Turkish efforts to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria are blocked by American refusal to halt attacks on al Nusra (a major Islamic terrorist rebel group in Syria that is allied with al Qaeda) and demands that Turkey stop bombing Syrian Kurds who belong to PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists). Western nations back the Kurds because in Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. Moreover in Syria the Kurds there have incorporated some Arab militias (some Moslems, others Christian) into an effective combined force. The Turks don’t care much about all that and continue to see armed Kurds as a threat to Turkey.
The Kurds continue to advance south into ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) controlled territory while government forces, and their Russian and Iranian allies, are advancing in central Syria, pushing rebels away from the coastal province (Latakia) that is the Assad heartland. Government forces are also regaining ground around Aleppo, the second largest Syria near the Turkish border. Similar advances are being made in the south (Daraa province). These are advances are not dramatic because most of the million or so armed men (and some women) are mainly defending their own territory. Even ISIL does not have a lot of people available for offensive operations and still depends a lot on terror attacks to demoralize defenders so they will flee when ISIL gunmen do show up. ISIL has lots of problems because their forces are being stopped, and often pushed back, on the ground and the constant air attacks by Russian and Western warplanes are doing more and more damage.
Meanwhile the Turks are at odds with Russia over allowing the Assads to remain in power while everyone concentrates on destroying ISIL. Turkey has been dominated by Islamic politicians since the late 1990s and that means the government is willing to cooperate with Islamic terrorist groups that are not behaving violently inside Turkey. As always the Turkish government is very hostile to Kurdish separatists. Sunni Turkey backs the removal of the Shia Assads from power because for decades the Assads have been subordinate to and dependent on Iran, an ancient foe of the Turks. The Assads have treated Islamic terrorists badly for a long time and also gave sanctuary to Turkish Kurdish separatists (PKK). The Turks, especially the Islamic politicians, do not like the Assads. The Turks and Syrian rebels are also dismayed at a recent UN resolution that supports peace negotiations in Syria but does not demand that the Assads be removed in any peace deal.
The Russian willingness to abandon the Assads has angered Iran to the point that hundreds of Iranian advisors, trainers and commandos are being withdrawn from Syria. Another reason for the pullout is the rising Iranian casualties among these forces. While Russia is providing lots of air support Iran has since 2012 provided over 20,000 fanatic Shia mercenary fighters that have helped keep the government forces from being overwhelmed and destroyed. The Iranians are not willing to compromise on their support for the Assads and trust the Russians less because the Russians do not see the survival of the Assads as essential.
Turkey is hostile to ISIL, a group it was willing to tolerate when it first showed up in Syria in late 2013. As it became obvious that ISIL wanted to take control of Turkey the Turks responded with tighter border controls. These were meant to cut the amount of smuggling (of people and goods) ISIL depended on and reduce the number of foreigners seeking to enter Syria via Turkey to join ISIL. At this point Turkey has about 30 percent of its army stationed at 139 bases along the 900 kilometer long Syrian border. This has resulted in over 36,000 suspected ISIL volunteers being turned back and eight percent arrested as suspected Islamic terrorists. Many of those turned back got across anyway using smugglers. That is expensive and those that could not afford that and went home (to one of the 129 nations they came from). Despite this effort Turkey is accused of allowing people and supplies through for less radical Islamic terrorist groups like al Nusra (which, like Turkey, are focused on removing the Assads).
Further complicating relations with the Turks is the fact that the Russian presence in Syria and general agreement that ISIL must be destroyed has led the United States to go along with Russian demands that the war on ISIL include a halt in efforts to remove the Assad government in Syria. This, Russia insisted, was necessary to apply maximum pressure on ISIL. Russia intervened in Syria mainly to keep the Assads, who are long-time Russian allies and weapons customers, in power. Thus initially Russia did not attack ISIL unless ISIL was threatening Assad territory. But now Russia realizes that concentrating on ISIL can get other nations supporting Syrian rebels to ease the pressure on the Assads and, ultimately, allow the Assads to remain in power. Most Syrians oppose this, as does Iran, Turkey and many other nations in the region.
The Russian presence has forced the Americans to make other changes in Syria. For example the U.S. no longer sends manned aircraft into parts of northwest Syria covered by recently introduced Russian anti-aircraft systems. The Americans are apparently more concerned with an accidental Russian attack, which is seen as more likely than a deliberate one. Such an accident is more of a possibility because Russia and Turkey are feuding over who controls air space in the area, especially along the Turkish border. Since both the U.S. and Turkey operate F-16s an accidental attack on American aircraft is more than an imaginary risk as far as the Russians are concerned.
Russian air strikes in Syria continue to grow in frequency and intensity. These have killed over 2,000 people so far, about a third of the victims have been civilians. This is condemned as a war crime by many but is also why the Russian air strikes have been so much more effective than the larger number of American ones. Russia does not abort a strike because there is too much risk of civilian casualties. This makes ISIL more vulnerable to air attack than when just the Americans were handling it.
