Assad troops are increasing their attacks on pro-rebel civilians. This is believed to be with the advice and encouragement of their Russian and Iranian advisors. Both nations have long practiced the tactic of punishing rebellious civilians in order to pressure, or at least demoralize, the armed rebels they support. Although this technique has become less acceptable in the last century (at least in the West) it has been practiced worldwide for thousands of years and continues to be unofficially backed by many governments. The rebels have responded by making more attacks on pro-government civilians. Even in Damascus the rebels manage to sneak mortar teams around, and when they are within a few kilometers of a pro-government neighborhood they fire a few mortar shells and move away. The shells don’t cause many casualties but they do terrify the civilian victims.
These tactics of deliberately making life miserable for pro-rebel civilians (the majority of Syrians) have succeeded in driving nearly half the civilians out of their homes or cutting their living standards considerably. Over 120,000 have died in nearly three years of fighting in Syria, most of them civilians. The Red Cross is trying to raise $1.3 billion for relief operations next year, mainly to deal with Syrian refugees. The UN is seeking even more money and estimates that over 9.3 million Syrians (40 percent of the population) are in need of food and other aid. A third of these people are still in their homes but cut off from food and other supplies. At least 250,000 civilians are stuck in areas that are under siege and often unreachable by relief agencies. This is largely the result of a deliberate Assad strategy of cutting pro-rebel populations off from supplies. The goal is to make continued rule by the Assads preferable to supporting the rebels. For many civilians this is becoming a matter of life or death. In other words, you either submit to the Assads, starve to death, or die from cold or disease. Some 2.5 million Syrians are now refugees outside Syria. The host countries for these external refugees are: Iraq (about 6.4 percent of the total outside Syria), Lebanon (about 35 percent), Jordan (26 percent), Turkey (23 percent), and the rest in numerous other nations in the region (like the 5.5 percent in Egypt) and farther away (Europe has a few percent). The Syrian war has turned into a human tragedy of epic proportions. The UN is talking of war crime prosecutions against the Assad government but that does nothing to feed the starving or halt the Assad campaign against women and children.
Syria has been unable to carry out a polio vaccination program because of the violence and the refusal of some rebel groups to cooperate. Polio is a problem because Pakistani Islamic terrorist rebels have apparently brought polio back to Syria. So far this year there have been over fifty cases of polio in Syria, after having been absent since the late 1990s. In Pakistan there have been 62 cases of polio so far this year, which was more than all of 2012 (58). In Pakistan polio cases reached a low of 28 in 2005, but then Islamic terrorist opposition to vaccination led to a sharp increase that hit 198 cases in 2011. Since then Pakistani government and religious leaders have sought to deal with resistance to the vaccination campaign. In Pakistan a third of the polio cases are now showing up outside the tribal territories. A Taliban ban on polio vaccinations has left over 250,000 young children vulnerable to the disease and these are most of the ones getting infected. Years of Islamic radical clerics preaching that polio is un-Islamic has caused a growing number of parents (from throughout the country) to refuse the vaccinations even when there is no Islamic terrorist threat of retaliation. This year about three percent of Pakistani children failed to get the vaccination, either because of Islamic terrorists or parents believing the anti-vaccination propaganda. Polio should have been eliminated entirely by now, as it can only survive in a human host. But there has been resistance from Islamic clergy in some countries, who insist the vaccinations are a Western plot to harm Moslem children. This has enabled polio to survive in some Moslem countries (especially Nigeria, Somalia, and Pakistan). The disease also survives in some very corrupt nations, like Kenya and India, because of the difficulty in getting vaccines to remote areas, tracking down nomad groups, and stopping corrupt officials from plundering the vaccination program (and causing many vaccinations to not happen). Islamic terrorists from Pakistan are believed responsible for a recent outbreak of polio in Syria because an analysis of the DNA of the polio in Syria was similar to polio DNA found in Pakistan.
Lately the government armed forces have been making progress, aided by a foreign army of Shia fanatics organized (and paid for) by Iran and continued supplies of weapons from Russia. Iran also provides a lot of cash to keep the pro-Assad civilians living much better than the pro-rebel civilians. This sends a message, which more and more pro-rebel civilians are noticing. Turkey has gotten the message and is now urging the rebels to talk terms because, between the rebel lack of unity and all the Iranian aid, prospects are bleak for the rebels. Assad troops, led by Iranian mercenaries and Hezbollah gunmen, continue attacking rebel forces around Damascus and in Aleppo.
