largely because Russia has been lying about why it is really in Syria and that lie is both obvious and a major factor in preventing the peace talks from starting. The problem is that Russia is concentrating most of its considerable firepower on rebel groups that are hurting the Syrian Assad government forces the most. By American count only about ten percent of Russian air strikes have been against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and those targets were usually hit to protect Assad forces. Russia justifies (to the UN and the world in general) its military presence in Syria because it is part of the effort to destroy the ISIL threat. While Russia does not hide its support for the Assad government (which the UN and most of the world accuse of war crimes and want gone) it insists that its presence in Syria is not primarily to keep the Assads in power. Yet thousands of Russian troops are working with the Assad forces, the Russian troops are all based in Assad controlled territory and the majority of rebels, who are not ISIL or the local al Qaeda franchise al Nusra, are the main targets of Russian firepower, Not surprisingly these rebels refuse to participate in peace talks as long as the UN allows Russia to get away with their lies. In the last week this Russian support has enabled Assad forces to cut rebels in Aleppo off from Turkey (a primary source if reinforcements and supplies). This is a major defeat for the rebels.
The current UN sponsored peace talks have been delayed until February 25
UN officials believe they can work out the disputes between the rebels and the Russians in time to get the peace talks going by the end of the month but that remains to be seen because the Syrian rebels blame Russia for most of the current government success. As a result the rebels contribute to the failure of the UN peace talks by demanding a lot of pre-conditions aimed at the Russians. At the very least the rebels wanted the Russians to halt their Assad support while peace talks go on. The rebels are asking for other concessions, like release of captured leaders lifting of sieges of some pro-rebel civilian areas. Russia refuses to comply with these demands.
Another issue the rebels are angry about was the UN agreeing to keep the Syrian Kurds out of the peace talks. This was something Turkey insisted on. There were other problems, like the tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have also helped cripple UN efforts to get Syria peace talks going. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis. Russia has backed away from earlier suggestions that they would support forcing the Assads out of the government (while allowing Assad allies to carry on instead) and offering the Assads refuge in Russia.
So far Russian bombers and attack helicopters have killed over 3,000 people. Russia claims that about a third of these dead have been ISIL with the rest being other rebels and civilians. These Russian air attacks are now frequently hitting over a hundred targets a day. Western critics accuse Russia of ignoring civilian losses. That is true but because of that the Russian air attacks have been more effective and have been of great assistance to the Western war against ISIL. Russia calls Western criticism hypocrisy especially since Western and Arab leaders backing the fight against ISIL are not pressuring Russia to change its ROE (Rules of Engagement) over this because everyone admits that this would just encourage ISIL to use civilians as human shields even more.
Inside Syria heavy fighting continues in Deir Ezzor province, especially the provincial capital (Deir Ezzor city). ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of the province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor province to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015. So far this year Russian air support has made it possible for Syrian forces to recapture over 40 towns and villages. The rebel, especially ISIL, fighters tend to be inexperienced and not capable of camouflaging their positions to make them difficult to see from the air. Moreover when rebel fighters nearby are killed by a bomb or missile those close tend to panic and flee. Equally important Russia has sent spare parts and technical experts to help the Syrians to get a lot of their self-propelled and towed artillery operational again. Large quantities of artillery ammo has also been sent and the Syrian Army can again use their artillery intensively and that is something else the rebels are not used to and often flee from. All this has made it much harder for the rebels to defeat the Assad government.
Largely because of Russian air support, government forces have advanced in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo as well as in the south near the Israeli border. As always, the government forces are willing to negotiate terms with rebels to gain control of a city or town in order to minimize damage to the place and avoid casualties. Government forces have also cleared most rebel forces who had been advancing into Latakia province, which is where the Syrian ports are. Most of the Russian aid comes in through these ports.
Israeli officials openly proclaim that their main priority in Syria is eliminating the Iranian presence. When pressed Israeli officials admit that this means preferring an Islamic terrorist group (even ISIL) running Syria if that meant Iran was gone. To Israel Iran is a more formidable threat than any Sunni Islamic terrorist group. On the plus side Israel believes the Russian intervention in Syria will, in the short term, lessen the possibility that Hezbollah will start another war with Israel. Long-term the Russian presence means Hezbollah will get some modern weapons and useful training from the Russians, who do not consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The rest of the world does but for Russia Hezbollah is a useful ally in Syria. Israel is also not happy with the way Russia used its influence to get Western nations to agree to the July 2015 peace deal with Iran that is lifting most of the economic sanctions on Iran. This means Hezbollah will get more cash from Iran. The sanctions led to Iran reducing annual payments to Hezbollah over ten percent during the last two years. Hezbollah understood that Iran was short of cash because of sanctions and low oil prices but pointed out that the missing cash was even more of a problem because Hezbollah had suffered over 8,000 casualties fighting for the Iranian-backed Assad government in Syria. This is actually bad news for Israel because over 10,000 Hezbollah militia men and hundreds of combat leaders have obtained valuable combat experience. More to the point a lot of that experience is gained fighting alongside Russian forces and learning how to fight a conventional war. This will cause Israel problems in the future. Meanwhile Hezbollah has not been ignoring its rockets (more than 50,000 of them) stored in portable or underground launch sites in over 200 Shia villages near the Israeli border.
In addition to threats from Hezbollah and Hamas Israel also has to prepare for Islamic terrorist attacks on the Syrian border. So far Israel has managed to negotiate what amounts to truces with Islamic terror groups that control parts of the Syrian border. The peace on the Syrian frontier is fragile and Israel is working closely with Jordan (which faces a similar threat) to coordinate responses to any terrorist threats from Syria. Israel and Jordan have long cooperated in dealing with terrorist threats.
