February 20, 2013: The fighting is most violent in the northwest, where rebels keep gaining ground in Aleppo (the largest city in Syria) and are putting pressure on air bases and military bases in the area. Several bases have been captured in the last week. These military facilities are increasingly difficult to supply and the Syrian army is suffering growing losses just trying to get the supply convoys through. All of northern Syria, down to Damascus, is being lost to various rebel groups. The government does not have any large reserves to send north. Rebels noticed another army battalion (several hundred troops) showing up recently, but that was not enough to make much difference. The Kurds control the northeast and continue to skirmish with Islamic radical rebel groups. Most of the Iraqi border is controlled by local Sunni Arab tribes. Once Aleppo and the remaining military bases in the north fall, the war will concentrate on Damascus.
As if the rebels don’t have enough problems, two of their Islamic radical militias (the al Farouq Brigade and the Jabhat al Nusra organization) are at war with each other over to what extent Islamic radicals should cooperate with non-Islamic radical rebel groups. Jabhat al Nusra is the more fanatic about this and tried to bully the al Farouq Brigade. That backfired, and now several Islamic radicals from both groups have been killed in clashes over the issue.
The Lebanese Hezbollah militia is becoming more visible and aggressive in Syria. The Iranian supported Shia militia has much to lose if the Assad government falls and has many enemies inside Lebanon who want Hezbollah destroyed and their control of southern Lebanon eliminated. The Syrian rebels are threatening the Lebanese government with post war retaliation if some effort is not made to restrain Hezbollah. That would mean civil war in Lebanon, even though most Lebanese are still haunted by the 1975-90 civil war (during which Iran created Hezbollah). That has prevented another round of civil war so far.
While the army continues to lose more troops from desertion than from wounds or illness, the rebels likewise have had a lot of their people quit. Many of the foreigners stay for a few weeks and then leave, not willing to endure more danger and the very real risk of dying. Most of the foreign volunteers are from Libya and Tunisia where there are government run training camps for such volunteers. Not all these volunteers join Islamic radical militias, but the constant turnover of the foreigners makes them somewhat unreliable. The Islamic radical groups are still the most effective because they will attack despite heavy losses and hold positions despite opportunities to retreat. The government is replacing its losses by recruiting more aggressively among Alawites and other minorities (Palestinians and Christians) who have long supported the government. The government pitch is that these minorities will suffer the most if the rebels win and come looking for revenge. Many among the minority population are fleeing the country, if they can afford to.
Two Russian transports landed at the airport outside the port of Latakia, to begin the evacuation of Russian civilians. The airport in Damascus is considered too dangerous for this. In that city, the government admitted that mortar shells have been landing near the presidential palace. There has also been more rebel fire near the airport.
So far, the fighting has left nearly 70,000 dead and there are currently several thousand casualties a week. Most of those hurt are civilians, victims of government artillery, aerial bombardment, and random shootings by ground troops. Most of the population in Syria is feeling the effects of the war, mainly because of trucks not getting through with food and other goods, as well as the national electrical grid failing more frequently. Even Damascus is suffering blackouts, making it obvious to government supporters there that the war is not going well. Water supplies are also being damaged and that loss is even more dangerous. Over 15 percent of Syrians have fled their homes and are waiting for the fighting to end in their neighborhoods so they can return. Most of these refugees are in the northwest, where the army is fighting a losing battle for the region and firing indiscriminately on civilians they believe rebels are hiding among.
The number of refugees fleeing the country is increasing, with over 100,000 leaving each month. There are now nearly 800,000 in neighboring countries like Lebanon (280,000), Jordan (260,000), Turkey (190,000), and Iraq (90,000).
Foreign trade (imports and exports) are only a third of what they were two years ago and that means most Syrians are doing without food, consumer goods, or jobs. The rebels control most of the Turkish border (normally Syria’s major trading partner) and the Turks just go through the motions of halting weapons shipments to the rebels. There is a growing shortage of fuel in government held areas, as the military takes most of what is available for their vehicles and aircraft.
Britain accused Russia of continuing to fly in weapons to Syria, despite previous Russian assurances that it would halt such shipments. Britain was also unsuccessful in getting the EU (European Union) to lift its sanctions on providing weapons to the rebels. These sanctions were recently extended another three months. The EU is providing “non-lethal” gear to the rebels (like protective vests, first aid kits, and some electronics). The EU believes that the Arab Gulf States can provide all the weapons the rebels need, thus reducing the accusations by Moslems that Westerners are killing Moslems. The accusations come anyway, as not supplying weapons is believed to allow the Syrian government to kill more people. The big problem with the rebels isn’t weapons, its unity and coordination.
The UN is paralyzed by Russian and Chinese vetoes but has kept itself busy dealing with the growing number of refugees and collecting information for war crime indictments for winners and losers once the fighting is over. Most of the accused will be from the government side, but a growing number of rebel commanders have, according to the UN, misbehaved on the battlefield.
February 19, 2013: The rebels announced that they are at war with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia created by Iran in the 1980s. Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon and the Syrian rebels said they would be making attacks against Hezbollah there, as well as against the growing number of Hezbollah gunmen entering Syria to aid the Assads.
The army fired another ballistic missile at a rebel held area of Aleppo, killing 31 civilians.
February 17, 2013: The rebels agreed to talk with government officials but only those who have not played a role in the bloody government attacks on rebels and civilians. The government won’t go along with this, so there won’t be any peace talks. Russia and Iran are trying to arrange negotiations but the rebels insist that the Assads must go and elections held. The most the rebels are offering is safe passage out of the country for the Assads and their supporters. The Assads refuse to consider leaving.
February 16, 2013: For the second time since January 20th the electricity went out in Damascus and in areas all the way down to the Jordan border. The government said it was a technical problem with the long-distance power lines. The rebels said they were responsible and there would be more shortages.
February 15, 2013: The rebels claim to have shot down three government aircraft in one day and provided some evidence to back up that claim. The rebels have been receiving a lot of older (SA-7) Russian shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, and the government has no defenses from these for most of their aircraft.
February 13, 2013: An Iranian Revolutionary Guards general, Hessam Khoshnevis, was killed by rebels near the Lebanese border. Hessam Khoshnevis had worked in Lebanon for most of the last decade as part of the Iranian Quds Force staff that monitors and supervises the activities of Hezbollah, as well as how Iranian aid is used. Iran later blamed Israel for the death of Khoshnevis and promised revenge. Iran gets particularly upset when one of their Quds Force leaders is killed. Late last year the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds is Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces on how to deal with the rebels and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Most of this is coming in by air via Iraq. Syrian rebels are getting more and more proof of Iranian aid out of the country.