Syria: The Tide Turns

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March 30, 2016: Deaths since 2011 appear to be over 350,000. Most (nearly 60 percent) of the dying took place in a few areas. About 20 percent of the deaths were in and around Aleppo, another 18 percent around Damascus, ten percent in the northwest (Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces) and eight percent down south (Daraa and along the Israeli border). Nearly two-thirds of the dead were civilians largely because of a deliberate government policy of attacking pro-rebel civilians to force them out of the country (or at least the combat zone). Thus the government was responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths. The most damage has been done to non-Moslem communities. For example in 2011 Christians were about ten percent of the population but since then over 60 percent of the Christians have been killed or driven from the country. Those who remain have formed militias and are often seen fighting alongside the Kurds. A separate study found that about 45 percent of the European and American ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) volunteers in Syria and Iraq have died. Most of these deaths were in Syria and most of them were volunteers from Europe.

Meanwhile the UN sponsored February 27th ceasefire is still underway, at least in areas where ISIL or al Nusra are not present. Those two Islamic terror groups are not part of the ceasefire negotiations or agreement and are under attack by most everyone, especially government and Russian forces. Despite the ceasefire there are still about 80 deaths a day but nearly 70 percent of these fatalities occur in non-ceasefire areas where ISIL and al Nusra are still under attack. More important is that relief supplies are getting through in most ceasefire areas.

The recent Russian withdrawal announcement is believed to be a Russian effort to get the Assad government to go along with whatever peace deal can be arrived at when UN sponsored peace talks resume on April 9th. This might include a partition of Syria (which the Assads oppose) into a Kurdish state in the northeast (which Turkey strongly opposes), an Assad (non-Kurds, non-Sunni) state in the west from Damascus north to Aleppo and west to the coast) and a Sunni state (the rest, which is most of the territory and population of Syria.) The Sunni state would be stuck with most of the Islamic terrorists, which have been largely kept out of the Kurdish and non-Sunni territory. Everyone would apparently cooperate to crush the most troublesome Islamic terrorists. These would mainly be al Qaeda and ISIL affiliated groups.

Partition is currently seen as the least worst option. The Arab League openly condemned this option as does Turkey but Iran believes it is a reasonable move, as does Israel because partition would reduce the threat to Israel. Israeli officials openly claim that most (over 90 percent) of the missiles and rockets Syria had aimed at Israel in 2011 have been used or destroyed in the five year old civil war there. These missiles had been a threat to Israel for decades and as recently as 2013 Syria television showed maps of Israel with cities, military bases and industrial facilities marked for attack by Syrian missiles and long-range rockets. The bad news is that some of the Syrian threat has shifted to Lebanon. Israeli aircraft have been attacking Hezbollah trucks trying to move Syrian missiles into Lebanon. And there have been five of these attacks since early 2013. Israel promises more such attacks and apparently has an arrangement with Russia that eliminates the risk of Russian interference. Hezbollah has been threatening another massive rocket attack on Israel, larger than the last one in 2006. But the need to send men to fight in Syria has made Hezbollah vulnerable in southern Lebanon. The second worst threat in the region appears to be Iran, which supports keeping the Assads in power as part of the peace deal. This is strongly opposed by most factions and nations involved in Syria.

Iran has over 2,500 troops in Syria, nearly all from the IRGC and most of them are officers and career NCOs from combat units who are being sent to Syria for a few months to get some combat experience by working with government, Hezbollah and militia units. All the Iranian deaths in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media and they have all been officers or NCOs who were obviously working in or very near to the combat. Iran has also been successful at encouraging Iranians to buy property in government held areas (mainly Damascus) and put up new buildings. That makes it appear Iran is very confident that Shia and Iranians will be welcome in Syria for the some time to come and that will only happen if the Assads (or some other Shia tyrant) stay in control.

Despite the recent Russian announcement that it is withdrawing some forces Russian warplanes are still supporting Syrian government forces advancing in the northwest around Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo. Russia has made it clear that it is only withdrawing some of its air power and military personnel. The departing forces can be returned quickly if needed. Russia will maintain control of port facilities on the Syrian coast and nearby airbases. One reason the Russians are removing some of their forces is that ISIL morale appears to have collapsed, both in Syria and Iraq. ISIL has not won a battle for months and the increased air and commando attacks against ISIL has caused a major loss of confidence among lower ranking ISIL personnel. American (and presumably Russian) electronic monitoring aircraft a growing amount of ISIL radio chatter discussing low morale. ISIL leaders are trying to get their men to stand and fight but more frequently the ISIL men run when pressed by airstrikes, artillery and ground forces. Even the ISIL policy of executing those who run no longer works and there have been fewer of those public executions lately. ISIL can still get suicide bomber volunteers but many of the non-suicide fighters are increasingly unreliable in combat. There are fewer new recruits and more deserters. This is not surprising as the one thing every faction in Syria can agree on is that ISIL is the biggest threat and now that ISIL appears on the decline everyone else is at least thinking of who they will go after and where once ISIL is crushed. That may be sooner rather than later because Kurds, Syrian troops and Iraqi forces are moving towards Raqqa, the ISIL capital in eastern Syria. If ISIL cannot assemble a large enough force of steadfast and reliable gunmen, Raqqa will fall. ISIL is believed to be concentrating its most reliable fighters in Raqqa and the city is now being hit regularly by Syrian warplanes.

