Syria: The Stalled Ceasefire

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May 6, 2016: On a map it appears the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) controls nearly half of Syria (mostly in the east) while the government controls about a quarter of the country. But when you just take into account population ISIL and government control the same number of people. The Kurds control 15 percent of the territory and the secular rebels (FSA or Free Syrian Army) and al Nusra (al Qaeda) each control about eight percent. “Control” may be too strong a word because in many areas no one is really in charge, except for independent (of any faction) local defense militias. Most of the territory ISIL claims control over is uninhabited and controlled by whoever is passing through with the most firepower.

April saw intense fighting, especially around Aleppo. Because of that over 3,000 died nationwide in the month. Deaths since 2011 are now close to 400,000. 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). ISIL js believed to have executed over 4,200 people since mid-2014 and killed many more in combat. It is believed that the U.S. led air effort has killed at least 25,000 ISIL personnel so far (in Iraq and Syria). Some 600 were believed to have been killed in April.

Overall, in April nearly half the deaths were in Aleppo where government forces fought ISIL and al Nusra for control of the entire city. Only about 400,000 people are left in Aleppo and most of them are trapped by all the fighting. Turkey fears most of them will try to flee to Turkey if they get a chance. There is not supposed to be this much fighting because the UN sponsored February 27th ceasefire stipulated no fighting except in areas where ISIL or al Nusra are 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. But in April ISIL and al Nusra continued making attacks around Aleppo and the government (aided by the Russians) took that to mean that the entire city could be fought over. Russia denied that it knowingly did anything wrong and officially supports UN efforts to halt most of the fighting around Aleppo. Thus for the last two days there have not been any Russian air raids in Aleppo.

Despite the ceasefire there are still lots of people being killed and about a third of those fatalities occur in ceasefire areas where ISIL and al Nusra are not present. The rebel groups who are part of the ceasefire threaten to abandon the ceasefire if the UN does not get Russia and the Assads to stop attacking them, especially from the air and with artillery. Meanwhile ISIL and al Nusra are still launching major attacks around Aleppo. The Russians and Assads insist all their air and artillery attacks are at targets containing ISIL or al Nusra personnel. The UN does not agree saying that aid groups in Aleppo complain of civilian targets (especially the few remaining hospitals) being bombed. The Assads reply that the aid workers often take sides, especially when ISIL or al Nusra threaten those who refuse to cooperate.

Since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead have been 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). Since 2011 about half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, especially the government air and artillery attacks on civilians. 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.

The Assad government openly declares confidence in final victory. With most of the world united against ISIL and Russian support is still substantial (despite officially “withdrawing from Syria”) the government believes they can deal with the non-ISIL rebels. This includes making some sort of deal with the Kurds. The Assads are also taking advantage of the continuing feuds between various Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL and al Nusra are notorious for their tendency to fight other Islamic terrorist groups that won’t submit to their orders.

In Syria Russian troops are still quite active in supporting government forces. Now that people know what to look for (Western looking men wearing uniforms similar to the Syrian army and serving with Syrian units) it has become easier to follow the movements or Russian troops in Syria. While many Russian troops are now officially gone the few that remain are very effective. This includes commandos (who handle difficult reconnaissance missions and calling in air strikes), some artillery units and lots of technical advisors (who the Russians often don’t count as military because many of them are technically civilian contractors). There is believed to be a Russian and Iranian plan to help the Syrian government regain control of much of the country and make it impossible to end the fighting without leaving the Assad government in power. A less visible Russian contribution to the recent Syrian army victories has been the effort to rebuild and refurbish Syrian equipment. 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 although some of the artillery turned out to be Russian crews operating Russian artillery that was marked as Syrian.

The American Air Campaign

For the United States the daily cost of the war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq has been $9 million. From August 2014 through early April 2016 American warplanes launched over 11,400 sorties against ISIL. So far 67 percent of those sorties have been against targets in Iraq with the other third against Syrian targets. Each sortie has cost nearly $600,000. Most of the targets were over 5,000 buildings and fortifications used by ISIL. Nearly 3,000 vehicles were destroyed and more than 500 industrial (mainly oil production) facilities were hit. Increasingly these attacks are in direct support of Iraqi troops fighting ISIL and Kurdish troops doing the same in Syria. A growing number of ISIL leaders are being killed by precision attacks (usually missiles from UAVs) and this is largely the result of more information being obtained from inside Syria and inside ISIL. But more ISIL members are being arrested outside of Syria and information is either seized when they were captured or after interrogation. Russian air strikes are believed to have killed nearly 6,000 people so far. Some 60 percent of the dead are ISIL and al Nusra personnel and most of the rest are civilians.