The Assad family that has run the country since the 1960s had managed to create a large organized military force. In 2011 Syrian security forces had over 500,000 personnel (50,000 secret police, 300,000 troops and 100,000 police plus reserves). Most of this force is now gone. Over 70,000 have been killed or badly wounded and over 200,000 have deserted and nearly 100,000 troops are in units that the government is reluctant to send into combat because of loyalty or morale issues. But since 2011 over 200,000 armed men have joined the Assads, mostly as local militia. There’s another 100,000 that are, in effect, garrisons in places like the east (near the coast), Damascus and towns and cities in central Syria that will fight defensively, but will not (or the government will not order them to) move elsewhere.
ISIL is believed to have about 15,000 personnel in Iraq and Syria. Most are armed, although many are not trained fighters and tend to work in support jobs. It is estimated that some 30,000 people have come to join ISIL since early 2014 but over half have since been killed, deserted or (more rarely) were not accepted in the first place. Most of these volunteers (and the many who are turned back at the Turkish border) came from Moslem countries with the largest source being Saudi Arabia. Moslems living in Europe comprised about 15 percent of the volunteers and about 70 percent of those came from France, Germany, Belgium and Britain. Very few (2-3 percent) came from the United States.
The four years of civil war in Syria has wrecked the economy and left about half the working age population without any, not much employment. Thus if you have skills ISIL needs they will pay and pay more than you could make even if you had a job outside the new ISIL “caliphate” (eastern Syria and western Iraq). You have to be Sunni Moslem and at least pretend you believe in ISIL’s fundamentalist religious and social doctrine. That is not difficult for most rural Sunni Arabs in Syria and Iraq.
December 19, 2015: In Damascus an Israeli air strike killed a Hezbollah commander, Samir Kuntar. The next day four rockets were fired into northern Israel but did no damage. Israeli artillery responded. Kuntar was notorious in Israel where he was released from prison in 2008 as part of the swap that got Hezbollah to return the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in Lebanon. Kuntar was in prison for a 1979 terrorist attack in Israel that left a policeman and two civilians dead. Kuntar was hailed as a hero when he returned to Lebanon in 2008 and later joined Hezbollah. Kuntar was a rare Druse who became an Islamic terrorist. Thus he was seen as valuable to Hezbollah and the Assads for his ability to attract Druse support.
December 18, 2015: NATO agreed to send some of its American made AWACS air control aircraft to Turkey to monitor the Syrian border and help avoid any more incidents like the late November one in which a Turk F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 because the Turks believed the Russian aircraft had flown into Turkish air space. AWACS keeps a record of what it can monitor (up to 400 kilometers away) and Russia would be less likely to dispute that kind of evidence. NATO is also sending more Patriot anti-aircraft batteries to Turkey.
December 15, 2015: In a rare success for the Russian space program Russia has managed to get ten of its 90 or so military satellites in position to support military operations in Syria. These satellites use cameras and sensors to monitor Syria as well as provide communications services for Russian troops there.
December 14, 2015: Israeli intelligence believes that over 30 percent of Hezbollah’s 20,000 trained fighters have been killed or wounded in Syria so far. Hezbollah is there at the request of Iran, which helped create Hezbollah (to protect the Shia minority in Lebanon) in the 1980s and continued sustaining the group with cash, weapons and technical assistance. The heavy losses in Syria were unpopular with Lebanese Shia and Hezbollah pulled most of its forces back to the Lebanon border and concentrated on keeping Islamic terrorists out of Lebanon.
December 13, 2015: In central Syria (Homs) a car bomb went off in a government controlled area killing 16 and wounding more than fifty.
Off the Turkish coast a Russian destroyer fired warning shots at a Turkish fishing boat that was ignoring orders to get out of the way. Earlier in the month a Russian warship passing through the Bosporus (the strait that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean) with a sailor on deck waving a portable anti-aircraft missile launcher at Turks on shore. This is all part of the continuing Russian anger at Turkey for shooting down a Russian jet in Syria in late November.
December 11, 2015: In the north (Hassakeh province) ISIL used three suicide bombers to kill 27 and wound nearly a hundred in an area it had recently lost to Kurdish coalition forces.
December 10, 2015: The U.S. believes it has killed three senior ISIL leaders (including their head of finance) since late November. This was done via increased air strikes against ISIL targets in eastern Syria. American banking officials report that ISIL is making as much as $40 million a month pumping oil from captured wells in eastern Syria and selling it to the Assad government or smuggling it into Turkey. ISIL has made about $500 million from oil sales in the last 18 months.
December 4, 2015: In the south (Daraa province) the al Nusra second-in-command was killed by a roadside bomb.
December 1, 2015: November was a violent month in Syria and nearly 4,000 died. About a quarter were civilians, another 30 percent were government troops and militia while the rest were from various rebel groups. As usual the losses in Syria were much (about three times) higher than in Iraq.