Syria: Calling On The Balkan Ghosts

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June 6, 2013: Hezbollah is sending more gunmen to Syria, largely because of the recent victory in the border town of Qusair (10 kilometers inside Syria) from the rebels. This battle began on May 18 th, and lasted about two weeks. When the rebels controlled Qusair the government did not have easy access to the coast from Damascus. Now the rebels have a more difficult time getting Sunni support from Lebanon. The rebels defended the town largely with armed locals and it took over a week for reinforcements from other parts of the country to arrive. But it was not enough and now the rebels will have to try and build up forces in the area and retake the town. This victory is a big deal for the Assads and Hezbollah. The secular and Islamic radical rebels defending the town had always been able to prevail against Assad troops, who have lost control of most of the country. Now, with Hezbollah, Assad has some religious fanatics of his own. The Sunni Islamic radicals are more fanatic but less well trained and disciplined than Hezbollah, which has been supported (with cash, missionaries, weapons, and trainers) by Iran since the 1980s and is solidly semi-pro.

The Assad soldiers and their Hezbollah allies managed to defeat their fanatic opponents. However, the first lesson from this battle was that the Assad/Hezbollah alliance could not blitz (hit hard, demoralize, and roll over) the rebels, at least not when the defenders have some of these fanatics among them. Hezbollah and the Assad troops, guided by their Iranian advisors, learned quickly how to deal with the rebel resistance. Hezbollah gunmen were used when the ground fighting got tough, with Syrian army infantry largely withdrawn to provide security elsewhere around the town. Syrian army artillery and air power were still present, mostly killing civilians (most of the 30,000 inhabitants fled during the battle). It was a bloody battle, by the standards of this war, with several thousand casualties, including over a hundred dead Hezbollah men.

The two year old civil war has killed about 90,000 so far and nearly a fifth of the population are refugees (with over half a million outside the country). This gives the Sunni neighbors even more incentive to help defeat the Assads and Iran. Otherwise, the largely Sunni refugees they are hosting will become permanent and a continuing economic and social burden.

The rebels would really like some foreign intervention, like right now, like how they did it so well in Libya. NATO countries are still divided on the issue, but many NATO politicians are pointing out that this sort of indecisiveness has happened before. In the 1990s no one wanted to intervene in the fighting that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia. While NATO dithered some 200,000 people died in Bosnia alone. Later (1999), NATO was quicker to intervene in Kosovo, where Serbia was massacring Albanians. Now it’s happening again in Syria and the calls for NATO action (as in Libya two years ago) are getting louder and harder to ignore. Meanwhile, the rebel coalition is falling apart with accusations that the Western-backed SNC (Syrian National Coalition) was corrupt and more interested in stealing aid than helping those fighting inside Syria.

The Assads continue to use their ballistic missiles against the rebels, but these weapons deliver their half ton warheads with such inaccuracy that most of the casualties are civilians. Most air strikes in the last two weeks were directed at Qusair.

In the east many (nearly 10,000) of the 152,000 Sunni Syrians who had fled to Iraq have returned home because Assad forces are almost entirely gone from eastern Syria. More are planning to do so.

Despite being called (largely in the Islamic media) secret partners with Iran or the rebels in Syria (take your pick), Israel could decide the war in a few days if it attacked the Assad (Syrian government) forces by air. That is not likely to happen. Israel is concerned about a post-Assad government, because of the power and influence Islamic terrorist groups might have. But an Assad victory is nothing to look forward to either, as more pro-Iran terrorists will be on the Israeli border. It’s a no-win situation and getting accused of supporting both sides is the least of it. The rebels will probably still win but it’s going to take longer and Israel is hoping something good for Israel might come out of this mess.

Russia and Syria are insisting that shipments of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems (similar to the U.S. Patriot) have arrived in Syria. Israel does not believe this and is apparently watching all this very carefully. Israel is determined to prevent the S-300s from becoming operational if they do arrive. The S-300s are a threat to Israeli aircraft and Israel will continue its air raids in Syria to stop any new weapons from getting to Lebanon and Hezbollah and to halt activation of the S-300 anywhere in Syria or Lebanon. If the S-300 did show up in Syria (or Lebanon) Israel would probably attack it right away, before these systems could become operational. If Syria wanted to get the S-300s operational quickly they would need the help of Russians, who would probably become casualties from the Israeli air attacks. The Russians might risk it because they have seen their weapons used on the losing (Arab) side in the Middle East for over four decades. Sure would be nice to turn this around. An attempt at this would tempt Russia to introduce more than a few troops and technicians to help activate the S-300 systems. Even then, the Russians would be up against more experienced and determined troops and risking another embarrassing defeat. This game of bluff has been played out in private by Russian and Israeli diplomats for years. The three Israeli air raids on Russian weapons in Syria this year were the Israeli response to Russians flying in more missiles (anti-ship and less capable anti-aircraft systems). The Russians keep changing their minds on the S-300s, which, if operational, can detect and attack aircraft 200 kilometers away, deep inside Israel. Against this threat Israel has electronic protection on its warplanes, but these defenses are not perfect and commercial aircraft are unprotected. In short, Israel cannot afford to allow S-300s into the region, not with terrorist groups like Hezbollah or al Qaeda standing by to get their hands on these missile systems. Israel also fears that if the S-300s do fly in, they will be quickly transferred to waiting Iranian transports and flown to Iran. After all, Iran paid for them but is banned from getting them directly because of sanctions. The Russians could have delivered the S-300s to Syria three years ago, when they were ordered, but have not. The delay is all about the Russians understanding the Israeli situation and not wanting to trigger a response that would hurt Russia. The continued threats to deliver S-300s is, however, much less risky.

