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Syria - Sorting Out The End Game
by James Dunnigan
June 29, 2014

June 13, 2014: The Assads are increasingly being acknowledged as the winner of the civil war that still rages across the country. This happened for a number of reasons but mainly because the Assads used more effective, if more brutal, tactics. In effect the Assads told pro-rebel Sunni civilians to “come with us if you want to live.” The Assads would bomb, shell and deny food and medical aid to pro-rebel civilians unless the civilians either fled their homes (and often the country) or agreed, on pain of death, to switch their allegiance to the government. Assad did not expect these Sunni civilians to fight for him, just to be neutral and quiet. As long as they did that they would not be attacked by Assad forces and would have access to food and other aid.  The Assads had a lot of outside help. There was, and is, a lot of aid from Iran and Russia. Finally, there is a desperation, discipline and unity borne out of self-preservation that enabled the Assads to go from being the designated losers to the likely winners.

Meanwhile the rebels continue to be crippled by a six month long internal civil war between ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and all the other rebels (half of them rival Islamic terrorists and the rest secular and tribal groupss). This civil war within a civil war has left over 6,000 dead (mostly fighters, the rest civilians) in the last six months. Over a third of these losses have occurred in eastern Syria. This has caused ISIL to move more of its fighters from western Syria to the east. Here ISIL has had more success, although it continues trying to hang onto some of its gains in the west (especially around Aleppo). In eastern Syria ISIL is at home and close to their cousins across the border in western Iraq (Anbar province). In effect eastern Syria and western Iraq contain a similar Sunni, often Bedouin, Arab tribal population. Many of the tribes straddle the border with Syria (and Jordan and Saudi Arabia). These Sunni tribes are related (in terms of culture and religious attitudes) to the ones that run Saudi Arabia and dominate the Arabian Peninsula. That’s why an Islamic radical group like ISIL can recruit so many fanatic men from “northern Arabia” (largely desert eastern Syria and western Iraq) and challenge al Qaeda (which has denounced ISIL) for leadership of the Islamic radical movement.

The Assads have also created some post-war problems of their own. With Iranian help the Assads created some very effective Alawite (and other minority) militias whose leaders have become virtual warlords. While these warlords are loyal to the Assads, they are expecting post-war rewards. This could get tricky, but it’s something the Assads have handled in the past. Meanwhile the Assads keep lines of communication open with Sunni tribal leaders in eastern Syria. Many of these tribal leaders know that ISIL is likely to burn out sooner rather than later and they want to be ready to quickly switch sides.

Currently ISIL is trying to gain complete control over eastern Syria and western Iraq. That is proving difficult because of continued resistance in Syria by government forces and Kurds as well as some rival Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Nusra). In Iraq the Shia controlled government sent so many of their best units to Anbar that the security forces in Mosul collapsed and handed ISIL an unexpected victory. That appears to be backfiring because now the Shia government of Iraq has given in to years of Kurd demands that the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq be allowed to take control of Mosul and Kirkuk and nearby oil fields. At this point the Iraqi government doesn’t have much choice. The Kurds will have to fight hard for Mosul and Kirkuk, but the Kurdish army (the Peshmerga) have been defeating Sunni Islamic terrorists for a long time. In this fight, the ISIL is the underdog. ISIL can afford to give up Mosul and Kirkuk because these are not historically Bedouin lands but rather Kurdish. The Kurds will be fighting harder for them. Ultimately ISIL wants to control their own homeland to the south. Once that is done ISIL believes their Holy Warriors can gain control of all of Syria and Iraq and then the world. This has never worked, in large part because of the extreme brutality these Holy Warriors use against their opponents. ISIL has been deliberately murdering Shia, Christian and Kurdish civilians in an effort to terrorize their groups into surrender. That is not working and rarely has in the last few centuries. All these groups have powerful foreign allies who work hard to help their kinsmen fight back.

Despite these problems ISIL is real and dangerous. There’s a reason for that. Islamic terrorists have long been depicted in Arab culture as noble and pure warriors fighting to protect Islam. This is partly religion and partly culture but the reality is no Islamic radicals have ever managed to do any permanent good for the Moslem world. This truth gets realized and accepted eventually and then forgotten again. For example after the 2008 defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq, and the 90 percent decline in al Qaeda attacks there it was believed that Islamic terrorism was on the ropes once more and many Arabs were visibly relieved. But the Arab Spring changed all that. Terrorist attacks worldwide, most of them by Moslem religious radicals, more than doubled from 7,200 in 2009 to 18,500 in 2013.  

There have been many outbreaks of Islamic terrorism in the past but his time around the chief cause was state sponsored Islamic terrorism by Pakistan and a recent boost by the Arab Spring uprisings and continued financial support by wealthy Arabs in the Persian Gulf and fanatic young men throughout Arabia. The Pakistani policy of covertly supporting and encouraging Islamic terrorist groups began in the late 1970s and after September 11, 2001 there Islamic terrorists were increasingly out of Pakistani control. Thus Pakistan found itself in the position of continuing to support Islamic terrorists who attacked India and Afghanistan while fighting a growing number of disaffected terrorist groups at home that had declared war on Pakistan. The result was a huge spike in Islamic terrorist violence. For the Arab Spring countries it meant prolonged unrest and more Islamic terrorist deaths. Worse, it isn't over, especially in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria. Over 200,000 have died so far in the Arab Spring countries, and millions more wounded, imprisoned or driven from their homes. The financial cost, so far, has been over a trillion dollars. Most of that is the economic damage from shrinking GDP. The rest is destruction of buildings and possessions. The lost wages and reduced economic activity have been particularly difficult for populations that were poor to begin with. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain have suffered most from the unrest, losing up to a third of their GDP because of the Arab Spring economic disruption. Then there is the cost in cash for wealthier monarchies and dictatorships that have spent money (sometimes borrowed) to placate their restless populations. The money spent here is not all Arab. The Assad dictatorship of Syria has been kept afloat by billions of dollars in support from Iran, and much smaller amounts from Russia. There has also been some unrest in non-Arab Moslem nations because of Arab Spring and that has cost billions to deal with. The ultimate tragedy of all this is that the Islamic world, especially the Arab countries, refuse to acknowledge that the source of this is cultural and religious traditions that must be changed. There is some support for such change in the Islamic world but, so far, not enough to make a big difference.

