Formerly known as the Levant, The Syrian Arab Republic officially gained its independence in 1945. Following years of political instability and military coups, the Baath party took over the reins of the country in the 1960’s. Hafez al-Assad became President of Syria in 1971 and remained in power up until 2000 when his son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him.
The Baath regime is a secular one, ruling over a population of 17 million people which includes 8 main ethnic groups and 6 main religious groups.
Ethinc Map of Syria. Shows Syria is a real jigsaw as far as ethnicity and religion is concerned. Also shows that all the minorities are on the Western flank still controlled by the regime. If ISIS takes that, you’ll see a proper purge verging on genocide.
What is ISIS and Origins of the Conflict.
So what is ISIS? The conflict in Syria can find its roots in the Iraqi invasion by the US led coalition in 2003. Prior to the 2003 invasion, Iraq was ruled by Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Baath party. Saddam ruled with the help of the Sunni minority over a large Shia majority situated in the South of the country. Following the invasion of Iraq, the Coalition forces disbanded the Baath party with its national and regional structures alongside the disbanding of the Iraqi army and police which created a power vacuum.
The situation led to an uprising or insurgency that saw Sunni groups and tribes uniting with ex Iraqi police officers, soldiers and army officers to fight the Western Coalition troops. In 2006, the situation took a turn for the worse with the election of Nouri al-Maliki as Iraqi prime minister. Nouri al-Maliki was Shia and was openly supported by the US. The Sunni minority took it badly and thus, the Sunni insurgency started to target Iraqi armed forces and police personnel as well as Shia civilians. Shia militias promptly responded, starting a cycle of sectarian violence. What had begun as an uprising and a war of resistance against an occupying force had become a civil war between Iraqis; Sunni against Shia.
In 2011, the world witnessed the Arab Spring spreading across North Africa and the Middle East. It started in Tunisia in December 2010 where demonstrators demanded democratic reforms. The movement progressively appeared in other countries, most notably Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Libya.
By July 2011, the Arab Spring was in full swing in Syria with demonstrators asking for Bashar al Assad’s resignation. The Syrian president responded with violence, with the police then the army trying to crush the opposition. The country descended into chaos with once peaceful protesters taking up arms and facing up to the Syrian army. Several resistance groups appeared in Syria. Some of those groups took advantage of the chaos and power vacuum in the country and began strengthening their position and gaining ground. Flash forward to today and it is clear to see the Syrian revolution has been hijacked by foreign groups and that the majority of the insurgents fighting the government forces are foreign volunteers with no roots in Syria whatsoever.
The Actors in Syria.
– SAA. The Syria Arab Army. Those are the regular forces loyal to the Syrian government. – FSA. The Free Syrian Army. Founded in 2011, the FSA was originally made up of Syrian soldiers who had deserted from the SAA to fight on the side of the protesters. The rest of the ranks were filled by civilian volunteers who had taken up arms. – ISIS/ISIL. Founded in 1999 by a Jordanian Salafist radical, the group swore allegiance to Al-Quaeda and appeared in Iraq in 2004 under the acronym AQI (Al-Quaeda in Iraq). By 2006, it had become ISI or Islamic state of Iraq. From 2011 onward, it spread to Syria. It became known as ISIL (Islamic state of Iraq and the Levant) in 2013. In 2014, it renounced its allegiance to Al-Quaeda and proclaimed the establishment of a Sunni Caliphate over the territories it controlled in Iraq and Syria. – Al-Nusra. Called the Al-Nusra front, this group was established in Syria in 2012. Loyal to Al-Quaeda, this is a Sunni insurgent group that wants to overthrow Al Assad to create an Islamic state in Syria. – Jordan. A member of the Western Coalition and a neighbour of Syria. – Turkey. A neighbour of Syria. Officially a member of the Coalition but has been backing the Sunni insurgency and a declared enemy of Assad. – Great Britain. A member of the Western Coalition – The USA. A member of the Coalition – France. Also a member of the Western Coalition – Russia. An ally of Assad. – Saudi Arabia. The regional Sunni powerhouse. Officially an ally of the US, has been backing the Sunni insurgency. – Iran. The regional Shia powerhouse. An ally of Assad’s Syria. – Hezbollah. Founded in South Lebanon in 1985, this Shia militia is backed by Iran and is fighting alongside the SAA in Syria. – Kurdish Peshmergas. Fighting the Sunni insurgency. Helped by the Assad regime. – Israel. Israel and Syria have fought each other in three separate wars. Israel conquered the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and subsequently annexed it. – Iraq.A neighbour of Syria, Iraq is fighting its own counter-insurgency war against ISIS. – Egypt. Egypt is supporting Assad.
