ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS), despite continuing difficulties encountered fighting while fighting other rebel factions, the ISIL recently repeated its assurance that it would crush Kurdish resistance in the northeast. This is bold talk from an organization that has lost half its strength in the last few months and had little success against the Kurds (who are consolidating their hold on the northeast). Back in January 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, especially for their role in the overthrow of Sunni champion Saddam Hussein). Allied with the Kurds are the Christians who are about ten percent of the population. Together the two groups have over 12,000 armed men available (mainly for self-defense). The Christian are also targeted by the ISIL, as they are in Iraq. Many Christians are fleeing to the Kurdish northeast (as preferable to fleeing Syria) to escape persecution by ISIL and other Islamic radicals.
The ISIL obsession with the Kurds is but one of several bad habits that have seriously hurt this Islamic terrorist group. The ISIL feuding with other rebels (both secular and Islamic radical, including al Qaeda) has been one of the main reasons the Assads are now winning the civil war. The other reason is the support from Iran and Russia. Iran has contributed billions of dollars and sent in several thousand advisors and specialists to organize a force of fanatic foreign mercenaries (largely from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and from Iraqi Shia militias) who match the ferocity of the Sunni Islamic terror groups that are the fiercest fighters on the rebel side. Iran also helped organize militias among pro-Assad civilians and these defensive forces tie down nearby rebels.
The ISIL-al Qaeda split also represents something of a generation gap. Al Qaeda is run by older men who began fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as Islamic radicals worldwide flocked to Pakistan to join the fighting in Afghanistan against the Russian invaders. Now older, wiser and in charge they are being challenged by younger Islamic terrorists running operations like ISIL, who believe violence, not any kind of restraint, is the way to victory. Al Qaeda has expelled ISIL and ISIL doesn’t seem to care. While al Qaeda has a strategy for world conquest ISIL seems to have a death wish, for themselves and anyone they encounter. The ultra-violence preferred by ISIL (and similar new generations Islamic terrorists like al Shabaab and Boko Haram) is counterproductive but the new guys don’t seem to care. The inability of the rebels to unite, coordinate their operations and back off on the atrocities has made much foreign aid impossible. Western nations saw what happened in Libya in 2011 when NATO provided air support and after the quick rebel victory the rebels could not unite and form a government. The Libyan rebels are still fighting each other there and tolerating Islamic terrorist groups. Syria looks to be more of the same and the West does not want to support it.
This lack of unity is even discouraging some pretty hardcore Islamic terrorists, many of whom are leaving Syria and showing up in Yemen, Africa, Pakistan and many other places as well. This civil war within a civil war has dismayed many Islamic terrorists and hundreds have left Syria in disgust, some to go home and ponder the meaning of it all while many have sought a battlefield where you didn’t have to fight fellow Islamic radicals. For many that means Yemen. Africa and Pakistan.
Government forces are regaining control of border crossings with Lebanon and Turkey, which makes it more difficult for the rebels to get weapons and supplies. Holding those crossings makes it easier for the government to get supplies in and people out. This access is key to the government strategy of offering pro-rebel civilians an offer they can’t refuse; food and other supplied in return for loyalty. In short, if you oppose the Assads you starve, freeze and suffer from lack of medicine. A growing number of civilians are choosing survival over rebellion. This has disheartened the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels. The Gulf Arabs are not entirely surprised because the larger problem is the inability of the rebels to unite. That is largely the fault of the Islamic radical groups like the ISIL who don’t and won’t play well with others. The Gulf states have been unable to convince ISIL to be more cooperative. The rebel movement is, effectively, out of control and suffering greatly from self-inflicted wounds.
The war in Syria is spreading to Lebanon. This has been getting worse over the last year as Sunni Lebanese joined the fight via local militias or by joining Islamic terrorist groups. In Lebanon the fight is often between Sunnis and Shia. Hezbollah is a Shia militia organized by Iran in the 1980s to protect Shia interests in Lebanon (where Shia are the largest minority in a nation of religious minorities). The biggest loser was the Sunni minority, who had long dominated the less educated and wealthy Shia. By embracing Islamic radicalism (especially al Qaeda), the Lebanese Sunni found themselves with a suitable weapon to use against the better organized and more numerous Hezbollah gunmen. The terrorist attacks occur all over the country, wherever there are Hezbollah facilities or Shia populations (mostly in the south). In the northern city of Tripoli, with its Shia and Sunni neighborhoods, local militias have been battling each other for years now. So far in 2014 there have been hundreds of casualties even though the army and police struggle to maintain the peace. The Christians Arabs of Lebanon were the majority (nearly 60 percent of the population) after World War II but lost that through migration and a higher Shia and Sunni birthrate. The Christians are still the best educated and wealthiest minority and largely anti-Hezbollah.
One reason for the increased Islamic terrorist violence in Syria is the increasing difficulty new Islamic terrorists have getting across the border into Syria. A growing number of these new Islamic terrorist volunteers instead join Lebanon based groups to fight Hezbollah where the Shia live.
Three years of war have killed nearly 150,000 Syrians (about 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 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.
