ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has suffered heavy losses (thousands of casualties) in the last month and their recruiting efforts have become more energetic. The losses have been especially heavy in Syria, but losses are mounting in Iraq as well. Western intelligence agencies noted a growing number of Moslem men going to join ISIL in Syria. There are believed to be over 15,000 of these foreign ISIL men in Syria now. The intel agencies came up with these numbers by noting the number of men caught and prevented from going to Syria. Interrogations of these men provided a better picture of how the ISIL Internet based recruiting campaign is working. The main draw is ISIL proclaiming that the long (over a thousand years) promised return of the caliphate (the global Islamic dictatorship) is here and ISIL has established it in Syria and Iraq. ISIL says that the enemies of Islam are trying to thwart the caliphate and that devout Moslem men must defend it. Most Moslems see this as absurd, but a few percent of the 1.5 billion Moslems believe and many of those are motivated enough to travel to Syria and die for the cause. This will be another failed caliphate, but Islam is based on the concept of relentless armed struggle to make everyone a Moslem. Most Moslems understand that this is not possible, but the Islamic scripture calling for is still considered a basic belief and there are still believers willing to die for it. Even after ISIL is defeated, like all the earlier efforts, there will still believers. This is an issue that a growing number of Moslems are recognizing as a fundamental problem but so far no one has a solution.
Most of the ISIL volunteers have no military experience and that accounts for the growing casualties as these men are used for suicide bombers or for mass attacks against Assad forces or rival rebels (including the Kurds in Kobane.) Arming, supporting (with food and such) and leading so many amateurs has put a strain on ISIL leadership and that is apparently the main reason for so many informal truces with other rebel groups. This has been bad news for the government because instead of fighting each other the rebels are now going after government forces and that has halted government efforts to clear rebel forces out of areas around Aleppo and Damascus.
Despite ISIL being tied down in Kobane and with rebellious Sunni tribes in the east, government forces are losing ground. That’s because ISIL has allowed an informal truce to evolve with other rebel groups. This allowed all rebels, including ISIL, to go back to fighting government forces. That has led to a growing number of setbacks for government forces. For example, earlier this year, after a two year long battle rebels conceded defeat and abandoned the central Syrian city of Homs. The army had been fighting to take Homs for nearly two years and in late 2013 was reinforced by a “foreign legion” (of Iran sponsored volunteers from Lebanon and Iraq). Government forces destroyed most of the city as they drove the rebels back. The city had been surrounded for over a year but the army cordon was not impenetrable until 2014. Supplies became impossible to get into the city. This led the rebels to agree to a deal that had them abandoning the city in return for safe passage out. The Assad forces saw Homs as a key battle because it was astride the roads from Damascus to the pro-government Alawite areas on the coast. For that route to be useful the Assad forces had to gain control of the roads and villages between Damascus and the coast. That only lasted until October and now rebels are again capable of attacking traffic on the roads between Damascus and the coast. This means supplies for Damascus, especially fuel, can no longer move unhindered. Heavy fighting continues around Aleppo and Damascus where the rebels are retaking areas they lost earlier in 2014 to government forces. The government is having similar problems around Aleppo and throughout central Syria.
The government has responded by expanding their forces via more conscription in pro-government areas. This is not popular and there have been some protest demonstrations in pro-government communities in the Alawite heartland along the coast. Meanwhile the government is attacking rebel morale by increasing air attacks on pro-government civilians. Not just the rebel controlled areas, but also against the refugee camps inside Syria. This is a continuation of the long time government policy of driving anti-government populations out of the country permanently.
The rebels are also having personnel problems. Once the strongest rebel contingent, the secular rebels are now the weakest and are asking for air support and other aid from the Americans. That is unlikely to happen because even some of the secular rebels have gone over to ISIL (either because of belief in the cause or as an alternative to execution). In short none of the rebels are trusted by the West anymore. Yet some secular rebels still have supporters in the CIA and other Western intel organizations and manage to get some support covertly. The intel groups do this largely as a way to pay for information about Assad or Islamic terrorist forces in Syria. As the old saying goes, “it’s just business.”
Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been over 600 so far (since August 8th), averaging about eight a day. Over a quarter of them have been against targets in Kobane. That means on some days there are none because Kobane has been getting a lot, sometimes more than twenty a day, often involving French and British aircraft as well as American. In addition to air strikes there have been even more recon and surveillance missions flown, taking video, photos and monitoring wireless communications. The Iraqi government and Kurds in Syria want more air strikes but the United States is reluctant to do that because of increased risk of civilian casualties. The Iraqis and Syrians see it differently and believe that the sooner ISIL is defeated the fewer civilian casualties there will be in the long run. But Western politicians live in the short run knowing that they will take some major media damage for any increase in civilian casualties. The media doesn’t operate long term either so the enemies of ISIL are screwed in this department.
ISIL has also become more reliant on terror attacks, as using large groups of gunmen to seize territory or attack security forces simply provides an excellent target for air strikes. The heavy losses in Kobane is a painful reminder that when the opposition has air support, you have to slow down and take more time to weaken and defeat the enemy. So now there are more terror bombings, assassinations and small scale ambushes and roadside bombs in play. Most of the air attacks are provided by the United States. ISIL won’t admit it publically but the air attacks have caused thousands of casualties and forced changes in how the Islamic terrorists operate. They have to be very careful when moving on roads (and not look like a bunch of Islamic terrorists) and when concentrating forces for a mass attack. This is difficult to do with so many inexperienced volunteers. Then there is the problem of careless use of wireless communications. The American electronic surveillance forces are back and the experienced Islamic terrorists know this means you have to be very disciplined in using cell phones or walkie talkies. The new recruits are very sloppy and that is getting more ISIL men attacked from the air. All these casualties from the air are bad for morale because there is no defense or way to fight back against the smart bombs and missiles. In Syria the air strikes against ISIL are not just happening in Kobane but also in eastern Syria, the largely Sunni Arab region that is the ISIL “homeland” and still contains headquarters and support (supply, maintenance, weapons and vehicle storage) facilities that make great targets for air attack.
In the north the Kurdish border town of Kobane remains the focus of ISIL activity. The fighting here has been going on since mid-September and there have been over 3,000 casualties, nearly a third of them dead. Most (over 60 percent) of the losses have been ISIL, especially during the past few weeks as American air attacks have increased in frequency and accuracy. Kobane is a key market and crossroads town near the north-central Turkish border. The area is largely Kurdish as is the border area to the east, all the way to the Iraq border and Kurdish northern Iraq. The Iraqi Sunni Arabs who run ISIL are obsessed with destroying the Kurds, in large part because for decades the Kurds have resisted Arab rule and often defeated Arab troops seeking to impose it. Curbing Kurdish independence is an ISIL obsession that is made worse by the fact the ISIL in Iraq is being defeated by the Kurds there, whose trained fighters are more numerous, better equipped and have access to more American air support. Thus the offensive against the Syrian Kurds is not just a matter of dominating a troublesome opponent but of gaining a measure of revenge against the hated Kurds who mock Arab power by constantly defeating Arab warriors. Now it is happening again and ISIL leadership appears reluctant to do the smart thing and pull out of Kobane and turn their attention back to the Assad government forces.
One ally ISIL has in the region is Turkey. The Turks, despite pressure from Arab states and the West, long refused to allow military aid to cross the border to the Kurdish defenders of Kobane. The Turks don’t like the Kurds either, even though the Turks have been successful over the centuries at compelling Kurds to submit to Turkish rule. Despite that the Kurds continue to resist and the Turks saw an opportunity to weaken the Kurds and ISIL by prolonging the fighting in Kobane. The Turks have a particular dislike for the Syrian Kurds (and the radical PYD organization) because they see these Kurds as still supporting the PKK (the active Turkish Kurdish rebels). This cynical policy has enraged Kurds throughout the region and caused violent protests in Turkey which has left over 30 dead. But the Kurds cannot push their protests too far because the Kurds of northern Iraq need Turkish cooperation. The Iraqi Kurds are landlocked and their only reliable trade route to the outside world goes through Turkey. Kurdish and non-Kurdish businesses are eager to support this trade but the Turkish government can shut down this access at any time. Smugglers would only be able to replace, at most, about ten percent of that vital trade. Meanwhile Turkey has sent more troops, including a company of tanks, to the border area opposite Kobane. Eventually (on the 20th) the Turks relented and have allowed armed Kurdish fighters to travel via Turkey to Kobane and have allowed more supplies across the border. The first of these Kurdish reinforcements arrived on the 28th. One reason for relenting is the large number of Syrian refugees (about 1.6 million, with over a third unregistered) in Turkey. About 20 percent of the refugees are Kurds and the other refugees are in awe of the way Kobane has held out against, mainly through the efforts of Kurdish fighters. About 20 percent of the Kobane defenders are Syrian Arabs so the battle is closely watched by all the refugees. Meanwhile some of the Kurdish refugees have been allowed to move to Kurdish Iraq, where some of them have friends or family.
