Syria: Come To Kobane And Die For ISIL


December 27, 2014: The civil war has left nearly 40,000 dead in 2014. Some 60 percent were civilians (most of them pro-rebel) and 20 percent were rebel fighters. The rest were pro-government forces. About three percent of the 2014 dead were cause by Western and Arab air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria. Since 2011 over 200,000 have died and there have been more than 800,000 non-fatal casualties (wounds, injuries, serious illness).

The fiscal losses have been huge as well. Since 2011 that cost (to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey) has been over $40 billion, most of it suffered by Syria. But the other states have had the additional cost of hosting millions of refugees, aid to rebels and economic disruption caused by all the violence. The refugees also cause other problems in their host countries. There tends to be a lot of criminal (including Islamic terrorist) activity in the refugee communities and the refugees lower wages wherever they are because the refugees are willing to work for less than the locals have been getting. While there are some economic benefits (more customers) the overall impact of the refugees is seen as negative by the local population.  

Another growing source of losses is desertion. The Syrian Army and police are finding a lot more of their personnel and fleeing, often with their families, from Syria. The government has found it not worth the hassle (and bad publicity) to capture and punish “deserters” but names are being taken. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has gone in the other direction and formed a special police force to make sure all ISIL fighters are following orders and deserters are promptly and publically executed. ISIL is that kind of organization; cruel but unforgiving.

On a global scale Syria has become a major source of lethal violence. A recent terrorism survey (Global Terrorism Index) found that five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria, in that order) accounted for 80 percent of all terrorism related deaths in 2013 and even more in 2014. Four Islamic terrorist organizations (ISIL, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and all flavors of the Taliban) account for nearly 70 percent of all terrorist deaths. Many of the lesser terror groups are also Islamic. In fact, of the top ten nations by terrorist activity (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, India, Somalia, Yemen, Philippines and Thailand) only India and the Philippines had a significant minority of terrorist deaths that were not carried out by Moslem organizations. In those two countries the minority terrorists were leftist rebels who had not noticed the collapse of radical socialism in 1989. Meanwhile the rapid growth in Islamic terrorism violence caused the total number of terrorist acts to increase 44 percent in 2013 over 2012.

Pro-Iran businessmen in Syria and their counterparts in Iran agree (usually off the record) that the plunging oil price threatens the generous and critical Iranian financial support for the beleaguered Assad dictatorship in Syria. Even with continued Iranian military support, Assad really, really depends on the financial support to maintain the loyalty of the few (less than a quarter) of Syrians that support him to one degree or another. Because of that, and the damage ISIL has done to the rebel alliance (which has been fighting a civil war with itself for the last year) the war has been going a little better for the Assads lately.  In southern and central Syria (south and north of Damascus), pro Assad forces have actually been regaining ground. Along the coast the army and pro-government militias have been able to expel rebels and form a continuous Assad controlled area reaching into central Syria and the capital (Damascus). Thanks to Iranian trainers, the pro-government militias are better trained and more effective as are the soldiers. All of these men are paid regularly and most see a better future than do many of the rebel fighters. The army is about half its pre-war strength of 300,000 but the remaining troops are loyal and most have combat experience. The army is trying to expand back to its pre-war strength. This is thanks to cash from Iran, because the Syrian economy is wrecked. But that Iranian cash has been reduced recently as the plunging price of oil. This has forced Iran to cut its cash support for the Syrian economy. Thus while the Assad forces can provide some security, they are increasingly unable to provide much prosperity and even necessities are not arriving as frequently. What remains of the Syrian economy is in Assad controlled areas where there is an unemployment rate of over 50 percent and the size of government handouts is a matter of life or death. Iran does not want its Syrian ally to be destroyed but subsidizing the Assad controlled population costs more than Iran can afford right now. Unless the price of oil moves sharply north and the economic sanctions on Iran (because of the Iranian nuclear program) are reduced the hard times will be getting harder in Syria for Assad supporters. Despite that living in Assad controlled territory is still a pretty good deal compared to what life is like in ISIL or al Nusra controlled areas. Yet life anywhere in Syria is pretty miserable and more and more Syrians would just like peace. More people are leaving the country and many experienced soldiers and rebels are giving up and leaving as well.   

Turkey is concerned about the possibility that young Turkish Islamic conservatives, radicalized in Syria and returning home with murderous intent. For over three decades most of the terrorist violence in Turkey came from secular Kurdish nationalists, but that is declining as the government makes peace with the Kurdish nationalists. There was always some terrorist activity by Turkish nationalists, Armenian nationalists and Islamic or Arab terrorists. But the fighting in neighboring Syria since 2011 has radicalized many Turkish Arabs and Shia Moslems and now there is fear that ethnic Turkish Sunnis are also becoming radicalized. The number of Turkish Sunni radicals are still small, but they have been growing since 2011 and it’s unclear what a lot of these newly radicalized Turks will do once the war in Syria is over. Because of all this Israeli accusations that Hamas Islamic terrorists are operating inside Turkey, and the Turkish government is denying it, is nearly as worrying to many Turks as it is to most Israelis.

