In Aleppo Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery continue to bombard targets in support of Syrian Army (and militia forces) plus Kurdish fighters advance into eastern parts of the city long held by rebels. The Kurds are actually operating independently of the government forces but coordinate to avoid firing on each other (especially with artillery or from the air). This offensive has been going on for two weeks and was declared a victory now that the rebels have lost over 40 percent of the territory they long held in Aleppo. Over 20,000 civilians have fled the advance, most of them heading for nearby areas held by the Kurds, most of the rest going to government controlled areas.
The Assads are trying to convince everyone that this is a turning point in the rebellion and that the rebels are now doomed. The rebels are dismayed at this setback and feel abandoned by their Arab (mainly Sunnis from the Persian Gulf) and Western (especially American) allies. Yet not everyone fighting in Syria is their to support, or remove, the Assad government. Many outsiders are mainly concerned with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Islamic terrorism in general. Had Islamic terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIL not gotten involved the Assads would probably have been defeated by now. But the Islamic terrorists had made so many enemies in the region and internationally that the rebels got distracted and the Assads took advantage of the situation.
The Assads had something else going for them. They are ruthless and don’t care what the rest of the world things. An example could be seen once “Battle for Aleppo” began in late September. This effort has cost about 3,000 casualties in October, about 20 percent of them dead. About half of the casualties have been civilians. Losses were heavier in November but now the fighting is ending in the northwestern part of the city, with the Syrian government in control. Aid groups, which supply food and other assistance and maintain operations within the rebel controlled areas of Aleppo report that the weeks of fighting have left many residential areas cut off from regular food supplies and since the end of October and obvious malnutrition and starvation among the trapped populations became increasingly common.
The Assads deliberately use starvation by cutting road access to pro-rebel areas. This is why nearly a million civilians nationwide are currently cut off from food and other supplies. Since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead in Syria have been civilians largely because of a deliberate Assad policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians to force them out of the country (or at least the combat zone). This has worked because now over half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, especially the government air and artillery attacks on civilians. Thus the Assads have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths since 2011. The Russians still use the same tactics and since the Russian forces arrived in mid-2015 the air attacks on rebel civilians have increased. This includes attacks on hospitals and aid facilities (including some run by the UN and thus illegal to attack). Russia says these targets were actually being used by rebels, which in some cases is true. Technically if armed men are in any of these “neutral facilities” they lose their legal immunity from air or artillery attack.
Russia has refused to back off from using what the West considers barbaric and inhumane tactics. Russia is determined to see the Assad government regain control of the country no matter what. That goal is shared by Iran. Russia does not deny its air strikes since September 2015 have killed a lot of people (estimates go as high as 10,000) and that many of the victims might have been civilians. The Russians point out that their approach defeats the rebels while the more acceptable (to the rest of the world) methods merely prolong the fighting and enable Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL, to expand. Russia has said any American effort to interfere with Russian military operations in Syria would be opposed forcefully. Russia has admitted that this might escalate to nuclear war and that they are ready for that.
The Turkish Intervention
Since late August Turkish forces have taken control of over 1,800 square kilometers of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The Turks expect to complete their ground operation in Syria by mid-2017. While Syrian Kurds have kept the border areas they control in northwestern Syria free of ISIL and other Islamic terrorist activity Turkey and Iran are largely hostile to some of the Kurdish militias in Syria. That’s because the most active Kurdish rebels have belonged to the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists) and their military forces (the YPG). There are also some Iranian Kurds who came to Syria and joined the YPG and other Syrian Kurd rebel groups. The Turks believe (without much proof) that some of these Iranian Kurds are connected with the Iranian PAK, which is similar to the PYD in Syria and PKK in Turkey. The U.S. disagrees with Turkey on this and in response Turkey issued an arrest warrant on November 23rd for the head of the PYD.
In northern Syria Turkish troops are seeking to avoid conflict with the Russians while attempting to intimidate the Kurds who have long controlled much of northern Syria. What complicates this is that the Syrian rebels and their Western allies (especially the United States) consider the Syrian Kurds the most effective rebel force and key to driving ISIL out of Raqqa city and the rest of eastern Syria. The Turks are, on paper, the strongest military force in the area. But all Syrians, both the government and the rebels oppose the Turkish intervention. The Turks are mainly doing this because of domestic politics. The Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) are again openly fighting the government and often use bases in Syria. While the Kurds of northern Iraq will cooperate with the Turks in controlling the PKK, some of the Syrian Kurds (the YPG) have worked closely with the PKK before and the Turks do not trust them to behave like the Iraqi Kurds.
