Syria: Hope Springs Eternal

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April 24, 2014: The Syrian government has become more confident and boastful about its belief in ultimate victory over the rebels. The government’s principal allies Russia and Iran agree that this is now possible, although it may take years. Iranian media and officials are now openly declaring this as fact. The Assads believe (and proclaim) that the main fighting will end this year, followed by “counter-terrorist” operations for as long as it takes. There is much evidence to back these claims. The government apparently controls nearly all of the Lebanese border and is making progress in Homs, Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. The official U.S. line is that the conflict has evolved into a “war of attrition” but even that description admits that the rebels have lost the initiative and that the government is now better off. The biggest advantage the government has, besides the Iranian mercenaries is the continuing civil war among the rebel Islamic terrorist groups. It’s mainly ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) versus all the other rebels. ISIL is outnumbered but has a secure base in eastern Syria and help from the Iraqi branch of ISIL. This infighting is killing several hundred additional rebels a month and it means less rebel pressure on the government. Both sides in this civil war within the civil war are largely fanatics who are not swayed by logic or common sense.  All this means the war related deaths are running at over a thousand a month and quite likely over two thousand. Most of the combatants are not shooting at each other but standing guard ready to fire on intruders. The government uses its artillery and air power to bombard the rebels (mostly killing civilians). It’s a war of many small combats and atrocities, a war none of the various factions is willing to concede.

The Syrian government has made it clear that it can play rough. In addition to the use of chemical weapons, the Assads are also accused to running brutal prison camps and regularly executing or torturing prisoners who do not provide information on rebel activities. The UN has pictures of some of this and that has produced calls for war crimes investigations against the Assads. This has not deterred the Assads, who are still in “fighting for survival” mode and confident that Iran and Russia will stick by them and help deal with the war crimes problem down the line . Iran does not want to lose a key ally in the region. The Assads have been on the Iranian payroll since the 1980s and Iran wants to keep it that way. Assad backers now believe that foreign intervention is unlikely and that the best thing the Assads have going for them are the Islamic terrorist groups who fight for (and increasingly against) the rebels. As bad as the Assads are, many of the Islamic terrorist groups make the Assads look more acceptable as the continued rulers of Syria. While the war could continue into the next decade, the Assads are willing to inflict that much suffering on Syria to remain in power. 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 war is spreading to Lebanon and this has become a major problem for Hezbollah and Iran. Because of the Iranian support Hezbollah has become the dominant political and military power in Lebanon since the 1980s. The problem here is that most Lebanese, including lots of Hezbollah supporters, are hostile towards Syria. That is because most Syrians consider Lebanon part of historic “Greater Syria” and want to incorporate Lebanon back into Syria. Hezbollah has played down this angle for three decades by depicting itself as the defender of Lebanese independence against Israel. But Israel has no historic, or current, claims on Lebanon while Syria does and more Lebanese are now realizing that. Worse yet, the well-publicized activities of Hezbollah gunmen in Syria are making these Syrian claims more visible in Lebanese politics. The Hezbollah gunmen are fighting in support of the Assad government which has long interfered in Lebanese affairs and is a known supporter of Greater Syria. At the same time many of the Syrian rebels are more interested in merging Syria with Iraq under the control of a religious dictatorship. Then again, many of the Syrian rebels also support Greater Syria, especially since that unification would make it easier to punish those damn Lebanese Shia for supporting the Assads.

This situation got worse over the last year as Sunni Lebanese joined the fight via local militias in Lebanon or by joining anti-Assad Islamic terrorist groups in Syria. In Lebanon the fight is often between Sunnis and Shia. Hezbollah was created in the 1980s to protect Shia interests in Lebanon. At the time Shia were the largest minority in a nation of religious minorities. The rise of Hezbollah meant that the Lebanese Sunni minority, who had long dominated the less educated and affluent Shia, were now less powerful. 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 Sunni terrorist attacks occur all over the country now, wherever there are Hezbollah facilities or Shia populations (mostly in the south). In the northern city of Tripoli, with its many Shia and Sunni neighborhoods right next to each other, 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 situation gets more complicated when you include the Christian Arabs of Lebanon, who are the largest Christian minority in the Arab world. These Christians were the majority (nearly 60 percent of the population) in Lebanon 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 but are decidedly on the defensive and hostile to all forms of Islamic radicalism as well as Greater Syria zealots. Christians are also split into many factions, some of whom are allied (for the moment) with Hezbollah. Today Christians are only 35 percent of the population, which is about equal to the Shia and larger than the Sunni (20 percent) and other minorities (Druze and so on). Without all that Iranian cash and weapons shipments the Lebanese Shia would be militarily and politically weaker than the Christians and Sunni. The non-Shia majority has been waiting for an opportunity to take the Shia down a peg or two and the Hezbollah involvement with the Syria civil war is looking like an opportunity.

While Syria is the most visible and direct threat to Lebanese unity and independence, it’s no secret that Iran is the facilitator of all this grief. Iran has spent tens of billions to help found and sustain Hezbollah. While Iran presents itself as a “friend of Lebanon” non-Shia Lebanese see through that bit of propaganda. Not only are the Iranians Shia but are not even Semite (as are nearly all Lebanese) but rather Indo-European and long a tormenter of the Arabs (the largest Semitic group in the region). Iranian support for the Assads (and the rest of the Shia minority in Syria) is seen as just another ploy to exploit the Arabs.

Some 85 percent of Syrian chemical weapons have been removed from the country. Meanwhile the UN is investigating allegations that Syria used chlorine gas against civilians. Chlorine was one of the original (World War I) chemical weapons but is also a common industrial chemical and was not counted as one of the chemical weapons Syria had to surrender for destruction this year. Worse, some of the chlorine gas containers (marked as containing chlorine gas used as a chemical weapon) did not explode and had markings on them indicating they were manufactured by Chinese weapons producer Norinco. China is looking into this, but Norinco has long had a reputation of selling anything to anyone who could pay.

