The U.S., NATO and Saudi Arabia are discussing what to do about their support for the Syrian rebels. The main problem is the Islamic terrorists, who are hostile to the Syrian government as well as all the nations supporting the rebels. This is an embarrassing situation for Saudi Arabia where much of the current Islamic terrorism originated over the past few decades. The Saudis officially support Islamic conservatism because that is popular throughout Arabia and especially in the areas (Mecca and Medina) containing the most holy Islamic shrines. But the most extreme of the Islamic conservatives consider the Saudi royal family not Islamic enough and seeks to impose an Islamic religious dictatorship. This has been the goal of Islamic extremists for over a thousand years. It never happens, but keeps exploding into periods of Islamic terrorism before it is crushed again but never completely eliminated, at least in Arabia. The Saudis have controlled Islamic terrorism within their kingdom but at the cost of still tolerating Islamic radicals who behave (or else). That arrangement is rare and does not exist anywhere else. In Syria and Iraq the Saudis now support the extermination of Islamic terrorists. This means the Assad government is no longer the main target in Syria. This also means that the Saudis and Iranians have to pause their growing Sunni-Shia feud because both countries have more to fear from ISIL Sunni Islamic terrorism than from each other. Western nations know they are already on the ISIL radar and are cracking down on ISIL fund raising and recruiting in the West. Where does this leave the Syrian rebellion? The secular rebel groups and acceptably moderate Islamic rebels already have a coalition of sorts although that currently includes unacceptably radical groups like al Nusra. In short, things do not look good at all for the rebels. They are screwed.
The rebels are crippled mainly because the six month long internal civil war between ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and all the other rebels (half of them rival Islamic terrorists and the rest secular and tribal groups) has weakened rebel resistance. The government has been taking advantage of this and attempting to aid their fellow Shia in Iraq with air attacks in western Iraq. The Assads see themselves as soon winning the civil war, now that they have the Saudis, the Israelis and the West on their side.
The ISIL versus Everyone battle is a civil war within a civil war has left over 7,000 dead (mostly fighters, the rest civilians) in the last six months. Over a third of these losses have occurred in eastern Syria. This has caused ISIL to move more of its fighters from western Syria to the east and now to Iraq. Here is where ISIL has had more success, although it continues trying to hang onto some of its gains in the west (especially around Aleppo). In eastern Syria ISIL is at home and close to their cousins across the border in western Iraq (Anbar province). In effect eastern Syria and western Iraq contain a similar Sunni, often Bedouin, Arab tribal population. Many of the tribes straddle the border with Syria (and Jordan and Saudi Arabia). These Sunni tribes are related (in terms of culture and religious attitudes) to the ones that run Saudi Arabia and dominate the Arabian Peninsula. That’s why an Islamic radical group like ISIL can recruit so many fanatic men from “northern Arabia” (largely desert eastern Syria and western Iraq) and challenge al Qaeda (which has denounced ISIL) for leadership of the Islamic radical movement. Some of the ISIL groups in eastern Syria and western Iraq have, in effect, merged.
Currently ISIL is trying to gain complete control over eastern Syria and western Iraq. That proved difficult for a long time because of continued resistance in Syria by government forces and Kurds as well as some rival Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Nusra). In Iraq the Shia controlled government sent so many of their best units to Anbar that the security forces in Mosul collapsed and handed ISIL an unexpected victory. This led to more ISIL victories in Anbar and northern Iraq. There was a downside because now the Shia government of Iraq has given in to years of Kurd demands that the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq be allowed to take control of Mosul and Kirkuk and nearby oil fields. At this point the Iraqi government doesn’t have much choice. The Kurds will have to fight hard for Mosul although they quickly took and held onto Kirkuk. The Kurds are hesitant to go after Mosul until they see what the Americans will do. The Kurdish army (the Peshmerga) have been defeating Sunni Islamic terrorists for a long time. In this fight the ISIL is the underdog. ISIL can afford to give up Mosul and Kirkuk because these are not historically Bedouin lands but rather Kurdish. What ISIL really wants is the oil fields in the south, which are surrounded by millions of Shia, many of them armed. The Kurds will be fighting harder for the northern oil fields. Ultimately ISIL wants to control their own homeland further south. The main ISIL goal is Baghdad, which is now largely a Shia city. Once Iraq is conquered ISIL believes their Holy Warriors can gain control of all of Syria and Iraq and then the world. This has never worked, in large part because of the extreme brutality these Holy Warriors use against their opponents. That creates more opposition and eventually the Islamic terrorists are destroyed. ISIL has been deliberately murdering Shia, Christian and Kurdish civilians in an effort to terrorize their groups into surrender. That is not working and rarely has in the last few centuries. All these groups have powerful foreign allies who work hard to help their kinsmen fight back.
