Russia and Iran are both reconsidering their support for the Assad government. Despite the mess Russia has got itself into with Ukraine, Russian diplomats still have better contacts in the West and the Middle East and are now trying to negotiate a Russian-Iranian supervised peaceful political settlement of the Syrian civil war. The goal here is to prevent ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) from conquering the country. This is the goal few in the West want to admit is even under negotiation. Russia and Iran are both having financial problems (because of low oil prices and international sanctions) at home and support for the Assads is increasingly unpopular. Russia and Iran now appear willing to take the political hit at home for abandoning the Assads because less cash for the Assads means more money spent on the needs of Russian and Iranian civilians. Already Russia has pulled over a hundred technical advisors out of Syria although Iran has brought more people in. However Russia and Iran are not exactly in agreement how to carry out this removal of the Assads. All everyone can agree on is the need to stop ISIL and doing that as soon as possible. The longer ISIL exists in Syria the greater the chance that ISIL plans for terror attacks elsewhere (the West, Russia, Iran and the Middle East in general) are likely to become reality. The basic Russian plan is to make the Assads an offer they can’t refuse (immunity from prosecution and comfortable exile). If the Assads refuse the Russians can make all manner of nasty threats. Not just an end to weapons shipments and support but also active efforts to harm Assad assets and close associates overseas. Making this happen without the cooperation of the Assads and Iran is impossible. Moreover the fact that few nations want to make deals with the Assads at this point is another deal killer. Not after years of war crimes and decades of bad behavior by the Assads. As long as there is hope that ISIL can be stopped without such a deal with the devil nothing is likely to come of this Russian effort. But this is the Middle East, where the unthinkable often becomes reality.
Since late May a lot more (as in several thousand) Iranian supported Shia mercenaries (recruited in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere) have entered Syria. This increases the Iranian mercenary force to over 10,000 fighters, all recruited and trained by the Iranian Quds Force. The Quds Force specializes in this sort of thing. In 2012 the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Much of this is coming in by air via Iraq. Another 5,000 or so Hezbollah gunmen (not exactly mercenaries given their role in defending Lebanon) are also in Syria and also supported by Quds. These Iranian supplied fighters are often used when the rebels are threatening a vital area. The recent increase in the number of mercenaries is partly a result of Hezbollah being more involved in defending the Lebanese borders but also because the Syrian Army is becoming less enthusiastic and reliable after the many defeats it has suffered this year. Unlike Russia, Iran has more immediate concerns in Syria, mainly a key support base for the Iranian backed (and created) Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Syrian government forces are still a formidable foe for the rebels and continues to attack ISIL controlled areas. But there are fewer of those attacks and increasingly the Syrian forces are on the defensive. ISIL is still fighting the Kurds, this time in the northeast where another ISIL offensive has sent nearly 10,000 Kurds across the border into Turkey.
Al Quaeda affiliate al Nusra doesn’t get as much publicity as ISIL but is a larger force and is actually a coalition of largely Islamic radical groups that oppose the extreme fanaticism of ISIL. Both groups want to rule Syria and both realize that only one can. But until the Assad government is destroyed al Nusra and ISIL have a truce, which has largely been observed in 2015. While ISIL is uncompromising in its goals (world domination under Islamic rule administered by ISIL) al Nusra has vowed to not attack the West and confine its operations to Syria. Few believe that but for the moment al Nusra is not known to harbor Islamic terror groups with international ambitions. With this local policy al Nusra hopes to gain more support from oil rich Arab gulf states, many of whom have supplied al Nusra and related groups from the beginning. This Arab support for Islamic terrorists has been a source of much friction with their Western allies, who also buy most Arab oil and supply most of the imports that keep these Arab states livable. Despite that at the moment all opponents of ISIL are de facto allies. Many victories claimed by ISIL were actually won only because of assistance from al Nusra. Most of the fighting in the northwest is all al Nusra. In the northwest some al Nusra commanders accuse the Assad government of taking sides and concentrating their air attacks on al Nusra forces in the area rather than the growing number of ISIL gunmen showing up. Al Nusra also accuses the American led air force coalition of doing the same thing. Al Nusra believes it isn’t getting the support and respect it deserves.