This is a very complex one. Because of his violent repression of the Arab spring in his country, Assad is not popular at all amongst Western leaders. The US, Great Britain and France want to see him gone. This is also the point of view of most of the Gulf monarchies and of Turkey. The US and Great Britain have been supporting, arming and training the moderate rebel groups in Syria in the hope of seeing Assad being overthrown and a democratic regime being installed in the country. They are also fighting ISIS but are more ambiguous about Al-Nusra. The Free Syrian army was the main moderate rebel group in Syria from 2011 to early 2015. This is the group Great Britain and the US have mainly been arming and training. This is no longer the case as the FSA pledged allegiance to Al-Nusra in early 2015.
Saudi Arabia is wary of the regional ambitions of Shia arch-enemy Iran. As the Sunni main power centre in the Middle East, it has been supporting Sunni insurgency groups in Syria. Mainly Al-Nusra. It seems to become more radical as ISIS gains ground in Iraq and Syria, seemingly anxious to remain a good Sunni “role model”.
Turkey has been ambiguous since the start of the Syrian uprising. While officially a close ally of the US and a NATO member state, Turkey has long supported ISIS. The country is a staunch opponent of the Assad regime. Turkey is the main point of passage for volunteers willing to join ISIS’s ranks. On top of practising an open border policy for wannabe jihadists, Turkey has provided ISIS with weapons and ammunitions, medical supplies and intel and has been financing the group through the purchase of the oil pumped in the oil wells in the areas under the control of the militant group.
Iran is the main Shia centre of power of the region. The rise of Sunni uprisings in the region and the ambitions of Saudi Arabia are worrying Tehran. Iran shares a border with Iraq; therefore, if ISIS grows strong enough in Syria and Iraq and expands further, Iran could find itself fighting a Sunni insurgency at its borders or worse, inside its own territory.
The Hezbollah. As a Shia militia and political movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah is concerned by the rise of Sunni groups in neighbouring Syria as the violence could easily spill over the border into Lebanon. Hezbollah was founded by Iranian clerics and is still funded and armed by Iran and is therefore loyal to Tehran.
The Kurdish resistance. As the SAA was unable to defend the whole Syrian territory, it retreated from most Kurdish areas. Kurdish militias took upon themselves to defend their communities against ISIS and Al-Nusra. The Kurds have gained a large de-facto autonomy over their territories since the beginning of the civil war in Syria. This worries Ankara which for years has been fighting Kurdish insurgency in Turkey itself and in Northern Iraq. Turkey is against the idea of an autonomous or independent Kurdish nation.
Jordan is another secular country in the region. It has amongst its population a small but active Salafist minority that supports ISIS. Jordan hosts a US airbase and a coordination centre where the Western Coalition members share info on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Jordan is also where most Western Coalition warplanes are based and from where they launch raids on ISIS positions.
Egypt. Egypt is fighting a counter-insurgency war in the Sinai and is having troubles with the Muslim brotherhood. Recently sided with Assad.
Iraq. Has been fighting a counter insurgency war against the Sunni uprising that later became ISIS. Is now openly supporting Assad. Hosts a coordination centre in Baghdad where Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran share intel on ISIS and coordinate their efforts against the group.
Russia is supporting Assad for several reasons: Russia has been fighting its own Islamic insurgency in the north Caucasus since the mid 90’s. An estimated 5,000 Chechen fighters are present in the ranks of ISIS in Syria. The return of those battle hardened men inside the Russian Federation would be a nightmare. Russians in Syria has caught the eyes of the World, especially NATO.
Russia points toward Iraq and Libya as examples of what can happen when a government and power structure of a country with a complex ethnic and religious make up is violently removed.
The ensuing power vacuum fills up with extremist groups and the end result is sectarian violence, death and chaos. Where the Western Coalition members insist on only fighting ISIS in the region, Russia classes all the armed rebel groups (ISIS, FSA, Al-Nusra) as terrorists and therefore fights them all. Finally, Russia -and before it, the Soviet Union- has long been an ally of the Syrian regime.
Political Situation Involving Israel.
Israel having fought 3 wars against Syria is naturally wary of its neighbour. Israel is also mindful of the fact Syria often helps the Lebanese Hezbollah. But Israel is worried about the Sunni insurgency in this country, knowing that should Syria fall, Israel would be next on the list of targets of ISIS.
Israel is also worried about Iran and Hezbollah involvement in Syria. The country is in a bad situation, really. Should Assad survive the conflict and win, Israel would keep on sharing its border with an army it fought 3 times. Should Assad and Syria fall, Israel might find itself sharing a border with an Islamic state (Al-Nusra) or an Islamic Caliphate (ISIS). Finally, should the fighting continue, Israel might wake up finding Iranian or Hezbollah troops at its borders.
