Defence & Arms
Syria: Dismal Prospects
By Strategy Page, September 8, 2023
Sep 8, 2023 - 10:36:02 AM

Most of the violence is with Islamic terrorists in the northwest (Idlib province) and in the east (Deir Ezzor province). Idlib province is where most of the remaining Islamic terrorists and anti-government rebels are found. Efforts to get HTS, the dominant Islamic terrorist coalition in the province, to cooperate with the Turks have failed. Turkey proposed that HTS work with Turkey-backed Syrian militias to keep the peace so Turkey could move more Syrian refugees back to Syria. Turkey offered HTS sanctuary in Turkish controlled areas and a few HTS members would be allowed into Turkey. Reaching an agreement with HTS on the details proved difficult, so the fighting continues between HTS and Syrians working for the Turks as well as Syrian government forces.

HTS has other problems and is trying to remove non-Syrian Islamic terrorists from the organization by providing them with money to get them to Ukraine where they can fight Russians. HTS has made arrangements with Turkey to facilitate movement of these Islamic terrorists to Ukraine but is unclear if many, or any, made it to Ukraine. The other Islamic terrorist hotspot is in the east, where several ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) factions cause problems for everyone, including the American troops in the area as well as local militias and government forces.

Syrians blame outsiders for the length and severity of the 12- year-long civil war. Iran and Russia came to the aid of the Syrian government while Israel continued to attack Iranian forces in Syria, and Turkish forces crossed the border to deal with Islamic terrorists threatening Turkey, though non-terrorist Syrian Kurds control most of the northern border with Turkey. In the northwest there is Idlib province, which remains under the control of Islamic terrorists who don’t belong to ISIL. For years the Assads made deals with Islamic terror groups that controlled areas throughout Syria for them to move to Idlib rather than fight to the death with the Assad troops. The Assads did this to maintain morale among their own troops, who had been fighting for years and were liable to desert rather than face a death-match with Islamic terrorists. For the last few years there has been fighting in Idlib involving the Islamic terrorists attacked by Assad, Turkish and Kurdish forces, with air support from Russia and Turkey. The fighting is slow, methodical and relentless in killing Islamic terrorists and shrinking the terrorist controlled area.

Syrian armed forces has undergone considerable reconstruction since the Russians showed up in 2015. Before the war began in 2011 the Syrian forces had 450,000 personnel, although 77 percent of them were short term conscripts. When the Russians showed up Syria was depending mainly on Iranian mercenaries (originally mostly Lebanese Shia from Hezbollah) for combat troops. About 70 percent of the Syrian military manpower had disappeared because of deaths, disabling wounds, desertion or refusal to extend their conscript service. The Russians emphasized rebuilding the technical services first, especially air power, artillery and logistics.

Currently the Syrian armed forces have about 100,000 personnel, few of them conscripts and most of them in the army. There are also about 50,000 paramilitary fighters, largely belonging to pro-government local militias. The army only has 80,000 troops and most of those are in support, not combat jobs. Syria tried enforcing conscription after 2011 but it didn’t work. The next best thing was suggested by Iranian IRGC advisors; let the conscripts join local militias whose main job was protecting the area the conscripts were from. This worked but at the expense of rebuilding the personnel strength of the military. Meanwhile Russia has rebuilt the air force and technical services. Many airbases, shut down or destroyed by the fighting have been rebuilt. Older aircraft were repaired and refurbished and additional aircraft and helicopters brought in. The air force is now training more pilots and conscripts don’t mind serving in the air force or tech services. There are some army combat units but not many. Commanders understand that they must keep their own combat losses low if they want to keep soldiers in the military. Most of the combat power comes from artillery, air strikes and a few special operations units for special tasks. The offensive against Islamic terrorists in Idlib and Deir Ezzor is carried out with artillery and air strikes, with troops advancing only when the enemy fighters are dead or fled.

Give the current military situation, the government only controls most of the country in theory. Cash subsidies from Iran and Russia have diminished in the last few years and without money the government cannot pay the troops or police. The economy is a mess, so the troops and police tolerate long delays in being paid. Since the civil war began in 2011 the death toll is estimated to be between 400,000 and 500,000. Iran wanted the civil war to end so they could concentrate on Israel. The key role of Iran in Syria has been noted and no one, not even Iranian allies, are cooperating with the Iranian activities. Iran constantly threatened retaliation against Israel but has been unable to do anything about it. The only ones who cannot walk away from this are the Assad clan that runs the government, Turkey and Israel. The Turks are useful because they allow North Korean weapons and munitions sold to the Syrian government to reach the customer. North Korea offers the best prices but expects to be paid and no credit or delayed payment terms are offered.

