Syria: Many Futures, None Of Them Good

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August 4, 2015: Since 2011 over seven million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the civil war. Nearly 300,000 have died and most of the 22 million Syrians have lost their homes and/or jobs. Thus a third of the population has been driven from their homes and over 20 percent (nearly four million) have left the country and most of those live in refugee camps. Two-thirds of those still in Syria are short of food, medical care and much else. Most of the country no longer has electric power (other than from small generators) or public water and sanitation service. Cell phone service is down in most of the country and over ten percent of the towns, villages and city neighborhoods are completely abandoned (except for scavengers or passing travelers). It’s a Mad Max world, except they use real bullets. A major appeal of the Assad government is the fact that it controls most of the remaining “intact” or “normal” Syria (from Damascus north to the coastal area). For many Syrians that is the only part of the country worth fighting for, even if you don’t like the Assads. That’s only about 20 percent of Syria and 20 percent of the population. The rest is a war torn wasteland full of armed men, terrified civilians and unresolved claims about who is in charge. Despite that this portion of pre-2011 Syria is shrinking. The government lost control of Idlib province in north-central Syria this year and many smaller bits in the north (especially around Aleppo) and south (around Deraa and the Israeli border).

Some other losses are less well known. For example while the government recently announced an amnesty for 70,000 draft dodgers (among the Assad controlled population) it has not openly discussed the fact that many of those men are fighting for the Assads but as part of local militias organized and paid for by Iran. In addition to staying close to home these militiamen get paid more than twice what they would in the armed forces. While the Iranian support is crucial, it does come with conditions and the most onerous one is the growing control over the Shia population the Iranians have. With the new Iranian peace treaty Iran will have even more money to spend in Syria. The other major ally, Russia, pushing a peace deal that has the Assad clan going into exile (in Russia or China) and the Assad followers (mainly the Shia and other non-Sunni minorities) allying with anti-ISIL groups (Islamic terrorists, especially al Qaeda and Kurds) to drive ISIL out of the country. But after that the war would probably continue because the Assad followers and Kurds want no part of any Islamic radicals and in many respects (strict lifestyle rules, violence against all non-Moslems) al Qaeda is considered as bad as ISIL. Thus Syria has many futures, none of them good. 

As if ISIL doesn’t have enough problems with American led air attacks, battles with rival (mostly al Qaeda) Islamic terrorists and a seemingly unstoppable invasion by Kurds, they also have the Turks coming after them and growing public health problems. This last item gets little publicity but it is very real. In the areas they control ISIL imposes their peculiar form of public health regulations. This involves killing or chasing away any health professionals who are not sufficiently Islamic. Gone also are “unIslamic” health practices like vaccinations and health care for women not accompanied by a male guardian, which many widows and refugees do not have. ISIL condemns STDs (sexually transmitted disease) but does little to screen people (or blood for transfusion) for them and provide treatment. The rampant sex (often rape) encouraged among ISIL fighters has allowed STDs (including AIDS) to freely spread. Most of these militant studs don’t live long anyway, what with all the suicidal tactics ISIL favors. But many of those from the West (and even Moslem nations) who return home and get a medical checkup are found to have STDs acquired while serving with ISIL. Some ISIL leaders are urging action but most ISIL commanders are reluctant to even go public with such a sensitive and difficult subject. After all, Islamic terrorists tend to attribute everything to “inshallah” (God’s will). In this case it may turn out that Allah has a wicked sense of humor.

And then there are the Turks. On July 26th the U.S. and Turkey announced a new strategy to intervene in Syria against ISIL. In addition the Turks have resumed their war with the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists). The objective of Turkish efforts in Syria is to create a safe zone in Syria along a 110 kilometers long portion of the Turkish border between Aleppo and Kobane. This safe zone is to be about fifty kilometers deep and will make it possible for Syrians fleeing ISIL to obtain aid in Syria rather than heading for refugee camps in Turkey. This new arrangement has the Turks working with the PYD Kurdish rebels of Syria while being at war with the PKK Kurdish rebels in Turkey. The PYD is not sure it can trust the Turks, who insist they are not sending ground troops into this new safe zone but will leave it to PYD and other “friendly” (not attacking inside Turkey) rebels.