It gets worse. The current (since 2000) Turkish government is pro-Islam and generally tolerant of Islamic terrorists who do not attack Turks. At the same time the Turks never got along well with the Assad government. The Turks also have a hostile relationship with Assad allies Russia and Iran. Because of the Russians the Turks have to be careful how (when and where) they use their warplanes in Syria for fear of attack by Russian warplanes or SAM (surface-to-air missile) systems Russia recently installed.
The U.S. sides with the rebels seeking to take down the Assad government yet who are not hostile to the United States (like ISIL and al Qaeda connected groups). The Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Persian Gulf, are mainly opposed to Iran and the Iranian Arab allies (the Assad government and the Lebanese Hezbollah). Because of all this confusion among the rebels the Syrian government forces are on their way to regaining control of the southern and Iraqi borders by early 2017.
A prime example of what is happening with the Turks in Syria can be seen around al Bab (northeast of Aleppo) where there is a very odd (at least to people from outside of the Middle East) situation. Al Bab is held by ISIL and largely surrounded by Turkey backed FSA rebels. Turkey is eager to prevent YPG Kurds from reaching al Bab and taking the town. Yet the Turks also don’t want their troops, or the FSA rebels to fight the YPG Kurds because that would cause friction with the other NATO countries, especially the Americans. The Syrian government prefers that the YPG take al Bab because the Kurds in general, and the more radical YPG in particular are willing to work with the rebels or the Assads in order to protect Kurds in Syria. In the last few days FSA gunmen have reached the main highway between al Bab and YPG controlled Manbij, which is 43 kilometers northwest of al Bab and 60 kilometers southwest of the Kurdish border town of Kobane. Manbij was captured (from ISIL) by the Syrian Kurds in early August. Since mid-October Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish YPG rebels trying to take al Bab have persuaded the Kurds to back off and for most of November the airstrikes are largely against ISIL targets inside al Bab.
Meanwhile the Kurds say they have pulled most of their forces out of Manbij in early November to reinforce the advance on Raqqa. But now there is an YPG force in the area ready to advance on al Bab but can’t do so without the highway connection to their base in Manbij (which is now controlled by local, pro-rebel, militias). Other U.S. backed rebels openly side with YPG are operating in Manbij. The Turks may have the FSA move west to Afrin (the northwest corner of Syria) that is held by Kurds, many of them YPG.
The Raqqa Offensive
One thing everyone can agree on is taking the ISIL capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Turkey has offered to get involved in the offensive against Raqqa but only if there are no Syrian Kurds involved. The Turks are alone in this and have stayed away from Raqqa because of this. Meanwhile the Kurds and their rebel allies are advancing on and surrounding Raqqa. This is all being done with the help of air support from the U.S. led air coalition. On the ground most of the rebels advancing on Raqqa belong to the Kurdish dominated (and U.S. supported) SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). Until early 2016 about 80 percent of the SDF strength (currently about 35,000) was Kurdish with the rest being Christian and Moslem Arabs. But with the weakening of ISIL because of battlefield defeats and growing desertions (and fewer new recruits) more Syrian Arabs are willing to fight and prefer to do that with the SDF, who are the most successful Syrian rebels. Many of the new volunteers have no military experience at all and throughout 2016 the U.S. has been hustling to expand its SDF training program, which takes longer for men with no military experience. In addition to the Kurds, the other reason the SDF is so effective is its attention to training and leadership. Unlike ISIL and the many militias in Syria, who provide very little (a few weeks at most) or no training for new recruits, SDF provides two months or more and refuses to accept anyone who cannot successfully complete the training.
SDF has been carefully advancing towards the ISIL capital (the eastern city of Raqqa) since late 2015 and is preparing to make a big push to actually capture Raqqa. At least 10,000 trained fighters are needed for this, plus lots of air support. The American led air coalition will deliver the air support and teams of American air controllers will be provided to make sure the air strikes are as timely and accurate as possible. There are also American Special Forces and technical experts (bomb disposal, air controllers) with the SDF columns operating around Raqqa.
But most SDF fighters are busy defending territory they already control (10-15 percent of Syria) and that makes gathering (and maintaining) a force large enough to go after Raqqa difficult. Another advantage SDF has is that they will cooperate with government forces when it is mutually beneficial. That usually means dealing with Islamic terrorist groups, usually ISIL. SDF also sides with the YPG when it comes to the Turkish forces inside Syria. The Syrian government was going to join the advance on Raqqa but because of American opposition to that and better opportunities elsewhere the Assad forces are concentrating on Aleppo.
