Russia refuses to admit that it is suddenly increasing its military aid to Syria. Yet satellite and ground level photos show more Russian personnel and military equipment in Syria. Russia says it is simply fulfilling pre-2011 contracts. But now there appears to be a new Russian effort to establish some kind of base at the port city of Latakia.
Russia was building a base in the Syrian port of Tartus (85 kilometers south of Latakia) but by 2013
had withdrawn its military and most of its civilian personnel and turned their naval support facilities there (a few buildings and a pier for Russian warships to tie up next to) over to Syrian caretakers. The Tartus facility was meant to support the newly (2012) established Mediterranean naval task force. Since then
ships have been rotated in and out in order to maintain a permanent force of up to a dozen ships. While it is still unclear exactly what the Russians are up to it appears they are reinforcing the Assad heartland along the coast. This is Latakia province and is a coastal areas in the northwest that is largely Alawite and where the Assad clan comes from. Since July al Nusra and other rebel forces have been on the offensive towards Latakia. This fighting has resulted in over a thousand casualties and before it was halted in late August had seriously threatened to reach the coast.
An increase in Russian military aid is seen as an effort to grab some positive publicity for Russia, which is currently seen as a treacherous bully because of its aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in East Europe. Russia portrays itself as taking the lead in confronting and halting ISIL and doing something NATO is unwilling to do; put their own troops into Syria. So far this includes some paratroopers and air force personnel plus armored vehicles and combat aircraft. The problem here is that the Russian effort it largely in support of the Assad government which is seen in the region as treacherous and oppressive and why there has been a civil war in Syria since 2011. But since ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) showed up in 2013 it’s been a three-way civil war between the Assads, ISIL rebels and non-ISIL rebels all fighting each other. Russia and Iran (the long-time patron of the Assads) want to make the war mainly about destroying ISIL, not the Assads. Some Arab countries are willing to support this, seeing ISIL as the greater threat.
Fighting continues around Aleppo and Damascus and ISIL forces are active in both areas. ISIL also has problems in eastern Syria, which it largely controls. The ISIL capital of Raqqa (the largest city in eastern Syria) is the scene of growing popular resistance to ISIL. In response ISIL has increased its use of terror against the inhabitants of its new “Islamic State.” This means that there are about twenty public executions a week. A third of these have been local civilians and some of the remainder have been misbehaving (or disobedient) ISIL members.
President Assad of Syria openly claims continued support from Russia and Iran. Until the recent Russian intervention it was feared that because Russia was in escalating financial peril because of sanctions and low oil prices that Russian aid would decline. The Iranian peace deal is not final yet and may never be if growing popular Western opposition blocks ratification. But ratification and implementation is still a possibility and if the treaty went into effect Iran would have a lot more money to use supporting the Assads. That, plus the more active Russian support and the willingness of some Arab nations to support a peace deal with the Assads in order to destroy ISIL gives the Assads hope in what should be a hopeless situation.
A major appeal of the Assad government is the fact that it controls most of the remaining “intact” or “normal” Syria (from Damascus north to the coastal area). For many Syrians that is the only part of the country worth fighting for, even if you don’t like the Assads. The rest of the country is largely desert. What the Assads control is only about 20 percent of Syria and 20 percent of the population. The rest is a war torn wasteland full of armed men, terrified civilians and unresolved claims about who is in charge. Despite that this portion of pre-2011 Syria is shrinking. The government lost control of Idlib province in north-central Syria in early 2015 and many smaller bits in the north (especially around Aleppo) and south (around Deraa and the Israeli border).
Since 2011 over seven million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the civil war. Nearly 300,000 have died and most of the 22 million Syrians have lost their homes and/or jobs. Thus a third of the population has been driven from their homes and over 20 percent (over four million) have left the country and most of those live in refugee camps. Two-thirds of those still in Syria are short of food, medical care and much else. Most of the country no longer has electric power (other than from small generators) or public water and sanitation service. Cell phone service is down in most of the country and over ten percent of the towns, villages and city neighborhoods are completely abandoned (except for scavengers or passing travelers). It’s a Mad Max world, except they use real bullets.
Adding to all the mayhem is the anti-ISIL strikes. Some members of the American led coalition providing air support are openly questioning the tactics and procedures being used. There are accusations from within the American intelligence community that political leaders are hiding the truth about how the restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) are crippling the air offensive against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Another problem with the use of more ground control teams is the American political leadership wanting to put more of them on the ground while American military commanders believe that the risk of these U.S. troops getting killed or captured outweighs the benefits of more precise air strikes. That’s because the ROE is obsessed with avoiding any civilian losses from air strikes and ISIL exploits this by regularly using human shields.