All this is largely because of the growing ISIL activity in Turkey, including a July 20th suicide bomb attack near the Syrian border. Turkey is also worked about Kurdish separatists, especially the PKK. While the Kurds are the most effective anti-ISIL fighters, they also have their problems. Kurdish popular sentiment strongly favors an independent Kurdistan and the current Kurdish leadership in Iraq openly promises a vote on independence “in a few years.” But the Kurds also have internal problems which the pressures of war have made worse. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have always sought to keep the Kurds divided and less capable of forming a Kurdish state out of the portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran the Kurds have lived in for centuries. Despite that since the early 1990s Iraqi Kurdistan has effectively been autonomous and far more stable and prosperous than the rest of the country. Attempting to establish a separate Kurdish state would bring problems not only with Iraq (which probably couldn't do much about the matter anyway), but also with Turkey and Iran, both of which have restive Kurdish minorities. Normally Syria would protest as well, but currently Syria is torn apart by civil war. Speaking of which, a decade ago the Iraqi Kurds were openly discussing declaring independence in response to a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. That war never happened, largely because the Sunni minority was not strong enough and still aren’t. Since 2006 the unified Kurdish military has remained at about 100,000 with a larger but with a larger and better equipped reserve. But because of all that autonomy talk the Shia Arab controlled Iraqi government has quietly and unofficially blocked delivery many arms bought for use by the Kurds. While the U.S. still refuses to ship weapons directly to the Kurds some other NATO countries have done so. In Syria the PYD has about 30,000 fighters, who are less well armed and equipped than the Iraqi Kurds but better off than the PKK which has fewer than 10,000 armed members, most of whom operate clandestinely as anti-Turk terrorists.

Turkey has again increased its border security, making it more difficult for Islamic terrorists, and PYD members or supporters, to move back and forth. The new security includes more pressure on smugglers, whose business depends on some cooperation with the authorities on both sides of the border. On the Syrian side that now often means ISIL or PYD. If the “government” on either side of the border becomes extremely hostile the smugglers lose business or worse (prison or death). The Turks justify the crackdown on PYD with accusations that some PYD members have been moving weapons and other supplies across the border for PKK. PYD denies this but cannot guarantee that no PYD members are doing this. PKK and PYD have been allies in the past and that cannot be ignored.

Turkish warplanes have launched over a hundred air strikes in the last week against ISIL and PKK targets in Syria and northern Iraq, nearly doubling the number that the American led coalition has been carrying out.

Recently released NSA documents confirmed what many had long suspected; that it was Israeli commandos who raided the seaside estate of a Syria general in 2008 and killed him. The commandos then left the way they came and no one took credit for the killing. But the Syrians knew who did it and why. The Israelis were sending a message in an ancient Middle Eastern way, by repaying an enemy for a past injury. The dead man, Muhammad Suleiman, was a senior official in the Syrian government, in charge of things like nuclear weapons research. Suleiman was responsible for building the Syrian Al Kibar nuclear research facility Israeli warplanes destroyed in 2007 as well as several other very secret military and intelligence projects. Chief among these was supervising Syrian support for Hezbollah during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel that left 165 Israeli dead. 

And then there are the chemical weapons. Kurdish forces in northern Iraq report that they have recovered an ISIL 120mm mortar shell that did not explode and upon further examination was found to contain mostly chlorine and just enough explosives to disperse the chlorine. Similar shells have been found in Syria indicating that ISIL is willing to use chemical weapons. Then again so is the Assad government. In all these cases the deadly chemical is chlorine, a commonly used chemical that is nevertheless poisonous for anyone who swallows or inhales enough of the stuff. Syria has been accused of using chlorine several times since giving up its more modern (and lethal) chemical weapons.

The Syrian Air Force is still flying and fighting, but it wearing out. Prisoner statements, aerial reconnaissance and electronic communications intercepts indicate that the Syrian Air Force has gotten the most out of its largely Russian built helicopter force, but has lost most of their several hundred choppers in the process. Despite that most of the combat aircraft still in action are helicopters. In late 2010, before the civil war began, the Syrian air force had 130 Mi-8/17 transport helicopters and 80 helicopter gunships (32 Mi-24 plus 30 SA-342 and 20 Mi-2a light attack models). Eventually the Syrian Navy had to send its twenty helicopters to support ground operations. Ten of these were Mi-14s, which are naval versions of the Mi-8.  The Mi-24 is also an Mi-8 variant. In all the Syrians had 230 military helicopters available. While Russia supplied a lot of spare parts and some technical personnel since then, Russia sent no additional helicopters. Thus by early 2015 about 80 percent of the 2010 helicopter force was out of actions because of combat damage or simply because they were worn out and could no longer fly, or fly safely.

