Fighting in Daraa, a town of 75,000 near the Jordanian border has been going on since 2012 and just gets uglier and uglier. The government lost control of Darra in 2013 and this provided the rebels with a supply line from Jordan to Damascus. Now the Syrian Army is advancing on Daraa in an effort to cut that supply line and take what is left of the city. So far the soldiers have captured several villages outside Darra and are advancing on more. The rebels in some of the Damascus suburbs are increasingly active in firing rockets and mortar shells into pro-government neighborhoods and the move to take Daraa is in part to halt these attacks by cutting off supplies of shells and rockets as well as food and reinforcements.
In the north Kurdish fighters continue to push back ISIL from Kobane. This has meant that nearly half the 350 villages surrounding the market town of Kobane have been taken back in the last month. In many cases ISIL fighters just abandoned villages they had occupied for months. The Kurds have a major advantage in that they can call in coalition air strikes. If the Kurds encounter ISIL resistance they can put a smart bomb onto the ISIL position (trenches or a building) and that usually breaks that instance of ISIL resistance.
Since 2011 over 210,000 have died in the Syrian rebellion and there have been nearly two million non-fatal casualties (wounds, injuries, serious illness). Nearly 25,000 of the dead are foreigners, mainly fighting for the rebels. The foreigners include pro-government Hezbollah from Lebanon, which has lost nearly a thousand dead so far. Half the 22 million population of Syria have fled their homes since 2011 and over four million are living outside the country. About a quarter of those fled in 2014 and the exodus continues. Foreign donors are spending over $8 billion a year to keep these refugees outside Syria alive. This is difficult this time of year because the cold weather means fuel and blankets to keep refugees warm are needed and it is already difficult to keep the growing numbers of refugees supplied with basic food and medical needs. Even many Assad supporters, living in the parts of the country largely untouched by the war, are fleeing. Most Syrians see no future for their country as long as the fighting continues and there have been no credible efforts to halt the mayhem.
One thing that scares all Syrians a great deal is the presence of armed foreigners. Currently there are as many as 20,000 of them in Syria. The foreign fighters are mostly (at least 80 percent) from Moslem majority countries with at least half the foreigners coming from Middle Eastern nations. About 20 percent of the foreign fighters are from Moslem minority nations, mostly in the West. Most of the foreign fighters have no idea what they are really getting into. The recruiters, most of them Internet based, stress the adventure aspect and the religious duty to “defend Islam.” Once the foreign volunteers reach Syria they are put through a few days or weeks of training and sent off to fight. Some are persuaded to volunteer to be a suicide bombers. Not just anyone will do, as most of the volunteers are poorly educated and not the most dependable people. An effective suicide bomber must be reliable and able to keep it all together while under great stress. Because of the lies (that they are there to help the Syrian people, who actually hate ISIL) and the low overall quality of the foreign volunteers leads a growing number to try quitting. You cannot quit once you are in Syria. Thus a growing number of the ISIL executions involve foreign volunteers who attempted to desert or otherwise misbehaved. Most well educated and disciplined foreign volunteers are not immediately sent off to fight and die. They are sent to units where the commanders have been told to get these guys some combat experience but try and keep them alive so they can go back to ISIL base areas and do some specialized work or return to their home country to recruit or organize terror attacks.
The UN is criticizing ISIL for marking foreign (mostly UN and mostly paid for by the U.S.) food aid as coming from ISIL. Before ISIL allows food aid to be distributed the boxes and sacks must be marked as a “gift from ISIL”. The UN also criticizes ISIL for selling some food on the market to raise cash. ISIL tells the UN to shut up and be grateful that ISIL allows the food aid in and generally does not abuse UN staff. Currently the UN food aid program feeds about four million Syrians, which is nearly a third of the population still in Syria. Nearly half of those aid recipients are either in ISIL controlled territory or the food must pass through ISIL controlled areas (in which case the food must be marked as from ISIL before allowed to pass).
