The revived Syrian Army and its Hezbollah shock troops have seized control of most of the roads from Lebanon. This makes it more difficult for the rebels to get people and supplies into Syria and makes it easier for Hezbollah to do that. There is one road, going through the town of Yabroud (60 kilometers north of Damascus) that the rebels still control and it is under heavy attack by the army and Hezbollah. The soldiers and their Hezbollah allies are securing the main roads needed to keep pro-government populations supplied and denying use of those roads to the rebels. These are the roads that run from Damascus (which is in the south) to Aleppo and the coastal area (which is largely pro-government).
Despite an international arms embargo on Syria, both sides are getting weapons. The rebels get theirs smuggled in via Turkey and Jordan while the Assad government gets all that and heavier stuff (armored vehicles, smart bombs. Aircraft spare parts and UAVs) via ship or flights from Russia. Most of the weapons for the rebels are paid for by the Arab Gulf oil states while the stuff for the Assads is paid for by Iran. Technically Russia is selling the military equipment to Syria but the major source of financial aid for Syria is from Iran. This breaks all sorts of rules because Iran is under more stringent arms embargoes than Syria. Russia and China use their permanent seats on the UN Security Council to block any efforts to enforce the prohibitions against sending weapons to Syria. Iran is also flying in a lot of weapons and personnel. Sending anything by ship is too risky as the Americans have apparently gotten too good at detecting seaborne weapons smuggling efforts into or out of Iran. Air freight is another matter, at least as long as Iraq continues to ignore the illegal flights. The Iranian transports have been seen landing at several different Syrian airports and even some rural airfields. Russia also provides electronic warfare and monitoring equipment along with personnel to operate this gear. Russia also provides operators for the UAVs while Iran provides lots of military trainers and security advisors and technical experts. The U.S. and NATO provide the rebels with electronic warfare assistance and the benefits of satellite reconnaissance photos. Saudi Arabia is trying to persuade Pakistan to supply Pakistani made anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles for delivery to the Syrian rebels. The only problem with this is that Pakistan would be blamed for any civilian aircraft brought down by the missiles.
Despite continuing attacks by ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) the Kurds are consolidating their hold on the northeast. On January 21st the Kurds declared an autonomous provincial government in the northeast. With the help of the autonomous Kurdish government of northern Iraq and the many Kurds in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds are keeping most of the war out of their territory. The Syrian Army considers the Kurds more trouble than they are worth at the moment and something that can be tended to once the other rebels are crushed. Many rebel groups get along with the Kurds and respect their desire to concentrate on protecting their own. Since the northeast is geographically out of the way the Kurds can do that. The Kurds do allow free passage for rebel groups they trust. The Kurds are 15 percent of the Syrian population, moderate and democratic Moslems, concentrated in the northeast. They have long opposed the Assads and are hated by the largely Iraqi ISIL (which has always hated the Iraqi Kurds). Allied with the Kurds are the Christians who are about ten percent of the population. Together have over 12,000 armed men available (mainly for self-defense). The Christian are also targeted by the ISIL, as they still are in Iraq. ISIL has been demanding that Syrian Christians pay large sums of money for “protection” (from ISIL abuse) and no longer practice their religion openly. Some Christians are fleeing to the Kurdish northeast (as preferable to fleeing Syria) to escape persecution by ISIL and other Islamic radicals.
The Syrian government continues to accuse Israel of sending agents to aid the rebels while some rebel factions accuse Israel of helping the Assad government. On a more practical level Syria is closing its embassies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia because of restrictions placed on its diplomats. Such restrictions are becoming more common worldwide including the United States where Syrian-Americans complained that Syrian diplomats were trying to cause trouble within the Syrian-American community. So the U.S., as it normally does in situations like this, put travel restrictions on Syrian diplomatic personnel.
