The continuing violence since the civil war began in 2011 has wrecked most of the country. Aleppo, long a mighty engine of the national economy and nearly as large as Damascus, has been a battlefield since 2012 and has ceased to function. Rebel factions fight with each other and government forces for control of some of the more intact suburbs. Only Damascus and towns and smaller cities in territory (mainly along the Mediterranean coast) the government never lost control of remain largely intact and functioning. This is helped by Russian and Iranian economic aid, which is being cut because of the falling price of oil.
Islamic terrorists attacks on the borders of Assad controlled territory continue to be repulsed. This is largely due to Iranian help to train and arm local self-defense militias and a network of army units trained and equipped to act as quick-reaction forces to reinforce any pro-Assad village under heavy attack. Damascus is largely untouched although there has been fighting in some suburbs and occasional acts of terrorism in the rest of the city and elsewhere in the country. For that reason Damascus is the prize and whoever takes Damascus away from the Assads can declare themselves the winner.
Actually “winning” the civil war is another matter. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) appears, in the media at least, to be the most successful rebel faction. But that’s because ISIL is the most ruthless of dozens of rebel coalitions (or the government forces) involved. Moreover ISIL territorial gains have mainly been thinly populated desert in the west or depopulated (by years of fighting) areas in the north and central Syria. When it comes to actually controlling population ISIL is at a big disadvantage. The degree of savagery practiced by ISIL, especially against unarmed civilians who do not cooperate has made ISIL the group people are most likely to flee. Most other rebels and the Assads offer civilians benefits (economic and personal security) if they stick around. Not so ISIL which treats civilians like farm animals to be exploited and, if they are troublesome, killed. ISIL is the classic example of why Islamic radicalism has failed in reality (but never in theory or in the sermons of hard core clerics) for over a thousand years. The only benefit of this nightmare is that ISIL’s actions have united the Islamic world like nothing else for a long time. Conservative and more secular Islamic leaders are all condemning ISIL and some are even asking that something be done within the Islamic world to kill this endemic support for extremism once and for all. That last development is long overdue.
The air strikes against ISIL have been most effective at hitting economic targets. ISIL has been trying to establish an “Islamic State” in the thinly populated areas it controls in eastern Syria and western Iraq. These areas contain working oil fields and there has long been a network of dealers in the area who will buy oil, cheap (about $25 a barrel from ISIL), for cash and no questions asked. That only works if the oil fields are undamaged and still capable to pumping oil. The air strikes not only shut down most ISIL oil production but have driven away the technicians needed to make even an undamaged oil field work. ISIL has been advertising for replacement staff, offering high pay and security. ISIL’s reputation makes it difficult to attract competent people especially since the Arab and Western nations opposing ISIL would prosecute anyone going to work for ISIL, especially skilled oil field technicians and managers.
The economic activity in ISIL controlled territory is either wrecked by fighting or crippled by poor access to the outside world. ISIL is willing to allow food and other aid into their territory but given the ISIL reputation for kidnapping aid workers (even Moslem ones from Syria or Iraq) there is growing reluctance to even send aid. This fear is made worse by the experience with groups similar to ISIL (like al Shabaab in Somalia) who would sell a lot of aid to fund their terror operations. In short, time is against ISIL because as the months go on the population of its Islamic State grows hungrier and more desperate to rid themselves from this nightmare. ISIL, like al Shabaab, will try some imaginative, desperate and ultimately futile ideas to remedy the situation but there really is no solution for Islamic State that is, economically, a failed state from the beginning.
The best example of the ISIL future is seen in Raqqa, the capital of the west Syrian province of Raqqa. ISIL has remained in control of Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria, since early 2014. Normally Raqqa has a population of 220,000 but nearly half have fled since ISIL took over. These refugees all tell the same stories of a wrecked economy and savage rule. Throughout ISIL occupied portions of Syria schools have been closed, leaving over 600,000 children without an education. Raqqa still has some phone service and some residents risk execution by reporting, usually to family outside the city, what is happening in Raqqa. Apparently many of the inhabitants are hoping the Americans will invade and free them from ISIL control. This despite the fact that American and Arab air attacks on Raqqa have killed hundreds of civilians living near ISIL targets. Yet that is not the major cause of violent death. Since mid-2014 ISIL is believed to have executed nearly 2,000 people. Most of the victims have been civilians or captured soldiers and police. But a growing number of the executions involve ISIL members who attempted to desert or otherwise misbehave.
