Syria: More Posturing Than Performance

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March 16, 2016: Despite the recent Russian announcement that it is withdrawing its troops Russian warplanes are still supporting government forces advancing in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo. Down south near the Israeli border the Syrian Air Force owns the air. Government forces have also cleared out most rebels who had been advancing into Latakia province, which is where the Syrian ports are. Most of the Russian aid comes in through these ports and if Russia does indeed withdraw most of them will leave via these ports.

Since the end of 2015 Russian air support has made it possible for Syrian forces to recapture hundreds of towns and villages. The rebel, especially ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), fighters tend to be inexperienced and not capable of camouflaging their positions to make them difficult to see from the air. Equally important Russia has sent spare parts and technical experts to help the Syrians to get a lot of their self-propelled and towed artillery operational again. Large quantities of artillery ammo has also been sent and the Syrian Army can again use their artillery intensively and that is something else the rebels are not used to and often flee from. All this has made it much harder for the rebels to defeat the Assad government.

In addition to Russian air support the recent government advances were also aided by the continuing battles between extremist rebel groups (like ISIL and Al Nusra) against more moderate rebels. The Kurds are the most formidable of these and that unofficial alliance between Kurds and pro-government forces against the more radical rebels has led to heavy ISIL and al Nusra losses around places like Aleppo.

Heavy fighting also continues in Deir Ezzor province, especially the provincial capital (Deir Ezzor city). ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of the province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor province to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015 but now the rebels are about to lose all those 2015 gains in this area.

In the southeast, at Tanf on the Iraqi border, FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels continue to battle ISIL for control of the border crossing that connects western Iraq (Anbar province) with largely ISIL-held eastern Syria. The FSA forces here are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan and the United States.

The Syrian Kurds have a more difficult position because they are fighting ISIL as well as Turkey in northeast Syria. The Syrian Kurds are angry about Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River in Syria. The Syrian Kurds did that anyway and now have to deal with air attacks by the Turks as well as continued resistance from ISIL forces in the area. The largest component of the Syrian Kurd rebels is the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists) and their military forces (the YPG). Western nations back the Kurds because in Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. Moreover in Syria the Kurds there have incorporated some Arab militias (some Moslems, others Christian) into an effective combined force. This joint force is also advancing south towards the ISIL capital and are now within 30 kilometers of the city. This is done with support from American and other coalition warplanes and some special operations troops. The Turks don’t seem to care much about all that and prefer to regard armed Kurds (especially the PKK and PYD) as a threat to Turkey.

The UN and most of the West are 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, now including even more Russian support, are more unified and coordinated as well as better armed and more determined than the rebels. The UN is caught in the middle and goes along with whatever seems least offensive.

The UN sponsored Syrian peace talks in Switzerland are still underway propelled largely by widespread frustration at the war, which has been going on since 2011. About 300,000 have died and some 60 percent of Syrians have been forced from their homes. Over 20 percent of Syrians have fled the country. There is general agreement that a stalemate benefits no one and that Islamic terrorist groups like ISIL and al Nusra (the Syrian branch of al Qaeda) are willing to destroy Syria rather than agree to any negotiated peace. Russia and Iran appear unwilling to abandon the Assads but most of the rebels will settle for nothing less. Partitioning Syria is not popular either but is generally more acceptable than letting the Assads remain.