A major reason for the ISIL decline is the Russian intervention back in October. The Russians made a difference not just with air strikes but with thousands of special operations troops and military trainers for combat or support troops. There were also hundreds of technical experts to assist the Syrians in refurbishing elderly (or just overworked) weapons and military equipment. New weapons and gear also arrived and the Syrian troops had to be quickly taught how to use all this stuff. By January 2016 the impact of all this effort was visible to people on the ground (and Western photo satellites). The Syrian troops were using new Russian artillery as well as more of their own stuff because the Russians had shipped in lots of ammo and spare parts. Russian UAVs were providing target information and the Syrian infantry seemed more precise and confident as they called in supporting artillery and air support before advancing. All this has made it much harder for the rebels to defeat the Assad government and much easier to accept a peace deal that keeps the Assads in power, which was always a Russian goal.

March 29, 2016: The U.S. Department of Defense ordered families of American military personnel stationed in Turkey to return home. That means nearly 700 U.S. citizens will leave. This is in response to the growing threat of Islamic terrorist violence inside Turkey. So far this year over a hundred people have died in Turkey because of five terrorist attacks. Two were carried out by ISIL while the other three were the work of PKK Kurdish separatists. Large cities were targeted and ISIL tried to kill as many foreigners as possible. This is a deliberate attack on the tourist business and it worked because tourist visits to Turkey are down ten percent so far this year and is expected to be off by 25 percent by the end of 2016. In response Turkey has ordered more air strikes on PKK bases in northern Iraq and more arrests in the Kurdish southeast. Security on the Syrian border has been increased and more ISIL personnel and recruits are being caught and either turned back or arrested. There is also more pressure on smugglers, not just the ones working the Syrian border but also those getting rich moving illegal migrants to Greece.

March 27, 2016: Syrian troops retook Palmyra, which ISIL grabbed in May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory but since the beginning of 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and surrounding Deir Ezzor province in general. ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of Deir Ezzor province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor 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. Syrian troops apparently now intend to advance on the ISIL capital of Raqqa (227 kilometers to the northeast). ISIL is believed to have lost about 400 men defending Palmyra while the attackers (mainly Syrian soldiers with some Russian commandos and advisers) lost nearly 200. The attacker usually has heavier losses but that shows the impact of air support and low ISIL morale.

In the west, on the Lebanon border, fighting between al Nusra and ISIL left over thirty dead. Some of the fighting spilled into Lebanon where the Islamic terrorists were attacked by armed Lebanese and forced to take their war back into Syria. Since late 2015 the Lebanese border has been a lot more hostile for Islamic terrorist groups. That was especially true after Hezbollah said it would keep the border sealed, at least as far as ISIL (and any other Syrian rebels intent on doing damage inside Lebanon) were concerned. These new border problems not only interfere with the flow of new ISIL recruits but also blocks a lot of smuggled equipment and weapons. This stuff can still be gotten across but now it takes longer and costs more. Plus you have to deal with more shipments being seized by the border guards who will not let it go for a bribe. It’s not the end of the world for ISIL but life is getting more difficult and victory more elusive. Despite these difficulties ISIL has remained on the border as have some other rebel groups, mainly because the smugglers can still get through.

March 24, 2016: Russian media reported that during the recent fighting around Palmyra in Syria a Russian commando, on a recon mission, found himself cut off and surrounded by ISIL gunmen. The Russian soldier called in an airstrike on himself, killing dozens of ISIL men but himself as well. The government says this was the seventh Russian fatality since Russian troops entered Syria last October.

March 23, 2016: Iran announced that it was sending army troops (special operations and expert snipers) to Syrian for the first time. These soldiers would act as trainers and advisors although the special operations troops may well go out on missions like their Russian counterparts have done. Normally overseas military activities are handled by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). This is the separate force that is about a third the size of the Iranian Army and exists mainly to protect the religious dictatorship in Iran from any disloyalty among the military. This may indicate that the stress on the IRGC personnel from duty in Syria is too much and sending army troops as well would give the IRGC men a break.

March 18, 2016: In the east, at the town of Tanf on the Iraqi border, FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels continue to battle ISIL for control of the border crossing that connects western 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. This effort is, for all practical purposes, part of the preparations for liberating Mosul.

March 16, 2016: Yesterday Russian warplanes began leaving Syria, 48 hours after Russia announced a partial withdrawal of its military forces. By the end of the month about 21 fixed wing aircraft had left, leaving 24 in Syria along with nearly as many helicopters. Most of the jets that left were older aircraft that are more expensive and time-consuming to keep flying. By the end of March more helicopter gunships had arrived, often more recent models than those that had left or were still there. In effect the Russians reduced their ability to “generate sorties” (send an aircraft out on a mission) by about a quarter with this withdrawal. 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 most 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. The elite combat and support troops Russia sent to Syria are exhausted and need some rest.

Russia always said that its military participation in Syria would be brief and this announcement confirms that. There is all sorts of speculation about what is “really going on” and there are some pretty obvious practical reasons for Russia pulling back in Syria. There is a well-known shortage of smart bombs and pilots who can use them. There is also a shortage of replacement parts for combat aircraft. Then there is the expense of air operations. Most of the half billion dollars the Syrian operation has cost Russia so far has gone to keep the aircraft flying. Russia is broke because of low oil prices and international sanctions. An extended presence in Syria would be unpopular back in Russia because of the cost, although the government has kept Russian casualties low. Meanwhile 3,000 or so Russian advisors and technical personnel are staying. This will continue to aid and encourage Assad forces. Meanwhile Russia has gained much, like combat experience for many of its new weapons (which makes it easier to get export sales) and combat experience for Russian officers, NCOs and special operations forces. Russia also demonstrated to friends and enemies alike in the Middle East that Russia was a more dependable ally than the United States.

 

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