The Assads are having greater battlefield success in the last three month mainly because of the foreigners, who are there mainly because of Iranian cash and advisors. Iran has recruited an army of fanatic Shia men, mainly from Iraq and Lebanon, to revive the combat capabilities of the Assad forces. That, plus the growing divisions among the rebels, has allowed Assad forces to defeat the rebels in many areas. There are dozens of separate battlefields in Syria, and on most of them the rebels continue to hold their own. But in key areas like Damascus, Aleppo, and the Lebanese and Jordanian borders the Assad forces are pushing the rebels back.
Despite its own cash flow problems at home Iran continues to supply crucial support for the Assad government and those efforts are succeeding. Iran has not put a lot of Iranians into Syria, but there is a constant supply of cash (in the form of dollars and euros), very effective military, security and other advisors, and some equipment and weapons. The cash and personnel tend to arrive by air on several night flights a week from Iran. These flights cross Iraq, which tries to pretend they don’t exist, but American radar operating in Kuwait and aboard ships in the Persian Gulf can spot these flights, but complaints to Iraq continue to have no effect. There is still a lot of trade between Iran and Iraq and some of the trucks from Iran continue all the way to Syria. This is a dangerous route because western Iraq (Anbar province) is largely Sunni and full of Islamic terrorists. The government has nearly 30,000 police and soldiers in Anbar and thousands of men in pro-government militias. This is keeping al Qaeda from taking over Anbar and the violence there is increasing.
The Assads, with the help of Russia and Iran, have been trying to depict the rebellion as an effort by al Qaeda to establish a new base in Syria. While this is true, the Islamic terrorist groups are a small part of the rebel force and often more disruptive than helpful to the rebels. The Assads see the rebel lack of unity and coordination as an opportunity to put down the rebellion. To this end the government is deliberately making life miserable for pro-rebel civilians (the majority of Syrians) and has succeeded in driving most of them out of the country or their homes or cutting their living standards considerably. The UN estimates that over nine-million Syrians (40 percent of the population) are in need of food and other aid. A third of these people are still in their homes but cut off from food and other supplies. This is largely the result of a deliberate Assad strategy of cutting pro-rebel populations from supplies. The goal is to make continued rule by the Assads preferable to supporting the rebels. Lately the government has been making progress, aided by a foreign army of Shia fanatics organized (and paid for) by Iran and continued supplies of weapons from Russia. Iran also provides a lot of cash to keep the pro-Assad civilians living much better than the pro-rebel civilians. This sends a message, which more and more pro-rebel civilians are noticing.
Another measure of success for the Assad government is the change in the exchange rate for the Syrian pound. It is currently 115-120 pounds to the dollar. That’s up from 160 a week ago, 220 two months ago, and a peak of 300 three months ago. Inflation is still running at about 200 percent a year, and that will continue until the economy can be restored. The exchange rate was 50 pounds to the dollar before the rebellion began in 2011. The change in exchange rates also reflects the failure of the rebels to make much progress in the last few months. Aid from Russia and Iran has kept the Assad government and the Syrian Air Force going. Russian banks are also risking retaliation from the U.S. by helping the Syrian government get around sanctions.
American pressure on Iraq to block Iranian access (by land and air) to Syria has not worked and the Iraqis blame their lack of an air force or much anti-aircraft defenses. So Iraq is pushing the U.S. to hurry up with deliveries of F-16s and the training of Iraqi pilots and maintenance personnel. The Iraqis are also trying to make the U.S. understand the pressure Iraq is under from Iran, which has millions of supporters in Iraq and several armed and willing militias that are quiet now but could be ordered to attack the Iraqi government (run by more moderate but very corrupt and inept Shia).
Despite American promises last June to provide military aid for the rebels, not much has shown up. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies continue to be the main source of rebel weapons and other military supplies. Some of this stuff gets to Islamic terrorist rebels as these groups continue to be the most effective fighters (they are fanatic and willing to die, even if often less skilled than moderate rebels). The Saudi solution to this unfortunate (in Saudi eyes) lack of American action is to try and form a well trained and equipped rebel “army” in Jordan. American and NATO trainers have been helping out, but the number of volunteers has not been great. The Saudi plan was to create a trained rebel force of 50,000 men, but so far only a few thousand volunteers have been obtained.
The Islamic terrorist rebels depend a lot on high-profile battlefield successes to keep contributions (especially cash) and volunteers coming. Sometimes the press releases backfire. Such was the case when the Islamic terrorist groups recently claimed to have received public pledges from tribal leaders in eastern Syria. Some of these tribal chiefs openly denied any such pledges. Most of the tribal leaders in the east are willing to work with the Islamic terrorist groups but not become official allies. The tribes know from what happened in Iraq that getting too close to the Islamic terrorists can be dangerous for tribal leaders. But the Islamic terrorists are accustomed to raising cash and using the black market and smugglers to get their weapons and supplies.
The major rebel problem remains a lack of unity. The major divisions are ideological and ethnic. But there are also lots of tribal and political factions. The three major groups of rebels are seculars and Islamic moderates (about two-thirds of the armed men), Islamic terrorists (10-20 percent), and Kurds (10-20 percent). The Islamic terrorist rebel groups continue to get lots of foreign volunteers, especially from Arab countries. This includes Palestinians and Arabs living in the West.
