Syria: Strange Alliances Suddenly Shifting


July 19, 2016: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) continues to defend its heartland in eastern Syria by stubbornly holding onto areas in the northwest near the Turkish border and the town of Manbij. The Syrian Kurds are the main force in this operation and it has run into problems. This is crucial for two reasons, one being that the Kurds are the essential northern force advancing on the ISIL capital Raqqa in the east and can’t handle that and Manbij at the same time. Then there is Manbij, which is 60 kilometers southwest of the Kurdish border town of Kobane. That was where ISIL suffered a costly defeat in trying to take the place in 2014. The Turkish border areas is important to ISIL because it gives them access to smuggling routes that bring in people and supplies and allow people and revenue producing goods out. Since 2014 there has been increasing efforts to block ISIL from access to Turkey and the Manbij sector is one of the few key border areas ISIL still has access to. The Manbij operation is beling carried out by a combined force of local Arab rebels and Kurds from adjacent areas (closer to Kobane). The Kurds also have U.S. Special Forces troops with them to advise and provide air support. The offensive began in late May and it was believed it would take about a month. But in late June ISIL managed to gather enough forces to halt the advance. This sets up ISIL for the kind of pounding they got when they tried to take Kobane from the Kurds. The air support made the difference at Kobane and ISIL lost thousands of fighters and had to retreat. ISIL thinks they now have tactics that can minimize the impact of air attacks but that was enough. It’s easier to kill ISIL gunmen when they are massed for an attack and the defender has air support but ISIL is using local civilians for cover. Taking Manbij is turning out to be more time consuming that expected. The presence of so many civilians in Manbij has helped ISIL because the U.S. led air support operations is under heavy political and media pressure to avoid civilian casualties. That is difficult because ISIL know how that works and realize a degree of immunity from air strikes can be obtained if you move, especially when on the road in vehicles, looking like civilians (no weapons showing, no uniforms worn, have a few women and children visible). Then make sure aid workers are allowed access to any incidence of civilians being killed by an air strike. The government forces has cut off nearly all the roads into Aleppo and are apparently planning to starve the city into submission. The ISIL resistance at Manbij is interfering with that.

The U.S. led air coalition over Iraq and Syria has been averaging about a hundred attacks (using either a guided missile or smart bomb) a day in June and July. About a third of that is in Syria, where Russian and Syrian government warplanes average several dozen attacks a day. These include helicopter strikes that often include heavy machine-gun fire and unguided rockets. There are also attacks with improvised “barrel bombs” dropped from transports or helicopters. The U.S. and Russia disagree on some strikes, especially when non-ISIL rebels are involved. The Americans consider non-ISIL rebels to be “friendlies” whereas the Russians consider nearly all rebels (the main exception being Kurds) as “hostile” and legitimate targets.

Once ISIL has been driven from the Turkish border area around Manbij most of the Kurdish-Arab forces will be shifted to the Raqqa operation. Since early 2015 ISIL has lost over half of the Iraqi and Syrian territory it seized in 2014. ISIL income for Syria and Iraq has been cut nearly 60 percent as well. In 2016 personnel losses have been heavy as well meaning there is little hope moving reinforcements into Syria or Iraq. ISIL is under the most pressure in Iraq but Syria is no longer a safer place for ISIL men to flee to. The growing number of ISIL deserters provide more details about what is happening in ISIL controlled territory. The increasingly effective air strikes are indeed happening because of more local informants as well as relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement that now ignore the use of human shields). The aerial bombings have more frequently hit ISIL leaders and caused a lot more ISIL casualties in general. ISIL leaders are, at least according to deserters, often visibly uneasy and some have been publically executed for various failings. Lower ranking ISIL men are worse off, in part because of reduced pay (or no pay at all) and even essential supplies like food and ammo are not always available. The more frequent use of public executions is driving more ISIL fighters and support personnel away even as it becomes more difficult and dangerous to leave.