The UN investigation into the Syrian fighting has found a pattern of deliberate violence against civilians it expected from al Qaeda but was surprised to find such bad behavior was a government policy as well. It was also discovered that a lot of the government atrocities against civilians were carried out by an unofficial but very real government backed Shabiha militia. This group has been around for years and was long part of the government secret police effort to control the population. The investigators have known about Shabiha for several years but as more Assad insiders come forward there is a more accurate picture of how Shabiha operates and who the key players are. The government never acknowledged Shabiha, whose members were often criminals and thugs. But with the civil war a growing number of senior members of the Assad government have defected to the rebels and supplied details on Shabiha. While al Qaeda gets the most publicity for atrocities against civilians the Shabiha has actually been worse, sometimes wiping out entire pro-rebel villages and killing their victims in gruesome ways (slit throats or torture for no particular reason). UN investigators are building a case for war crimes charges against al Qaeda (and other Islamic terrorist groups) and the Assad government.
The UN deals with the Assads and the rebels to allow aid convoys to reach civilians cut off from supplies has fallen apart as both sides increasingly fire on the trucks despite the UN markings. There are over nine million civilians in Syria who need this aid, most of them in pro-rebel areas. The Assads have deliberately targeted pro-rebel civilians with blockades and terror at the hands of vicious pro-government militias. The government denies these charges but the starvation and terror continues.
Syria has shipped out 45 percent of its chemical weapons but is still behind schedule to get them all out and destroyed by June 30th.
Rebel hopes that Turkey would intervene continue to fade as the leadership in Turkey faces a rebellion of sorts. For over a year now Turkish citizens have been increasingly vocal in protesting against their government. The main target is prime minister Erdogan. Protestors nation-wide are angry with what they perceive as increasingly authoritarian behavior by Erdogan. The common complaint is Erdogan’s self-righteousness, arrogance and increasingly autocratic behavior. The arrogance can be attributed to Erdogan’s personal and very public disrespect for his political opponents. Many Turks believe that Erdogan’s personal animosity extends to any Turk who disagrees with any of his policies and decisions. Such profound and ingrained disrespect has led to disregard for the law and the use of state power to silence his critics. Erdogan threatens reporters with lawsuits and criminal charges and often follows through. He threatens opposition media and uses his authority to shut down offending media outlets. Erdogans’ political party identifies and punishes public workers who oppose the Erdogan government. Public employees are vulnerable to this type of party-line intimidation and Erdogan loves to intimidate. Erdogan has won three national elections in the last 12 years but now charges of corruption are hurting him in the polls and the next election may be different. The most damaging revelations come with the recent release of audio recordings of Erdogan and key aides discussing corrupt practices. Erdogan calls these fakes created by his enemies. But in typical overreaction he has tried to use his power to block the audio files from being distributed in Turkey via the Internet. In particular he has tried to block the use of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook in Turkey. This was a very unpopular move that has backfired. Erdogan is no Assad and Turkish democracy still works. Thus Erdogan’s bad habits are not only about to cost him his job, but they interfere with concentrating on the mess in Syria. That means the traditional regional superpower, the nation most able to settle the mess in Syria, has been sidetracked by messy domestic politics.
March 23, 2014: Near the Lebanese border Hezbollah gunmen ambushed and killed three al Qaeda bomb experts and four bodyguards. The three bomb techs specialized in car bombs used for attacks against Hezbollah inside Lebanon. The ambush occurred near the town of border Yabroud (60 kilometers north of Damascus) that the rebels have held for a long time and controls a key border crossing. This year the town has been under heavy attack by the army and Hezbollah and appears to have been lost by the rebels. This makes it more difficult for al Qaeda to get suicide car bombers, who are trained and supplied with bomb laden vehicles in Syria, to get into Lebanon to attack Hezbollah targets. Hezbollah figured out the Syria connection to the growing number of suicide bomb attacks against it in Lebanon and has been working to cut the bomb supply off. That effort may have succeeded, for the moment.
In the north (Latakia province) a Turkish F-16 shot down a Syrian jet that was bombing rebel targets near a contested border crossing. The Syrians protested, pointing out that the jet crashed on the Syrian side of the border. The Turks said the jet had entered Turkish air space, which has been increasingly common. The Turks have threatened to shoot down Syrian jets that wander across the border and now they have. Elsewhere in Latakia a cousin of president Assad was killed during fighting for a contested border crossing. The dead man had been active in organizing pro-government militias.
March 20, 2014: Internet access in Syria was blocked for about seven hours. At least one anti-Assad hacker group took credit. The government said it was because of a fiber optic cable that was damaged and had to be fixed.
March 19, 2014: Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian army bases near the border in retaliation for a roadside bomb which, the day before, hit an Israeli border patrol and wounded four soldiers. Israel blamed Hezbollah forces working in Syria with the Syrian Army for this. Israel also holds Hezbollah responsible for two similar attacks on March 5th and 14th. Syrian Army bases are easier to find and are where Hezbollah men often hang out. Israel also believes that Syria is compensating Hezbollah with long range rockets and other weapons. Israel has been bombing such shipments when they are detected heading for Lebanon.
March 18, 2014: The U.S. ordered the Syrian embassy and two consulates (in Michigan and Texas, where large numbers of Syrian-Americans live) to be closed and diplomatic personnel sent home. This is in response to Syrian diplomats being caught trying to pressure Syrian-Americans from speaking out against the Assads.
March 16, 2014: In Lebanon a Sunni suicide bomber attacked and killed another Hezbollah leader, along with two other people. Hezbollah has been waging an increasingly effective secret war against the Sunni Islamic terrorists who have targeted the Hezbollah leadership.
March 15, 2014: Two Turkish F-16s intercepted two Syrian jets that were flying close to the Turkish border. The Syrian jets turned away. Turkey has warned Syria that “accidental” crossings into Turkish air space would not be tolerated.