Although the government forces have made progress, the rebels are still attacking. This despite the continued civil war between ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) and most other rebels. Although the rebels deny it, there have been some informal truces with ISIL. The fighting with ISIL has cost the rebels nearly 2,000 dead and many more wounded. Worse, ISIL is still around, especially in eastern Syria. There ISIL has ready access to the even larger ISIL forces in Iraq. Many ISIL groups are still fighting government forces, even if only with terror attacks. In part this is done to prevent more desertions by foreign volunteers, who are not enthusiastic about fighting fellow Sunni rebels. ISIL has been weakened, losing more than half its strength in the last six weeks. Completely destroying it will be costly and rebel commanders are looking to persuade some ISIL factions to switch sides. That may work, because the rebel coalition still contains many loyal al Qaeda groups. Many al Qaeda members are fighting against ISIL. The losers here are the Iraqi radicals who dominate the ISIL. Despite the attention paid to the war with ISIL the rebels still control most of the country, or at least dispute control with the security forces. One main thing that’s hurting ISIL in Syria and Iraq is their savagery. In addition to slaughtering Moslems who don’t agree with them, they have also been particularly brutal against Christians in Syria and Iraq. In 2013 most of the Christians killed for religious reasons worldwide died in Iraq and Syria, mostly because of ISIL. Some 90 percent of the worldwide deaths were at the hands of Islamic terrorists and ISIL was the worst offender. What outrages al Qaeda leaders is the tendency of ISIL to publically execute (often by beheading) Moslems. This stuff ends up on the Internet and enrages many Moslems.
So far the civil war has killed about 140,000 and nearly half the Syrian population has, at one time or another, been forced to flee their homes. Some 40 percent of the dead are civilians. Increasingly the government is deliberately attacking pro-rebel civilians in order to hurt rebel morale and eliminate civilian populations the rebels can hide among. The Assads are apparently willing to permanently lose a large fraction of their population to death or foreign exile in order to eliminate those Syrians who are willing to support armed resistance to Assad rule.
Since December the government has been bombing and shelling pro-rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo and Damascus, causing over several thousand casualties and killing about a thousand people. Most of the casualties have been civilians because these attacks are deliberately directed at civilians to force them to flee or reduce their support for armed rebels. Particularly deadly have been the improvised barrel bombs rolled out of helicopters. Syrian helicopters are not equipped to drop aerial bombs and since December have been seen dropping barrels filled with flammable liquids and explosives, rigged to explode when they hit the ground. This sort of thing is not unique to Syria and has been seen for years in Sudan where the government uses “barrel bombs” rolled out of transports and helicopters. These are not precision weapons, but if the target is a village or other residential area, they are accurate enough. The Syrian barrel bombs have been used frequently against civilian targets like markets, mosques, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings. This has persuaded many stubborn Aleppo residents to flee and now large areas of the city appear deserted.
ISIL is taking a beating in Iraq as well as in Syria. Since January 1st ISIL has been trying to seize cities in Western Iraq (Anbar province) while the Syrian ISIL has been fighting the Syrian rebels (moderates and Islamic terrorists) who finally united against the ISIL and sought to destroy this Iraqi led organization, at least in Syria. ISIL has been losing ground in both Syria and Iraq but considers its continuing survival a victory and a sign that their murderous tactics are approved by God. Efforts by other Syrian Islamic terrorists to negotiate with ISIL have been met by assassination attempts (often successful) against rival terrorist leaders. There’s no negotiating with this bunch, it’s a fight to the death. In Iraq many Sunni Arabs oppose ISIL tactics and have joined tribal militias to fight along largely Shia army troops. In Syria ISIL is hated because ISIL wants to unite Syria and Iraq in an ISIL dominated religious dictatorship. Most Syrians don’t want to become part of some Iraqi empire. That has been attempted several times in the past and has never worked out.
In Syria continued Russian support for the Assads has prevented the UN from passing resolutions condemning the ongoing government attacks on civilians. These attacks have been more blatant since last December, as have Syrian efforts to prevent foreign aid from reaching the cold, hungry and often wounded civilians. The Russian government openly boasts (at least inside Russia) of how its backing of the Syrian government against a popular uprising has been successful. Recently Russian arms shipments (via air and sea) have increased and have included armored vehicles and UAVs. But the biggest boost for the Assads was Russia arranging a chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria that crippled Western aid for the rebels and, along with thousands of Iranian supplied mercenaries, has the Syrian government on the offensive. The Assads continue to keep the economy going in areas they control with the help of Iran and Russia. Iran supplies the foreign currency and Russia helps get it into the international banking system so the Assads can still buy foreign goods.
In Homs about 600 people (out of 3,000 trapped in the town) were let out because of the ceasefire arranged at the peace talks. The UN is trying to extend the cease fire to get another thousand out. As people got out of Homs food aid was allowed in.