In Iraq taking control of Mosul on the 9th gave ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) another victory and even if it does not last it helps with recruiting and fund raising. ISIL looted the banks in Mosul, taking over a hundred million dollars in local and foreign currency. Many more valuables were taken, giving the Sunni terrorists economic security for the near future. ISIL is competing with al Qaeda for recognition as the most effective Islamic terrorist group in the world and having all this cash helps them in that struggle. Whoever holds that position gets most of the cash donations from the many wealthy Gulf Arabs who support Islamic terrorism and that means ISIL would also get most of the young Sunni men from the Gulf States looking to jihad a bit.
In Syria some of the Iraqi Shia Arabs who took the Iranian offer of regular pay, weapons and so on to go fight Assad forces in Syria are now leaving that job and returning to fight ISIL in Iraq. There are believed to be over 20,000 Iraqi Shia fighting for the Assads in Syria. They are paid and supported by Iran but with families and friends threatened by ISIL back in Iraq, which has persuaded many to go home to join (or rejoin) militias there. So far only about ten percent of the Iraqi Shia have left Syria, but a lot more may soon follow. While this weakens the Assad forces a bit, it does not do so as much as the fighting between ISIL and all the other rebels has damaged the rebel forces. The Assads are also losing some of their Hezbollah fighters as Hezbollah sees growing ISIL activity in Lebanon as a bigger threat.
The ISIL forces are not numerous with total strength of about 10,000. Some 70 percent are still in Syria and 3,000 in Iraq are joined by even more Sunni tribal militias and various other Sunni groups (pro-Saddam Baath Party groups Sunni Nationalist groups). What ISIL lacks in numbers they make up for in ferociousness. This shows how effective having so many men willing to die fighting larger forces of men who are only willing to kill.
The Cost So Far
The Syrian civil war has entered its fourth year and so far over 160,000 have died. The current fighting is killing nearly a thousand people a week. That’s a conservative estimate and the actual deaths may be 30-50 percent higher. About a third of the deaths so far have been civilians while another third were pro-government forces and the remaining third are rebel fighters. Over ten percent of the rebel dead were lost during fighting between ISIL and the rest of the rebels (both secular and Islamic). That has been going on since January and is getting worse. The Syrian government seems to consider ISIL an ally as in some parts of the countries the ISIL is killing more rebels than the nearby government forces are.
In addition to the human costs it is becoming pretty obvious that it may take decades for Syria to recover from the damage done already. Economic losses (damage to buildings, land improvements land infrastructure) so far are in excess of $150 billion. That’s for a country of 22 million that had, in 2011, a GDP of about $70 billion. GDP is now south of $40 billion and still falling. Over half the population is living in poverty, more than twice as many as before the war. The UN now believes that half the 22 million population is in need of aid to survive. Nearly a quarter of the population is destitute, surviving on foreign aid in refugee camps or, lacking that, scraping by on whatever they can scrounge up. Unemployment is north of 20 percent and many of those with jobs don’t have a lot to do. Naturally a lot of people are making a lot less. After all most of GDP ends up as income for people. Over 40 percent of the population has been driven from their homes. Most find other housing inside Syria but about 20 percent of the population is now outside the country. Since most of these are pro-rebel Sunnis, they will probably be exiles for life. If the government wins, as it seems to be doing, they will probably write off the exiles as an acceptable loss and distribute the property of the departed to more loyal Syrians. This also makes it easier to get the economy back in operation and replace lost services (like schools and hospitals). Fewer people means you need fewer of these services. But there will be permanent damage. About half the school age children are not attending school and millions of kids will have to catch up, if they can, on a year or more of lost schooling. The current generation of kids will be less educated that previous or future ones. The country will carry a heavy debt, mainly to Iran but also a lesser amount to Russia. Despite its own economic problems Iran has spent over $20 billion on Syria since 2011. While Iran has about eight times the GDP of pre-war Syria, the Syrian rescue funds had to be raised when Iran was going through a rough patch economically. Iran will expect some of that money to be paid back. So will Russia. It will be difficult to get much back anytime soon as Syria does not have much in the way of natural resources. That may change. While Syria does not have a lot of oil and gas production now, with peace there are off shore gas fields to develop and shale oil and gas that can be fracked out of the ground. If all those resources are exploited Syria could be rebuilt in twenty years or less. That’s a big “if” however.
June 25, 2014: In Lebanon a police raid on a Beirut hotel led to an ISIL suicide bomber setting off his explosives killing himself and wounding three policemen. The raid was to prevent the Sunni Islamic terrorists from carrying out a planned attack elsewhere. This is the third ISIL attack in Lebanon in the last five days. This has the Lebanese government fearing that ISIL may be preparing to try and take over Lebanon as well. After all the L in ISIL stands for “Levant” which means “Greater Syria” (current Syria plus Lebanon and parts of Iraq, Israel and Turkey).
June 24, 2014: Outside Damascus an ambush of ISIL by a rival Islamic terrorist group led to the senior ISIL religious leader getting killed. Sensing that ISIL is sending more of its men to Iraq, rebels have been more aggressive towards ISIL groups in western Syria.
