Syria: Rebels Confront The Enemies Within


June 26, 2013: Iran’s very public determination to see the Shia Assad government of Syria defeat its Sunni opponents is costing Iran allies and a rapidly growing pile of cash. Iran has long been the Assads main financial backer and that support has now become a matter of life or death for the Assads. In addition to supplying a few million dollars-worth of military equipment and stationing several hundred advisers and technical experts in Syria, Iran has provided several billion dollars of economic aid to keep the government controlled portions of Syria going. Iran is also offering cash bonuses to Lebanese Hezbollah men who agree to fight in Syria. More Iranian cash is being provided to give Syrian soldiers a 50 percent raise. Most of the Syrian Army has deserted or joined the rebels and those left are not terribly enthusiastic or effective. The Iranian trained Hezbollah militiamen are more capable infantry, and that bothers the rebels a great deal. Iran is also offering bonuses for Iraqi Shia who volunteer to fight in Syria for the Assads. These guys as not as skilled as Hezbollah, but they are enthusiastic and armed. Iran does not want ethnic Iranians (who are Indo-European and much hated by the Arabs, a Semitic people long abused by the Iranians) fighting in Syria, so cash and other forms of persuasion are being used to get Arabs to help out. Thus rumors of Iran sending thousands of their own troops to fight in Syria are very unlikely.

Because Hezbollah gunmen have years of training, and occasional practice using irregular warfare tactics against Israel, they are better fighters than the rebels or the Syrian Army. But Hezbollah discovered that they had to use their best trained full time troops to make a significant difference against the rebels. At first Hezbollah sent in local (from villages near the Syrian border) Hezbollah gunmen. These guys were part time warriors, there mainly to protect their villages, maintain Hezbollah control of the area, and provide recruits for the “elite” (full time) Hezbollah troops. There are only a few thousand of these high-quality Hezbollah fighters and not all of them can be sent to Lebanon, not with Israel threatening to take care of their Hezbollah problem once and for all. So the impact of Hezbollah will be limited, if only because Hezbollah cannot afford the losses of sustained combat with the rebels. Hezbollah has concentrated several thousand men on the Syrian border, in addition to nearly 2,000 inside Syria. Most of these are part-timers now making a full time (and well paid) job of fighting. But Hezbollah has suffered over 500 casualties so far, with nearly a hundred dead during the three week battle for Qusair. A few more “victories” like that and Hezbollah will have to get out of Syria.

Hezbollah gunmen are now fighting in Damascus, where rebels have stubbornly held on to several neighborhoods for over a year. Having learned their lesson in Qusair, the rebels are adapting to Hezbollah tactics and aggressiveness. Hezbollah has suffered nearly 200 casualties in a week of heavy fighting in Damascus, including at least 40 killed. A similar but less intense battle has been taking place in Aleppo. This reminds the Assads that Hezbollah did not send an army to help but several detachments of better trained and more resolute fighters that are supposed to inspire the less capable Syrian Army and pro-government volunteers to do better. This does not appear to be working, at least not decisively. The rebels are being hurt more with the arrival of Hezbollah but promises of more military aid from Arab and Western states has bolstered rebel morale. There is also more substantial, and less publicized, help arriving. A growing number of the foreign “volunteers” for the rebels are trained professionals from Arab countries. There are also Arab speaking Special Forces from Western nations, as well as professional military trainers (who are often civilians, either CIA or contractors). Many of these pros stay on the Syrian border, to train rebel recruits and impart some minimal skills. Without that, these new guys don’t last long in combat. But some of the Arab speaking foreigners are with some of the rebels militias, providing more immediate advice and training.

Most of the fighting continues to be sniping, ambushes, and just a lot of amateurs shooting at each other without much effect.

The West is also believed to be providing the rebel leadership (the FSA or Free Syrian Army) with intelligence and general advice. This is often wasted because FSA does not have much command authority over the various rebel contingents. There are nearly a hundred of them, although fewer than twenty contain most of the effective fighting men. This is especially true with the Islamic terrorist groups (mainly the Syrian led Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq, the Iraqi led branch of al Qaeda), who often answer only to God. Nusra tries to cooperate with FSA but the Syrian and Iraqi led Islamic terrorists are on the verge of going to war with each other and the Islamic terrorist groups, in general, don’t get along well with anyone. Rebel groups operating near each other often try to coordinate their actions, but orders from FSA are usually treated as suggestions and often ignored. The Assad forces are increasingly taking advantage of this lack of unity and picking off rebel groups one at a time. This is a serious problem for the rebels, who seem unable to fix it by agreeing to a unified command. In this respect the rebel’s biggest obstacle to victory is their own lack of unity. This is not unique in the history of rebellions but it has also been the main cause of many rebellions failing. That has happened a lot in the past, but these failed rebellions rarely get much attention in the history books.