The Turks are now officially at war with ISIL and unofficially at war with some of the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the Turks, in part because the Turks do not hide their belief that the Syrian Kurds are too closely allied with the PKK. Some Syrian Kurds (the PYD) are, or have been, allies with PKK but most Syrian Kurds would rather work with the Iraqi Kurds. Nearly all Kurds see the Turkish reaction as yet another attempt to crush the PKK while many Kurds see all this Kurdish activity against ISIL as an excuse to form a Kurdish state. While that is a popular idea among Kurds it is not as high on the agenda as is surviving the ISIL threat. Many Kurds believe that the Turkish government is secretly aiding ISIL in order to weaken the Kurdish forces.
ISIL gunmen are moving west along the Turkish border and into the safe zone Turkey is trying to establish. Back on July 26th the U.S. and Turkey announced a new strategy to intervene in Syria against ISIL. This involved a Turkish plan to create a safe zone in Syria along a 110 kilometers long portion of the Turkish border between Aleppo and Kobane. This safe zone is to be about fifty kilometers deep and will make it possible for Syrians fleeing ISIL to obtain aid in Syria rather than heading for refugee camps in Turkey. While the Kurds control the Turkish border north of Kobane, west of that ISIL has control and ISIL is moving further west. At this point the people opposing the ISIL advance are other rebel groups who find themselves fighting the Assads as well as ISIL.
September 7, 2015: Britain revealed that in August it had used one of its missile armed UAVs to kill three ISIL members, two of them British citizens known to be planning attacks inside Britain. The U.S. recently revealed that it had used the same technique to kill the chief ISIL Internet security expert, who was also British. The Americans also admitted that they now had a growing force of missile armed UAVs seeking out key ISIL personnel in Syria.
September 6, 2015: The government has lost control of the last oilfield it had. This one, the Jazal field was north of the central Syria city of Palmyra. ISIL has held Palmyra and most of the surrounding Homs province since May. All this is about 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus. For the Assads the most important thing about Palmyra is that it is astride the main road from ISIL controlled Deir Ezzor province to Damascus. The government is still holding on to parts of Deir Ezzor province but supporting those troops becomes a lot more difficult with the loss of Palmyra. The oil field was, when operational, a source of income,
September 4, 2015: In the south (Sweida province, near the Israeli border) a bomb killed a prominent Druze cleric (Sheikh Wahid Balous) and seven others. Government agents are believed responsible because Balous was an outspoken critic of the Assads and that helped turned the Druze (about five percent of the population) against the government.
September 2, 2015: In the northwest (Idlib province) a non-ISIL rebel coalition resumed its efforts to take two Alawite (Shia) towns. There are about 40,000 Alawites in this area and many of the adults are armed and organized for self-defense. Reinforced by army forces, Hezbollah forces and air strikes the two towns have held off the rebels since May, when most of Idlib province fell to the rebels.
September 1, 2015: In Libya the government banned Yemenis, Iranians and Pakistanis from entering the country. Too many people from those countries have been encountered fighting for Islamic terror groups in Libya. The government had earlier banned Sudanese, Bangladeshis, Palestinians and Syrians for the same reasons. This ban does not keep these people out but makes it more difficult for them to get into Libya and move around there freely.
August 30, 2015: Satellite photos and reports from people in the area confirm that ISIL has begun demolishing ancient structures in and around Palmyra. ISIL took this central Syrian site (in Homs province) back in May. This was an ancient oasis city that was largely abandoned a century ago and now people live in nearby villages. Palmyra is a major tourist site and it was feared ISIL would destroy ruins for being un-Islamic.
August 28, 2015: Turkish warplanes made their first attacks on ISIL targets in Syria. The three targets appear to have been near Aleppo.
August 26, 2015: In southern Turkey the commander of a Syrian rebel group (Suqur al Ghab) died when a bomb planted in his car went off. This killing was apparently because of one of the many feuds between various Syrian rebel factions. Suqur al Ghab was allied with the FSA (Free Syrian Army) which is the largest coalition of secular rebels. The FSA abandoned Aleppo in late 2014 and has barely managed to stay in business since then.
August 21, 2015: Russia denied that six Mig-31M fighters had been delivered to an airbase outside Damascus, Syria on the 16th. Russia has lied about arms deliveries before, according to the Israelis who keep close tabs on Russian weapons deliveries to Syria and have bombed the more advanced stuff. Russia has shipped over a billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Syria since the civil war there began in 2011.
August 20, 2015: Israel blamed Iran for a rocket attack launched from Syria against northern Israel. Four Iranian made rockets were launched but did no damage to people or property. A pro-Iran Palestinian terror group (Islamic Jihad) is believed responsible. Iranian Quds Force (the foreign terrorists support group) troops are known to be operating near the Israeli border. Quds Force has been caught supporting terror attacks against Jews and Israelis in other countries before. The immediate response to this rocket attack was Israeli warplanes attacking 14 Syrian Army bunkers along the Israeli border. The Israelis expect the Syrian Army to prevent such attacks along parts of the border they still control.