Syria: The Long War


October 1, 2014: So far over 70 percent of the air strikes against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and half of those in Syria have been carried out by American warplanes. The rest have been flown by NATO and Arab countries. There have been about 300 air strikes against ISIL so far but only about a quarter of them have been in Syria. That’s largely because the strikes in Iraq began in early August while those in Syria did not begin until late on September 22nd. Moreover most NATO nations prefer to restrict their operations to Iraq, so only the U.S. and five Arab nations are bombing in Syria. Britain and France have expressed willingness to operate in Syria. But will have to wait until more targets are identified. The strikes in Syria are limited by the lack of reliable people on the ground to confirm targets. This is less of a problem in Iraq where there are Iraqi air controllers and some Iraqi army units that are reliable enough to assign American controller teams to. Then there are the Kurds (in Iraq and Syria) where Special Forces controllers can operate with Kurdish militia groups they know (and often trained over the years). The trained Kurdish fighters are spread thin, trying to protect long borders and widespread Kurdish civilian populations. As more American controller terms get into Iraq and Syria, the air attacks against ISIL combat forces will become more common and effective. Many of the older ISIL fighters, with experience fighting American air power in Iraq (and, for a few ISIL men, Afghanistan) know that with enough controllers on the ground and enough bombers in the air, ISIL will no longer be able to take and hold ground. This explains the ISIL offensives going on now, because ISIL leaders know that in a month or so they will not be able to travel easily by road or even cross country on foot. Syrian civilians have also gotten the word and air reconnaissance shows civilians fleeing residential areas where ISIL has sought sanctuary from the air strikes. ISIL will be forced to follow the Taliban practice of forcing (at gunpoint) civilians to stick around to discourage the warplanes above.

The first few dozen air strikes in Syria hit the obvious targets like buildings taken over by ISIL (especially in the eastern city of Raqqa which has become the ISIL capital) as well as large storage areas for captured vehicles, weapons and housing for ISIL fighters. Also hit were large ISIL checkpoints that controlled traffic on the few major roads in eastern Syria. As expected ISIL, under the direction of Iraqi ISIL men who had experienced American air power in Iraq from 2003-2008, quickly began to disperse. Headquarters were moved to residential areas, large permanent checkpoints were abandoned (replaced by temporary ones set up by ISIL fighters travelling in vehicles equipped with baggage on the roof, to look like civilians) and all vehicles and equipment was also dispersed to residential areas. Schools, hospitals and mosques now have to provide some space for ISIL men and equipment. ISIL personnel have been warned to use cell phones and radio communications carefully because the Americans are probably listening. The Americans are listening and they have proven tactics to defeat the dispersal tactics ISIL is using to avoid air attack. Dispersal will not make ISIL safe from attack bur it will slow down the rate of loss to air attack. The attacks in Syria have killed about 240 people so far, that’s about three deaths (and over a dozen wounded) per strike. The attacks so far have concentrated on things like command and control (headquarters and communications) and logistics (fuel, vehicles and stockpiles of food and equipment). This causes ISIL long term problems right away and killed or wounded several senior people. Soon the attacks will concentrate on combat forces. This is already happening in Iraq where Kurdish forces, long comfortable working with American troops and air power) are pushing back ISIL in the north and inflicting (with the help of air strikes) lots of ISIL casualties. Because of the threat of air strikes ISIL has to be careful concentrating forces to push back the Kurdish advance.

In response ISIL is, as expected, claiming massive civilian casualties from the air strikes. Again, as expected, the U.S. is ready with video and eyewitness evidence that the ISIL claims are false. Since the wide use of smart bombs in the 1990s civilian casualties have plummeted over 80 percent compared to the pre-smart bomb era. This sort of thing does not make good headlines, but false accusations from Islamic terrorists, who regularly use civilians as human shields, do. Another non-news event is the large number of smart bomb strikes that are called off to avoid civilian casualties.

The anti-ISIL rebels are complaining that many Syrians are blaming the rebels for the damage and disruption caused by the coalition (of NATO and Arab states) air strikes. Given how few strikes there have been so far and the fact that most of them were very precise and often in remote areas, these complaints are seen as an attempt to pry more aid out of NATO and Arab counties. The Arabs are rethinking their support for Islamic terrorist rebels groups and NATO is again trying to find non-terrorist rebels to train and support. The main problem with the rebels has always been lack of unity and a sharp division between the secular (or non-fanatic Moslem) groups and the radicals. Unfortunately the Islamic terrorist groups have the widest appeal to the young Moslem men most likely to join the armed rebel groups. This is made worse by the religious divisions in Syria. The ruling Assad family are Shia, a minority in Syria and the Moslem world in general. The Shia and other minorities (Christians and other small Islamic sects) are a quarter of the population and they have dominated the Sunni majority for decades. So it’s not just a rebellion against a dictatorship but part of the centuries old hostility between Sunni and Shia. It doesn’t help that the Assads have been financed and armed by Shia Iran since the 1980s. Religious radicalism has been a problem in the Islamic world for over a thousand years. While most other religions have found ways to tame the fanatic fringe problem, Islam has not. This fanaticism is a key component in the Syrian civil war and cannot be ignored or avoided.

