Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and finally the Americans agreed that Turkish ground troops would enter northwestern Syria to destroy or drive ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces away from the border area. The Americans would also drop support to Kurdish forces operating west of the Euphrates River. The Kurds reluctantly agreed with the U.S. decision and pulled back from Manbij. The Kurds in the northwest corner of Syria may be more difficult to persuade. Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans all had to agree because together they controlled most of the airpower and pro-government foreign ground forces in the area. The Kurds also noted that this new agreement explains the growing number of incidents of Assad forces shooting at Kurds despite informal truce and cooperation agreements. The Turks had made areas west of the Euphrates too hostile for the Kurds to deal with, especially with the withdrawal of American air support and Kurds becoming targets for Turkish, Russian and Syrian warplanes.
There has been a lot of heavy fighting during August particularly true in the northern city of Aleppo and the smaller town of Manbij to the southeast. The Kurds took Manbij on the 12th and were moving north to take the border town of Jarablus from ISIL. The Syrian Kurds were mainly responsible for driving ISIL out of Manbij and surrounding areas. Manbij is 60 kilometers southwest of the Kurdish border town of Kobane. That was where ISIL suffered a costly (about 6,000 dead) defeat in trying to take the place in 2014. The Turkish border areas is important to ISIL because it gives them access to smuggling routes that bring in people and supplies and allow people and revenue producing goods out. Since 2014 there has been increasing efforts to block ISIL from access to Turkey and the Manbij sector is one of the few key border areas ISIL still has access to. The Manbij operation is being carried out by a combined force of local Arab rebels and Kurds from adjacent areas (closer to Kobane). The Kurds also have U.S. Special Forces troops with them to advise and provide air support. The offensive began in late May and it was believed it would take about a month. But in late June ISIL managed to gather enough forces to halt the advance. This set up ISIL for the kind of pounding they got when they tried to take Kobane from the Kurds. The air support made the difference at Kobane. ISIL thinks they now have tactics that can minimize the impact of air attacks but they didn’t.
The Turkish troops fighting in northern Syria are basically backing the Assad government to retake Aleppo. Syrian government forces, with the help of Iranian mercenaries (Shia from Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere), Kurdish militias and Russian air and artillery support have pushed back rebel and ISIL forces in and around Aleppo. The Assads are offering the 250,000 pro-rebel civilians still in Aleppo safe passage out of the city if they can persuade rebels in their midst to go along. This often works in Syria if ISIL is not involved and the defenders see their prospects as dim. Similar deals have been made elsewhere recently, particularly outside Damascus.
Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing an autonomous area similar to what exists in northern Iraq. The Assads, Iran and the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) agree on this. Up until now the Syrian Kurds ignored Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River. The Turks (and the Assads) object to this because it would enable the Kurds to complete their plan to control the entire Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds had declared autonomy in late 2013 and published maps showing their claims stretching from their traditional Kurdish majority areas of northeast Syria east of the Euphrates as well as everything to the east. The claimed areas west of the river did not extend more than a hundred kilometers into Syria but claiming the entire Syrian border was not acceptable to Turkey or most Syrians. By late 2015 the Syrian Kurds were fighting ISIL west of the river and dealing with occasional air attacks by the Turks.
The largest component of the Syrian Kurd rebels is the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists) and their military forces (the YPG). Western nations back the Kurds because in Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. Moreover in Syria the Kurds there have incorporated some Arab militias (some Moslems, others Christian) into an effective combined force. This joint force is also advancing south towards the ISIL capital Raqqa as well. This is done with support from American and other coalition warplanes and some special operations troops. The Turks don’t seem to care much about all that and prefer to regard armed Kurds (especially the PKK and PYD) as a threat to Turkey. However Iran is aware that the Kurds are essential to taking Raqqa.
