The government appears to have accepted the fact that it cannot hold most of the country and is concentrating on the defense of Damascus and roads that connect the capital with the small Syrian coast (where pro-government Alawites are the majority). The government has organized more local militias in these areas, arming and equipping Alawites and Christians who fear retribution from victorious Sunni rebels. Iran has been particularly helpful in equipping and training the militias. The Iranian Quds Force has long experience in this sort of thing, having organized Hezbollah in Lebanon 30 years ago.
Quds is now busy in Syria as well. Rebels accuse the government of adopting savage new tactics in the fighting around Damascus. These new methods involve mass killings of civilians, especially military age men, during daytime raids into pro-rebel villages. This development is believed to be the work of the Iranians and their military advisors. This would be the Quds Force that specializes in this sort of thing. Late last year the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces on how to deal with the rebels and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Most of this is coming in by air via Iraq. Syrian rebels are getting more and more proof of Iranian aid out to the world. Now the rebels are facing “special troops” trained and advised by the Iranians.
Iran and Russia continue to help the government with cash, which is needed to pay smugglers and supporters to keep the fighting forces going. Iran has provided billions of dollars in cash or credit, while Russia has taken over the printing of Syrian currency. The German and Austrian firms that used to do this have stopped because of the UN sanctions against the government. The Assad government needs all the cash it can get because keeping their coalition together and fighting is very expensive and always has been.
Running a police state is expensive, and in peacetime the Assads only brought in $4-5 billion a year from taxes and such. The illegal activities (drugs and smuggling) brought in another billion or so, plus “gifts" from Iran and recently up to a billion a year from Saddam Hussein or his supporters in Iraq. Although a long-time enemy, in the 1990s Saddam sought to buy some help from the Assads. This was one reason why the Assads allowed Sunni terrorists to use Syria as a base after 2003 for their terror campaign in Iraq (which mostly killed Shia civilians).
Once the rebellion began in Syria two years ago, the Assads found themselves scrambling for cash. After the first year of sanctions these trade impediments were costing the Syrian government over half a billion dollars of income a month. Just before the rebellion began two years ago, foreign reserves were $17 billion, but this has since been more than halved. Rebels believe reserves are even lower, perhaps only a few billion. Oil production (because of sanctions and loss of customers) was down 30 percent a year ago and is now believed to be zero. Iran began shipping in cash early on. The Syrian currency has lost over half its value in the last two years and shrinks more as the rebels keep advancing.
Starting this year Iran is allowing Syria to buy supplies in Iran and ship them via truck through Iraq or via ship to the Syrian ports. To make this work Iran gave Syria a billion dollar line of credit. This was a gift, and Syria hoped to get over a hundred million dollars-worth of goods a month from Iran. The actual amount coming in has been lower because of rebel interference. Without this aid, the government forces will disappear a lot quicker. Sanctions have made it difficult to buy supplies from its usual providers. The Iraq route has become more risky, as Iraqi Sunnis have been harassing and blocking these shipments. Moreover most of the eastern Syria is Sunni and under the control of rebels. But via bribes (cash or goods) and a few routes kept clear by government troops, many trucks get through. The sea route is still the safest but it takes nearly a week longer. Inside Syria there are growing problems getting supplies to the many army units and militias. This has caused more soldiers to desert and pro-Assad civilians to flee the country.
The rebels have been getting more foreign cash as well, but much of this is to support the growing number of civilians displaced by the fighting. The West still refuses to arm the rebels but does not interfere (and apparently helps a bit) with Arab nations getting weapons to the rebels. The UN, meanwhile, calls for a halt to arming the rebels because the UN officially believes that a negotiated settlement is possible. Unofficially most UN members understand that this war will run its bloody course no matter what the UN does. The rebels want some armed intervention but the West is reluctant to get into that no-win (for them) situation. As the old Turkish saying goes, “do not get involved with the affairs of the Arabs.” The Arab states that support the rebels feel they do not have military forces of adequate skill to intervene.
Fighting has increased in the central Syrian town of Hama. This is believed to be part of the new government strategy of clearing rebels away from roads that connect Damascus with the coast. The reasons for this attention to these roads can be seen inside Damascus, where more and more upscale businesses and wealthy families are leaving. Some of the businesses will relocate to other cities, like Beirut in Lebanon and wealthy cities in Arab oil states. The pro-government neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo are beginning to look like ghost towns. Military families are also suffering declining morale. The Assads need some kind of spectacular victory to give their troops hope. Clearing rebels out of Damascus might do it and the rebels are bracing themselves for some hard fighting around the capital.