Meanwhile ISIL is not doing so well overall. ISIL was seemingly invincible and unstoppable in mid-2014. By then it controlled most of eastern Syria (the thinly populated, by Sunni tribes) desert shared with Iraq) and was advancing in other areas. ISIL held most of western Iraq. In July 2014 ISIL had recently taken control of Mosul (the largest city in northern Iraq) and was advancing on Baghdad, the Kurdish north and the capital of western Iraq (Anbar province). All that has changed in the last few months. ISIL still holds the cities of Raqqa (the largest city in eastern Syria) and Mosul in Iraq. But both cities are increasingly rebellious and require a growing number of ISIL gunmen to maintain control. ISIL has become increasingly paranoid and vicious in their treatment of real or suspected “traitors.” Public executions are more common and these subjects of ISIL (including most Sunni Arabs) are not happy at all with ISIL rule. The paranoia even extends to ISIL leadership with the growing use of spies and informants to track daily activities of ISIL leaders and report any suspicious moves. This is driven by the growing fear that their enemies (especially anti-ISIL countries) have contacted some ISIL leaders (or other key people) and turned them into spies. This would account for the increasingly frequent air attacks against ISIL leaders and key facilities.
This reversal of fortune is nothing new. ISIL has, for the second time in a decade managed to turn the majority of Arabs against Sunni Islamic terrorists by committing an outrageous atrocity against Moslems. This time it was burning to death a Jordanian F-16 pilot, and then compounding that by keeping quiet about it for nearly a month as they lied to pro-Islamic terrorist Sunni Arab clerics negotiating with them for the release of a female al Qaeda suicide bomber captured in 2005 in Jordan and condemned to death (her suicide bomb failed to function and her husband, also wearing a bomb best, told he to flee while he set off his explosives and killed 35 Jordanians at a wedding). She was captured and confessed her guilt. When the Jordanians refused to do the deal without proof the Jordanian pilot was alive ISIL broke off negotiations, released the “burning alive” video and that was the final straw for most Arabs who were not happy with the growing number of Moslem civilians ISIL was murdering in outrageous ways (stoning, crucifixion, beheading and now burning alive). The burning pilot video was followed a few days later by another video of 21 Egyptian Christians being beheaded in Libya by ISIL. This increased Arab anger still more against Islamic terrorism and especially ISIL. A decade ago the atrocity that did it was carried out at a wedding (and two other locations) in Jordan by al Qaeda in Iraq (what ISIL grew out of). After that bit of mass murder (over 60 dead) opinion polls showed Arab support for al Qaeda plunging everywhere. This was critical because then, as now, many if not most Arabs believe Al Qaeda and ISIL are Western inventions, created as an excuse for the West to attack Islam. This seems absurd to most Westerners, except for those that work in the Middle East and have to live with that attitude up close all the time. Conspiracy theories like this are much more popular in the Arab world than in the West and are a major, but little discussed problem encountered while trying to eliminate Islamic terrorism. This time Jordan, as it did in 2005, got really, really angry and make a much more vigorous effort against ISIL (including executing the female suicide bomber ISIL wanted set free). This was the same pattern seen in 2005 and will have the same end result (another defeat for Islamic terrorism but not the elimination of the attitudes that keep it coming back.)
ISIL is in retreat in Iraq and Syria. Sunni tribes in Anbar and western Syria are in open revolt and subject to increasingly savage reprisals by ISIL gunmen (often foreigners, which makes the tribesmen angrier). Half the ISIL leadership has been killed by coalition (Arab, NATO and allied) warplanes since August 2014. This air support and Iraqi soldiers, Kurdish troops, Shia militias and armed Sunni tribesmen have taken back much of the territory ISIL overran in early 2014. American and other Western troops are rebuilding the Iraqi Army and arming anti-ISIL Sunni tribesmen. Iran is training and sometimes leading Shia militias. In Syria ISIL is getting beaten by Kurds, Syrian soldiers and more Iranian trained Shia militias.
