Syria: The Sword of ISIL Is Sharp But Brittle


August 20, 2015: The Syrian government has pushed rebel forces out of four villages the rebels recently captured in an effort to reach Latakia province. This coastal areas in the northwest is largely Alawite and where the Assad clan comes from. The al Nusra offensive towards has been underway since late July and has resulted in over a thousand casualties. Several rebel (and at least one al Nusra) commanders have died and about two-thirds of the casualties have been among the attackers. This is normal for such a situation but a disproportionate number of losses have been taken by the largely secular Free Syrian Army. The defenders consist of Hezbollah, local Alawite militias and army troops. By mid-August this offensive had taken 13 villages and towns in Homs province along with four key hills. The most important villages were on the Sahl al Ghab plain adjacent to Latakia province. In mid-August the heavy attacker losses and growing number of defenders resulted in an advance by the government forces. This advance has been made possible by heavy use of artillery and hundreds of air attacks.

In the south rebels fighting in Daraa, a province near the Jordanian border are losing ground to government forces. This comes after the rebels seized the last army base held by government forces in the province in early June. Since then there has not been much progress as the government sent reinforcements and held onto most of the provincial capital (Daraa City). This area has also been the scene of feuding, and occasional fighting between al Nusra and other non-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) rebel groups.

The government forces are holding their ground or even occasionally advancing around Aleppo, Damascus and elsewhere in western Syria. But overall the government forces are not in any position to defeat the rebels. At this point they are trying to outlast them. With the world outraged at the bloody tactics of ISIL (despite the fact that government air and artillery attacks are still killing more civilians) there is more international concern with destroying ISIL. This is popular with the other Islamic terrorist groups, even those, like al Nusra, that have a temporary alliance with ISIL. In the West there is growing criticism of the emphasis on destroying ISIL because it means less pressure on the Assads for a while. In the Middle East one of the few things Sunni and Shia Moslems can agree on is the need to destroy ISIL. This despite the fact most Middle Eastern government (and their populations) either support Islamic terrorism or are willing to tolerate it as long as it does not threaten them personally. This is a cultural and religious quirk that Moslems do not like to discuss with non-Moslems but opinion surveys in the Middle East (and the West) show the persistence of support for Islamic terrorism among Moslems. ISIL, however, is seen to have crossed the line and while ISIL has some support among Moslems it has a lot more opponents.  

Meanwhile ISIL, despite its bloodthirsty reputation, learns from its mistakes. Especially after its bloody defeat in trying to take Kobane from the Kurds in 2014. Since then it has refrained from that sort of offensive. Not only did it fail (mainly because the Kurds were better fighters and had American air support) but it cost ISIL so many casualties that even more of their fighters deserted or were discouraged from coming to Syria and joining. Since then ISIL has been more passive aggressive. That means surrounding and besieging enemy towns and villages that are well defended. There are fewer losses involved when you methodically cut the routes into a place and then defend that blockade. Even the Kurds, using heavy air support, have a hard time against ISIL on the defense. Most of the senior ISIL leadership were once officers in Saddam’s army and learned the importance of building bunkers and fortifications for protection from artillery, bomb or missile attack. Many ISIL recruits are surprised at the amount of digging and construction they have to do. They appreciate it when the bombs and shells land on them and they survive. The siege tactics are also being used to cut enemy supply lines, especially the Assad access to the sea from Damascus. Ideologically ISIL can justify this slower more deliberate approach because God is on their side and eventual victory is assured. But the ISIL leaders can also count and know from recent experience that if casualties are too high their forces begin to rapidly fall apart. The sword of ISIL is sharp but brittle.

In July the American led coalition used a record number (2,828) of smart bombs and missiles against ISIL. That is a 65 percent more than in June and 22 percent more than the previous high in January 2015 (the peak of the effort to help the Kurds defend Kobane). Since the air campaign against ISIL began in August 2014 the coalition (of Western and Arab nations) has flown over 6,200 sorties that resulted in the use of weapons (often more than one weapon per attack). It is estimated that all this air activity has killed at least 15,000 ISIL personnel (and about 500 civilians) along with thousands of structures used by ISIL and even more ISIL vehicles and much ISIL military equipment. According to captured ISIL men and those who returned to their home countries and spoke freely the air campaign has forced ISIL to adapt while also slowing down ISIL operations and causing shortages and, at times, poor morale. Air force commanders involved in coalition operations have noted that it is much easier to operate against ISIL targets in Iraq because in Syria there are far more non-ISIL factions which, in some cases, are helping to supply the coalition with intel on ISIL. In Iraq you have most of the civilians hostile to ISIL and also have access to cell phones. This provides a steady flow of good intel on ISIL and makes it easier to find and hit targets.

