Heavy fighting continues in Deir Ezzor province, especially the provincial capital (Deir Ezzor city). ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) controls most of the province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor province to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015. Since early October, largely because of Russian air support, government forces have advanced in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo as well as in the south near the Israeli border. As always, the government forces are willing to negotiate terms with rebels to gain control of a city or town in order to minimize damage to the place and avoid casualties. Government forces have also cleared most rebel forces out of Latakia province. This is where the Syrian ports are and a major objective of a rebel advance halted largely because of the Russian intervention.
ISIL will not negotiate and has attempted to halt and reverse the government advance in Deir Ezzor province. The city of Deir Ezzor has been the scene of heavy combat since mid-December. ISIL is also counterattacking Assad forces around Aleppo. These ISIL attacks have not been very successful because the defenders have air support and artillery. ISIL fighters are not experienced enough to avoid this firepower while attacking and suffer heavy casualties. This is what happened when ISIL suffered a costly defeat in trying to take Kobane from the Kurds in 2014. Since then it has refrained from attacking anyone supported by air power and artillery. The Kobane disaster cost ISIL so many casualties that the desertion rate among it fighter sharply increased and potential recruits were discouraged from coming to Syria and joining. But now ISIL cannot avoid Kobane repeats because they must advance (or seem to) otherwise they lose their reputation for invincibility. That reputation is already tarnished because of Kobane and a growing number of setbacks and losses. The Iraqi city of Ramadi was lost in late December and Mosul is next. The Syrian city of Raqqa, the ISIL capital, is also a target for liberation. Syrian Kurds and their Arab allies are still operating within fifty kilometers of the city and defeating all ISIL attempts to force them out of the area. Many civilians in Raqqa also oppose ISIL and in response ISIL is killing a lot more uncooperative civilians in and around Raqqa. ISIL is using the same terror tactics elsewhere, like Deir Ezzor, where they recently publicized the gruesome deaths of several hundred civilians who opposed them. ISIL will also kidnap even more civilians and hold them to ensure good behavior (no anti-ISIL activities) by kin and friends of the hostages. ISIL is also increasing its use of suicide bomber attacks against civilians hostile to ISIL.
Turkey has become an active participant in the fight against ISIL in Syria. What completed this gradual process was a January ISIL suicide bombing in Istanbul that killed ten German tourists. This attack angered Turkey on several levels, including the fact that the bomber had entered Turkey as a Syrian refugee and the attack killed foreign tourists. This is seen as an economic attack as tourism represents ten percent of Turk GDP and some eight percent of the jobs. In response Turkey ordered its military to use artillery and air strikes to attack ISIL forces operating along the border and plan for additional operations deeper into Syria. Attacks so far have killed several hundred ISIL men and forced ISIL to pull some forces away from the border. This has hurt ISIL efforts to regain lost territory around Aleppo. Inside Turkey popular anger against ISIL (by Turks and Syrian refugees) has led to more tips about actual or suspected ISIL activity. This has led to arrests and panic among ISIL operatives and supporters inside Turkey who are now more threatened than ever before. This taken some pressure off the Kurds.
Turkey has been attacking Kurdish separatists (PKK) in Turkey, Syria and Iraq since July 2015 because of the growing PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Turks also ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Kurdish government there agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK based in remote areas. The Turks cannot force the issue as it is pretty obvious that the Iraqi Kurds have all they can handle with ISIL. In response there has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. This comes after Turkey decided, on July 24th 2015 to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This included allowing American fighters to launch strikes from a Turkish airbase. After the January 12 2016 ISIL attack Turkish air strikes in Syria became more numerous. The U.S. is now trying to persuade the Turks, a NATO member, to coordinate their Syrian operations with other NATO members (mainly the U.S.) operating there.
All this increased Turkish involvement has been further complicated by the growing Turkish hostility with Russia, which has been made worse lately with revelations that Russia has been giving weapons to Kurds fighting ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Many Turks see all Kurds as enemies despite the fact that most are just interested in defending themselves from ISIL and other Islamic terrorists, Assad forces and even Iran. The Russians are willing to aid anyone who will help them in their fight against ISIL and that includes other Islamic terrorist groups as well as other rebel factions like the Kurds. The Turks appreciate that approach in practice but won’t admit it. Meanwhile the Assads are not happy with Russian aid to the Kurds because the Syrian Kurds declared in late 2013 that their traditional territory in the northeast was now an autonomous Kurdish province, similar to what the Iraqi Kurds next door have had in northern Iraq since the early 1990s. Turkey accuses Syrian and Iraqi Kurds of planning to use these two adjacent autonomous areas as the basis for an independent Kurdish state (that would also claim southeast Turkey and parts of northwest Iran.) Russia is also supplying arms and other aid to Hezbollah forces fighting ISIL in Syria. Russia also provides air support for these Hezbollah fighters and that is making Russia more popular among the Lebanese Shia.
