After five years of civil war, it’s time to bid farewell to Syria
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AnalysisAn Iranian general has opened a bureau for himself in Damascus, from where he plans attacks on Israeli targets in the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza

After five years of civil war, it’s time to bid farewell to Syria

The former state is gone and will never return. A regime of sorts survives in Damascus, but it takes its orders from Iran

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, March 2, 2016, Syrian solders guard near a tent where local leaders and elders signed a declaration pledging to abide by a truce Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers west of Hama, Syria. Associated Press spent five days traveling through the port of Latakia and the surrounding areas in Syria during the cease-fire. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, March 2, 2016, Syrian solders guard near a tent where local leaders and elders signed a declaration pledging to abide by a truce Maarzaf, about 15 kilometers west of Hama, Syria. Associated Press spent five days traveling through the port of Latakia and the surrounding areas in Syria during the cease-fire. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

Approximately five years have elapsed since the popular protest against Bashar Assad’s regime began in Syria — a protest that spiraled into a blood-drenched civil war that has claimed the lives of nearly half a million people. After years of battle, murder, massacre, and even attacks with chemical weapons, no end seems to be in sight.

Five years in, the only thing that can be said with any certainty (this is the Middle East, after all) is that Syria in its former guise — a state with clearly defined borders and a single government based in Damascus — is no more. It has passed from the world, (evidently) never to return. What remains is an area of land that is split, torn, and divided among hundreds of groups of armed men fighting against one another and working hard to wipe out anything that might be left of it.

A regime of sorts survives in Damascus, taking orders from its bosses in Tehran. Indeed, the former Syria is a pawn in a game between the superpowers — the United States and Russia — as well as the Muslim powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The Tehran-led Shiite axis, together with Russia, is fighting against the (relatively, of course) moderate Sunni axis led by Saudi Arabia, and both of them are fighting against Islamic State, which is the only winner in this civil war.

From left: US President Barack Obama, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP/File photos)
From left: US President Barack Obama, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin (AP/File photos)

The area that was known until fairly recently as Syria is today divided into territories controlled by the Russian-sponsored Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis, mainly toward the northwest; territory controlled by the Sunni rebels supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia; areas where the Kurds have created an autonomous region of sorts, and, of course, territory controlled by Islamic State. Within all this, more villages and towns that maintain semi-independent status are acting according to local considerations.

Where is all this headed?

The worst-case scenario is that the civil war continues for many more years. The most positive scenario is the establishment of a federation, backed and supported by the superpowers, on the territory that was once Syria.

A hope began to glimmer in recent months, mainly in the West, that perhaps the Russian aerial blitz would do the job. Bashar Assad’s army, supported by Iranian aid and together with Hezbollah troops and Russian air cover, gained significant ground in several sectors: in the northwestern region near Aleppo, toward the Turkish border, and in the Daraa region in the south, where a town by the name of Al-Shaykh Maskin was captured by Assad’s troops.

These supposedly dramatic movements, after many months of stalemate and stagnation in Syria, created a feeling that the “Shiite axis” was still advancing toward victory. To this we can add the ceasefire that was declared in Syria about ten days ago, which calmed the fighting somewhat. But these developments are nowhere near enough to remake the situation.

First, the military achievements of Assad’s army have stopped. Its troops have not advanced toward Al-Shaykh Maskin, nor has any progress on the ground been made in the north. The stream of refugees fleeing northward has increased, and no new territory has been captured.

Thanks to the nuclear deal, tens of billions of dollars will soon be flowing into Iran’s coffers, allowing it to continue its enormous military investment in Syria

Iran has removed all its combat troops from Syrian territory, sending approximately 2,400 Revolutionary Guard combat troops home to Tehran and leaving Assad and Hezbollah with the Russian airstrikes and the war against opposition forces. About 700 military personnel of the Revolutionary Guard do remain on Syrian soil — as advisers, not fighters.

While the ceasefire may have brought a certain calm, it has not stopped the killing. One hundred forty people were killed during the first week of the truce alone. The Russians stopped bombardments for 24 hours, but have since resumed their attacks on Islamic State strongholds and on targets of the “moderate” Syrian opposition. The Americans and their coalition are bombarding Islamic State targets, and the Turks are attacking the Kurds and Islamic State. As a high-ranking Israeli official put it, “What do people do during a meal break? They eat. So what do they do during a shooting break? They shoot.”

Introducing Iran’s Saeed Izzadi, directing anti-Israel terror from Damascus

Tehran is, without a doubt, the dominant player in Syria.

In addition to its hundreds of advisers, it is also in charge of the Shiite militias from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and of Hezbollah too.

