While on paper ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) seems doomed in Syria this is not the case. No, what is keeping ISIL alive are growing disagreements among the many nations and factions mobilized to crush ISIL in Syria. This is a sad situation but also so typical of the region.
At its peak in mid-2014 ISIL controlled about 40 percent of Iraq, including Mosul and several smaller cities. Now ISIL holds less than seven percent and that is mostly thinly populated rural areas. While ISIL has lost a lot of territory in Syria it still controls about 25 percent of the country. The final battle against ISIL in Syria and Iraq is mainly about driving the Islamic terrorists out of the major river valleys that contain most of the people and wealth. The two main rivers are the Euphrates and Tigris and that is where most of the fighting has been taking place. Well, at least in Iraq. In Syria ISIL has become a bystander as their many opponents go after each other.
Euphrates River Valley stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and the ISIL capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, Fallujah is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east.
The larger (by water volume) and faster flowing Tigris River Valley also starts in Turkey and ends near the Persian Gulf where it merges with the Euphrates at Basra. Unlike the Euphrates the Tigris only passes through 44 kilometers of Syria and most of it is in Iraq. The Tigris passes next to the three largest cities in Iraq (Baghdad, Mosul and Basra) as well as other major population centers like Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji. ISIL grabbed Mosul in 2014 and went after Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji but only took Samarra briefly and never controlled all of Baiji. On maps showing areas ISIL controls you can see that they still are active in lots of territory but most of it is in the sparsely populated semi-desert areas outside the river valleys. That’s why taking the major cities is so important as they are all next to these two rivers and ISIL only holds onto parts of Mosul and all of the much smaller city (a tenth the size of Mosul) Syrian city of Raqqa.
In Syria most of the attacking around Raqqa has been by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) rebels, an organization composed of Syrian Kurds and their Moslem and Christian allies. Some 70 percent of SDF forces advancing on Raqqa are Arab, the rest are from various Kurd factions (including the YPG). At the moment the only ones concentrating on Raqqa are the SDF, with support by Western and Arab air power and some commandos. SDF has been moving towards Raqqa since early 2016 and insists it now has sufficient ground forces to surround and take Raqqa, but only if the Turks leave them alone and they get some more ground forces to share the fighting inside the city. On the plus side the airstrikes from the Western and Arab coalition continue doing major damage to ISIL logistics and finances. ISIL is broke largely because of these airstrikes and in the last few weeks aerial reconnaissance revealed a new ISIL oil storage and refining center 150 kilometers southwest of Raqqa in Deir Ezzor province. Tanker trucks, storage tanks, refining equipment and the few remaining oil wells ISIL controls were destroyed.
SDF began another (often delayed) push towards Raqqa on the 13th and since then have killed over 300 ISIL gunmen and lost about three dozen of their own. This SDF effort is supported by American ground troops, artillery and airstrikes. Some SDF forces are within 40 kilometers of Raqqa but are still concentrating on surrounding Raqqa and its several hundred thousand civilians and at least 4,000 ISIL fighters. SDF also has to push ISIL forces away from the several key dams. At the end of 2016 SDF was closing in on the Baath Dam which supplies electric power to Raqqa and surrounding areas. The dam also regulates the water flow to farmers along the Euphrates River and ISIL has threatened to damage or destroy the dam to punish the disloyal farmers. Thus the rebels, if they want to maintain the support of most of the Syrians in the area, have to capture the dam largely intact. That would put the advance within 22 kilometers of Raqqa. Several other Euphrates River dams, especially the nearby Tabqa dam, have to be freed from ISIL control first.
Once cut off Raqqa can be attacked, like Mosul in Iraq has been since late 2016. SDF expects some reinforcements for the final assault and so far no one is making any promises. SDF did not initially plan to take Raqqa by itself and concentrated on surrounding the city. SDF had hoped the Turks and the Assads (or even the Iraqis) would join the effort to clear the city of ISIL forces. Iraqi participation less likely because the Iraq government has been saying publicly and more frequently that they will keep the Iraqi Shia militias out of Syria. The Assads are busy defeating the rebels elsewhere in Syria. Now the Turks are deliberately attacking Kurdish forces including SDF and its non-Kurd allies.
