Syria: Siege Warfare

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September 25, 2012: The rebels fight on, proving exceedingly difficult to kill. This is the biggest problem the government forces have, and all their firepower (artillery and warplanes) ends up mostly killing civilians. This makes the government even more hated within Syria and worldwide. There are plenty of Syrians still fleeing the country, with fresh eye-witness accounts of government attacks on civilians. Over 300,000 have fled the country in the last 18 months, about three percent of them soldiers or police (who are usually interrogated by special teams, with some emphasis on catching any spies the Syrian government might be trying to get into refugee camps). Most of the deserters from the government forces stay in Syria, either joining the rebels or going home and joining local defense militias.

Much of the army strength is tied up in bases that are basically under siege by rebels. The troops can only get out (or get supplies in) via a major military operation. These isolated bases will eventually fall as they run out of food and ammunition. The rebels, ever careful about their own casualties (an important element in maintaining morale), are content to wait the army out. Foreign reporters are able to travel near these besieged bases and see for themselves this aspect of the war.  While the rebels can besiege government troops, the government cannot do the same to the rebels. Most of the countryside is under rebel control or a no-man's land. There are not enough loyal (to the government) police and soldiers to assert government control everywhere. Only in the largely Alawite areas along the coast is the countryside pro-government.

The rebels believe that the only thing keeping the government forces in action is the air force, whose helicopters and bombers provide an edge in terms of reconnaissance and emergency firepower wherever the army is in big trouble. The big problem the air force has is fuel, which it is rapidly running out of. Aircraft consume tons of the stuff each time they fly off on a mission. While Syria stocked reserves of aircraft fuel for emergencies (like a war), these are not being replenished. As the warplanes fly less, the Assad forces will lose more ground and, eventually, everything. Despite trying to make everything seem normal, the sounds of explosions and gunfire can still be heard in the capital, where rebels continue to battle soldiers and police. Even if you are deaf, you can't miss the columns of smoke rising from the sites of the fighting.

Electricity and water supplies in cities and towns in the north are failing. The main problem is equipment failures at a major dam in the north. But the fighting is leading to a breakdown in utilities.

Despite how important air power is to the government forces, NATO leaders insist that armed intervention (including NATO warplanes) would not have any impact on the fighting in Syria. Officially, NATO is pushing for a diplomatic solution. But the number of dead has precluded that. The Syrian government still insists that any compromise would have to leave the Assad family in power, and few of the rebels will go along with that. The UN continues to be stalemated by Russian support for the Syrian government and accusations that the Syrian rebels are puppets of the West and Israel. Russian media is full of stories supporting this line.

A growing FSA ( Free Syrian Army) problem is the continued presence of al Qaeda (and similar organizations) in Syria. These guys are on a Mission from God and not inclined to take orders, or even advice, from the FSA. Moreover, the FSA (or at least most members) want a democracy, while al Qaeda wants a religious dictatorship. For the moment the Islamic radical groups cooperate and tend to be fierce fighters. They comprise, at most (including all flavors of religious affiliation), ten percent of the rebels and the big fear is that after the government is defeated some Islamic radicals will become Islamic terrorists. For the moment the FSA and most Syrians are willing to put that problem off to the post-Assad future.

Eighteen months of fighting have left 25,000-30,000 dead, most of them civilians. The fighting has intensified over the last few months and there are currently over a thousand casualties a week. Most are civilians, but about 20 percent are government security forces and less than ten percent are rebel fighters. Caring for the wounded is becoming a huge problem, as medical supplies are in short supply.

September 22, 2012: The FSA announced that it is moving its headquarters from Turkey to northern Syria. The official FSA line is that the war will be won by the end of the year. This estimate is based on the fact that the government keeps losing ground and is cut off from reinforcement and supply. Iran is smuggling some men and material in, via Iraq. A smaller amount of stuff gets in via Lebanon and the small Syrian coastline. The resulting shortages hurt the morale of the few Syrians that support the Assad dictatorship. Rebels on the ground note that more and more troops are deserting. On paper the government should have over half a million armed men (regular forces, police, reservists, and secret police). But in practice the government has less than a half that and many of those cannot be trusted or relied on to actually fight (these troops are mainly on guard duty, trapped in isolated bases, or manning road checkpoints). The government, meanwhile, is telling its troops that they must fight or die (along with their families) because the rebels are bloodthirsty monsters who must be put down. There are monsters on both sides but the Assad forces are seriously outnumbered and time is not on their side. The government also says they will win by next year but the rebels show no sign of weakening.

FSA still has bases in Turkey and Lebanon, where some training takes place and fighters are equipped with weapons and equipment (especially radios and satellite phones, as well night vision gear). Equipment and cash is not always distributed in a manner agreeable to all the factions that belong to the FSA. Because of that there are still organizational and trust problems. While most FSA members served in the Syrian military, a growing number of young volunteers did not. These guys require some training, otherwise they will quickly get killed. The factionalism (usually because of religion or politics) makes it difficult to know who you can trust or rely on. It's like herding cats, only these felines have assault rifles, short tempers, and divided loyalties.

Israeli border troops in the north noted several mortar shells exploding nearby on the Syrian side of the border. This was apparently the result of continued fighting between Syrian troops and rebels in the area. The rebels have been fighting to control Syria's borders and have largely succeeded. In most cases this aids the movement of weapons, ammo, and other supplies for the rebels. But the Israeli border is tightly sealed, at least for the Syrian government. The rebels may have made other arrangements with Israel.

September 21, 2012: Thousands of people across the country took to the streets to demonstrate against the government, as they have every Friday for nearly two years.

Switzerland is angry at the UAE (United Arab Emirates) for sending Swiss made hand grenades to the Syrian rebels. News photos recently appeared clearly showing the grenades as a model exported to the UAE. The UAE responded by pointing out that the Swiss grenades arrived in the UAE before 2006, when the Swiss passed laws prohibiting re-export of Swiss weapons sold to other countries.

September 20, 2012: Rebels grabbed control of another of the main border crossings on the Turkish border. That makes three of the seven main Turkish crossings under rebel control. The situation is similar on the other borders (Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon).

September 16, 2012: An Iranian official admitted that members of the Quds Force have been operating in Syria. Quds is Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Quds is believed to be advising Syrian forces on how to deal with the rebels, and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Most of this is coming in by air.

 

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