Syria: An Unnatural Act


August 4, 2014: Fierce fighting continues in Aleppo as the army seeks to regain lost ground and generally take advantage of the continued fighting between ISIL and other rebel groups. The high level of fighting all over Syria has kept the weekly deaths at over a thousand. Most of the dead are combatants but at least a third have been civilians. The situation in Syria is increasingly chaotic. The only constant is the continued unity of the Assad coalition (the Syrian security forces plus thousands of Hezbollah gunmen and even more ethnic militias). The rebel coalition continues to fragment since a civil war broke out among the rebels at the beginning of the year. This was initially a war between ISIL and all the other rebels. Now it has become a bewildering chaos of shifting alliances between ISIL and al Nusra (a largely Syrian Islamic terrorist group) factions (who will sometimes still units to fight Assad forces) with the secular rebels the biggest losers. Some al Nusra militias have gone over to ISIL in the last two months because of ISIL victories in Iraq. But that is changing as many ISIL allies (especially tribes in eastern Syria and western Iraq) turn against harsh ISIL rule. The only winner in all this is the Assad dictatorship which has been regaining lost territory and holding it in the last two months. The Assads are still suffering losses but are making for it with gains in western Syria.

The current war between Hamas and Israel has had little impact on the Syrian conflict. Palestinians in the West Bank have been vocal, but not particularly violent in their support of Hamas. There have been demonstrations but Israeli and Palestinian security forces prevented any of these from getting out of control. There have been a few deaths, all Palestinian. Islamic terrorists groups in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Syria (al Nusra, ISIL and many more) have issued press releases supporting Hamas but not done much of anything else. Hezbollah knows that Israel has sufficient forces on the Lebanese border to do serious damage to Hezbollah if rockets are launched from Lebanon. In Syria the many Islamic terrorist groups are too busy fighting each other and the Syrian government to risk taking on Israel. So it’s all quiet on the northern front.

Then there are the problems with the millions of Syrian refugees from the three years of fighting. Turkey has accepted about 1.4 million Syrian refugees so far. Only about 200,000 of them live in refugee camps, the rest live where they can. This causes lots of problems for the Turks living near the border where most of the refugees prefer to settle. The refugees there have caused the cost of living to get more expensive by competing for scarce resources like housing. The refugees also offer to work for lower wages, putting many Turks out of work or causing lower pay in general. Most Turks, however, don’t know or ignore this or have not experienced it themselves and support continuing to support the rebels by keeping the borders open to refugees. This is what the Syrian government wants as it deliberately attacks (usually with bombs or artillery) pro-rebel civilians and tries to deny them foreign aid in order to persuade these people to flee the country. Despite a recent UN resolution forbidding indiscriminate attacks on Syrian civilians the Syrian Air Force continues its bombing attacks on pro-rebel residential areas. The Assads don’t care of these pro-rebel populations later become a source of vengeful former Syrian residents seeking to come back and fight. This is considered preferable to having these rebellious populations inside Syria. The Assads already have support from about twenty percent of the population and the more pro-rebel civilians flee the country, the higher the proportion of pro-Assad Syrians there are in Syria.

The Arab Spring rebellions plus several ongoing nations with serious internal problems led to a record 33.3 million people being forced from their homes in 2013. Over 60 percent of these refugees were in just five countries; Syria, Colombia, Nigeria, Congo and Sudan.  That’s 16 percent more refugees than in 2012. The increase is largely driven by the Syrian government strategy of deliberately targeting pro-rebel civilians. The Islamic terrorist campaign against non-Moslems and pro-government Moslems in northern Nigeria is doing the same thing.

This fanatic ISIL attitude is backfiring. In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the alliance ISIL had with the local Sunni tribes is falling apart. It’s an old story being replayed. The local tribesmen are not happy with ISIL efforts to force a strict Islamic lifestyle on them. Also unpopular is the ISIL attitude that anything they do is above reproach. That resulted in a recent ISIL edict that anyone in the areas they control who says (in person or via the media or Internet) anything hostile to ISIL will be severely punished. There have already been some executions of critics. This has recently led to several battles in villages as the tribes went to war with ISIL and won. More astute ISIL leaders have caused ISIL forces to refrain from escalating the fight and there appear to be efforts to negotiate the problem.

This unusual reasonableness is partly the result of similar resistance being encountered in Iraq. There it’s not just unhappy Sunni tribes but also Saddam’s many supporters in the Baath Party. While Baath is secular, it is fanatic, hostile to Shia Iraqis and contains many specialists and experienced Islamic terrorists that could be helpful to ISIL. But ISIL is full of religious fanatics who, not surprisingly, were not pleased with the general lack of religious fervor among the Baath members. Negotiations are unlikely to solve this one as the initial alliance of ISIL and Baath was clearly an unnatural act. Similar unstable alliances are coming apart wherever ISIL has taken control in it new caliphate of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The original caliphates all fell apart for the same reasons. Some ISIL leaders were aware of this possibility and they may yet gain enough control over the organization to create a more accommodating approach. Given the recent history of Islamic terrorist organizations, this is unlikely.