ISIL controls (or contests control) of a third of Iraq (mostly in the west) and a third of neighboring Syria (mostly in the east). There are more aircraft and UAVs over Syria and Iraq seeking out new ISIL targets than there are bombers hitting targets. ISIL forces are dispersing now that they have to deal with a sustained air offensive.  This is not a major problem because ISIL forces are not as concerned with controlling large areas, if only because most of eastern Syria and western Iraq is desert and uninhabited. What ISIL is concentrating on is attacking Kurdish and government forces wherever it can. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces are largely tied down keeping ISIL raiders out of more densely populated areas the government and Kurds control. Thus there are clashes with these ISIL raiders every day.

What the international coalition must do is establish a system where air support can quickly be provided for all anti-ISIL forces on the ground. This is difficult because having trained troops (air controllers) on the ground is the preferred method. But there are hundreds of specific locations anti-ISIL forces are guarding or based in and all are potential targets. This is not a new problem, but how it is handled in Iraq and Syria will determine how quickly ISIL can be reduced from major threat to dangerous nuisance status. The United States has declared that it will seek to destroy ISIL without putting any troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria. That means no American regular troops will be sent in for offensive combat. That does not apply to Special Forces advisors and ground controller teams. Some Americans will be there to help with security around the massive U.S. embassy compound, and perhaps other American facilities as well. There will also be a lot of security contractors. While these are civilians, many are veterans of the U.S. Army, Marines, Special Forces and so on. Given their civilian status, there may be a temptation to use the contractors if a lot of offensive muscle is needed. By the end of the year there will be at least 5,000 American military personnel in Iraq and even more contractors. That number is expected to grow in 2015 is needed. Hundreds of these will end up in Syria, but the United States will not be saying much about that officially.

Many Western politicians are uneasy with the fact that they are now de-facto allies with Iran and the Syrian Assad dictatorship as well as rebel groups that are openly Islamic terrorists and hostile to the West. Iran wants to destroy the West but at the moment it’s a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my ally whether I like it or not.” Despite official bans on cooperation there is some informal military coordination with Iran and the Assads. Meanwhile the Iranian government is encouraging the rumor that ISIL is part of an American plot to hurt Iran. This sort of thing is believed by most Iranians and many Arabs as well, who see the Western operations against ISIL as another form of the Western “war on Islam”. This conspiracy theory is so popular that many Arab states are reluctant to get too involved with the mainly Western coalition formed to stop ISIL. This is despite the fact that ISIL is a very immediate threat to Iran and all Arab states in the region. Iran backs the “ISIL is an American plot” in part to show their anger at the growing sanctions and Iranian efforts to formally coordinate anti-ISIL operations. The Syrian government is claiming to be part of the international anti-ISIL coalition but only Russia supports that claim and at the moment both Russia and Syria are considered outlaw states by the international community.  

The UN admitted that it had basically withdrawn its peacekeeping force on the Israeli/Syrian border. The 1,200 man peacekeeping force has been on the border since 1974 and Israel has long criticized the UN for allowing their troops to be used as human shields anti-Israel terrorists could hide behind. Now those peacekeepers are fleeing to Israel for protection.

September 30, 2014: On the Iraqi border Kurdish forces, allied with an Iraqi Sunni tribe that had turned against ISIL, attacked and captured a border crossing controlled by ISIL. Many Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq have turned against ISIL, at great risk to themselves. ISIL has retaliated savagely against rebellion Sunni tribes in Syria. Defections like these were a prelude to the al Qaeda in Iraq collapse in 2007. But before this can seriously weaken ISIL the Americans have to convince the Shia dominated Iraqi government to make peace with their Sunni minority on terms acceptable to most Sunnis. That is difficult given the bitter memories the Shia and Kurds (who together comprise over 80 percent of the population) have of decades of brutal Sunni rule. The Syrian situation is more complicated, with the Sunni majority (nearly 80 percent of the population) also angry at decades of brutal Shia minority rule. The Sunni majority in Syria is more religiously conservative than the Shia Arabs (largely Shia) and Kurds (largely Sunni) of Iraq. This means that most rebels are Islamic conservatives and more sympathetic to Islamic terrorist groups. But in both Syria and Iraq most Sunni Arabs do not want to live according to the strict rules enforced by ISIL.