In Syria the fighting has left 40,000-80,000 dead (depending on whose estimates you believe) in 2014. That’s four or five times the losses in neighboring Iraq. Some 60 percent of the Syrian losses were civilians (most of them pro-rebel) and 20 percent were rebel fighters. The rest were pro-government forces. About three percent of the 2014 dead were caused by Western and Arab air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria. Since 2011 over 200,000 have died and there have been more than 800,000 non-fatal casualties (wounds, injuries, serious illness). Half the 22 million population of Syria have fled their homes since 2011 and over four million are living outside the country. About a quarter of those fled in 2014 and the exodus continues. Foreign donors are spending over $8 billion a year to keep these refugees outside Syria alive. This is difficult this time of year because the cold weather means fuel and blankets to keep refugees warm are needed and it is already difficult to keep the growing numbers of refugees supplied with basic food and medical needs. Even many Assad supporters, living in the parts of the country largely untouched by the war, are fleeing. Most Syrians see no future for their country as long as the fighting continues and there have been no credible efforts to halt the mayhem.
ISIL is facing a very costly, public and embarrassing defeat at the town of Kobane on the Turkish border. A three month effort to take the town from Kurdish defenders has turned into a slaughter of the ISIL attackers. Over a thousand ISIL men have been killed and over 3,000 wounded in Kobane since October. Worse, by mid-December the Kurds began pushing ISIL out of Kobane and other areas around the town. By early January the Kurds control over 80 percent of Kobane. Despite ISIL counterattacks the Islamic terrorists keep losing ground. This is largely Because the Kurds are better (trained, experienced and led) fighters, and have air support. A major factor in the high ISIL losses was the air support. There were over 200 air attacks since September. The Americans appear to have had air controller teams with the Kurds in or near Kobane as well as UAVs constantly watching the town from the air for targets and movements by the ISIL gunmen. This information gave the Kurds an edge. The Kurds were just as determined as the ISIL fighters and not terrified by the use of suicide bombers and fearless (if inept) opponents. By December it appeared that ISIL was no longer sending its best fighters to Kobane but instead using mainly new recruits. These men have, at most, a few weeks training (and indoctrination) and don’t last long against the Kurds. For new ISIL recruits orders to go to Kobane came to be seen as a death sentence or, as their leaders put it, a quick ticket to paradise (after a glorious death as a Holy Warrior). ISIL made a big deal of showing no fear of the air strikes, but the reality was that those smart bombs and missiles killed you whether you were afraid or not.
Western and Arab intelligence agencies are known to share information on ISIL and have an estimate of ISIL strength, losses and recruiting success. Little of this data is made public while ISIL is still a threat. That’s because of the fear that sources of information and details of methods used (especially electronic) would be compromised if ISIL knew what these estimates were. If ISIL found the estimates accurate there would be increased efforts to tighten security. The intel agencies have already admitted that the intense Islamic conservatism of ISIL has made it difficult to get sources inside the organization. Not impossible, because since September 11, 2001 there have been several instances where details of successful spies inside al Qaeda became public. Obviously, such spies inside ISIL last a lot longer if you don’t discuss them with the media, even “off the record.” It is known that ISIL has been accusing senior officials of treason and spying for the enemy and some of these ISIL officials have been executed. From what is known (via civilians inside ISIL territory talking to kin “outside”) ISIL is caring for lots of casualties and ISIL deserters (who are now being executed by ISIL if caught trying to leave) report heavy losses among new recruits. These men get a few weeks training but are still basically amateurs going into their first fire fight and most do not survive more than a few weeks. This is normal for armed groups like this, there is decades of data from research and interviews with survivors to prove it. ISIL has released recruiting videos showing the training of young (apparently as young as 14 or less) teenagers. Refugees report that children of that age are often coerced (taken at gunpoint from their families) and compelled, on pain of death, to undergo “training” which, initially consists mainly of indoctrination. Those that seem to resist the indoctrination are killed, which encourages others to at least pretend to be enthusiastic. It has been noted that a growing proportion of foreigners among ISIL dead and those taken alive. Deserters and refugees report the same trend. Fewer Syrians and Iraqis want to work for ISIL, which is not a good sign for the Islamic state seeking to gain control over all of Syria and Iraq. You can occupy territory, but without a population you preside over a wilderness.
January 14, 2015: The In central Syria (Homs) the government agreed to a truce with rebels in the one neighborhood of the town the rebels still hold. Government and rebel forces are both more concerned with ISIL activity in the area. Fear and hatred of ISIL is one of the few things government and non-ISIL rebels can agree on.