November 28, 2016: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) fighting between army troops and ISIL in Deir Ezzor city flared up again. There were several dozen casualties, some of them civilians, as both sides fired on each other with machine-guns, mortars and artillery.
In the south Israeli warplanes bombed a building near the Israeli border that was believed used by local ISIL forces. Some ISIL men were involved in an attack on Israeli troops across the border.
November 27, 2016: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Russian airstrikes on ISIL positions killing over 30 people (according to reports from hospitals in that area.)
In the south on the Golan border four ISIL gunmen with a truck mounting a heavy machine-gun fired on an Israeli patrol on the Israeli side of the border. Some mortar shells were also fired. The Israeli troops fired back and an Israeli warplane showed up quickly and destroyed the truck and killed the four Islamic terrorists. This was the first time ISIL has attacked Israel from Syrian territory. The Islamic terrorists involved were actually local Syrians who had formed a rebel militia in 2012 and later pledged allegiance to ISIL. This group has mainly been defending areas they and their tribal kin come from. The usual response to fire from Syria is Israeli artillery firing on Syrian army positions. Iran has been encouraging more “accidental” fire into Israel, especially the Golan Heights. The Syrian Army and their Iranian allies control most of the Syria-Israel border but there is still fighting along the border with several rebel groups. When the fire from Syria is deliberate the Israelis always fire back, but if it appears to have been the result of fighting between government and rebels forces inside Syria there is a verbal protest but no artillery or air strikes in response. When it is unclear, the Israelis fire back.
Generally it continues to be quiet along the Golan Heights border. Israel expects this to change because Iran openly boasts (on Iranian media and to its Shia mercenaries in Syria and Lebanon) that Iran is winning in Syria and once the Syrian Sunni rebellion is crushed Israel will be the next target. For Syrians there is a special reason for this. In 2015 oil was discovered on the Golan Heights. There appears to be several billion barrels. Israel uses about 100 million barrels a year. Syria claims the Golan Heights but Israel holds the territory because it is high ground overlooking a lot of Israeli territory. Israel does not trust Syrian occupation of the heights, which Syria has used in the part to fire on Israelis below. UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace.
November 26, 2016: In the south (al Tal, a town 15 kilometers north of Damascus) the rebels holding the town and the nearby refugee camp agreed to give up control of these places and leave with their families for Idlib province to the northwest. Often the government forces (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 this case most of the 600,000 civilians in the area stayed where they were because most of them were refugees and had nowhere else to go. The town of al Tal normally has a population of under 50,000.
Turkey has moved air defense units (equipped with vehicle mounted Stinger missile launchers) to the Syrian border in response to the recent air strike that killed three Turkish troops outside al Bab.
In the last few days Turkish police have arrested 25 people in Turkey and charged them with smuggling Islamic terrorists into Syria. This is part of the Turkish effort to seal the Syrian border. Since Turkish troops entered Syria in August the Turks have not occupied a lot of territory but they have seized control of all the roads crossing the border and instated strict border controls that have temporarily put Turkish smugglers out of business, at least those not willing to work closely with the Turkish troops. Smugglers have been a tradition in the region for centuries, ever since more national states established rules regarding what could legally cross their borders (with or without paying tolls). All the nations in the region would use the smugglers, who were expert at getting things across guarded borders. Until ISIL began carrying out expensive (to the lucrative tourist trade) attacks in Turkey the Turks saw no reason to shut down the entire Syrian border. But once ISIL made the Turks an active enemy the smugglers could no longer do business with the Syrian rebels that still, technically, included ISIL. By early 2016 the Turks agreed that ISIL must be shut down whatever the cost. The closed the last useful supply line for ISIL. All the other Syrian borders (with Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq) are now controlled by governments who are extremely hostile to ISIL. This denies ISIL a way to get new recruits in and people (like families of senior ISIL members and members being sent abroad to help with recruiting, fund raising and planning overseas attacks) out. These borders are not completely sealed but they are now very expensive to cross and large shipments either way are all monitored. This hurts ISIL in terms of getting ammunition, weapons and, most importantly, equipment and supplies needed to run their Islamic State.
