In the northeast American trainers working with Syrian Kurds report a growing number of Arabs are volunteering to join the Kurdish dominated (and U.S. supported) SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). For over a year about 80 percent of the SDF strength (currently about 25,000) was Kurdish with the rest being Christian and Moslem Arabs. But with the weakening of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) because of battlefield defeats and growing desertions (and fewer new recruits) more Syrian Arabs are willing to fight and prefer to do that with the SDF, who are the most successful Syrian rebels. Many of the new volunteers have no military experience at all and the U.S. is hustling to expand its training program, which takes longer for men with no military experience. In addition to the Kurds, the other reason the SDF is so effective is its attention to training and leadership. Unlike ISIL and the many militias in Syria, who provide very little (a few weeks at most) or no training for new recruits, SDF provides two months or more and refuses to accept anyone who cannot successfully complete the training. SDF has been carefully advancing towards the ISIL capital (the eastern city of Raqqa) since late 2015 and is preparing to make a big push to actually capture Raqqa. Some 5,000- 10,000 trained fighters are needed for this, plus lots of air support. The American led air coalition will deliver the air support and teams of American air controllers will be provided to make sure the air strikes are as timely and accurate as possible. Most SDF fighters are busy defending territory they already control (nearly 10 percent of Syria) so mustering a force large enough to go after Raqqa has not been easy. Another advantage SDF has is that they will cooperate with government forces when it is mutually beneficial. That usually means dealing with Islamic terrorist groups, usually ISIL.
That cooperation with the Assads can be dangerous. For example since April SDF and government forces in Hasakeh province have occasionally skirmished, leaving about a hundred dead. Commanders from both sides are able to intervene and restore the cooperation but the tension remains. Most of Hasakeh province is controlled by the Kurds, who are supported by the United States and about 200 American military trainers (being reinforced by 250 U.S. Army Special Forces troops). These American reinforcements are arriving with the understanding that the SDF attack on Raqqa will be done without any cooperation with government forces or any other rebel groups. Meanwhile the Assad government and Turkey do not want Syrian Kurds turning the northeast, where most Syrian Kurds live, into an autonomous Kurdish region (like a similar one just across the border in Iraq). Russia, while definitely an ally of the Assads, is more inclined to side with the Kurds, who Russians regard as better fighters. But the Kurds realize that long-term the Russians will side with Assad and the Turks. On the 21st the American regional (CENTCOM) commander, a four star general, made a surprise visit to the SDF in Hasakeh province. The Kurds were pleased, especially since the CENTCOM then went on to visit Turkey and try to reduce Turkish hostility towards SDF.
At the start of 2016 ISIL appeared to control nearly half of Syria (mostly in the east) while the government controlled about a quarter of the country. Since then ISIL has lost about a quarter of its territory but when you just take into account population ISIL and government still control about the same number of people. ISIL has lost territory in central Syria and the east but made gains in the north around Aleppo. The Kurdish dominated SDF controls nearly 20 percent of the territory and the secular rebels (FSA or Free Syrian Army) and al Nusra (al Qaeda) each control about ten percent. “Control” may be too strong a word because in many areas no one is really in charge, except for independent (of any faction) local defense militias. Most of the territory ISIL claims control over is uninhabited and controlled by whoever is passing through with the most firepower.
The Assad government continues to declare confidence in final victory. With most of the world united against ISIL and Russian support is still substantial (despite officially “withdrawing from Syria”) the government believes they can deal with the non-ISIL rebels. This includes making some sort of deal with the Kurds. The Assads are also taking advantage of the continuing feuds between various Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL and al Nusra are notorious for their tendency to fight other Islamic terrorist groups that won’t submit to their orders.
Iran admits to having troops (over 3,000) in Syria. Iran insists they are all volunteers, which explains the presence of army troops, who are rarely sent overseas. Until recently nearly all were from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) and most of them officers and career NCOs from combat units who were sent to Syria for a few months to get some combat experience by working with government, Hezbollah and militia units. But now many of the IRGC are being replaced or augmented with regular army commandos. Most of the Iranian deaths (nearly 300 so far) in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media those losses have been increasing in 2016, running at 30-40 a month. There are even more monthly losses for the thousands of foreign mercenaries Iran has recruited for the Assads. All of these are Shia, most from Lebanon but nearly as many from other countries (especially Iraq and Afghanistan). Iran has funded, armed and trained even more local militiamen in Syria, whose main duty is to defend government held territory.