So far this year ISIL has shifted more of its attention to Iraq, where it believes it has more opportunities because the Shia led government there is considered less competent (there is some truth to that). In Syria the Assad forces are taking advantage of the ISIL shift as well as the continuing battle between ISIL and all the other rebels. This has significantly weakened the rebels, to the point where a government offensive to regain control of Aleppo appears to be succeeding. The Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, has left over 170,000 dead so far. The current fighting is killing nearly 5,000 people a month. The Syrian government seems to consider ISIL an ally as in some parts of the countries the ISIL is killing more rebels than the nearby government forces are. The ISIL gains in Iraq mean that the Assad government is no longer the main ISIL target in Syria. This also means that the Saudis and Iranians have to pause their growing Sunni-Shia feud because both countries have more to fear from ISIL Sunni Islamic terrorism than from each other. Western nations know they are already on the ISIL radar and are cracking down on ISIL fund raising and recruiting in the West.

While Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states are officially opposed to ISIL, their intelligence and police agencies report that over 5,000 young men from the Arab Gulf states are currently fighting for ISIL. About 75 percent of those are from Saudi Arabia and these Gulf Arabs make up nearly a third of the front line ISIL strength. Moreover, most of the foreign cash contributions for ISIL come from the Gulf Arabs. As it has for over a thousand years the allure of a united Islamic state (the caliphate) still appeals to many young Moslem men. Older Moslems know better (that the caliphate never worked as intended and why). Until Moslems figure out how to deal with this deadly fantasy the bouts of Islamic terrorism will continue to periodically deliver death and destruction on the Moslem world.

The Kurds in the northeast are holding their own against repeated ISIL attacks. The Kurds have mustered their own local militias plus two Kurdish separatist groups (PKK and PYD). There is another complication. The Turkish PKK (and their Syrian counterparts of the PYD) are often battling Turkish troops along the border. Most of the violent incidents in the last four months have occurred as PKK or PYD men crossed the border to or from Turkey and Syria. A 2013 Turkish ceasefire deal involved PKK moving all its armed members from Turkey to northern Iraq (an area Iraqi Kurds have controlled since the early 1990s) and Turkey passing laws to give the 15 million Turkism Kurds (most of them live in southeast Turkey) more autonomy and freedom from laws restricting the open use of the Kurdish language and customs.  The PKK believes the Turks are reluctant to the pass the laws and have not only kept some of their men in Turley but also move through Turkey to get supplies and gunmen to the Syrian Kurds. The Turks are sympathetic with the plight of the Syrian Kurds but are reluctant to openly allow the PKK to move around inside Turkey. Moreover some Turkish intel analysts believe that many of these border incidents are mainly about smuggling for cash, not for protecting Syrian Kurds.

The Asssads have also rebuilt their army over the least three years. The force is smaller (all those with rebel sympathies have deserted or been discharged) and retrained (with the help of Iran) and rearmed (with the help of Russia) to fight irregulars. Nearly all the troops are from pro-Assad (non-Sunni) populations and have an incentive to fight. ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is particularly scary to non-Sunni Syrians because ISIL does not just want to overthrow the existing Syrian government, it wants to kill, convert or drive away all non-Sunnis, especially non-Sunni Moslems. Syrian Sunnis who are not sufficiently religious are also subject to ISIL persecution and because of this Assad is accepting loyalty pledges from Sunni communities with the understanding that retribution will be swift and fatal if there is any later change of mind.

The Jordanian Army is under growing pressure from ISIL and recently began a recruitment drive. The government says this is routine but Jordanians know better. Jordan is now faced with threats from Syria and Iraq, especially Islamic terrorists from ISIL. Jordan is on the ISIL target list, as is the Jordanian royal family. The Jordanian Army is increasingly involved with training Syrian rebels who will fight ISIL and for providing better security on Jordan’s borders with Syria and Iraq. Thus it appears that Jordan is increasing the size of its army from 88,000 to whatever it can afford (probably with some financial help from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) in order to better cope. Even if the increase is only a few thousand troops, it will take time and money to get the new recruits into shape. All Jordanian army recruits get 14 weeks of basic training and then a month or more of specialized training. It then takes a few years of active service before the new soldiers are considered really useful. This makes the Jordanian troops the most effective in the Arab world and the Jordanians want to keep it that way.

August 2, 2014: In eastern Lebanon (124 kilometers northeast of Beirut) al Nusra rebels from Syria raided the village of Asral, killed or wounded over a dozen soldiers, police and civilians and took some policemen and civilians hostage. The al Nusra men demanded that Lebanon release a recently arrested (at a Lebanese border crossing) al Nusra leader. To avoid a Lebanese army counterattack the al Nusra men drove back to Syria with their hostages. Lebanese troops caught up and freed the hostages. It is unclear if any of the al Nusra raiders made it back to Syria as the army claimed to have killed at least eleven of them. Elsewhere on the Lebanese border (on the Syrian side) army and Hezbollah forces ambushed a large group of al Nusra fighters seeking to cross into Lebanese. At least fifty of the al Nusra men were killed by gunfire and artillery.

