Syria: ISIL And Friends Go On The Offensive

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April 19, 2015: The civil war, which began in 2011, has left over 220,000 dead so far. Over half the 22 million people of Syria have fled their homes since 2011. Some have returned but most have not. There are nearly four million registered Syrian refugees living outside the country plus at least a million unregistered. About a quarter of those fled in 2014 and the exodus continues. Before this is all over Syria will lose a quarter of its population and if the Assads remain in power most of those refugees will not return. Foreign donors are spending over $8 billion a year to keep these refugees outside Syria alive. Turkey and Lebanon have taken most of the refugees and Turkey is spending nearly $4 billion a year to support their portion (about a third). 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.

As ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) came to dominate the rebel movement in 2013 this Iraq based organization merged its terror operations in the two countries. This war with ISIL in Iraq and Syria has left over 100,000 dead since early 2014. Some 83 percent of those fatalities were in Syria. The death toll in Syria continues to rise, even as it is declining in Iraq. A growing number of Iraqi officials are optimistic that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq by the end of 2016. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but then the Sunni fanatics make yet another comeback. The Syrian government is now less certain that it has the Islamic terrorists on the run. The minority (less than a quarter of the population) willing to support the Assads is worn down and demoralized by four years of violence and despite the billions of dollars in economic and military aid from Russia and Iran the rebels, led by ISIL, are on the offensive again. Iran has also sent thousands of trainers, advisors and “combat volunteers” to Syria. Cash strapped Iran really cannot afford to spend all this money on Syria, especially if this aid is not dramatically turning things around for the Assads. Iran wants to use its presence in Syria to threaten Israel but so far the more important task of keeping the Assad government functioning has prevented any real moves against Israel. Meanwhile Israel has had more success supporting some of the rebels. Israel has quietly supplied the Kurds (mainly in Iraq but now in northern Syria as well) with advisors, intel and equipment. The Kurds have never openly acknowledged the relationship, so as not to offend other supporters who are Moslem and officially in favor of destroying Israel. But ask any Kurd in Syria or Iraq and they will confirm that the Israelis are friends and allies. The Kurds are largely Sunni but few of them got involved with Islamic radicalism and terrorism.

In 2011 the Arab Spring gave most Syrians hope that they could get rid of the decades old Assad dictatorship. Assad rule had crippled the economy and turned the country into a corrupt police state. The resistance attracted many Islamic terror groups and that led to fighting between rebel factions and endless mayhem that has destroyed the economy and killed or injured five percent of the population. There is no end in sight although growing popular resistance to ISIL has so far got a lot more Syrians killed (often in gruesome fashion) and helps keep the Assads in power. Prospects are not good.

ISIL’s use of media to publicize its savagery has brought lots of suicidal and demented recruits to Syria and like-minded Moslems in the rest of the world have declared themselves ISIL franchises. That has resulted in an international opposition to ISIL and that backlash even included a growing number of Moslem pundits and leaders calling for some fundamental changes in Islamic thinking to eliminate these periodic outbreaks of Islamic terrorism. The opinion surveys taken over the past few decades have shown that a substantial minority of Moslems approve of Islamic terrorism on religious grounds and this provides the motivation, manpower and popular support for groups like ISIL. It has been that way for over a thousand years.

Because of all this resistance ISIL is losing ground in Iraq and has apparently shifted its main effort to Syria, where it has a powerful (although temporary) ally in the rival al Nusra terrorists. These two groups (and several smaller ones) are advancing around the two largest cities (Aleppo and Damascus) as well as along the Israeli and Jordanian border. ISIL, not surprisingly, found the Iranian and Western support for the Iraqi military, as well as the much greater popular support for the Iraqi government (and against ISIL) too much. In Iraq ISIL is basically on the defensive, preparing for an army assault on Mosul and Western Iraq. No ISIL leaders are saying it yet, but the more perceptive ones know that ISIL faces defeat in Iraq, Meanwhile the chance of victory in Syria seem much better, even though ISIL will have to fight rivals like al Nusra after the Assad government is crushed. Al Nusra is different in that few of its members are foreigners (or non-Syrians) and that the group is aligned with the more “moderate” al Qaeda. The al Nusra alliance with ISIL is not accepted by all al Nusra factions and in some parts of Syria (particularly around Aleppo) al Nusra and ISIL forces still fight each other (often with suicide bomb attacks against al Nusra leaders, a favorite ISIL tactic). One of these assassinations succeeding can cause a blood feud that will go on for months or longer despite efforts by senior leaders from both sides trying to arrange a settlement.