Hezbollah, for its part, is sending thousands of combat troops to Syria on Iran’s orders. Israeli officials estimate that 1,500 Hezbollah troops have been killed and between 6,500 and 7,000 wounded. In other words, more than one-third of Hezbollah’s regular combat troops are out of commission.

The Iranians had some difficulty funding such a large number of troops before the sanctions were lifted. But thanks to the nuclear deal, tens of billions of dollars will soon be flowing into Iran’s coffers, allowing it to continue its enormous military investment in Syria and in other places as well.

Iran’s problem is that its agreement to fight on the ground alongside Hezbollah and Assad’s army led to not-insignificant losses among its own forces, with soldiers being sent back to Tehran in coffins. That is why Iran decided to pull out its combat troops.

But Iran continues to act — advising others’ combat troops on the one hand and creating a new fighting front with Israel from the Golan Heights on the other.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (YouTube/BBC Newsnight)
Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (YouTube/BBC Newsnight)

The man in charge of this latter project is Saeed Izzadi, a high-ranking officer in the Revolutionary Guards, a member of the Quds Force and a close associate of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani.

Izzadi has opened a bureau for himself in Damascus. From there he plans attacks Israeli targets on the Golan Heights, and in the West Bank and Gaza as well.

Izzadi seems to have been behind three cells that have operated against Israel on the Syrian Golan Heights. The first cell was that of Imad Mughniyeh, who together with major players in Hezbollah planned a series of large-scale attacks, including infiltration into Israeli communities. This unit was eliminated in January 2015.

Iran’s main adversary was and remains Islamic State

The second cell was that of Samir Kuntar, who tried to enlist the aid of local Druze due to his own religious origin and his various connections. This cell collapsed with Kuntar’s elimination in December.

The third cell was led by Palestinian Islamic Jihad members responsible for rocket fire into Israeli territory in August 2015. They were eliminated on their way back to Damascus.

Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (right) speaking next to freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar (left) at a stadium in Beirut, July 16, 2008. (AFP/Mussa al-Husseini, file)
Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (right) speaking next to freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar (left) at a stadium in Beirut, July 16, 2008. (AFP/Mussa al-Husseini, file)

Far from giving up, Izzadi and the members of the Quds Force are expected to continue their efforts to engage in terror attacks on the Golan Heights.

At the same time, Izzadi is busy building infrastructure in the West Bank and arming Hamas’s military wing in Gaza.

All of this is being done from his Damascus operations center, though it is not at all certain that Assad knows anything about the scope of his activities.

Islamic State on the defensive

Iran’s main adversary was and remains Islamic State, despite attempts by Tehran and Moscow to focus their efforts on other groups in northern Syria where Islamic State has no presence. It should be noted that Islamic State has taken a severe military and financial beating in recent weeks. It has suffered defeats in Iraq as well, and in Syria it is being bombarded from every direction.

The Kurds had been considered the weakest group in the Syrian arena, but they have proven themselves militarily

The worst problem Islamic State faces may be cash flow. The Americans have focused their combat effort on the group’s funding sources, apparently with some success. Islamic State’s crude oil exports have suffered, and even the places where it keeps cash have been bombarded in airstrikes. This has created a severe problem for Islamic State’s recruitment of new volunteers, since it had been paying them a significant salary (in addition to promising them eternal life). In all, since 2014, which was Islamic State’s best year, the organization is now on the defensive, with enemies in every direction.

Besides Islamic State, the civil war in Syria has thrown into sharp relief another player, this time a positive one: the Kurds. Although they had been considered the weakest group in the Syrian arena, they have proven themselves militarily by virtue of their order, discipline, and organization. The peshmerga and YPG Kurdish People’s Protection Units have garnered significant accomplishments on the ground in the Kobani sector among other locations.

In this photo released on May 20, 2015, provided by the Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Kurdish fighters of the YPG flash victory signs as they sit on their pickup truck on their way to battle against the Islamic State group, near Kezwan mountain, northeast Syria. (The Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units via AP)
In this photo released on May 20, 2015, provided by the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, Kurdish fighters of the YPG flash victory signs as they sit on their pickup truck on their way to battle against the Islamic State group, near Kezwan mountain, northeast Syria. (The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units via AP)

The YPG receives assistance from Russia, evidently as part of Russia’s effort to taunt Turkey, which does not want to see a Russian aerial military presence, or a Russian presence of any other sort, in the region and is firmly opposed to the establishment of Kurdish autonomy.

But de facto Kurdish independence is already happening as the Kurds make slow but steady progress toward the south and the west. While the establishment of an official Kurdish political entity on Syrian and Turkish soil may sound far-fetched, the fact is that Kurds already hold and control vast swaths of territory.

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