There is also a lot of fighting around the central Syrian city of Homs. The army has been fighting to take Homs for over a year and in the last few months has been reinforced by a “foreign legion” (of Iran sponsored volunteers from Lebanon and Iraq). Government forces have destroyed most of the city and driven the rebels back. The city has been surrounded for over a year but the army cordon was not impenetrable. Every night, and even occasionally during the day, supplies were smuggled into the city and people (often wounded) were gotten out. The army sometimes detected these efforts and attacked the smugglers. The Assad forces see Homs as a key battle because it lies astride the roads from Damascus to the pro-government Alawite areas on the coast. But for that route to be useful the Assad forces also have to gain control of the roads and villages between Damascus and the coast. In the last week the rebels have been more active attacking traffic on the roads between Damascus and the coast. This has reduced supplies for Damascus, especially fuel. This has led to a shortage of fuel for vehicles in the capital.
The rebels have also been successful in shutting down the small oil industry inside Syria. Since the fighting began in 2011, oil production in Syria has declined from 380,000 barrels a day to 20,000. The government has been importing 144,000 tons of petroleum products a month and oil imports so far this year have cost $1.4 billion. Before 2011 Syria exported most of its oil, which accounted for 45 percent of exports. But without complete control of the roads, it is difficult to move oil to pro-government areas away from the coast. Nearly half of the oil is now destroyed or stolen by rebels (or criminal gangs).
Despite the government pressure, the rebels continue to fight each other and refuse to cooperate, especially between Islamic terrorist and secular rebel groups. The Islamic terrorists are deliberately going after journalists and dozens have been killed, wounded, or kidnapped so far. Some Islamic terrorist groups have set up bases in Lebanon, where they attack Hezbollah fighters and supporters. This makes Lebanon very much part of the Syrian civil war, something which is very unpopular with most Lebanese. But Hezbollah is remaining obedient to the commands of its patron and paymaster Iran and continues to maintain thousands of troops inside Syria.
In Lebanon Hezbollah is building more training camps and using them to upgrade the combat skills of its many part-time fighters. Hezbollah is heavily involved in Syria, but this is proving very unpopular with most Lebanese, including many Hezbollah supporters. Hezbollah has reduced the number of fighters in Syria and is rotating them in and out of combat (and Syria). This means additional well-trained Hezbollah fighters are needed and that could be what the new training camps are for. But the camps could also be in preparation for another war with Israel. That is unlikely because such a conflict would be very dangerous for Hezbollah, especially given the unpopularity of the Shia militia in Lebanon. Other odd aspect of the new training camps are that they are not as well hidden as previous ones. In the 1990s Israel began attacking Hezbollah training camps with air attacks. In response Hezbollah dispersed its training into forested and heavily urban areas. But now new camps are out in the open and vulnerable to air attack. Israel has not attacked, yet.
There are now three major factions among the rebels. There is the secular FSA (Free Syrian Army) that still controls about half the armed men, the al Qaeda affiliated groups (mainly the Iraqi dominated ISIL or Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the largely Syrian al Nusra), and a larger federation of Islamic terrorist groups generally called the Islamic Front. This group has over 50,000 fighters and receives support from Saudi Arabia. Some secular groups have switched allegiance and now declare themselves Islamic.
The division between the secular and religious rebels is becoming more pronounced, with the Islamic groups making it very clear that they will not tolerate democracy and don’t agree with each other on exactly how to organize and run a religious dictatorship. This has always been a major failing with Islamic rebels and the source of endless fighting, even after those few cases when Islamic radicals conquer an area. In the meantime the Islamic groups are cooperating with each other to push FSA units out of captured army bases and towns and villages that the FSA have long controlled. The FSA is also suffering supply problems because American and Western aid is often withheld because of fears some of it will get to Islamic rebels. This is unavoidable considering the chaotic situation inside Syria. The Arab aid flows more freely because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab countries believe it’s crucial that some aid reach rebels. For this reason more rebels are shifting allegiance to rebel groups (usually Islamic) that receive most of their aid from Arab sources.
The Assads believe they can win and that victory will come in 2014. With the help of Russia and Iran the Assads have been successful in depicting the rebellion as an effort by al Qaeda to establish a new base in Syria. That scares the West. While this al Qaeda threat is real, the Islamic terrorist groups are a small part of the rebel force and often more disruptive than helpful to the rebel cause. The Assads see the rebel lack of unity and coordination as an opportunity to put down the rebellion.
Turkish police and military intelligence officials are concerned about the hundreds of Turkish men (most in their 20s and 30s) who have gone to Syria to join Islamic terrorist groups fighting the Assad government, along with several thousand from Western countries (mainly from Moslems in Europe). Russia believes that at least 400 of its Moslems are fighting in Syria, out of over a thousand who have gone to Syria so far. It is believed there are as many as 500 Turkish men who have gone to Syria and at least 10 percent have been killed (and 10-20 percent wounded or injured) so far. Similar losses are believed to have been suffered by Western/Russian Moslems and Turkey is cooperating with NATO allies to try and block these European Islamic radicals from getting into Syria. Turkey has already blocked over 1,100 of them, but it is difficult because Turkey hosts over 35 million foreign visitors a year.