Most Palestinians (who tend to be Sunni and Christian) have come out in favor of the rebels. This has caused problems for the Palestinians in Gaza. There, Islamic radical group Hamas is having problems with Iran, who used to be a major financial backer. Most of that money has dried up in the last year because of Hamas supporting the Sunni rebels in Syria (who are trying to overthrow a pro-Iran Shia minority government). Hamas has run Gaza since 2007.

June 5, 2013: The rebels admitted that they had lost Qusair and now fear that the Assad and Hezbollah forces will now try the same thing against Aleppo, where rebels hold half the city. The rebels say they will retaliate against Hezbollah for this invasion by attacking Hezbollah inside Lebanon. This was already happening during the battle for Qusair and will now increase as Lebanese Sunnis (including some Palestinian refugees and some Lebanese Christians) increase their attacks on Hezbollah. All this is a serious threat for Hezbollah, which is backed by only about a third of the Lebanese population (and Iran) and is considered a bully and bad for the country by most Lebanese. Hezbollah has to worry about either most Lebanese or Israel trying to take apart their organization in Lebanon (mostly in the south and the central Bekaa Valley). On the plus side, most Lebanese are hostile to an Israeli invasion, even if it is only to destroy Hezbollah. So it’s really up to the Lebanese government, which is still intimidated by Hezbollah and the assassins the Iranian-backed group has used against Lebanese leaders who become too dangerous to Hezbollah and Iranian interests in the past. In any event, Hezbollah will likely only use a small part of their trained fighters in Syria. Hezbollah has about 10,000 well trained fighters and five times as many military age males with some training and weapons who can be depend on to defend Hezbollah interests, if only in their own village or neighborhood. Normally only about a thousand Hezbollah gunmen are full time, but during periods of heightened danger (like the last year) more are called up. There appear to be over 3,000 on active duty now and more are apparently being activated, organized, and given refresher training. Iran is paying for this, as well as raises and bonuses for Syrian army troops. Thousands of the less trained Hezbollah reservists have also been activated in areas along the Syrian border. These men will serve part-time to provide security in their home areas.

Some Hezbollah men have been encountered by rebel forces in Aleppo and Damascus. These men, and a smaller number of Iranian advisors and trainers, are working to reorganize, rearm, and retrain the few army units the Assads can still depend on, as well as doing the same for the many local self-defense militias (mainly Alawite but also Christians and other minorities that fear the rebels).

The war in Syria is increasingly all about Iran. Syria is turning into a battlefield for the growing conflict between the Saudi Arabia led Sunni majority (about 80 percent of Moslems) and the Iran led Shia (ten percent of Moslems). As the underdog the Shia really needed the win in Qusair, but now the Sunnis are motivated to do something dramatic to show those Shia their proper place in the world.

In eastern Lebanon five rockets were fired at the Hezbollah controlled city of Baalbek.

June 2, 2013: In north Lebanon (Tripoli) fighting again broke out between Sunni and Shia Lebanese, leaving six dead and 41 wounded. The government has not been able to quell this violence, which has been getting worse over the last year. The big problem is that local Sunni and Shia politicians will not support a real crackdown, mainly because their followers are very angry. The Hezbollah backers like the idea of a powerful, autonomous Shia army controlling much of the country. The Sunni and Christians don’t like much of the country being “occupied” by agents of Iran. Many Lebanese fear that the violence in Tripoli is spreading and will reignite another civil war. The last one (1975-90) was a major catastrophe with five percent of the population killed or seriously injured, a fifth of the population losing their homes, and a fifth of Lebanese fleeing the country. The economy was wrecked. Younger Lebanese have no memory of this nightmare, but those in charge sure do and are reluctant to start it all over again. Despite that, most Lebanese are hostile to Syria, in part because Syria occupied most of the country from 1990 to 2005, as part of the peace deal that ended the civil war. The Syrians used the occupation to aid Hezbollah and operate many criminal enterprises (some of which remained after Syrian troops were forced by Lebanese and Syrian pressure to leave in 2005). Another reason for anti-Syrian sentiments is the desire by many Syrians to make Lebanon part of Syria again. Over the last two thousand years, that was often the case. But for most of the last century Lebanon has been independent and most Lebanese want to keep it that way. Most Lebanese believe that whoever wins in Syria, Syrians will still believe they own Lebanon.

June 1, 2013: In eastern Lebanon sixteen rockets mortar shells were fired at the Hezbollah controlled city of Baalbek.

May 30, 2013: In a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon Palestinians burned aid provided by Hezbollah. This was a public statement of hostility for Hezbollah which has long sought to create good relations with the mostly Sunni Palestinians.

The UN agreed to add the Jabhat al Nusra Front, the largest Islamic terror group fighting for the rebels in Syria, to its list of sanctioned international terrorists. Nusra is openly allied with al Qaeda.

 

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