Things are not going well for the Syrian government and their patron Iran. Syria is turning into a ruinous (for everyone) stalemate and anti-Shia and anti-Iran sentiment is growing in Lebanon in particular. Sunni Islamic terrorists continue to attack Shia Moslems everywhere and anti-Shia attitudes continue to grow throughout the Islamic world. At the same time most countries in the region don’t want the pro-Iran Assad government to be defeated by Islamic terrorist rebels because these groups, especially ISIL, are a threat to everyone (including the young maniacs who join to kill for Islam and the older zealots to contribute cash and services to “defend Islam”). Best case is that ISIL is exterminated and then the Assads are overthrown. In this part of the world the best case is rarely what happens so everyone is hoping for something better than the current mess. The American led anti-ISIL coalition recently revealed that in the last six months their air strikes had killed half the ISIL senior leadership and that was causing the organization to become less effective and more vulnerable. Coalition members are encouraged and the coalition remains more unified than the Syrian rebels or the Assad supporters. ISIL is on everyone’s kill list and the non-ISIL rebels are aware of that and trying to make the best of it.
The Assad government’s worst problems are not in Syria. Pro-Iran businessmen in Syria and their counterparts in Iran agree (usually off the record) that the plunging oil price threatens the generous and critical Iranian financial support for the beleaguered Assad dictatorship in Syria. Russian support is also threatened by the lower oil prices. Even with continued Iranian military support, Assad really, really depends on the financial support to maintain the loyalty of the few (less than a quarter) Syrians that support him to one degree or another. Because of that, and the damage ISIL has done to the rebel alliance (which has been fighting a civil war with itself since early 2014) the war has been going a little better for the Assads lately. In southern and central Syria (south and north of Damascus), pro Assad forces have actually been regaining some ground, or at least losing less. Along the coast the army and pro-government militias have been able to expel rebels and form a continuous Assad controlled area reaching into central Syria and the capital (Damascus). Thanks to Iranian trainers, the pro-government militias are better trained and more effective as are the soldiers. All of these men are paid regularly and most see a better future than do many of the rebel fighters. The army is about half its pre-war strength of 300,000 but the remaining troops are loyal and most have combat experience. The army is trying to expand back to its pre-war strength, which may not be possible. All this progress is due to cash from Iran, because the Syrian economy is wrecked. But that Iranian cash has been reduced recently along with the plunging price of oil. This has forced Iran to cut its cash support for the Syrian economy. Thus while the Assad forces can provide some security, they are increasingly unable to provide much prosperity and even necessities are not arriving as frequently. Most of what remains of the Syrian economy is in Assad controlled areas where there is an unemployment rate of over 50 percent and the size of government handouts is a matter of life or death. Iran does not want its Syrian ally to be destroyed but subsidizing the Assad controlled population costs more than Iran can afford right now. Unless the price of oil moves sharply north and the economic sanctions on Iran (because of the Iranian nuclear program) are reduced the hard times will be getting harder in Syria for Assad supporters. Despite that living in Assad controlled territory is still a pretty good deal compared to what life is like in ISIL or al Nusra controlled areas. Yet life anywhere in Syria is pretty miserable and more and more Syrians would just like peace. More people are leaving the country and many experienced soldiers and rebels are giving up and leaving as well.
The U.S. has revealed that the international coalition of warplanes it is leading has killed more than 6,000 people in the last five months. The U.S. does not to release information like that but there has been growing pressure to do so. This was particularly the case when it came to the Battle for Kobane in Syria. The Kurds recently declared victory here and admitted that the coalition air support made it possible. The Kurds in Kobane forced the ISIL forces to concentrate for attacks and the coalition surveillance aircraft and UAVs watched for that and quickly directed smart bomb and missile attacks on those concentrations before the Kurds could be overwhelmed. About half those 6,000 dead appear to have been ISIL fighters trying to take control of Kobane. By January 2015 ISIL apparently decided to accept defeat and disperse its fighters in Kobane, thus making their gunmen more difficult aerial targets and allowing the Kurds to take possession of Kobane and declare a great victory.
Meanwhile the coalition warplanes have plenty of other targets in Syria and Iraq. Not all nations, for political reasons, are hitting targets in both countries. In Iraq the U.S., Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands are flying while in Syria it’s the U.S., Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). American warplanes have flown most of the missions and in December alone American warplanes carried out 26 percent of all the air strikes so far. That averaged about 15 American air strikes a day in December. Over 20,000 sorties have been flown so far and 90 percent are support (reconnaissance, surveillance, control/AWACS and aerial refueling). Extreme measures are taken to avoid civilian casualties, which means a lot of military targets have to be left alone because ISIL uses civilians as human shields a lot. For this reason it’s important to have friendly, and competent, troops on the ground to positively identify enemy targets that have a very low probability of causing civilian casualties if hit.