The ISIL/al Nusra offensive has consisted of over a dozen major attacks this month along the “front” that stretches from the Turkish border near Aleppo, then south along key roads and military bases the Assad forces still hold to the suburbs of Damascus and then the Jordan border. Most of these attacks failed but even so it was a shock to the defenders who had not been hit this hard in over a year. Some attacks succeeded and the Assads fear this could get a lot worse. The Assad government has always held onto its heartland. This is a continuous strip of land from the Jordanian border to Damascus, along the Lebanese border to the Lebanese coast. The army has lost control of the major Jordan crossing and the crossings into Turkey were lost over a year ago. If there is a breach in the middle the Assads would have big problems with holding onto the coast (where most foreign aid and supplies in general come in) and Damascus.

Meanwhile in the northeast the Kurdish militias have pushed ISIL back. Apparently ISIL now considers Syrian Kurdish forces as too tough to take on, in large part because these are the only forces in Syria with coalition air support (using ground controllers). ISIL took a major beating (thousands of casualties) from this combination in Kobane during a five month battle and wants to avoid any more of that in Syria. Not only does fighting Kurds get a lot of ISIL fighters killed, but it discourages the rest. Syrian Air Force air support is much less effective than what the American led coalition provides.  Meanwhile the Syrian Air Force continues to make the Assads infamous with constant attacks on pro-rebel civilians. Recently this has included poison gas.

In one of the more publicized victories ISIL forces advanced into the Palestinian town (“refugee camp”) of Yarmouk (south of Damascus) on April 1st. Palestinian rebels (many of them basically Islamic terrorists) have held most of the town since government forces surrounded the place in 2012. In effect Yarmouk has been under siege by the Assads since 2012 and regularly bombed. Most of these armed Palestinian groups were anti-ISIL and the 18,000 Palestinians (12 percent of the pre-2011 population) in the town looked to these armed groups for protection. ISIL encountered no resistance from Assad forces but some of the Palestinian Islamic terror groups in Yarmouk did fight back.

Most of the original inhabitants of Yarmouk have fled since 2012. Enough supplies have been let in so that the remaining Palestinians could barely survive. Despite that at least 200 Palestinians have starved to death in the last year and many more are hungry most of the time. The Palestinians (1.7 percent of the Syrian population) are considered unreliable by the rebels although a large number of them are pro-rebel. While the Assads had been good to the Palestinians over the decades, many of the younger Palestinians in Syria backed the rebels from the beginning and that led to fighting in Palestinian neighborhoods like Yarmouk.  In July 2013 the head of the Palestinian Authority (which rules the West Bank Palestinians) declared that Palestinians in Syria to be neutral in the civil war. Many are but most are not. The two different Palestinian groups (Fatah that controls the West Bank and the more radical Hamas that controls Gaza) have their own factions in Yarmouk. Fatah has long been the major player in Yarmouk and many Fatah members support the Assads. Hamas attracts the radicals and anti-Assad types. Unfortunately some pro-Hamas Palestinians in Yarmouk do not support ISIL. Palestinians support for the Assads has been declining since 2011 and now over half favor various rebel factions. The Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority fears that after the Syrian fighting is over, no matter who wins, the Palestinians will be expelled (to Lebanon, the West Bank who whatever). By now most Palestinians (who tend to be Sunni or Christian) have come out in favor of the Syrian rebels. The current ISIL led battle in Yarmouk has not worked out well for Hamas. After Yarmouk was captured by ISIL on the 5th videos began appearing showing Hamas officials being publically executed and in one case the head of a Hamas leader was displayed on a pike. Even among Islamic terrorist groups this is considered disrespectful. Hamas officially opposes ISIL, mainly because its major financial backers (Arab oil states) insist. But many Hamas members support ISIL and some have gone and joined ISIL. Since the 5th Fatah and Hamas leadership has issued conflicting advice to Palestinians in Yarmouk, many of whom are now fleeing the town. Some 14 Palestinian factions have gone and pledged support for the Assad government in the hope that some of the substantial Syrian Army forces in the vicinity would come in and drive ISIL out. Syria will only do that if the Palestinians can demonstrate a lot of pro-Assad support in Yarmouk. That may be difficult, if not impossible, to do. Thus the Assads are inclined to leave the ungrateful Palestinians to deal with ISIL on their own. Many Yarmouk neighborhoods are in ruins and the UN officials who have supervised aid shipments since 2012 know from experience that ISIL rule means less food. ISIL tends to refuse any food that is identified as coming from a non-Moslem source. ISIL would rather its subjects starve than accept aid from infidels (non-Moslems). Because of all the problems ISIL was encountering with the Palestinians it was agreed that ISIL forces would withdraw from Yarmouk and let their al Nusra (which is largely Syrian) ally administer the town. ISIL forces were gone by the 15th and most of the remaining Palestinians were optimistic about working with al Nusra.

Another reason for shifting its main effort back to Syria is the American led coalition providing air support. Since August 2014 this coalition has hit over 5,800 ISIL targets, most of them in Iraq. Moreover many of the Iraq targets were hit with the help of American, Kurdish or Iraqi controllers on the ground. Thus the air attacks in Iraq are much more damaging to ISIL. Moreover more than half the air attacks have been in Iraq and this air support is a major reason why ISIL has lost about a quarter of the Iraqi territory it held in late 2014. Many, if not most, of the coalition air attacks in Syria have been against ISIL administrative, economic and logistical targets in eastern Syria, which ISIL is trying to run as an “Islamic State.” That is not working out so well with growing rebellion among the local tribes and similar problems with foreign volunteers who become disillusioned and try to leave (although a few have joined the local anti-ISIL rebels).