ISIL Is Melting

Since June there have been reports (from refugees, prisoners and captured documents) that senior ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has given his senior subordinates detailed orders to abandon certain areas in Iraq because the locals had become too hostile to ISIL and to move heavy artillery and some other major weapons from Mosul to the Syrian border. Then there are orders to prepare for the possibility that ISIL headquarters may have to move to Libya or go mobile. By mid-July ISIL had suffered some major defeats in Libya and its main base there (the coastal city of Sirte) is largely lost. In Syria rebels and government forces are closing in on the current ISIL capital Raqqa, in western Syria. ISIL leaders are giving more media attention to claims that lone wolf terror attacks in the West are part of the new ISIL plan to remain relevant without an actual “Islamic State” that currently exists in eastern Syria (centered on Raqqa) and western Iraq (now centered on Mosul). Both of these cities are likely to be liberated from ISIL control by the end of the year.

Since mid-2014 most ISIL controlled territory has been in eastern Syria and western Iraq (Anbar province). Both these areas have a largely Sunni Arab population but are also mostly desert or semi-desert. Most of the population is concentrated in or near towns and cities along the few rivers. Aside from Mosul in northwest Iraq, ISIL has not been able to take and hold large cities. Mosul is expected to fall before the end of 2016. Maps depicting just population controlled by ISIL show this control extending along rivers and main roads in the midst of large, thinly populated, areas that are either controlled by no one or held by people unfriendly to ISIL. Most people in ISIL occupied towns and cities are hostile to their rulers and want to flee but ISIL has made that increasingly difficult because the urban areas they controlled were becoming depopulated. The anti-ISIL alliance is working, in that ISIL is losing territory (nearly half of what it had in Iraq and over 20 percent in Syria). Other losses are harder to measure. Intelligence (collected from electronic monitoring, aerial surveillance and deserter and prisoner interrogation) indicate that ISIL has lost more than half its revenue sources (mostly in 2016) and personnel losses are so heavy (nearly 30,000 dead and deserted since mid-2014) that they have not got enough fighters to defend and hold all areas where they are under attack. Currently ISIL has about 20,000 armed members, most in Syria and Iraq. That’s down from peak strength (in late 2014) of over 30,000.

With the recent loss of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq ISIL is now desperately trying to retain control over some of the roads crossing the border. Without control of those roads ISIL cannot quickly move anything between Iraq and Syria. Mosul is basically cut off from the outside world and Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria and the ISIL “capital” is also being surrounded. Losing control of so many roads means it is easier to concentrate a very large force against ISIL defenders in a town or military base and quickly defeat the defenders no matter how fanatic they are.

The Russian Alliance

While there are common goals in Syria and Russia is willing to work with the Americans Iran has made it very clear that it cannot cooperate with the Americans to the extent that Russia has. After all, the Iranian religious dictatorship justifies its power because of its vow to destroy America and Israel. Iran has its own plans, which it apparently does not share with Russia or anyone else. Meanwhile Russia is eager to make whatever deals it can to end the war in Syria, declare victory and get out. The stalemate in Ukraine and the resulting sanctions have proved more damaging to the Russian economy and leaders than the government will admit. A clear victory in Syria would pave the way for an acceptable end to the Ukrainian mess. Many American military leaders and intelligence officials are warning the U.S. government that closely cooperating with the Russians will not end well for the United States and the West because the Russian goal is keeping the Assad government in power. That is not and never will be popular in the United States, not as long as Iran’s official policy is “death to America and Israel.” But American leaders are attracted to the idea that cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria would do more to destroy ISIL than any other strategy.

Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the 2015 death toll was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000in 2014) for 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. 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.