What the police are worried about are those who return to Turkey alive. There have long been small groups of Islamic terrorists in Turkey and over a decade of pro-Islamic government has made all sorts of Islamic conservatives feel welcome in Turkey. That has made Turkey vulnerable, as it’s often difficult to tell if some Islamic conservatives are radicalized Moslem or just Turks who take their Islam seriously.
The continuing war in Syria poses some major problems for Iraq. Like other neighbors of Syria, especially Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, Iraq is now bracing for the worst case, the defeat of the Syrian rebels. Actually, this appears as a best case for Iraq because it would mean another major defeat for Sunni Islamic terrorists. But that would just drive a lot of these terrorists back into Iraq. For Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan it would mean that the millions of pro-rebel refugees they are hosting would be joined by thousands of angry, defeated and often still armed rebels. The Islamic terrorists among the rebels are of greatest concern, because these men would be content to continue fighting in any country they land in. For the Islamic terrorist rebels from outside the region, it might be preferable to return to their home countries in the West and elsewhere and continue killing there. Most would continue operating against the Assad government, as would the more moderate rebel groups. The Syrian refugee camps would become bases for the expelled rebels and the world would have a new terrorism crises to deal with. In a familiar drill, Western donors would support the refugees, the host countries would complain about the economic and social disruption of the refugees, and Syria and its allies (especially Iran and Russia) would complain about the rebels and Islamic terrorists living off the refugee camps and continuing to terrorize the Assad supporters in Syria. Only Israel would escape this mess because the Arab world has been at war with Israel since the late 1940s and Israel has been able to cope with the Islamic terrorism. While Iraq would find itself with more Islamic terrorists in Anbar province (largely Sunni western Iraq), the autonomous northern Kurds would now be helping the newly autonomous Syrian Kurds of northeast Syria maintain their independence from the Assad forces. This could get interesting. Otherwise, the worst case in Syria is not much different than the best case (rebel victory). The key issue is always about what is to be done with the Islamic terrorists.
Israel continues to provide medical care for wounded Syrian civilians who show up at border crossings and then sends them back when they are well. While Israel won’t let Syrian refugees enter, food, water, and other supplies have been sent to refugees who have camped out just across the border. These refugees get most of their supplies from foreign aid groups working on the Syrian side of the border.
Russian diplomacy is also doing well. Efforts to organize a peace conference for the Syrian civil war are a failure but overall Russian support for the Syrian government is a success so far. Iran and many rebel groups are not willing to show up for a peace conference but Russia has persuaded NATO to put pressure on the rebels to participate. So far only some of the rebels outside Syria have agreed to attend a January peace conference. The rebels inside Syria and their Arab supporters are angry at the U.S. and Europe for not supplying air support and for accepting a Russian brokered deal to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons. Russia can also take some credit for the success of nuclear disarmament talks with Iran.
Norway and Denmark have agreed to supply the transport ships and military escorts needed to move Syrian chemical weapons out of Syria. The UN plans to remove all chemical weapons from Syria by December 31st.
December 6, 2013: On the Israeli border a bomb went off on the Syrian side of the border fence and damaged an Israeli Army vehicle passing by. This is the first such deliberate attack on Israeli troops on the border.
The UN declared that all bombs, shells, and rocket warheads used for chemical weapons (but not yet loaded with the deadly chemicals) had been destroyed and verified.
December 3, 2013: In Lebanon a senior Hezbollah commander, who has been active in Syria, was assassinated. Hezbollah blamed Israel but it was more likely the work of Lebanese Sunnis who oppose Hezbollah and support the Syrian rebels.
November 28, 2013: In Syria a mortar shell landed near the Russian embassy, killing a Syrian civilian and wounding nine others.
November 24, 2013: Iran now has a deal with the UN and the West to end the sanctions. But it’s a preliminary deal, which both provides Iran some financial relief (up to $10 billion in additional income) and six months to both prove it can be relied on to keep its word and to work out the details of a permanent deal. If the negotiations succeed, Iran would be freed from the harsh 2012 sanctions that cut its oil income by more than half and created much economic hardship within Iran. The income loss also made it more difficult for Iran to support its undeclared war against the rest of the world. This support has been particularly expensive in Syria, where Iran must spend over a billion dollars a month to keep the Assad government and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia alive. If Iran can continue this support long enough the Assads have a chance of defeating the rebels, or at least keeping the Assad government going in part of Syria and Hezbollah secure in Lebanon.