Syria: Iranian Victory Dismays Rebels

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July 16, 2015: In central Syria (Homs province) the Syrian Army has made progress in driving ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) back from the area around Palmyra. This effort is assisted by local towns and villages containing largely Alawite populations and determined self-defense militias. These militias have often been a decisive factor, in many areas even if they are not mobile. The militiamen tend to fight very effectively in defense of their towns and villages. For decades Syria has been ruled by the minority (12 percent of the population) are Alawite (Shia) Moslems. Thus the Assads always took 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. 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. 

Kurdish forces continue to advance on Raqqa, the capital of ISILs “Islamic State.” This has been going on since early June and the Kurds have been using their air support (mainly American) and ground controllers they have with them to inflict heavy casualties on ISIL as the two adversaries battle for control of villages 50 kilometers north of Raqqa. These villages used to be Kurdish but now the Kurds are back. The largest town in the area, Ain Issa, has also been heavily fought over and has changed hands several times in the last month. Inside villages and towns the ISIL men can place civilians around their bunkers and trenches, which tends to reduce air attacks. But that does not work on the roads where vehicles with supplies and reinforcements travel. Meanwhile most civilians have fled the combat zone, despite ISIL orders to stay or be shot when caught sneaking away.

Raqqa is 140 kilometers southeast of Kobane and since late June the Kurds have been on the outskirts (within 30 kilometers) of the city. In response the defenses of Raqqa were 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. All this has ISIL leadership worried. So worried that they ordered pro-ISIL Kurds (there aren’t many of them) to leave Raqqa. But the big worry was ISIL fears that the attacking Kurds would wait outside Raqqa and let ISIL attack them. That is exactly what the Kurds did, which increased ISIL casualties and kept Kurdish losses low. The Kurds also announced that they halted their advance in order to allow Arab Syrian rebels to assemble in sufficient numbers to lead the final advance into Raqqa. That is true, but the pause is also so ILIS fighters can be lured out into the open where smart bombs and missiles can get them. While most of the people in Raqqa are Arabs and don’t like ISIL they don’t like Kurds either. But in this case the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Moreover the announced Kurdish intention of having Arab rebels actually capture Raqqa has satisfied most of the Arab residents of Raqqa.

ISIL tried to lure the Kurds away by making a raid into Kurdish held areas near the Turkish border (Kobane and Hasaka). This made lots of scary headlines but in the end got a lot of ISIL men killed and no ground was taken.

ISIL has held the eastern Syria city of Raqqa (population 500,000) since early 2014 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. That has not happened yet but the constant stream of wounded ISIL fighters coming back to Raqqa and the stories of the many ISIL men being killed north of the city is reassuring.

The Kurds are also fighting ISIL 200 kilometers northeast of Raqqa in Hasaka province, where the Assad government still controls some areas. The Kurds and the Syrian Army are not allies, but they also avoid fighting each other. At the moment ISIL is fighting both the army and the Kurds in Hasaka and losing to both. While the Syrian Army does not get any help from the coalition warplanes, the coalition fighter-bombers do not interfere with Syrian Air Force warplanes attacking ISIL in support of the Syrian Army.

In the north (Idlib province) rebel (Ahrar al Sham and al Nusra) forces control most of the province but are still fighting to take the last few government controlled villages. Idlib was largely conquered by late May after a three month battle that caused over 4,000 casualties. Rebels had earlier (in March) taken the provincial capital.

Elsewhere in the north the fight for the city (or, rather, the largely uninhabited ruins) of Aleppo continue. The government controls most of western Aleppo and rebels the rest. For the last month a rebel coalition has been attacking government held parts of the city, once the second largest in Syria, without much success and at the cost of many casualties.

In the west Hezbollah gunmen and Syrian Army soldiers have been clearing rebels away from the Lebanese border, often in cooperation with the Lebanese Army. While most Lebanese dislike Hezbollah and the Assads, they dislike even more the Syrian civil spreading into Lebanon.

In the south rebels fighting in Daraa, a province near the Jordanian border, seized the last army base held by government forces in the province in early June. Since then there has not been much progress as the government sent reinforcements and held onto most of the provincial capital (Daraa City). This area has also been the scene of feuding, and occasional fighting between al Nusra and other non-ISIL rebel groups.