For over a month now the rebels have been accusing the government of using nerve gas against rebels and civilians. Photos of dead civilians the rebels claim were victims do show signs of nerve gas in use (foaming at the mouth and contracted pupils). The only way to obtain conclusive evidence is for someone to bring out the bodies of victims (or blood samples) and soil samples from the area where the nerve gas was used. If the rebels want to prove their accusations of nerve gas employment they just have to collect these samples and get them out of the country. The U.S. said it would intervene militarily if Syria used chemical weapons and demands conclusive proof (blood and soil samples) before deciding and acting. The government insists it has not used nerve gas and it’s up to the rebels to prove their accusations, which has not happened yet. But it might, and then things would get very interesting.
The Assads are trying to make the case that a post-Assad government would be dominated by Islamic radicals and that Syria would turn into a terrorist sanctuary. These threats ring a bit hollow because the Assads have provided sanctuary to all manner of terrorists for decades. Syria also played a major role in creating and sustaining the largest Islamic terror organization in the region: the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah militia. Officially Hezbollah is not involved in the Syrian civil war. Unofficially there are hundreds of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and more are apparently on the way. Iran has been demanding that its client Hezbollah declare war on the rebels. Meanwhile, Lebanese Sunnis are sending in more volunteers for the rebels, mainly for Islamic radical groups in Syria. Back in Lebanon the enmity between the Shia (27 percent of the population) and Sunnis (also 27 percent) is increasing. Hezbollah was created during the Lebanese civil war (1975-90) to help protect the poorer and less educated Shia from the more powerful Christian and Sunni militias. With Iranian support (and over 30,000 Syrian “peacekeepers” who stayed in Lebanon until 2005) Hezbollah became a powerful force in Lebanese politics, despite representing a minority. Christians comprise 39 percent of the population but are divided into several denominations and clan factions. The Druze (Moslems considered heretics by most other Moslems) are five percent. Sixty years ago Christians were the majority, but decades of civil war and general Moslem hostility to non-Moslems sent most of the Christians to the non-Moslem world. The Lebanese Christians are trying to remain neutral, although, as Lebanese, they are hostile to the Assads but want to support their fellow Syrian Christians (who long supported the Assads in return for protection from Moslem persecution). Keep in mind that Lebanon only has one-sixth the population of Syria and would never be a decisive factor in the civil war. Moreover, Lebanese generally dislike Syria because most Syrians believe Lebanon is a “lost province” of “Greater Syria.” Nothing is simple in this part of the world.
April 26, 2013: In Aleppo FSA (Free Syria Army) gunmen clashed with a Kurd militia. It was a local dispute but is typical of the strained relations between all Syrian Arabs and the Kurdish minority. While only ten percent of the population are Sunni Moslem, the Kurds are seen as outsiders because they are an Indo-European people with a language similar to Iranian, not the Semitic languages (mainly Arabic) spoken by all other Syrians. The Assad government was particularly distrustful of the Kurds, who lived along the Turkish and Iraqi borders and were often related to Kurds just across the border. While generally pro-rebel the Kurds still run into rebel groups that can’t overcome the ancient animosity between Kurds and Arabs.
April 24, 2013: In Aleppo the minaret of a thousand year old mosque collapsed from battle damage as rebels and Assad troops continued fighting in the neighborhood. The destruction of the tower may have been inadvertent but it will anger many Sunnis worldwide.
East of Damascus, troops took the town of Otaiba after more than a month of fighting. The deadlock was broken because the government has brought in troops from other parts of the country. Taking Otaiba blocks easy access to weapons and ammo for rebels inside Damascus. Thus the fighting in and around this town will continue.
April 23, 2013: Two Christian bishops, kidnapped the day before in Aleppo, were released. It’s unclear who took the bishops. It was probably an Islamic radical group that was quickly warned about not doing anything to antagonize Christians who side with the rebels.
April 22, 2013: The army has sent more troops to the Lebanese border to try and take back control of some border crossings. Hezbollah controls much of southern and interior Lebanon and can guarantee the supply trucks for the Assad forces will reach the border. After that, Assad troops have to control the border crossings and roads to concentrations of government forces.