Syria: Wars Within Wars


December 9, 2014: In southern and central Syria (south and north of Damascus) and along the coast the army and pro-government militias have been able to expel rebels and form a continuous Assad controlled area. Thanks to Iranian trainers, the pro-government militias are better trained and more effective as are the soldiers. All of these men are paid regularly and most see a better future than do many of the rebel fighters. The army is about half its pre-war strength of 300,000 but the remaining troops are loyal and most have combat experience. The army is expanding back to its pre-war strength. This is thanks to cash from Iran, because the Syrian economy is wrecked. But that Iranian cash has been reduced recently as the plunging price of oil (down over 40 percent since 2013). This has forced Iran to cut its cash support for the Syrian economy. Thus while the Assad forces can provide some security, they are increasingly unable to provide much prosperity and even necessities are not arriving as frequently. What remains of the Syrian economy is in Assad controlled areas where there is an unemployment rate of over 50 percent and the size of government handouts is a matter of life or death. Iran does not want its Syrian ally to be destroyed but subsidizing the Assad controlled population costs more than Iran can afford right now. Unless the price of oil moves sharply north and the economic sanctions on Iran (because of the Iranian nuclear program) are reduced the hard times will be getting harder in Syria for Assad supporters. Despite that living in Assad controlled territory is still a pretty good deal compared to what life is like in ISIL or al Nusra controlled areas.   

ISIL is still concentrating on the Kurds, especially those defending the town of Kobane near the Turkish border. This has turned into a stalemate mainly because ISIL is willing to take the constant losses from American (and some NATO) bombers. The other major ISIL objective is Aleppo and progress is being made there. Meanwhile the Assad government keeps trying to get the West to admit that Assad forces are allies in the international battle against ISIL and that Syria has led the way in recognizing and fighting this international Islamic terrorist threat. Despite Russian efforts to publicize this belief the rest of the world is ignoring the Assad claims. Despite that the Assads and the rest of the world are both fighting ISIL. While this is awkward that is considered a minor problem compared to the threat ISIL and similar Islamic terrorist groups presents to the Islamic and non-Islamic nations as well. Even the Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) and Shia (led by Iran) coalitions that are at each other throats right now have agreed to cooperate against the common threat.

Meanwhile Kobane has turned into a major embarrassment for ISIL which has taken major casualties in order to retain control over half of Kobane. The Kurdish ability (because of Turkish cooperation) to shift forces back from Iraq to help defend Kobane was decisive. These reinforcements arrived at the end of October. The original ISIL force of over 5,000 fighters used armored vehicles and artillery for the campaign against the Syrian Kurds in September and was eventually reinforced by several thousand more men and concentrated around Kobane. There NATO (mainly American) air strikes found plenty of targets and the Kurdish fighters on the ground proved more capable than the Arab troops and the rebels ISIL had been fighting so far.

The Kurds have about 2,000 fighters in Kobane and another few hundred secular Syrian rebels (the FSA) on the outskirts. The Kurds don’t trust the FSA because they consider FSA too closely linked to the Turkish military and the Kurds have a long and contentious relationship with Turkish security forces. There are also several thousand Kurdish civilians in and around Kobane although only a few hundred are left in the town. For a long time ISIL maintained four to five thousand men in and around the town but casualties and desertions have left them with not much more than 3,000 gunmen. The Kurdish reinforcement route is now via the Turkish road network making it easier to bring new fighters in and get casualties out.  The Kurds asked for more American air strikes and there have been some more. The Kurds have better fighters and leadership on the ground and are linked with the aircraft above and NATO intelligence. ISIL is still determined to achieve a decisive victory over the Kurds but unless they can come up with some new ideas that will negate the superiority of Kurdish fighters and the effectiveness of the Kurdish air support the battle will continue to be a major source of combat losses and discouragement for ISIL members. Since early October, the fighting in Kobane has caused about ISIL 6,000 casualties, plus an undetermined but significant number of desertions. There is also a shift in support from other Islamic terrorist organizations for ISIL because of Kobane. Many have qualified their earlier pledges of support for ISIL to emphasize that these were not agreements to follow the leadership of ISIL but merely to support what ISIL was doing. Until the November deadlock in Kobane many young Islamic terrorists around the world thought ISIL had the magic touch and wanted the leaders of their local Islamic terrorist group to follow ISIL. Given the growing number of setbacks ISIL has suffered, especially in Kobane, that enthusiasm has declined considerably.