Three years of war have killed over 140,000 Syrians (nearly 80 percent men, the rest women and children), wounded over 600,000, drove over three million Syrian refugees into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere plus more than twice as many Syrian refugees within Syria. The war has trashed the economy. Since 2011 the Syrian GDP has gone from $60 billion to $34 billion and is still shrinking. Much of the economy is no longer working, either because of facilities being destroyed or the workers have fled. Imports and exports are crippled because of the fighting. Unemployment is about 50 percent and what remains of a functioning economy is largely in government controlled areas. The government is using this economic chaos to its advantage by offering rebellious civilians economic relief if they will stop supporting the rebels. A growing number of rebel areas are accepting this form of defeat. The government and its suppliers Russia and Iran see eventual government victory although it may take years. There is growing confidence among Assad backers that foreign intervention is less and less likely and that the best thing the Assads have going for them are the Islamic terrorist groups who fight for (and increasingly against) the rebels. While the war could continue into the next decade, the Assads are willing to inflict that much suffering on Syria to remain in power.
In Lebanon Iranian backed Hezbollah leaders are having growing problems with the casualties their men are suffering in Syria. Because of this the leadership has to continue proclaiming their willingness to keep fighters in Syria to support the Assads. Many rank-and-file Hezbollah are not happy with being told to go fight in Syria. Sunni Arab nations are exploiting that doubt, seeking Hezbollah leaders who might be amenable to new leadership for their organization, and new sources of financial support. Hezbollah does not have many full time fighters and most of those sent to Syria are “reservists” who have received military training but are basically full time civilians. Over 2,000 of those “volunteers” have been killed or wounded so far. While Hezbollah only sends its fighters to Syria for a few months at a time, the high casualty rate and having to fight fellow Arabs is demoralizing. There is growing resistance when asked to go back to Syria for another combat tour. There is also growing radicalization of the anti-Hezbollah majority (Sunnis, Christians and Druze) in Lebanon because of the Syrian link. This has resulted in growing violence against Hezbollah personnel and property in Lebanon.
The government also offers protection from hardline Islamic terrorist groups like ISIL. Most rebels oppose these hardliners as well, in large part because these religious fanatics attempt to impose unpopular “Islamic” lifestyle rules on all civilians they come across. Few Syrians support these lifestyle rules but government “protection” offers are more attractive for its pledge to keep the Islamic radicals out as well. Despite the unpopularity of the Islamic extremists Syria has become a magnet for these fanatics. There are believed to be 25,000 of these radicals in Syria, about 60 percent of them Syrians (although some of these are sons of Iraqi or Palestinian refugees). A growing number of Islamic countries (including Saudi Arabia) are declaring the more extreme Islamic terrorist groups (like ISIL) to be criminal terrorists (as opposed to a lot of Islamic terrorist groups that are still officially tolerated within the Islamic world).
Islamic radicalism was always popular in Syria and the government allowed a lot of Islamic terrorist groups to have sanctuary in Syria with the understanding that there would be no misbehaving within Syria. That began to change after September 11, 2001 in large part because Syria was, after all, run by a secular dictatorship. This was just the kind of government al Qaeda wanted to eliminate in the Moslem world. In the last decade more and more Islamic radicals living in Syria decided to do just that in Syria. But while the idea of overthrowing the Assads and replacing them with some vaguely Islamic government is popular, all the strict lifestyle rules are not. Some Islamic radicals get this and do not try to force nearby civilians to comply, at least not yet. But groups like ISIL (and al Qaeda in general) are less prudent and demand all civilians they encounter comply with restrictive and generally unpopular rules (no school or work outside the home for women, no music, video or public entertainments and so on). ISIL has also developed a taste for public executions of uncooperative civilians. Some of these have been captured on video and put on the Internet.
Many foreign governments have noted that there are a lot of their citizens fighting in Syria. Some 20,000 foreigners are fighting in Syria, about half of them with Islamic terrorist groups. The rest are largely with the rebels but there are foreign volunteers fighting for the Assads as well. Most of these foreign radicals are from Moslem countries but about 20 percent are not and this has Western countries cracking down on citizens who go to fight in Syria. There is a lot more scrutiny on those who come back from Syria because it has become known that many Islamic terrorist groups have set up training camps in Syria to teach foreign volunteers how to be more effective Islamic terrorists back home. The Islamic terrorists do have a long-range plan and it includes more activists in the West who can carry out spectacular attacks there. The same strategy is planned for Moslem states and those countries are also making life more difficult for those who want to go fight in Syria.
