Alliances are shifting in Syria as Iran and Turkey try taking advantage of fewer Russian forces (because of the war in Ukraine). Turkey wants an opportunity to invade northern Syria, destroy the Kurdish SDF, and pacify enough territory on the Syrian side of the border to safely move most of the Syrian refugees in Turkey back to Syria. Turkey needs some cooperation from the Assads and no, or much less, support from the Americans or Israelis. Turkey has a hard time persuading the Americans to back off and it is believed that Turkey will offer to drop its NATO member veto preventing Sweden and Finland from joining NATO. Russia advises Turkey not to invade but will not actively try and stop such an operation that will involve some Turkish troops and lots of Syrian Sunni mercenaries working for Turkey. Iran supports any attack on separatist Kurds in Syria or Iraq but concentrating its Syrian operations on Israel.
Over the last year Turkey has been carrying more indirect (artillery, rockets and armed UAV) attacks on the Kurds controlling much of the Syrian side of the border west of Aleppo.
Meanwhile the remnants of the former Islamic State in eastern Syria and western Iraq continue to survive and sort of thrive in the deserts of eastern Syria and remote mountain areas of northern Iraq, ISIL remnants use terror to raise cash and intimidate local civilians to tolerate their presence and not cooperate with local security forces. This has been the way outlaws operate in this part of the world since ancient times, even if the outlaws are motivated mainly by religious fanaticism. ISIL attacks in eastern Syria continue to occur frequently, often at the rate of four or five a week.
In the south, Syrian Arab mercenaries working for Iran are being subjected to a purge by their Iranian employers who have noted a lack of enthusiasm for their work. If the unemployment weren’t so high, these poor performers would not be working for these Iranian fanatics. The regular pay is a tremendous incentive to pretend you’re doing your job and hope the Iranians don’t notice. They did and took action.
Confronting The Aftermath
A decade of fighting has devastated the Syrian economy and if the Assads want to retain their power, they have to organize some financial aid from somewhere to rebuild the mess. Currently Syrian GDP is about a third of what it was in 2011. Over half the pre-war population of 23 million are refugees. Half are displaced inside Syria and half outside the country. That loss of population means that the per capita GDP is still nearly half what it was in 2011. While most of the country is now controlled by the Assad government, most of that territory is shared with foreign troops; Iranian, Turkish, Russian and American, in that order. Syrian forces have to be wary of these allies, as well as the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL is particularly active in attacking Syrian troops.
The damage done to Syria by ten years of war is worse than realized when you take into account expected (normal) growth in the economy (GDP) and the population if the war had not happened. This data assumes a decade of some post-war reconstruction for the real Syria. In contrast, Syria without the war would have a population of 32 million by 2030. Because so many (over six million) Syrians fled the country and fewer were born and more died, the most likely population of war-ravaged by 2030 is 22 million. Most of the refugees (Sunni Arabs) do not want to return to a homeland dominated by a Shia government and occupied by Iranian (and Shia) forces. In these “war/no-war” comparisons the economic projections show the country even worse off. Currently GDP is less than half, perhaps just a third of what it was in 2011. No one is sure because the economic damage is so extensive. Even with a decade of post-war reconstruction 2030 GDP would only be about 74 percent of what it was in 2011 and about 35 percent of what it would have been in 2030 without a war. Without the war GDP would have doubled by 2030. It is possible that Syria will grow (in terms of GDP and population) at a faster rate but that is unlikely since not a lot of nations are lining up to donate to or invest in reconstruction. In part that is due to the expected long-term presence of Iran or, even without that, the Assads would probably remain in power and still be accused of war crimes during the war. There is no statute of limitations on that sort of thing. Meanwhile the years of war have destroyed structures, infrastructure and businesses that would cost several hundred billion dollars to replace. That will be hard to do for a nation that had a 2011 GDP of about $60 billion and not a lot of natural resources other than its people and their many skills.
