China and Russia surprised everyone yesterday and went along with a UN resolution calling for the Syrian government and the rebels to provide access for humanitarian aid throughout Syria. To make this happen the UN had to, at Russian and Chinese request, take out clauses calling for war crimes, largely committed by the government, to be punished. There is massive support in the UN for this resolution, especially the part calling for free access to all parts of Syria so that UN sponsored aid can reach Syrians in need. The main obstacle to this resolution being adopted has always been a Russian veto. China usually vetoes the same Syrian resolutions Russia does but is believed to be following the Russian lead here. In three previous attempts Russia and China blocked a similar resolution. This change of heart is believe the result of the belief that Iranian and Russian aid have put the Assad forces in a position to eventually win the war with the rebels. So now Russia can afford to be merciful, although this resolution will not make Syrian roads that much safer, not with all the disagreements between rebel groups and local militias (both pro and anti-government).
There is growing international condemnation for the ongoing Assad government attacks on civilians. These attacks have been more blatant since 2013, as have Syrian efforts to prevent foreign aid from reaching the cold, hungry and often wounded civilians. The Assad forces have 200,000 civilians under siege while the rebels have fewer than 50,000. Half the population of Syria is suffering from the side effects of the fighting (unemployment and difficulty of getting food and other goods to them). Over 140,000 have died so far and more than ten percent of the population has fled the country.
The Russian government openly boasts (at least inside Russia) of how its backing of the Syrian government against a popular uprising has been successful. Recently Russian arms shipments (via air and sea) have increased and have included armored vehicles and UAVs. But the biggest boost for the Assads was Russia arranging a chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria that crippled Western aid for the rebels and, along with thousands of Iranian supplied mercenaries, has the Syrian government
saved from gradual dismemberment
. The Assads continue to keep the economy going in areas they control with the help of Iran and Russia. Iran supplies the foreign currency and Russia helps get it into the international banking system so the Assads can still buy foreign goods.
The U.S. and Gulf Arab oil states are still sending weapons to the
rebels. The American stuff is only for “moderate” groups while the Arabs will arm just about anyone fighting the Assads. The weapons come in openly via Jordan and more covertly via Turkey. Iran and Russia send weapons to the Assads largely by air and sea.
The biggest thing Iran has going for it in Syria is the U.S. decision to not intervene militarily. The Americans believe that no matter who wins in Syria there will still be a problem there with Islamic terrorism and by not intervening it saves the United States lots of cash and a few American lives, at least in the short term (until the next election cycle). Iran encourages this thinking by playing up the prominence of the Islamic terrorist groups among the rebels. The U.S. has also accused Iran of aiding Sunni Islamic terrorists to get into Syria.
Over the last year Iranian military trainers have become more common in Syria
. They tend to wear Syrian uniforms, speak Arabic with an accent and look different (Most Iranians are Indo-European, not Semites like Arabs). A year ago Iran was concentrating on equipping and training pro-government militias but now the emphasis is on improving the effectiveness of the army. The Iranian Quds Force has long experience in organizing terrorists and militias, having organized Hezbollah in Lebanon 30 years ago. But experts, often non-Arabic speakers, from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (the slightly smaller, than the regular army, force whose main job is to keep the religious dictatorship in charge) and even the regular army are now seen more often training and advising Syrian troops.
Quds has been busy in Syria for over two years. Rebels accuse Iran of helping the government of adopt savage new tactics in the fighting around Damascus and elsewhere. These new methods involved mass killings of civilians, especially military age men, during daytime raids into pro-rebel villages. The Quds Force specializes in this sort of thing. In 2012 the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been 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 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 to the world. Now the rebels are facing “special troops” trained and advised by the Iranians. Rebels have seen Iranian transport aircraft landing at airports all over the country to deliver weapons, equipment and ammunition. These aircraft come in via Iraq, which refuses to do anything to stop them.
The Iranian training effort has helped more than ten times as many men as a similar effort by NATO and Arab Gulf states (who have trained only a few thousand rebels). American and Saudi officials recently met in the U.S. to discuss increased military aid. The U.S. is trying to persuade the Saudis to not give the rebels shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles because of fears that the Islamic terrorist groups the Saudis support in Syria will divert these missiles to terrorist operations against Western airliners. Both the Americans and the Saudis agreed that not enough was being done to aid the rebels, but it’s unclear if the meeting came up with any meaningful solutions.