Apparently Syrian Air Force jets attacked ISIL targets in western Iraq. The Syrian Air Force is even more active inside Syria. On some days there are over two dozen air raids around Damascus alone. Most of these attacks are against civilians.
June 23, 2014: Near the Israeli border Israeli warplanes attacked nine Syrian army targets overnight. There were also Israeli artillery and mortar attacks on Syrian targets. This destroyed several armored vehicles (including two tanks), two artillery batteries (at least six howitzers plus other equipment) and the headquarters of a Syrian infantry brigade. At least ten Syrian soldiers were killed and many more wounded. This was continued retaliation for fire from the Syrian side yesterday that left one Israeli dead and two wounded. The Syrian army recently regained control of most of the Israeli border and that was apparently done with the help of Hezbollah. This may explain the increased mortar, rocket and gun fire from the Syrian side. Most of that fire has been unintentional but recently it has been noted that some of it appears to be deliberate attempts to kill Israelis. The Syrian government is also very mad at Israel for several air attacks on recently imported Russian missiles. Meanwhile Israeli intelligence has concluded that only about 20 percent of the 120,000 rebels fighting the Assad government are secular. The rest are, to one degree or another, “Islamic” and that means all of them want Israel destroyed.
The UN announced that Syria had surrendered the last of the 1,300 tons of chemical weapons they admitted to having. However the UN believes that Syria kept some of its weapons because there appear to have been government chemical weapons attacks against rebels recently.
June 22, 2014: On the Syrian border a car carrying three Israelis was hit by an explosion, which killed a teenage boy and wounded the two adults. It is still unclear if the explosion was a rocket, mortar shell, landmine or roadside bomb. Whatever the case the Israelis are certain that the source is Syrian troops, who have fired into Israel recently but not hit anyone. Israel has fired back and this time there was soon Israeli artillery shells landing in some known Syrian army positions.
Leaders of Saddam’s old Baath Party have surfaced in Iraq pledging their support for ISIL. Baath is banned in Iraq since 2003 although it is still alive and well in Syria where the local branch has long been run by the Assad clan. While this announcement means little in military terms, it scares the hell out of Iraqi Shia, many of whom have long and horrid memories of Baath oppression.
June 21, 2014: In the east (Deir Zor province) air raids continued against ISIL targets. That did not stop ISIL from taking control of border control posts on both sided of the Iraq border in Deir Zor. The fighting in has involved ISIL, other rebel groups and government forces. While the army has been losing ground in eastern Syria, in the west the situation is quite different, with the government forces and non-ISIL rebels often becoming de facto allies against ISIL. The main losers in all this are the non-ISIL rebels.
June 20, 2014: In the east (Deir Zor province) air raids hit towns that have recently joined ISIL. The fighting in Deir Zor has left ISIL in control of 70 percent of the largely Sunni Arab province. Across the border in Iraq ISIL and its tribal allies appear to control over 80 percent of Anbar province (the largely desert western Iraq).
June 19, 2014: Turkey revealed that the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey was now more than a million, and that just includes the 1.05 million who are registered. There a several hundred thousand who have not registered. Some of those may have moved on to other countries.
Britain banned ISIL activity in Britain (recruiting, fund raising and so on). Bans were also announced against four other Syria based Islamic terror groups.
June 18, 2014: The government told the UN that aid could not be delivered in Syria without government approval. The UN responded with threats to use force. The Syrians know that is unlikely because Russia would veto any such proposal. The Russians are not bothered by criticism of this support for the Syrian government strategy of using starvation to defeat pro-rebel civilians. Either these civilians submit to government rule or starve (or leave the country, which many more are doing.)
In Lebanon the army raided a refugee camp for Syrians seeking Islamic terrorists and armed men in general and contraband (drugs, weapons). These camps are becoming outlaw zones and, as the Turks have shown, if you do not police the camps aggressively the situation goes from bad to very, very bad.
June 16, 2014: Recently the web site of the Russian company that makes the MiG-29 fighter posted a document stating that four Syrian MiG-29s had been upgraded in 2011 to the MiG-20SM standard. When this tidbit made the Western news media the document on the Russian web site suddenly had the reference to the four Syrian MiG-29s removed. It’s an open secret that Russia is providing a lot more military aid to Syria than it will publicly admit. This is especially true of Russian support for the Syrian Air Force, which flies mostly Russian aircraft.
June 15, 2014: Syrian warplanes attacked two ISIL convoys in western Iraq.
In Turkey nine of the 30 members of ruling council for the rebel Free Syrian Army command resigned. This was because of inadequate support from foreign (especially Western) backers and growing defeats at the hands of ISIL and the Syrian government.
June 14, 2014: Government forces and many non-ISIL rebels have noticed that a growing number of ISIL fighters seem to be leaving Syria for Iraq. The ISIL capture of Mosul on June 9th seems to have energized more support for ISIL operations in Iraq.