Because of the initial Turkish reluctance to allow Kurds to reinforce and supply Kobane via Turkey the Kurds are now convinced that Turkey is playing a double-game here and is secretly in touch with and cooperating with ISIL. While some members of the Islamic government of Turkey feel that Turkey could cope with an ISIL victory in Syria and Iraq, most Turks disagree and see ISIL has a threat to all Moslems. The Kurds have been double-crossed and screwed by the Turks often enough to believe anything about Turkish foreign policy. Thus the two recent ISIL terrorist bombing against Kurdish positions are believed to have been made via Turkey. That is not true as a look at the map and eyewitness accounts shows that the attacks came from ISIL held territory and the bombers moved along the Turkish border but always in Syrian territory before hitting the Kurdish outposts.

Despite ISIL being tied down in Kobane and by rebellious Sunni tribes in the east, government forces are losing ground. That’s because ISIL has encouraged informal truces with other rebel groups to evolve into something of a coalition. This allowed all rebels, including ISIL, to go back to fighting Syrian government forces. That has led to a growing number of setbacks for the government. This includes loss of absolute control of the roads from Damascus to the pro-government Alawite areas on the coast. For that route to be useful the Assad forces had to gain control of the roads and villages between Damascus and the coast. That only lasted until October and now rebels are again capable of attacking traffic on the roads between Damascus and the coast. This means supplies for Damascus, especially fuel, can no longer move unhindered. Heavy fighting continues around Aleppo where the rebels are retaking areas they lost earlier in 2014 to government forces. The government is having similar problems around Damascus and throughout central Syria. These reverses are in part because pro-al Qaeda al Nusra and ISIL (condemned by al Qaeda) gave agreed to stop fighting each other so they can concentrate on secular rebels, Kurds and Assad forces.

The largest coalition of secular rebels, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) abandoned Aleppo in November and has barely managed to stay in business. In October and November over 10,000 FSA fighters pulled away from Aleppo and the FSA commander fled to Turkey. It is feared that a recent ceasefire between ISIL and al Nusra could enable al Qaeda and ISIL to take control of Aleppo. The Islamic terrorist rebels have already ganged up on the FSA. Yet the Islamic terrorist groups have not merged. They have only agreed to stop fighting each other and be allies. Al Nusra and other al Qaeda groups are seeking to establish their own Islamic State in western Syria to rival the one ISIL is established in eastern Syria and western Iraq. The two groups agree that once the Assads are destroyed, ISIL and al Nusra/al Qaeda forces will have to battle each other for ultimate supremacy.

With the decline of FSA NATO, the United States and the Arab FOS (Friends of Syria) are working hard to recruit, train and equip a new group of rebels in Jordan and, if the Turks agree, in Turkey. The loss of Aleppo bothers Turkey a great deal because that means another million or more Syrian refugees may head for Turkey. The Turks already host nearly two million Syrian refugees. These people are not just fleeing the Islamic terrorists but also the Syrian government, which continues to use aircraft and artillery to attack anti-government civilians on a daily basis. Another reason for getting out of Syria is that both government and rebel forces tend to block aid efforts to civilians that do not support them. Syria is no place for women, children and old men.

ISIL remains the largest and best financed Islamic terrorist group in the region. ISIL has over 20,000 armed men in Syria and Iraq, but a growing portion of them are tied down occupying and trying to administer conquered territory. These new subjects tend to be obedient but not enthusiastic about their new rulers, nor very loyal. In many ways ISIL is going through the same cycle its predecessor (the pro-Saddam Islamic terrorists of 2003-8) followed on their way to defeat. That is, resistance from Sunni Arabs, especially in Anbar (western Iraq) eventually leads to brutal repression by Islamic terrorists which in turn enrages more Sunni Arabs and turns them violently against the Islamic terrorists. That, in turn, causes more desertions in the Islamic terrorist groups as new recruits (and even some veteran fighters) desert because killing fellow Sunni Arabs, especially women, was not what they signed up for. This is a common pattern with Islamic terrorist groups as the savage reality collides with the idealistic rhetoric of the preachers and propagandists. It is one thing to slaughter women and children who are not Sunni Moslems, but killing your own is bad for morale and cripples recruiting. Unlike 2007, there are a lot more cell phones around now and more potential recruits have Internet access via smart phones. So the pictures of Holy Warriors murdering fellow Sunni Moslems, especially women, spreads fast and the impact is quickly felt by the terrorist leaders. It’s not just one incident either, but several massacres of Sunni Arab tribesmen in eastern Syria and western Iraq over the past few months. To the young Moslem men who provide most of the support (and manpower) for ISIL, such misbehavior can no longer be dismissed as a rare event or staged Western propaganda. While the air attacks have made it more difficult for large convoys of ISIL gunmen to attack and conquer new territory, an even larger problem is the need for using these gunmen to deal with rebellious Sunni Arabs. This has led to counterattacks by some tribal militias, especially in western Iraq and ISIL losing control of towns and villages. The terrorists are being terrorized.