Meanwhile the civil war between ISIL and most other rebels continues. This fighting has killed over 3,000 rebels since it began in January. Although the rebels deny it, there have been some informal truces with ISIL. The civil war within the rebel movement has cost the rebel side nearly 10,000 dead and wounded. Worse, ISIL is still around, especially in eastern Syria. There ISIL has ready access to the even larger ISIL forces in Iraq. Most ISIL groups are still fighting government forces, even if only with terror attacks. In part this is done to prevent more desertions by foreign volunteers, who are not enthusiastic about fighting fellow Sunni rebels. However, ISIL has gained some recruits who defected from Islamic terrorist groups still loyal to al Qaeda. That’s because ISIL represents the most extreme Islamic terrorist thinking and some guys when they get into the Islamic radical life get ambitious and ISIL is known to be the baddest of the bad. Despite that ISIL has been weakened, losing more than half its strength so far this year and about as much of their territory. Completely destroying ISIL appears to be less of a goal for other al Qaeda groups. A lot of the fighting in the last two months was over shared resources and these ownership disputes have largely been settled. Rebel commanders were unable to persuade many ISIL factions to switch sides and have settled with local agreements to leave each other alone and cooperate when mutual interests were involved. . That may work, because the rebel coalition still contains many loyal al Qaeda groups. The main thing that’s hurting ISIL in Syria and Iraq is their savagery, which appears to be getting worse.
March 9, 2014: After three months of negotiations the rebels and the government finally agreed to an exchange for a 13 captive Christian nuns (and three other Christian women) for 150 women held in prison for rebel activities. The Christian captives had worked in an orphanage.
March 5, 2014: On the Israeli border Israeli troops fired 120mm tank shells at three Islamic terrorists who were trying to plant a bomb on the border fence from the Syrian side. Two of the terrorists were killed by the shells and rifle fire. Syria complained to the UN that this was a violation of their border.
In the Red Sea, off the coast of Eritrea, Israeli commandos boarded a 110 meter (360 foot) long cargo ship and found 40 Syrian made M-302 long range (160 kilometers) rockets that were shipped to Iran where they were loaded onto this ship and hidden under a cargo of bagged cement. Israel believes the missiles were headed for Sudan and from there were to be smuggled into Gaza or Sinai for attacks on Israel. Then again, Iran has been supplying Sudan with weapons as well, although there has long been a secretive pipeline of Iranian weapons shipped to Sudan then smuggled via truck and tunnel to Gaza. Iran denied having anything to do with this ship despite the fact that Israel towed it to an Israeli port in the Red Sea for further inspection. That provided more evidence that this cargo was loaded at an Iranian port. Israel revealed that Israeli and American intelligence had noted the Syrian made rockets being flown to Iran, which was unusual. Israel traced the rockets being moved to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and loaded on the ship now in Israeli custody. That ship then went to an Iraqi port to load bags of cement that were used to hide the boxes containing the rockets. The cargo ship carried a fake cargo manifest stating that no cargo had been loaded in Iran. This is not the first time Israel has caught an Iranian arms smuggling ship. Since 2002 this has happened five times. Iran insists that this is all a publicity stunt invented by Israel to embarrass Iran. Yet it also demonstrates Iranian obsession with Israel, which is one of the main reasons Iran spends so much to support the Assads.
February 28, 2014: Hezbollah fired rockets on Israeli troops on the Golan Heights. The rockets missed and the impact areas were not found until the next day. Hezbollah later said this was payback for the February 24th Israeli air raid on a convoy carrying missiles out of Syria.
February 24, 2014: Israeli aircraft came in low over the Lebanese-Syrian border and fired missiles that destroyed two trucks and killed four Hezbollah men. Israel would not comment, which is their usual response to queries about air attacks on Syria. One of the trucks was carrying longer range rockets while the other truck contained a launcher for the rockets. On January 27th there was an Israeli air strike near the Syrian naval base at Latakia. This attack was said to be against some S-300 anti-aircraft missile components recently received from Russia. Before that an October 2013 raid destroyed a shipment of Russian SA-125 missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. There were two similar attacks earlier in 2013.
February 23, 2014: On the Golan Heights troops captured a village on their side of the border that had been fought over with rebels for more than a year.
In the north (Aleppo) a suicide bomber killed a senior al Qaeda leader and several others. ISIL was blamed for this attack but denied it had anything to do with the incident.