Outside Damascus al Nusra rebels repulsed an attack by soldiers and Hezbollah gunmen. The rebels have been close to the center of the city since 2012 and can still get close enough to launch rockets (with a range up to ten kilometers) or fire mortar shells (up to a few kilometers.) This fire is not accurate, but by firing into the city center it is difficult not to cause damage or casualties. Al Nusra may be losing to ISIL in the north and east, but in central and southern Syria they are still the main foe of the government forces.

Today American and British warplanes carried out 24 airstrikes in Iraq (14 attacks) and Syria (ten). Arab warplanes did not participate as they are undergoing maintenance and should be available tomorrow. The Arab coalition members have not contributed as many warplanes to the anti-ISIL air operations as the U.S. and Britain and are not as efficient at turning their aircraft around for more sorties.  For most of the Arab pilots and ground crews this is their first combat experience.

September 29, 2014: Turkey moved a company of about a dozen tanks to the area (across the border from the northeastern Syrian town of Kobane) where over 100,000 Syrian Kurds have been allowed to enter Turkey to get away from a major ISIL offensive. The tanks were accompanied by about two dozen other armored vehicles and several hundred combat troops. This border crisis began on September 18th when a large ISIL force, including some tanks and other armored vehicles and supported by artillery, advanced and have occupied over 70 of Kurdish villages. This forced over 200,000 Kurdish civilians to flee, with Kurdish militiamen delaying the ISIL fighters so the civilians could get away. About half of these civilians got into Turkey before the Turks closed the border. This ISIL victory was achieved in part because of an August agreement by Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey to join forces against ISIL in northern Iraq. This was in response to continued ISIL attacks on Kurdish territory in Iraq. The organized Kurdish military forces consist of the Iraqi Peshmerga (about 100,000 full time and over 300,000 part time fighters, many with formal training and years of experience), the Turkish PKK (several thousand based in northern Iraq) and the Syrian PYD (a smaller version of the PKK and largely tied down defending northeastern Syria.) The Peshmerga and PKK have been increasingly active helping the PYD defend traditional Syrian Kurdish territory against ISIL. The fighting in northeastern Syria has been going on for over two years and ISIL has largely been held back. But as the Kurds shifted forces back to Iraq in early September to defend Kurdish northern Iraq ISIL sensed an opportunity. Because of growing American air strikes in Iraq it seemed safer to concentrate forces against the Syrian Kurds. ISIL really has it in for the Kurds, mainly because of the decades of violence between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq. The Sunni Arabs have been getting the worst of it since the 1990s and want revenge. Because of the need for fighters in Iraq, ISIL only encountered local militia when they advanced and the use of armored vehicles and artillery was more than the militiamen could handle. Despite Kurdish reinforcements being shifted to northeastern Syria the ISIL advance continued, despite a few coalition air strikes in support of the Kurds. Turkish Kurds tell the Turkish government that refusal to support the Syrian Kurds is causing anger among Turkish Kurds and may interfere with the current peace negotiations to end the three decade old Kurdish rebellion in Turkey.

Some Kurdish reinforcements were blocked or delayed at the Turkish border as the Turks enforced their ban on armed men crossing in either direction. Many Turks objected to this and now pressure is building in the Turkish parliament to have Turkey actively join the anti-ISIL coalition and allow Turkish air and ground forces to go after ISIL in the border areas. The senior Turkish leadership is against this, feeling that the Turks will be criticized by the Arabs (who endured centuries of harsh Turkish rule until 1918 and have not forgotten).

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL executed two of its own men. One was accused of looting and the other of spying for the Americans. The air attacks have caused some morale problems with many ISIL fighters, and paranoia among ISIL leaders.

September 28, 2014: Because many al Nusra rebels have allied themselves with ISIL in the last month or so, some of the recent coalition air strikes hit al Nusra units. As a result some al Nusra leaders have threatened to make attacks in the West and Arabia (especially the oil-rich Gulf States.) The al Nusra threats have more import than similar ones made by ISIL. That’s because ISIL is basically a local (most ISIL leaders are Iraqi Sunnis) while al Nusra is still on good terms with al Qaeda (which still has active franchises in Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Africa and Yemen and all of these have been trying to carry out attacks against the West).

September 27, 2014: The Arab Gulf states agree with the United States that the fight against ISIL could take years and are making more of an effort to stop those wealthy citizens of theirs who are still contributing lots of cash to Islamic terrorist groups, including ISIL. Many Arabs in Arabia have long been very conservative and sympathetic to Islamic terrorist organizations. This has provided most of the manpower and cash to keep al Qaeda, ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups going. The West has been pressuring Arabian (especially Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait) to do more to stem the flow of volunteers and cash. With these government facing a very real threat from ISIL, there is more cooperation to curb terrorist recruiting and find raising.