While Hezbollah still talks about attacking Israel the reality is that Hezbollah will remain tied down in Syria and fighting ISIL and other Sunni Islamic terror groups on the border for some time to come. Hezbollah leaders quietly admit this is necessary because as much as most Lebanese hate everyone involved in the Syria civil war (especially the Assads) they give Hezbollah credit for fighting to keep Islamic terrorist rebels from moving into Lebanon. There is growing opposition (to the Syrian operations) within Hezbollah and Hezbollah admits that it has arrested nearly 300 of its own armed men for refusing to go fighting in Syria. Since 2013 Hezbollah has suffered several thousand casualties in Syria and that has caused declining morale among the armed members of Hezbollah (mostly part-time militia who are paid for their part-time or full-time participation).

Today two mortar shells landed on the Israeli side of the border, but caused no casualties or significant damage. When the fire is deliberate the Israelis fire back, but this incident appears to have been the result of fighting between government and rebels forces inside Syria, which is the cause of most bullets, rockets and shells crossing the border.

August 3, 2015: A Syrian Air Force warplane crashed in the northwestern town of Ariha, killing about 30 people and destroying half a dozen buildings around a crowded marketplace. Thanks to continued Russian logistical (spare parts) and technical (maintenance technicians and experts) help the Syrian Air Force continues to send up warplanes and armed helicopters every day to hit rebel targets. But the Russians have not provided new aircraft and the old MiGs and other Russian fighter-bombers are wearing out and becoming more dangerous to fly. The Syrians use unguided bombs and usually stay high enough to avoid ground fire.

August 2, 2015: In central Syria (Hama province) al Nusra has been waging a major battle against government forces in an effort to get into neighboring Latakia province. This push west threatens a major center of government support. Latakia province is largely Alawites and where the Assad clan comes from. The al Nusra offensive has been underway since late July and has resulted in several hundred casualties (including over a hundred dead). At least one al Nusra commander is believed to have died and about two-thirds of the casualties have been among the attackers. This is normal for such a situation. The defenders consist of Hezbollah, local Alawite militias and army troops.

July 31, 2015: American warplanes provided support for a Syrian rebel group, Division 30 (a remnant of the FSA or Free Syrian Army) that came under attack by al Nusra. Division 30 is receiving weapons and training from the United States and because everyone (most Islamic terrorist rebels and government forces) is hostile to pro-Western rebels, Division 30 can expect to be attacked from all sides. Today al Nusra attacked a Division 30 base in the northwest (Azaz, outside Aleppo) and claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties and captured a Division 30 commander.

Across the border in Pozanti (south central Turkey) PKK gunmen killed two Turkish policemen. In the last ten days PKK has killed ten Turkish soldiers and police. In response the Turkish government is putting pressure on all Turkish Kurds to cooperate in suppressing PKK violence. This is difficult because as recently national elections in Turkey showed, the ruling AKP party (which declares itself “Islamic” but not radical) lost its fifteen year-long majority, mainly because most of their Kurdish support went to a new, and now quite powerful, Kurdish (moderate) party (HDP).

July 28, 2015: In the north (Idlib province) two al Nusra (the local al Qaeda franchise) suicide bombers killed eleven ISIL men. Both these groups use lots of suicide bomber and because of their bloody feud, they now tend to use them increasingly against each other. This is particularly damaging as both sides like to take out the enemy leadership. So does the American coalition attacking from the air and the Americans have had a lot of success at finding and killing Islamic terrorist leaders. As a result al Nusra and ISIL leaders waste a lot of time and resources taking care of personal safety.

In the northeast (Hasakeh province) the Syrian Kurds says they have cleared all ISIL men from the city of Hasakeh (270 kilometers west of Kobane). This is near the Turkish border and has long been a Kurdish stronghold. Hasakeh was cleared of ISIL by Kurdish militias and government soldiers. Until 2012 the Assad government hoped to gain the Syrian Kurds as allies, but that did not work out and in 2012 the Assad forces officially turned Hasakeh province over to the local Kurdish forces. Since then the Kurds and Assad forces have occasionally cooperated against ISIL and other Islamic terrorist rebel groups that are hostile to Kurds as well as the Assads. The battles against ISIL in Hasakeh have been going on since June and the Kurds have accused the Turks of allowing ISIL terrorists to enter Syria from Turkey. The Turks deny this, but the border was not air tight and without a more energetic counter-terrorist effort inside Turkey, ISIL could still smuggle operatives across the border. Turkey is now trying to prevent that.

