The civil war has left at least 180,000 dead so far. The government forces now tend to step aside when various rebel factions fight each other. Due to continued Russian aid the Syrian air force continues to regularly hit pro-rebel civilians and government ground troops keep going after remaining rebels around Damascus and Aleppo. At the moment ISIL is concentrating on the Kurds, especially those defending the town of Kobane near the Turkish border. The government keeps trying to get the West to admit that the Assad government is an ally in the international battle against ISIL and that Syria has led the way in recognizing and fighting this international Islamic terrorist threat. So far the rest of the world is ignoring the Assad claims, although in fact the Assads and the rest of the world are both fighting ISIL.
In the north the Kurdish border town of Kobane has become the focus of ISIL activity since mid-September. Kobane is a key market and crossroads town near the north-central Turkish border. The area is largely Kurdish as is the border area to the east, all the way to the Iraq border and Kurdish northern Iraq. Most of the Kurds in the region are in southeastern Turkey. The Kurds of Iraq used to be part of the Turkish homeland, but not those in Iran and northeast Syria. When the British assembled Iraq after World War I and the destruction of the Turk Empire (which at one time included most Arab states) they included the Turkish province of Mosul (northern Iraq) because it had oil and they did not want the new Turkish republic to have oil because many in the West feared the Turks would eventually seek to rebuild their empire. The Kurds wanted to be independent and got along with the Arabs less well than they did with the Turks. The Iraqi Sunni Arabs who run ISIL are particularly angry at Kurds because for decades the Kurds have resisted Arab rule and often defeated Arab troops seeking to impose Arab control. Curbing Kurdish independence is an ISIL obsession that is made worse by the fact the ISIL in Iraq is being defeated by the Kurds there, whose trained fighters are more numerous, better equipped and have access to more American air support. So the month old offensive against the Syrian Kurds is not just a matter of dominating a troublesome opponent, but of gaining a measure of revenge against the hated Kurds who mock Arab power by constantly defeating Arab warriors.
This is why most of the Kurds living in the area fled the ISIL advance. These fears have been confirmed as Kurds slaughter, often in gruesome (like beheading) ways any Kurds they capture. ISIL then distributes photos and videos of the beheaded Kurds in an effort to terrorize and demoralize. That does not work against the Kurds, who become more determined to fight ISIL. Thus despite ferocity and large number the ISIL advance has been stuck at Kobane for two weeks. The Turks, despite pressure from Arab states and the West, refuses to allow military aid to cross the border to the Kurdish defenders of Kobane. The Turks don’t like the Kurds either, even though the Turks have been successful over the centuries at compelling Kurds to submit to Turkish rule. Despite that the Kurds continue to resist and the Turks see an opportunity to weaken the Kurds and ISIL by prolonging the fighting in Kobane. The Turks have a particular dislike for the Syrian Kurds because they see these Kurds as still supporting the PKK (the active Turkish Kurdish rebels). This cynical policy has enraged Kurds throughout the region and caused violent protests in Turkey which has left over 20 dead. But the Kurds cannot push their protests too far because the Kurds of northern Iraq need Turkish cooperation. The Iraqi Kurds are landlocked and their only reliable trade route to the outside world goes through Turkey. Kurdish and non-Kurdish businesses are eager to support this trade but the Turkish government can shut down this access at any time. Smugglers would only be able to replace, at most, about ten percent of that vital trade. Meanwhile Turkey has sent more troops, including a company of tanks, to the border area opposite Kobane.
The current situation in Kobane was caused by the Kurdish decision to shift forces back to Iraq in early September to help defend Kurdish northern Iraq. ISIL sensed an opportunity. Because of growing American air strikes in Iraq it seemed safer to concentrate forces against the Syrian Kurds. Because of this shift in forces to Iraq, ISIL only encountered local militia when they first advanced into Kurdish areas of northern Syria in mid-September. ISIL mobilized over 5,000 fighters and used armored vehicles and artillery for the campaign against the Syrian Kurds. This was more than the Kurdish militia (including some armed women among the largely male fighters) could handle. Despite Kurdish reinforcements being shifted to northeastern Syria by late September plus a few coalition air strikes the ISIL advance continued. Turkish Kurds told the Turkish government that refusal to allow support for the Syrian Kurds via Turkey was causing anger among Turkish Kurds and might interfere with the current peace negotiations to end the three decade old Kurdish rebellion in Turkey. The Turks, as they often do, ignored the Kurdish threats knowing that the Kurds needed Turkish cooperation more than the other way around. In effect the Kurds are saying that they prefer ISIL on their border to Syrian Kurds that might provide support for PKK. ISIL will not support the PKK and the Turks have confidence in their ability to keep ISIL out of Turkey. In this the Turks have history on their side. Only about 1.3 percent of Turks are Arab and most live along the Syrian border. Turkish Arabs are hostile to Islamic terrorism and ethnic Turks and Kurds who are radicalized are rarely supporters of Islamic terrorism. So ISIL has little support, and many opponents inside Turkey. The Turkish Army has long and successful history of defeating Arabs, including fanatic terrorists, in combat. To the Turks, ISIL is the lesser of two evils.