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. 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. Assad officials are even openly talking of destroying ISIL by the end of 2015. These same officials no longer speak of destroying the rebellion any time soon, but the Assads and most rebels would not mind seeing ISIL go.
Hezbollah continues to take a beating in Syria where it battles Syrian government forces as well as ISIL Islamic terrorists and other, less manic, rebels. Hezbollah knows that this involvement in Syria, at the behest of Iran, is unpopular back in Lebanon. Not so much because Hezbollah is fighting for the Syrian government (which is hated by most Lebanese because of previous Syrian aggression and misbehavior in Syria) but because that Hezbollah involvement brings more of the Syrian violence into Lebanon. Another problem Hezbollah is encountering is the growing number of Syrian Army soldiers who succumb to rebel bribes and not only provide information about the army, but also about Hezbollah. Sometimes the soldiers are persuaded to switch sides. All this has gotten a growing number of Hezbollah fighters killed or wounded and in retaliation Hezbollah has forced the army to be more energetic in seeking out and punishing (executing) the traitors.
The UN is trying to broker a six week ceasefire in Aleppo, where government forces have made gains lately. The government offers to suspend air raids (which mostly hit pro-rebel civilians) for six weeks if the rebels will halt their operations. The rebels do not have a unified command and some factions do not trust the government to abide by any ceasefire deal. The ISIL and al Nusra rebels are uneasy allies and may have stopped fighting each other but still do not agree on many issues, other than the need to destroy the Assad government. Nearly a week of fighting around Aleppo has caused over 700 casualties, about half government and half rebel. Most of the rebel dead were ISIL, which tends to make suicidal attacks (coming straight at an entrenched and resolute enemy). Sometimes this scares the defenders so much that they flee, but if the defenders keep shooting ISIL usually loses. Aleppo has been fought over since 2011 and is now mostly rubble. It was once Syria’s second largest city, and may be so again after the war ends and the place is rebuilt.
The U.S. revealed that it had so far screened 1,200 Syrian rebels to be sent to training at camps in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those selected are believed much less likely to be radicalized and the United States hopes to have 3,000 trained and in action by the end of 2015. Such screening is difficult but the Americans had help from Saudi Arabia, which has had more success in that respect. The American effort is criticized for being too slow and producing too few armed and trained fighters to make a difference. At the moment American government policy limits what U.S. counter-terrorism efforts can do. Under these conditions the Americans plan to use their reliable rebels to call in air strikes and provide accurate information of what is going on inside Syria. This decision is based on the success the U.S. has had with the Kurds. Thus the Americans are trying to find equally reliable Arab rebels in Syria to call in air strikes. Using contacts the Kurds have developed over the years the U.S. is seeking small teams of Arab rebels who can be taught how to call in airstrikes. These teams will be equipped with armed (with a machine-gun) pickup trucks and the special radios and sent them back to Syria. This is risky, as all it takes is one rogue air strike team to get the wrong people killed and cause a diplomatic and media mess. This is considered a worthwhile risk because, as the experience with the Kurds has shown, the ISIL fighters are often sloppy during combat (because so many ISIL fighters have little training or combat experience) and that provides excellent opportunities for a single smart bomb to cause enormous (and demoralizing and often decisive) casualties. This is what happened at Kobane, where even ISIL had to admit they got beat, big time because of all those air strikes.
Despite the declining ISIL prospects a recent opinion poll in the United States showed that 84 percent of Americans believe ISIL is the most serious threat over the next decade. International terrorism also has 84 percent of Americans concerned. Iranian nukes frighten 77 percent followed by North Korea (64 percent) and Russia (49 percent, actually a tie with the Islamic effort to destroy Israel).
February 18, 2015: In the north (Aleppo) rebel fighters went on the attack and drove government forces out of villages they had captured the day before.