The major disruptive force are the Islamic terrorist groups, especially the ones from Iraq. These guys have a problem with Kurds and believe Syria should be part of an Islamic “Greater Iraq.” The Iraqi Islamic terrorists have been largely responsible for the rebel violence against the Syrian Kurds in the northeast and have been trying to force the Kurds to obey orders from Islamic radical groups. The Kurds have resisted this and, as they did in Iraq, have defeated the Islamic terrorists in most clashes. The Iraqi al Qaeda have long had a hostile relationship with Iraqi Kurds and have been unwilling to put that aside for the sake of rebel unity. The Syrian Islamic radicals are more conciliatory with the Syrian Kurds, and this has caused some fighting between Islamic terrorist rebels. There is also a nasty feud going on among Islamic terrorist rebels over strategy and control of the Islamic radical agenda in Syria. This has been getting worse since June, when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with the decade old Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) as unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. The reason for this was that the merger was announced by ISI without the prior agreement of the JN leadership. The merger formed a third group, ISIL. That was the problem, as many JN members then left their JN faction to join nearby ones being formed by ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by the ISI and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. But ISIL was just an attempt by ISI (which has suffered over a decade of defeats in Iraq) to grab some glory, recruits, cash, and power by poaching JN members. JN appealed to Zawahiri for help and got it. That did not settle the dispute and ISIL continues to exist and violent clashes with JN continue to happen.
This was not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and it won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. This sort of factionalism never ends well. It destroyed the Islamic terrorist coalition in Iraq back in 2007 and recently did the same in Mali. It’s got Islamic radical factions killing each other in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Syria the Syrian led Islamic radical groups are not actively fighting the Iraqi led factions, but they are leaving the Iraqi terrorists to fight the Kurds by themselves, and the Syrian Kurds have united their own factions, and over the last few months this had led to a series of defeats for the Iraqi led Islamic terrorists. The government has tried to take advantage of the fighting between the Kurds and al Qaeda but both rebel factions will still turn and go after any government forces that show up. Meanwhile, the Assad government is offering a $3,600 reward for each foreign rebel captured.
The UN has determined that it would be easier to move Syrian chemical weapons out of the country (by truck, ship, and then truck to foreign chemical weapons disposal facilities) rather than building chemical disposal facilities in Syria and destroying the chemical weapons where they are in Syria. The most likely foreign disposal facilities are in France, Belgium, and Albania. There have already been demonstrations against this in Albania, which is in the midst of dismantling large quantities of Cold War era munitions. But Albania is the closest and a sharp boost in foreign aid would be attractive to the Albanian government. Hundreds of additional jobs would be appealing to people living around the current disposal sites there.
Meanwhile, Russian efforts to get peace talks going are not working. Neither side is really interested in serious discussions, not yet and maybe not ever.
November 7, 2013: A hundred kilometers north of Damascus (halfway to Homs) rebels captured a large weapons storage depot and Syrian troops promptly counterattacked to prevent all the weapons and ammo there from being taken away.
Outside Damascus troops, pro-government militias, and foreign Shia (especially Hezbollah) gunmen cleared another suburban neighborhood of rebel fighters. This is the third such neighborhood to be cleared like this in the last month.
November 6, 2013: In the south (Swaida) a suicide car bomb went off outside an air force intelligence compound, killing eight air force personnel. In Damascus a car bomb went off outside a railroad station killing eight people.
Turkish police seized a truck carrying 1,200 RPG rockets. This happened 200 kilometers from the Syrian border because the Turks have increased surveillance of all the roads leading to the border in an effort to halt all manner of smuggling. Turkey will allow official weapons shipments that are going to moderate rebels groups. But the Islamic terrorist groups tend to reply on smugglers.
November 4, 2013: Turkish police seized three tanker trucks carrying industrial chemicals (sulfer and such) after the drivers failed to produce the proper documents and fled into Syria, abandoning their vehicles.
November 2, 2013: Rebel leader colonel Abdel Jabbar Ukaidi resigned from his job as a senior FSA (Free Syrian Army) commander in Aleppo. He blamed lack of cooperation from FSA and Islamic terrorist rebel units and lack of support from outside Syria (mainly supplies of weapons, ammo, and medicine). Ukaidi said he would continue to support the rebellion but had had enough of trying to exercise command.
In Damascus a car bomb killed ten people.
October 31, 2013: Syria met the deadline for destroying their chemical weapons manufacturing facilities and chemical weapon equipment that did not contain chemicals.
An Israeli air strike near the Syrian naval base at Latakia destroyed a shipment of Russian SA-125 missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This was the sixth Israel air strike in Syria since 2011. The 1970s era SA-125 (NATO called it the SA-3 Goa) surface-to-air missile system has a basic design that is old but it has been frequently updated since its introduction 40 years ago. The two stage SA-125 missiles weigh nearly a ton and carry a 59 kg (130 pound) warhead against targets 35 kilometers away (and altitudes as high as 18,000 meters). There is also a smaller missile, weighing closer to half a ton, with a range of 15 kilometers. Having two different size missiles for the same system is a common practice with the Russians (and some other nations as well, like the U.S. Patriot system). Users have upgraded or modified their SA-125 missiles and radars themselves over the years. The most notable example of this was in Serbia, in 1999, where a missile battery commander used SA-125s to shoot down a U.S. F-117 stealth aircraft. He did this by using human observers a lot and his radar rarely. Since the SA-125 can be controlled (flown) by a ground operator, once the F-117 was located, an SA-125 missile was launched and flown manually to the target. This was simple and effective and largely immune to countermeasures. This feat gave SA-125 sales a shot in the arm, and the Russians opened a new factory to meet the demand (worth over $250 million). But nations don't buy the inexpensive, and reliable, SA-125 because one took down a stealth fighter. No, the missile provides basic air defense against neighbors who don't have high-end air forces. The SA-125 provides basic air defense and keeps aerial smugglers, and secretive users of UAVs, nervous. The SA-125 would not halt Israeli air operations in Lebanon but would require more effort to take out the SA-125s before major air attacks.