That is mainly because Turkey is trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria. The Turks are the only member of the anti-ISIL coalition that wants to keep the Kurds out of the final offensive to crush ISIL in Syria. The Turks are also opposed to the growing Iranian presence in Syria and Iranian plans to make that presence (and control of the Syrian government) permanent. Israel also opposes the Iranian presence but is neutral about the Kurds and has the support of Russia and the United States for that.
Russia and the United States are trying to prevent the offensive against ISIL from being disrupted because of growing hostility between the Turks and the SDF but are not having much success.
The Turks are now accused of crippling operations against ISIL, especially the capture of Raqqa, because they believe the PKK and their allies (like the YPG) are hiding out among rebel forces and civilians in northern Syria and using that cover to continue planning and carrying out attacks inside Turkey. No one else in the region believes this is more important than destroying ISIL but the Turks insist that they will do what they feel they must no matter what anyone else thinks. This is more about Turkish domestic politics, with the pro-Islam Turkish leader trying to create external enemies to mobilize more popular support for his increasingly unpopular (to Turks) government.
Russia seems to have nothing but problems in Syria. Russia is accused of ignoring the Assad government cheating on the 2013 deal to get rid of their chemical weapons. This became obvious after the April 4th Syrian air force chemical bomb attack on a rebel village. This killed 89 people, most of them civilians, including 20 children. The victims showed symptoms of nerve gas being used and subsequent chemical analysis (by experts in several nations) confirmed this. The Syrian government accused the rebels of making the attack or having stored chemical weapons in one the buildings the bombs hit. Russia went along with this. But the U.S., NATO and Israel soon confirmed that it was the Assad forces who delivered the nerve gas. Russia continued to back the Syrian government but several major intelligence agencies worldwide agreed that the evidence against the Assads was pretty compelling. Even the Chinese agreed and refused to go along with a Russian effort to block a UN condemning the Assads.
There was more to this than was reported. For several years Israeli intelligence analysts have quietly urged their Western counterparts to take a close look at who still had chemical weapons in Syria because there was general agreement that they were still being used. Everyone blamed the Islamic terrorists but the Israelis pointed out that a growing number of those incidents appear to have been the work of the Assad forces and the Israelis were getting information indicating that the 2013 Russian brokered (and guaranteed) deal to get the Assads to surrender all their chemical weapons was not being observed or enforced. Israel now says it has proof that the Assads maintained a post-2013 secret stockpile containing up to three tons of chemical weapons.
It is still unclear how much the Russians know but Western intel agencies were paying more attention to who was saying what to whom about chemical weapons in Syria before the April 4th attack. After that priority was placed on analyzing a lot of the collected, but not thoroughly analyzed, data (mainly communications intercepts) the U.S. had. There has long been a problem with more data being collected than could be thoroughly analyzed but nothing is thrown away. Now that there was a definite use of nerve gas the deep dive into the intel data was ordered and it did indeed find evidence of the Assads retaining stocks of chemical weapons, including nerve gas, and apparently using it in the belief that they could get away with blaming the rebels. That gambit fell apart under close examination and now Russia (and to a lesser extent Iran) find themselves in an embarrassing situation. Russia supplied support for the Assads to find targets and the Assads used that to find the target for the nerve gas attack. Iran is one of the few nations to use nerve gas in combat (during the 1980s war with Iraq) and has experts in that subject who may have been advising the Assads. After all, Iran has openly discussed using nerve gas against Israel, which is why Israeli intel continued to monitor the nerve gas situation after 2013.