The current situation in Kobane was caused by the Kurdish decision to shift forces back to Iraq in early September to help defend Kurdish northern Iraq. ISIL sensed an opportunity and mobilized over 5,000 fighters and used armored vehicles and artillery for the campaign against the Syrian Kurds. This was more than the Kurdish militia (including some armed women among the largely male fighters) could handle. Despite Kurdish reinforcements being shifted to northeastern Syria by late September plus a few coalition air strikes the ISIL advance continued. The fighting is now inside Kobane, a town largely empty of civilians. This struggle (including the two week September advance towards Kobane) saw ISIL gunmen entering Kobane on October 6th. The Kurdish defenders counterattacked and pushed ISIL out by the 8th. But on the 9th ISIL had massed more men and armored vehicles and came back in. By the 10th ISIL controlled at least a third of Kobane. Then the air attacks became more frequent and intense. In the last week the Kurds have retaken much of Kobane, despite ISIL bringing in more fighters and making more attacks.
The offensives continue to be defeated or greatly slowed down by the defenders. The Kurds are moving in reinforcements and supplies (especially ammunition) from the east (especially northern Iraq) as fast as they can. The Kurds have about 1,500 fighters in Kobane and another few hundred secular Syrian rebels (the FSA). There are also several thousand Kurdish civilians in and around Kobane although fewer than 500 are left in the town. ISIL has maintained four to five thousand men in and around the town. The Kurdish reinforcement route is much more difficult than moving along the safe and more numerous Turkish road network. The Kurds want more American air strikes and there have been some more. This is helping the Kurds but the outcome of the Battle of Kobane is still in doubt. ISIL is determined to achieve a decisive victory over the Kurds and the Kurds are determined to prevent that from happening.
ISIL is very vulnerable if it has to operate among a hostile population. Most of the territory ISIL controls is populated by Sunni Arabs. ISIL prefers to kill or drive non-Sunnis out of areas they govern. Most Sunni Arabs back the idea of Sunnis, especially Sunni Arabs, being in charge. But many Sunni Arabs in Syria have grown disenchanted with the way ISIL tries to interfere in tribal affairs. Because of that ISIL has been fighting rebellious tribesmen in eastern Syria for most of 2014.
Despite the many Arab states involved with the sixty nation anti-ISIL coalition, many Arabs still support ISIL goals of establishing religious dictatorships in places like Syria. This is part fantasizing and part fear of Iranian plans to make Iran, and Shia Islam, the leader of the Islamic world. Sunnis are over 80 percent of Moslems and the more conservative Sunnis (like the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia and all Sunni Islamic terror groups) are violently opposed to Shia domination. It is not unusual for religious fanatics to not get along with others of the same faith and that is what is happening here. Many Arabs disagree with ISIL methods but not with ISIL goals. Thus recent ISIL boasts of reintroducing slavery (of non-Moslems, especially “pagans” like Yazidis) may appall many in the West, but slavery still exists in many parts of the Arab world. To placate foreigners most Arab nations have outlawed slavery, despite the fact that it still exists and with much local support.
In neighboring Lebanon Sunni Arab Islamic terrorist groups in Tripoli (the Lebanese city with the largest number of Sunnis) have been in open rebellion for more than a week. This has caused several hundred casualties. Lebanon reports that most of the several hundred Sunni fighters are from Lebanon, but some are from Syria. There the main supporter of Lebanese Islamic terrorists is al Nusra, a rebel group that is also at odds with ISIL but has moved some forces across the border into Lebanon to try and pressure the Lebanese to make concessions to their Sunni Arab minority. Most Lebanese are Christian or Shia. The Lebanese Shia are mainly represented by Hezbollah, which backs the Syrian government. This policy is unpopular with non-Shia Lebanese but Hezbollah is too strong for the Lebanese security forces to deal with. The Sunni Islamic terrorists in Lebanon are another matter, so the fighting in Tripoli continues, as it has for several years now.
