Syria: For Iran, Defeat Is Unacceptable

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July 5, 2013: The Syrian government is demonstrating renewed optimism because of reinforcements provided by Iran. While these Hezbollah gunmen from Lebanon and Shia volunteers from Iraq and other countries only increase Assad personnel strength by about five percent, they bring in some markedly more enthusiastic and active fighters. The Syrian supporters of the government are still pretty dejected and downbeat. Many are heading for the exits even as their sons continue to serve in the army and pro-government militias. Those who tend to stay are the very wealthy who mainly own property in Syria and don’t have a lot of cash overseas. Then there are the less affluent Alawites, Christians, and other minorities who have supported the Assads (and received government jobs and other preferences) and cannot really afford to flee. The most likely to leave are trained professionals who can easily get good jobs in other countries. Thus most of the medical, engineering, and other technical experts have fled the country or are close to doing so. The government continues to insist that it is fighting to block the growth of Islamic radicalism, not to subjugate the Syrian people. Most Syrians ignore this propaganda, and the only foreigners who buy in are allies like Russia, China, and Iran (which is itself a notorious supporters of Islamic terrorism).

While the pro-government forces are outnumbered three-to-one in population, on the battlefield the rebels have not been able to muster an equivalent combat superiority. The rebels are divided by religion (the Islamic radicals like al Qaeda), tribe, and ethnicity (the Sunni Kurds are largely neutral, as are many of the Palestinian Sunnis). The government strikes a receptive note in many Syrian Sunnis when they point out the disadvantages of Islamic radicals gaining control. The Islamic radicals play into this by deliberately and publicly murdering non-Sunni (Shia and Christian) clergy and any ordinary civilians who appear to disrespect Sunni Islam. The Islamic radicals attempt to impose lifestyle rules that the staunchly secular Assads never went in for. Balancing this is the fact that Assad rule has been very cruel in its own way and extremely corrupt and inefficient. It’s a perverse unpopularity contest with Syrians left to choose the least bad alternative.

The Assads have always been heavy (if not always successful) users of propaganda, and they are continuing that with stunts like publicizing the recent use of air dropped (on rebel fighters in the northwestern Idlib province, where the Lebanese and Turkish borders meet) surrender leaflets. The army is trying to regain control of the border area to block rebel supplies, which the government says are being illegally sent in by Western and Arab countries. There are more weapons and military gear coming in and the rebels are in no mood to surrender this territory. But the rebels have few reserves that can be sent anywhere while the government has many, including their air power. The Syrian air force is fading, with half of it destroyed or grounded in the last year. But it can still get a dozen or more bombers (often just bomb carrying helicopters or transports) into the air each day and use them anywhere in the country.

The rebels want air support and more weapons and the unity that comes from a central military command that can depend on giving orders that will be followed. For the moment the rebels are only getting more weapons and emergency food and medical aid for their families. The army is trying to block both. The West still refuses to provide air support, especially given the fragmentation of the rebels. If the rebel forces were a bit more unified the government would be in big trouble. But currently the FSA (Free Syrian Army) is using the weapons, equipment, intelligence, civilian aid, and general advice it is receiving from the West to slowly get more and more factions to buy into a unified command. Even some of the Islamic radical groups are willing to cooperate in exchange for some of the goodies the FSA controls. It’s an endurance contest between two adversaries, each with their own unique set of shortcomings and assets. The historical record favors the rebels, but it’s still a toss-up as long as the West holds back and Iran keeps pouring in cash, weapons, and personnel.

Continued Hezbollah presence in Syria has increased the fighting between Hezbollah (with army assistance) and armed Sunni groups in Lebanon. The growing effectiveness of Iranian assistance for the Assads has spurred Western and Arab states to quietly increase their aid efforts. While aid for refugees is publicized, much of the military aid is not. Thus there are over a thousand American military personnel in Jordan, ostensibly to train with Jordanian troops but actually to help train and equip rebel fighters. The Jordanian military has also been doing this and similar activities are taking place in Turkey.

The fighting has killed about 100,000 so far and caused somewhere between $50-100 billion in damage to property (including infrastructure like roads, bridges, sewer, and water systems). So far, economic activity has been cut by nearly half and over a third of the population is surviving only because of foreign food and other aid. Nearly ten percent of the population has fled the country and even more are refugees within Syria.

The rebels have received some Chinese FN-6 shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. There are a few dozen FN-6s (which have a distinctive shape to them) seen used by rebels in the last few months. While China has some missiles similar to the U.S. Stinger, these are not exported. The FN-6 is but usually only with government permission. Thousands have been exported in the last decade, many to Moslem (and pro-rebel) countries like Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Pakistan. The FN-6 appears to have brought down a few helicopters, but some have failed to work. This might be the result of age or poor treatment by the original owner. Qatar obtained these missiles earlier this year and passed them on to the rebels.

July 4, 2013: The Assad government praised the Egyptian army for deposing Egyptian president Morsi. As leader of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, Morsi openly backed the Syrian rebels and denounced Shia as heretics. But Morsi also supported Islamic radicals and has improved relations with Iran. This was not popular with most other Arab governments. He did some of this under duress because Morsi is more of an Islamic conservative than an Islamic radical. But his key allies are Islamic radicals, who are unpopular with most Egyptians. It’s the same in Syria and most of the Moslem world. But the Islamic radicals are fierce and willing to kill, and die, for their cause. What is keeping the Assads going at the moment are Shia Islamic radicals who can blunt the advantage Sunni Islamic radicals have been providing to the rebels.

Troops again attacked rebels holding Homs. This began with air attacks followed by artillery and an infantry advance.

July 3, 2013: The head of the Palestinian Authority (which rules the West Bank Palestinians) declared that Palestinians in Syria are neutral. Many are but most are not. While some Palestinians support the Assads, nearly half favor the rebels. The Palestinian Authority fears that after the Syrian fighting is over, no matter who wins, the Palestinians will be expelled (to Lebanon and the West Bank).

July 1, 2013: After three days of heavy fighting, the army pulled back and admitted defeat in its effort to drive the rebels out of the central Syrian city of Homs. The city has been a battleground for over a year. Central Syria has become a patchwork of rebel and government controlled areas. Supply trucks are considered fair game by either side. The government often uses armored vehicles to move supplies, but that is not a solution because of the growing fuel shortages.

June 28, 2013: Rebels fighting in Daraa, a town of 75,000 near the Jordanian border, claim to have driven soldiers and pro-government militia out of most of the area. The fighting has been going on for two years. Earlier this year the government made a major effort to hold the city and control the nearby border. It’s been a losing battle and troops have been taking it out on civilians they consider pro-rebel. That includes many more villages around the city and neighborhoods inside the city. Government troops even managed to recapture some of these villages but were not able to hold onto them.

June 27, 2013: In Damascus a suicide bomber killed four people in a pro-government Christian neighborhood.

 

 

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