Turkish troops entering the war is seen as a major victory for Iran, which has long backed the Assads and persuaded the Russians to intervene in late 2015. Iran also got cozy with Turkey over the last few years and used Iranian influence in Iraq to persuade the Turks that it would be in their interest to support restoring the Assad government. In return Iran, Syria (run by the Assads) and Iraq would work with the Turks to prevent the Kurds from establishing their long-sought independent Kurdish state.
Russian military assistance, especially the use of modern warplanes and air-to-ground (satellite and laser guided) munitions has made the Syrian government forces formidable again and put the rebels at real risk of being defeated. Russia has some troops on the front lines, most of them commandos and specialists for calling in air strikes. In general Russian warplanes attack rebel positions quickly, ruthlessly and often on a hunch, not a certainty, that the enemy is there. This has proved devastating for the rebels despite the usual Islamic terrorist tactic of using civilians for human shields. That does not work against the Russians. Any suspicion of civilians being rebels in disguise will often trigger an aerial attack. Thus it was no surprise that a recent UN sponsored casualty survey in Syria concluded that in ten months Russian forces, mainly with air and artillery attacks, killed more civilians (over 2,700) than the nearly 2,700 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has killed in nearly 40 months. From the beginning (late 2015) Russia has received criticism for killing civilians with all this firepower support. Russia ignores the condemnation and points out that much of the fighting takes place in urban areas and that ISIL and al Nusra regularly use human shields to protect themselves from air strikes by Western (especially American) warplanes, which have a much more restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) that reduces civilian casualties but also the damage done to the enemy.
Since 2013 most rebels have joined (or allied themselves) with al Nusra (the local al Qaeda franchise) or ISIL. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. In the last few months al Nusra has tried to distance itself from ISIL and is now openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. Al Nusra forces also led the recent effort in Aleppo where rebels broke through the government siege in the eastern part of the city and now seek to regain control of the entire city. In mid-2016 Al Nusra renounced any connection with al Qaeda and declared it was simply a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, is full of devout Moslems. Al Nusra is now known as Jabhat Fatah and wants to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” (and not to be bombed). But the Americans still considers al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders have admitted publicly that the al Nusra split is temporary. Russia, Iran and the Assads find comfort in all this because it leaves the Americans with only about a third of the rebels (mainly the Kurds and non-Moslem groups) and gives Russia and Iran a chance to defeat all the rebels eventually and restore the Assads to full control of whatever is left of Syria. Russia also uses the “all Islamic terrorists are targets” attitude to justify their warplanes bombing bases of Syrian rebels that work closely with American and British commandos operating inside Syria. This puts the West in a difficult position because groups like al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah have the support of most Syrian Sunnis, and 70 percent of Syrians are Sunnis and these Sunnis are the backbone of the rebel forces.
Meanwhile Russia is daring the Americans to try and stop Russian and Syrian warplanes from bombing pro-American rebels.
The U.S. led air coalition over Iraq and Syria has been averaging about a hundred attacks (using either a guided missile or smart bomb) a day
June. About a third of that is in Syria, where Russian and Syrian government warplanes average several dozen attacks a day. These include helicopter strikes that often include heavy machine-gun fire and unguided rockets. There are also attacks with improvised “barrel bombs” dropped from transports or helicopters
, usually against civilians
. The U.S. and Russia disagree on some strikes, especially when non-ISIL rebels are involved. The Americans consider non-ISIL rebels to be “friendlies” whereas the Russians consider nearly all rebels (the main exception being Kurds) as “hostile” and legitimate targets.
In August there were several incidents where Russian or Syrian warplanes attacked, or sought to attack rebels that were working with Western commandos. The U.S. told Russia and Syria to back off and that there would be violence and even a, for all intents and purposes, “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria. American officials insisted that this would not turn into a true no-fly zone but would result in lost Syrian or Russian warplanes if Western troops were harmed. So far it has been all threats and no action.
