Syria: A Death Match Pretending To Be A Peace Effort

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February 24, 2016: A ceasefire is supposed to begin on the 27 th but there is widespread doubt that it will actually work. The main reason is the fact that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Nusra (nearly as large as ISIL and affiliated with al Qaeda) have not agreed to stop fighting. This is the second attempt at a ceasefire this month. That first effort failed for the same reasons the new effort will. The UN and most of the West is eager for peace in Syria but for most Moslem nations Syria is a main battleground in the current Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia) civil war as well as a joint effort to destroy ISIL, which threatens everyone. The West is not willing to use enough force to make a difference and the pro-government forces are better armed and more determined than the rebels. The UN is caught in the middle and goes along with whatever seems most inoffensive.

Meanwhile the rebels willing to negotiate demand a lot of pre-conditions aimed at the Russians. At the very least the rebels wanted the Russians to halt their Assad support while peace talks go on. That never went anywhere. The rebels are asking for other concessions, like release of captured leaders and lifting of sieges of some pro-rebel civilian areas. Russia refused to consider this as well. Another issue the rebels are angry about was the UN agreeing to keep the Syrian Kurds out of the peace talks. This was something Turkey insisted on. There were other problems, like the tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have also helped cripple UN efforts obtain a meaningful Syria peace deal. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis.

ISIL sees Syria as its primary concern. About two-thirds of ISIL resources are devoted to the war in Syria, the rest to Iraq (where ISIL is also losing ground). ISIL is losing everywhere but shows every sign of fighting to the end. Thus while ISIL has been losing much territory in Iraq the number of terror attacks has not diminished. ISIL has not only lost ground in the last year but its personnel strength in Iraq and Syria has declined about 20 percent (to some 20,000 members). There is a smaller, but growing ISIL presence in Libya where strength has doubled to about 6,000 since late 2015. ISIL has smaller operations in Afghanistan and a few other places. The losses in Iraq and Syria are from casualties, desertions and fewer foreign volunteers. Building up the Libya operation is seen as an effort by ISIL leadership to provide a backup base because of the increasing possibility that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq and Syria. The ISIL strategy of attacking everyone has been one of its main attractions for new recruits. But it is becoming obvious to many current and potential supporters that in the long run this approach will not work. What ISIL will do is delay an end to the war in Syria.

The government offensive to take Aleppo has been going on since the first of the month and has largely achieved its goals. There have been several thousand casualties, about half of them civilians. Russian air power has continued the Assad strategy of attacking pro-rebel civilians in order to force them out of the country. Several hundred thousand civilians have shown up at the Turkish border because of this. A majority of the rebel fighters are from Aleppo and it is their kin who are being bombed and driven out of the country. Thus the loss of pro-rebel civilians in an area means fewer rebels willing to defend the area. The Assads have used this collective punishment tactic successfully for decades and the Iranians and Russians have no problem with it. UN threats of war crimes prosecutions are ignored because it is easier to get away with that sort of thing in the Middle East and the Assads have Russia to block unwelcome resolutions by the UN. There are still over 300,000 civilians threatened by the Aleppo fighting and at least half of them are poised to flee to other parts of Syria or out of the country entirely.

In the rest of Syria the government forces are making gains or holding on to what they have. The rebels continue to be hampered by a tendency to fight each other, something the Assads have learned to take advantage of. While the Turks would like the Assads gone the Turks are more concerned about Kurds and Russians.

Exactly how many have died since 2011 in Syria is a mystery because it is impossible for outsiders to get reliable data from many parts of the country. For that reason the UN stopped making estimates in 2014. Since then there have been estimates from pro-rebel and pro-government sources that vary quite a lot. It does appear that over 300,000 (at least) have died so far. About 30 percent of the dead have been civilians, most of them victims of deliberate government attacks meant to force pro-rebel civilians out of the country. Less than two percent of the civilian dead are the result of air attacks by the American led coalition. That’s because of the highly restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) and the blatant use of human shields by ISIL. Russian air attacks since October 2015 have killed more than twice as many civilians as the U.S. led coalition has since August 2014 but that is because of a less restrictive ROE. Russia is apparently not deliberately attacking civilians like the government aircraft and artillery continue to do.