Turkish government declared a media (including the Internet) ban on any reporting of accusations that the government allowed arms shipments to Islamic terrorist groups in Syria. This all began with the recent leaking of documents about an incident in January 2014 when border police seized trucks found trying to move weapons across the border. The police were overruled by the Turkish national intelligence service which the recently released documents showed was behind the smuggling effort. While the government ban will keep details of this revelation out of the conventional mass media, it cannot stop Turks from learning more about the incident via the Internet. Thus the ban increases the damage suffered by the government which has been under increasing pressure for corruption and covert support for Islamic terrorists who don’t mind killing Turks as well as foreigners. The Turkish government is now on record as being hostile to ISIL as well as the Assad government. But the leaked documents and ban against them shows that the Turkish government still supports some Islamic terrorist groups that few Turks have sympathy for.
January 12, 2015: American officials met with some of the secular Syrian rebels leaders in Turkey to work out details of how the U.S. and Turkey would proceed to train and equip 5,000 Syrian rebels in Turkey. The U.S. offers to spend $500 million on this and Turkey will provide the camps and access into and out of Syria. The Americans and Turks do not agree on how to screen recruits as well as some other details. The Turks are willing to accept recruits with more radical attitudes than the Americans are comfortable with. This is all part of a larger plan in which Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are to host training for 5,000 rebels this year and a total of 15,000 over three years, most of it paid for by the United States. About 2,000 rebels are to be trained in Turkey this year.
January 10, 2015: In northern Lebanon (Tripoli) a bomb went off in a café favored by Shia and Assad supporters. At least seven died and dozens were wounded. The Syrian al Nusra Islamic terrorist group was believed responsible. Al Nusra is allied with ISIL but is much more moderate. The alliance was one of convenience and self-preservation. Months of intense fighting between al Nusra and ISIL finally convinced both groups that some sort of truce would be mutually beneficial. Al Nusra has been more successful in setting up operations inside Lebanon (where Sunni Moslems are a minority in a population dominated by Christians, Shia and other Moslem sects Sunni radicals consider heretics). ISIL is much less likely to be tolerated and Lebanon has increased border security and screening to try and keep ISIL (and Syrians in general) out. This may involve some sort of unofficial arrangement with al Nusra to provide info on ISIL attempts to get into Lebanon in return for less pressure on al Nusra groups already inside the country.
January 6, 2015: UN inspectors have concluded that Assad forces apparently did use chlorine gas to attack civilians several times in 2014. These attacks left 13 dead and nearly 500 ill. The Assad government denied the accusations.
The Libyan (Tobruk) government has banned all Palestinians, Syrians and Sudanese from its territory. That is because these foreigners tend to be in Libya to join or support Islamic terrorist factions loyal to the rebel Tripoli government.
January 4, 2015: East of Damascus two rebel factions (Army of Islam and the Army of the Nation) fought with each other over a territorial dispute. Factional fighting among rebel groups is still a major problem for the rebel cause.
Israel revealed that three Palestinians it had arrested in November in the West Bank were found to have been part of an ISIL terrorist cell. The three admitted their association with ISIL. This was the first confirmed ISIL presence in the West Bank. Israel expects ISIL to try and take control of some of the Syrian-Israeli border in 2015 and use that to try and move men into Israel. Meanwhile Israel and Lebanon have quietly cooperated in keep their mutual border sealed to Islamic terrorists going in either direction. Some Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are pro-ISIL and Lebanon does not want any of them coming north for any reason (like getting to Syria to fight for ISIL, which some Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have already done).
January 3, 2015: In northeastern Syria (near Deir Ezzor) the body of a senior official in the local ISIL police was found. He had been tortured and beheaded. It was later revealed that he had been caught smoking a cigarette, something which ISIL forbids anyone to do.
Apparently two American hostage rescue missions outside Raqqa failed in the last few days. In both cases the ISIL guards detected the approaching helicopters and opened fire before the commandos could land and go into action. One the hostages being sought was Muadh al Kasasbeh, a Jordanian F-16 pilot who was captured on December 23rd when his F-16 crashed outside Raqqa. Kasasbeh was participating in one of the many air attacks on Raqqa. Only Kobane has suffered more attention from warplanes than Raqqa in the last few months. Jordan is apparently negotiating with ISIL to get Kasasbeh released. Soon after Kasasbeh was captured Jordan halted air raids on Syrian targets.
December 27, 2014: In the northeast, just across the Turkish border Kurdish gunmen fought each other over some disagreement. This left at least three dead. Those involved belonged to the secular PKK and the Kurdish branch of Hezbollah.