March 31, 2015:
The UN is having no success in getting access to nearly five million refugees inside Syria. Over ten percent of these refugees are literally under siege by government forces because the civilians are considered pro-rebel. For the rest road access passes through government and rebel territory. Some 80 percent of the Syrian population has been reduced to poverty and many depend on food aid to survive. But so far this year the Assad government has refused over 90 percent of UN requests for access to areas where refugees are living. That means no UN supplies can get through. The rebels are more cooperative, largely because the Assads control territory that extended to the sea and allows allies Russia and Iran to ship in supplies.
Since 2011 over 220,000 people (nearly all of them Syrians) have died in a civil war that is still stalemated. The Assad government has managed to hold on and may eventually eke out victory but at great cost to Syria. Already the average lifespan of Syrians has been greatly reduced (from 79 to 55) and the economy ruined. Satellite photos show that, compared to similar nighttime pictures from 2011, only about 20 percent of the lights are still visible at night. Many of the Syrians who fled the country (over 20 percent so far) will never return. There is little to return to in part because some Islamic terror groups admit that they are not attacking towns and villages in order to occupy them but simply to hurt the troops or pro-government militiamen guarding them. The rebels loot and trash the places they take and then depart before the government can organize a counterattack (by land or air). These raids also look for people worth kidnapping and holding for ransom. There are still many Syrian families with assets, although most of these are living in government controlled territory (about a fifth of the country). But there are still people you can get a decent ransom for so this is yet another reason for people with any resources to get out of Syria. What assets the family has are often then spent on smugglers who will get all or some of the family into Western Europe, where jobs and public assistance are available. Because of this growing flood of Syrian refugees many European states are willing to end the war in a deal that leaves the Assads in power. The U.S. leads a group that is still opposed to any peace deal that leaves the Assads in power.
ISIL is having problems with the inhabitants of their new “Islamic state”. Even the skilled foreigners ISIL recruited for their caliphate are unhappy. The ISIL call also brought a lot of foreign volunteers with no useful skills and ISIL tries to use some of these as fighters or suicide bombers. Few people with useful skills are eager to join ISIL. Internal criticism is not just about cruelty and poverty, there is also the matter of prominent defeats in Iraq and Syria as well as continued rebellions against ISIL rule in both countries. Even the Syrian Army is retaking ground from ISIL. The Kurds are defeating ISIL forces outside Kobane in Syria and near the Iraq border. In Iraq Kurds, Iraqi soldiers and Sunni and Shia militias are both stopping ISIL attacks and pushing back ISIL forces. Meanwhile air attacks not only continue but are more frequent and more damaging. This makes it more difficult to stockpile supplies or move large numbers of gunmen quickly. More leaders are being found and killed by these air attacks. Important economic targets like oil refineries are being destroyed. Inside the ISIL run “caliphate” (eastern Syria and western Iraq) there are growing shortages of everything and ISIL is finding that conquest is easier than running an economy. The economic problems fuel the rebellions and desertions and it’s a vicious circle that is destroying ISIL from within. The problem with ISIL is that so far it has solved its supply (logistical) problems via looting. But there has been no new conquests to loot and the stockpiles of plunder taken in 2014 is nearly exhausted.
ISIL has tried to adapt and likes to point out that despite the coalition air strikes ISIL still makes attacks. What ISIL does not comment on is how they are benefitting from pioneering work done by the Afghan Taliban to make it more difficult for Western air forces to use their smart bombs and superior sensors to find and cripple Islamic terrorists on the ground. American, Iraqi and other Arab leaders are complaining that the restrictive American ROE (Rules Of Engagement) are and how these rules severely limits the number of targets that can be hit. As a result ISIL can move around more freely despite the constant presence of coalition aircraft overhead. All this began in Afghanistan where the Taliban learned how to exploit the ROE and increase the demands for fewer civilian casualties, even if it meant the troops were put in more danger. Sometimes this approach actually put civilians in more danger. For example, as the ROE got more restrictive in 2009 American troops increasingly encountered angry Afghan civilians who demanded that the Americans act more decisively in pursuing and killing Taliban gunman, even if it put Afghan civilians at risk. The civilians could do the math and knew if Taliban were not killed they would go on to kill more civilians. In Syria and Iraq the ROE are very unpopular with the civilians living under ISIL control. ISIL is much hated and at times the American ROE is hated even more because it allows ISIL to move about and commit more atrocities against civilians even as coalition aircraft are overhead.
Turks living along the Syrian border are angry as more and more Syrian villages can be seen displaying ISIL flags. While ISIL is losing ground to the Kurds and tribal anti-ISIL rebels in the east, ISIL is having more success displacing rival rebels in Western Syria, particularly along the border. The Turkish media has picked up this new ISIL presence and backed growing public enthusiasm for more active opposition to ISIL.
