Syria: The Devilishly Clever Kurds March South

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June 25, 2015: Unexpectedly ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had its worst nightmare become reality as Kurdish forces (including some Christian militias and secular Arab FSA rebels) continued advancing south from Kobane (near the Turkish border). ISIL took a major beating (thousands of casualties) from this combination in Kobane during a five month battle and wanted 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. After pushing ISIL out of Kobane in January the Kurdish fighters continued advancing south. By February nearly half the 350 villages surrounding the market town of Kobane were retaken. 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. ISIL sent reinforcements to stop the Kurds and for several months thought they had succeeded. But the Kurds were just reinforcing the area around Kobane and training for another push. For that last month that offensive towards Raqqa has been underway.

Raqqa is 140 kilometers southeast of Kobane and now the Kurds are less than 50 kilometers from the ISIL “capital.” In response the defenses of Raqqa are being upgraded (more trenches and bunkers) and reinforced with ISIL gunmen from other parts of Syria. Despite that ISIL has reason to be pessimistic. Most of the remaining citizens of Raqqa hate their ISIL overlords. Most ISIL gunmen now know that fighting the Kurds is frustrating and usually fatal for ISIL personnel. All this has ISIL leadership worried. So worried that they have ordered pro-ISIL Kurds (there aren’t many of them) to leave Raqqa. ISIL also fears the attacksing Kurds will wait outside Raqqa and let ISIL attack them. That increases ISIL casualties and reduces Kurdish losses. The Kurds have confirmed that they will halt their advance in order to allow Arab Syrian rebels to assemble in sufficient numbers to lead the final advance into Raqqa. While most of the people in Raqqa are Arabs and don’t like ISIL they don’t like Kurds either.

To ISIL leaders all this appears devilishly clever of the Kurds and just one more reason to hate and fear them.  Part of this fear is based on the fact that Arabs have persecuted Kurds for centuries and there have never been much goodwill between the two groups who share a common religion but are ethnically and culturally different (Arabs are Semitic while Kurds are Indo-European). Already there are rumors in Raqqa that the advancing Kurds have been chasing Arabs out of areas they have conquered.

 In 2014 ISIL took the eastern Syria city of Raqqa (population 500,000) and turned it into an “Islamic city.” Strict lifestyle rules were imposed and local Christians have to pay an extra tax to avoid persecution. ISIL enforced many new lifestyle rules that even many of their fighters found uncomfortable (no cigarettes, for example) and most current Raqqa residents wish ISIL would just go away.

ISIL efforts to advance from Palmyra are being blocked by towns and villages containing largely Alawite populations and determined self-defense militias. For decades Syria has been ruled by the minority (12 percent of the population) are Alawite (Shia) Moslems. Thus the Assads take a keen interest in the success of Alawite militias and these are usually, as they are near Palmyra, reinforced with army troops and air support. So far ISIL attacks on these Alawite communities have failed. Moreover the problems with the Alawite militias and Kurds advancing on Raqqa has forced ISIL to send most of its reserves (troops available to deal with emergencies) to Raqqa. This has enabled Syrian troops to regain control of a vital stretch of road north of Palmyra that connected Damascus with the coast. ISIL control of this road threatened the ability of the government to freely move forces between the capital (Damascus) and territory along the Mediterranean coast it never lost control of. This area has remained largely intact and functioning normally. The ports here are where most of the Russian and Iranian aid arrives. 

Sunni Arab states and most Western nations are suspicious of Iranian efforts to help in Syria. In Iran officials openly boast of “controlling” Iraq, Lebanon and Syria because of the pro-Iran armed forces there. Officially Iran only takes credit for rendering assistance to fellow Shia, but all Iranians learn about the history of Iranian empires and the Iranian responsibility to run things in the region. This is becoming more obvious in Syria. Since late May a lot more (as in several thousand) Iranian supported Shia mercenaries (recruited in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere) have entered Syria. This increases the Iranian mercenary force to over 10,000 fighters, all recruited and trained by the Iranian Quds Force. The Quds Force specializes in this sort of thing. In 2012 the Revolutionary Guards commander openly bragged that members of the Quds Force were operating in Syria. Quds has long been Iran's international terrorism support organization. The Quds Force supplies weapons to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as Islamic radicals in Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere. Quds has been advising Syrian forces and occasionally helping with raids and interrogations. Iran is also bringing in some badly needed special weapons and equipment. Much of this is coming in by air via Iraq. Another 5,000 or so Hezbollah gunmen (not exactly mercenaries given their role in defending Lebanon) are also in Syria and also supported by Quds. These Iranian supplied fighters are often used when the rebels are threatening a vital area. The recent increase in the number of mercenaries is partly a result of Hezbollah being more involved in defending the Lebanese borders but also because the Syrian Army is becoming less enthusiastic and reliable after the many defeats it has suffered this year. Unlike Russia, Iran has more immediate concerns in Syria, mainly a key support base for the Iranian backed (and created) Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. Syrian government forces are still a formidable foe for the rebels and continues to attack ISIL controlled areas.

The one bright spot in the war against ISIL is the Kurds (of Iraq and Syria). Since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds were autonomous (with British and American help) and they had always been more effective soldiers than the Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds still suffer from tribal and clan divisions as well as corruption, but to a much lesser extent than the Arabs. Thus a disproportionate number of Western trainers are being sent to the Kurds, who are only about a fifth of the Iraqi population and even less of the Syrian population. The Kurds are considered reliable enough to work with Western commandos and protect ground control teams (that can call in air strikes). Kurds regularly assist the American and British commandos in carrying out their most dangerous tasks; reconnaissance inside ISIL territory.