The growing Iranian presence in Syria has changed the war in many ways. What began as a popular uprising against a decades old dictatorship has become another battlefield in the war between Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) and Shia (led by Iran) Islam. Some 80 percent of Moslems are Sunni but the largest faction of the Shia (ten percent of Moslems) are Iranians and the Iranian religious dictatorship (the senior Shia clergy of Iran) are obsessed with Shia, rather than Sunnis, leading Islam. This appears to be an impossible dream, but Iranian Shia leaders feel they are on a Mission From God and nothing is impossible.
Although the government forces have made progress, the rebels are still attacking. This despite the continued civil war between ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) and most other rebels. Although the rebels deny it, there have been some informal truces with ISIL. The civil war within the rebels movement has cost the rebel side nearly 3,000 dead and many more wounded. Worse, ISIL is still around, especially in eastern Syria. There ISIL has ready access to the even larger ISIL forces in Iraq. Most ISIL groups are still fighting government forces, even if only with terror attacks. In part this is done to prevent more desertions by foreign volunteers, who are not enthusiastic about fighting fellow Sunni rebels. However, ISIL has gained some recruits who defected from Islamic terrorist groups still loyal to al Qaeda. That’s because ISIL represents the most extreme Islamic terrorist thinking and some guys when they get into the Islamic radical life get ambitious and ISIL is known to be the baddest of the bad. Despite that ISIL has been weakened, losing more than half its strength so far this year. Completely destroying it appears to be less of a goal for other al Qaeda groups. A lot of the fighting in the last two months was over shared resources and these ownership disputes have largely been settled. Rebel commanders were unable to persuade many ISIL factions to switch sides and have settled with local agreements to leave each other alone and cooperate when mutual interests were involved. . That may work, because the rebel coalition still contains many loyal al Qaeda groups. The main thing that’s hurting ISIL in Syria and Iraq is their savagery. In addition to slaughtering Moslems who don’t agree with them, they have also been particularly brutal against Christians in Syria and Iraq. What outrages al Qaeda leaders is the tendency of ISIL to publically execute (often by beheading) Moslems. This stuff ends up on the Internet and turns many Moslems against al Qaeda.
The U.S. has settled its dispute with the SMC (Supreme Military Command, formerly FSA/Free Syrian Army) over problems with who was actually getting American aid and that aid has been resumed. The FSA was the original rebel coalition and was largely moderate, democratic and not very effective in combat. Many of the rebel fighters noted that the Islamic terrorists groups were more effective fighters and many rebels became radicalized and joined the Islamic groups. Not all these Islamic groups were terrorist in outlook. Many of the groups within the SMC became more Islamic and last November most rebels abandoned the SMC and formed a loose coalition of Islamic (including Islamic terrorist) combat organizations. It is believed that 20-30 percent of the rebels consider themselves al Qaeda. That caused the U.S. to suspend aid for a month or so because of reports that this split in the SMC had caused some warehouses holding American aid to be taken over by Islamic terrorist rebel groups that openly declare their intention of going after the United States once the Assads are dealt with.
In Damascus the government has brought in more troops to help clear out the rebels from neighborhoods in the city and villages on the outskirts. More Iranian trained troops and local militias have been active near the coast, which has always been an Assad stronghold because most of the people there are Alawite Shia. There have also been more truces between government forces and rebel groups. This is a win for the government, which is not under as much pressure all over the country.
In Lebanon Iranian backed Hezbollah leaders again continue to proclaim their willingness to keep fighters in Syria to support the Assads. Many rank-and-file Hezbollah are not happy with being told to go fight in Syria. Sunni Arab nations are exploiting that doubt, seeking Hezbollah leaders who might be amenable to new leadership for their organization, and new sources of financial support.
Pro-al Qaeda Syrian rebel groups are taking credit for several suicide bombings in Lebanon in the last week. These are largely directed at Hezbollah but one went off at an army checkpoint on the 22nd, killing three soldiers, when the troops suspected the car with the bomb and the bomber detonated rather than risk arrest before he could reach his nearby Hezbollah target. The Lebanese city of Tripoli continues to be the scene of frequent gun battles between groups backing the Syrian rebels and the Assad government.
