July 14, 2013: Promised American military aid has not yet arrived, a month after a major increase in such aid was announced, because Congress has refused to approve the program (as required by law). Politicians from both major parties have united to oppose the government on this and the president has not yet been able to convince Congress that the government has a workable plan to get weapons to the Syrian rebels without also arming Islamic terror groups. There have already been documented incidents where rebel Islamic radical groups and even pro-Assad militias have been seen using American weapons previously sent to the rebels. Congress believes that is more than just the normal fortunes of war (rebels losing American weapons in battle or selling them for any number of reasons). Opinion polls in the U.S. indicate that about 60 percent of Americans oppose arming the Syrian rebels. Since September 11, 2001, Americans have become very familiar with Arab politics and want to avoid it. The Turks, who controlled most Arab states for nearly 500 years (until 1918) has a similar attitude. Many Syrians are coming to agree with the Americans and Turks and that the Islamic radical factions among the Syria rebels are more trouble than they are worth. For over a year now Syrians have been hearing of (or experiencing) Islamic radicals enforcing (often with the death penalty) Islamic lifestyle rules (how to dress, behave, and so on). This sort of thing is very unpopular with most Syrians and is causing growing friction with Islamic radicals (most of whom are foreigners). Many rebels leaders (especially from the umbrella groups like the FSA/Free Syrian Army and the SNC/Syrian National Council) understand why these Western and Turk attitudes exist and have tried to emphasize how well they understand the problem and will do whatever they can to control the distribution of weapons. But the FSA also pleads for understanding of the realities of the situation. Most of the rebels are not professional soldiers and are difficult to control. Weapons are lost in combat or just lost (and, yes, sometimes sold and often because the rebel has a family that is starving or in need of medicine). Western military professionals understand this sort of thing but Western politicians look over their shoulders at the headlines and opinion polls.
Meanwhile, the rebels are getting weapons, often with the help of the CIA, which helps arrange sellers for wealthy Arab Gulf states willing to pay for this stuff. The CIA also helps to arrange transport from where the supplier is (often Eastern Europe) to the Syrian border. There Turk or Jordanian border guards look the other way as the weapons and equipment enter Syria. The rebels still want air support and more NATO special operations troops (to help with planning operations and training rebel volunteers). There is little enthusiasm for that in the West and the Arab supporters of the rebels do not feel they are capable of providing air support.
Israel is also coping with the Islamic radical threat. Unlike the Syrian rebels, who are only now discovering the danger they face from both Sunni (nominally pro-rebel) Islamic radicals and Shia (pro-Assad) ones, Israel has always had to deal with both flavors. So Israel is sending more troops to the Lebanese and Syrian borders. Hezbollah has recently made some public threats to attack Israel and the Israelis want to remind all Lebanese that an attack by Hezbollah will be seen as an attack by Lebanon and the response will be devastating to Lebanon. In the past most Lebanese were willing to forget their dislike of Hezbollah and get behind the Iran backed Islamic radicals to confront Israel. No more. Many Lebanese are already fighting Hezbollah inside Lebanon and some have gone to Syria to serve with the rebels. Israel has responded quickly and forcefully to any violence from across the Syrian border and has announced that the retaliation will rapidly and substantially increase if there is any systematic string of attacks from Syria. Israel would prefer to avoid a war but wants to make it clear they are ready to fight and win if there is one.
Iran is playing a major role in keeping the Assad forces going. This is done in two ways. The more obvious one is the Shia foreign legion Iran has organized in Syria. Iran is spending over $5 million a month to recruit, pay, and supply over 4,000 Lebanese, Iraqi, and Iranian armed volunteers. Most of the gunmen are from Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Iraq (pro-Iran Shia militiamen that have long been on the Iranian payroll). There are also some Shia from outside the region, but these are only a few hundred and have little military training. The Hezbollah and Iraqi gunmen usually have training and often a bit of combat experience. This force is playing a major role in keeping Assad in power. Some fairly senior Shia clerics have gone to Syria as well, partly to keep an eye on things, partly to help improve morale. There are some Shia shrines in Syria and at least a few of the Sunni radicals fighting Assad have said they will destroy these shrines if they get the chance. Iran is spending even more dollars each month to make it possible for the broke (after two years of civil war) Assad government to feed and supply the 20 percent of the population that still supports them. Take away the Iranian money train and support for Assad will take a sharp, and terminal, drop. This expensive support for Syria, while economic conditions deteriorate in Iran, is not popular with most Iranians. Despite this the Iranian leadership is encouraged at how this support has enabled the Assads to hang on for two years.