Currently the Assad government is so bankrupt they cannot support their currency, the Syrian pound. Because of that it is harder for the average Syrian to buy consumer goods and basic items. This can be seen in the exchange rate; how many Syrian pounds it takes to buy a dollar. In 2011 it was 47 pounds, now the official rate is 500 pounds to buy a dollar but that is artificially low. The black market demands 4,000 pounds. Dollars are needed to pay for imports and the dollar shortages for everyone, even the wealthiest, are a daily reminder that the war may be won but the peace and reconstruction that was to follow are not happening. In response, more Syrians are doing business in dollars. The Assads have responded by arresting those caught using dollars. This does not end well for any government that cannot support its own currency. Iran is suffering from the same problem, as is North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. No wonder all these countries are allies. They are all desperate to get their hands on more stable currency, with the dollar and euro being the most favored, with the Chinese yuan considered a useful, if less acceptable, substitute. Iran is trying to get the American economic sanctions lifted, which would give Iran access to over a hundred billion dollars in frozen assets and a lifeline for its war effort in Syria.
The Arab Gulf states are willing to finance reconstruction, but the cost of that is cutting ties with Iran. The Assads were open to that and they had some support from Russia, Turkey and most Arab states. Iran is not cooperating as the loss of Syria would be a major financial and political blow to the Iranian religious dictatorship, which is increasingly unpopular at home. The loss of Syria puts Hezbollah in danger. Doing nothing about reconstruction because Iran refuses to leave and cannot afford to finance rebuilding means Syria becomes a failed state where there is widespread poverty and little in the way of government services. All of Syria’s neighbors would support Syrian warlords along their borders simply to contain the chaos and the number of desperate refugees trying to cross that border. Turkey or Iraq might be called on by neighboring Syrians to annex Syrian territory. Turkey is not interested because they don’t want more Arabs in Turkey. Shia majority Iraq is also reluctant to accept more Sunnis, because Syrians on their borders are all Sunnis.
Down In The Hol
Since 2018 the SDF has been maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL fighters and their families. This includes persistent problems with criminal activity taking place among the prisoners. The SDF has 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.
June 27, 2022: In the northwest (Idlib province) an American UAV used two missiles to kill Islamic terrorist leader Abu Hamzah al Yemeni who was traveling alone on a motorcycle at night to avoid American airstrikes. Al Yemeni was the leader of Hurras al Din, an al Qaeda affiliated group created in 2018 with the merger to ten smaller al Qaeda factions also trapped in Idlib. Hurras al Din was also unique that it was composed of non-Syrian Islamic terrorists. Hurras al Din was openly hostile to Americans but there were so few Americans in Syria that recently Hurras al Din attacks were usually against Syrian forces who were attacking Idlib province as well as those in the nearby Syrian capital Damascus. The death of the Hurras al Din leader is another example of how desperate Islamic terrorist leaders are to avoid such attacks. Most do so via elaborate deceptions and the liberal use of civilians as human shields. The human shields tactic doesn’t work as well as it used to because Russian and Syrian airstrikes ignore the presence of civilians when going after a military target. Traveling alone on a motorcycle may have worked before but not this time.
June 26, 2022: There were only four war-related deaths in Syria today. In May 222 died. This is sharply down from the height of the fighting in 2014-15. Nearly 6,000 died in October 2014. About 17 percent of those dead were civilians, 15 percent from government forces and the rest from various rebel groups. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is believed to have suffered over 2,000 dead in October, mainly because they are fighting everyone. The highest annual death toll was in 2014, when at least 100,000 died. Annual deaths declined after that, reaching about 3,800 in 2021 with the 2022 total expected to be half that. Since the civil war began in 2011 the death toll is estimated to be between 400,000 and 500,000.
June 23, 2022: In Damascus, the airport reopened after damage from a massive airstrike was finally repaired.