Because of the mess in Syria Turkey is now an enemy of Iran and allied with Israel. This is not good for Iran but an excellent development for Israel and most Turks. The war in Syria, in particular the recent Russian intervention was very unpopular in Turkey. This was good for Israel because Turkey, long a foe of Russia was not happy with Russian troops fighting right on the Turkish border, Thus by the end of 2015 the Turks were discussing the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel. Since 2002 the Islamic government of Turkey has been battling Turkish secularists and trying to improve relations with other Islamic countries (including ancient rival Iran). This 2002 policy meant adopting an anti-Israel attitude after decades of close relations with the Jewish state.
Russia’s efforts to help its old allies the Assads of Syria and its more recent ally Iran have cost Russia many other long-time friends in the Middle East. Despite efforts to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab Gulf oil states, Russia is seen as siding with Iran in the growing Sunni-Shia feud championed by Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Apparently Russia believes it can mend its ties to Sunni Arabs once ISIL is destroyed. After all when Russia sent warplanes, ground troops and lots more military aid in late 2015 to save the Syrian government Russia claimed this was an effort to destroy ISIL (al not just save the Syrian government.
To make matters worse Russia and Iran have had disagreements over how to conduct the campaign in Syria. Iran was not happy with the Russia attitude, which implied that Russia should be in charge even through Iran had been fighting in Syria since 2013. By the end of December Iran had moved a lot of its personnel to Iraq, where Iran was assisting the Iraqi government in driving ISIL out of western Iraq (Anbar province and Mosul). Russia and Iran still need each other but over the two centuries they have been neighbors relations have usually been cordial but tense. Sort of like two predators who don’t quite trust each other even when they have a common cause.
The tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran have crippled UN efforts to get Syria peace talks going. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis.
January 16, 2016: Russian cargo aircraft have been seen dropping supplies (by parachute) to civilians and Assad forces cut off in parts of Deir Ezzor city. Resupply by road has become difficult because of the recent ISIL offensive to take the city. Russia later revealed that 22 tons of supplies had been drooped in so far and more is on the way.
January 14, 2016: Russia released the text of the agreement it signed with Syria in August 2015 to authorize Russian intervention in Syria. One interesting aspect of this treaty was the fact that the Russians can stay as long as they wish. This is apparently irritating to Iran which is believed to want a post-civil war Syria that is under more direct Iranian control and a semi-permanent Russian military occupation would interfere with that. Short term the Assads want to survive but long term they and most other Syrians are not keen on becoming, unofficially, another province of Iran. If a permanent Russian military presence will prevent that then it is OK.
January 4, 2016: On the Lebanese border, near the disputed Shebaa Farms (occupied by Israel but claimed by both Lebanon and Syria) Hezbollah used a roadside bomb to attack an Israeli convoy. Some vehicles were damaged but there were no casualties. Israeli artillery retaliated by hitting several Hezbollah facilities in the area. Hezbollah declared the attack more damaging than it actually was and said it was another act of revenge for Israel killing Hezbollah commander Samir Kuntar on December 19th. On December 20th Hezbollah fired four rockets into northern Israel from Lebanon but did no damage. Russia is demanding that Hezbollah cease the attacks on Israel. Iran is apparently saying the same thing, but not in public. Iran wants revenge as well because Kuntar was also working directly for them. Russia and Iran understand, where Hezbollah does not, that starting another war with Israel right now, while Hezbollah, Iran and Russia are fighting in Syria would be counterproductive. Hezbollah leaders told Russia and Iran that they had to respond because Hezbollah had suffered so many losses in Syria since 2013 that morale within Hezbollah was low. Attacks on Israel, even if they fail to do any damage (which is normal) are always popular inside Hezbollah. Even Hezbollah leaders agree that they don’t want to trigger another war with Israel like the 2006 conflict. That one got going not because of bomb and rocket attacks but because Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others.
January 2, 2016: Russia revealed that during the last three months of 2015 it had flown (using about 100 warplanes and attack helicopters) over 4,300 sorties against Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria. Russia believes its air strikes are much more effective than those flown by Western and Arab air forces because Russia has better intelligence. In addition to intel from over 200,000 Syrian soldiers and pro-government militiamen, Russia also obtained target information from 150 rebel groups (over 5,000 rebels) willing to cooperate against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).
