Despite the withdrawal of most Russian air support government forces continue to advance. In part this is because Russia has sent enormous quantities of military supplies to Syria since late 2015. This includes lots of spare parts for Syrian Air Force aircraft along with hundreds of Russian technical personnel to get aging and worn out Syrian warplanes (almost all of them Russian built) back into service. There were apparently some deliveries of new or used Russian warplanes. It is also believed that Russia has “loaned” the Syrian Air Force some military pilots and helped train additional Syrian pilots. The Syrian Army has received a lot of new Russian weapons and equipment. Syrian artillery support is noticeably more plentiful and accurate than it was a year ago. Meanwhile the Assad forces continue to avoid ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which is being heavily attacked by Kurds and a U.S. led coalition of warplanes. Assad troops are concentrating on non-ISIL rebels around Damascus and Aleppo. The Russians claimed to have carried out a lot of air attacks against ISIL targets but there is little evidence of that. The Russian warplanes supported the Assad forces and the Assads have always avoided ISIL whenever possible. This has led to speculation that there is a secret alliance but that is unlikely as there continue to be ISIL terror attacks against Assad forces and territory as well as occasional clashes on the ground. ISIL hates the Assads but the Assads note that ISIL has plenty of other enemies (like most of the rebel factions plus the United States and every Moslem nation in the region) so why waste any effort on ISIL when you can concentrate on other rebel forces.
Despite the advancing government forces ISIL and al Nusra are still making attacks around Aleppo (especially near the Turkish border) and in nearby Latakia province, which is where the Syrian ports are. Latakia is a major center of government support because it is largely Alawites and where the Assad clan comes from. In nearby central Syria (Hama province) Syrian soldiers (assisted by Hezbollah and local Alawite militias) continue fighting al Nusra forces, which constantly threaten government gains made in Hama over the last year.
Another plus for the Assads is the Turkish attitudes (and actions) towards Syrian Kurdish rebels. The Syrian Kurds are fighting ISIL as well as Turkey in northeast Syria. The Syrian Kurds are angry about Turkish demands that Kurdish forces stay away from the Turkish border. The Syrian Kurds generally ignore these demands 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. This puts the Turks at odds with most Syrian rebels as well as the Western and Arab backers of the rebels. Turkey continues fighting a very active war against PKK forces in southeast Turkey.
The Pain Of Being ISIL
Since 2011 the war in Syria has left over 350,000 dead, most of them Syrians. ISIL has been particularly hard hit in the last year and appears to be suffering severe manpower and morale problems. Losses are not being replaced because fewer recruits are getting to Syria and more existing ISIL men are succeeding in deserting. Exact numbers on ISIL losses and current strength are hard to come by but everywhere ISIL is active there are reports of far fewer ISIL fighters encountered compared to a year ago. Some of the ISIL losses in Syria were planned, as in the hundreds of ISIL men sent to Libya where ISIL has been gaining strength (to more than 3,000 gunmen). As the ISIL presence in Libya grows so does the local opposition. ISIL seems to have done the impossible and caused most of the warring factions in Libya to unite, mainly to crush ISIL. That seems to be what happened in Syria and Iraq and anywhere else ISIL gets established. ISIL is a unifying force but not in the way ISIL intended.
As ISIL is driven out of areas they have controlled for months (or longer) journalists and war crimes investigators gain access and are discovering and documenting ISIL atrocities. This evidence includes mass graves, which often contain only people of one ethnic or religious groups. Kurds and Christians were often targets of ISIL killers. The investigators are also able to get a better idea of how extensive the ISIL antiquities smuggling operation was. Apparently seizing and smuggling out ancient artifacts was big business for ISIL, netting the Islamic terrorists more than $50 million so far.
Although ISIL is praising the recent Paris and Belgium terror attacks by Islamic terrorists trained in Syria and the continued use of suicide bombers against Shia and non-Moslem civilians in the Middle East, there is actually little to celebrate. The reality is that the ISIL base in Syria and Iraq is under heavy attack and has suffered considerable losses since late 2014. About 20 percent of the territory ISIL held in late 2014 has been lost. Actually even more has been lost but ISIL then “conquered” more unpopulated territory to make up for the loses.