There are believed to be over 7,000 foreign volunteers (from at least fifty countries) serving with Islamic radical rebel groups. Security officials from the countries these rebels come from, especially in the West, fear that those who survive and return home will be radicalized and ready to commit terrorist acts back home. This has happened before, most notably after the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan in 1987. Many nations are monitoring citizens who travel to the Middle East and question them when they return. Some are arrested and many more are placed under observation. It’s almost certain that some of these Syria veterans will turn to Islamic terrorism back home. Even the U.S. has been hit by this, although not as hard as some European and Moslem countries. The U.S. is also rethinking its hands-off policy, as are many of its NATO allies. Meanwhile the Assad government is taking advantage of this Western reluctance. With the aid of Iran and Russia the Assads now have a chance of winning. For many Westerners Syria has become a no-win situation because whatever the West does, or does not do, they are screwed. Actively supporting the rebels means that a post Assad Syria, like post Kaddafi Libya, will be full of Islamic terrorists free to do as they please. But to do nothing risks enormous losses to Syrian civilians because of the Assad brutality. There’s no victory in Syria, only varying degrees of loss.
The Syrian government is being criticized for stalling on delivering its chemical weapons to a port where it can be shipped out to be destroyed. All of these weapons were to be out by the end of January and that did not happen. Only a nominal amount (about four percent) has been delivered. The Western nations that agreed to the chemical weapons deal (that got the West to agree not to intervene militarily) now believe they are being played by the Assads and Russia (which suggested the deal.) While there was a lot of popular support in the West for not getting involved, as they did in Libya in 2011, the barbarity of the Assad government has changed attitudes.
Hezbollah leaders again openly proclaimed their willingness to keep fighters in Syria to support the Assads. The Sunni Arab nations in the region are warning Hezbollah that this support for Iran could have dire consequences down the road. For the moment the Hezbollah leadership is remaining loyal to its paymaster Iran. But many rank-and-file Hezbollah are not so sure. Sunni Arab nations are exploiting that doubt, seeking Hezbollah leaders who might be amenable to new leadership for their organization, and new sources of financial support.
February 9, 2014: In Central Syria rebels seized an Alawite village and executed 25 members of the self-defense militia. These rebels belonged to an Islamic terrorist group so such savagery was not surprising.
Outside Damascus al Nusra rebels agreed to give up control over part of the Palestinian town (“refugee camp”) of Yarmouk (south of Damascus). Palestinian rebels have held most of the town since government forces surrounded the place in 2012. The siege is not complete but it has limited supplies for the several hundred thousand Palestinians still there. The Palestinians (1.7 percent of the population) are considered unreliable by the rebels although a large number of them are pro-rebel. While the Assads had been good to the Palestinians over the decades, many of the younger Palestinians in Syria backed the rebels from the beginning and that led to fighting in Palestinian neighborhoods. In July 2013 the head of the Palestinian Authority (which rules the West Bank Palestinians) declared that Palestinians in Syria to be neutral. Many are but most are not. While some Palestinians support the Assads, over 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, the West Bank who whatever). By now most Palestinians (who tend to be Sunni or Christian) have come out in favor of the Syrian rebels.
February 8, 2014: In the east (Deir al Zour province) a senior ISIL leader was killed while leading his men against another al Nusra (the largest Islamic terrorist rebel group) attack.
Outside Homs a UN aid convoy was fired on, briefly halting the relief operation.
February 3, 2014: Al Qaeda senior leader Ayman al Zawahiri has completely disowned ISIL and basically declared them outlaws as far as any al Qaeda (or al Qaeda affiliate) members are concerned.
February 2, 2014: In the north (a town near Aleppo and the Turkish border) an ISIL suicide bomber and a car bomb were used against the base of a rebel group fighting ISIL. These attacks left 16 rebels dead and over 20 wounded.
February 1, 2014: In Lebanon (Bekaa Valley) a suicide bomber attacked a Hezbollah area killing four people. The attackers turned out to be from Syrian Islamic terrorist rebel group al Nusra. Many Lebanese support these attacks and are opposed to Hezbollah support for the Syrian government.
January 31, 2014: The first round of peace talks in Switzerland ended without accomplishing much. A second round of talks is supposed to happen in the second week of February. The rebels never wanted any part of this, as they see the talks as a ploy by the Assads and their allies to slow the rebels down. The main obstacle to real talks is the rebels’ insistence that Assad has to go while the Syrian government refuses to even discuss removing the Assads. Some of the rebel factions (the SNC, or Syrian National Council) are represented at the talks and to even get that the UN had to rescind an invitation for Iran to attend. The only thing anyone expects out of these talks is some agreements to let aid get to civilians inside Syria and to get women and children out of places under siege (by rebels or government forces). Such a deal was made to let 500 women and children out of rebel held Homs. But about half of those eligible to leave refused to do so unless they could take adult (especially elderly) male members of their families. The peace talks also led to a similar deal for the Palestinian town of Yarmouk south of Damascus.
January 29, 2014: Turkish troops fired on ISIL vehicles after ISIL was identified as those responsible for firing into Turkey.