Turkey Goes To War With Turkey

Turkey quickly defeated a July 15th military coup attempt. What was more damaging was the government response to the coup. While nearly 300 died in the coup related violence, the government reaction has been described as a massive purge of government officials seen as opposing increasing Islamic control of the government and how things work in Turkey. So far over 9,000 suspected “coup supporters” have been arrested and many of them are secularist (non-religious) government officials. More arrests and firings are expected. This is a scary development for Syrian rebels. Since 2014 Syrian rebel hopes that Turkey would intervene have faded as the Islamic political leadership in Turkey coped with an internal rebellion of sorts. Since 2012 Turkish citizens have been increasingly vocal in protesting against their government. The main target was prime minister Erdogan. Protestors nation-wide were angry with what they perceived as increasingly authoritarian behavior by Erdogan. The common complaint was Erdogan’s self-righteousness, arrogance and increasingly autocratic behavior. The arrogance can be attributed to Erdogan’s personal and very public disrespect for his political opponents. Many Turks believe that Erdogan’s personal animosity extends to any Turk who disagrees with any of his policies and decisions. Such profound and ingrained disrespect has led to disregard for the law and the use of state power to silence his critics. Erdogan threatens reporters with lawsuits and criminal charges and often follows through. He threatens opposition media and uses his authority to shut down offending media outlets. Erdogans’ political party identifies and punishes public workers who oppose the Islamic Erdogan government. Public employees are vulnerable to this type of party-line intimidation and Erdogan loves to intimidate. By 2014 Erdogan had won three national elections in the 12 years but charges of corruption were hurting him in the polls and the next election was different but not different enough and it was feared that Erdogan would do something really bad if he thought he was going to lose at the polls. The most damaging revelations against him in 2014 were the appearance of audio recordings of Erdogan and key aides discussing corrupt practices. Erdogan called these fakes created by his enemies. But in typical overreaction he has tried to use his power to block the audio files from being distributed in Turkey via the Internet. In particular he has tried to block the use of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in Turkey. This was a very unpopular move that has backfired. Erdogan is no Assad and Turkish democracy still works. Thus Erdogan’s bad habits not only made him more concerned about his hold on power but also interfered with concentrating on the mess in Syria. That meant the traditional regional superpower, the nation most able to settle the mess in Syria, has been sidetracked by messy domestic politics. That apparently will continue and possibly get worse especially since Iran is a big fan of Erdogan and quickly let Erdogan know that Iran opposed the coup. In particular Erdogan, the Assads, Iran and the Iraqi government all agree that an independent Kurdish state is a bad thing and must be prevented at all costs.

Before the coup attempt the civil war in Syria and the growth of ISIL has led Turkey to repair relations with Israel, something which antagonizes ISIL a great deal. To make that even more annoying Egypt and the Gulf Arabs have also improved their relations with Israel as a result of the Islamic terror threat. Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf Arabs all had developed links with Islamic terror groups over the years but by 2015 realized that Israel was a better ally and certainly less dangerous than Islamic radicals.

Even before Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador in 2011 relations between the two countries had been going downhill since 2007, when the AKP (Islamic Justice and Development Party) won reelection and party leader (and Turkish president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to turn on Israel in order to increase influence in Arab countries. It soon became clear that this was not working out so well but the AKP leaders were not willing to back down. By 2011 Turkey had cut most of its extensive diplomatic, economic and military ties with Israel. It took four more years of Islamic terrorist violence inside Turley and isolation from Israeli economic and military cooperation, to change enough minds in the AKP (which is still Islamic).

After the Arab Spring uprisings in Syria turned violent in 2011 Turkey tolerated Islamic terrorists travelling to Syria via Turkish territory as long as this was to fight the Syrian government (Assad) forces. The Turks and the Assads had never got along well and since AKP came to power Turkey has been trying to support efforts by Moslems to “defend Islam” against heretics (like the Shia Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese), Israel and the West. But this backfired and now Turkey is trying to mend relations with Israel, Russia, Egypt and the West. At the same time, Turkey still considers the Assads a greater threat than ISIL or Kurdish separatists and secular Turks the greatest threat of all. .