The Kurdish Problem And Solution

The Kurds are 15 percent of the Syrian population, moderate and democratic Moslems, concentrated in the northeast. They have long opposed the Assads and are hated by the largely Iraqi ISIL (which has always hated the Iraqi Kurds, especially for their role in the overthrow of Sunni champion Saddam Hussein). ISIL has been very brutal with any Kurdish civilians they come across. These atrocities play in role in persuading the Kurds in northern Iraq to send their trained (and quite superior to the ISIL or Iraqi Army forces) men into Syria, Iraq and Mosul. ISIL is a threat the Kurds cannot avoid. The Assads know they will have a hard time regaining control of the Sunni east. Not just because of ISIL and the Arab tribes there, but also because of the Kurds in the northeast, who have allied with the Iraqi Kurds across the border and declared themselves autonomous. One thing the Sunni Arabs and Assads agree on is that the Kurds must not be allowed to maintain this autonomy, but so far neither the Assads nor the ISIL have been able to conquer the Syrian Kurds.

Allied with the Syrian Kurds are the Syrian Christians who were about ten percent of the population in 2011. Together the two groups have over 12,000 armed men available (mainly for self-defense). The Christian are also targeted by the ISIL, as they are in Iraq. Many Christians are fleeing to the Kurdish northeast (as preferable to fleeing Syria) to escape persecution by ISIL and other Islamic radicals. Even with a Kurdish alliance many Syrian Christians do not feel safe and a lot of them end up just fleeing the region, as Arab Christians have been doing increasingly for over a century.

The crucial ingredient in all this is that the Kurds of autonomous northern Iraq have some of the most effective troops in the region. The 100,000 “Peshmerga” are described as a militia but they have been organized and trained for over two decades by American and other NATO instructors and proved themselves competent many times. There are another 100,000 Peshmerga in a less-well equipped and trained militia that is mainly for home defense and helping with local security against Islamic terrorists. The Peshmerga are now doing the training and advising in northeastern Syria, where the Kurds are facing heavy ISIL attacks and much violence against Kurdish civilians. In Iraq the Peshmerga are battling ISIL for control of Kirkuk and Mosul.

The Battle For The Rest of Syria

In eastern Syria ISIL and opposing rebel forces (especially al Nusra) are concentrating in and around the city of Deir al-Zor for a major showdown. Some of Syria’s few oil fields are here and ISIL captured these on the 8th. Al Nusra is calling for foreign help (especially from al Qaeda and those who still support al Qaeda.) This is a case where most people are hoping that both sides lose but one will eke out a victory of sorts and it will probably be ISIL as they are the home team here.

In western Syria fighting continues around Aleppo, Damascus and along the borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Israel. The Assads are winning more than losing. Israeli officials are openly admitting that the Assads are winning and behind closed doors are trying to figure out how to deal with the post war Assad government. Syria will be a different country after the war. The northeast will probably become part of the northern Iraqi autonomous Kurdish area. The Assads can complain bitterly about this all they want, but will be unlikely to make a serious attempt to get it back. Eastern Syria will be retaken and that desert region will become even more of a desert and the Assads will declare the devastated region at peace. The tribal leaders out there know this and are trying to negotiate a less destructive finale.

June 12, 2014: In the central Syrian city of Homs a car bomb went off killing seven people.

June 9, 2014: In the northern Iraq city of Mosul army and police units began to panic and abandon their checkpoints and bases. ISIL had recently increased its attacks on the security forces in Mosul in hope of triggering a mass panic.  The ISIL victory in Mosul was made possible by the six weeks of heavy fighting in eastern Syria near the Iraq border. Throughout this ISIL has remained in control of Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria.

In Western Iraq (Anbar province) ISIL is struggling to deal with increased pressure from government forces and pro-government tribal militias. ISIL forces are trapped in Fallujah, with the siege of the Islamic terrorists growing tighter and tighter. ISIL has established control of some roads between Iraq and Syria. One of these road leads to Raqqa, the only provincial capital to be captured by the Syrian rebels. The revived (by Iranian Shia mercenaries recruited in Lebanon and Iraq) Syrian government is turning its attention to its Sunni eastern areas and the Shia dominated Iraqi government is increasingly aggressive attacking ISIL on both sides of the Syrian border. Both Iraq and Syria believe that ISIL is intent on creating a Sunni religious dictatorship out of eastern Syria and western Iraq (now including Nineveh province north of Anbar). Except for Nineveh this is a largely desert and thinly populated region. ISIL is actually suffering more casualties in Syria, where its main foe is other rebels. ISIL is quite hostile to the Kurds and has been very brutal with any Kurdish civilians they come across. These atrocities play in role in persuading the Kurds in northern Iraq to send their trained (and quite superior to the ISIL or Iraqi Army forces) men into Iraq and Mosul. ISIL is a threat the Kurds cannot avoid.



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