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.

ISIL remains the largest and best financed Islamic terrorist group in the region. ISIL has over 20,000 armed men in Syria and Iraq, but a growing portion of them are 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. In many ways ISIL is going through the same cycle its predecessor (the pro-Saddam Islamic terrorists of 2003-8) followed on their way to defeat. That is, resistance from Sunni Arabs, especially in Anbar (western Iraq) eventually leads to brutal repression by Islamic terrorists which in turn enrages more Sunni Arabs and turns them violently against the Islamic terrorists. That, in turn, causes more desertions in the Islamic terrorist groups as new recruits (and even some veteran fighters) desert because killing fellow Sunni Arabs, especially women, was not what they signed up for. This is a common pattern with Islamic terrorist groups as the savage reality collides with the idealistic rhetoric of the preachers and propagandists. It is one thing to slaughter women and children who are not Sunni Moslems, but killing your own is bad for morale and cripples recruiting. Unlike 2007, there are a lot more cell phones around now and more potential recruits have Internet access via smart phones. So the pictures of Holy Warriors murdering fellow Sunni Moslems, especially women, spreads fast and the impact is quickly felt by the terrorist leaders. It’s not just one incident either, but a growing number of massacres of Sunni Arab tribesmen (and women) in eastern Syria and western Iraq over the past few months. To the young Moslem men who provide most of the support (and manpower) for ISIL, such misbehavior can no longer be dismissed as a rare event or staged Western propaganda. While the air attacks have made it more difficult for large convoys of ISIL gunmen to attack and conquer new territory, an even larger problem is the need for using these gunmen to deal with rebellious Sunni Arabs. This has led to counterattacks by some tribal militias, especially in western Iraq and ISIL is losing control of towns and villages because of this rebellion.

ISIL leadership contains hundreds of veterans from the 2004-8 terror campaign in Iraq and many of these men also served Saddam for many years. These guys know how to organize and run a police state and effectively use terror to keep allies and enemies in line. Thus ISIL will generally leave alone populations that are compliant (and at least appear to go along with the strict lifestyle rules) and is ruthless with those who resist (like the Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria).  Even with these experienced administrators ISIL is running into more basic problems. Western financial experts calculate that, even by keeping costs down, ISIL will soon collapse because they don’t have a functioning economy and insufficient cash on hand, and future revenue, to govern the areas they control. They can plunder the civilians they control, which they have already done to a certain extent, but this just causes active resistance and rebellion, which is already happening. Wherever ISIL is they find that they have fewer local supporters the longer ISIL is in control.

Then there are the recruiting problems. Back in 2009 the men now running ISIL were then presiding over their defeat as Islamic terrorist groups in Iraq were crushed by Shia soldiers and police aided by rebellious Sunni tribesmen. During this period they had a recruiting problem and they solved it by forcing/persuading/enticing teenage boys to join. Now ISIL is doing this. ISIL has not been getting as many foreign volunteers as it once did. The popularity of ISIL in the Moslem world has sharply declined over the last few months, and with that it is no longer fashionable for young men to join ISIL and die as suicide bombers or fanatical untrained gunmen. Local men are not too keen on self-destructive attacks either, so the ISIL has been getting teenagers (as young as 14), as well as those with mental problems (that make them easy to manipulate).  These kids are armed and generally used for guard duty and to augment older ISIL men who man checkpoints. When the kids are deemed reliable and motivated enough, they are sent off to more strenuous (and dangerous) work. The mentally ill are used as suicide bombers.

Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been over 1,200 so far (since August 8th). These attacks have killed over a thousand people, apparently about 95 percent have been ISIL 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. Most (about two-thirds) of the air strikes continue to be in Iraq. These air attacks are believed to have crippled ISIL ability to move supplies or fighters and continue attacking. The frequency and effectiveness of ISIL attacks has steadily diminished as the air attacks increased since August. The U.S. accounts for 85 percent of the air attacks against ISIL. Warplanes from Saudi Arabia, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Jordan and Bahrain also hit targets in Syria while Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands warplanes hit targets only in Iraq. Most (about 90 percent) of the flights these nations make over Syria and Iraq are for reconnaissance and surveillance to gather information on what ISIL is up to and what the most likely targets are. The air attack have caused a growing number of supply and cash 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. ISIL supplies and facilities are attacked once they are known and with the growing rebellion inside ISIL territory, a lot more of these targets are being identified via tips from locals. Also being hit is ISIL construction equipment, which is being used to build fortifications, obstacles and bunkers.