ISIL Feels The Pain
ISIL has changed its tactics in response to heavy personnel and territorial losses suffered since late 2015. This is because the opposition is more effective and ISIL is no longer as scary as they were ion 2014. ISIL tried to counter their deteriorating reputation with more high-profile (for maximum mass media attention) terror attacks in government held territory. ISIL wants to hide the fact that they are losing and have been doing so for nearly a year now. Income is way down, desertion is way up and declining morale makes it impossible to carry out the bold moves and sustained offensives that worked so well for them in 2014.
The growing number of ISIL deserters provide more details about what is happening in ISIL controlled territory. The increasingly effective air strikes are indeed because of more local informants and relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement that now ignore the use of human shields). The aerial bombings have more frequently hit ISIL leaders and caused a lot more ISIL casualties in general. ISIL leaders are, at least according to deserters, often visibly uneasy. So are their followers, in part because of reduced pay (or no pay at all) and even essential supplies like food and ammo. The more frequent use of public executions for ISIL deserters is driving more ISIL fighters and support personnel away. That is a major reason why ISIL has lost, so far, 45 percent of the Iraqi territory it seized in 2014. About half of ISIL oil production had been destroyed and other ISIL income sources were also under attack in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Losses have been somewhat heavier in Syria, meaning there is little hope of reinforcements from Syria and that Syria is no longer a safer place for ISIL men to flee to.
It is believed that the U.S. led air effort has killed over 25,000 ISIL personnel in Iraq and Syria so far. Some 600 were believed to have been killed in April alone and even more in May. From August 2014 through May 2016 American warplanes haves launched nearly 12,000 sorties against ISIL. So far 67 percent of those sorties have been against targets in Iraq with the other third against Syrian targets. Most of the targets were over 5,000 buildings and fortifications used by ISIL. Over 3,000 vehicles were destroyed and more than 500 industrial (mainly oil production) facilities were hit. Increasingly these attacks are in direct support of Iraqi troops fighting ISIL and Kurdish troops doing the same in Syria.
Meanwhile there is another war going on that does not involve ISIL. That is the continuing (since July 2015) conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Some 140 PKK members have died so far in May and most of those were the result of Turkish air strikes at PKK bases in remote areas of northern Iraq. Since mid-2015 this fighting has left nearly 5,000 PKK personnel dead (mostly in Iraq and Syria) and killed nearly 500 Turkish soldiers and police (mostly in Turkey). Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. Turkey went to war with the PKK in late July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Turks are also bombing ISIL in Syria and claim to have killed at least 1,300 ISIL members so far. Turkey joining the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.
May 23, 2016: On the Mediterranean coast ISIL set off seven bombs in the government controlled cities of Jableh and Tartus killing at least 150 people. For these two cities this was the first civil war-related violence they had experienced and there was shock that ISIL could pull this off so deep in government controlled territory. Most of the damage was done by suicide bombers in vehicles, suggesting that the ISIL man somehow got through the tight security that the government employs to keep the coastal area safe.
May 22, 2016: Rebels complain that Russian air strikes along the Castello road, the main supply route into Aleppo (and the 300,000 civilians who are still there) are more frequently hitting civilians as well as rebels complying with the ceasefire. The road is also used by ISIL to move weapons smuggled in via Turkey. From the air it is difficult to tell what is in a truck and who it belongs to. This does not bother the Russians who have come to fire on anything they see moving on the road. There are not enough Russian aircraft to watch the road all the time, so the attacks are sporadic but frequent enough that a growing number of rebels are planning to abandon the ceasefire.
May 20, 2016: The United States turned down a Russian proposal that the two countries coordinate air strikes against ISIL in Syria. Russia has made this offer before, without success. Russia responded by announcing it would increase its air strikes in Syria, including attacking arms shipments from Turkey (which the Turkish military allows for Islamic terrorist rebel groups it supports). A lot of what Russia does in Syria is posturing for the folks back home. The reality is that Russia has limited military options in Syria because the Russian armed forces have been in decline since the early 1990s and recent efforts to reverse that and provide new equipment have been crippled by low oil prices, international sanctions because of aggression in Ukraine and a worsening economic recession made worse by the corruption.
May 19, 2016: In the east Iraqi and Jordanian forces launched a joint operation to clear ISIL forces from the area where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Jordan meet. Iraq is now back in control of the main border crossings in this area.