Medical aid groups believe there were at least 69 chemical weapon attacks in Iraq and Syria during 2015 and some are still occurring in 2016. Most of these attacks used toxic industrial chemicals rather than stuff designed to be a weapon (like mustard or nerve gas). It is believed that the Syrian Army used mustard gas in July 2015. Most of the other attacks were apparently the work of ISIL, which appears to have used mustard gas during August. The story going around was that this chemical weapon was part of some secret supply of mustard gas that the Assad government did not surrender and that ISIL captured. It is possible that someone stole some Syrian chemical weapons in 2013 and later sold it ISIL. Back then the UN was having a hard time getting some rebel factions to allow UN chemical weapons destruction teams to reach bases where some of these weapons were stored. Syria appeared to have had 700 tons of nerve gas (sarin) and 300 tons of mustard gas and had agreed to have them destroyed by the UN. Nerve gas was first used in combat during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The Assads knew that once they defeated the rebels they could rebuild the plants that manufacture the nerve and mustard gas and rebuild their pre-rebellion stocks in a few years. It was believed that the Assads would not hold onto a secret stash of mustard and sarin as using it would get them in even more trouble. It is doubtful that the Assads would sell any secret stash because it would likely be used against them. But in late 2013 there were suspicions that some of the Assad chemical weapons were not accounted for. The Americans doubt that ISIL is having any success in manufacturing chemical weapons. It was already known that ISIL was creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals (like chlorine or grain fumigant). Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on. These are the symptoms reported by Kurdish fighters hit with these ISIL chemical shells although in some cases the symptoms were consistent with mustard. Mustard is different as it does more damage (especially to the lungs) and has no other use but as a weapon.

Turkey has increased border security in response to threats from ISIL and PKK to carry out attacks inside Turkey. The border guards are catching more Islamic terrorists trying to get into Turkey, often with bomb making components like explosives and detonators. Since mid-2015 Islamic terrorist bombings and shootings inside Turkey have left about 150 dead. The government is under a lot of popular and political pressure to eliminate or greatly reduce this threat. At the same time there is not a lot of popular support for sending ground troops into Syria.

March 14, 2016: Russia announced that it was pulling most of its military forces (over fifty warplanes and several thousand troops) out of Syria. Or something like that as no details have been provided. This withdrawal is supposed to start this week but many believe it is a negotiating tactic. Russia pointed out that their troops made it possible for Syrian government forces to retake over 400 towns and villages more than 10,000 square kilometers of territory and that Russian forces can leave now. While the Russian presence reversed rebel advances that threatened to defeat the Syrian government by late 2015 the Russian assistance has not defeated the rebels. Despite still being divided (and often fighting each other) the rebels remain more powerful than the government forces. Russia cites the long-delayed peace talks as made possible because of the Russian intervention. Yet the peace talks are more about posturing than performance. One tangible result of the Russian intervention was an opportunity to give many new Russian weapons some combat experience. That is a good thing for Russia but because of continued low oil prices and sanctions Russia cannot afford to keep their Syrian operations going at their current intensity. It is no secret that Russia is running out of smart bombs and replacement parts for many of these new weapons. The elite combat and support troops Russia sent to Syria are exhausted and need some rest. Then there is the additional expense of the entire operation, something that is easier to justify back home if it is not open-ended. Russia will continue to maintain its improvised naval base and airbase operations in Syria. This is much less expensive and could be done with only a thousand or so troops. This presence also implies Russian willingness to bring back the muscle if the Assad government gets in big trouble again.

Meanwhile more Hezbollah fighters (perhaps ten percent of those in Syria) are reported crossing back into Lebanon. Hezbollah has never been happy about Iran forcing the Lebanese Shia militia to send thousands of fighters into Syria. When Russian troops arrived in September 2015 Hezbollah morale went up because now Hezbollah had air support. But with that air support apparently being withdrawn Hezbollah willingness to stay in Syria goes with it. Hezbollah officially denies it is pulling out of Syria and describes the reports as misleading because Hezbollah regularly rotates its fighters in and out of Syria for morale purposes.

In the Turkish capital (Ankara) a PKK suicide car bomb attack left 37 dead. It took a few days to identify the bomber as a 24 year old Kurdish woman who joined the PKK in 2013 and then left her home in Turkey and moved to Syria to receive training from the YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatists). Turkey retaliated with more air strikes on PKK and YPG bases in Syria and Iraq. The PKK Ankara bomber was known to Turkish intelligence and after she was identified more than fifty Kurds were arrested because they belonged to similar Kurdish organizations in southeast Turkey. All this is the result of a ceasefire ending in mid-2015 because the Turks believed the PKK were responsible for an increase in Kurdish terrorism in Turkey.

