November 19, 2014:
The Syrian civil war has left nearly 200,000 dead since 2011. Nearly 6,000 died in October. About 17 percent of those dead were civilians, 15 percent from government forces and the rest from various rebel groups. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is believed to have suffered over 2,000 dead in October, mainly because they are fighting everyone. The government forces keep their losses low by moving aside when various rebel factions fight each other. That is happening less often as rebels negotiate ceasefires between each other. Due to continued Russian aid the Syrian air force continues to regularly hit pro-rebel civilians and government ground troops keep going after remaining rebels around Damascus and Aleppo. At the moment ISIL is concentrating on the Kurds, especially those defending the town of Kobane near the Turkish border. The other major ISIL objective is Aleppo. The government keeps trying to get the West to admit that the Assad government is an ally in the international battle against ISIL and that Syria has led the way in recognizing and fighting this international Islamic terrorist threat. So far the rest of the world is ignoring the Assad claims, although in fact the Assads and the rest of the world are both fighting ISIL.
Kobane has turned into a major embarrassment for ISIL, which has been losing ground to the defending Kurds in the last week. The Kurdish ability (because of Turkish cooperation) to shift forces back from Iraq to help defend Kobane was decisive. These reinforcements arrived at the end of October. The original ISIL force of over 5,000 fighters used armored vehicles and artillery for the campaign against the Syrian Kurds in September and was eventually reinforced by several thousand more men and concentrated around Kobane. There NATO (mainly American) air strikes found plenty of targets and the Kurdish fighters on the ground proved more capable than the Arab troops and rebels ISIL had been dealing with so far.
ISIL gunmen had first entered Kobane on October 6th. The Kurdish defenders counterattacked and pushed ISIL out by the 8th. But on the 9th ISIL had massed more men and armored vehicles and came back in. By the 10th ISIL controlled at least a third of Kobane and eventually took most of the town. Then the air attacks became more frequent and intense. In November the Kurds began retaking much of Kobane, despite ISIL bringing in more fighters and making more attacks.
The Kurds are moving in reinforcements and supplies (especially ammunition) to Kobane as fast as they can. The Kurds have about 2,000 fighters in Kobane and another few hundred secular Syrian rebels (the FSA). There are also several thousand Kurdish civilians in and around Kobane although fewer than 500 are left in the town. For a long time ISIL maintained four to five thousand men in and around the town but casualties and desertions have left them with not much more than 3,000 gunmen. The Kurdish reinforcement route is now via the Turkish road network making it easier to bring new fighters in and get casualties out. The Kurds asked for more American air strikes and there have been some more. The Kurds have better fighters and leadership on the ground and are linked with the aircraft above and NATO intelligence. ISIL is still determined to achieve a decisive victory over the Kurds but unless they can come up with some new ideas that will negate the superiority of Kurdish fighters and the effectiveness of the Kurdish air support the battle will continue to be a major source of combat losses and discouragement. Since early October, the fighting in Kobane has caused about 5,000 casualties, plus an undetermined but significant number of desertions. Most of the casualties and nearly all the desertions were suffered by ISIL. There is also a shift in support from other Islamic terrorist organizations for ISIL because of Kobane. Many have qualified their earlier pledges of support for ISIL to emphasize that these were not agreements to follow the leadership of ISIL but merely to support what ISIL was doing. Until this month many young Islamic terrorists around the world thought ISIL had the magic touch and wanted the leaders of their local Islamic terrorist group to follow ISIL. Given the growing number of setbacks ISIL has suffered, that enthusiasm has declined considerably.
Despite ISIL being tied down in Kobane and with rebellious Sunni tribes in the east, government forces are losing ground. That’s because ISIL has encouraged informal truces with other rebel groups to evolve into something of a coalition. This allowed all rebels, including ISIL, to go back to fighting government forces. That has led to a growing number of setbacks for the government. This includes control of the roads from Damascus to the pro-government Alawite areas on the coast. For that route to be useful the Assad forces had to gain control of the roads and villages between Damascus and the coast. That only lasted until October and now rebels are again capable of attacking traffic on the roads between Damascus and the coast. This means supplies for Damascus, especially fuel, can no longer move unhindered. Heavy fighting continues around Aleppo and Damascus where the rebels are retaking areas they lost earlier in 2014 to government forces. The government is having similar problems around Aleppo and throughout central Syria.
The largest coalition of secular rebels, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) has abandoned Aleppo and is apparently falling apart. Over 10,000 FSA fighters have pulled away from the city in the last three weeks and the FSA commander has fled to Turkey. It is feared that a recent merger of ISIL with al Nusra and al Qaeda forces in Syria could allow ISIL to take control of Aleppo. These three groups have already ganged up on the FSA. The loss of Aleppo bothers Turkey a great deal because that means another million or more Syrian refugees may head for Turkey. The Turks already host nearly two million Syrian refugees. These people are not just fleeing the Islamic terrorists but also the Syrian government, which continues to use aircraft and artillery to attack anti-government civilians on a daily basis. Another reason for getting out of Syria is that both government and rebel forces tend to block aid efforts to civilians that do not support them. Syria is no place for women, children and old men.