Russian air strikes have killed over 2,500 people so far, about a third of the victims have been civilians. This is condemned as a war crime by many but is also a less publicized (especially by the Russians) reason why the Russian air strikes have been so much more effective than the larger number of American ones. Russia does not abort a strike because there is too much risk of civilian casualties. This makes ISIL more vulnerable to air attack than when just the Americans were handling it. The U.S. believes that only a few percent of the people its air strikes kill are civilians. The ROE (Rules of Engagement) Russia uses against ground targets ignores the use of human shields or the presence of a lot of civilians for whatever reason.
January 1, 2016: The 2015 death toll in Syria was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s still over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000 in 2014) for the Syria and Iraq, the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Thus the December death toll in Syria was less than four percent of the 2015 total. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria are just playing defense and even ISIL has been less active in attacking compared to 2014. In neighboring Iraq the death toll for all of 2015 was about 13,400, compared to 15,600 in 2014, when ISIL made some spectacular gains. That’s still a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists (many of them future ISIL members). While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly in Iraq than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died and Syria was at peace. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder in Iraq was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria. There the Assad government, now aided by Russia, has done most of the killing, especially of civilians (who accounted for about a quarter of war deaths in 2015). The Assad forces have always concentrated on pro-rebel civilians, in order to demoralize the rebels and deny them support. These attacks also caused millions of pro-rebel civilians to flee the country, which is what the Assads want. Meanwhile the U.S. military revealed that it estimates coalition air attacks in Iraq and Syria killed at least 2,500 ISIL members in December. Since November the U.S. has relaxed its strict ROE (Rules of Engagement) to allow for air strikes even if there is some risk of civilian casualties. As a result many valuable ISIL targets can now be attacked, which has caused ISIL heavy personnel, leadership and financial losses. More ISIL members are deserting and providing valuable information on losses and other problems ISIL is having as a result of the increased bombing by Russia and the American led coalition. For example, ISIL men are not only being paid late but a growing number are having their pay cut. All this is the result of Russian aircraft entering Syria in October and using a less strict and much more effective ROE against ISIL targets, one that ignores the use of human shields. Since the middle of November Russian aircraft have been hitting over a hundred targets a day and concentrating on ISIL finances. That means hitting the oil production and smuggling (oil into Turkey) operation. The American led coalition had also been attacking these economic targets but under the much more restrictive ROE and despite a year of effort had not hurt the oil income substantially. That has changed with the new coalition ROE.
December 30, 2015: Iraq declared Ramadi (the capital of Anbar) liberated as the flag was raised over government buildings recently cleared of ISIL fighters. There still hundreds of ISIL fighters in the city and even more on the outskirts but Iraqi leaders thought it best to declare victory in Ramadi now, before 2016 began. The U.S. added that it had confirmed that, since late November, targeted (going after a specific individual) air attacks had killed at least ten senior ISIL leaders in Iraq and Syria. This included some who were involved with planning the November 13 attacks in Paris.
December 25, 2015: Outside Damascus a Russian air strike killed the leader of most of the rebel forces in the Damascus suburbs. The dead leader, Zahran Alloush, was meeting with subordinate leaders most of whom were killed or badly wounded. The Russians apparently used a smart bomb for this attack, which was made possible by information provided by government and rebel sources as Russian electronic monitoring efforts. The Russian air and intelligence support has enabled the government to push many rebels out of areas near Damascus.
December 24, 2015: A senior Russian official (the one in charge of Syrian operations) quietly (and unofficially) visited Israel to meet with senior Israelis to further develop procedures to ensure that there are no accidental clashes between Russian and Israeli forces in Syria. The Russians appreciate the fact that the Israelis, unlike the Turks, could probably quickly locate and destroy all Russian anti-aircraft systems and warplanes in Syria if Israeli troops, ships or aircraft were accidentally attacked by Russian forces.
December 21, 2015:
Israeli intelligence believes that over 30 percent of Hezbollah’s 20,000 trained fighters have been killed or wounded in Syria so far. Hezbollah is there at the request of Iran, which helped create Hezbollah (to protect the Shia minority in Lebanon) in the 1980s and continued sustaining the group with cash, weapons, technical assistance and intense hatred of Israel. The heavy losses in Syria were unpopular with Lebanese Shia and Hezbollah pulled most of its forces back to the Lebanon border and concentrated on keeping Islamic terrorists out of Lebanon. Iran took a huge popularity hit in Lebanon by forcing Hezbollah to enter the Syrian war in defense of the Assad government, which is hated by most Lebanese as well as most Syrians.