March 13, 2016: In central Syria (Hama province) a Syrian Air Force MiG-21 was hit by ground fire (apparently a portable surface to air missile) while supporting Syrian troops who were battling men from ISIL and al Nusra. The pilot ejected safely but was killed by more ground fire as he descended over enemy territory.

March 9, 2016: In the north ISIL fired eight rockets at a Turkish town (Kilis) just across the border. Most of the rockets missed by but at least two landed in residential areas killing two civilians and wounding two others. Turkish artillery returned fire, aiming for suspected Islamic terrorist positions about five kilometers inside Syria.

March 5, 2016: During the first week of the ceasefire 135 people died in areas where forces agreed to abide by the peace deal. But over 500 died in the areas controlled by ISIL and al Nusra, two major Islamic terrorist groups that did not agree to the ceasefire. The U.S. revealed that more than 500 ISIL men had been killed in the same period. There was no estimate on the number of al Nusra or civilian dead there were in the period. The second week of the ceasefire was also violent.

March 4, 2016: In the northeast (Al Hasakah province) an American air strike wounded the ISIL Minister of War (Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili), who was a known terrorist that had a $5 million price on his head. Batirashvili soon died from his wounds but the U.S. was not able to confirm that for another ten days. Batirashvili was attending a meeting with ISIL military leaders and several (as many as ten) of those died in the bombing as well. Losing Batirashvili was very bad news for ISIL as he had an impressive record of recruiting, training and organizing ISIL fighting forces. At the time of his death he was making visits to areas where ISIL had suffered recent defeats and attempts to improve morale. His getting killed had quite the opposite effect.

March 3, 2016: In the southeast, across the border in the Jordanian city of Irbid local police discovered a group of ISIL men hiding near a Palestinian refugee camps. The Islamic terrorists were preparing to carry out bombings and shootings. The police and commandos moved first and in a battle that lasted overnight the seven ISIL men were killed. Police seized seven assault rifles, lots of ammo and several suicide bomb belts.

The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared the Lebanese Hezbollah Shia militia to be a terrorist group. The rest of the world has long identified Hezbollah as an Islamic terrorist organization but the GCC did not because it was (and still is) popular in the Middle East to try and support any group that is fighting Israel. Hezbollah and Palestinian groups like Hamas are the only ones doing that. In 2013 the GCC criticized Hezbollah for supporting the Assad dictatorship in Syria. Iranian leaders reacted to all this by accusing the GCC acting under Israeli influence and pressure.

March 2, 2016: In the south (Quneitra province) an ISIL suicide car bomb killed 18 FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels.

February 29, 2016: The Kurdish YPG reported it lost 43 of its members defending the town of Gir Spi (on the Turkish border) from ISIL attack.

February 27, 2016: In Syria a ceasefire began and so far it has worked, sort of. While Syrian government, Russian and some rebel forces observed the truce there is still a lot of fighting because most of the rebels are not part of the ceasefire. This is mainly because ISIL and al Nusra (nearly as large as ISIL but affiliated with al Qaeda) have not agreed to stop fighting. This was the second attempt at a ceasefire in February. That first effort failed for the same reasons the new effort is only partially successful. The new ceasefire was still working in many areas as of mid-March. This is useful because it allows food and other aid to reach several hundred thousand civilians trapped by the fighting.

February 26, 2016: The first Saudi Arabian warplanes on arrived in Turkey at the Incirlik air force base. This is part of an increased Saudi effort against ISIL in Syria. Incirlik is where NATO warplanes have operated from for decades and has been a major base to attacks against Islamic terrorist targets in Syria as well as Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

 

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