The United States have been seeking out the senior ISIL leadership since early 2015 and this effort has been successful. On March 24th the second most senior ISIL leader (Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli) died when his vehicle was attacked by American commandos in helicopters. The U.S. troops had been tracking Qaduli for several days waiting for an opportunity to capture him. Qaduli’s vehicle was attacked in an uninhabited area on the Syria side of the Iraq border. Qaduli and his three companions fought back and all were killed. The commandos did recover cell phones, computers and other electronics. But the American really wanted to interrogate Qaduli, who was noted as a good strategist, manager and leader. This was why he was next in line to be supreme leader of ISIL. In Syria the U.S. also seeks out leaders of al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate that often works with ISIL. In the last month at least two senior al Nusra leaders have been killed by American airstrikes.
It takes more than UAVs and commandos to carry out these decapitation (kill the leaders) efforts. Cash rewards also help. In May 2015 the U.S. announced $20 million in rewards for information leading to the capture or killing of four senior ISIL leaders. These included Abd al Rahman Mustafa al Qaduli (a former al Qaeda-in-Iraq leader who joined ISIL in 2012), Abu Mohammed al Adnani (the official spokesman and “face” of ISIL), Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili (a senior combat commander) and Tariq Bin al Tahar Bin al Falih al Awni al Harzi (commander of all suicide bombing operations as well as forces in northeastern Syria). Adnani was badly wounded by a missile attack in mid-January and is apparently still recuperating. The other three have all been killed. Details of how the cash rewards work are not revealed because it is widely known that those who inform on their leaders are often hunted down and killed, along with their families. That, like cash rewards (or bribes) are ancient practices that still work.
Why Russia Mattered
Russia reported that a key element in the Syrian conquest of Palmyra in late March 2016 was the presence of Spetsnaz commandos with the Syrian troops. As expected the Spetsnaz served as ground controllers to call in air strikes by Russian bombers and helicopter gunships. Spetsnaz also used their reconnaissance skills to find ISIL positions and call in Syrian troops or an airstrike. In one well publicized incident a Spetsnaz man found himself surrounded by ISIL fighters and heroically called in an airstrike on his own position. The bombs killed the Spetsnaz man as well as many ISIL gunmen. As happened in Afghanistan during the 1980s and Chechnya since the 1990s the Spetsnaz became feared as the most dangerous foe by even the most fanatic Islamic warriors. What was different in Syria was that Spetsnaz were not used for raids. Like their Western counterparts Spetsnaz are trained to do reconnaissance (often deep into enemy territory), provide security for very valuable people or equipment and carry out “direct action” (raids). Spetsnaz did this in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the Caucasus since the late 1990s but not in Syria. That’s because Russia wants to avoid casualties in Syria as these are very unpopular in Russia. Spectacular victories, on the other hand, are still popular. Russian Spetsnaz commandos have been in Syria officially since October 2015 and unofficially up to a year earlier. Russia did not say much about what Spetsnaz was doing in Syria, which is standard for special operations forces. Initially Spetsnaz were there to train their Syrian counterparts and help hunt down and kill ISIL leaders. Any successes there were not publicized, which is, again, pretty standard for secretive commando operations. It was more difficult to hide the role Spetsnaz played in helping improve the security around senior government officials in Damascus. That operation was also a success.
Why Iran Now Matters More
Iran has increased its manpower in in Syria since Russia began withdrawing forces in mid-March. There are now close to 4,000 Iranian troops in Syria. Until recently nearly all were from 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. But now some of the IRGC are being replaced with regular army commandos. Normally Iranian Army troops do not operate outside Iran but the army commandos are an elite force that normally chase drug smugglers and the few Sunni Islamic terrorists who get into Iran. The several hundred army troops in Syria are apparently all volunteers. All the Iranian deaths (over 250 so far) in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media until 2016 were mostly officers or NCOs who were obviously working in or very near to the combat. This year many of the dead have been soldiers. Not reported much in Iran are the deaths among the non-Syrian Shia militias Iran has organized (and often run) in Syria. These consist of over 10,000 Shia volunteers (attracted by the pay and benefits) from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere. Also part of this is the paramilitary Hezbollah forces from Lebanon. Many of the IRGC personnel in Syria are working with these militias.