ISIL leadership contains hundreds of veterans from the 2004-8 terror campaign in Iraq and many of these men also served Saddam for many years. These guys know how to organize and run a police state and effectively use terror to keep allies and enemies in line. Thus ISIL will generally leave alone populations that are compliant (and at least appear to go along with the strict lifestyle rules) and is ruthless with those who resist. This includes foreign volunteers who decide they want to go home. While permission will be granted sometimes, currently most foreign volunteers are told to keep fighting and those who disobey are being punished, usually with a death sentence. This approach to dealing with poor morale can help in the short term but as Saddam and his Islamic terrorist followers discovered, long term it is disastrous. The question with ISIL is how many months or years is “long term”.

Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been over a thousand so far (since August 8th). These attacks have killed over 900 people, apparently about 95 percent have been ISIL and the rest civilians. The material damage (equipment and supplies) has been much greater because ISIL vehicles and warehouses have most frequently been the target. Attacks and Kurdish and Iraqi and Syrian Army advances have also revealed the growing ISIL use of underground tunnels. These are sometimes spotted from the air when bombs or shells cause one to cave in and produce a large crater. These air attacks are believed to have crippled ISIL ability to move supplies or fighters and continue attacking. The frequency and effectiveness of ISIL attacks has steadily diminished as the air attacks increased since August. The U.S. accounts for 85 percent of the air attacks against ISIL. Warplanes from Saudi Arabia, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Jordan and Bahrain also hit targets in Syria while Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands warplanes hit targets only in Iraq. Most of the flights these nations make over Syria and Iraq are for reconnaissance and surveillance to gather information on what ISIL is up to and what the most likely targets are.

The air attack have caused a growing number of supply and cash shortages for the ISIL forces. American air strikes have also gone after artillery and armored vehicles (captured from the Iraqi or Syrian forces) and destroyed those as well. ISIL supplies and facilities are attacked once they are known and with the growing rebellion inside ISIL territory, a lot more of these targets are being identified via tips from locals. Also being hit is ISIL construction equipment, which is being used to build fortifications, obstacles and bunkers. While the NATO and Arab air strikes are usually precision affairs the Syrian Air Force continues to hit urban areas with unguided (and often improvised) bombs in order to persuade pro-rebel populations to flee. Recently a large raid against Raqqa, the ISIL capital in eastern Syria) caused several hundred casualties, most of them civilians hit while they were in a crowded market place.

ISIL veterans of the 2004-2008 campaign have distributed advice on how to avoid being spotted from the air, but as American intel veterans of that period return they bring with them experience in seeing through the ISIL deceptions. ISIL commanders keep coming up with new ways to get around the limitations imposed by air power. The most obvious one is to move fighters and supplies in vehicles that appear to be carrying civilians. Anything obviously terrorist related is likely to get hit. The use of human shields is increasing and most of them appear to be involuntary. This has prevented some air attacks, but some of the nations providing air power allow their aircraft to attack critical targets even if it appears human shields are involved. This has caused some losses in the ISIL leadership. To make attacks the ISIL fighters have to be brought in gradually and massed in a built up area. That means attacks on isolated towns or facilities are much less likely but will still occur if the target is considered important enough. And if ISIL does attack, victory must come quick. If fighting lines form in a town the air attacks have targets and as ISIL learned (and is still learning) at Kobane in Syria, this turns into a slaughter for ISIL men. Thousands have been killed or wounded in Kobane since October. ISIL has long had a major grudge against the Kurds who, while they are Sunni Moslems, are very anti-Islamic terrorist and very pro-American. The Kurds are also hated because they are the most skilled and determined fighters ISIL has to face in the region. To admit defeat in Kobane would be painful for ISIL leadership, but that’s something they will probably be forced to do eventually and a growing number of ISIL leaders are admitting that, at least in private.