On the Syrian border Israel is working more with Syrian rebels (except ISIL) to help oppose Iran from establishing a presence in the area so they can launch attacks into Israel. Iranians have been bragging about doing this and Iran has sent more senior officers to work with Hezbollah and the Syrian Army efforts to clear all the rebels away from the Israeli border. Iran is also bringing in thousands of additional Iranian volunteers to join rebel militias in the fight against the rebels. It appears that Iran is trying to gain control of the area opposite the Israeli border and hang onto it. This would provide Iran with “Iranian controlled territory” on the Israeli border. The Syrian rebels that long controlled this border are being pushed away and Israel is uneasy about what might happen next.
The Israeli border with Lebanon has been quiet since January, although Hezbollah is making more threatening noises. On the Syrian border there have been no direct attacks across the border and even the stray bullets and mortar shells are less frequent. But al Nusra (an al Qaeda affiliate) Islamic terrorists have taken control of most of this border and Hezbollah personnel have been seen there as well. Israel has been accused of collaborating with al Nusra by treating some badly wounded al Nusra men. This is apparently more of an arrangement to gain information and a peaceful border. Ultimately al Nusra wants to destroy Israel and they are not giving that up.
Western (especially European) efforts to prevent their Moslem citizens from going to Syria to join ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are working. Turkey reports fewer are showing up trying to cross the border into Syria and the electronic “chatter” among Western Moslems is full of stories about young Moslem men (and women) who have been unable to get out of the country. The chatter also includes a lot of advice, some of it effective, on how to get around all the restrictions. This has cost ISIL hundreds of recruits in 2014 and even more in 2015. ISIL has not really felt this loss because most of their foreign recruits came from the Middle East or Central Asia and they have to face fewer obstacles to leaving. In addition to watch lists for border guards in their home countries and Turkey the European governments have issued useful advice to parents of young men and women who seem to have been recruited. Parents are told to keep passports of underage (under 18) children locked up and to le the police know if their children might have been recruited. Parents long resisted reporting such matters to the police but this reluctance has been gradually overcome and the word is getting around that the police will be discreet in these matters. On the downside the police now have many more young Moslems who have been recruited to commit violent acts in the name of Islam and are unable to leave the country to do so. That means police have more potential terrorists they have to monitor and move on if an imminent threat is detected. The cause of all this angst was European nations facing a growing problem with young Moslem men being recruited by radical Islamic clergy to go fight alongside (and often against) the Syrian rebels. European intelligence officials believe over 3,000 European Moslems (including at least 500 from Britain) have gone to Syria by early 2015 and about ten percent were killed. More than ten percent returned and these jihad veterans often seek out new recruits. These jihadis are not as effective at attracting new volunteers as ISIL had hoped. So far only about 10 per 100,000 Moslems have been persuaded to go. As small as that portion is, a far larger percentage (over ten percent) of European Moslems will admit to admiring the goals and methods of Islamic terrorists. Most of those who did go to Syria are now more radicalized than when they left and police fear they may contribute to more Islamic terrorism in Europe. So far that has not happened, perhaps because so many ISIL volunteers come back disillusioned and disgusted with ISIL.
Lebanon has become less and less tolerant of Sunni Islamic terrorist activity. This is especially true of the major Islamic terror groups in Syria (al Nusra and ISIL). While only a third of Lebanese are Shia, most Lebanese are hostile to these Sunni Islamic terror groups. Only about a quarter of Lebanese are Sunni and a minority of them support Sunni Islamic terrorism. Lebanese police have capitalized on this to make it very difficult for groups like al Nusra or ISIL to establish a presence in Lebanon. While most Lebanese also hate the Assad government they also dislike Syria (which considers Lebanon a “lost province”) in general. Hezbollah cooperates with the army to fight Syrian Islamic terrorists trying to set up bases just inside Lebanon. In general, though, Lebanese disapprove of Hezbollah taking an active role in the Syrian civil war.
The U.S. has provided the Lebanese Army with weapons (including artillery, armor and UAVs) as well as Special Forces advisors and Americans to operate the UAVs (as part of the program to train Lebanese how to do it.) The Americans have provided (so far) two Australian built Aerosonde UAVs. These are commercial models weighing 13.1 kg (30 pounds) but able to carry a video camera and stay aloft for ten hours using a model aircraft engine.
March 30, 2015: In the north (Idlib province) the Syrian Air Force bombed the provincial capital (Idlib city) more than a dozen times. Syrian Army forces had retreated from Idlib city over the weekend after nearly a week of heavy fighting and over a thousand casualties (most of them suffered by government forces). The attack was led by al Nusra with help from four other Islamic terror groups (and not ISIL). This was a major victory for al Nusra, which is a temporary ally of ISIL, but will eventually, when the Assad government is overthrown, go to war with ISIL as ISIL does not get along with Islamic terror groups that refuse to acknowledge ISIL as top dog. Idlib city is the second provincial capital (after Raqqa in the east, now the ISIL capital) since 2013 to fall under rebel control. Idlib city will apparently become the capital of an al Nusra “Islamic State of Syria.” ISIL will not be amused. Meanwhile ISIL continues to attack government checkpoints and outposts, causing more casualties every day. It’s good for ISIL morale.