Syrians in general, and particularly the Assads, are aware of the damage done to Syria by a decade of war. The best evidence of the performance of the Syrian economy is the strength of the Syrian currency. The black market exchange rate was 50 pounds to the dollar before the violence began in 2011. In late 2022 it was 5,000 pounds to the dollar and currently it is 7,000 pounds to the dollar. The official exchange rate is about 2500 pounds to the dollar but that rate is mainly public relations and does not work on the free market. The average monthly income is under $200 and much of that comes from expatriates sending remittances. The change in exchange rates also reflects the failure of the Assads to make much progress in the last few years. Aid from Russia and Iran had kept the Assad government and the Syrian Air Force going. The loss of oil shipments from Iran is a major factor in the collapse of the economy. The loss of Russian and Iranian support over the last few years was catastrophic because no one else stepped up to replace that aid.

The damage is worse than most outsiders realize when you take into account expected (normal) growth in the economy (GDP) and the population if the war had not happened. This 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 while fewer were born and more died, the most likely population of war-ravaged Syria 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 a third of what it was in 2011. But 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. It would have been much worse without the $50 billion worth of Iranian military and economic aid provided by Iran.


For most of this year Lebanon has been trying to expel Sunni Arab refugees from Syria. Lebanon has started registering and attempting to deport these refugees. The nearly two million Sunni Arab Syrians that fled to Lebanon since 2012 radically changed the demography of Lebanon. Before 2011 the Lebanese population was only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems, it changed the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, and 46 percent Christian (and other religions) to a more volatile combination. With the refugee influx there were now seven million people in Lebanon and 47 percent were Sunni, 19 percent Shia and 34 percent Christian (and others). This put the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and trained fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran-backed Shia Syrian government inflicted on Syrian Sunnis.

Lebanon does not want another civil war over this and it was becoming difficult to contain the anger. Hezbollah and Iran have had some success attracting non-Shia factions, especially Christians, to be part of the Shia coalition. This is traditional Lebanese politics, with the Christians surviving by forming a coalition with non-Christian groups. Now even these Christian factions are backing away from Hezbollah. By 2023 Lebanon felt itself capable of dealing with the refugee crisis, especially since large-scale violence in Syria has largely disappeared. During the Syrian war some 5.5 million Syrians fled to neighboring countries. Turkey has 3.6 million, Lebanon two million and there are 250,000 in Iraq. There are also several million Syrians in Saudi Arabia, who are considered part of the large (over six million foreigners) expatriate workforce. About a third of those workers are Syrians. While many fled to Saudi Arabia because of the war in Syria, they were not treated like refugees and have jobs and status in Saudi Arabia. Countries bordering Syria want their refugees to go home. That cannot happen without the cooperation of the Syrian Assad government. Syria needs a lot of those refugees to revive the economy and the Arab League is willing to allow Syria to rejoin if they reduce their cooperation with Iran. That has always been a dangerous option for the Assads because the Iranians have enough armed operatives inside Syria to threaten the lives of key Assad clan members. Currently, Iranian power is unusually weak inside Iran and inside Syria. Now is a good time for the Assads to make a break from Iran, especially since he has the support of the Arab League and assurances that the League will help, not hinder Assad use of force to maintain their rule in Syria. The Arab League looks after its members and Syria recently rejoined the Arab League. Turkey does not belong to the Arab League but is eager to send its Syrian refugees home. The Assad offer is acceptable if it will finally get those Syrians out of Turkey.

September 4, 2023: In the northwest (Idlib province) Syrian soldiers fired rockets at suspected Islamic terrorist hideouts but missed and killed a nearby civilian and wounded another.

September 3, 2023: In the northeast (Hasaka province), fighting between the Syrian army and Turkey-backed SNA (Syrian National Army) Syrian militias left 18 militiamen and five soldiers dead. The militiamen were attempting to establish themselves on the Syrian side of the border. Hasaka province is largely Kurdish and the Kurds are trying to negotiate an autonomy deal with the Assads. In return the Kurds will continue assisting the Assads against ISIL and the Turks. Since 2016, Turkish troops have crossed into Hasaka several times to gain control of some territory on the Syrian side of the border.

September 2, 2023: In the south (Daraa province), despite the presence of Syrian troops, random violence continues. Today a local man was shot dead by an unidentified gunman. Syrian troops occupy the area but have proved incapable of policing and pacifying it. This is a major problem for the Assad government, because Daraa and several other provinces in eastern and southern Syria are technically government controlled. That has not stopped the continued low-level violence that includes kidnappings, shootings and some deaths. There are factions in Daraa that continue to fight each other and the Assad government to determine who has what. Some of the factions don’t use violence but offer aid to those who behave. Russia has been using this approach and distributes aid in nearby Deir Ezzor province despite the threats from Islamic terrorist and Iran-backed local militias.

September 1, 2023: In the northwest (Idlib province) sixteen soldiers were killed and four wounded when HTS Islamic terrorists attacked them. The Syrian army is trying to eliminate HTS and other Islamic terrorists in Idlib but are having a difficult time of it.

