September 11, 2013:
There are still no air strikes against Syria to punish the Syrian use of nerve gas against its own (pro-rebel) civilians on August 21
st. Western leaders had loudly warned the Assad government that use of chemical weapons would bring retaliation. But the Western voters have had it with Arab duplicity and bad behavior in general and the Assads and their allies are exploiting that. The earlier Arab Spring rebellions that succeeded also ended up with governments dominated or threatened by Islamic radicals. Western leaders have been slow to accept this unpleasant news, but the voters, who pay for these attacks in money and blood, have a veto power and they are exercising it. The Internet has spread the personal experience of Western troops who have served in Moslem countries far and wide and the mindset of Arabs in conflict areas is now widely known in the West. The continued popularity of Islamic terrorism among so many Moslems, including many living in the West, adds to this sense of disgust and distrust.
Russia has come up with a solution to the nerve gas problem and has gotten Syria to agree to surrender its chemical weapons to the UN in return for a promise of no foreign intervention. While that sounds great on paper, the reality is much more difficult. The Assad government has to convince the UN that it has revealed all the storage sites and then arrange independent security or removal of these weapons. Leaving the weapons where they are risks Assad troops taking the stuff back by bullying their way past UN peacekeepers sent to guard them. Getting the chemical weapons safely out of Syria is probably impossible because many of these weapons are dangerous to handle, by anyone. Meanwhile, the Assad forces still appear to believe an attack is on the way and have been moving major weapons (like armor and artillery) to residential neighborhoods, where they cannot be bombed without the risk of killing civilians. In the West, the threat of an attack is seen as dead. For the rebels, this lack of air support remains a major shortcoming. The rebels are acutely aware of how badly Libyan rebels, and their civilian supporters, suffered two years ago before NATO air support came. The rebels have no choice but to fight on and the Assads are determined to keep killing rebels and driving civilian supporters out of the country until the rebel effort collapses. That could take another year or two of fighting, but the Assads feel they have no choice. The UN may not want to intervene but the threat of UN sponsored war crimes trials keeps the Assads focused and winning. Defeat is not an option.
Russia has shipped a billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Syria since the civil war there began. Russia insists that this is not in violation of arms embargoes against Syria and are simply deliveries of weapons ordered before 2011. In the last year Syria has delivered over $200 million in cash to Russian banks to keep these weapons coming (mainly S-300 anti-aircraft systems and anti-ship missiles) and their warranties operational. These purchases are being paid for by Iran, which flies in the cash to a Syrian financial operation in Moscow. The cash is then delivered to Russian government accounts via a Moscow bank. The Syrian Moscow operation is run by an uncle of Syrian dictator Basher Assad. While Russia has ideological and political reasons for supporting the Assads, there’s also the money angle. These Russian shipments are not challenged by the international community because they are, technically, defensive weapons and cannot be used to attack the rebels. Another problem that is less clear is whether the weapons are being sent to Iran. That is illegal but without any clear evidence of such transfers there’s nothing anyone can do. The cash transfers are also illegal, since Iran is banned from the international banking system for anything involving weapons, oil sales, and military equipment in general. But no one is going to shut down air traffic between Iran and Russia. Meanwhile, at least 14 Russian cargo ships arrived in Syria since 2011, plus numerous air freight flights. Recently Russia quietly approved new shipments of small arms, which is forbidden but can be flown in and join similar weapons Syria had before 2011. Russia appears to believe that no one will challenge this either.
Russia is also sending newly printed Syrian currency and consumer goods to Syria. This is part of an effort to keep Assad supporters in place and loyal. Most of the foreign cash coming in to keep the economy going in government controlled territory comes from Iran. Iran has apparently told the Assads that the economic sanctions on Iran (for its nuclear weapons program) means that the Iranian cash cannon cannot keep coming indefinitely. The Assads have to either crush the rebellion or come up with a peace deal. Neither seems likely to happen any time soon. This puts Iran in a bind and there is no easy way out. Using nerve gas against the rebels is no problem for Iran, were it not for the international backlash. Crushing the rebellion with conventional weapons may take too long for Iran, but if they are forced to cut back on their cash aid the Assads will suffer a huge morale hit which could give the rebels the boost they need to win. The only way to halt that is to send more Iranians to fight in Syria, rather than depending on Arab mercenaries (Hezbollah and Shia volunteers from throughout the region). There have been reports of more Iranians in combat zones, but these appear to be advisors not fighters.