Another reason for optimism in Syria is China, which supports the Russian effort there and recently offered to provide military training for the Syrian government forces as well as emergency aid for civilians in Syrian government controlled territory. This offer may be in response to efforts by Russia and Iran to create a new military-diplomatic coalition with Turkey to end the war in Syria. While China, Russia and Iran have been allies (often of convenience) for years, Turkey is another matter. Turkey a member of NATO and currently ruled by an increasingly corrupt and undemocratic Islamic political party that is in the process of purging members of rival political parties (religious and secular) from the government and major institutions. However Iran and Turkey reaffirmed, in June that both nations were dedicated to dealing with Sunni Islamic terrorism, especially in Syria. Turkey is largely Sunni but has been threatened by Sunni Islamic terrorist groups for years. Turkey and Iran are also traditional enemies but that rivalry has been on the back burner for centuries. The two nations have become major trading partners and both tend to accentuate the positive these days, especially in the face of the ISIL threat. In particular Iran wants to partner with Turkey and Russia to put down the rebellion in Syria and restore the Shia Assad dictatorship to full control of the country. Turkey wants peace in Syria, if only to shut down a base for Islamic terrorists and separatist minded Kurds. But there is the Shia angle. Russia just wants something resembling an end to the fighting in Syria so it can declare victory and go home. This temporary Iran-Turkey-Russia-China alliance could impose peace on Syria, mainly in the name of destroying ISIL and related Sunni Islamic terror groups in Syria. But Islamic terrorism, both Sunni and Shia, would remain. Iran is quite open about how it still supports Shia militancy and the Sunni Moslems that dominate the Arab world have still not agreed, much less acted on, a permanent solution to the recurring (for over a thousand years) Sunni Islamic terrorism. The proposed triple alliance might work in the short term, but not for any longer than that.
August 25, 2016: In the north Kurdish forces pulled out of Manbij, which they had occupied since the 12th. The Kurds left their non-Kurdish rebel allies (mostly Syrian Arabs) in control.
In Iraq the government announced that it was negotiating an agreement with the Assad government to restore government control to both sides of the border. That had been lost in 2014 because of growing ISIL violence. But now nearly all the Iraq-Syria border is free of ISIL control and Iraq will cooperate to persuade Syrian rebels that hold some portions of the Syrian side of the border to recognize the authority of the two governments at the main border crossings. Most of the ISIL controlled border areas are near the city of Mosul, which ISIL took in mid-2014 and Iraq expects to retake by the end of 2016.
In the south (Damascus) the Syrian government and rebels besieged in the town of Daraya reached an agreement to surrender the town to government forces. Daraya is outside Damascus and has been held by rebels since 2012. Most of the time government forces surrounded the town but could not take it. As has happened many times before the government (and, less often, rebels) will offer to let the defenders of a town and their civilian supporters safely depart as long as they leave heavy weapons behind, disable all landmines and booby traps and head for the nearest friendly territory. In the case of Daraya the 700 Islamic terrorist militiamen and several thousand civilians will be allowed to go to rebel held Idib (a town near the Turkish border). This movement is to be completed by the 30th.
August 24, 2016: In the northwest (Jarablus) Turkish troops crossed the border at 4 AM to drive ISIL out of Jarablus and force approaching Syrian Kurdish rebels back across the Euphrates river. The ground assault was accompanied by air and artillery strikes on over 80 ISIL targets. The Turks later reported that during the first day of operations at least 46 ISIL fighters were killed and many more were seen fleeing. The Turks are considered the most formidable of fighters by Arabs who prefer not to fight them head on. Jarablus is on the Euphrates and the Kurds are seeking to take Jarablus and link up with Kurdish forces who have long occupied the northwestern corner of Syria. Those Kurds have joined the battle for Aleppo as well as pushing back ISIL forces who controlled most of the Turkish border between Aleppo and Jarablus. The Turks want the Kurds to give up Manbij (which is west of the Euphrates) and the Americans, to the disappointment of the Kurds, backed the Turks on this. So the Kurds are turning over recently captured (from ISIL) areas west of the Euphrates to the Turks.
