The Russian supported Syrian government forces went on the offensive in October and for a week or so seemed to make some progress but then stalled. Russians in Syria noted that the rebels quickly responded to the Russian air power and become less aggressive and less mobile. In the last week the offensive resumed despite the rebels concentrating on defense. The Syrian Army and Russian UAV surveillance has made it very difficult for the rebels (including ISIL) to concentrate enough forces to stop a determined (with air support) attack or launch an attack themselves. Many of the casualties caused by Russian air strikes have come from attacking rebel forces gathering for an attack or to try and stop an attack. The government forces have air controllers with them and informants in many areas where they operate. This makes the Russian (and Syrian) air strikes a lot more effective than those carried out by the American led coalition. Plus the Russians and Syrians a much less restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) which tolerates civilian casualties, especially if the rebels (mainly ISIL) are trying to use human shields. This is especially useful around Aleppo, where there are still a lot of civilians. The rebels have been forced to retreat from a lot of territory around Aleppo in the last few weeks as the army moved to push rebels away from the key roads connecting Damascus with the Syrian coast and Turkey.
The Russian intervention appears to have stopped most rebel advances. Russian airstrikes now include ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces which had been attacking Syrian rebels who oppose ISIL (who believes it should command all rebels). The Russians are willing to leave ISIL alone as it attacks other rebels but when ISIL is holding terrain the government wants the Russians will go after ISIL fighters just like they would any other rebels. One thing everyone understands is that ISIL is the primary rebel threat to the Assad government and will be the main target of Russian air attacks once the other rebels are out of the way. The problem is that non-ISIL rebels are mainly operating against or near territory that is vital to the government (the land connecting Damascus and the Israel/Jordan borders with the Syrian coast and Turkey.) Controlling the Turkish border means regaining control of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria.
The initial Russian air strikes were against targets on the border of Latakia province (where the Syrian ports are) and inside adjacent Hama and Idlib provinces. There are still a lot of Russian airstrikes against Hama and Idlib because the rebels there are more numerous and better organized than around Aleppo (where there has been a lot of fighting between ISIL and other rebel groups). There is still some fighting on the eastern borders of Latakia but the threat of a rebel advance into Latakia is largely gone.
The Russian air strikes have killed nearly a thousand people so far, 70 percent of them rebels. The rest were civilians. Over a year of American and allied air strikes have killed about 3,700 and 94 percent of them have been rebels. The American have more restrictive ROE that seek to keep civilian deaths to a minimum. Thus ISIL (and some other Islamic terrorist groups) use a lot of human shields, often quite blatantly (like putting them in metal cages and posting pictures on the Internet). The Russians ignore human shields and that means the rebels are more cautious when Russian warplanes are about.
Russian officials tell the media that they believe ISIL has 80,000 fighters (including 7,000 from Russia and former parts of the Soviet Union), with 50,000 of them in Syria. This is more than twice other estimates and believed to be inflated to make Russians more supportive of the Syrian operation. Back in Russia local (in Moslem areas) news reports far fewer (perhaps 2,000) Russian Moslems going off to join ISIL. Russia now has about 4,000 troops in Syria.
Another advantage the Russian intervention brings to the Syrian government is more medical assistance. The Russians are bringing in more medical supplies and equipment as well as personnel. This is a big morale booster for government forces because all these offensive operations means more casualties. The knowledge that there is better medical care available makes government forces more willing to take chances. This has meant more local militias, even ones that are neutral or anti-government, are willing to work with government forces to keep ISIL out. There are a growing number of communities that initially sided with the rebels but at this point are willing to work with whoever can protect them. The government has always been willing to work with “neutral” civilians and make deals. The most useful neutrals are the non-Sunni Moslems (Shia, Christian, Druze and so on) that ISIL persecutes enthusiastically and that have long sided with the Assads who themselves come from the local Shia minority.
At the same time a growing number of rebels are becoming discouraged and desertions in all rebel factions are increasing. Some of the Islamic terrorist rebels groups (especially ISIL) forbid desertion and punish (often with death) those caught trying to leave. At the same time the Russian intervention has reduced desertion in the government forces and encouraged more deserters to return. The government was always rather lenient with deserters, except among officers, especially senior officers. That policy is now paying off. Russia, despite its own economic problems back home, has brought more cash to Syria and that means more pay for government forces and that is a another major incentive. The rebels, in contrast, have less cash and that hurts because even the rebels have expenses, including paying many of their fighters.
Russia has sent hundreds of special operations personnel to Syria and some of these guys have remained active on the Internet and posting pictures showing them in places like Hama, Aleppo and Homs. There is no official word from the Russian government about what their commandos are doing in these places. Iran has some special operations troops in Syria as well and they appear to serve mainly for collecting intelligence and attacking key rebel leaders (not always successfully). Iran is providing a lot of trainers, combat advisors and, judging from the number of dead Iranian officers (whose families back in Iran do not hide their grief or keep it out of the media) the Iranians are deeply involved in supervising these offensive operations. Russia would like Iran to be more secretive about Iranian generals getting killed in Syria. Ten have died there since 2013 and most of those deaths were recent. Syria is a much more dangerous place for Iranian military advisors as only one Iranian general has been killed in Iraq so far.