July 15, 2016: The Turkish government defeated a coup attempt by a segment of the Turkish military. Because of the coup attempt the United States temporarily halted NATO air operations at the Turkish Incirlik air base, which is in eastern Turkey, 150 kilometers north of Syria. Most (1,500 of 2,200) of the Americans (military and contractors) in Turkey are at Incirlik. A small, but important, number of air strikes (against ISIL targets) come out of Incirlik. This is in addition to a larger number of reconnaissance and surveillance missions. In February 2016 the first Saudi Arabian warplanes on arrived at as part of an increased Saudi effort against ISIL in Syria. Incirlik is where NATO warplanes have operated for decades and has been a major base to attacks against Islamic terrorist targets in Syria as well as Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq. In August 2015 American warplanes began operating out Incirlik against ISIL targets in Syria. In late 2014 the U.S. announced an agreement with Turkey to use Turkish bases (including Incirlik) to support the fight against ISIL. The next day the Turkish government denied that this was the case. While the Turkish parliament had approved such cooperation, the anti-American Erdogan had to agree to implement these new rules and until the recent PKK problems the Turkish leader had refused to do so. Erdogan eventually relented. Shortly thereafter (in early September) the U.S. Air Force halted the movement of families (of air force personnel) to Incirlik because of Islamic terrorist groups have threatened to go after civilians as well as military personnel at Incirlik. Technically Turkey is not considered a war zone, but Incirlik is located in an area where secular Kurdish separatist terrorists as well as Islamic terrorists are increasingly active. Incirlik is also one of the six air bases in Turkey where American nuclear bombs (for NATO aircraft) are stored. The base normally has about 5,000 personnel in residence, about 60 percent of them civilians (workers and service personnel families). The number has since been greatly reduced. Incirlik is located in an area long dominated by conservative Moslems. U.S. Air Force personnel have long considered Incirlik a hardship posting because it was so difficult to get a drink, or a date, off base.

July 13, 2016: Syrian Kurdish leaders admitted that they were planning to soon declare an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. This has long been a goal of Syrian Kurds and explains the willingness to work with the Syrian government and Russia to wipe out ISIL in Syria. The Syrian Kurds are technically allied with the rebels (who are mostly Sunni Syrian Arabs).

July 10, 2016: An American air strike near Mosul in Iraq hit what was believed to be a meeting of senior ISIL leaders, including the “minister of war” Omar Shishani. Also known as “Omar the Chechen” he has been the chief military strategist for ISIL since mid-2014 and one of the founding members of ISIL. Shishani has been a target for American air strikes since late 2014 and it was thought that one of these attacks succeeded in March 2016, but that was not the case. This time ISIL admitted the loss to its own people and by the July 14th the U.S. felt that, and other evidence, confirmed that Shishani, and several other senior ISIL military commanders, were dead or seriously wounded. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to monitor ISIL activity to obtain more proof that Shishani and other key leaders are gone. If so, this should show up in less effective ISIL combat planning and leadership in Iraq and Syria.

July 8, 2016: In the north a Turkish air strike near the Turkish border killed nine members of the PKK travelling in a vehicle. One of the dead was senior PKK military commander Fehman Huseyin. Since 2004 Fehman Huseyin has been one of the top three PKK leaders and is believed to be in charge of terror attacks inside Turkey. In July 2015 a PKK ceasefire with Turkey ended when the Turks attacked in reprisal for a growing number of terror attacks they accused the PKK of deliberately carrying out. Turkey and the PKK have been at war since 1984 in a conflict that has left over 40,000 dead, most of them Kurds.

In central Syria (Palymyra) a Russian Mi-35M armed transport helicopter went down because of (according to the government) ISIL ground fire in the form of an American TOW anti-tank missile. In theory a TOW missile could hit a slow moving helicopter at low altitude. But ISIL has never been seen using American TOW missiles (which were given to some anti-ISIL rebel groups) and several of the videos that later showed up, of the Mi-35M going down, indicates that the cause may have been friendly fire (an unguided rocket from another nearby Russian armed helicopter). In any event the two man crew of the downed Mi-35M were killed in the crash and there has been no word on anyone getting to the wreckage and examining it for signs of what sort of weapon brought it down.

Fighting continued around Aleppo in violation of a 72 hour ceasefire arranged to honor the end of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan.

July 7, 2016: In the north government forces cut rebel access to a key route (Castello Road) leading from Aleppo to the Turkish border. This was the only remaining rebel held road in eastern Aleppo. This cuts off supplies of smuggled fuel and ammo for the rebels as well as essentials like food and medicine for rebels and over 100,000 civilians. The main rebel force in this areas is al Nusra (the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate that sometimes works with ISIL).

July 4, 2016: In the south (Israel controlled Golan Heights) fire from the Syrian side of the border hit and damaged the Israeli security fence. In response Israeli artillery fired on two nearby Syrian Army bases. 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, which is the cause of most bullets, rockets and shells crossing the border, there is a verbal protest but no artillery or air strikes in response. When it is unclear, the Israelis fire back. Things continue to be quiet on the Israeli front.


Article Archive

Syria: Current 2022 2021 2020 2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2005 



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close