The UN is critical of the government and the rebels for keeping aid away from over three million Syrians who desperately need it. The war is basically a series of sieges and roadblocks as each side seeks to starve the other out. As the UN points out, both sides have managed to block enough roads to keep over three million Syrians (most of them pro-rebel) cut off from regular supplies of food, medicine and other essentials. About a third of these desperate people are in and around the northern city of Aleppo, which has been a battleground since 2011. In response to this situation more Syrians are trying to get out of the country. For many of those trapped this is impossible because both government and rebel forces shoot on sight in the numerous “no man’s land” areas that have been established in contested areas.

The U.S. has increased its aid to rebels, as some of the more moderate rebels have been seen using American TOW anti-tank missiles. American aid is limited by fears that high-tech weapons will fall into the hands of Islamic terrorist groups and later be used for terror attacks against Westerners. This is particularly true when it comes to portable anti-aircraft missiles. The rebels keep asking for these so they can shoot back at Syrian warplanes and helicopters. But the U.S. is paralyzed by fears of Islamic terrorists getting the missiles and later shooting down a Western airliner. The Arab states who support the rebels consider the American weapons restrictions short sighted, although they have complied with American demands to not give the Syrian rebels anti-aircraft missiles. Thus these Arab states have not gone ahead and obtained anti-aircraft missiles on the black market and passed them on to the rebels. Some American officials are backing limited air strikes against the government forces but U.S. military leaders point out that this could easily result in civilian casualties that Syria would exploit in the media. American military experts advise providing more training and making an effort to stay in touch with as many rebel factions as possible. This is because if the Islamic terrorists in Syria are likely to be a global threat no matter who wins in Syria. There are believed to be over 20,000 thousand Islamic terrorists in Syria and over a third of these are from outside Syria. Fewer than a thousand are from Western countries and these are being carefully monitored. If the rebels win then Syria becomes another Libya. There the locals have to become uncomfortable with all the Islamic terrorists they are providing sanctuary before there is a crackdown. This process can take years, because Libyans are not eager to fight yet another war and, for religious and cultural reasons, many Moslems see the Islamic terrorists as heroes, not the murderous thugs they really are. Moslems are slow to turn on Islamic terrorists in part because that is a very dangerous move. The Islamic terrorists are quick to kidnap, torture and kill. Moreover many Moslems are smitten with the idea that the Islamic terrorists might overthrow the unpopular governments so common in the Islamic world and replace the dictator/monarch with something better. Despite the fact that this never happens, hope springs eternal.

The U.S. does have reason to be concerned. While ISIL has been disowned by al Qaeda, al Nusra, the leading faction fighting ISIL in Syria, also has al Qaeda ties and is fine with eventually turning its attention towards terror attacks on the West. But at the same time Syria has been the place where a major civil war among Islamic terrorists has broken out. ISIL represents the more extreme Islamic radicals trying to crush the “more moderate” (and thoughtful) al Qaeda. This is a common historical trend with Islamic extremists, who tend to self-destruct after a while and return again in a few generations.

April 23, 2014: Turkey admitted that it had sent armored vehicles and 300 troops into Syria to protect the tomb of a member of the Ottoman Turk royal family. Such tombs are important to Turks but are threatened by Islamic radicals from ISIL who consider such shrines blasphemous.

April 20, 2014: Four French journalists were released by their Islamic terrorist captors in Syria. France said it did not pay ransom but they always say that and Islamic terrorists almost always kill Western captives they cannot get a ransom for. All Western nations now admit that these ransoms (usually millions of dollars per hostage) simply keep the Islamic terrorists in business longer and get more people killed (or kidnapped), but the media and political pressure to “do something” often overwhelms logic and good sense and ransoms are quietly paid.

April 16, 2014: Jordan, for the first time since the Syrian rebellion began in 2011, ordered its warplanes to attack vehicles trying to sneak into Jordan. In this incident a convoy of three camouflaged trucks was spotted crossing in a rural and thinly populated area and despite threatening moves from aircraft and warning shots refused to halt. So the warplanes were ordered to attack and destroy them. Jordan released aerial photos of the burning wreckage, but not anything on casualties. It is believed that most of the men in the trucks fled on foot once they saw the aircraft coming low to attack. The crossing was also near the Iraq border and some speculate that the vehicles were carrying al Qaeda men from Iraq who chose to sneak in via the less well guarded Syrian border and were possibly headed for a nearby American run training camp (for Syrian rebels). But it’s more likely that the three trucks belonged to weapons smugglers making a delivery to Islamic terrorists in Jordan. There the government is threatened by increased Islamic terrorist activity within its borders, often assisted by Islamic terror groups operating in Syria.

April 15, 2014: The continuing civil war between Islamic terrorist groups often gets personal, as it did today when a four man ISIL death squad attacked the home of al Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al Ansari, killing him his wife, daughter, brother and niece. Al Ansari was the head of al Nusra forces in Idlib province.

April 13, 2014: Two Turkish F-16s forced a Syrian MiG-23 to turn back as it approached or crossed (depending on who you believe) the border. The Syrian Air Force continues to be very active, largely because of continued support (spare parts, jet fuel, technical assistance) from Russia. Helicopters have proven particularly effective because of their ability to loiter and carefully scrutinize the land below and their use of more accurate (than jets) “barrel bombs” and chemical weapons.

April 11, 2014: In central Syria (Hama province) civilians reported another government use of chemical weapons. This turned out to be chlorine gas.

 

 

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