Syria: Is There Anything Terrorism Can't Do?

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August 17, 2012: Many Syrian rebel leaders are threatening to provide sanctuary to Islamic terror groups after the Assad government falls if the West does not provide more support now. In particular, the rebels want air support, or at least a no-fly zone, like the one imposed on Libya last year. There are not a lot of Islamic radicals fighting with the rebels in Syria but they get a lot of publicity. For decades Syria was a sanctuary for many Arab terrorist groups. Most have since moved, but some remain and side with the Assad government. Then there is Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This is the largest Islamic terror group in the region and it backs the Assad government. Hezbollah is Shia (an Islamic sect hated by the majority Sunni and persecuted by Sunni radicals) and backed by Shia Iran. Al Qaeda and other Sunni Islamic terrorists have long benefitted from Syrian hospitality but that is all forgotten now. Al Qaeda sees a post-Assad Syria as a potential sanctuary, like the one Shia Hezbollah has enjoyed in southern Lebanon for decades.

Another senior Sunni member of the government has defected. Vice-president Farouk al Sharaa has turned against the Assads and fled Syria. Until he became vice president in 2006, he had been foreign minister. Sharaa called on the army to join the revolution.

Apparently Maher Assad, the president's hated brother, lost a leg in a bombing last month that killed four senior officials. This explains why Maher has not been seen since the July 19th explosion (carried out by one of the support staff who planted the bomb). President Basher Assad has not been seen in public since then, only in a few pre-recorded videos on TV.

The UN is pulling its observers out, having concluded that the government is not interested in any sort of peace talks and that the unrest has escalated to full-scale civil war. The observers will be gone by the 24th. In late June the UN declared Syria too dangerous for UN observers but did not withdraw them. Syria is still, technically, operating under a UN ceasefire negotiated in April, but never really observed.

Reports from defectors, rebels, and reporters indicate that the Assad government has lost control over most of the country. In most of the north and east the rebels are the government. But the Assad forces continue to conduct air raids into those areas. That won't be happening for much longer because of fuel shortages and the negative international media attention such air raids get.

The Assad family appears to have backing only from the Alawite (a Shia sect) minority it belongs to. The Alawites amount to fewer than two million of the 22 million Syrians. While the Assads cultivated the loyalty of non-Alawites (especially the wealthier and more educated families), these non-Alawites have proved to be unreliable after months of growing anti-Assad demonstrations and violence. In response, Assad has had his remaining security forces retreat to the major cities or rural areas (in the southwest along the coast) that are largely Alawite. There is some talk among Alawite diehards of retreating to this coastal strip and declaring an independent Alawite state, under the protection of Iran and, perhaps, Russia. It's unlikely that Turkey, the United States, or any other states in the eastern Mediterranean would tolerate such an arrangement.

A year ago, the Syrian security forces had 450,000 personnel (50,000 secret police, 300,000 troops and 100,000 police). But most of these, especially the lower ranking personnel, were not Alawite. Those non-Alawites have largely deserted or been confined to their bases because of questionable loyalty. As the fighting around Aleppo made clear, non-Alawite troops cannot be trusted and will desert, refuse to fight, or even turn on their Alawite officers and NCOs. For this reason the government is depending more on hastily organized (with the help of Iranian trainers and organizers) Alawite militias. The problem with militias is that they are poorly disciplined and tend to commit atrocities, especially when responding to attacks on their own families. These militias also tend to disintegrate if pressed too hard. So far, the fighting has left over 20,000 dead and there are currently several thousand casualties a week.

Fighting continues in Aleppo and Damascus. The rebels are difficult to pin down in urban environments. There are simply too many routes for gunmen in civilians clothing to use to escape approaching troops. The government has to be careful about their own troops suffering too many casualties, as this causes more desertions, even among Alawites.

Food, medical supplies, and other necessities are in short supply. Turkey has closed its border to commercial traffic and border crossings controlled by the government will not let foreign aid enter unless it is turned over to government officials. This the foreign aid groups will not do because they know that means any civilians the government deems to be "rebels" will get none of the aid. Turkey has also put more restrictions, and inspections, on Iranian traffic passing through Turkey. This has made the Iranians angry and diplomatic relations between the two countries are worse than they have been for years.

August 16, 2012: Four artillery shells landed near a village in northern Lebanon. There were no casualties.

In Lebanon Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped 20 Sunni Arabs and held them to force Sunni rebels in Syria to release Shia they had kidnapped. In response several Sunni Arab states (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar) ordered their citizens to leave Lebanon as soon as possible.

August 15, 2012: In the north warplanes bombed the rebel held town of Aazaz, destroyed several homes, and killed 31 civilians. The Syrian Air Force jets made other attacks that did hit rebel targets but caused few casualties. Because of the heavy rebel, and media, presence, this particular attack, and all the civilian casualties, got a lot of play on the electronic media.

August 11, 2012:  Turkey and the U.S. revealed that they had begun the planning necessary to implement a no-fly zone over Syria. Turkey is the only NATO member adjacent to Syria and has one of the largest air forces in the region. American warplanes are often based in Turkey. The two countries could implement a no-fly zone very quickly.

August 10, 2012: There was a brief gun battle between Syrian and Jordanian forces near the border crossing that many Syrians have been using to flee to Jordan. There were apparently no casualties and the Syrians backed off. Nearly two million Syrians have been driven from their homes by the fighting.

 

 

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