Russia is also learning the hard way how difficult it is to maintain modern warplanes in the sand and dust of the Middle East. Russia knew about this problem because for decades because it had sold military aircraft to countries (including Syria) in the region. But it turned out that there were a lot of (often minor) modifications Syrian maintainers made to their Russian aircraft to keep them operational in this environment. Russian maintainers are working overtime to adapt to all this. Despite that Russia is still getting several sorties a day out of many of the fifty or so warplanes it has in Syria. On some days there are over a hundred air strikes. The 50 or so Russian aircraft in Syria consist of Su-34 and Su-30 fighter-bombers, Su-24M bombers and Su-25 ground attack aircraft as well as about a dozen armed helicopters. There are also many transport helicopters. The Russians have also brought in UAVs and electronic monitoring equipment and have a lot better sense of where the best targets are. This has caused a lot of damage to the rebels who find their supply facilities and other support operations being bombed.
The United States has long been criticized for not having an effective (or any, at times) strategy for dealing with the mess in Syria. Recently the American Secretary of Defense described a new strategy that appears to an improvement but it is unclear if the new “Three Rs” strategy will really make a difference in efforts to deal with ISIL. The three Rs stand for Raids, Raqqa and Ramadi. The raids are using a few hundred more SOCOM troops (Special Forces, SEALs and specialized support) to carry out more raids into ISIL territory in Syria and Iraq. This includes hitting Raqqa, the eastern Syrian city which is a provincial capital and the only large city that ISIL controls in Syria. It is also possible to send columns of Kurds south, accompanied by Special Forces and lots of American air support, to threaten Raqqa. That has been tried before and it definitely gets the attention of the ISIL leadership. The U.S. has promised more weapons and ammo for Syrian rebels and this seems to be going mainly to Syrian Kurds. Ramadi is the Iraq equivalent of Raqqa being the capital of Anbar province in the largely desert western Iraq. There are no Kurds readily available to help take back Ramadi. In theory a dozen or so commando raids in the right places in a short space of time plus a vigorous move towards Raqqa could distract ISIL enough to enable the Iraqis to grab Ramadi.
The American led air coalition has carried out over 7,800 air strikes (64 percent in Iraq and the rest in Syria). The new Three R strategy includes more air strikes overall and a larger proportion of them against Syrian targets. Up until now the American ROE was obsessed with avoiding any civilian losses from air strikes and ISIL exploited this by regularly using human shields. The locals realize this is counterproductive because the longer ISIL remains operational the more death and misery they bring to the millions of civilians they control. The new U.S. strategy implies a loosening of the ROE to allow for more aggressive use of air strikes against ISIL targets.
The war in Syria has killed about 300,000 people since 2011. The fighting continues between about 200,000 government forces (soldiers, Hezbollah gunmen from Lebanon, local pro-government militias and Shia militias of foreign volunteers recruited by Iran). Facing the government forces are over 100,000 rebels. There is no precise count because there so many rebel factions and some of them are just local defense forces which become pro-rebel or pro-government as needed. There are probably at least half a million armed men (including a few women) in Syria but many have no interest in fighting. About ten percent of the rebels are foreigners, mostly with Islamic terrorist groups. The problem with the rebels is that they are split into over 500 separate groups. The largest single rebel group is ISIL, who comprise about 30,000 gunmen. There are about as many less-radical Islamic terrorist groups, most of them (like al Nusra) allied with al Qaeda and often fighting against ISIL and the government. About half the rebels are less radical but most are “Islamic” to one degree or another. About 20 percent of the rebels are not very religious and about half of these are Kurds (most are Sunni Moslems but not fanatic about it). Many of the rebels are defending a specific area. Hezbollah holds positions on the Lebanese border, striving to keep the war out of Lebanon. Many pro-government militias are static and defending their home areas, especially in western Syria. Some of the Sunni Arab tribes in eastern Syria are still fighting ISIL while others are neutral.
November 12, 2015: In the last three days government forces pushed rebels away from Kuweires airbase outside Aleppo and recaptured Marj al Sultan airbase outside Damascus. Kuweires airbase had been under siege for nearly three years and Marj al Sultan was captured in late 2012. Enough supplies got through to keep the Kuweires defenders going but the siege halted most regular operations there.
In neighboring Lebanon three ISIL suicide bombers attacked a Shia neighborhood in the capital and killed 37 and wounded over a hundred. One bomber was killed before he could set off his explosives. ISIL quickly took credit and Hezbollah, the Iran backed Islamic terrorist militia representing most Lebanese Shia, vowed revenge. This is the first such attacks in Shia areas in 18 months. It actually helps Hezbollah because it makes Lebanese more willing to support Hezbollah men fighting in Syria, especially if they are facing ISIL.