July 27, 2015: President Assad made a televised speech in which he admitted that his forces have lost territory in the last year and that his government is having difficulty finding recruits for the army. It is believed that the Syrian security forces, which had over 500,000 troops, reservists, paramilitaries and secret police in 2011 now have less than 200,000 armed and organized supporters. About half the losses since 2011 have been from combat but the rest are desertions. The day before Assad announced an amnesty for 70,000 Syrian men (with homes in Assad controlled territory) who have refused to show up for mandatory (conscription) military service. Many of these draft dodgers have fled the country but others joined local militias.

July 26, 2015: In eastern Turkey the Turkish government held PKK (local Kurdish separatist rebels) responsible for an attack on a military convoy that left two soldiers dead and four wounded. Turkish leaders saw this incident as one too many and ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. These Turkish attacks on the PKK end a 2013 ceasefire between PKK and Turkey. In the last few days there has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. This comes after Turkey decided, on the 24th, to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.

July 24, 2015: Turkey agreed to allow the United States to use Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey for attacks on ISIL in Syria. The U.S. has long wanted this. Incirlik has been used by NATO aircraft for decades and will now be used to support all aircraft taking part in the American led coalition attacking ISIL. 

July 22, 2015: The PKK took credit for the murder of two policemen in eastern Turkey. PKK said this attack was revenge for Turkish government cooperation with ISIL. Most Kurds do not agree with this and believe the Turks are more concerned with the separatist goals of PKK (to establish a Kurdish state consisting of areas from southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria).

July 21, 2015:  Israel announced that it would no longer transport wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals after they showed up at border crossings on the Golan Heights. Now treatment will be provided at the border, using a temporary hospital set up there. Until now Israeli border guards regularly allowed badly wounded Syrians in and sent them to Israeli hospitals for medical care. Since 2011 over a thousand Syrians have received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians coming up to the border seeking care. Israel lets some of these in for treatment but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So a heavily guarded field hospital right near the Syrian border is now used to treat all the injured. No Syrians will be moved to the interior because of fears that Islamic terror groups are seeking to infiltrate their people into Israel via the hospital care program. Wounded Druze are still being allowed in and sent to hospitals. Fighting on the Syrian side of the border has intensified in the last week, causing more casualties.

July 20, 2015: In south-central Turkey, near the Syrian border, an ISIL suicide bomber attacked a group of Turkish Kurdish volunteers assembling in Suruc to cross the border and help rebuild Kobane. The bomb killed 31 people and wounded over a hundred. The bomber turned out to be Kurdish, one of the few Kurds ISIL has been able to recruit. In general Kurds are not attracted to Islamic terrorist groups, in part because the Kurds were never noted for interest in Islamic radicalism and largely because Islamic terrorists tend to target Kurds because they are not Arabs (they are Indo-European, ethnic cousins of Iranians and Europeans) and are generally hostile to religious extremists. This attack triggered a great deal of anti-ISIL anger among most Turks and forced the Turkish government to take action or lose even more popular support.

July 19, 2015:  ISIL is trying to restrict (to ISIL members) use of Internet access in areas it controls. ISIL has ordered that Internet only be used in ISIL facilities, some of them Internet cafes that were taken over by ISIL. This new policy makes it more difficult for many people to access the Internet. There are other ways to get to the Internet but now there is the risk of punishment if caught and access will be more expensive because it is now a another black market service. ISIL went after Internet access because it was being used by disgruntled locals and even ISIL members to plan their escape. The Internet has also been a good source of information for Western nations participating in the bombing campaign against ISIL. Even the Assad government uses the Internet this way.

July 17, 2015: In the northern city of Aleppo an agreement between al Nusra and the government allowed electricity and clean water supplies to be turned back on. These had been off for three weeks but that caused so much anger among civilians and fighters alike that negotiations soon began to turn the electricity and water back on.

July 16, 2015: Iranian allies see the July 14th peace deal as a major victory. This was especially true in Syria. Since 2011 Iran has spent some $50 billion to help keep the Assads in power and protect the Shia minority there. The lifting of the sanctions means that aid will continue and even increase. While the cash has been important, Iran also paid (recruited, organized, trained and led) over 10,000 Shia volunteers to come and fight for the Assads in Syria. 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.

 

 

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