Since August 2014 allied (mostly U.S. but also NATO and Arab) air strikes in Iraq and Syria have destroyed or damaged over 7,000 targets during over 2,500 separate attacks using mostly smart bombs and missiles. This did not turn out to be the wonder weapon against newly resurgent Islamic terrorists except under certain conditions. The big complaint from pilots and their commanders is that the ROE (Rules of Engagement) are so obsessed with avoiding civilian casualties that most targets are not hit because of the risk (often remote) that civilians might be hurt. ISIL knows this and when they move on the roads they strive to make themselves look like civilians. Thus only a quarter of the bomb equipped aircraft sent out are allowed to actually attack something on the ground. More Western ground controllers would improve the situation somewhat, but the largest number of attacks cancelled by the lawyers are inside ISIL territory, usually against vehicles carrying ISIL supplies or gun men along a road. Meanwhile the attacks that were cleared by the lawyers did do a lot of damage. This destruction included nearly 1,700 military vehicles (about 15 percent of them armored and half of them armed). The most common targets were buildings (1,800 hit) and combat positions (1,500 bunkers, trenches and so on). There were far fewer command posts, checkpoints, parking lots and assembly areas hit and destroyed or made unusable. Over 300 oil industry targets were destroyed or badly damaged since selling stolen oil on the black market was a major source of income for the Islamic terrorists. Despite the ROE the air campaign has had some success. Thus one of the unpublicized victories over Islamic terrorists in the last year was the very low number of civilians killed during the American led air campaign against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria. American air force officials believe the air effort has, since August 2014, killed at least 10,000 ISIL personnel. While the Islamic terrorists were hoping for civilian casualties, to use for mobilizing international media criticism of the air attacks in general, they could only muster about 50 seemingly real accusations of civilians being killed. Only ten percent of those survived close examination and the number of civilians killed was miniscule compared to the number of Islamic terrorist deaths and historically extremely low.
Since 2011 the fighting in Syria has killed about 230,000. Some 30 percent of the dead are civilians while 21 percent are Syrian security forces, 14 percent pro-government irregulars (local militias and foreign volunteers) and 35 percent various rebel factions (many killed fighting other rebels). Although ISIL is also active in Iraq, in May only 1,100 Iraqis died from terrorist related violence. That’s less than half the number lost in Syria. Since January (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths in Iraq have been 1,100-1,200 a month. This is because most of the ISIL violence is of the terrorist, not military, variety. So far this year about half the victims have been civilians. The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Previously the worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 91,000 dead during 2014 for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria continues to rise, even as it is declining in Iraq. Many Iraqis believe that ISIL will eventually be crushed in Iraq. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but then the Sunni fanatics make yet another comeback.
While Israel considers Iranian nukes the biggest threat the Israeli military considers Hezbollah and Islamic terrorists in Syria (al Qaeda and ISIL) to be the most immediate threat. Hezbollah is again threatening to attack Israel, in large part of divert attention (in the Moslem world) from the fact that Hezbollah forces are killing lots of fellow Moslems in Syria and Iraq. As happened in 2006, Hezbollah might carry out attacks (to kill or capture Israelis) along the Israeli border could trigger another war. Israel believes (and openly states) that Hezbollah has about 100,000 Iranian supplied rockets pointed south. Satellite and aerial photos were recently made public that showed Hezbollah building rocket storage and launching facilities inside Hezbollah controlled villages near the Israeli border. Israel indicates that if attacked it will bomb these facilities despite the presence of Lebanese civilians. These fortified villages also have bunkers for Hezbollah fighters as well as firing ports for machine-guns and anti-tank missile launchers. Meanwhile Hezbollah accuses American warplanes of providing support for ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq. No proof is provided and accusations like this are common (and often believed) throughout the Arab world. Many Arabs consider ISIL an American and/or Israeli creation. Many Iranians continue to openly (in Iranian media) insist that the CIA and Israel were responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks. While some Arabs agree with this most prefer to believe that all the attackers were Arabs (most, in fact, were Saudis).