Without any publicity at all the United States and Britain have brought in more special operations troops to fight ISIL in the “ISIL Homeland” of western Iraq and eastern Syria. The American and British commandos in Syria have apparently been operating together on raids, scouting missions and assisting the local Kurds and other armed anti-ISIL groups. One reason for keeping the commando presence quiet is that it is largely concerned with collecting more intelligence on ISIL. This means interviewing locals who deal with ISIL and observing ISIL operations in areas ISIL believes they are safe. The commandos want to make those areas less safe and, sooner rather than later, free of ISIL presence. Many of the locals agree with that.

Turkey is redoubling its efforts to keep new recruits from getting to ISIL. But Iraq and Saudi Arabia also have to do more on their own borders with ISIL territory. Jordan is more effective in guarding its borders but people smugglers in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are making lots of money coming up with new ways to get their terrorist recruits into Syria. Despite heavy losses (from combat and desertion) ISIL still appears to have over 20,000 armed followers in Syria and Iraq.

In eastern Turkey the Turkish government continues its offensive against the PKK (local Kurdish separatist rebels). This has created more tension with Iran, which sees PKK forces as an important ally in the effort to destroy ISIL. Turkey sees this openly pro-PKK attitude by Iran as a revival of the ancient Iranian practice of trying to stir up trouble among Turkish Kurds to weaken or distract Turkey from doing something Iran does not like. Turkey went to war with the PKK in July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire. The Turks also ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Kurdish government there agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK based in remote areas. The Turks cannot force the issue as it is pretty obvious that the Iraqi Kurds have all they can handle with ISIL. In response there has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. This comes after Turkey decided, on July 24th, to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.

The Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the Turks, in part because the Turks do not hide their belief that the Syrian Kurds are too closely allied with the PKK. Some Syrian Kurds (the PYD) are, or have been, allies with PKK but most Syrian Kurds would rather work with the Iraqi Kurds. Nearly all Kurds see the Turkish reaction as yet another attempt to crush the PKK while many Kurds see all this Kurdish activity against ISIL as an excuse to form a Kurdish state from parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While that is a popular idea among Kurds it is not as high on the agenda as surviving the ISIL threat. Many Kurds believe that the Turkish government is secretly aiding ISIL in order to weaken the Kurdish forces. Then again Iran believes (openly and frequently) that the United States created ISIL and actually controls it.

While Hezbollah still talks about attacking Israel the reality is that Hezbollah will remain tied down in Syria and fighting ISIL and other Sunni Islamic terror groups on the border for some time to come. Hezbollah leaders quietly admit this is necessary because as much as most Lebanese hate everyone involved in the Syria civil war (especially the Assads) they give Hezbollah credit for fighting to keep Islamic terrorist rebels from moving into Lebanon. There is growing opposition (to the Syrian operations) within Hezbollah and Hezbollah admits that it has arrested a growing number of its own armed men for refusing to fight in Syria. Since 2013 Hezbollah has suffered several thousand casualties in Syria and that has caused declining morale among the armed members of Hezbollah (mostly part-time militia who are paid for their part-time or full-time participation). While Hezbollah tells its followers that the new Iran treaty that will lift economic sanctions and mean more aid for Hezbollah this is not expected to change much. More money is not going to make Hezbollah more palatable to most Lebanese. Hezbollah leaders don’t discuss that openly. 

August 19, 2015: The government announced that the 82 year old head of antiquities in the central Syria city of Palmyra was beheaded by ISIL for refusing to disclose where some very valuable (and portable) antiquities were hidden. ISIL has become a major source of such antiques on the international black market for such items. This has become a major source of income for ISIL, which captured Palmyra in May and did not, as it has done elsewhere, destroy ancient (Roman) era ruins there. The Syrian government has long sponsored archeological excavations in Palmyra as the area is a major tourist attraction as are ancient artifacts found there. ISIL has actually been willing to do all sorts of deals to raise cash, this includes taking non-Moslems alive and then demanding ransom. If that fails they will sometimes kill the men and sell the women and children as slaves. Very old school as is the need for cash.

August 16, 2015: Six Russian made Mig-31M fighters landed at an airbase outside Damascus. Russia sold these to Syria back in 2007 thus Russia considers this delivery legal. Russia has shipped over a billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Syria since the civil war there began in 2011. Russia insists that this is not in violation of arms embargoes against Syria and are simply deliveries of weapons ordered before 2011. Syria delivers cash to Russian banks to keep these weapons coming 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 (the MiG-31s are used as interceptors and recon aircraft). Meanwhile Russian cargo ships continue to arrive and unload in Syria, plus numerous air freight flights. Russia quietly approved new shipments of small arms and electronic equipment, 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.