Russia also has problems at home because of the April 7 American cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base. This was in retaliation for the Syrian nerve gas attack but the Russian Internet lit up with embarrassing discussions about that happened to Russian boasts in late 2016 that the Russian air defense system in Syria was operational. Using these very current and high-tech air defense weapons (Tor 2, S-400 and so on) Russia controlled who could use Syrian air space. Thus the American use of 59 cruise missiles to hit that Syrian air base, destroy about 20 percent of the Syrian air force and not touch the Russian aircraft and troops there, was either done with Russian permission or these expensive new air defense systems were vulnerable to American countermeasures. That was a common source of humiliation during the Cold War when, time and time again the West, usually the Americans, came up with some unexpected tech to neutralize Russian systems, especially air defense and aircraft electronics. The government was forced to note these embarrassing comments on Russian language Internet message boards and announced that Russian policy was not to use the air defense system against external air threats in Syria, or at least not the ones that were no threat to Russian troops. Other government officials commented that the Russian air defense systems could detect low-flying cruise missiles but not everywhere as these cruise missiles could be programmed to deliberately take advantage of terrain (hills) and also detect and avoid Russian radars. Older Russians then recalled hearing the same excuses during the Cold War. The people running Russia remember it as well and that seemed to account for the public displays (in the UN and to the international media) of anger at the Americans. It wasn’t just what the Americans did but how they did it.
Russia has more to dislike about what the U.S. is doing in Syria. For example there are the bases the Americans are building in northern (Kurd controlled) Syria. Turkey and the Assads oppose these American bases but the bases remain because the Americans, and most of the world, no longer consider the Assads legitimate rulers of Syria. The Assads and their allies Iran and Russia disagree. As long as the American bases were there to support the fight against ISIL Iran and Russia did not make an issue of these bases or the thousand or so U.S. troops in Syria. But now that the U.S. has, for the first time, carried out a major military attack on the Assad forces and may continue to do so, a suitable response is necessary. There is not much the Assads can do. They have not been able to prevent regular Israeli air attacks (to prevent Iranian advanced weapons from being moved to Lebanon) and it is no secret that the U.S. and Israel are close allies. The Russians have already made it clear that they will side with the Israelis if forced to decide between the Assads and Israel. This has put Iran in a difficult position and the latest American move makes that worse. All foreign forces operating in Syria are supposed to be there to deal with ISIL but Iran and Russia only pretended and were often criticized because most of the military activity in Syria was to weaken rebels (mainly non-ISIL) fighting to overthrow the Assads.
While Russia is officially in Syria to defeat ISIL and keep the Assads in power they (semi-officially) also want to maintain good relations with Israel and Sunni Arab countries while doing it. This annoys Iran. Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they are in Syria to stay and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel and a centuries old effort to make the Shia form of Islam dominant in the Islamic world (that is over 80 percent non-Shia). Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is not maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point and newly elected U.S. government has come out strongly against any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. The Americans still want the Assads gone but despite that the U.S., Israel and Turkey agree on some key goals.
The Russian intervention appears to be permanent (as far as the Russians are concerned) and the Assads are OK with that. Turkey and Iran are not so sure and Iran is openly opposed to Turkish troops being in Syria at all. At the same time Iran is demanding the right to establish a naval base in Syria. This is not a new idea. In 2011 Iran pledged to pay for the construction of a naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. That proposal was put aside as the rebellion against the Assads grew but now Iran wants some payback for playing a key role in maintaining the Assads in power. All these overlapping and often contradictory goals and alliances may seem odd to an outsider but this is the Middle East, where such complex arrangements are the old normal.
To make their Syria intervention work Russia had had to resort to Russian private security companies. About half these private security firms are believed to have organized combat units that are reliable enough to be used in place of scarce army special operations troops. By monitoring Russian language social media activity (which anyone can do) it has been noted that recent military veterans working for several of these private security companies have been in Syria and Ukraine. Casualties were suffered in both places although the duties of the contractors were different. In Syria the security contractors mainly guarded Russian bases but were also used in combat when they provided security for Russian artillery units supporting Syrian Army troops. In a few cases the contractors were sent in to assist Syrian troops who got themselves in trouble. Russia described these men as special operations troops, because outside Russia the security contractors often wear Russian military uniforms. But social media revealed that many of these dead Russians in Syria (about 30 so far) were actually contractors. In Ukraine at least one private security company has been used as “enforcers” to punish troublesome pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels. Often this just meant arranging an accidental death for a disobedient rebel leader but in a few cases a larger number of rebels had to disappear. The Russian supported rebels came to call these contractors “cleaners” and were justifiably terrorized and impressed.