About 35 percent of the dead are pro-government forces and the remaining 35 percent rebels. About half the rebel dead belong to ISIL and al Qaeda affiliate Islamic terrorist groups. Many of the other rebel dead are Islamic radicals but not into terrorism to the extent that ISIL and al Qaeda are. The 2015 death toll in Syria was apparently about 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000 in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. So far this year the death toll in Syria appears to be about a thousand a week. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria are just playing defense and even ISIL has been less active in attacking with large forces compared to 2014. Iraq continues to be a lot less violent than Syria with a death toll for all of 2015 of about 13,400, compared to 15,600 in 2014. That’s still a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq. Despite an expected increase in combat casualties in mid-2016 when the attack on Mosul begins the total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than 2015. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. As bad as the war in Iraq was the one in Syria is worse.

Russia is now the major player in Syria. While Iran still supplies a lot of manpower (mostly via foreign Shia it has recruited) Russia has the modern military gear and troops who can use it. Russia also has a veto at the UN and an eagerness to achieve some kind of “victory” in Syria. To achieve that Russia is concentrating most of its considerable firepower on rebel groups that are hurting the Assad government forces the most. By American count only about ten percent of Russian air strikes have been against ISIL and those targets were usually hit to protect Assad forces. Russia justifies (to the UN and the world in general) its military presence in Syria because it is part of the effort to destroy the ISIL threat. While Russia does not hide its support for the Assad government (which the UN and most of the world accuse of war crimes and want gone) it insists that its presence in Syria is not primarily to keep the Assads in power. Yet thousands of Russian troops are working with the Assad forces, the Russian troops are all based in Assad controlled territory and the majority of rebels, who are not ISIL or the local al Qaeda franchise al Nusra, are the main targets of Russian firepower. Not surprisingly these rebels refuse to participate in peace talks as long as the UN allows Russia to get away with their lies. By late February this Russian support has enabled Assad forces to push most rebels away from Aleppo and cut them off from Turkey (a primary source if reinforcements and supplies). This is a major defeat for the rebels and if the government regains control of Aleppo (or what is left of what used to be the second largest city in the country) Russia will be in a better position to sell its proposal for a UN approved partition of Syria and a de-facto pardon for the Assads so the war against ISIL and al Qaeda can continue. Forgiving the Assads will be a hard sell but the Russians are feeling heroic at the moment and the Assads will take whatever salvation they can get.

Russia further complicates the situation by getting involved with increasingly strident disagreements with Turkey. The Turks are angry at Russia for flying its aircraft too close to the Turkish border and for bombing Turkish backed rebels. A particular sore point has been Russian attacks on Syrian Turkmen rebels. As these people are fellow Turks, Turkey has long felt obliged to help them. Now Russia and Turkey are threatening to go to war with each other over this. NATO is debating whether or not this would trigger the mutual-self-defense clause of the NATO treaty. Russia is threatening to use nukes if Turkey gets too aggressive.

Via the Internet an international team of investigators (including Russians) has compiled evidence (mainly from social media activity by Russian troops in Syria) that Russian ground troops, mainly special operations and some technical experts, are involved with the ground combat alongside Syrian troops.

It is to Iran’s advantage that ISIL hold the attention of the West and the Arabs. Iran is fighting ISIL, but mainly in Iraq, where Sunni Islamic terrorists have long focused their attacks on Shia civilians. Since the Shia are a majority in Iraq Iran becomes even more popular there as Iran backed militias and other military assistance plays a crucial role in driving ISIL (and eventually all Sunni Islamic terrorists) out of the country. Iranians speak openly (especially inside of Iran) of how well they have exploited their enemies and duped into fight for Iran instead of against Iran. All this has come at a cost. Reports from Iran indicate that over fifty Iranians have died in Syria so far this year. By December 2015 Iran revealed that 67 Iranians had died in Syria since October. Before the Russian intervention there the government played down Iranian deaths in Syria and denied there were many Iranians there at all. Now Iran admits that their troops have been actively involved in Syria since 2013 and over 300 have died so far. A thousand or more Iran recruited and supported foreign mercenaries in Syria have also died.

February 23, 2016: Southeast of Aleppo ISIL forces continue to threaten a key road linking government forces around Aleppo and the main government areas in the south (Damascus) and the west (the Mediterranean ports). There is a lot of open space in this area and the government does not have enough ground or air forces to keep ISIL raiding parties out.

February 22, 2016: Turkey is accusing Russia of using a new spy place (a recently arrived Tu-214R) to monitor Turkey, not Islamic terrorists in Syria. Russia only has two Tu-214Rs and these entered service in 2015. Russia is testing a lot of their new military gear in Syria.