In Syria al Nusra revealed that the leader of an al Qaeda faction (Khorasan) that was actively planning attacks on the West, was killed by a recent air strike. Khorasan is based in Afghanistan and Pakistan but moved some key people to Syria in the last year to set up an operation for carrying out terror attacks in Europe and North America. Khorasan allied itself with al Nusra. The dead Khorasan leader, Muhsin al Fadhli was known to Western intelligence agencies and there was a $7 million reward for killing or capturing him.

September 26, 2014: American military leaders revealed that their planners had determined that it would require over 12,000 reliable (trained and well led) rebels to retake eastern Syria. This is the heartland of ISIL and would be heavily defended. The American officials also believed that it would take six months to train rebel fighters and their leaders to the point where they could carry out the liberation of eastern Syria. In other words, the current plan is for at least six months of air strikes on Syria while the coalition tries to find 12,000 or more Syrian rebels that can be trained, armed and equipped. These trainees must be men who are unlikely to run off and join ISIL or some other Islamic terrorist group. This plan will cost at least $500 million in its first year and rebel training camps in Jordan are being expanded. The U.S. would like the Turks to get more involved and also host training camps.

September 24, 2014: Sources inside Turkey claim that the Turkish government secretly agreed to release fifty ISIL men held prisoner by secular Syrian rebels in return for the freedom of 46 Turkish diplomats and family members captured when ISIL took Mosul in early June. The Turkish government denies that any such deal was made. It is claimed that the Turks made promises to the Syrian rebels in order to get the Turkish captives released. Turkey so far refuses to provide a lot of support for the campaign against ISIL and is accused of secretly allowing support for ISIL from Turks to continue. The Turkish captives were released in Iraq on September 20th.

September 23, 2014: On the Israeli border Israel used a Patriot missile to shoot down a Syrian Su-24 that had entered Israeli air space while it was bombing rebel positions on the Syrian side of the border. The Su-24 only got about 700 meters into Israel before turning around. Israeli air defense forces have orders to shoot down any Syrian warplanes that enter Israeli air space and Syria was informed of that policy. The last time Israel shot down Syrian aircraft was in 1985 when two Syrian MiG-23s attempted to interfere with an Israeli reconnaissance mission over Lebanon. At the time Syrian forces occupied parts of Lebanon because the 1975-90 civil war there was still going on.

Overnight the U.S. and Arab nations began large scale (over 200 bombs on nearly 30 targets) air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria. Most of the attacks were carried out by American aircraft, as well as 47 cruise missiles fired from U.S. ships. Some warplanes and other support was provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Bahrain. It was estimated that 120 Islamic terrorists were killed. Some 70 of the dead were ISIL while the other fifty belonged to a faction of al Nusra that was planning attacks on the United States. Phone calls to Syrians living near the targets indicated that there was little damage to nearby structures or injuries to civilians. But the Islamic terrorists were keeping locals away from the buildings hit while the wreckage was searched. Meanwhile the U.S. has carried out nearly 200 attacks against ISIL targets in Iraq since August 7th. The U.S. also announced that over fifty countries had agreed to join a coalition to destroy ISIL. Most of these nations would not be contributing military forces but would assist in intelligence and police operations against ISIL. Some countries will provide support for coalition military forces and this is what many Arab states are doing. Western intelligence agencies now believe that there are at least 3,000 Moslems from the West fighting for ISIL. The Saudis reluctantly admit that Saudi citizens comprise the largest national faction of ISIL, including many senior positions. Most ISIL members are Iraqi or Syrian Sunnis.

September 20, 2014:  On the Lebanese border a suicide bomber attacked a Hezbollah controlled checkpoint and killed at least three Hezbollah gunmen and one civilian. Earlier in the day al Nusra announced that it had killed a Lebanese soldier it had captured. Al Nusra wants Hezbollah gunmen to withdraw from Syria.

September 19, 2014: Just across the Lebanese border a roadside bomb, apparently planted by Syrian Islamic terrorist rebels, killed two Lebanese soldiers.

Israeli intelligence believes that Syria has held onto some of its chemical weapons despite a 2013 deal that had them surrender those weapons in order to avoid NATO air attacks. The Israelis also believe Syria has stockpiled component chemicals for some chemical weapons and has the ability to quickly resume production. Earlier this year Israel announced that it believed that Syria again used chemical weapons on March 27th during two operations on the outskirts of Damascus.





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