The fighting is now inside Kobane, a town largely empty of civilians. This struggle (including the two week September advance towards Kobane) has caused over 2,000 casualties (most of them ISIL) so far, at least 600 of them dead. ISIL gunmen entered Kobane on October 6th. The Kurdish defenders counterattacked and pushed ISIL out by the 8th. But on the 9th ISIL had massed more men and armored vehicles and came back in. By the 10th ISIL controlled at least a third of Kobane. Since then additional ISIL offensives have been defeated or greatly slowed down by the defenders. The Kurds are moving in reinforcements and supplies (especially ammunition) from the east (especially northern Iraq) as fast as they can. The Kurds have about 1,500 fighters in Kobane and another few hundred secular Syrian rebels (the FSA). There are also several thousand Kurdish civilians in and around Kobane. ISIL has more than three times as many armed men in and around the town than the Kurds do. The Kurdish reinforcement route is much more difficult than moving along the safe and more numerous Turkish road network. ISIL has managed to take most of the town but enough Kurdish reinforcements have arrived to halt, for the moment, further advance. The Kurds want more American air strikes and there have been some more. This is helping the Kurds but the outcome of the Battle of Kobane is still in doubt. ISIL is determined to achieve a decisive victory over the Kurds and the Kurds are determined to prevent that from happening.
In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL continues to have problems with Sunni tribes (especially the Shueitat) who oppose ISIL rule. In July and August ISIL killed over 700 hostile tribesmen, some by beheading or crucifixtion. This put a stop to open resistance, but now some tribesmen have turned to guerilla warfare and claim to have killed at least a hundred ISIL men. This armed resistance (of about 300 armed men calling themselves “Shite Shroud”) forces ISIL to keep more men in the east to maintain order and protect supply lines, especially to Kobane.
The problem with the east Syrian tribesmen was unhappiness with ISIL efforts to force a strict Islamic lifestyle on them. Also unpopular was the ISIL attitude that anything the Islamic terrorists did was above reproach. That resulted in a July edict that anyone who said (in person or via the media or Internet) anything hostile to ISIL would be severely punished. At first there were some executions of prominent critics, including five who were crucified and many more who were beheaded. In late July this led to several battles in villages as the tribesmen fought ISIL and initially won. At first ISIL leaders sought to negotiate the problem but that did not work out to the satisfaction of ISIL. So in August ISIL tried force and killed enough tribesmen to obtain a surrender and promise of subservience from most of the unhappy tribesmen. Some tribesmen continue to resist and now the terrorists have their own terrorism problem.
ISIL deliberately employs terror as a tactical and strategic weapon. This has been the custom of the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arabs for centuries. The Iraqi Sunni, who dominate the ISIL leadership, consider this terror a necessity. The late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was notorious for his use of terror (by his secret police and criminal gangs working for the government) to control the Shia majority as well as the Kurds (who were about as numerous in Iraq as the Sunnis). This meant publically murdering or mutilating opponents. The killers were encouraged to be creative in order to enhance the fear their actions generated. After Saddam was overthrown in 2003 his followers continued to use these tactics in a terror campaign to regain control of the government. ISIL is the current manifestation of that effort. ISIL also embodies the long sought (by Sunni Arabs) unification of Iraq and Syria. That has not happened so far because the non-Sunnis in the two countries have opposed such a merger and still do.