February 21, 2016: ISIL took credit for suicide bombings that left fifty dead in a government held part of Homs and over a hundred dead in a Shia neighborhood of Damascus.

February 17, 2016: In the Turkish capital (Ankara) a suicide car bomb attacked a military convoy, killing 28 and wounded more than 60. By the end of the week a Kurdish terror group with links to the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) took credit for the attack and said it was revenge for Turkish attacks on Kurds in the southeast. The government believes the Syrian Kurdish separatists (YPG) were also involved. Turkey has been attacking the PKK in Turkey, Syria and Iraq since July 2015 because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Turks also ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq and Syria. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK based in remote areas. The Turks cannot force the issue as it is pretty obvious that the Iraqi Kurds have all they can handle with ISIL. In response 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 in mid-2015 to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This included allowing American fighters to launch strikes from a Turkish airbase. Since late 2015 Turkey has been shelling Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria when they get to near the border. This is because the Turks insist that members of the YPG must stay away from certain border areas. The Syrians accuse the Turks of being more interested in hurting the Kurds than in stopping ISIL. This became more of an issue when the PKK broke a ceasefire with the Turks in mid-2015 and reignited the three decade old war between Turkey and its Kurdish minority. Kurds see Turkey as tolerating Islamic terrorists inside Turkey if they only attack Kurds and foreigners (especially Syrian refugees). There is some truth to this as the Turkish government has, since 2000, been increasingly tolerant of Islamic conservatives and radicals. Meanwhile some Syrian Kurds (like the YPG) are accused of driving non-Kurds out of villages the Kurds capture from ISIL in what the YPG considers “Kurdish territory” in northeast Syria. Turkey fears that any partition deal in Syria will see another autonomous Kurdish are in northeast Syria, adjacent to the Iraqi Kurd autonomous area that has existed since the early 1990s.

Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at a Syrian army base south of Damascus. This created more explosions as ammunition and explosives exploded as well. This was the first such attack in 2016 and there were several in 2015. Israeli warplanes have made dozens of attacks in Syria since 2013, several of them to destroy Russian weapons being moved to Lebanon (by Hezbollah) and all to prevent more violence against Israel.

February 12, 2016: The UN sponsored peace talks appeared to make progress as the Russians, Syrians, Iranians and most Western nations agreed to a ceasefire to begin by the 19th. Joy soon turned to dismay when Russia and Syria pointed out that they would continue attacking ISIL and al Qaeda affiliates (mainly al Nusra) because these groups had not agreed to any ceasefire. The main purpose of the ceasefire was to allow supply trucks to reach civilians surrounded and cut off by aid. That may still happen in a few areas but the ceasefire deal is dead-on-arrival largely because Russia has been lying about why it is really in Syria and that lie is both obvious and a major factor in preventing the peace talks from achieving anything. The UN then began trying to arrange another ceasefire.

February 5, 2016: Saudi Arabia announced that it was ready to send ground troops into Syria to fight ISIL. In response Syria, Russia and Syria (the Assads) went public with their belief that Saudi ground troops could not handle ISIL or Syrian soldiers. Iran and Russia have long felt that the Saudi armed forces were second rate. There is some truth to this and it has long been an open secret even among Gulf Arabs. But after decades of efforts (including a lot of blunt criticism) by foreign (mainly American and British) military advisors and trainers change did occur. The Gulf Arab ground forces proved quite capable (or at least more so than Iran expected) in Yemen. Foreign Arabs have been fighting there since early 2015. Iran was also dismayed to see the skill of Saudi and other Arab pilots in Yemen (and earlier in Iraq and Syria). In this part of the world publically demeaning a neighbor’s troops after those forces have recently displayed competence is a form of compliment. It also sends a message to Iranian commanders and troops to try harder because the Arabs may not be as easy to beat as would they expect them to be. The fact that Iran went public with disparaging remarks about Saudi troops ensured that the war of words stayed in the media and more recently Iran has threatened Saudi troops with Iranian supplied violence if the Saudis dared to send troops into Syria. Iran knows that such an “invasion” would be as much against the Assads and their Iranian backers as against ISIL. The Saudis have warned Russia to stand aside if the Saudis and Iranians get violent with each other inside Syria. Turkey then warned Russia that an attack on Saudi forces would compel the Turks to enter Syria to assist their Arab ally. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have had good relations for a long time so this Turkish pledge should come as no surprise. The Saudi threat of intervention on the ground still stands but has yet to be carried out.

 

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