It has not been easy and the Syrian economy has been wrecked with annual GDP down nearly 40 percent (so far) and a third of the workforce unemployed. Without lots of foreign aid, both the pro-government and rebel populations would be starving. The Syrian currency, the pound, is kept afloat by Iranian cash. This is the second major form of support from Iran. In Lebanon the Syrian central bank sells dollars (from Iran) to buy Syrian pounds in an effort to maintain the value of the Syrian pound. Before the rebellion the Syrian pound was pretty stable with 45-50 buying a dollar. Now the official exchange rate in Syria is twice that dollar, but the Syrian central bank is trying to reduce the black market rate (250-350 per dollar) by increasing demand for Syrian pounds. You do that by offering to buy a lot of them for dollars. This is only possible because of the steady flow of Iranian dollars. If that stops the Syrian pound losses most of its value and essentially becomes worthless. That would wipe out what little cash most Syrians have and cause even more privation and misery.
Iran flies in (via Iraq) the cash, as well as weapons, other military equipment, and essential supplies. Iraq has been pressured for months (by the U.S. and its Arab neighbors) to inspect all these flights for forbidden goods (weapons) but has refused, explaining that it does not have air defenses that can deal with Iranian threats of violence and is making the best of a bad situation by just letting the Iranian flights pass through on their way to Syria. None of Iraq’s neighbors has offered to provide jet fighters and anti-aircraft missiles to deal with the Iranians, since that would mean war with Iran. To most people in the region, this is typical Iranian tactics: bully everyone into letting mighty Iran have its way.
There are over a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, only about half of them officially registered as refugees. Close to 20 percent of the population has fled the country and nearly half have experienced some of the fighting. Many of these have fled their homes and later returned to what was left.
July 11, 2013: In the northwest a dispute between rebels under the command of the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and a faction controlled by the Iraqi al Qaeda turned very ugly when one of the al Qaeda gunmen killed an FSA leader sent to deal with the problem. The FSA is demanding that the Islamic terrorists turn over the killer but that is not happening. Al Qaeda has become a major problem for both the rebels and the Assads. That’s because al Qaeda factions are feuding with each other, as well as the FSA, and meanwhile are the major source of terror attacks on Assad followers and suppliers of the most fanatical rebel fighters. The latest headache is the feud. A month ago the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) as unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI leaders and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. But ISIL was apparently just an attempt by ISI (which is having a real hard time in Iraq) to grab some glory, recruits, cash, and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. That’s not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. One of the major weaknesses of Islamic terror groups is that they often get into vicious and destructive feuds with each other. This nearly destroyed al Qaeda in Iraq and played a major role in the recnet defeat of al Qaeda in Mali.
July 10, 2013: The newly elected head of the SNC (Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group for most rebels) Ahmad Al Jarba is trying to arrange a truce around the central Syrian city of Homs. The army has been fighting there for over a year and in the last two weeks, reinforced by the “foreign legion” (of Iran sponsored volunteers from Lebanon and Iraq), government forces have destroyed nearly 70 percent of the city and driven the rebels back. The city has been surrounded for over a year but the army cordon was not impenetrable. Every night, and even occasionally during the day, supplies were smuggled into the city and people (often wounded) were gotten out. The army sometimes detected these efforts and attacked the smugglers. In early 2012 the 4th Armored Division showed up around Homs. This was one of the few divisions the government could depend on, and its appearance in the area indicated that the Assads were not going to give up on Homs. The 4th division is commanded by Maher Assad, the brother of president Basher Assad, and it was unable to take the city. Eventually some of the 4th division troops were called away to deal with more pressing situations. But now, bolstered by the foreign legion, the Assads are applying an old family (and ancient Roman) solution, “create a desert and call it peace.” The Assads refuse to any kind of truce, mainly because the Assads believe they are winning.
July 9, 2013: In Lebanon a car bomb went off in a pro-Hezbollah neighborhood of Beirut, leaving dozens dead. This is part of the Syrian retaliation for Hezbollah participation in the Iran-backed foreign legion that is turning the tide against the rebels in Syria.
July 8, 2013: The ruling Baath Party of Syria suddenly replaced its senior leadership. This is the first such change since 2005, and appears to install a younger generation of pro-Assad leaders in an attempt to make it easier for a possible peace deal to be worked out. The head of the SNA also resigned, after trying unsuccessfully to organize a new rebel government. The factions could not agree on who would get what.
July 7, 2013: There’s been more fighting in the north between largely foreign al Qaeda gunmen and Syrian rebels. Both groups are supposed to be on the same side but the foreigners consider themselves on a mission from God and are contemptuous of the Syrian rebels who don’t agree with them.
July 5, 2013: There was a large explosion at the Syrian naval base at Latakia. Syrian rebels said this was probably an Israeli missile attack on the warehouse holding new anti-ship missiles recently received from Russia. These high-speed P-800/Yakhont missiles have a range of about 300 kilometers and a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. Apparently an Israeli submarine carried out the attack using cruise missiles launched from its torpedo tubes.