February 17, 2015: In the north (Aleppo) government forces launched an offensive and captured several rebel-held villages outside the city. The government force contained a lot of Hezbollah and Shia militia fighters.
February 15, 2015: In the north (near Kobane) a remote control car bomb went off near a Turkish border post. Three people were wounded.
Bahrain announced that it had sent warplanes to Jordan to participate in the coalition air campaign against ISIL.
February 14, 2015: In southeastern Turkey police seized a car loaded with explosives near the Syrian border. Five suspects were also arrested.
In the south there were over 400 casualties in the last week from fighting near the Israeli border.
February 13, 2015: In the south rebels operating near the Israeli border have asked Israel to provide some air support by bombing Hezbollah and Syrian Shia militias that are assisting the Syrian Army in pushing the rebels away from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. This has been the major offensive operation for the Syrian forces this year and dozens of Syrian Air Force bombing attacks have hurt the rebels. This appeal is based on mutual interest as the rebels in this part of Syria are largely secular or not aligned with the more radical Islamic terrorists like ISIL and al Nusra. If the rebels are pushed away from the border Hezbollah will have free access to the Israel border. Israel has made no public response to this request.
A car bomb went off in a pro-government suburb of Damascus killing at least ten and wounding many more.
February 9, 2015: The UAE (United Arab Emirates) has sent a squadron of F-16s Jordan to participate in air attacks against ISIL>
February 8, 2015: The UAE resumed air attacks against ISIL after halting them until the United States increased its SAR (Search And Rescue) forces in the area (especially basing a unit in northern Iraq). The UAE saw the December 24th capture of a Jordanian pilot as largely due to insufficient SAR forces being available to rescue him and halted their air strikes by the end of 2014 because of the issue. The American SAR units contain commando type rescue personnel and support specialists who can quickly direct combat aircraft to where the downed pilot is in order to keep hostile troops away until the downed pilot is rescued. It is still unclear if a more vigorous SAR response would have prevented the capture of the Jordanian pilot, but the UAE believed it would and the U.S. had to respond to get UAE warplanes back in the air over Iraq and Syria.
February 4, 2015: Jordan executed two Islamic terrorists who had been convicted and condemned to death. This was part of the response to ISIL murdering a captured Jordanian F-16 pilot. Jordan says it will execute more convicted and condemned Islamic terrorists (who were not killed because many Arabs still saw these killers as heroes).
February 3, 2015: ISIL released a video (via the Internet) of the killing of a captured Jordanian pilot by burning him alive. This killing apparently took place on January 3rd. The pilot was captured on December 24th after his F-16 crashed because of equipment failure. The pilot parachuted to the ground safely but he was in ISIL territory and was soon captured. Jordan immediately opened negotiations with ISIL to get the pilot back and it was believed that these talks would succeed. But ISIL leadership was under tremendous internal pressure to “strike back” against the nations that were killing so many (apparently thousands) of ISIL members with these air attacks. The pilot was beaten a lot and paraded around in the week after his capture but at least one unsuccessful commando raid to rescue him apparently persuaded ISIL to kill the pilot in a spectacular way and video the act. The video was not released right away because it appeared Jordan was willing to release some convicted Islamic terrorists that ISIL wanted in return for the now dead pilot. ISIL was unable to scam the Jordanians and thus released the burning alive video.
February 1, 2015: In Damascus a rebel Islamic terrorist group get a time (or remote controlled) bomb onto a bus carrying Shia pilgrims from Lebanon. When the bomb detonated it killed six Shia pilgrims.
Japan vowed revenge against ISIL after the release of the video showing ISIL beheading the second of two Japanese ISIL held. ISIL had demanded $200 million ransom for the two men.
January 31, 2015: ISIL released a video admitting it was defeated in Kobane and blamed their defeat on American air strikes and vowed to destroy the Kurds eventually.