American military leaders are disappointed at not being allowed to go after the mobile ISIL units as is the case in Afghanistan against the Taliban. Civilian casualties are less of a problem in Afghanistan because Afghans admit such deaths are very low and that over 95 percent of civilian deaths are the result of operations by the Taliban (mainly) and Afghan security forces. Arabs, however, are notoriously more sensitive about non-Moslems killing civilians so U.S. commanders who know what works in Afghanistan cannot use their forces that way in Iraq, at least not yet. The Western generals know that the world would not end if their political leaders allowed the use of “Afghan rules” but so far the politicians are more afraid of bad press than of ISIL victories. The generals believe this will change if ISIL continues to make gains in western Iraq and eastern Syria. But in the meantime the Western warplanes are restricted to watching and can only attack areas where ISIL is stuck in one place long enough for the generals to get permission to attack.
So far over 70 percent of the air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and half of those in Syria have been carried out by American warplanes. The rest have been flown by NATO and Arab countries. There have been over 3
air strikes against ISIL
. These attacks have destroyed about over 300 vehicles (60 percent of them armed and 15 percent armored). Some 43 percent of the attacks were on ISIL combat troops in combat positions (in trenches, bunkers or moving to make an attack). The rest of the attacks were against structures (for headquarters, training, living quarters or storing things like weapons and ammo). Some of the structures were checkpoints and command posts and a few were roadside bombs that could only be destroyed from the air. So far (since August 8th) there have been only four to five air strikes a day in Iraq and now, because of Kobane, about the same number in Syria. Air force planners point out that four or five times as many are needed to make a significant difference and having fifty to a hundred air attacks a day for a while would hurt ISIL badly. So far there seems to be no political will in the West to go this route.
October 12, 2014: The U.S. announced an agreement with Turkey to use Turkish bases (including Incirlik airbase which is 150 kilometers north of Syria) to support the fight against ISIL. The agreement included training 2,000 Syrian rebels in Turkey. The next day the Turkish government denied that this was the case. While the Turkish parliament has approved such cooperation, the Turkish president must agree to implement these new rules and so far the Turkish president has refused to do so. That’s because the Turks are still negotiating with the West about what they will get in return for such cooperation.
Just across the border in Lebanon local security forces raided a house used by Sunni Arab Islamic terrorists and killed one of them and arrested the other two. The three Sunnis were from Syria and had weapons and explosives (hand grenades) in their possession.
October 11, 2014: Responding to criticism of its lack of support for the Kurds fighting ISIL in Kobane Turkish officials revealed that they had allowed 634 truckloads of humanitarian aid to cross the border and into Kobane since September 19th. Over 200,000 Kurdish refugees fleeing the ISIL advance have been allowed into Turkey.
October 9, 2014: The first 40 of several hundred Syrian rebels (from the FSA) joined the Kurds in defending Kobane.
October 8, 2014: Qatar is being criticized for its energetic efforts to supply Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria with weapons and ammunition. The criticism is based on video and items captured from ISIL. A recent video showed an ISIL man using a Chinese FN-6 shoulder fired surface to air missile shooting down an Iraqi helicopter. The FN-6 was known to have been provided by Qatar to rebels in Syria. Other Chinese weapons and ammunition from Qatar have also been captured from ISIL. The Qatari stuff comes from items either captured by ISIL (which has been fighting other rebel groups all this year) or because many Syrian rebel groups have joined ISIL in the last few months.
October 7, 2014: Syria revealed to UN chemical weapons inspectors that not all Syrian chemical warfare facilities had been revealed last year, as part of the agreement to avoid NATO air attack by allowing all Syrian chemical weapons to be destroyed. That is supposed to be complete but now Syria has revealed four more facilities that it failed to mention in 2013.
October 5, 2014: Just across the border from Kobane a mortar shell exploded near a Turkish residential neighborhood, wounding five civilians.
October 3, 2014: ISIL posted (on the Internet) a video of them beheading a captured British aid worker. ISIL says it will behead an American aid worker next. ISIL is believed to have at least fifteen captured Westerners, most of them aid workers grabbed in Syria. Three of those videoed beheadings have been of captured Arabs while one was a French tourist kidnapped by an ISIL affiliate in Algeria. One of those already beheaded was an American aid worker. ISIL says it will keep killing Western captives until Western nations halt their air attacks on ISIL.
October 1, 2014: In central Syria (Homs) Sunni Islamic terrorists set off bombs in a primary school serving Alawite (Shia) children, killing at least 41 young (under 12) children. Sunni Islamic terrorists tend to consider all Shia as heretics and subject to death for their deviant beliefs.