Syria: Bring Out Your Dead

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April 19, 2013: Both sides are concentrating on battling for roads and military bases. The roads are critical for getting supplies, especially food, medicine, and fuel into the country. This is more of an issue for the government, which must hold the capital (Damascus) in order to perpetuate the fiction that it still rules the country. The roads from Damascus to the border are increasingly unavailable to the government. Military bases are key because this is where troops and their families live. Weapons and other supplies are stored there. Support facilities are at the bases. When a base is lost, many of the surviving troops who lived there tend to desert. The weapons and support facilities captured by the rebels are put to use, although the government troops are under orders to destroy what they cannot defend. That doesn’t always happen because the bases are sometimes lost after a surprise attack. More frequently there is a long siege and the base is lost bit by bit. The latest example of this is the Dabaa air force base outside the city of Homs, near the Lebanese border. The air strip has been useless, because of rebel fire, for two years now but the government troops have held on because the base helps to guard the nearby road from Damascus to Lebanon. The troops have been steadily losing the base and soon the base, and the road connection, will be lost.

Another favorite battleground is the air defense bases that tend to be on the border. These are smaller, as all they usually contain are radars and anti-aircraft missiles. There are also support facilities and housing for the troops and their families. Many of these have fallen, but the ones that are near key roads tend to be more energetically defended.

The rebel coalition is splitting into democratic and Islamic radical factions. The two factions cannot agree on what post-Assad Syria should be (a democracy or religious dictatorship). One of the larger Islamic radical factions (the Nusra Front) recently declared it was now part of al Qaeda. While the Islamic radical militias are more effective in combat (because suicide attacks are more popular with their members) they are gaining control of territory faster than the more moderate groups belonging to the official rebel combat command, the FSA (Free Syria Army). This outfit is the military wing of the SOC (Syrian Opposition Coalition) which is losing the allegiance of the Islamic radical groups.  But the Islamic radicals also have problems, the main one being that they don’t get along with each other. In the long run that is why Islamic terror groups are not very successful at taking control of nations and running them. While the Islamic radical groups continue to gain recruits, they still comprise less than a quarter of rebel manpower. The SOC has the unity and will eventually prevail but only after a post-Assad civil war. Meanwhile, the Islamic radical groups have their fans among the Syrian population, if only because they more quickly drive out government troops and officials. That admiration fades eventually when the Islamic radicals try to impose their strict lifestyle rules.

Civilians are suffering the most in this two year war. The guys with guns tend to get priority when it comes to supplies (food, fuel, medicine) and civilians often have to flee to avoid starvation (and the lesser dangers of combat). About a quarter of the Syrian population has suffered this fate so far and it’s feared that up to half could be refugees (mainly inside the country) in the next year. Nearly 30 percent of the refugees are outside the country, and this has become a major problem for Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The rebel strategy is to try and shock the Assad supporters into surrendering sooner by taking Damascus. Without the capital the Assad clan has a much weaker claim to being the government. As it is, most Arab states now officially recognize the SOC as the true government. This had made it easier for FSA to get more weapons and to interrupt shipments of weapons to the Islamic radical groups.

The basic problem with the Islamic radicals is that they make it clear that once the Assads are gone they will fight for control of Syria and eventually the world. This means Moslem and non-Moslem countries are the eventual targets, so these guys have few allies outside Syria and don’t agree with each other inside Syria. This is already becoming a problem inside Syria where there have already been some skirmishes with FSA fighters. The FSA now insists that it does not supply the Nusra Front with weapons or ammo and that there is no official cooperation or coordination with them on the battlefield.

NATO and Arab countries are increasing their efforts to curb groups outside Syria that recruit young men to go join the Islamic radical groups. Also under increasing attack are efforts to smuggle weapons to the Islamic radicals. Turkey has been the most effective at halting these smuggling efforts. Iraq, on the other hand, has had a very difficult time. While Iraq (as a friend of Iran) wants to keep weapons from the Syrian rebels, their Syrian border is largely occupied by Sunni Arabs, who often have kin on the Syrian side of the border. Syrian Islamic radical groups are striving for control of eastern Syria, mainly to protect their most reliable supply line.

Britain and France are again pressuring the UN to try and investigate new allegations that Syrian Army artillery are using shells containing chemical weapons, as well as bombs filled with chemical weapons (usually dropped from helicopters). Britain and France have both received soil samples and photos from inside Syria that purport to prove the use of chemical weapons. Both countries believe the evidence is credible but the UN has to face the opposition of Russia and China on anything like this involving Syria. The Assad government denies all these allegations and refuses to cooperate with any UN investigation. In response the UN has sent its investigators to refugee camps to talk with any witnesses or victims they can find. Despite the fearsome reputation of chemical weapons, their real or imagined use has not demoralized the rebels.

The UN has agreed to lift the oil export embargo on Syria but only for recognized rebel groups. A growing number of oil wells in eastern Syria are now under rebel control and still able to produce.

The Assad government appears to have decided that the Kurds are not neutral and has been attacking Kurdish positions with artillery and warplanes. The Kurds control the northeast and continue to skirmish with Islamic radical rebel groups. Kurds comprise about ten percent of the anti-Assad force and have tried to remain neutral. But it’s no secret that most Kurds are hostile to the Assads and have always been. The recent attacks are apparently an attempt to intimidate the Kurds into staying as neutral as they have been.

Iran is still flying cargo and personnel into Syria, mainly Damascus. Truck convoys are more difficult to use because the routes from Iraq have to get through eastern Syria, which is increasingly controlled by rebels. Iran continues to fly in stuff to Lebanon, where its Hezbollah subsidiary is believed to have thousands of men on the border and just over it. The rebels have complained to Lebanon and the UN about this, without much success. Hezbollah has long controlled most of southern Lebanon and the Syrian border and the Lebanese military is not strong enough to contest that. 

April 17, 2013: The U.S. announced that it would send about 200 army specialists in intelligence, logistics, and operations to Jordan, where they would assist FSA commanders who are running the rebel bases there and the rebel campaign to take Damascus. There are already hundreds of American troops in Jordan to help with training and logistics for the rebels.

April 16, 2013: In Aleppo rebel and army commanders in a northern neighborhood agreed on a one day truce so over fifty bodies could be removed. The weather is getting warmer and the bodies (mostly of civilians killed by snipers) could become a health hazard to both sides if not removed.

 

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