israel that Russia would support Israel if Iran attacked. However Russia was not convinced that Israel shooting down an Iranian UAV over Israel on the 10th was an Iranian attack. After all, Syria or Hezbollah (which Russia considers a “Lebanese” not an Iranian force) have been using Iranian UAVs for a long time. This was an example of how unreliable Russian “support” is. Other Middle Eastern allies of Russia, like Iran and Turkey, have noticed the same thing. Russia apparently also persuaded Israel to not destroy Iranian weapons (missile and rocket) factories in Syria and Lebanon after the February 10th incident where they destroyed an Iranian UAV that had entered Israeli air space. Israel and Russia are continually making deals involving decisions like this but in the end Israel will do what it has to do to defend itself and Russia openly acknowledges that.
February 17, 2018: Russian military personnel in Syria have been ordered to stop using smart phone and to replace them as soon as possible with older models that lack GPS, high speeds and other features that are used by many commercial UAVs and quad copters. The frequencies used by smart phones capable of controlling small UAVs will be jammed around Russian bases in Syria not only to make it more difficult for quad copters to be used for mass attacks but to prevent Russian personnel from posting military information on the Internet.
February 10, 2018: In southern Syria (Golan Heights and Israel border) an Israeli F-16I was shot down by a Russian built S-200 (SA-5) surface to air missile. This was but part of a very complex day. It began when an Iranian UAV (launched from an Iranian base in central Syria) entered Israeli air space and was shot down 90 seconds later. In retaliation Israel sent eight F-16Is to hit the Iranian base, especially the operations center for the larger Iranian UAVs operating over Syria. This facility was destroyed and some Iranians were killed. Israeli warplanes had dealt with the SA-5 for years and could destroy all the Syrian SA-5 launchers and radars. But Israel had an understanding with Russia, a nation that was something of a frenemy in Syria and the Russians wanted the SA-5s left alone. Even though the SA-5s were older tech they still posed some risk to Israeli (and American) warplanes and that is what happened to the F-16I today. Post-crash investigation determined the cause was pilot error (not implementing countermeasures properly.) The aircraft crashed on the Israeli side of the border and the crew of two safely ejected. Israel then prepared to carry out their plan to destroy the Syrian air defense system when the Russian leader called the Israeli leader and asked that the Israeli attack be put on hold. Given the relationship Israel and Russia had developed over many decades, Israel agreed. But now the Russians owed Israel a favor and the Israelis consider that another weapon to use against the Iranian threat in Syria.