The Turkish border has become a lot more difficult to sneak across since Turkish troops entered Syria in late 2016. One consequence of that is more of the foreign ISIL members fleeing the area are being caught and interrogated. Many of those arrested are European and some don’t bother (or cannot afford) a smuggler and simply present themselves (and their passport) at the border and offer to cooperate. It is estimated that 30,000 foreigners went to Syria to join ISIL. Most came from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and Jordan. But about 20 percent were Moslems from Western Europe. It is unclear how many of these foreign ISIL members have died since 2014 and how many are trying to return home. All the nations that supplied these ISIL members are cooperating to one degree or another to identify and classify these ISIL returnees. That means arresting as many as possible and questioning them. Many have committed crimes and some are intent on doing more of the same back home.
April 27, 2017: Israeli missiles, apparently fired from inside Israel, hit Iranian warehouses near the Mazzeh Air Base outside Damascus. This was a night attack a cell phone videos showed that these buildings apparently contained weapons because there were numerous secondary explosions as in a missile setting off ammunition or missiles stored there. The Israeli missiles also hit a fuel storage site, causing large secondary explosions and fires. This attack went after munitions and fuel used by Iran mercenaries in Syria in addition to missiles and other weapons meant to be smuggled into Lebanon. Some Iranian and Hezbollah personnel were killed. Later in the day Russia condemned the attack as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Despite this public demonstration of anger Russia understands that Israel has a legitimate need to protect itself from Iranian attack via Hezbollah or similar Assad forces. This angers Iran but so far the Iranians have kept their criticisms quiet.
Before the end of the day Israel confirmed that it had fired one of its Patriot missiles at an aircraft (apparently an Iranian made UAV) flying from Syrian into Israel.
Turkey apologized to the Kurdish government of northern Iraq for a recent air attack that mistakenly killed some Kurdish soldiers. The air attacks were against PKK forces, which Iraqi governments (national and northern Kurd) long tolerated. The Iraq parliament is considering ordering PKK out of Iraq, which would put the pressure on the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq to attack fellow Kurds of the PKK. The Iraqis Kurds tolerate the PKK presence but have been reluctant to use force to get them out.
April 26, 2017: The SDF called on foreign nations to try and restrain Turkey from attacking SDF forces. Iraq also complained. SDF also quietly called on its Western allies to try and do something about the lack of unity among Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Even the Kurds try to keep this out of the news but it is real and a growing problem.
April 25, 2017: In the northeast (Hasakah province) near the Iraq border Turkish artillery and airstrikes hit Kurdish forces in both countries killing about fifty people, most of the armed Kurds. Most of the dead appeared to be on the Iraq side of the border.
In the north Kurdish YPG units that had been bombed the day before by Turkish warplanes opened fire at Turkish troops across the border. This fighting continues.
April 24, 2017: In the north, near the Turkish border, Turkish jets and two UAVs attacked Kurds and secular rebels. These attacks killed at least 30 of the rebels and many more wounded. The Turks warned the U.S. and Russia an hour beforehand and there were no U.S. troops with the rebels attacked. The Americans and Russians tried to persuade the Turks to back off on attacking rebel forces that have not fought the Turks and concentrated on overthrowing the Assad government. Turkey believes the Kurds are a permanent threat. Yet the Turks were careful to make sure the United States did not have any troops with the targets bombed. It turned out that the closest American troops were about ten kilometers away.
April 21, 2017: In the south, on the Israeli border, three mortar shells were fired from Syria into Israel but caused no damage. Israel fired back at the area where the mortars were operating.