Israel has sent more troops to their Syrian border. Al Nusra rebels control most of the border adjacent to Israel. This creates problems with the Israeli Druze who fear for the safely of the 500,000 Syrian Druze. Al Qaead affiliate al Nusra is temporarily allied with ISIL and both these groups, especially ISIL, are very hostile to Druze (a semi-Islamic sect considered heretical by most mainline Moslems). Over a hundred Druze have already been murdered by Islamic terrorists in Syria and there is a sense of desperation. Al Nusra apologized for the twenty Druze their men killed recently but ISIL is unapologetic. The 130,000 Israeli Druze have been pressuring Israel for over a year to rescue or help protect Druze living across the border in Syria. Israel has agreed to help but the details have not been made public. The solution could be either allowing Syrian Druze into Israel and provide refuge or moving into the border areas where the Syrian Druze live and establishing a “safe zone.” This would preserve the lands of Syrian Druze and not turn them into refugees, but would also be more expensive (in cash and lives) for Israel by establishing a new border.

Israel (from senior leaders down to the average soldier) is willing to do something for the Syrian Druze because the Israeli Druze are the only Arab Israeli s subject to conscription and most of those serving in the Israeli military agree that Israel should help the Syrian Druze living near the Israeli border. Despite their small numbers (less than two percent of the population) Druze serve as career military and in elite combat units more frequently than Jewish Israelis. Thus the Druze are considered “blood brothers” because of their military service (and casualties in combat) and that means Israel feels obliged to help.

Most of the Druze live in Lebanon and Syria and they have always sought protection from the government in power. As a persecuted minority, this was a matter of survival. But that means Druze loyalty is tied to the protection provided. Thus in 2012 the 20,000 Druze living in the Golan Heights (captured from Syria in 1967) openly turned against the Syrian government for the first time. Before that most (over 80 percent) of these Druze refused the offer of Israeli citizenship, feeling that they still owned loyalty to Syria (who never gave up trying to get the Golan Heights back). Since 2012 many more Druze have applied for Israeli citizenship. The Syrian government had long treated the Syrian Druze well, as long as they supported the minority Alawite dictatorship that ruled the country. The increasing violence against Druze in Syria has turned these normally pro-Syria Druze against the Assad dictatorship. But many Syrian Druze (mainly older ones) still harbor positive attitudes towards the Assads.  The growing and very real threat from Islamic terrorist groups has managed to unite some of the Syrian Druze in agreeing to work with their fellow Druze in Israel and cooperate with the Israelis.

Because Israel trusts its own Druze it is willing to let Israeli Druze ensure that an alliance with Syrian Druze does not lead to Islamic terrorists getting into Israel. It’s only a matter of time before Israel acts on this matter. Meanwhile Israel has asked the United States to get involved as well but there has been no response yet. In contrast the leaders of the more than 200,000 Lebanese Druze insisted they needed no help from Israel, but did not offer to help their fellow Druze in Syria. This is local politics at work because Hezbollah is, in theory, as hostile to Druze as ISIL or al Qaeda. But in practice Hezbollah has not attacked the Druze as long as the Lebanese Druze at least appear to support Hezbollah. Meanwhile most Syrian Druze still have a lot to worry about because most of them do not live close to the Israeli border and all this talk if Israel protecting the Syrian Druze has Assad troops uncertain of whose side nearby Druze are on.

Meanwhile the alliance between ISIL and al Nusra (and other Islamic terrorist groups that do not acknowledge ISIL as the supreme leader of all things Islamic) continues to encounter problems. To help enforce cooperation ISIL has taken to not allowing fuel (from its oil fields) into areas controlled by uncooperative allies. This fuel blockade also hurts the local civilians but that sort of thing does not bother ISIL. The fuel controls are part of a larger effort to more strictly control the borders of ISIL’s “Islamic State”. This includes keeping contraband (alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, porn, videos and so on) out. Smugglers have found that many of the border guards are willing to look the other way with a suitable bribe (usually some of the contraband, especially cigarettes).

June 23, 2015: Northwest of Raqqa Kurdish forces seized the ISIL held Liwa-93 military base. ISIL had taken that base in 2014.

June 22, 2015: The U.S. revealed that it is paying $400 a month to rebel soldiers it is training. The American plan to “equip and train” Syrian rebels (who are not Islamic terrorists or who are but keep quiet about it) has suffered numerous obstacles and delays, including a shortage of suitable trainees. This program was supposed to train and equip 5,000 rebels a year. The rebels say this is too few and that the delays are not helping either. Currently nearly 2,000 Syrians have passed the screening process but less than a third of those have begun their training. The U.S. believes it will have 3,000 trained by the end of the year and over 5,000 by mid-2016. One benefit of all this is that if the screening and training work you will have Arab troops who can be trusted to work with ground controllers and American advisors who can quickly call in air strikes. That worked with some Iraqi Army units before 2011.

June 19, 2015: Russia went public with its long rumored willingness to make a deal on its aid to Syria. President Putin spoke of willingness to pressure the Assads to accept “reforms.” One of those reforms could be the Assads going into exile and turning the government over to someone more acceptable to most Syrians.

June 17, 2015: South of Damascus soldiers repulsed a major rebel offensive and then counterattacked and pushed the rebels back from areas near the Israeli border. Most of this fighting took place in Suwayda province, which borders Jordan and is where most of the Syrian Druze live.  

June 13, 2015: In the north (Idlib province) Al Nusra apologized to the Druze community for an incident on the 10th when al Nusra got into a dispute with villagers over possession of a house. The Druze family refused to surrender the house and gunfire ensued, leaving 20 Druze dead.

June 11, 2015: In the south (Suwayda province) the army regained control of a major airbase that had earlier been captured by rebels.

 

 

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