June 22, 2022: The Russian commander of forces in Ukraine, four- star general Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, was relieved (removed) for failure to do what he did in Syria. Dvornikov was the first commander of all operations in Ukraine. Previously all Ukrainian operations were commanded by Stavka (the Russian General Staff) and civilian officials in Moscow. Dvornikov was free to do whatever it takes to turn the defeats in Ukraine into a victory. He was ordered to achieve a victory in eastern Ukraine by June 10th and failed. Dvornikov was the first commander (for a year) of Russian forces that entered Syria in 2015 to rescue their long-time Middle Eastern ally the Assad clan, which was a large and loyal customer for Russian weapons. A major insurrection against the Assads began in 2012 and by 2015 they were facing defeat. Dvornikov noted that one Assad tactic seemed to work was attacking pro-rebel civilians with artillery and air strikes in order to compel migration to neighboring countries. Dvornikov helped with that while also bringing in tech support to rebuild heavily used Russian tanks and artillery and supply ammunition. Russian special operations troops and aerial surveillance aircraft were brought in to find and attack the Islamic terror groups that now dominated the rebel forces. For his achievements in Syria Dvornikov was put on the fast track for promotions and key defense jobs. This included the command of all forces in Ukraine. Suddenly there were more Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilians even though Dvornikov realized that Ukraine was a lot different from Syria. There was no beleaguered Assad government nor were their many Ukrainians who supported the Russian invasion. While the Assads received more Russian weapons, the Ukrainians were not only producing superior versions of Russian weapons but receiving huge quantities of Western weapons from NATO nations that border Ukraine. Dvornikov supported the shift of Russian forces from northern Ukraine, where most Russian units suffered heavy casualties and were stalled, to eastern Ukraine. Here they were to take part in a major offensive to expand Russian control of Donbas and gain control of the entire Ukrainian Black Sea coast. The offensive stalled and by the end of April Russian forces were being pushed back and local partisan groups were appearing in many areas that Russia technically controlled. Dvornikov reported that more unified and effective resistance by locals and the poor quality of the troops he was sent made it unlikely that he could deliver a victory. In Syria, Dvornikov had the most effective and enthusiastic Russian troops available, including special operations forces, many of them training and advising dispirited Syrian troops. Russian pilots were eager to serve in Syria where the targets were numerous and unable to shoot back. The air was free of hostile warplanes. Ukraine was very different and Dvornikov was following orders and trying to come up with a plan that would enable Russia to hold on to some Ukrainian territory and thus claim a victory. This was not acceptable and he was ordered to continue the Russian offensive and do it successfully and with lower losses. The Ukrainians are defeating every new attack plan Dvornikov came up with. This is partially due to the declining capabilities of Russian troops who have suffered nothing but defeat for 90 days and are less enthusiastic about staying in Ukraine.
June 21, 2022: In southern Syria (Daraa province) a Syrian air force intel official and a companion were wounded by a bomb hidden in their car. There has been a lot of similar violence in Daraa, with 260 attacks so far this year leaving 214 dead and many more wounded. The violence is mainly against Syrian army personnel. This level of violence remained fairly constant for three years until 2022. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there 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. There are also attacks against former members of ISIL and other militant groups. These victims had accepted amnesty. 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. Israel sometimes fires 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 since 2020 but have not made much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area. In 2022 much of the violence is from other groups, some of them criminal gangs retaliating against those who refuse to pay for protection from the violence.
June 19, 2022: Turkey revealed that they were responsible for killing Hussein Shibli, a senior SDF military leader. Shibli was in northern (Kurdish controlled) Iraq for medical treatment when a Turkish UAV was armed with laser-guided missiles. Turkey and Russia are trying to persuade, or coerce, the SDF to side with Turkey rather than the Americans. Turkish missiles-armed UAVs, mainly the TB2 model, regularly carry out attacks against SDF and PKK forces in northern Iraq. and Syria.
June 16, 2022: In the north (Aleppo provinces) an American special operations raid captured ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leader Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi. This was a major win because al Kurdi was a veteran ISIL leader and trainer of bomb builders. Al-Kurdi, along with lots of documents and ten others, who may have been family or ISIL associates, were taken away for interrogation. There were no civilian casualties. This was a major win because al Kurdi was directly responsible for planning and directing most of the ISIL bomb attacks against American forces and those of Russia and the Assads. In the past when a key ISIL official in charge of planning attacks was killed, the quality and quantity of attacks declined.
June 12, 2022: Israel sent Syrian leader Basher Assad an ultimatum that if he does not cease cooperating with the Iranians, especially the movement and storage of Iranian missiles to Syria, Israeli airstrikes would go after Assad and family members by bombing the many luxury residences (“palaces”) used by the Syrian family in and around Damascus. The Assads had earlier denied this degree of cooperation but this time Israel pointed out it was sharing intel with Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies and that means it is a lot more difficult for Assad to get away with lying to the Israelis. Arab nations and Israel were trying to get the Assads to switch sides and the Assads made a decision to stick with Iran without telling the wealthy Gulf Arab states he was hoping would invest in rebuilding the Syrian economy once the war was finally over. The Iranian threat to kill Assad and his family was a more compelling offer.