November 11, 2015: In the north (Kobane) Turkey shelled some Kurdish fighters near the border. The Kurds protested but the Turks responded that they had warned members of the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish separatists sometimes allied with the Turkish PKK) to stay away from certain border areas. The Syrians accuse the Turks of being more interested in hurting the Kurds than in stopping ISIL. This became more of an issue when the PKK broke a ceasefire with the Turks in July and reignited the three decade old war between Turkey and its Kurdish minority (mainly the PKK). Kurds see Turkey as tolerating Islamic terrorists inside Turkey if they only attack Kurds and foreigners (especially Syrian refugees). There is some truth to this as the Turkish government has, since 2000, been increasingly tolerant of Islamic conservatives and radicals. Meanwhile some Syrian Kurds (like the YPG) are accused of driving non-Kurds out of villages the Kurds capture from ISIL in what the YPG considers “Kurdish territory” in northeast Syria.
Israeli aircraft bombed a weapons storage site near the Damascus airport in Syria.
November 10, 2015: An Israeli official announced that Israel was now neutral when it came to removing the Assad clan from power in Syria. That is the goal of the Syrian rebels but Russia and Iran back the Assads. Many Israelis note that as the Syrian rebels were taken over by Islamic terrorist groups (especially ISIL) there were calls for a more aggressive hatred of Israel than the Assads practiced. At that point it became clear that, for Israel, Assad was not so bad after all. However Assad has long depended on Iran for support and Iran backs Islamic terrorist group Hezbollah in Iran which has long used violence against Israel. Russia has become a close ally of Iran and all these developments and connections are not good for Israel.
November 6, 2015: Russia acknowledged that an ISIL bomb was apparently responsible for the death of 224 Russians when a Russian airliner exploded over Egypt while flying Russian vacationers home on October 31st. In response Russia quickly increased the number of daily air strikes in Syria, exceeding 140 a day for three days. ISIL said it ordered the airliner attack as revenge for the Russian intervention in Syria.
November 3, 2015: Russian and American warplanes tested the safety protocols the two nations agreed to. An American fighter flew within eight kilometers of a Russian fighter over Syria and pilots in both aircraft were able to communicate in the agreed upon way.
November 2, 2015: In Syria Israeli aircraft apparently bombed a shipment of weapons headed to Lebanon for Hezbollah.
October 30, 2015: In Syria Israeli aircraft apparently bombed a shipment of SCUD ballistic missiles headed to Lebanon for Hezbollah.
For the first time Iran was invited to meet with American and EU (European Union) diplomats for ongoing discussions in Europe about how to deal with the mess in Syria. Also attending are officials from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Iran has long complained loudly and openly about being excluded from these talks and got an invite because of intense Russian pressure and by promising to make a useful contribution. Few of these negotiators expect a deal to be made. The Arab Sunnis want no part of Assad but the Iranians need to maintain Shia (as in Assad or a Shia replacement) rule in Syria. The racial and religious animosities between Arabs and Iranians is a major obstacle. This is made worse by the popular belief in the Moslem world that ISIL and al Qaeda are inventions of Israel and the West to damage Islam. The West (and a growing number of Moslems) see the main problem as the Arab refusal to take responsibility for their actions. ISIL comes out of the Sunni radicalism tolerated (and subsidized) in Saudi Arabia for decades. Iran, Syria and Russia all have a history of supporting and promoting terrorist groups. Getting past all these bad habits, many of them not the sort of thing the perpetrators are willing to even acknowledge publicly, makes negotiating a peace deal in Syria extremely difficult. Russia proposes internationally supervised elections in 18 months to elect a new Syrian government. That implies that the Russians are willing to abandon the Assads and that the rebels will be forced out of most of the territory they now hold by 2017.
October 29, 2015: For the first time Russian warplanes hit Syrian rebels near the Israeli border. Otherwise the Israelis have found their Syrian border pretty quiet for the last month or so.
Medical and anti-chemical weapons NGOs insist that the Syrian Army used mustard gas in a July 21 battle. That was not the only such incident. In August the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that tests on an ISIL shell used against targets in Syria in early August revealed the presence of mustard gas. The story going around was that this chemical weapon was part of some secret supply of mustard gas that the Assad government did not surrender and that ISIL captured. It is possible that someone stole some Syrian chemical weapons in 2013 and later sold it ISIL. Back then the UN was having a hard time getting some rebel factions to allow UN chemical weapons destruction teams to reach bases where some of these weapons were stored. Syria appeared to have had 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin) and 300 tons of mustard gas and had agreed to have them destroyed by the UN. Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The Syrian chemical weapons were stored at 20 bases including four manufacturing plants. The UN plan was to destroy the production plants and chemical warheads and bombs (that had not been filled with chemicals yet) by November 1st 2013 and this was largely achieved. The Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It was believed that the Assads would not hold onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it would likely be used against them. But in late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for. The Americans doubt that ISIL is having any success in manufacturing chemical weapons. It was already known that ISIL was creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals (like chlorine or grain fumigant). Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on. These are the symptoms reported by Kurdish fighters hit with these ISIL chemical shells although in some cases the symptoms were consistent with mustard. Mustard is different as it does more damage (especially to the lungs) and has no other use but as a weapon.
October 28, 2015: Russia denied that it is illegally flying Iranian weapons and ammo to Syria using Russian transports. This would be in violation of international sanctions against Iran. The flights apparently are taking place and Iraqi officials are looking the other way.