The recently announced peace deal between the West and Iran, which is to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program and lift the sanctions, was celebrated in government controlled areas of Syria. Since 2011 Iran has spent some $50 billion to help keep the Assads in power and protect the Shia minority. The lifting of the sanctions means that aid will continue and even increase. While the cash has been important, Iran also paid for over 10,000 Shia volunteers to come and fight for the Assads and Syrian minorities (Christians, Druze and so on, as well as the Shia). The sanctions and lower oil prices had reduced the Iranian aid to Syria and made that aid very unpopular within Iran. But that has all changed. Of course, if Iran gets their nukes anyway, the Assads have an even more powerful patron and protector. Meanwhile the largely Sunni rebels were dismayed and demoralized by the Iranian peace deal.

Turkey continues trying, with limited success, to stop the smuggling that gets ISIL volunteers and supplies into Syria. In response ISIL has sent many of its Turkish members (currently thought to be several thousand) to the Turkish border to send a message (lots of Turks have joined ISIL) and to better deal with Turkish troops and border guards.

Russia is increasingly desperate to get out from under their long-time support for the Assad government in Syria. This is an expense Russia can’t afford right now. So Russia has been proposing possible peace deals. Earlier in the year efforts to negotiate a Russian-Iranian supervised peaceful political settlement of the Syrian civil war failed. Russia has quietly abandoned that and is now trying to build a new coalition (Russia, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Assad controlled Syria) whose sole goal is to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and leave the issue of Assad rule for later. This is the goal few in the West want to admit is even under negotiation. Russia sees this approach as one that does not abandon the Assads but does mean less cash for the Assads which means more money spent on the needs of Russian civilians. Already Russia has pulled many technical advisors out of Syria and cash and material contributions have been quietly cut. Everyone can agree on the need to stop ISIL and doing that as soon as possible. The longer ISIL exists in Syria the greater the chance that ISIL plans for terror attacks elsewhere (the West, Russia, Iran and the Middle East in general) are likely to become reality. With ISIL crushed the Assads have a better chance of surviving because the most powerful rebel force the Assads face is ISIL. That appears to be the Russian thinking but there is a lot of distrust in anything the Russians propose. Even the Turks and Arabs are wary.

The fighting in Syria is killing nearly 2,000 people a month this year, about 50 percent more than in neighboring Iraq. Since 2011 over 300,000 have died in Syria from the rebellion and civil war. Since ISIL established its “Islamic State” in June 2014 it has executed over 3,000 people in Syria and Iraq. About 55 percent have been civilians, the rest captured soldiers and police. It is also believed that over 8,000 ISIL men have died in combat (or from air strikes) in that same time period. This includes about 150 ISIL men who were executed for some infraction of ISIL rules. Many civilians are executed for breaking the rules. ISIL recently broke a common Islamic taboo by publicly beheading two Moslem women, who were accused of practicing sorcery. Islam allows women to be executed for sorcery (and Saudi Arabia does so regularly) but not by beheading them in public. According to the U.S. State Department, one of several government or commercial organizations that try to count terrorism activity, found that terrorist violence was up by a third in 2014 (to 13,500) mainly due to ISIL in Syria and Iraq and Boko Haram in Nigeria. The number of terrorist related deaths nearly doubled (to 33,000) and the number of kidnappings nearly tripled (to 9,500). ISIL and Boko Haram were heavily into mass killings and mass abductions in 2014. There were consequences and both ISIL and Boko Haram were less deadly in 2015. Both organizations suffered from more retaliation and were more often on the defensive in 2015. The degree of savagery ISIL and Boko Haram exhibited in 2014 motivated more nations and groups to fight back.  While terrorist attacks occurred in 95 countries some 6o percent of it occurred in just five countries (Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria). Some 80 percent of terrorist related deaths occurred in just six countries (Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Nigeria).