The rebels don’t lack for volunteers, with over 80,000 armed men in action. About 10-15 percent of these are Islamic radicals and they get a disproportionate amount of publicity. This is intentional, as Russia, China and Iran have their foreign language news organizations pumping out stories (some true, most not) about Islamic radicals fighting for the rebels. The reality is that most of the rebel fighters are not interested in seeing post-Assad Syria dominated by Islamic radicals. Syrians know what problems that has created (and continues to create) in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Syrians are resigned to another civil war after the Assads are gone, to deal with the Islamic terrorists. Right now it’s a brutal war of attrition and a psychological endurance contest. A lot of anti-Assad Syrians are just leaving the country and many are seeking permanent new homes elsewhere. That’s fine by the Assads who want to encourage this flight anyway they can.
Al Qaeda is also making plans for post-Assad Syria and hope to create a sanctuary for terrorist operations throughout the region and into the West. The potential victims are determined to prevent this but there won’t be any bloodless solution. The Assad media strategy plays up this threat and ignores the fact that Syria has long been a sanctuary for terrorist groups that made attacks on the West. For Russia, which has problems with Islamic terrorism at home, the Assads are seen as a useful anti-terrorism tool. While Syria has long hosted terrorists, there were rules. The terrorists in Syria could not make attacks against Syria or any country seen as an important Syrian ally. That generally worked, and transgressors were quickly and brutally punished. This sort of arrangement is anathema to the West but just fine as far as Russia and Iran are concerned. Europeans and anti-Assad Arabs don’t like to discuss this sort of thing because all of them have indulged in the past.
There are now over two millions Syrian refugees outside the country and twice as many stuck inside Syria. Iraq has the fewest Syrian refugees (about 6.4 percent of the total outside Syria). Lebanon has about 35 percent, Jordan 26 percent, Turkey 23 percent, and the rest in numerous other nations in the region (like the 5.5 percent in Egypt) and farther away (Europe has a few percent). A disproportionate number of Syrian refugees in Iraq are Kurds, who go to the Kurdish controlled north. The rest of the border with Syria is guarded by over 25,000 police, border guards, and soldiers, most of them Shia and hostile to the largely Sunni Arab refugees. The main reason for fewer Sunni Arabs coming across here is due to the rebels controlling most of eastern Syria, which has traditionally been majority Sunni Arab. Iraq continues to keep open the Iranian air and land supply lines for the Assad government in Syria, although it’s becoming more and more dangerous to be Shia and on the Syrian border.
In Lebanon there is more foreign aid coming in to help deal with the Syrian refugees, but it isn’t enough, and most Lebanese would like these people to go home. Lebanon has turned into a secondary theater of the Syrian civil war. There are so many Syrian refugees in Lebanon that about 20 percent of the population in Lebanon is now Syrian. Most of the refugees are Sunni and these refugee communities provide cover for Sunni terrorists who are increasingly active in attacking Lebanese Shia, especially Hezbollah supporters. This has put Hezbollah on the defensive, especially because the Hezbollah gunmen fighting in Syria are a reminder to most Lebanese that this private army is bought and paid for by Iran. Hezbollah has long been regarded as a political bully by most Lebanese and there is growing anger against Hezbollah in general.
Earlier this month the United States ordered most of their diplomatic personnel and their families out of Lebanon, fearing that if there were American air strikes on Syria Iran would order Hezbollah to attack Americans where they could be found in Lebanon. The government also fears that American air strikes would result in Hezbollah launching rocket attacks on Israel, thus triggering another war with Israel. The last one in 2006 ended up damaging a lot of Lebanese infrastructure, and Israel has warned that it would be worse the next time around. Lebanon has increased security on the Israeli border, despite armed opposition by Hezbollah to the presence of non-Shia soldiers or police on that border. Hezbollah has been patrolling the Israeli border more but there have still been rocket attacks by radical Sunni and Palestinian factions.
September 7, 2013: Islamic radical rebels took the largely Christian town of Maaloula. Located outside Damascus, the government ordered troops to retake the place. Al Qaeda believes all non-Moslems should be driven out of the Middle East. The rebels eventually said that they would retreat from the place, given the scale of the government counterattack.