One thing Turkey and Israel agree on is that life would be better with Iran gone from Syria. Unlike Israel, Turkey has been more active in supporting Syrian rebels, in part because its Syrian border is much longer and has always been much more accessible than Israel’s. Before the 2011 revolution in Syria Turks did a lot of business with Syria, both legal and illegal. When the Islamic political parties took control of Turkey after 2000 they were more tolerant of Islamic terrorist groups than previous secular governments and allowed Islamic terrorists to be in Turkey as long as they did no harm to Turkey. Corruption has always been a big problem in Turkey, and a major opportunity for criminal gangs. This includes the ones that smuggle goods and people in and out of Turkey. Police and border guards could be bribed. The new Islamic government got elected in part by pledges to reduce corruption and they did. But a lot of that corruption remained and that allowed various Islamic terrorist groups to relatively easily do business in Turkey. This included hiring smugglers to illegally buy weapons in Turkey and smuggle them into Syria. The one aspect of this that attracted the most media attention was the revelations that Turkish gangsters and smugglers, along with corrupt border guards, allowed ISIL to bring in stolen oil from Syria and sell it. This has been a major source of income for ISIL and Turkey is under growing pressure to crack down on the gangs and corrupt officials who make it possible. But that involves taking a lot (billions of dollars a year) of business away from groups (including politicians along the border) who will lose a lot of income if the ISIL oil operation is shut down. It’s not as simple as flicking a switch, not when it involves lots of corruption fueled cash in Turkey.
The Turks are more determined to keep Syrian Kurds out of any peace negotiations to end the violence in Syria. Many Turks see all Kurds as enemies despite the fact that most are just interested in defending themselves from ISIL, other Islamic terrorists, Assad forces and even Iran. Turkey notes that the Syrian Kurds declared in late 2013 that their traditional territory in the northeast was now an autonomous Kurdish province, similar to what the Iraqi Kurds next door have had in northern Iraq since the early 1990s. Turkey accuses Syrian and Iraqi Kurds of planning to use these two adjacent autonomous areas as the basis for an independent Kurdish state (that would also claim southeast Turkey and parts of northwest Iran.) Turkey has been attacking Kurdish separatists (PKK) in Turkey, Syria and Iraq since July 2015 because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Turks also ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq and a few in Syria. The Kurdish government in Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK based in remote areas. The Turks cannot force the issue as it is pretty obvious that the Iraqi Kurds have all they can handle with ISIL. In response there has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. This comes after Turkey decided, on July 24th 2015 to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This included allowing American fighters to launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.
The EU (European Union) has agreed to pay Turkey $3 billion to help care for Syrian refugees. This is actually a bribe to get Turkey to cooperate with Europe in reducing the flow of refugees (mainly Syrians) seeking to enter EU nations via Turkey. In return for military aid (and because of the growing ISIL threat) Turkey is increasing security along a 70 kilometer portion of their Syrian border that is controlled, on the Syrian side, by ISIL. This involves building a three meter (nearly 10 feet) high concrete wall along much of this ISIL occupied border. There is a larger military and police presence on the Turkish side and more watch towers, sensors and armed patrols.
ISIL is currently concentrating on defending itself from an American led coalition that is supplying some Syrian rebel forces with air support and weapons in return for cooperation in driving ISIL out of much of the territory they currently hold. This includes the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria, which is considered the ISIL capital. ISIL is also under heavy attack in Iraq.
February 3, 2016: Russia reported that another of their military personnel had recently been killed in Syria (by ISIL mortar fire). That makes three Russian troops killed in Syria so far.
February 2, 2016: Outside Aleppo Syrian troops who recently cut off the pro-rebel population from access to Turkey distributed leaflets warning civilians that they will be attacked if they continue to shelter rebel fighters. The Syrian government has long offered civilians the choice to be loyal to the Assads and not be attacked by government forces or continue to support rebels and suffer air, artillery and ground attack by government forces. Most Syrians oppose the Assads and few were willing to change sides. As a result some 30 percent of the population has been driven from the country.
Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of supporting ISIL efforts to stop the Kurdish advance in northeast Syria. The Syrian Kurds point to Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River in Syria. The Syrian Kurds did that anyway and now have suffered air attacks by the Turks as well as more intense resistance by the ISIL forces the Syrian Kurds are fighting. The largest component of the Syrian Kurd rebels is the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists). Western nations back the Kurds because in Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. Moreover in Syria the Kurds there have incorporated some Arab militias (some Moslems, others Christian) into an effective combined force. The Turks don’t care much about all that and continue to see armed Kurds (especially the PKK and PYD) as a threat to Turkey.
January 31, 2016: In the south (outside Damascus) three bombs went off near a Shia shrine, leaving over 70 dead and more than a hundred wounded. The attackers were apparently ISIL suicide bombers. ISIL, like most Sunni Islamic terrorists, consider Shia heretics who must be wiped out.
January 23, 2016: In the southeast Jordanian border guards clashed with about thirty armed smugglers coming from Syria. In the brief battle twelve of the smugglers were killed and the rest fled with some of their cargo back into Syria. The Jordanians did seize over two million amphetamine pills. The pills were actually Captagon, which is the trade name for fenethylline, a synthetic drug that has the same effects as amphetamine but with fewer bad side effects (like increased blood pressure). Fenethylline is still pretty potent and by the 1980s most countries had either outlawed it or made it a prescription drug. Now the most common form of fenethylline is Captagon, which is widely available in the Middle East. Captagon is considered a major problem in the Middle East because there is so much illegal use of it. It is the stimulant of choice among many Syrian rebels as well as pro-government forces.