August 1, 2014: In the northwest (Idlib province, where the Lebanese and Turkish borders meet) an ISIL suicide car bomb killed a senior al Nusra leader. ISIL sees al Nusra as its primary rival in Syria and has been concentrating most of its attacks on al Nusra rather that more moderate rebels or government forces. The fighting between al Nusra and ISIL has been going on since January but got particularly intense earlier in July. Further east (Deir Ezzor province) local tribesmen, angry at abusive ISIL behavior drove ISIL out of three villages near recently captured oil fields. The immediate cause of this fighting was ISIL arresting local tribesmen for not being Islamic enough. Meanwhile ISIL has been selling oil to Iraqi brokers. This is done at a high (over 70 percent) discount because the oil can be identified as Syrian (via chemical analysis) and the Iraqis must be careful who they sell it to. Moreover, the oil must be moved out of Syria by truck which is more expensive than the Syrian pipeline which goes to a port on the Syrian coast, not Iraq. Since the current world price of oil is over a hundred dollars a barrel ISIL can still clear over $15,000 per truckload.

July 31, 2014: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL gunmen seized local tribesmen even though ISIL promised it would not bother the tribesmen (who were allies of ISIL). This triggered resistance by local tribal militias against ISIL. That led to fighting that left at least nine ISIL men dead. ISIL leaders immediately called for reinforcements from across the border in Iraq.

July 30, 2014: In the northeast (Ain al-Arab) ISIL again advanced into Kurdish territory and was again repulsed, losing at least 35 men. The Kurds admitted to losing 14 fighters. In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL ordered that Islamic lifestyle rules (dress and movement restrictions on women, not video or tobacco for anyone and so on) be imposed. Many local tribesmen were angry at this and vowed to resist these rules, which they believed ISIL promised would not happen here because the tribes were allied with ISIL.

July 29, 2014: In the last week the UN has begun sending aid convoys into Syria without government permission. This did not work out as expected because some of the many rebel groups controlling the roads blocked the movement of aid to civilians who supported rival groups. This antagonism between different rebel factions has been a disaster for civilians who often find themselves without food, fuel, electricity, safe drinking water and a safe route through which to leave the country.

July 24, 2014: In the northeast (Raqqa) ISIL used suicide truck bombers and overwhelming force to push back army troops. This operation became infamous because dozens of the soldiers were beheaded and their heads displayed on stakes. Videos of this appeared on the Internet. A similar incident occurred at a natural gas field further south in Homs province. Not all Syrian soldiers were terrified at this because many called for revenge and the army is taking fewer prisoners when fighting ISIL.

July 21, 2014: On the Turkish border six PYD gunmen and three Turkish soldiers died in a clash triggered by the PYD men trying to cross into Turkey. Most of the PYD men retreated back into Syria after the clash with the Turkish troops.

July 19, 2014: ISIL gains in the last month have given it control over about a third of Syria. Most of this is the thinly inhabited east. Over the next few weeks the Assads, al Nusra and former tribal allies took away a lot of these gains.

July 18, 2014: The last two days saw intense fighting all over Syria but particularly in the east. As a result over 700 people died, the highest number of dead in such a short period of time (48 hours) since the war began in 2011. Fighting was also intense in central Syria where ISIL seized a natural gas field. The army took it back in the following week.

A suicide bomber who killed five people in Baghdad was later identified as an 18 year old Arab immigrant from Australia who had left home a year ago to join Islamic terrorist groups in Syria. A lot of the foreign volunteers join ISIL and many of these have been shifted to Iraq because the foreigners are more resented in Syria than in Iraq.

July 17, 2014: In the northeast Kurdish leaders announced the start of conscription, requiring all physically able adult males to serve at least six months in the defense forces (usually a local defense militia). On the Lebanese border al Nusra claims to have blocked, for the last five days, numerous attempts by Hezbollah to move reinforcements into Syria.

July 16, 2014: In Damascus dictator Basher Assad was sworn in for his third seven-year term as president. Shortly after Assad finished speaking everyone could hear explosions in the city. This was rebel mortar fire, which left four dead and 22 wounded. The Assads recently held rigged elections, as the family has done periodically for over three decades. It’s all in the name of democracy.

July 15, 2014: In the southwest (near the Israeli border) Israeli warplanes attacked two military bases outside Baath City, leaving at least four dead and many more wounded. This was in retaliation for a rocket fired from Syria yesterday landing in Israel.

July 14, 2014: The UN passed a resolution authorizing UN aid groups to send aid convoys into Syria without permission from the Syrian government.

AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) posted a message on the Internet agreeing with Saudi Arabia and al Qaeda in denying the legitimacy of the new ISIL caliphate in eastern Syria and parts of Iraq (the east and northeast). This caliphate is basically an Iraqi Islamic terrorist effort that no Islamic terrorist groups outside Iraq supports.





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