October 29, 2014: The first contingent (about 160 men) of Kurdish reinforcements from Iraq have arrived (via air to a Turkish airport near the border then buses into Syria) in Kobane. These are Peshmerga, members of the trained Kurdish militia in northern Iraq. They join about two thousand Kurds and Syrian rebels defending the town against about twice as many ISIL fighters. More Peshmerga will fly in but many more (over a thousand) are moving by truck, with more weapons and equipment, via Turkish roads. The Turks are also allowing some supplies to cross the border into Kobane and the Americans continue to press the Turks to help some more, including sending some Turkish troops across the border.
Inside Kobane the Kurds and non-Kurd Syrian rebels have been using some of the air strikes to advance and clear parts of the town of ISIL. When a large smart bomb explodes it is possible for nearby Kurdish fighters to quickly advance, capture or kill ISIL survivors and move the front line a bit. The Kurds have learned how to do that and now many of the bombing attacks are done with Kurdish fighters in position to take advantage of it. Sometimes nearby ISIL men fire on the advancing Kurds but the more frequent cause of casualties are the mines and other explosive devices ISIL often places around their positions. The Kurds have to carefully watch out for these and avoid or disable them as they move.
October 27, 2014: In the northwest (Idlib province, where the Lebanese and Turkish borders meet) al Nusra rebels used four suicide bombers and over a hundred gunmen to attack several government checkpoints. There were over a hundred casualties, a third of them dead. This areas used to be the scene of intense fighting between al Nusra and ISIL, which started in January but got particularly intense earlier in July. Since ISIL got tied down in Kobane, al Nusra has had less contact with their rivals and more opportunity to fight the Assad forces.
October 21, 2014:
Turkey finally agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish militiamen to travel to Syria via Turkey to reinforce Kurds in Syria who are being attacked by ISIL. Mainly this means the battle around the Syrian town of Kobane. In the last month Western warplanes have made over 150 air attacks against ISIL in and around Kobane, causing heavy casualties among the Islamic terrorist forces. This means that ISIL in Syria has not forces available to help ISIL in Iraq.
October 20, 2014: Turkey relented and agreed to allow Kurdish fighters from Iraq to cross Turkish territory to reach Kobane in Syria. Now the Kurdish parliament in northern Iraq has to approve the movement of armed men via Turkey to Kobane. ISIL keeps bringing up reinforcements but has not figured out how to push the Kurds back without getting hit by an American air strike. The Kurds believe that with reinforcements and continued air strikes they can kill a lot more ISIL men and drive the Islamic terrorists out of Kobane and all they Kurdish areas ISIL has taken since mid-September.
October 19, 2014: The U.S. delivered 28 pallets of supplies, via parachute, to the rebels defending Kobane. It was done from high altitude to avoid ISIL ground fire and the Islamic terrorists appear to have seized at least one of the pallets that landed close to them. That sort of thing is normal during resupply missions like this.
October 18, 2014: In Kobane the Kurdish defenders defeated an ISIL effort to cut the town off from the Turkish border. While air strikes helped, if was the Kurds and their Syrian Arab allies on the ground that finally halted the ISIL move.
October 17, 2014: ISIL fired at least 28 mortar shells at the Turkish border crossing north of Kobane. On the Israeli border two more badly wounded Syrians were allowed in and sent to an Israeli hospital for medical care. Since 2011 398 Syrians have received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians coming up to the border seeking care. Israel has let some of these in and treated them in Israeli hospitals, but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So the field hospital will be able to treat all but the most seriously injured right near the Syrian border. The most seriously injured are transferred to Israeli hospitals.
In Yemen AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) announced that is now fully backed ISIL. AQAP didn’t say it had joined ISIL, but urged all Moslems to support ISIL in its fight against the West and its Arab allies who were now bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria.
October 16, 2014: The U.S. revealed that it has established direct links with the Kurdish groups supplying the fighters in Kobane and are using these links to better coordinate air strikes and resupply. This puts the U.S. in a tricky situation with Turkey, which is still technically at war with Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) who work closely with their counterparts in Syria (the PYD). Over the last decade the Turkish government has become more Islamic and pro-Arab and this has caused problems with Turkey’s traditional Western allies, including Israel. Thus three days ago while American air strikes in Kobane supported the PYD defenders, across the border Kurdish air strikes hit PKK camps believed involved in a recent attack on Turkish police.
October 14, 2014: Saudi Arabia called on Iran to withdraw its forces, and support for the Shia Assad government, if they truly want peace in Syria.