The Arab countries want the West to provide air support while the West does not want to take all the diplomatic and political heat that entails. Suggestions that the Arabs provide the air support are quietly ignored. The problem is lack of unity, which for over a thousand years has hobbled Arab power. For a few generations after Islam appeared the Arabs were united and unstoppable. Then the old squabbles returned. The Shia branch of Islam is one result of those ancient disputes. Not only do Arabs not get along with each other but they nurse past defeats for centuries, as the Shia have done. Arabs would rather not discuss this openly because that often leads to finger-pointing and recriminations. It also reminds Arabs that the ability of the Westerners to unite (or at least do it more frequently) is one of the reasons for the West becoming dominant. Despite all that, most rebel supporters are coming to accept that without the air support a lot more Syrians, most of them civilians, will die.

Efforts to recruit Iraqi Army troops (most of them are Shia) has other Arab states threatening Iraq. The threats are credible, for while most Iraqis are Shia, all these Shia are Arabs. In this part of the world blood is thicker than theology. As long as Iran is seen as the ultimate beneficiary of an Assad victory, all Arabs are reluctant to back the Assads. It’s also no secret that Iran is paying these Arab volunteers to go kill other Arabs, which is seen as very wrong by most Arabs.

All this backing for Shia Arabs to fight in Syria has intensified the hostility between Sunni and Shia (and Iranians and Arabs) in the region. Iran started this decades ago when they proclaimed the goal of establishing a world-wide religious dictatorship by converting everyone to Shia Islam. This annoyed the Sunni majority (about 80 percent of Moslems) and put fear into most Arabs, because Islam was founded by Arabs and the idea has always been to convert everyone to Sunni Islam under Arab leadership. The Iranians have kept working on their goal and that’s why Syria has long been receiving economic aid from Iran. Not because Syria is Shia (only about 10-20 percent of the population is, most of the rest are Sunni) but because the ruling family (the Assads) are Shia (or Alawite, which is sort-of Shia and that’s close enough Iranian purposes). Iran also financed the growth of the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Sunni Hamas in Gaza. That last one backfired, with Hamas forced to openly oppose the Assads after their Sunni donors threatened to cut off aid and political support if Hamas did not get in line with other Sunnis and denounce Iran. Hamas spoke out against the Assads but tried to make nice with Iran. Hamas, despite Iran cutting off aid (some $1-2 million a month), is still trying to maintain friendly relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Most Palestinians (who tend to be Sunni or Christian) have come out in favor of the Syrian rebels. Hamas has run Gaza since 2007, and Hezbollah has been a major factor in Lebanon for over 25 years. Despite the Iranian connections, both Hamas and Hezbollah are Arabs and both exist mainly to destroy Israel. Iran is being discreet about this but could not afford to ignore open Hamas support for the Syrian rebels. Hamas also admits that a few of its members have unofficially joined to fight alongside Hezbollah inside Syria. Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank tend to back the rebels. But nearly a million Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria are split, with nearly half of them backing the Assad government in Syria. This has also upset Iran, which has generously supported Palestinians for decades. Iran is finding that Hezbollah is not eager to sacrifice its reputation in the Arab world just to please its patron. So Iran is giving Hezbollah more money and anything else its leadership wants. The Sunni Arab nations in the region are warning Hezbollah that this support for Iran could have dire consequences down the road. For the moment the Hezbollah leadership is remaining loyal to its paymaster. But many rank-and-file Hezbollah are not so sure. Sunni Arab nations are exploiting that doubt, seeking Hezbollah leaders who might be amenable to new leadership for their organization and new sources of financial support.

Food has become a major weapon for both sides, as it becomes more difficult to get food and other supplies into Syria. While the UN has tried to get both sides to allow food and medical aid to move freely, both the Assads and the rebels see starvation and general deprivation as effective weapons against the other side’s civilian supporters (who are more than 50 times more numerous than the armed fighters). Neither side will admit to supporting this strategy, but both practice it. The war has killed nearly 100,000 so far, wounded more than three times as many, and chased a third of the population from their homes. Most of these refugees are still in Syria, doubled up with neighbors or family or living in bombed out areas the fighting has passed by.