Next door Lebanon is overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the 1.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. That’s in a country of only five million. In response Lebanon began restricting who could get in. Thus the number of refugees coming in last year was up 42 percent while so far this year the number is down (to 14,000 a month) by over 70 percent compared to a year ago. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems that radically changes the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, 27 percent Shia, 40 percent Christian and other religions the rest to a more dangerous combination. With the refugee influx there are now 6.6 million people in Lebanon and 44 percent are Sunni, 20 percent Shia and 30 percent Christian. This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and train fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government is inflicting on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. This is a problem unique to Lebanon, because the other two countries getting the rest of the refugees (Turkey and Jordan) are almost all Sunni.
The Lebanese have another problem with Sunni Islamic terrorist groups trying to enter Lebanon to attack Hezbollah targets or seek sanctuary to avoid attack. Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army both work (often together) to fight these intrusions and this leads to regular clashes on the border. While most Syrians are unhappy with thousands of Hezbollah gunmen fighting for the Assads in Syria, they agree with Hezbollah that the Syrian war should be kept out of Lebanon as much as possible. Actually a lot of Shia, including Hezbollah members, are opposed to the Hezbollah presence in Syria, but patron Iran insists and Hezbollah cannot afford to disobey.
The Turks and Jordanians are also increasing border security and closing border crossings to retaliate if the Islamic terrorists or the Syrian Army make too much trouble. The Assads and the various rebels need the official border crossings open to get supplies in and people (especially the sick and wounded) out. With smugglers having a harder time (against the greatly increased patrols) those official crossings are even more important. The Islamic terrorist rebels still have to use smugglers, and take their chances, because the Turks won’t allow weapons, ammo or some 10,000 people they have identified as Islamic terrorists who have been in Syria, from legally crossing the border. Jordan also blocks weapons (except to approved groups) and has its own list (or profile) of people who cannot enter or leave Jordan.
Most of this border violence is on the Turkish frontier because Turkey has a much larger population and economy than Jordan and is thus easier for foreigners and illegal military supplies to be obtained and move through to the border. The border guards in Turkey and Jordan have been increasingly resistant to bribes, partly because of orders from above for closer supervision and everyone’s realization that taking the bribe prolongs the fighting in Syria and increases the risk of violence spilling over into the bribed border guards’ neighborhood. For most blood is thicker than some dirty money.
In the north (the town of Idib on the Turkish border) the Kurds and Syrian Army have become occasional allies against their common enemy ISIL. At the same time the army and the Kurds seek to take control of the same territory. The army appears to have unofficially agreed to let the Kurds take back control of “traditionally Kurdish” lands and villages. Some areas, especially some of the towns, are still disputed. But for the moment the Assads would like to make peace with the Kurds. To that end there has even been some prisoner swaps and far fewer Assad air force or artillery attacks on Kurdish civilians. Before 2011 the Kurds were seen as a nuisance, mainly because they wanted autonomy and were different (Indo-European, like the Iranians, Indians, most Afghans and Europeans). But now the Kurds are seen as a sometime ally and much less of a threat. Meanwhile the fighting around Idib continues with ISIL and other rebels trying to push the army out of the area while avoiding the Kurds (who have coalition, mainly American, air support and are better fighters than the soldiers). The Kurds also work with secular rebels in the Idib area but these groups are not as well trained and led as the Kurds and not considered as reliable as the Kurds when it comes to getting coalition air support.
One bright spot during 2014 was the ability of the UN (WHO, World Health Organization), the Syrian government and the various rebels to cooperate and allow the resumption of vaccinations. Thus the outbreak of polio in 2013 was contained with only one confirmed case of polio in Syria during 2014. All the fighting since 2011 has left the health care system in a shambles. By 2013 over 100,000 children were unable to receive vaccinations and polio and measles began showing up again. Polio is a particular problem because Pakistani Islamic terrorist rebels apparently brought polio back to Syria. In 2013 there were over fifty cases of polio in Syria, after having been absent since the late 1990s. In 2013 the vaccination rate for Syrian children fell from 95 percent to under 80 percent and was expected to plunge even more in 2014. All the warring parties realized that outbreaks of these diseases were no good for anyone and nearly all groups allowed vaccination efforts to resume. Thus while there were was a major outbreaks of measles, which is less deadly than polio but also largely absent from Syria for decades in 2013. There were over 10,000 known cases in 2013 but far fewer in 2014. Measles, mumps and rubella hits adults as well as children because few adults received booster vaccinations after childhood, thus all the fighters were vulnerable if the vaccinations did not resume. Polio can also hit adults who did not receive a booster dose of vaccine. Adults are also liable to get typhus and other rapidly spreading diseases that have not been a problem in Syria for a long time. Public health experts expected outbreaks of all these diseases in Syria in 2014 but the disaster was averted.
January 30, 2015: In the northwest (near Aleppo) secular rebels (backed by the U.S.) lost control of the Syrian side of two border crossings with Turkey. The winner here was al Nusra, an ally of ISIL but not as savage.