November 25, 2016: Outside al Bab (northeast of Aleppo) ISIL forces inside the city fired a mortar shell at FSA rebels and 22 of the rebels came down with symptoms of mustard gas exposure. The Turk-backed rebels were moved to a Turkish military hospital for treatment. Russia recently revealed that its chemical warfare experts collected mustard gas samples from a dud shell fired in September 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 52 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
November 24, 2016: The Assads denied that their aircraft had bombed Turkish troops before dawn near al Bab (northeast of Aleppo) and killing three of them. The Assads insist the Turkish troops died because of an ISIL attack. ISIL has held al Bab since 2013 and Kurds have been trying to take it since October.
In the northeast (Hasaka province) an ISIL fired rockets and mortars at three Kurdish and militia positions and killed four Kurds. ISIL had been forced out of Hasaka earlier in 2016 and have occasionally attacked Kurdish forces deployed to keep Islamic terrorists out of the province.
November 23, 2016: In the northeast (Hasaka province) fighting broke out in the border town of Qamishli between Kurds and Syrian soldiers when the Syrians tried to drive through a Kurdish checkpoint without identifying themselves. Qamishli is on the Turkish border and is in a largely Kurdish area and security (against ISIL and other Islamic terrorists) is taken care of by Kurds. Syrian forces are tolerated as long as they do not interfere with Kurdish security operations.
November 22, 2016: Israel accused Iran of smuggling weapons to Hezbollah and the Syrian military using commercial flights from Iran to Lebanon and Syria. Iran or Hezbollah controls airport security on either end of those flights and it is easy enough to move the weapons in luggage or cargo containers.
November 15, 2016: In the south UN Peacekeepers returned to the Syrian side of the Israeli border for the first time since 2014. Today 127 peacekeepers crossed the border and it will be a month or so before the full force of over a thousand troops is back in place. Back in 2014 by September UN peacekeepers from Fiji and the Philippines were forced out by al Nusra rebels, who wanted to ensure that the UN peacekeepers did not interfere with the rebel takeover of a border crossing. The Islamic terrorist rebels looted the UN camp and were driven out in 2016 by the Syrian Army, which has regained control of the entire 70 kilometer long border with Israel. Up until 2014 the UN had 1,223 peacekeepers monitoring the Syrian/Israeli border. The UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace but after 2014 the peacekeepers have only been able to operate on the Israeli side of the border.
November 10, 2016: Israel reminded Syria that Israeli intelligence indicates that Syria and its Iranian ally now control entire Syrian/Israel border and Israel holds the Syrian military responsible for any gunfire or shells that land on the Israeli side, for whatever reason. Meanwhile in Iran an Iranian general confirmed that Iran had set up a rocket factory in Syria more than a year before the 2006 Hezbollah war with Israel. The factory built short range weapons and components for rockets to be built inside Lebanon.
November 9, 2016: In the south a mortar shell was fired across the border into Israel (Golan Heights), where it caused no damage. Israeli artillery fired on Syrian army positions.
November 8, 2016: Iran called for political settlements in Syria and Yemen. In both countries a Shia minority is trying to gain control of the entire country by force. In both cases the local Shia are doing this with Iranian support and that has not proven sufficient to achieve Shia victory.
November 6, 2016: A largely Kurdish force began an advance on Raqqa, the ISIL capital in eastern Syria. This is part of the effort to clear ISIL out of the entire Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Iraqi cities like Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi as well as the ISIL capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria and then north into Turkey.
November 4, 2016: Israeli intelligence officials believe that Iran currently controls some 25,000 Shia foreign mercenaries and local Shia militias in Syria. Iran has been quite public about its efforts to recruit Shia mercenaries in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere for service in Syria. This Iranian mercenary force now amounts to over 12,000 fighters, all recruited and trained by the Iranian Quds Force, which specializes in this sort of thing. Over a third of the Shia “volunteers” are Hezbollah men from Lebanon. In 2012 the IRGC commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria and also training, and sometimes organizing, local Shia into militias. These men, like the foreign Shia mercenaries were recruited, trained, armed and led by Iranian officers and NCOs.
November 3, 2016: In central Syria (Homs) a Russian transport helicopter crashed. The crew survived and was soon picked up by another helicopter. ISIL claims to have shot down the helicopter. Since late 2015 Russia has lost four helicopters in Syria.
For the third time since 2011 Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetzov came south, via the English Channel on its way to the Mediterranean. Leaving northern Russia on October 15th the Kuznetzov task force arrived off Syria today. The carrier had seven escorts (three warships and four support vessels) and is carrying fifteen Su-33 and MiG-29K jet fighters plus at least ten Ka-52K, Ka-27 and Ka-31 helicopters. This Russian naval force is mainly a publicity stunt.