Kurds in the northeast (Hasakeh province) agreed to a ceasefire with government forces that involved the government and Kurds withdrawing their military forces from the provincial capital (Hasakeh city) and allow the local Kurdish police and pro-government militia to keep the peace. In Hasakeh province government and Kurdish troops have long left each other along but since early 2106 there have been an increasing number of clashes between Kurdish and Syrian government forces. By July these clashes are spread to Aleppo where Assad forces in western Aleppo began acting in a hostile manner towards a Kurdish controlled enclave in central Aleppo. Technically the Kurds are rebels but they are often allied with government forces against common foes, like ISIL. Most of Hasakeh province is controlled by the Kurds, who are supported by the United States. But the Assad government and Turkey do not want Syrian Kurds turning the northeast, where most Syrian Kurds live, into an autonomous Kurdish region (like a similar one just across the border in Iraq). Russia, while definitely an ally of the Assads, is more inclined to side with the Kurds, who Russians regard as better fighters. But the Kurds realize that long-term the Russians will side with Assad and the Turks and that proved to be an accurate assessment.
August 23, 2016: In the northwest ISIL fired three rockets and two mortar shell into Turkey (Gaziantep province) during two separate attacks. There were no casualties but in some areas Turkish police urged civilians to temporarily evacuate their homes. Turkish artillery fired over 40 shells at the ISIL held areas (in or near Jarablus) where the rockets and mortars were operating. The Turkish artillery also fired on Syrian Kurdish rebels advancing on Jarablus from recently captured (from ISIL) Manbij to the south.
August 19, 2016: In the northwest, just across the border in Turkey (Gaziantep province) an ISIL suicide bomber got into a Kurdish wedding celebration and set off his explosives killing more than fifty people. The bomber was a young (under 14) teenager. ISIL has been increasingly using young suicide bomber, usually unsuccessfully. At least three have been captured in Iraq over the last few months.
Two Russian warships off the Syrian coast launched cruise missiles at rebel targets in Syria. This is the first time this had been done since December 2015.
August 16, 2016: Russia Tu-22M3 and Su-34 bombers began operating from an Iranian airbase at Hamadan (in northwest Iran). This continued for three more days and then stopped when the Iranians, angry at the Russians not keeping quiet about this arrangement, ordered the Russians out of the base. Iraq did not object to Russian warplanes flying overhead to and from targets in Syria and even complied with Russian requests to order civilian air traffic out of Iraqi air space the Russian bombers would be using on their way to hit ISIL as well as other rebel groups in Syria. Iran later said the Russians might be allowed back in.
August 14, 2016: In the north (Atmeh border crossing into Turkey) an ISIL suicide bomber on a bus exploded killing over 40 people, mostly anti-ISIL rebels.
In Germany a government intelligence got leaked to the media and detailed evidence that Turkey has long supported certain “friendly” Islamic terrorist groups operating in Syria. The most notable of these groups is Hamas (Palestinians from Gaza) and the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood. Turkey always kept quiet about such support but it was an open secret that some Islamic terrorists had an easier time getting in and out of Syria via Turkey.
August 12, 2016: After a 73 day campaign Kurdish led rebels took the city of Manbij from ISIL. The Kurds later reported that based on information collected in the city and more than a hundred ISIL men captured it appears that ISIL lost at least 4,000 men trying to hold onto the city. That was more than ten times what the attackers lost and that was largely because the attackers had American air support and the Kurds were better trained and more experienced than the ISIL defenders.
August 11, 2016: American military intelligence revealed that since September 2015 ISIL appears to have lost 25,000 fighters in combat (mainly in Syria, Iraq and Libya). Thus about 45,000 ISIL fighters have died since 2013. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 20,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack.
August 10, 2016: In the east (across the border in Iraq) a joint force of American and Kurdish commandos raided a village (Qaim) near the Syrian border and killed the senior ISIL official in charge of natural resources (like oil). The raiders would have preferred to take the guy alive but ISIL leaders rarely cooperate. The other objective of the raid, seizing ISIL documents, apparently did succeed.