A Russian newspaper published an interview with Syrian president Assad thanking Russia for continuing to deliver weapons. Assad said these were orders from before the 2011 revolution and after (when a UN arms embargo went into effect). Russia did not respond to international media queries but inside the country it’s a different story. Since 2011 t
he Russian government openly boasted (at least inside Russia) of how it was backing the Syrian government against a popular uprising and how this had been successful. Russian arms shipments (via air and sea) increased after 2011 and have included armored vehicles and UAVs.
Syria accounted for seven percent of Russian arms exports in 2011, and Russia wants to show that they always deliver. Russia was also building a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus in 2011 but the several hundred Russians who there working on the project were soon withdrawn from Syria and the Tartus project suspended until the war is over.
News of these Russian arms shipments showing up in the Russian mass media went international this time and several Arab countries Russia has been trying to sell weapons to were not pleased to hear public admission that Russia has agreed to ship more weapons after 2011, something they always denied. This angered Saudi Arabia, which was apparently trying to get Russia to cut Syria off in return for even larger orders from Gulf Arabs. Russia had been saying the shipments that continued to arrive in Syria were all pre-2011 orders but it was obvious that this was not true and it was an open secret that Russia was sending Syria whatever they needed and going public with what was really going on Russia has confirmed, to most Sunni Arabs, especially the rich ones in the Gulf that Russia is siding with Iran. It was also an open secret that all these Russian arms for Syria were being paid for by Iran and that some of the more advanced (and expensive) weapons were quietly sent to Iran via air freight. This collusion between Russia and Iran should come as no surprise given that the Gulf oil states, led by Saudi Arabia, are largely responsible for the sharp decline in the price of oil. This is directed at Iran, but Russia is hurt as well because, like Iran, Russia depends on oil exports as a major part of their economy. Russia has tried to be a peacemaker in Syria but has clearly been taking sides and now it is confirming its alliance with Iran. This makes Russia an enemy of the Arabs, which Russia believes it can talk its way out of eventually. Russia has had its ups and downs with the Arabs for a long time and accept these shifting loyalties as normal.
March 27, 2015: In the northeast (Hasakeh) ISIL suicide bombers attacked a large number of Kurds celebrating the arrival of Spring and killed at least 45, including many women and children. These festivals, called Nowruz, are pre-Islamic celebrations still popular with many non-Arab people in the region. ISIL considers this sort of thing paganism and it is. But for the Kurds, Iranians and other Indo-European peoples of Central Asia it is an ancient tradition worth keeping. Even the Shia clerics in Iran have not been able to eliminate Nowruz.
March 18, 2015: The United States is trying to figure out why Assad forces in northwestern Syria shot down a Predator UAV yesterday. There was an unofficial understanding that, since coalition (mostly American) warplanes were attacking ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups in Syria (all of them enemies of the Assads), the Assads would not use their anti-aircraft systems to attack the UAVs or manned aircraft. This meant that the coalition did not have to devote hundreds of sorties and risk the lives of many pilots to attack and destroy the Syrian air defense system. Since coalition air operations continued even after it was confirmed how the UAV had gone down it can be assumed that the Assads apologized and explained how the UAV came to be fired on and how it was all a terrible mistake.
March 15, 2015: The Kurds presented evidence to the UN that Syria had used chlorine filled barrel bombs during air attacks on Kurdish civilians recently. ISIL is also accused of using chlorine in Iraq. All this is nothing new. In January UN inspectors 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.
March 12, 2015: ISIL posted an audio message on the Internet in which it accepted the Boko Haram offer to join ISIL. The Boko Haram offer was also posted on the Internet but it took a week before ISIL responded. This is apparently because of dissent within ISIL leadership about accepting black African Moslem groups as official members of ISIL. For thousands of years Arabs considered black Africans inferior and while Islam tried to change that with some mentions of universal brotherhood the racist attitudes still persist. Slavery also still exists in many Moslem countries and the slaves are invariably black Africans owned by Arabs. This slavery is usually practiced in violation of local laws, which are ignored when it comes to enslaving black Africans. ISIL is enthusiastic about franchising its brand of Islamic terrorism because that enables ISIL to take credit for spectacular terror attacks elsewhere that it really had little or no part in carrying out. Case in point are the recent attacks in Tunisia (a museum full of foreign tourists) and Yemen (two mosques full of Shia worshippers). ISIL got a publicity boost to offset the growing number of failures in Syria and Iraq.