The ISIL/al Nusra/al Qaeda cooperation is believed to actually be an evolution of the truce that the three groups (and many smaller ones) had created gradually so that they all could concentrate on fighting the government forces (including Iranian provided mercenaries from Lebanon and elsewhere) and secular rebels (mainly FSA). Such coalitions are fragile and tend to fall apart easily. The problem is that each Islamic terrorist group believes they have been chosen by God to lead the fight. Ultimately it comes down to who gets to make the strategic decisions. All the Islamic terrorist groups agree that getting government and FSA forces out of Aleppo is a worthy goal they can cooperate on. Who will run Aleppo after that would be a more contentious issue. Until the American led air strikes began in September ISIL was the undisputed big-bad among Islamic terrorists in Syria and Iraq. But after two months of bombing and a growing number of defeats in Syria and Iraq, plus growing rebellions by Sunni tribes in both countries, ISIL is vulnerable and other Islamic terrorist groups would like to take ISIL down a notch or two for past bad behavior against fellow Islamic terrorists.
ISIL remains the largest and best financed Islamic terrorist group in the region. ISIL has over 20,000 armed men in Syria and Iraq, although many of these are now tied down occupying and trying to administer conquered territory. These new subjects tend to be obedient, but not enthusiastic about their new rulers, nor very loyal. ISIL attracts more recruits in part because of its propaganda (massacres of enemies and female sex slaves is a big draw with young Moslem men) and the fact that ISIL pays new recruits up to $500 a month, and even more if they survive long enough to get promoted. The Iraqi Sunnis who form the core of ISIL leadership contain a lot of former Saddam supporters and bureaucrats who have years of practical experience running a country as a bloody dictatorship. So if ISIL’s “Islamic State” seems vaguely similar to Saddam’s “Republic of Fear” it’s no accident. Saddam knew how to use cash, sex, the promise of power and freedom to terrorize to attract and retain skilled supporters. This has become the ISIL playbook and it works, even if done with a thin veneer of religious fanaticism (something Saddam actually adopted during his last decade in power). But as with Saddam, ISIL finds itself under siege and declared an enemy to just about everyone. That matters little when you are on a mission from God.
Russia believes there are over a thousand Chechens fighting for various rebels and terrorist groups in Syria, but that only about 200 of these are Chechens from Russia. The rest are Chechens from Chechen communities in the West and the Middle East. Chechens have been fleeing Russia for two centuries, ever since Russia first took control of Chechnya. These Chechens have their own organization and are considered the capable fighters among the dozens of Islamic terrorist groups. The fact that so many of these exiled Chechens would still be fighting in Syria, in part to damage Russian interests (Russia is a major support of the Syrian government) is disheartening but not surprising to most Russians. In response to this Russia is increasing its efforts to identify Chechens in Syria and make sure that none of them are able to get back into Russia. In contrast the U.S. believes that no more than 150 American Moslems are working for ISIL and these will be prosecuted if they did indeed fight in Syria.
Iran is also spending a lot of money, and deploying more military advisors and trainers, in Lebanon. There the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia has suffered heavy losses in Syria as well as inside Lebanon along the Syrian border. Iran has helped Hezbollah close the Lebanese border with Syria to Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL, al Nusra and others). This has reduced the number of terror attacks against Shia inside Lebanon but has required stationing over a thousand Hezbollah gunmen on the border. Meanwhile another 4,000 Hezbollah fighters remain inside Syria where they help keep the pro-Iran Assad government alive. Hezbollah tried to use the ISIL threat against Lebanon to justify Hezbollah grabbing more power in Lebanon, where Shia are a third of the population but far more powerful politically because Iranian cash, weapons and training have made Hezbollah too strong for the elected Lebanese government to suppress or even oppose effectively. This is not working so well now because it’s not just ISIL that Hezbollah is fighting but other Syrian Sunni rebel groups like al Nusra and a growing number of Sunni Islamic terrorist groups within Lebanon. The thousands of Hezbollah casualties suffered in Syria over the last three years has made Hezbollah less popular among Lebanese Shia and Lebanese in general. Hezbollah has to face the fact that when this Syrian rebellion and ISIL stuff is settled, Hezbollah will be a much weaker organization and a more militarized one. The years of fighting has created a large force of Hezbollah fighters who are now part of a full time Hezbollah “army” and have become professional soldiers. That, and the presence of more Iranian advisors and trainers has led many Lebanese to see Hezbollah as an occupying force consisting of Lebanese “mercenaries” working for Iran. This is fine with Israel and abhorrent to the majority of Lebanese. For Iran it’s a disaster in the making because Iran had always sought to portray Hezbollah as a Shia militia dedicated to the destruction of Israel, not the hired guns for an unpopular Arab dictator next door.
Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been over 800 so far (since August 8th). These attacks have killed nearly 900 people, 86 percent have been ISIL, eight percent al Nusra factions planning attacks on the United States and the rest civilians. The material damage (equipment and supplies) has been much greater because ISIL vehicles and warehouses have most frequently been the target. This has caused a growing number of shortages for the ISIL forces. American air strikes have also gone after artillery and armored vehicles (captured from the Iraqi or Syrian forces) and destroyed those as well. Over 20 percent of the air strikes have been against targets in the Syrian town of Kobane. That means on some days there are none elsewhere because Kobane has been getting a lot, sometimes more than twenty a day, often involving French and British aircraft as well as American. As more Western warplanes arrive, more strike missions are being flown and more of them are against targets in Iraq. This is largely responsible for recent advances by Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq. In addition to air strikes there have been even more recon and surveillance missions flown, taking video, photos and monitoring wireless communications. This provides information on targets and on what ISIL is up to.
The fighting in Syria and Iraq has turned into a major refugee situation. Over a quarter of Syrians have been forced from their homes as have a growing number of Iraqis. So far that’s over 13 million people and more and more of them are fleeing to nearby countries (mainly Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.) These host countries are not happy with the situation but since all of them are Moslem they cannot turn their fellow Moslems away. The international community provides the cash and aid to keep these refugees alive. The U.S. has been the largest donor, providing $1.3 billion to UN aid efforts in the last year alone.
Israel expects more attacks on them by Syrian rebels. There have been at least fifteen incidents since March that involved deliberate mortar or gunfire from Syrian rebels. There were over a hundred incidents of accidental fire from the Syrian side, as rebels and government forces fought. The Israelis don’t expect a major offensive, but small groups of Islamic terrorist rebels are expected to attack just for the sake of being able to say they attacked Israel.
November 16, 2014: ISIL posted (on the Internet) a video of them beheading a captured American aid worker. ISIL had beheaded a British aid worker on October 3rd. ISIL is believed to have at least fourteen captured Westerners, most of them aid workers grabbed in Syria. Three of those videoed beheadings have been of captured Arabs while one was a French tourist kidnapped by an ISIL affiliate in Algeria. Two of those already beheaded were American aid workers. ISIL says it will keep killing Western captives until Western nations halt their air attacks on ISIL. The latest beheading video also featured the mass beheading of 18 captured Syrian officers.
November 13, 2014: Outside Kobane Kurdish fighters took a hill which enabled them to halt traffic on a road that ISIL was using to bring in reinforcements and supplies.
November 10, 2014: In the south (Nawa, on the Jordan border) fighters from al Qaeda and al Nusra forced army troops out of the town after several months of fighting. The army forces apparently withdrew largely intact and are now outside the town. Several days earlier the secular rebels had been forced away from the town by Islamic terrorist groups.
The UN proposed a truce in Aleppo and the Syrian government said it would consider the proposal. That was unusual, but nothing came of it. There have been a lot of local ceasefires in and around Aleppo, usually to allow foreign aid to get through to civilians (and fighters who take a cut). The UN is proposing a city wide ceasefire but there does not appear to be a lot of interest.
November 9, 2014: Outside of Damascus five nuclear engineers (four Syrian and one Iranian) were shot dead by gunmen who fired on the bus the victims were in. No one claimed responsibility and the Syrian government did not announce the incident.
November 8, 2014: An American air strike hit an ISIL controlled oil field in eastern Syria. To the west, Kurdish forces in Kobane say they have halted ISIL forces and are now forcing the Islamic terrorists back.
November 7, 2014: In eastern Syria ISIL has closed all schools and is planning to open religious schools to replace the secular ones. This is not popular with most of the people (largely Sunni Arabs) in the east, but ISIL does not care what their subjects think. Anyone who disobeys is punished, often with death and sometimes that means crucifixion or beheading.
November 5, 2014: A second round of American air strikes on Khorasan group targets is believed to have killed a skilled terrorist bomb builder (Frenchman David Drugeon a Moslem convert). Khorasan is an Islamic terrorist group that is part of al Nusra and is known to be trying to plan and carry out attacks in the United States. For that reason they were the subject of several air strikes on September 23rd, using cruise missiles in an attempt to kill key members of the group. The latest strikes came after new intelligence was collected on the group and where they were.
November 4, 2014: The UN is trying to get the truth of about Syrian chemical weapons from the Assad government. On October 7th Syria revealed to UN chemical weapons inspectors that not all Syrian chemical warfare facilities had been revealed last year, as part of the agreement to avoid NATO air attack by allowing all Syrian chemical weapons to be destroyed. That is supposed to be complete but now Syria has revealed four more facilities that it failed to mention in 2013. Since then government officials have been evasive when questioned about this by UN officials.
November 3, 2014: In central Syria ISIL seized a natural gas field outside Homs. This is the second natural gas field they have taken in the last week.
November 1, 2014: Fighting between al Nusra and Lebanese soldiers continues along the Lebanese border. Al Nusra recently offered to exchange some captured soldiers for al Nusra men imprisoned in Lebanon as well as some held in Syria. The Lebanese government has little contact with the Syrian government and generally backs the overthrow of the Assad government.
October 31, 2014: The Syrian government is accused of allowing 2,000 prisoners to die (from torture, starvation disease and general neglect) in the last year. The government denied everything. There is a lot of evidence that a lot of Syrians arrested by their government are never heard from again. That has been going on for decades.