April 19, 2017: In the north, outside Aleppo a roadside bomb killed six civilians and wounded many more. It is unclear who was responsible for this attack, which appeared to be deliberate.
April 18, 2017: Another Russian soldier was killed in Syria while working with Syrian soldiers fighting rebels and ISIL. That makes 30 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2016. Another Russian apparently died in the same incident but he seems to have been a contractor. It appears that Russia does not give much publicity to contractor deaths which are believed to be at least equal to military casualties, if not two or three times higher.
April 17, 2017:
Iraqi intelligence has evidence that ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is in Syria and has been there for several months.
Russia and the United States have agreed to meet with UN officials in Switzerland by the 25th to discuss what to do in Syria.
April 16, 2017:
In Iraq (Mosul) Iraqi troops again encountered ISIL mortar shells and rockets that had chemical warheads. About six troops fell sick after inhaling the noxious substance. Nearby U.S. and Australian commandos noted that some of the shells contained noxious substances and helped collect samples for laboratory analysis. This is not the first time for this. ISIL was again using the crude mustard gas that has been showing up a lot more since 2015. In 2016 Russia revealed that its chemical warfare experts collected mustard gas samples from a dud shell fired in September 2016 by ISIL forces in Aleppo. The Russians also found evidence of ISIL shells filled with chlorine. ISIL is believed to have used chlorine and mustard gas bombs and shells at least 60 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
April 15, 2017: In the north (outside Aleppo) an ISIL suicide car bomb attacked pro-rebel civilians assembled to board busses in a UN monitored population transfer (as rebels and the government exchange territory). The bomb killed over 120 people, about half of them children.
April 13, 2017: The SDF rebels began another offensive towards Raqqa.
April 11, 2017: SDF forces reached the main highway connecting Raqqa with Damascus.
An American airstrike outside Raqqa hit SDF rebels in error, instead of nearby ISIL forces. At least 18 SDF rebels died and many more were wounded.
suggested that the Americans were behind the recent use of nerve gas in Syria and that it was part of an American effort to justify going to war with Syria (or at least the Assad government Russia backs). The Russian accusations were not backed by any evidence and soon faded from the news.
In Syria two more Russian soldiers died (from mortar fire) and another was wounded. Since mid-2015 29 Russian soldiers have died in Syria.
April 10, 2017: Russia
announced that its forces in Syria would not attempt to intercept American missiles (cruise or otherwise) if they are used again in Syria to attack Syrian military forces. The government reminded everyone that Russian forces were in Syria to fight Islamic terrorists.
Turkey announced that it had completed its 556 kilometer long border wall along the most threatened portions of its 911 kilometer long Syrian border.
April 8, 2017: The Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Iraq condemned an American cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase yesterday. These critics supported the Syrian Assad government denials that they had anything to do with the use of nerve gas during an airstrike on a rebel held village last week. But the rest of the world either openly supported the American retaliation or were undecided. Most Western nations openly supported the cruise missile barrage as did Middle Eastern nations Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This American action was a big deal in Israel which had hoped the newly elected American government would be more supportive of Israeli efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism (both Sunni and Shia) in the region. Israel and its new Sunni Arab allies are particularly concerned about the growing threat from Iran, which the previous U.S. government did not take as seriously as the Middle Eastern nations (particularly Israel) that Iran openly threatened. Even normally staunch Assad allies turned on the Syrian government for this. In Iraq prominent Shia clergy long known for their pro-Iran attitudes, condemned the Assads. Iran wishes this would all go away but it won’t.
In Syria Russia canceled the “deconfliction” agreement they with the United States regarding each other’s warplanes operating over Syria. This agreement avoids accidental clashes and the U.S. observed the agreement by informing Russia shortly before the American cruise missiles were launched yesterday.
April 7, 2017:
The United States retaliated for the recent Syrian use of nerve gas by launching 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian Shayrat air base in Homs province. Most of the Syrian air strikes in northern Syria are flown out of Shayat.