August 30, 2023: The Iranian Foreign minister visited Damascus to discuss, among other things, the military situation in eastern Syria. This includes Deir Ezzor province, the Euphrates River Valley and the Baida desert area that extends into nearby Jordan. Baida covers 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) and represents about half of Syria, 85 percent of Jordan, and smaller portions of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Baida desert has long been the scene of ISIL activity and fighting against and between Islamic terrorists. All these desert areas are thinly populated by Sunni Arabs who are inclined to tolerate or support ISIL as long as ISIL attacks were directed at military targets and not local civilians. That has changed with eastern Syria with the fighting now involving American, Kurdish and Syrian forces in addition to ISIL and local tribal militias. Iran doesn’t have any military forces here but it supply the Syrians with weapons and some of these weapons are moved by truck from Iran through this area. That has become more risky because of the increased violence. Before that all the Iranian convoys had to worry about was the risk of Israeli or American air strikes. Russian air strikes against ISIL still take place in this area, using Russian warplanes from the Hmeimim airbase near the Mediterranean coast. Most of the Iranian weapon’s convoys are headed for Lebanon, for the Iran backed Hezbollah militia to use against enemies in Lebanon and Israel as well.

August 28, 2023: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the U.S. backed, largely Kurdish, SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) are fighting local tribes, Islamic terrorists and some Iran-backed militias. Iran considers the SDF a major obstacle to achieving their goals in Syria. This includes driving the Americans out and keeping the Assad government in power.

In northern Syria (Aleppo) an Israeli airstrike damaged airport facilities and halted flight activities for at least two days as repairs were made. Attacks on commercial airports are seen as a way to halt or slow down Iranian use of commercial air transports to deliver high-tech weapons to Syria. These airstrikes are delivered by Israeli warplanes operating off the coast and firing high-speed air-to-ground missiles at the airports.

August 13, 2023: In the south (near Damascus) an Israeli airstrike was carried out against Iranian (Hezbollah) targets. No casualties were reported. Large fires could be seen and explosions heard for several hours. These attacks are a regular occurrence because Iran continues to try and get enough missiles into Syria so they can launch regular missile attacks on Israel. Such attacks must involve lots of missiles to get past the Israeli missile defenses and so far these Israeli air strikes on Iranian missile shipments have delayed the Iranian attacks. Today's Israeli airstrike was the 22nd so far this year.

August 12, 2023: In the south (near Damascus) an explosion destroyed a Hezbollah weapons warehouse outside the city. There was no air strike and no obvious indications of what caused the explosion. Similar explosions have occurred recently, which also leave Iran-backed Syrian warehouse guards. Similar explosions have taken place in Iranian warehouses further from cities like Damascus or Aleppo.

August 7, 2023: In the south (near Damascus) an Israeli airstrike hit an Iranian base, causing damage while killing four soldiers and wounding four others. Iran is seeking to establish missile assembly and manufacturing facilities in Syria but is having a difficult time avoiding detection and attacks by Israel.

August 6, 2023: In the northwest Syria (Hama province) an Israeli air-strike against the SSRC (Scientific Studies and Research Center) facility at Masyaf. This attack killed a Syrian scientist who specialized in developing precision weapons. Israel has been monitoring and occasionally attacking Masyaf for years. Since 2017 Iran has been actively assisting Syria in expanding the Masyaf operation, resuming the manufacture of chemical weapons and moving more of that to underground bunkers that are resistant to airstrikes. The recent attacks destroyed all the entrances to the underground facilities and apparently collapsed some or all of the underground spaces. Israel makes it clear that such attacks will continue as long as Syria and its patron Iran try to attack Israel and openly call for the destruction of Israel.

August 3, 2023: In the south (near Damascus) an Israeli airstrike hit Hezbollah targets. The warehouses containing Iranian munitions exploded and lit up the night sky. Four Syrian soldiers were killed and four wounded. Two members of an Iran-backed militia were also killed. The was the 21st Israeli airstrike in Syria this year.

July 28, 2023: In the northeast a Turkish UAV fired two missiles at a vehicle carrying four PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) men. Turkish UAVs regularly do this in Syria and across the border in Iraq.

July 24, 2023: Russian jet fighters continue to harass American MQ-9 UAVs by flying to close or launching flares at the unmanned aircraft. Russia doesn’t want a war with the Americans in Syria, but is not reluctant to express hostility. This is apparently a reaction to American support for Ukrainians fighting Russian invaders since early 2022. Russia only has a few thousand troops in Syria, most of them stationed at the Russian controlled Hmeimim airbase that 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.

July 23, 2023: In southern Turkey (Hatay province) locals are objecting to mountains of rubble accumulating as the cleanup from the February earthquakes continues. Some of the piles contain asbestos and other toxic materials. There are at least 18 major rubble sites in Hatay and a few more across the border in Syria.

Source: Ocnus.net 2022