The fighting is spreading to Lebanon and Iraq. There has been some government or rebel fire into Turkey and Israel, but all Syrians know that fighting the Turks or the Israelis is a losing proposition. So there is little extended Syrian related violence in those two countries. Lebanon is another matter, with Sunni radicals increasingly taking on Hezbollah and anyone else (usually Shia not associated with Hezbollah) who favors an Assad victory. There have been hundreds of casualties from this in Lebanon this year.

Some Iraq border crossings remain under Syrian government control. These crossings are manned by troops who are cut off in a largely Sunni Arab controlled eastern Syria. These border posts take fire from Sunni rebels on the Syrian side and Iraqi Sunni terrorists on the Iraqi side. The Shia dominated Iraqi government supports the Assads mainly because the Assads have been paid allies of Iran since the 1980s (when Sunni lead Iraq went to war with Iran). The Iraqi government helps supply the few remaining Syrian government forces in eastern Syria and also allows convoys of Iranian military aid to pass through Iraq and into Syria. The Iraqis have over 20,000 Shia and Kurd soldiers on the border to help make this work. The rebels thus accuse the Iraqi government of supporting an “Iranian invasion of Syria,” a catchphrase that enflames Sunnis throughout the region. At the same time, attacks on Shia shrines in Syria and Iraq has led to thousands of Iraqi Shia volunteering to fight for the Assad government of Syria. These Iraqi volunteers fly to Damascus, where they are allowed to join pro-government militias. Meanwhile, a growing number of Syrian Sunni refugees in Iraq (where over 125,000 ended up in the last year as Sunni rebels fought to take control of most of eastern Syria) are returning home. Eastern Syria was always mostly Sunni and that helped drive out Shia controlled government forces. But now there is the threat of invasion by Shia run Iraq. This is not a serious threat, since the other Arab states in the region might react violently.

The Syrian Air Force has suffered enormous losses in the last year, with over half its combat aircraft now destroyed or unable to fly. A year ago the air force was ordered to attack the rebel fighters and the civilians believed to be supporting them. The rebels shot back and the air force’s ancient aircraft fell apart from heavy use and a lack of spare parts. Of the 370 usable fixed wing war planes the Syrian Air Force had two years ago, about half are now out of action because of combat losses or wear and tear. Nearly two-thirds of the 360 helicopters are gone, for the same reasons. Part of the problem was that few Syrian air force leaders (and pilots) were prepared for this kind of war (low level bombing and lots of helicopter flights under fire). Desperate times demanded desperate measures, and in the last few months even the MiG-29 fighters have been seen dropping bombs. These are the most modern aircraft Syria has and their pilots were trained to fight Israeli jets, not bomb civilians. But a village or city neighborhood is hard to miss, even for a rookie. Helicopters have also been used to drop bombs, as well as cargo transport aircraft.

Russia is letting everyone know that it now has a permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean. The task force now includes two destroyers, a frigate, two amphibious, and several support ships.  From 1967 until 1992, Russia maintained a force of 30-50 warships and auxiliary vessels in the Mediterranean. Russia has been building a base in the Syrian port of Tartus but that has been suspended because of the civil war. Nevertheless, ships will be rotated in and out in order to maintain a permanent force of about a dozen ships. The Russian task force is meant to imply Russia would intervene if NATO or anyone else sought to blockade Syrian ports. That’s not a sure thing but the threat is.

Qatar has taken the lead in arranging for large quantities of weapons from Libya (and elsewhere) to be sent to the rebels via Turkey (mainly) and Jordan (increasingly). This is possible because late Libyan dictator Moamar Kaddafi loved to buy military equipment, and he did so constantly and in far larger quantities than Libya required or could even operate. Most of this stuff was never used. For decades there were thousands of armored vehicles and warplanes sitting around in remote bases with no one to maintain them. There were dozens of military bases with locked warehouses full of assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars, and portable missiles that were never issued or touched. Some of this stuff was shipped to other African countries, to arm local rebels that Kaddafi supported (usually against local leaders Kaddafi did not get along with), but most of it never left the warehouses. After the revolution two years ago many of these weapons were stolen and ended up on the black market. These are showing up all over the region as smugglers get them out of Libya and to buyers who can pay. Most of the Kaddafi weapons hoard was seized by the new Libyan government (or pro-government militias that did not hand them over to the black market) and many of these are being sold to Qatar and shipped to the Syrian rebels. The weapons shipments are technically illegal because of sanctions against Syria, but Turkey looks the other way as the arms are flown in or come by ship mixed in with relief supplies. Libyan arms dealers approved by the Libyan government are allowed to broker sales of weapons to approved buyers (mainly Qatar and other wealthy Arab oil states who back the Syrian rebels).