In the early 70’s, the Baath party in power in Syria entered a relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1971, both sides signed an agreement permitting the Soviet navy to use the port of Tartus, in the Mediterranean. The Tartus facilities are very small. The Russians call it a “Material-Technical Support-Point “. Only medium size ships can be accommodated.
It enables Russian ships in the Mediterranean to be resupplied in-situ rather than having to go all the way back to Sevastopol in the Black Sea to do so. In the early 80’s, Syria sent a captured Israeli Magach-5 tank to Moscow for evaluation. In return, Syria was the only country outside the USSR to receive a delivery of T-72A.
Syria has always been an important customer of Soviet and Russian weapon systems and Moscow has often supported secular regimes in the region. The Russians in Syria has got a huge international attention back to Syria.
The military situation in the country is as overly complex as the political one. The air forces of Jordan, Great Britain, France and the US have launched air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria. The Syrian air force has been deployed against all rebel groups in Syria.
The Israeli air force has been deployed against Syrian positions several times. The Turkish air force was meant to join the coalition in striking ISIS positions but has instead targeted Kurdish positions alongside its border.
The Russian air force has been active for quite some time now, targeting positions belonging to all rebel groups present in Syria. On the ground, British and US Special Forces are deployed in Syria. The US is actively supporting the Kurdish forces. The SAA, alongside the Kurds, Hezbollah troops and Iranian revolutionary guards are fighting ISIS. The SAA is also fighting against the FSA and Al-Nusra. There is no point making a distinction between those two as the FSA has pledged allegiance to Al-Nusra. ISIS is fighting against Al-Nusra-FSA, the Kurds, the SAA, Hezbollah and the Iranian revolutionary guards.
The SAA has lost a lot of ground in the past few months. The toll taken by 4 years of continual fighting starts to show. Its recruitment relies on an ever shrinking pool of individual as it loses ground to its enemies. A lot of the losses in men have not been replaced as the attrition rate is constant. Assad has recently admitted the SAA is now too short of manpower to defend the territory it must hold. Unlike the SAA, ISIS and Al-Nusra benefit from Turkey’s open border policy to receive a never ending flow of new young recruits.
Finally, as around 35,000 foreign fighters are now fighting in ISIS and Al-Nusra ranks, it can be said that Syria is no longer fighting a civil war but a foreign invasion.
A lot of the moderates that took up arms against Assad at the beginning of the conflict have now gone home or have fled the country, disgusted that their revolution was hijacked by foreign groups and scared of the atrocities committed by those said groups.
Furthermore, it seems the Americans have been betrayed by all their allies in the region. Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all supported the Sunni insurgency the US led coalition has been trying to fight. The so called moderate members of the FSA took training and weapons from the US and later joined the ranks of Al-Nusra.
The Western Coalition has obsessed so much about the removal of Assad from power that it took the risk of not engaging Al-Nusra directly in Syria in the hope of weakening Assad’s position which is a pretty dangerous game to play as Al-Nusra is in fact Al-Quaeda and that this group cannot be called moderate.
Recently, the US switched to another strategy which is to train small groups of moderates in Turkey before sending them to fight the SAA in Syria. This strategy looks to be doomed also as the last two groups of rebels were intercepted by ISIS and Al-Nusra as soon as they crossed the border into Syria. The commonly held suspicion is that the Turkish services tipped of the Sunni insurgency of the time and place where the rebel groups would cross the border.
The recent Russian intervention is Syria changes the game and the dynamics in the region. By going in, Russia has forced the Western Coalition members to resume communication with Moscow to avoid any incident in the Syrian sky. The presence of Russian AA systems, interceptors and jet fighters may cause problems to the Israeli and Turkish air forces that up until now could operate over Syria with relative impunity. While members of the Western Coalition and Russia are both fighting ISIS, Russia supports Assad and fights all rebel groups while the Western Coalition wants Assad gone and still supports some of those rebel groups.
Russians in Syria, Weapon Systems Spotted and Russian Tactics.
Infauna K1Sh1 UnSh-12
Image Credtits: Yaplakal.com.Rarer than unicorns. Designed to jam all radio and cell phone communication over a wide area, this vehicle can be used to actively jam enemy communications during an offensive or protect a whole convoy from radio / cell phone activated roadside IED. Here’s our post on our Facebook site. We updated as soon as we saw the rare vehicle. You can click here for the post.
This broadband multifunctional jamming station can be used to suppress enemy communications as well as jam enemy radars, counter AWACS type systems and low earth orbit satellites. Has a range of 300km.
Multipurpose infantry vehicle.
This is a jamming resistant voice and data communication device working on UHF/VHF frequencies. It is used as a mobile command vehicle and enables long distance protected communications.
