The U.S. is now committed to increased aid for the rebels but has apparently not decided on how far to go yet. The rebels want what Libya got, especially the air support and a lot of weapons, ammo, and technical advisors (trainers, air controllers, intelligence, and so on). The most immediate need for the rebels is shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, especially current models of the American Stinger and similar systems from Europe. That may be a problem because the rebels could use these missiles to shut down the major airports. That would involve shooting down an airliner or two, with great loss of life. The Assad government has already warned commercial aircraft landing at Aleppo and Damascus to be alert to the possibility of ground fire. Pilots of Iraqi, Russian, and Iranian airliners and transports are particularly alert for this threat, which if it becomes acute enough will cause these two major international airports to be shut down. This would be a great victory for the rebels, even if a few hundred civilians had to die to make it happen.
To get the air campaign going the U.S. already has cooperation from Jordan, which currently has U.S. Air Force personnel and equipment on at least one of their military air bases. American personnel often visit Jordanian bases for joint training operations. But now the Americans are there to support the rebels. Jordan uses F-16 fighters, and if Arab nations join an air campaign it could get crowded. Unlike Libya, Syria has a larger and better prepared air defense system, so any air support for the rebels would have to be preceded by several days of air operations against Syrian warplanes, radars, and anti-aircraft missile systems. Some of these would survive and until the end of the civil war foreign warplanes would have to be alert to the threat of missile attack. Thus for the initial SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) phase you really need access to Turkish air bases. Saudi bases would probably be available and would do, although they are several hundred kilometers more distant and would require more aerial refueling. The Turks are distracted at the moment with large scale anti-government demonstrations (that have nothing to do with Syria).
It would be really helpful to have Israeli assistance, but as a practical matter, the Israelis could never officially cooperate with an air campaign to assist the rebels. Unofficially, the U.S. has already been quietly working with Israel. Israel and Jordan have long had similar, “quiet” military cooperation arrangements. In Arab culture Israel and Jews in general are popular objects of intense hatred. It’s been that way for centuries and customs like that are difficult to change, even in an emergency like this. Arab governments and senior military leaders can often adapt, but it must be done quietly to avoid a popular uproar.
Western governments see increasing aid to the rebels as the least bad choice. The rebels still contain a lot of Islamic terrorist groups, and these outfits make no secret of their desire to continue the fight against Israel and the West in general. Dealing with these terror groups during the fight against the Assads, and after the Assads are defeated, is just a given. Deal with it as you go along and get rid of the Assads first, who are now considered the unequivocal greater evil. In any event, the Islamic terror groups are doing what they usually do and making themselves unpopular among the civilians they are allegedly fighting to liberate. The terrorists attempt to impose strict lifestyles and are quick to execute suspected blasphemers or “spies.”
In the north government and rebel forces are bracing for another big battle. Hezbollah is moving more gunmen into the area and the Syrian Army is pulling more troops out of rebel dominated areas and moving them to Aleppo. There are increasing reports that North Korean military personnel have been seen aiding Syrian troops. This is nothing new. For years the
UN has been accusing North Korea of exporting nuclear weapons technology to Syria. North Korea denies everything. UN investigators have identified and tracked some major shipments. The UN believes that North Korea has been exporting $100 million worth of weapons and weapons technology each year. Sometimes shipments to Syria are intercepted and seized. There has been a constant stream of “visitors” from North Korea, who arrive and work in civilian clothes. They are not tourists.
Rebel morale took a big hit when the southern town of Qusair (10 kilometers from the Lebanese border) was lost on June 5th, after two weeks of ferocious fighting. The American announcement that more support will be on the way will help perk up rebel morale. That also encourages the Assads and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies to hit the rebels hard before more help arrives. It’s going to be a bloody Summer. Iran is increasing its efforts to recruit Shia men in Lebanon and Iraq to join the fight against the rebels. In addition to the cash, Iran appeals to Shia solidarity and the need for revenge and respect.
Iran is particularly upset at the prospect of active Western assistance for the rebels. Until the recent U.S. announcement of greater support, Iran believed its aid to the Assad government was serving it well. The weak international support for the rebels told Iranian reformers that if things got really violent in Iran, the Iranian rebels would be on their own. But that is no longer the message. Iran was particularly upset at how Libya showed a way for outside aid to effectively boost rebel success. With Syria about to turn into another Libya, potential Iranian rebels feel more confident and aggressive.
Casualties for the two year old civil war are running at over 20,000 a month. There’s a lot of casual violence (machine-guns, rockets, and mortars fired in the general direction of rebel and pro-government fighters and civilians). The ethnic and religious hatred also results in the casual use of civilians as human shields or hostages to get the army or rebels to do something (“do it or we kill the women and children”). It is getting very ugly. Overall deaths are approaching 100,000 and are currently nearly 5,000 a month. A growing number of deaths are caused by deliberate attacks on civilians. With all the deaths since 2011, there are a lot of people seeking revenge. Blood feuds are still a popular custom throughout the region. “Punitive raids” on civilians are becoming more common. It’s usually Sunni/Shia, although other ethnic and religious minorities can find themselves targets. It’s this sort of thing that is causing so many people to flee the country, if only until things cool down.
The Sunni/Shia animosity is getting more lethal in Lebanon as well as Syria. Sunni rebels are firing rockets and mortars at Shia villages just across the border in Lebanon. Northern Lebanon, where most Lebanese Sunnis live, has been the scene of growing Sunni/Shia violence for over a year now. In eastern Syria, where Sunnis predominate, violence against Shia is on the increase. The few besieged army bases out there shelter a growing number of civilians who could not make it across the border.
June 13, 2013: The U.S. announced that it had concluded that the Syrian government had indeed “crossed the red line” by using chemical weapons against the rebels. There were not a lot of cases of this, but there were enough confirmed instances (over a hundred deaths and many more injured) to trigger the earlier American pledge to get more involved if chemical weapons were used. The evidence has been piling up for weeks but it may have been the recent intervention by Hezbollah that spurred the U.S. to action.
June 11, 2013: In Damascus two suicide bombers attacked a police station, killing 14 people.
June 10, 2013: The wealthy Gulf States announced economic sanctions against Hezbollah, in retaliation for Hezbollah openly joining the battle against the largely Sunni rebels. This could mean shutting down known Hezbollah political and economic operations in the Gulf States.
June 8, 2013: In Homs a car bomb killed eight.
June 7, 2013: The rebel coalition refused to attend the Russian sponsored peace talks unless they first receive more military aid. The Western nations holding back on aid are in favor of negotiations, most rebels are not.