February 22, 2014: Troops and journalists on the Israeli side of the border could see and hear heavy shelling and gunfire in a village near the border. This area has been heavily fought over because the nearby Jordanian border crossings are only 40 kilometers from the Syrian capital (Damascus). U.S. and NATO trainers run camps in Jordan that impart military skills to rebels. The Syrian army has kept fighting down here to keep the Jordan based rebels away from Damascus.
February 20, 2014: On the Turkish border a suicide car bomber detonated in Syria near the border checkpoint, killing at least fifteen people and wounding more than 50, most of them refugees headed for Turkey or those living in a nearby refugee camp. This was apparently another ISIL operation. The ISIL considers itself at war with Turkey and rival Islamic terrorist groups (like al Nusra) who use the refugee camps as bases.
February 19, 2014: Outside Damascus the UN has been able to resume food shipments to the Palestinian town (“refugee camp”) of Yarmouk (south of Damascus). Palestinian rebels have held most of the town since government forces surrounded the place in 2012 but recently agreed to withdraw if the government allowed food aid in. The siege was not complete but it has limited supplies for the several hundred thousand Palestinians still there. The Palestinians (1.7 percent of the population) are considered unreliable by the rebels although a large number of them are pro-rebel. While the Assads had been good to the Palestinians over the decades, many of the younger Palestinians in Syria backed the rebels from the beginning and that led to fighting in Palestinian neighborhoods. In July 2013 the head of the Palestinian Authority (which rules the West Bank Palestinians) declared that Palestinians in Syria to be neutral. Many are but most are not. While some Palestinians support the Assads, over half favor the rebels. The Palestinian Authority fears that after the Syrian fighting is over, no matter who wins, the Palestinians will be expelled (to Lebanon, the West Bank who whatever). By now most Palestinians (who tend to be Sunni or Christian) have come out in favor of the Syrian rebels.
The rebels are organizing their fighters and civilian supporters for a “Spring Offensive” to regain some of the terrain lost to the Assad forces over the last two months.
Four rockets fired from Syria landed near a pro-Hezbollah town wounding a Lebanese civilian.
February 17, 2014: On the Lebanese border at least 27 Hezbollah gunmen were killed when Syrian rebels ambushed a large groups of Hezbollah men entering Syria.
February 16, 2014: Two car bombs went off at rebel checkpoints in the east (Deir al Zour province) where fighting between ISIL and other rebel groups continues.
Lebanese troops captured a car bomb in the process of being delivered to southern Lebanon for another attack on Hezbollah. The car was packed with a quarter ton of explosives, the largest amount yet seen in a car bomb directed at Hezbollah. The car was recently stolen in Lebanon and apparently taken to Syria to be fitted with explosives.
February 15, 2014: The mainline rebel SMC has replaced its military commander because of how the split with ISIL was handled and the many battlefield reverses the rebels have suffered in the last few months. The new commander, Abdel al-Ilah al Bachir is expected to do better.
February 14, 2014: Russian backed and organized Syrian peace talks are, as expected, made no progress. Russia insisted that any peace deal must keep the Assads in power and the rebels refuse t0 go along because the rebels are fighting mainly to drive out the Assads. The UN apologized for the failure of the conference, which went nowhere largely because it refused to recognize that main reason for the rebellion was popular dissatisfaction with over four decades of dictatorial rule by the Assad family. Russia is also pushing the idea that the West should persuade rebel groups it has influence with to join forces with the Assads to destroy the al Qaeda aligned Islamic terrorist groups.
In the south (Daraa) a car bomb went off outside a mosque, killing more than 40 people. This was apparently another ISIS attack against al Qaeda groups.
February 11, 2014: Only 11 percent of the Syrian chemical weapons have so far been shipped out of the country for destruction. The Syrian government is being criticized for stalling on delivering its chemical weapons to the port where the weapons are shipped from. All of these weapons were to be out by the end of January and that did not happen. The Western nations that agreed to the chemical weapons deal (that got the West to agree not to intervene militarily) now believe they are being played by the Assads and Russia (which suggested the deal.) While there was a lot of popular support in the West for not getting involved, as they did in Libya in 2011, the barbarity of the Assad government has changed attitudes. The Assads want another four months to get the chemical weapons to the port for pickup by NATO ships.