August 14, 2015: The U.S. Department of Defense initially doubted that ISIL was using chemical weapons, especially mustard gas. But today the Department of Defense confirmed that tests on an ISIL shell used against targets in Syria in early August revealed the presence of mustard gas. The story going around was that this chemical weapon was part of some secret supply of mustard gas that the Assad government did not surrender and that ISIL captured. It is possible that someone stole some Syrian chemical weapons in 2013 and later sold it ISIL. Back then the UN was having a hard time getting some rebel factions to allow UN chemical weapons destruction teams to reach bases where some of these weapons were stored. Syria appeared to have 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin) and 300 tons of mustard gas and had agreed to have them destroyed by the UN. Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The Syrian chemical weapons were stored at 20 bases including four manufacturing plants. The UN has authorized a force of 100 chemical weapons inspectors. The UN plan was to destroy the production plants and chemical warheads and bombs (that have not been filled with chemicals yet) by November 1st 2013 and this was largely achieved. This was done using tools and bulldozers to literally pull apart and smash stuff. The UN had authorized a plan that was supposed to destroy all Syrian chemical weapons within nine months. This was theoretically possible but subject to interference by the Assad forces or even the rebels (who have some of the chemical weapons storage sites under siege). While getting rid of the chemical weapons was a good idea it did not mean Syria would no longer have chemical weapons. The Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It is doubtful that the Assads held onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it would likely be used against them. But in late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for. The Americans doubt that ISIL is having any success in manufacturing chemical weapons. It was already known that ISIL was creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals. The most common chemical used is chlorine, but some shells have also been found filled with a grain fumigant and there are plenty of other noxious chemicals in areas controlled by ISIL. Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on. These are the symptoms reported by Kurdish fighters hit with these ISIL chemical shells although in some cases the symptoms were consistent with mustard. All this has happened before. Since most of the ISIL leadership also belonged to the pre-2008 Iraqi al Qaeda movement they are apparently familiar with similar tactics used before 2008 and content to use this sort of thing simply to terrorize their foes. Back in 2006-8 there were over a dozen suicide bombing attacks in Iraq that featured the use of chlorine as part of the bomb. These were recognized as attempts to use chlorine as a chemical weapon. These efforts were unsuccessful, despite the fact that the first chemical weapon attack in modern history, in 1915, used 168 tons of chlorine gas. Then, as now, chlorine proved to be an inefficient chemical weapon and was quickly replaced by more effective ones in 1915. The Islamic terrorists of 2007 also noted the ineffectiveness of their chlorine use in bombs, and intel monitoring picked up lots of chatter about obtaining more powerful chemical weapons. Then, and now, there are still many people in Iraq, and most are Sunni Arabs, who know how to manufacture more lethal chemical agents (like mustard gas, which burns skin, eyes, or your lungs, if you inhale it). ISIL may be trying to revive the 2007 effort but there is more speculation than evidence involved. ISIL has not captured any chemical plants capable of manufacturing the deadlier World War I chemical weapons and building such a manufacturing capability from scratch is very difficult and likely to be detected. The chemical threat from ISIL is, however, no longer just theoretical but a small quantity of mustard, or even sarin, will not be decisive. What worries the West most is ISIL getting something like sarin to the West for a truly spectacular terror attack. There is no evidence of that and, in general ISIL has had a hard time exporting its Islamic terrorist violence to the West.

August 12, 2015: American warplanes began operating out of the eastern Turkey airbase at Incirlik (150 kilometers north of Syria) to attack 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 Turkish president had to agree to implement these new rules and until the recent PKK problems the Turkish president had refused to do so.

August 5, 2015: Iran announced that it is preparing a new peace proposal for Syria. This will apparently incorporate Russian suggestions that the Assads be eased out (and into comfortable exile) and the growing anti-ISIL forces in Syria unite, if only temporarily, to deal with the common threat of ISIL. This will be a hard sell because many rebel factions in Syria hate Iran in particular and Shia in general. At the same time the U.S. announced that it generally agreed with the Russo-Iranian plan and welcomes an opportunity to end the violence in Syria.  

August 4, 2015: The head of the Russian airborne forces announced that if ordered to do so his troops were ready to go to Syria to fight Islamic terrorists in support of the Syrian government. The general noted that many Syrian soldiers had trained in Russia. The airborne forces, along with commandos and airmobile troops comprise about 100,000 military personnel the government can really rely on. These elite forces have to be ready to deal with emergencies across the vastness (11 time zones) of Russia. Some of those hundred thousand troops are regularly operating against Islamic terrorists in the Caucasus and some are in Ukraine or just across the border ready to move in. Several thousand are available for deployment to Syria.





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