Turkey continues to become more effective at keeping foreign volunteers for ISIL from reaching Syria. More and more of these men (and a few women) are being caught (and arrested) as they enter Syria (via road, rail, ship and airliner). This appears to be stopping about a thousand recruits a month, which is nearly half those trying to reach ISIL via Turkey. Moreover, Turkey is not just turning back suspected ISIL recruits but identifying them, comparing data with the recruits’ country of origin and often sending the detainees back to their homeland for investigation and often prosecution. What makes this work is the fact that nearly half these volunteers are from France and France is very eager to know which of their Moslem citizens are pro-ISIL. The pro-ISIL Internet sites are full of chatter about how dangerous it has become to reach ISIL in Syria. Many countries, both Moslem and Western, remember that many of their problems with Islamic terrorism since the 1980s has featured men who learned how to kill while serving as “holy warriors” in Afghanistan. There is a real fear that veterans of ISIL in Syria and Iraq may pose a similar threat. 

April 13, 2015: Al Nusra launched an attack on an air force base outside Aleppo. This began with the detonation of a large bomb placed under an army position via a tunnel. That was followed by a ground assault, which was apparently repulsed. The Al Nusra forces around Aleppo have used the tunnel bomb successfully several times and the team of tunnel workers they have assembled have gotten better at the job. But Assad forces have managed to blunt the offensive because the Syrian Air Force is still active and able to keep an eye on rebel activities and spot and destroy key storage facilities for food, weapons, ammo and fuel.

French military aid began arriving in Lebanon. Actually the $3 billion in weapons and equipment is being paid for by Saudi Arabia and the deal was arranged back in 2013.

April 9, 2015: Another Arab Israeli who went to join ISIL in Syria has been reported dead. As many as two dozen Arab Israelis have gone off to join ISIL in the last two years and about a third of them are believed to have been killed. Most of these Israeli ISIL men keep in touch with their families via cell phone or Internet and provide information on the extent of Arab Israeli activity within ISIL. In contrast The United States recently revealed that nearly 200 Americans had gone to Syria to join ISIL and that about 20 percent of those had returned home. None of the returnees have been detected engaging in Islamic terrorist activity and not all those who went to work for ISIL went to fight. Some served with aid groups and other serviced as non-combat specialists (something ISIL had been calling for).

April 7, 2015: On the Lebanese border Lebanese soldiers raided an ISIL outpost recently established near the Syrian border. The Lebanese security forces have become increasingly aggressive against any Islamic terrorist groups from Syria crossing the border. The army has the full cooperation of Hezbollah, which is often in conflict with Lebanese soldiers and police. That tension is gone at least when it concerns Islamic terrorists activity along the Syrian border.

April 1, 2015: The main border crossing with Jordan was closed by Jordan because of fighting on the Syrian side. Even though Syrian troops had withdrawn there were several rebel groups (ISIL, al Nusra and some more secular one) fighting for control of the crossing. This has hurt Lebanon most of all because this crossing is where nearly 2,000 tons of goods from Lebanon enter Jordan each day. Some Lebanese truckers have been taken prisoner by rebels and their trucks looted. So far the Syrian Civil War has cut Lebanese exports over 15 percent. Most of this was the loss of the Syrian market, but with trucks unable to get into Jordan the pain is going to increase. Despite the export difficulties Lebanon has managed to adapt (there’s a lot more foreign aid) and GDP is growing again (two percent in the first three months of 2015). Before 2011 annual GDP growth was 8 percent a year and it may be a while before that level is reached again.  

In Tikrit Iraqi forces (mostly soldiers assisted by some Shia militias) took the last ISIL stronghold in the city. Although there were still some ISIL forces holding out in the city the government declared Tikrit liberated. Iraqi commanders credit five days of American air strikes as the key to the success of the final drive on Tikrit. Using the same tactics employed at Kobane (in Syria) to assist Kurdish forces, the American smart bombs and missiles quickly destroyed ISIL strongpoints or stretches of road or ground thought to be full of bombs and mines. These tactics not only killed ISIL defenders but demoralized the others, which led to most of the remaining ISIL forces fleeing the city. These tactics are not new and actually go back to World War II when self-propelled heavy artillery and fighter-bombers using unguided (“dumb”) bombs to quickly destroy any enemy resistance were found to be highly effective. In late 2001 this tactic was updated with the use of GPS guided smart bombs (and the older laser guided ones) against Taliban forces. This worked so well that after about a month the surviving Taliban defenses fell apart and the survivors fled.

 

 

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