Nothing changed in 2020 for Syrians, be it in terms of its political process nor military operations, although during the first three months the country faced a severe military escalation that stopped only after a Turkish-Russian agreement of a fragile truce. But the reality of Syria’s military movements indicates that the military forces worked to consolidate their existence and build more bases in several strategic areas.
Syria has become a playground for five key players, each of whom is seeking to protect its interests, consolidate its military presence, redraw its influence map, and strengthen its bargaining position when the final political solution process begins.
5 Armies, 500 Military Bases
A recent study by the Jusoor Center indicates that there were approximately 477 military sites in 2020 in the Syrian scene, belonging to influential international actors: U.S.-led International Coalition, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Hezbollah.
The U.S.-led International Coalition has 33 military positions, bases, or posts in four provinces including Al-Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor, Al-Raqqa, and Damascus countryside. Most of these positions are based in areas that were previously under ISIS control before being recaptured by the SDF supported by coalition forces. The U.S.-led International Coalition also established two military bases in Rif Dimashq Governorate on the Syrian-Jordanian border, near the Rukban camp, which is still controlled by some Syrian opposition factions.
The coalition military bases appear to be an observation post and no military activity has been apparent during the last years. The U.S.-led International Coalition forces’ positions indicate that they focused on the Syrian oil fields and Syrian-Iraq border strip, where American bases were also located on the Iraq side. So it is safe to say that the U.S. may be interested to create a rear corridor that will support its presence in Iraq and impede Russian or Iranian expansion in this region.
Russia, the most prominent player in the Syrian War, has also established 83 military sites, bases, or posts spread around the governorates of Hama, Hasakeh, Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor, Al-Raqqa, Suwayda', Idlib, Homs, Damascus, Lattakia, Quneitra, and Tartus. From the locations it is clear that Russia is trying to encircle the Syrian opposition areas in order to prevent counterattacks, consolidate areas of control, mainly in the main cities, which were under full or partial opposition control such as Aleppo and some towns in Damascus countryside like Duma.
Russia focuses on strengthening its presence in the eastern Euphrates provinces, taking advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from some northern areas, and doing some deals with the SDF as it seeks to counterbalance Iranian presence, particularly in eastern and southern Syria. Moreover, Russia is also trying to control the international routes such as the Aleppo-Damascus and Aleppo-Hasakah routes as well as areas on both Euphrates Riversides and its tributaries.
Turkey, in 2020, established 113 military sites, bases, and posts inside Syria in five governorates including Aleppo, Idlib, Al-Raqqa, Hasakah, and Lattakia.
These positions indicate Turkey's desire to consolidate the Syrian opposition influence on the border strip - an unfinished project until now - and to balance Russian forces on the other side.
Meanwhile, Iran has 131 military positions in Syria consisting of bases and posts, mainly concentrated in Daraa Governorate, Damascus and its countryside, followed by Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor, Homs, then Hama, Lattakia, Suwayda, Quneitra, and Idlib. Iran's priorities appear to be focusing on Daraa Governorate, the southern borders near Israel, Damascus City, and its countryside primarily, followed by Aleppo and Deir Ez-Zor Governorates, especially the Euphrates Riversides near to the border.
Iran's presence is also concentrated in the Syrian Governorates, which contain Shia minorities, such as Homs, Hama, and Tartus, while there is no apparent presence around the vicinity of the opposition areas, of which Russia controls its military operations.
The Lebanese Hezbollah militia - which is almost under Iranian control - has 116 military positions, bases, and posts. Its presence is concentrated primarily in Aleppo, followed by Daraa, then the eastern side of Idlib Governorate, where the opposition-controlled areas are, then the Lebanon border strip in Homs and Damascus countryside Governorates.
This proliferation allows Hezbollah militia to control the arms and drugs trade and smuggle it across the Syrian territory, whether through the Jordanian or Lebanese border.
These Iranian and Hezbollah military bases have been targeted by Israeli strikes this year, although the strikes were less than their predecessors, as they did not exceed 50 strikes, but some of these strikes have destroyed vital targets such as weapon stores and military sites and were concentrated in Deir Ezzor and Damascus countryside military bases.
2020 saw a resurgence of ISIS activity concentrated in the Syrian desert. Amaq Agency, the ISIS official agency, indicated that it launched 593 attacks, resulting in more than 1,300 deaths and injuries.
Although the figures announced by ISIS appear to be exaggerated, regime forces and some Russian forces have been targeted many times and have suffered many casualties, especially in the Syrian desert. It is a large security area, and cannot be easily surrounded or mobilized, especially by regular armies, while its nature allows for maneuvering and attrition, especially for guerrilla warfare.
It has been said that ISIS’ return may have been a result of some Bedouin elements joining the movement, as they wanted to take revenge on Assad's and Iran's forces. These new groups were so familiar with moving and hiding in the desert, and they had their combat training from ISIS fighters who withdrew before the final battles in Baghouz. On the other hand, many Syrians believe that there is an attempt to exaggerate ISIS’ emergence in Syria, especially since its resurgence may be a trump card for the Assad regime and the SDF.
It is not strange that the Assad regime turned a blind eye or even provided indirect support to it by facilitating ISIS in targeting Syrian rebels and seizing some of the spoils. ISIS’ presence will serve the Assad regime and its president Bashar Al-Assad, who is preparing to run yet again for the presidency and is trying to re-market himself to the world as the only safety valve against ISIS in the Middle East.
On the other hand, ISIS’ return to the foreground will strengthen the SDF’s position, and it will be able to restore the American support and stop their withdrawal forces, especially after the new US administration comes into effect.
The recent Syrian map and all the events indicate that the Syrians have a whole lot of new burdens; in addition to their struggle to topple the Assad regime, they also have to struggle to expel foreign forces that have colonial goals in their country. On top of that, they also have to address the radical groups before they become a tool that would hurt their dream of a democratic state and strengthen the Assad regime and international recognition of it.