July 14, 2015: In the north (Idlib province) ISIL suicide bombers killed the leader of Ahrar al Sham and five of his followers. This is the largest Islamic terrorist rebel group in Syria and unlike the slightly smaller al Nusra, not officially an ally of ISIL. Al Nusra has formally agreed to be an ally of ISIL, at least until the Assads are overthrown. But Ahrar al Sham remains a foe of ISIL. The two groups do appear to have an informal truce and try to stay out of each other’s way. But many in ISIL still see Ahrar al Sham as a threat. So does the American led coalition bombing ISIL in Syria. Ahrar al Sham has been bombed a few times as well.

July 13, 2015: In the northeast (Hasaka province) a coalition air strike killed two senior ISIL leaders. The two dead men had served as provincial governors and battlefield commanders for ISIL.

July 11, 2015: ISIL took credit for a car bomb that went off near the Italian consulate in Cairo, Egypt. This killed one Egyptian and wounded seven others. There was damage to the consulate building. Both Italy and Egypt are members of the anti-ISIL coalition and ISIL has been calling for its members to strike back at coalition members. There has not been much in the way of action on this call.

July 8, 2015: In the northeast (Hasaka province) Kurdish reinforcements arrived to deal with ISIL raiding parties from Raqqa (possibly via Iraq) that arrived recently to kill any Kurds they came across. This is traditional Kurdish territory and ISIL is trying to distract the Kurds from their advance on Raqqa.

July 7, 2015: Israeli police today revealed that they have arrested nine Israeli Druze for attacks on ambulances carrying Syrians allowed into Israel for medical treatment. For several years Israel has been letting badly wounded Syrians in for medical treatment but with Islamic terror groups like Al Nusra (allied with al Qaeda) and ISIL (condemned by al Qaeda) now operating on the border and threatening Syrian Druze the situation has become tense. This led some Israeli Druze to assume that wounded Syrians were al Nusra or ISIL men and there have been some violent attacks on ambulances. One June 22nd attack led to the murder of the Syrian patient. Soldiers have been injured trying to protect ambulance crews and patients. For the last few weeks Israeli police have been tracking down the Israeli Druze responsible for the violence and now believe they have most of them in custody.

Israeli Druze leaders have condemned the attacks and that helped the police investigation because the Druze can be very secretive (a centuries old trait). At the same time Druze leaders announced that Israeli Druze have raised nearly $3 million for Syrian Druze so far. The Israeli government also announced that it has told Syrian rebels across the border that if they wish to continue receiving Israeli medical aid for their badly wounded they must leave the Syrian Druze alone and help protect them from harm. Since late 2014 al Nusra and other Syrian rebels have come to control most of the border adjacent to Israel. This created problems with the Israeli Druze who feared for the safely of the 500,000 Syrian Druze.

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 is not releasing a lot of details. The solution apparently involves quietly making deals with Syrian rebels. This solution means there is no need allow lots of Syrian Druze into Israel or send Israeli troops across the border to establish a “safe zone” for Syrian Druze. 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.

Al Nusra is temporarily allied with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) 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 among Israeli Druze. Al Nusra apologized for Druze their men killed recently but ISIL is unapologetic. Other Syrian rebel groups are willing to leave the Druze alone and even protect them in order to gain immunity from Israeli attacks.

July 3, 2015: The United States admitted that their plan to train over 15,000 reliable, moderate Syrian rebels has so far only produced 60 trained men. This struck many who follow the war in Syria as very disappointing. The Americans are having a hard time finding suitable (not pro-Islamic terrorist) Syrian men to train. Meanwhile the U.S. also admitted that at least 200 American Moslems had gone to Syria to fight for ISIL and that the screening system for Syrian rebels had been tweaked to get more men into training.

June 25, 2015: In the north Kurdish forces drove ISIL raiders out of the town of Kobane. The day before an ISIL suicide car bomb and five carloads of ISIL men disguised as Syrian rebels and Kurdish fighters, drove into Kobane. The car bomb was used against a Kurdish checkpoint and the ISIL gunmen drove into Kobane and overnight killed more than 200 civilians. When Kurdish reinforcements arrived they killed or drove away the ISIL raiders, many of whom fled into Turkey. The Kurds accused the Turks of allowing the raiders to travel through Turkey and approach Kobane from the north. Turkey denied this.

 

 

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