ISIL veterans of the 2004-2008 campaign have distributed advice on how to avoid being spotted from the air, but as American intel veterans of that period return they bring with them experience in seeing through the ISIL deceptions. ISIL commanders keep coming up with new ways to get around the limitations imposed by air power. The most obvious one is to move fighters and supplies in vehicles that appear to be carrying civilians. Anything obviously terrorist related is likely to get hit. The use of human shields is increasing and most of them appear to be involuntary. This has prevented some air attacks, but some of the nations providing air power allow their aircraft to attack critical targets even if it appears human shields are involved. This has caused a growing number of losses in the ISIL leadership. To make attacks the ISIL fighters have to be brought in gradually and massed in a built up area. That means attacks on isolated towns or facilities are much less likely but will still occur if the target is considered important enough. And if ISIL does attack, victory must come quick. If fighting lines form in a town the air attacks have targets and as ISIL learned (and is still learning) at Kobane in Syria, this turns into a slaughter for ISIL men. Thousands have been killed or wounded in Kobane since October and by mid-December the Kurds began pushing ISIL out of Kobane and other areas around the town. ISIL counterattacked, but because the Kurds are better (trained, experienced and led) fighters, and have air support, the ISIL forces have had little success. It appears that ISIL is no longer sending its best fighters to Kobane but instead sending mainly new recruits. These men have, at most, a few weeks training (and indoctrination) and don’t last long against the Kurds. If you are new to ISIL and want to die, come to Kobane.  

December 26, 2014:  In the north (Idlib province) the Syrian Air Force bombed two ISIL held towns over the last two days, killing at least 53 civilians. Outside Aleppo rebels pushed back army troops and pro-government militias. In some areas around Aleppo government forces have been advancing. That happened over a week ago and the rebels finally assembled a force capable of reversing those gains.  

December 24, 2014: A Jordanian F-16 crashed in Syria. Its pilot safely parachuted but was captured by ISIL after he landed. ISIL said they shot down the aircraft but the U.S. insisted that all evidence indicates the aircraft had equipment failure and the pilot had no problem ejecting and landing safely. A technical examination of the wreckage would determine what brought the aircraft down and whether or not it was hostile action.

December 22, 2014: In the north several moderate rebel groups around Aleppo have merged into a new organization; the Levant Front. With nearly 5,000 members, the group hopes to get assistance from the West and Arab Gulf states who oppose ISIL and al Nusra (a Syrian Islamic terrorist group that opposes the Iraqi dominated ISIL) The Levant Front was encouraged by a number of American air raids around Aleppo during the last few days. These air strikes hurt ISIL and al Nusra forces. The Levant Front was not notified about the strikes so could not organize an advance to take advantage of the situation. The new moderate coalition is trying to establish a relationship with foreign supporters of the rebels but this is difficult. So much of earlier aid to rebels ended up with al Nusra or ISIL that the contributors are very careful about who they help now.

December 20, 2014: In the east (Deir Ezzor) Syrian troops repulsed yet another an ISIL effort to take the air base (the last major government base in the east) outside the city. This attack left at least 20 Islamic terrorists and two soldiers dead. ISIL forces had suffered several hundred casualties from a series of attacks that began in November. The Deir Ezzor air base has long been used to launch air raids on targets throughout eastern Syria. ISIL has been massing forces around the base since early November and putting the base under siege.

In the east (near the Iraqi and Turkish border) Kurdish fighters pushed Islamic terrorist rebels away from the border.

December 15, 2014: In the north (Idlib province) ISIL took two army outposts (Hamidiyeh and Wadi Al Deif). Over a hundred soldiers were killed, captured or missing. The Islamic terrorists suffered about half as many losses. These two outposts have repelled attacks since 2012.

December 14, 2014: In the northeast (Raqqa province) over twenty ISIL men were killed by a bomb planted by someone who does not like ISIL. That’s a long list of suspects.

December 13, 2014: In central Syria (Homs) ISIL beheaded four men accused of blasphemy.

In the northeast (Hasakeh province) Kurdish fighters killed 16 ISIL men while continuing to drive ISIL forces away from the border.

December 11, 2014: Iranian media reported that recent Israeli air strikes in Syria did indeed destroy some Iranian made items meant for Hezbollah. This included Iranian UAVs and rockets. These items are flown into Damascus and storied in local warehouses until they can be trucked to Hezbollah storage bunkers in southern Lebanon. This has to be done carefully because in the past Israeli warplanes have destroyed these trucks.

December 9, 2014: Government officials from Iran, Syria and Iraq met in Iran to coordinate their joint activities against ISIL. The three countries said they would continue joint operations against ISIL. The war against ISIL in Iraq is going well, with Kurdish militia advancing on Mosul from the north while Iranian trained (and sometimes led) Iraqi troops advance from the south. Mosul residents report panic among the ISIL garrison in the city with some ISIL administrators fleeing.





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your 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.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close