The increased air strikes have also caused ISIL to concentrate more on terror bombings. There have been more of these in Iraq (especially Baghdad), and wherever there are Iraqi or Kurdish troops the ISIL terrorists can reach. More than 14,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence. For all that the deaths in Syria have been much higher (over 50,000 so far this year and more than 200,000 since 2011) than in Iraq. There are also a lot fewer refugees in Iraq (at least three million) compared to Syria (more than ten million). The international community provides the cash and aid to keep these refugees alive. The U.S. has been the largest donor, providing $1.3 billion to UN aid efforts in the last year alone.

In Syria about 32 percent of the dead so far have been civilians with 19 percent Syrian rebels (from all factions) and 11 percent foreigners fighting for the rebels. Less than two percent of the dead have been foreigners fighting for the government (largely Lebanese and Iraqi Shia recruited by Iran). A third of the dead have been members of the Assad government security forces. About a third of these dead were from militias, many organized and trained by Iranian advisors.

The UN is having problems getting donors to provide money needed to feed over three million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. As a result about half these refugees are getting less food. The length and messiness of the Syrian conflict is discouraging donors, who also note the corruption in the aid programs and how aid money often ends up supporting Islamic terrorists. The UN is also encountering resistance from the West when it comes to finding countries that at least 160,000 of these refugees can be settled in. The West has lost enthusiasm for accepting Moslem refugees. These refugees do not get along well and introduce a troublesome and expensive population that harbors Islamic terrorists and is currently providing thousands of recruits for groups like ISIL.  Western critics of resettlement also note that few Moslem majority nations are willing to resettle these refugees either.

Israel expects more attacks on them by Syrian rebels. There have been at least fifteen incidents since March that involved deliberate mortar or gunfire from Syrian rebels. There were over a hundred incidents of accidental fire from the Syrian side, as rebels and government forces fought. The Israelis don’t expect a major offensive, but small groups of Islamic terrorist rebels are expected to attack just for the sake of being able to say they attacked Israel.

Meanwhile UN peacekeepers recently revealed details of cooperation they observed between Israel and some Syrian rebels. It’s no secret that Israeli border guards regularly allow badly wounded Syrians in and send them to Israeli hospitals for medical care. Since 2011 over a thousand Syrians have received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians coming up to the border seeking care. Israel lets some of these in for treatment but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So the heavily guarded field hospital right near the Syrian border is used to treat all but the most seriously injured (who are transferred to Israeli hospitals). The new revelations confirmed that some of the wounded appeared (to the peacekeepers) to be rebels and that there were sometimes meetings between Israelis and rebels at these border crossings. All this is nothing new, Israel has long tried to keep communications channels, often secret ones, open with its worst foes. Recently al Nusra took over the border crossings used to transfer the wounded and despite al Nusra being more anti-Israel than the rebels they displaced at that crossing, the cooperation continues.

Turkey is becoming a growing problem when it comes to dealing with Islamic terrorists. Despite these groups considering Turkey an enemy, the Islamic party that has run the Turk government since 2003 has become increasingly paranoid about religion. The Turkish president has been openly accusing the non-Moslem world with making war on Islam. This is the same attitude Islamic terrorists use to justify their attacks on non-Moslem targets. The Islamic politicians running Turkey also alarm a lot of Turks with this pro-Islam talk. Since the 1920s Turkey has kept church and state separate but the current government wants to change that and is gradually doing so. The latest threat involves a proposal to undo the 1928 law that made the Roman alphabet the standard, by now again teaching f the Arabic alphabet in schools and eventually dropping the Roman alphabet completely. In 1928 the adoption of the Roman alphabet linked Turkey more closely, culturally and economically, with the West. Going back to Arabic alphabet reverses that and most Turks oppose this change. To make matter worse, the Islamic politicians got elected to power on the promise of cleaning up the corruption that was increasingly hurting the economy as well as politics and life in general. For nearly a decade the Islamic politicians did reduce the corruption, but then evidence began to appear that many of the Islamic politicians had themselves had become corrupt and are now threatening to end the separation of church and state as well. This despite the fact that ISIL considers the current Turkish government un-Islamic and wants to replace it, by force if necessary, and make largely secular Turkey part of the new caliphate. Most Turks oppose ISIL, but most Turks don’t want a civil war over the issue and are trying to settle the issue with elections. That may or may not work depending on how many Islamic politicians agree to respect the democratic process. Meanwhile the Islamic government of Turkey is reluctant to get too involved working with its NATO allies against the Islamic terrorists in Syria. The official Turkish position is to concentrate on destroying the Assad government. There is some agreement with NATO allies on that, but apparent disagreement over priorities. Most NATO nations want to deal with the ISIL threat first and Turkey resists helping out with that.