June 25, 2013: The Friends of Syria group met in Canada and agreed to increase economic sanctions against the Assad government and largely eliminate arms sanctions on the rebels. The Friends of Syria consists of 42 countries plus the Arab League and the European Union. The group supports Syria’s rebel alliance and provides direct support for the rebels.

June 23, 2013: In Damascus there were two attacks by suicide bombers. One group, that was going after a police headquarters, were intercepted and killed. Another car bomb went off in a Shia neighborhood of Damascus, killing three and wounding many more. In Aleppo a suicide care bomb killed twelve soldiers.

June 22, 2013: Arab states meeting in Qatar agreed to provide all necessary support needed by the Syrian rebels to overthrow the Assad government. Iran criticized this by pointing out that many of the rebels are allies of al Qaeda. But this is seen as hypocrisy by Arabs, as Iran has long backed its own brand of Islamic terrorism, often against Sunni Arabs.

June 21, 2013: The rebels announced that they had begun to receive new weapons, including Russian Konkurs anti-tank missiles but not any anti-aircraft missiles. The rebel leadership (FSA) has been told they will get anti-aircraft missiles, but none have arrived yet.

In Jordan a dozen American F-16s recently arrived for training exercises with their Jordanian counterparts. The U.S. announced that the American jet fighters would remain in Jordan after the training exercise. No date for the withdrawal of the F-16s, and their combat experienced pilots, was announced. What the FSA wants more than anything else is air support. It would require more than a dozen American F-16s to make that happen because, unlike Libya, Syria has a larger and better prepared air defense system, so any air support for the rebels would have to be preceded by several days of air operations against Syrian warplanes, radars, and anti-aircraft missile systems. Some of these would survive and until the end of the civil war foreign warplanes would have to be alert to the threat of missile attack. Thus, for the initial SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) phase you really need access to Turkish air bases. Saudi bases would probably be available and would do, although they are several hundred kilometers more distant and would require more aerial refueling. The Turks are distracted at the moment with large scale anti-government demonstrations (that have nothing to do with Syria).

June 20, 2013: The recent American announcement that it would became a major supplier of weapons to the Syrian rebels caused a collapse of the Syrian currency (the Syrian pound). Last December, when Iran announced it was giving Syria a billion dollar line of credit, it cost 150 Syrian pounds to buy a dollar (the main currency for international trade). Two years ago it only cost 70 pounds. But since the American announcement the rate peaked at 205 pounds. So the Syrians announced they would begin using the Iranian line of credit to buy Syrian pounds and get the rate down. That worked, for the moment, with the cost of a dollar heading towards a hundred pounds. The problem is that a growing number of Syrians, especially Assad supporters, are losing faith in the ability of the government to defeat the Sunni rebels or to maintain the viability of the Syrian currency. Many merchants will not touch the Syrian pound anymore and demand dollars or some other reliable currency.

June 19, 2013: Unidentified attackers fired on a Jordanian border post at night. One of the attackers was killed and two wounded by return fire. Jordan would not say who the attackers were or if they even knew.

In Lebanon the Syrian central bank sold dollars at the black market rate of 175 Syrian pounds per dollar. The official exchange rate in Syria is 99 pounds per dollar but the Syrian central bank is trying to reduce the black market rate by increasing demand for Syrian pounds. You do that by offering to buy a lot of them for dollars.

A mortar shell from Syria landed in Israel (the Golan Heights) and did no damage.

June 17, 2013: The U.S. pledged another $300 million in aid for Syrian refugees. This is in addition to half a billion dollars in aid pledged earlier. Nearly two millions Syrians have fled their homeland, most of them ending up in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

June 16, 2013: In Damascus a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a checkpoint near the military airport.

June 14, 2013: Egypt has decided to cut diplomatic relations with the Assad government in Syria and back the rebels. Egypt also called for a no-fly zone over Syria, meaning NATO aircraft taking on the Syrian Air Force, with some token help from Arab air forces. Egypt also condemned Hezbollah for actively joining with Assad troops to attack rebels.


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