The Killings Around Kilis

In the north, just across the Turkish border in Kilis, ISIL rockets are still landing in Turkey and the Turks are still firing back at the ISIL forces just across the border. The Turks are threatening to send in troops but that has not happened yet. KIlis a town that hosts so many Syrian refugees that more than half the local population is now Syrian. 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. The Turks believe their artillery fire and some air attacks have killed nearly 400 ISIL personnel across the border from those launching the rockets.

May 5, 2016: In central Syria (Homs province) ISIL forces again attacked the al Shaer gas fields in the eastern part of the province. The government has held the al Shaer facility most of the time since 2014. It is the largest gas field in Syria and years of fighting has destroyed most of the equipment there.

May 4, 2016: The Assad government declared it would abide by UN demands that it stop attacks in Aleppo that violated the ceasefire. But the attacks continue. There seems to be a misunderstanding as the United States, the UN and even Russia are declaring a ceasefire in Aleppo yet fighting continues with the Syrian government insisting it is only dealing with ISIL and al Nusra. In central Syria (Homs province) suicide bombers attacked in two pro-government villages.

May 3, 2016: In the north, just across the Turkish border in Kilis, ISIL rockets hit populated areas wounding one person. In response Turkish artillery fired on ISIL positions killing at least six of the Islamic terrorists.

May 1, 2016: In the north, just across the Turkish border in Kilis, ISIL rockets hit populated areas wounding eight people. In response Turkish artillery fired on ISIL positions and using location data provided by the Turks, four armed American UAVs based in Turkey attacked ISIL as well. The Turks believe at least 63 ISIL personnel were killed and several rocket launchers were destroyed. This was the latest of several ISIL rocket attacks on Kilis.

April 30, 2016: In the northeast (Hasakah province) a suicide bomber attacked Kurdish police at a checkpoint killing six of them. ISIL was believed responsible.

April 27, 2016: On the Lebanese side of the Lebanese border an ISIL leader and one of his bodyguards was killed by a Lebanese army raid.

April 24, 2016: India is pressing the United States for more details on exactly where (in Syria) and when (sometime in the last week) Mohammed Shafi Armar (the head ISIL recruiter for India) was killed. All the Americans would say was that Armar died in an airstrike sometime in mid-April. ISIL is having little success recruiting in India and Pakistan but is still trying. Armar was believed to be in Syria discussing that situation with senior ISIL officials. Armar is from southern India (Karnataka State) and has been active for several years providing Internet based support for Islamic terrorist groups. Indian police believe Armar contacted (mainly online) at least 700 Indian Moslems and persuaded at least twenty to join ISIL. Police have been after Armar since late 2015 and this caused Armar to flee to Pakistan in early 2016 and then to Syria. India provided the U.S. with a lot of intel on Armar and expect a little payback in the form of how and where Armar was killed.

April 23, 2016: In the northwest (Idlib province) a suicide bomber killed a leader of Ahrar al Sham and three of his followers. Ahrar al Sham is allied with al Nusra and the attack was probably carried out by another Islamic terrorist group.

April 20, 2016: In the northeast (Hasakeh province) government and Kurdish troops fought at a checkpoint. This clash left ten Kurds, 31 government soldiers and militia and 17 civilians dead before commanders from both sides could restore the truce (two days later) that had been in place. Technically the Kurds are rebels but they are often allied with government forces against common foes, like ISIL. Most of the province is controlled by the Kurds, who are supported by the United States. But the Assad government and Turkey do not want Syrian Kurds turning the northeast, where most Syrian Kurds live, into an autonomous Kurdish region (like a similar one just across the border in Iraq). Russia, while definitely an ally of the Assads, is more inclined to side with the Kurds, who Russians regard as better fighters. But the Kurds realize that long-term the Russians will side with Assad and the Turks.

 

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