June 10, 2022: In the south (outside Damascus) an Israeli airstrike against the international airport inflicted substantial damage that halted normal operations for nearly two weeks. Russia, Iran and the Assads were angry about this unpresented attack on key infrastructure. Israel wanted to remind the offended nations that Israel was fighting for higher stakes than anyone else. Iran has been trying to destroy Israel for decades and they keep getting closer, as in southern Syria and the Israeli border.
June 11, 2022: Increased Turkish military activity in Syria risks clashes with Iranian mercenaries operating near the border. Turkey recently repeated its plans to create a 30-kilometer-wide border buffer zone. This means pushing SDF forces out of the buffer zone. This is all about Kurdish separatist YPG fighters being part of the SDF that defends much of eastern Syria. Turkey considers the YPG to be an arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turks also warned Iran not to interfere, something the Iranians have done covertly in Kurdish northern Iraq.
June 6, 2022: In southern Syria (outside Damascus) an Israeli airstrike used ten missiles against Hezbollah and Iranian facilities outside the city. There was a lot of damage but no reports of casualties. These attacks are usually carried out at night, to reduce the possibility of civilians in or passing near the target area being injured. This is the 14th Israeli attack in Syria for 2022.
June 4, 2022: Israel has not been providing any weapons to Ukraine because of Syria because Russia told Israel that sending weapons to Ukraine could reduce Russian cooperation in Syria against Iran. Most Israelis support Ukraine, but the Iranian threat is very real and next door, so Israeli politicians cannot ignore it unless they want to lose their next election. Russia has already suffered major economic losses from the additional economic sanctions imposed after the 2022 invasion and may end up a much-reduced military power. This could include the withdrawal of many of their troops in Syria. Even with that, Russia remains a major nuclear power with a large enough arsenal to trigger the nuclear apocalypse that became a reality in the 1960s and has kept the peace between the nuclear powers ever since. Vladimir Putin openly threatens to use nukes to keep NATO nations from supporting Ukraine militarily. NATO is sending in lots of weapons anyway, but not NATO forces. Israel wants to stay off the Russian nuclear targets list.
May 30, 2022: Turkey confirmed their president had discussed Turkey’s planned military operation in Syria and the war in Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile Israel warned its citizens in Turkey, or those planning to visit, that there was credible evidence that Iran was planning to attack Israelis in Turkey as retaliation for the assassination last week of IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) colonel Hassan Khodaei in the Iranian capital. Iran always blames Israel for attacks like this. Turkish officials pointed out that while Iran often threatens to carry out attacks on Israelis in Turkey, they rarely do so. Aside from the fact that Turkish counterterrorism efforts against such attacks is quite good and that such an Iranian attack would damage cooperation between Turkey and Iran in Syria. The Turks believe Iran made the threat mainly for propaganda purposes.
May 20, 2022: In southern Syria (outside Damascus) an Israeli airstrike on Iranian military facilities also left at least three dead.
Turkey revealed that 502,000 Syrian refugees have returned to Syria. On average between 400 and 500 Syrians return each week.
May 19, 2022: In Syria the Assads are now willing and able to fight to subdue the Idlib Islamic terrorists, the Kurds, and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Iran is backing the Assads as part of their efforts to establish a military presence on the Israeli border and replace Russian and Arab influence over Assad. The Russians have long tried to play peacemaker to preserve their relationships with the Assads, other Arab states and even Israel. The Islamic terrorist rebels in Idlib would prefer to be anywhere but Syria. No one wants them. The Kurds are willing to make peace with the Assads in return for an autonomy deal similar to what the Iraqi Kurds have had for over two decades. The Assads are willing to make a deal but Turkey and Iran oppose that because of problems with their own Kurds. The war in Ukraine has forced Russia to withdraw much of its military forces from Syria and the distraction of fighting a losing war in Ukraine has made Syria a much lower priority