April 18, 2016: In the north, just across the Turkish border in Kilis, four ISIL rockets hit populated areas killing four Syrian refugees and leaving one Turk and four Syrians wounded. This is the latest of several ISIL rocket attacks on Kilisl. This town hosts so many Syrian refugees that more than half the local population is now Syrian. At least ten people in Kilis have been killed by ISIL rockets in the last few weeks. The Turkish military has been using artillery and air strikes to destroy ISIL forces that get too close to the border, especially when these ISIL men fire rockets or mortar shells into Turkey.
In Switzerland the UN sponsored peace talks are stalled because the rebels (the HNC or High Negotiations Committee) accuses the Assad government of violating the ceasefire and refuses to accept the possibility that the Assads will have any role in a post-war Syrian government. The UN is trying to get the two sides to talk directly but that seems unlikely now. The Assads accuse the rebels of breaking the ceasefire and the rebels respond that they are defending themselves against government attacks. The only fighting allowed by the ceasefire is against al Qaeda (al Nusra) or ISIL. But sometimes it is difficult to tell if you are being fired on by al Nusra or some group that used to be part of the al Nusra coalition. It seems that both sides are interpreting the ceasefire terms to suit their immediate needs. The ceasefire is holding in many areas and lots of aid and civilian goods are moving but there is still a lot of fighting going on.
April 17, 2016: The Arab Parliament became the third pan-Arab organization to officially designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In March the Arab League and GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf) declared the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah militia to be a terrorist group. The rest of the world has long identified Hezbollah as an Islamic terrorist organization but most Arab organizations like 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 of doing this because of Israeli influence and pressure. The Arab League and Arab Parliament exist mainly to destroy Israel and hope Hezbollah will return to that rather than being an Iranian tool and supporting the Iran-backed Shia government of Syria.
April 16, 2016: Government forces recaptured the al Sin airbase outside Damascus. This is part of an ongoing operation to drive rebels, and especially Islamic terrorists, away from the Syrian capital.
April 13, 2016: The Turkish military reported that return fire at 147 known ISIL positions in Syria over the last three days has killed at least 362 ISIL men and destroyed many of their rockets and mortars. This extensive use of Turkish artillery was to shut down ISIL units firing rockets into Turkey. Several of these attacks during the last week killed two Turks and wounded about twenty. Most of these victims were civilians. Most of the unguided ISIL rockets caused no casualties or property damage but they were usually fired at towns or villages and a few of the rockets did do some damage.
April 11, 2016: Israel revealed that it had, in the last few tears, actually carried out “dozens” of air attacks against Hezbollah efforts to move Syrian, Russian and Iranian weapons from Syria into Lebanon. It was no secret that Israeli aircraft have been attacking Hezbollah trucks trying to move Syrian missiles and other weapons into Lebanon. But since early 2013 confirmation, or extensive mention in the media, only occurred for about six of these attacks. Israel always promised more such attacks and in late 2015 apparently worked out an arrangement with Russia that eliminated 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. There over 50,000 rockets have been hidden in basements of homes and public buildings (schools, hospitals and the like) and the threat of an Israeli military advance into southern Lebanon to find and destroy those rockets is giving Hezbollah and Israeli civilians nightmares. The Hezbollah war plan is to launch over a thousand rockets a day into Israel despite an Israeli offensive into southern Lebanon.
April 5, 2016: In the northwest (Idlib province) an American airstrike killed a veteran Egyptian Islamic terrorists (Ahmed Refai Taha) who went on to become a senior al Nusra official.
In southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, police arrested two ISIL men who were apparently part of a plot to carry out another major suicide bombing attack in Turkey. In the aftermath of the several major ISIL attacks in Syria during the last year the Turks has distributed a list of 23 known and wanted ISIL members. Rewards ($15 million in total) are offered for information about where these guys are. Meanwhile police have a profile of less senior ISIL members are soldiers and police along the border are particularly alert.
April 4, 2016: In the east (Deir Zor province) ISIL fired rockets containing mustard gas at army forces near the Iraqi border. It is believed there were at least 69 chemical weapon attacks in Iraq and Syria during 2015 and that has continued 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.
April 3, 2016: In the northwest (Idlib province) an American airstrike on a meeting of al Nusra leaders appears to have killed a very senior al Nusra official, a former Syrian army officer named Abu Firas al Suri.