May 17, 2016: Russia met with 16 other nations and attempt to work out a more comprehensive ceasefire in Syria. This new round of talks failed and no date has been set for another meeting. The February 27 ceasefire agreement does not include the entire country because the most extreme Islamic terrorists (ISIL and al Nusra) are not part of the agreement. Russia is seen helping the Assads exploit the ceasefire to regain territory. That means the Assads, assisted by Russian artillery and airpower, will attack any rebels in the way and justify it by later saying they through the targets were ISIL or al Nusra. This might work a few times but the government has used it so many times that most rebels are threatening to abandon the ceasefire and go back to fighting. Meanwhile Russia and Iran keep trying to get international support for a peace deal that would keep the Assads in power. That is slow going but making progress. Many countries are fed up with the seemingly endless war in Syria and the growing flood of refugees headed for Europe.
May 13, 2016: In southeast Turkey PKK fighters used a Russian SA-18 shoulder fired anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a Turkish AH-1 helicopter gunship. This had never happened before. At first Turkey denied that a missile was used but the next day the PKK released a video showing their fighters firing an SA-18 at the gunship. It is unclear if Russia supplied SA-18s to anyone in Syria or Turkey or whether illegal arms dealers did. This is the first time PKK has been seen with the SA-18 although some showed up in Iraq as early as 2011 and many have been stolen from Iraqi (since 2003) and Syrian (since 2011) military warehouses. Hundreds of SA-18s and more recent SA-24s are known to have entered the illegal arms black market after being stolen from Libyan military bases during 2011. Usually the older SA-7 is what rebels and Islamic terrorists can get and use. While cheap and widely available these older missiles have a bad reputation. Experience has shown that for every ten SA-7s fired, you are likely to bring down a smaller aircraft or helicopter. An SA-18 is about twice as effective. Russia no longer makes the SA-7, but does manufacture more modern versions, closer to the American Stinger in capabilities. Many countries, with poor inventory control (like Egypt and Pakistan) still make versions of the SA-7. There are still tens of thousands of recently manufactured SA-7s out there, as well as many of the more modern versions (like the SA-18). These are the missiles you have to worry about. Many SA-7s have been found in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some SA-18s have shown up in Iraq and SA-24s in Gaza.
In 2013 Hamas showed off some SA-24 missiles in a parade. The SA-24 entered service in 2004, and is considered one of the most dangerous Russian missiles of this type. The SA-24 is a post-Cold War upgrade of a design (SA-18) that was introduced in the early 1980s (at the same time as the American Stinger). SA-24 weighs 19 kg (42 pounds) and fires an 11.7 kg (26 pound) missile for up to 6,000 meters (19,000 feet). The 14.3 kg Stinger fires its 10.1 kg missile out to 8,000 meters, but both systems have similar resistance to countermeasures and a warhead of about the same size (2-3 kg/4.4-6.6 pounds). The SA-24 in the hands of terrorists could more frequently bring down helicopters and airliners taking off. The SA-24 is a heat seeker, but it does not just go for the engine exhaust but rather any part of the aircraft. This makes the SA-24 more dangerous because if they just go for the engine exhaust these missiles often do little damage. Most NATO helicopters and aircraft are equipped with missile detection and protection (lasers or flares) systems. It is unclear if the Turkish AH-1 was so equipped and whether the system was turned on. Many Turks believe that Russia deliberately supplied SA-18s to the PKK as part of the growing conflict between Turkey and Russia. This began in November 2015 when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russia fighter-bomber for entering Turkish air space. Russia denied the charge and accused Turkey trying to intimidate Russia. In response Russia made all sorts of threats and increased its cooperation with the Syrian Kurds (who will take help wherever they can get it). The Syrian Kurds have close relationships with the Turkish Kurds (the PKK) and the Iraqi Kurds.
May 12, 2016: Outside Damascus Mustafa Badreddine, the military leader of Hezbollah, was killed by an Israeli air strike (or rebel artillery, according to the Syrian government). Badreddine has been an active terrorist since the 1980s and has long been sought by the Israelis and the many Arab governments who have suffered from his attacks.
May 9, 2016: In Syria another (the eighth) Russian soldier was killed in combat.
May 7, 2016: Iran
revealed that thirteen Iranian troops (soldiers and IRGC) have been killed in Syria over the last few days. All the casualties occurred around the northern city of Aleppo where the Assad forces are involved in some major fighting with ISIL and al Nusra rebels. As usual Iran is supplying combat leaders, commandos and advisors on the ground while Russia supplies air and artillery support.