T-90A / T90S
Photo Credits: Pavel Kazachkov. Creative Commons License. Not sure which variant of T-90 has been deployed but several of them have been seen taking up defensive positions around the Russian air base close to Latakia.
Photo Credits: Lyudmila Izmaylova. Creative Commons License. Advanced 8X8 APC equipped with a dual feed 30mm automatic gun in a turret. Seen alongside the T-90s guarding the access roads to Latakia airbase.
Pantsir-S1Short to medium range AA system. Seen on overwatch around the Latakia airbase.
Mi-24 Hind, Mi-8 Hip
Deployed in Latakia air base. Apparently on stand-by for SAR (Search and rescue) mission should a Russian plane be shot down by enemy fire. The Hinds can also be used to patrol the perimeter of the airbase.
Photo Credits: Rob Schleiffert. Creative Commons License. Su-24 is astrike aircraft. It seems to be used for daytime strikes. It is also certainly used for reconnaissance flights.
Photo Credits:Rob Schleiffert. Creative Commons License. A lowflying close air support / ground attack aircraft. It seems to be used for night time raids in Syria.
Photo Credits: Alan Wilson. Creative Commons License. The successor of the Su-24 and the most modern fighter bomber/strike aircraft in the Russian Air Force.
Su-30SM Flanker C
Su-30SM which is the Russian version of the Indian Su-30MKI. While it can be used for ground attack, this is above all a pure dogfighter and one of the most modern fighter jet in the Russian inventory. It Is used to patrol Syrian airspace.
Photo Credits: Martijn. Creative Commons License. Information about the delivery of 6 MiG-31 interceptors to Syria are sketchy. It is not sure if those planes have been handed over to the Syrians or if they are operated by the Russians. It is in any case a fearsome pure bred interceptor. It has not been spotted on the Latakia airbase.
So far, the Russian strategy seems simple.
It has first reinforced its contingent in Tartus. It then sent about 200 men belonging to a Black Sea naval infantry outfit to secure the Latakia airbase. T-90 and BTR-82A were seen on the spot, as well as one Infauna K1Sh1 UnSh-12 and one R-166-0.5 mobile command centre.Technical personnel installed semi-permanent facilities to house military personnel on that base and resurfaced the landing strips. Hardware arrived by landing ships, sailing from Sevastopol, through the Bosporus strait and by cargo plane flying from Russia, over the Caspian Sea, then crossing over Iran and Iraq before arriving in Syrian airspace.
Unsurprisingly. The Russian air force first air strikes targeted the rebel groups positions closest to their Latakia airbase and close to Damascus, namely Homs and Hama. While they have mainly used TV guided and laser guided 500kg bombs against most targets, they seem to have also used 1000kg fuel air explosive bombs against ISIS positions near Raqqa. Their most logical move would be to secure the Eastern edge of Syria first, then support ground troops as they fan Westward. Their biggest political and military challenge will be to seal the Northern border with Turkey, finally shutting down the flow of money, weapons and foreign fighters coming into Syria to join the ranks of ISIS and Al-Nura.
The first Russian raids targeted US trained rebels near Homs which angered Washington. While the US still want to believe there are reliable rebel groups in Syria with which to work toward a better Syria. Moscow says it will not make a distinction between “good and bad terrorists”. This has pitted the international community against Moscow.
The main difference between Moscow and the Western Coalition is that Moscow wants all armed groups to be defeated first before talking about Assad’s future or departure from power while the Western Coalition wants Assad gone first and consider some of the armed groups as moderate. Moscow only wants to deal with political opposition not armed opposition in Syria.
The recent frictions between the Russian and Turkish air forces along the Syrian border is not good. Turkey is a NATO member state. A clash or incident between those two air forces could lead to something much bigger and tragic. Too many planes belonging to too many countries are now operating over Syrian skies.
The Russian move was swift and took Washington by surprise. The US are not used to lose the initiative on the global scene. Their move to try and force Bulgaria and Greece to close their airspace to Russian military traffic was seen as a last gap attempt to hamper the Russian effort. What will the US do now that they are on the defensive in the region? While they might be relieved somebody is doing the dirty work in Syria for them, The Russian move puts the Western coalition in font of its contradictions (regarding their support to so called moderate rebel groups). It has also angered the US allies in the region, namely Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It has also put Israel in a difficult situation.
Finally, Moscow poker move seems to have brought it the favours of both Egypt and Iraq. Both are US allies in the region but both are more than actively cooperating with Russia on the Syrian subject. Both have opened up their airspace to Russian military traffic recently.
All the images follow the Creative Commons License, ability to use for Commercial purposes. Thus are free to be commercially distributed, can be redistributed in any medium and can also be modified, as long as proper credits are given (Which has been) and if changes are made is mentioned.