Meanwhile Turkey continues to crack down on Islamic terrorists within Turkey, especially those known to be willing to carry out attacks inside Turkey. In addition the government continues to turn back known or suspected Islamic terrorists trying to cross the Turkish border into Syria. Since 2011 Turkey has done this to 7,200 people and deported nearly 15 percent of them. At the same time Turkey takes sides in the current Sunni-Shia war and accuses the West of aiding the Shia by allowing a Shia dominated government in Iraq (where Shia are the majority and won the elections allowed after Saddam was overthrown in 2003). Turkey also wants more action against the Shia Assad government but the West refuses because they noted that when they intervened in Libya (with air power only) in 2011 the result was chaos as Islamic terrorist groups triggered a civil war that is still going on. Turkey is unwilling to go it alone in providing air support for the anti-Assad forces in Syria. At this point most of the anti-Assad fighters are Islamic terrorists, affiliated with either al Qaeda or ISIL. Turkey is unclear how they would handle the Islamic terrorists in Syria and for that reason NATO is unclear how to deal with Turkey when it comes to Syria. Meanwhile al Qaeda and ISIL have read the situation correctly and have not tried to carry out terror attacks inside Turkey. The Islamic terrorists recognize that the Islamic government of Turkey is useful and can, to a certain extent, be manipulated.

December 8, 2014:  On the Lebanese border al Nusra Islamic terrorists from Syria captured three Lebanese soldiers. Fighting between al Nusra and Lebanese soldiers and police along the Lebanese border has intensified over the last few years. In that time al Nusra has been kidnapping Lebanese (especially soldiers and police) and offers their captives in exchange for al Nusra men imprisoned in Lebanon as well as some held in Syria. The Lebanese government has little contact with the Syrian government and generally backs the overthrow of the Assad government and is reluctant to release al Nusra men from prison. These al Nusra got arrested in the first place for causing problems inside Lebanon. There is a lot of Lebanese hostility towards al Nusra, which has used some of the refugee camps (containing over a million Syrians, including kin of al Nusra gunmen) as sanctuaries from the fighting in Syria. Lebanese security forces have discouraged this but al Nusra has refused to stay out of Lebanon.

On the Turkish border three Turkish soldiers were killed by gunfire coming from Syria. It is unclear if the shooters were PKK (which often clash with Turkish troops on the border) or ISIL (which recently took control of most of the border but appear to be doing what they can to not antagonize the Turks).

December 7, 2014: Israeli warplanes bombed warehouses outside Damascus in an effort to destroy components of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems Syria is trying to set up. Russia had apparently shipped more S-300 components to Syria despite an August pledge to respect the UN sanctions and not do so. The last Israeli air attack was in February when Israeli aircraft came in low over the Lebanese-Syrian border and fired missiles that destroyed two trucks and killed four Hezbollah men. One of the trucks was carrying longer range rockets while the other truck contained a launcher for the rockets. On January 27th there was an Israeli air strike near the Syrian naval base at Latakia. This attack was said to be against some S-300 anti-aircraft missile components recently received from Russia. Before that an October 2013 raid destroyed a shipment of Russian SA-125 missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. There were two similar attacks earlier in 2013 and a total of five air strikes in Syria in 2013. Syria calls this illegal and accuses Israel of supporting the Islamic terrorist rebels and being largely responsible for the rebellion in Syria. This is part of a widespread belief that the rise of violent Islamic terrorist groups was not because of anything Moslems have done but a plot by Israel and the West. Iran also blames the West for “creating” ISIL. All these conspiracy theories ignore the fact that the growing Sunni/Shia conflict that Iran sponsors heavily has more to do with ISIL than anything the West does.

In the east (Deir Ezzor) Syrian Air Force bombing missions helped Syrian troops repulse an ISIL effort to take the air base (the last major government base in the east) outside the city. ISIL forces had suffered several hundred casualties from a series of attacks that began on the 3rd. The Deir Ezzor air base has long been used to launch air raids on targets throughout eastern Syria. ISIL has been massing forces around the base over the last month and putting the base under siege.

December 5, 2014: On the Lebanese border al Nusra killed a Lebanese policeman they were holding captive. This was done in retaliation for Lebanese police arresting relatives of al Nusra members in Lebanon.



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