January 28, 2015: In Damascus someone fired three rockets at the Russian embassy, wounding three people. Some locals accused the government of carrying out that attack because there were no rebels reported close enough to have done so. Meanwhile elsewhere in the city a car bomb killed ten and wounded many more.
Israeli warplanes attacked Syrian Army artillery near the Israeli border in retaliation for the rocket attack on Israel the day before.
In Lebanon Hezbollah fired at least five Russian Kornet missiles at an Israel border patrol, destroying two vehicles and killing two soldiers. Israel artillery fired on Hezbollah positions a few hours later and Hezbollah replied with mortar fire. Israel believes that Hezbollah does not want a major war with Israel right now (given the situation in Syria and Lebanon) and has said it will not sharply escalate retaliation unless Hezbollah does so first. Hezbollah and Iran both threatened major retaliation for the Israeli air attack on the 18th that killed an Iranian general and some senior Hezbollah men. Israel is watchful, but reminds everyone that a major escalation is not in the interest of Iran or Hezbollah.
January 27, 2015: On the Israeli border two rockets were fired from Syria into the Golan Heights. There were no casualties. Israeli troops returned fire.
January 26, 2015: In the north (Kobane) the Kurds declared victory over ISIL in the fight for the town. The Kurds were able to examine the bodies of many of the ISIL dead in Kobane and report that nearly a third of them were foreigners. The Kurds are now moving out from Kobane to retake the many Kurdish villages ISIL has controlled for over six months. Thousands of Kurdish refugees are returning from Turkey to rebuild Kobane and the surrounding area.
Israel has begun expanding its barriers along the Syrian border by adding a trench to the fence and installing more concrete barriers at official crossings. Israel has also apparently moved one or more Iron Dome batteries north to help guard the Syrian border. The Israeli government also issued warnings to Lebanon and Hezbollah that any Hezbollah efforts to attack Israeli targets overseas (embassies, tourists, businesses) would bring retaliation against Hezbollah inside Lebanon and that might include non-Hezbollah targets in Lebanon. Hezbollah announced over the weekend that it would not go to war with Israel but Israel knows from past experience that this does not rule out attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets outside the Middle East. This is what Hezbollah did, several times, after the beating they took during their 2006 war with Israel (which Hezbollah declared a victory for themselves but internal discussions were much less optimistic). The January 18 Israeli air strike in Syria that killed several Hezbollah leaders and an Iranian general working with them led Hezbollah to accuse Israel of “changing the (unwritten) rules” of who could attack who. Islamic terrorists consider it bad manners for the victims of their aggression to go after Islamic terrorist leaders. Neither side has ever really observed that unwritten rule but Hezbollah now asserts that it did. That was because Israeli security was so effective that Hezbollah generally did not even try to kill Israeli leaders. At the same time Hezbollah increased the security measures for its own leaders, making it more difficult (but not impossible) for Israel to get through. Hezbollah forces in Syria are more vulnerable because it is a combat zone and Hezbollah security against Israeli air strikes is much less effective. Hezbollah thought it had an arrangement with Israel whereby Hezbollah did not conduct operations along the Lebanese border and Israel would refrain from attacking Hezbollah targets. But since Hezbollah still calls destroying Israel their main goal, and their operations in Syria are only a diversion (forced them on their patron Iran), the Israelis consider it foolish to give Hezbollah any breaks.
Syria and Hezbollah are accusing Israel of being an al Qaeda/ISIL ally by attacking Hezbollah in Syria. The fact is that al Qaeda (and, so far, ISIL) has not made any attacks on Israel (mainly because it is so difficult) while Hezbollah has. Israel is no friend of al Qaeda or ISIL but Hezbollah is the more immediate threat. Syria has also been calling for the destruction of Israel since the 1940s and has regularly been on the receiving end of Israeli attacks because Syria has long provided sanctuary for all manner of terrorist groups, especially ones that tried to kill Jews.
January 25, 2015: In the southwest (Deraa) al Nusra and other rebels captured an army base on the Jordan border. In Damascus rebels fired nearly 40 rockets into various neighborhoods killing seven and wounding over twenty. Rebels said this was retaliation for a recent air force raid on pro-rebel civilians east of Damascus that killed over 40 people.
January 18, 2015: In the north (the Syrian side of the border in Golan Heights) an Israeli helicopter gunship fired a missile at a Hezbollah vehicle killing seven people. Among the dead were several Hezbollah leaders and an Iranian general. One the Hezbollah leaders was planning terrorist attacks on Israeli targets. This made Iran and Hezbollah very angry.
January 15, 2015: Al Nusra freed two female Italian aid workers they had held since last July. The Italian government denied that it had paid a $16 million ransom. While ISIL prefers to behead its Western captives, al Nusra prefers to ransom them.