Israel has sent more troops to their Syrian border lately as Hezbollah fights to force al Nusra rebels away from the border. Hezbollah is losing this struggle. Israel is more concerned with Hezbollah than al Nusra (who has been more willing to enforce a temporary truce with Israel). While Hezbollah leaders make speeches about attacking Israel, they tell their military commanders and political operatives that ISIL and al Qaeda are the biggest immediate threat. This is one thing Hezbollah and Israeli military leaders agree on.
The 130,000 Israeli Druze (an Islamic sect considered heretical by most mainline Moslems) are pressuring Israel to rescue Druze living across the border in Syria if those Druze are persecuted by ISIL or other Islamic terrorists. Either that or help these Druze get into Israel and provide refuge. Druze are the only Arabs subject to conscription in Israel and many of those serving in the Israeli military agree that Israel should help the Syrian Druze living near the Israeli border. Despite their small numbers (less than two percent of the population) Druze serve as career military and in elite combat units more frequently than Jewish Israelis. In 2012 the 20,000 Druze living in the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in 1967) openly turned against the Syrian government. Before that most (over 80 percent) of these Druze refused the offer of Israeli citizenship. Since 2012 many more have applied. The Syrian government had long treated the Syrian Druze well, as long as they supported the minority Alawite dictatorship that ruled the country. The increasing violence against Druze in Syria turned normally pro-Syria Druze and Hamas against the Assad dictatorship. But many Druze (mainly older ones) still harbor positive attitudes towards the Assads. Meanwhile since 2011 Israel has provided medical treatment to over 1,600 badly injured Syrian civilians (some of them Druze) and rebels.
Hezbollah continues its uneasy alliance with the Lebanese Army to keep Syrian rebels (most from ISIL and al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra) out of the border areas. More and more ISIL forces are showing up on the border and they are a lot more aggressive and deadly than other groups (even al Nusra). Hezbollah remains ready (although less enthusiastic) to move more men across the border to help defend Damascus if needed. Hezbollah has been active all along the Lebanese border with Syria because this is popular with most Lebanese. While Hezbollah operations deeper into Syria are not popular with most Lebanese (including many Hezbollah supporters) keeping Islamic terrorists out of Lebanon is. Groups like al Nusra and ISIL like to set up camps just across the border to escape coalition air strikes or to better infiltrate and control refugee camps for Syrians. Hezbollah has provided ISIL with some of the deadliest resistance they have yet encountered on the ground. Hezbollah fighters tend to be trained and combat experienced and are nearly as fanatical as ISIL men. Training and experience make a difference and ISIL finds itself taking heavy casualties when fighting Hezbollah. That was also the case when fighting the Kurds, but the Kurds had air support and Hezbollah does not.
June 10, 2015: In central Syria (Homs province) the army recaptured the al Jisel oil field in the eastern part of the province. Troops had been fighting ISIL gunmen for the past three days after ISIL suddenly advanced and occupied part of the oil fields and the town of al Jisel. ISIL still controls other oil and natural gas fields it recently captured in Homs after advancing from Palmyra. Elsewhere in Homs ISIL cut a natural gas pipeline supplying part of Damascus. To the north ISIL fighters are also on the main road connecting Damascus with the coast. This threatens the ability of the government to freely move forces between the capital (Damascus) and territory along the Mediterranean coast it never lost control of. This area has remained largely intact and functioning normally. The ports here are where most of the Russian and Iranian aid arrives.
June 3, 2015: Rebels fighting in Daraa, a province near the Jordanian border, claim to have seized the last army base held by government forces in the province. The fighting in this area has been going on for since 2011. In 2013 the government made a major effort to hold the capital (Daraa) 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 try to hold onto them.
May 29, 2015: In the north (Idlib province) rebel (al Nusra) forces have taken the last government held town in the province. This concludes a three month battle for the province that caused over 4,000 casualties. Rebels had earlier (in March) taken the provincial capital.