What makes the Assad government so optimistic now is that what is really hurting ISIL is the recent and very real threat to their heartland in eastern Syria. Assad forces were gone from Raqqa after September 2014. But now with Russian and Iran backed Assad forces moving in towards Raqqa city from the west while U.S. backed Kurdish and Arab rebels are advancing on Raqqa city from the north. The Kurds have been raiding into Raqqa province since late 2015 and often showed up on the outskirts of Raqqa city. But this time the move south is much more than a few hundred raiders. This time its several thousand fighters accompanied by American and other (mostly NATO) commandos to ensure that there is plenty of air support. This does not mean that Russia, Iran and NATO are allies in the fight against ISIL. There is some communication and Russian leaders recently admitted that Russia and the United States communicate twice a day and share information on operations in Syria. This is apparently to prevent inadvertent clashes (especially from the air) between the two forces advancing on Raqqa city. Nothing has been revealed about how these two forces would operate once they reached Raqqa city. The easiest way to take Raqqa city is to surround it and cut off the defenders from reinforcements or supply and then coordinate an air and ground attack. But who would end up controlling Raqqa city. This unofficial anti-ISIL alliance won’t survive the capture of Raqqa. Meanwhile Turkey accuses Russia, Iran and the United States of forming a secret alliance to defeat the Syrian rebellion and do a lot of other evil stuff. Many Arabs believe the same thing and believe it is all part of a Western effort to destroy Islam.
Raqqa province is the key to control of eastern Syria. East of Raqqa province is Hasakeh province, which borders Turkey and Iraq and is now mostly controlled by Kurdish rebels. South of Hasakeh is Deir Zor province, which only borders Iraq and is still largely ISIL controlled. All three of these eastern provinces are largely desert and thinly populated. Most people live near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, which have rivers and more rainfall. The Kurds have always lived mostly in the northeast, near the Turkish and Iraq borders. ISIL cannot afford to lose Raqqa and that’s one reason Raqqa is under attack. ISIL is also fighting to take Aleppo while trying to defend much of Anbar province (in western Iraq) and Mosul (in northwest Iraq). ISIL is on the defensive and that is bad for their image and survival.
Although Russia officially “withdrew” their forces from Syria during March they had to leave behind at least half the troops and equipment simply because otherwise the Syrian government (an ally of Russia since the 1970s) would again be in danger of losing the civil war, as they were before the Russians showed up in late 2015. Russia is now trying to find new allies in Syria, including the Sunni Arabs (led by Saudi Arabia) who share the Russian goal of destroying outlaw groups like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and al Qaeda. Thus the Syrian advance east towards the ISIL capital of Raqqa is made possible by Russian air support as well as enormous Russian logistical support. This logistical angle is largely unseen but crucial. The Russians have replaced a lot of worn out Syrian military equipment and brought in spare parts and technicians to help the Syrians repair a lot of the elderly (Cold War era) Russian armor, aircraft and artillery. Hundreds of these systems were returned to service and did wonders for Syrian army morale since its much safer to fight using armored vehicles, artillery, air support and new supplies of ammo. Some new Russian artillery (multiple rocket launchers) have shown up, with mixed Russian/Syrian crews. This is mainly to get some combat testing for these new rocket systems, to make them easier to move in the export market.
Iran has expanded its mercenary force of Afghan, Iraqi and other Shia volunteers recruited, trained, armed and paid for by Iran. The largest and most effective Shia paramilitary force is from Lebanon, where Iran has supported the Hezbollah militia since the 1980s. Thus only about half the Syrian government force advancing into Raqqa province is from the Syrian Army. The rest are largely controlled by Iran while air support and logistics is controlled by Russia.
Russia is hoping to get some of the al Qaeda factions to accept a negotiated peace that will leave the Assads (and most other Syrian non-Sunnis) alive and still in Syria. Some of the Gulf Arabs are willing to negotiate, especially if that makes Russia less of an Iranian ally. After all, historically Russia and Iran have been enemies while Russia has been trying to cultivate good relations with the Arabs for over half a century. Turkey and Russia are also trying to patch up the feud triggered by the sudden Russian appearance in Syria, a former part of the Turk (Ottoman) empire and a place the Turks considered off limits to troops from their ancient Russian foe. Russia sees its air power in Syria as a useful diplomatic tool, to remind potential allies that it is better to be friends with Russia than bombed by them. Iran and the Assads are backing a plan that they want the Russians to support which involves an alliance to destroy ISIL and other Sunni Islamic terrorists who are a threat to Iran and the West (like al Nusra). That would wipe out most of the armed opposition to the Assads and you can guess the rest.
This unofficial alliance sometimes even includes local ISIL forces. This is when there is a need to get food and other essential supplies to civilians who are surrounded by the fighting (about half a million currently) or the four million civilians in difficult-to-reach (because of the years of destruction) areas. These “alliances”, especially when they include ISIL units tend to be brief (days or just hours) and often difficult to revive. But there have been more of these “humanitarian pauses”, if only because if civilians have food hungry rebels have access to some of that.
The Battle For Aleppo
The battle for Aleppo also involves Kurds and Assad forces, but also a lot of rival (to ISIL) Islamic terrorist groups who, in order to survive, are forming new coalitions. Since April there have been major efforts by government forces, ISIL and other Islamic terror groups (mainly al Nusra) to gain 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. Kurdish forces are also involved, but not to gain control of the city but rural areas east of Aleppo.
The ISIL situation is so bad that the 3,000 or so ISIL fighters in Libya were told in late 2015 they had to pay their own way because ISIL forces in Iraq and Syria were under heavy attack and no longer able to send cash or much in the way of reinforcements. As a result the smuggling gangs in North Africa (mostly Libya) became the major source of ISIL funding there. These gangs took in over a billion dollars in 2015, mostly from illegal migrants seeking to reach Europe. ISIL is believed to have received up to ten percent of that. Some of this income may be going back to ISIL in Syria but that won’t last long because ISIL forces in Libya are on the defensive now as well.
As bad as the war in Iraq was (after Saddam was overthrown), it been much worse in Syria. In Iraq the worst year was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Next door in Syria the 2015 death toll was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. So far 2016 appears to be worse than 2015, in large part because Russia and Turkey are now actively involved and most factions (pro-Assad and pro-rebel) are at war with ISIL because ISIL has always demanded that everyone submit to their rule, including other Islamic terrorist groups. The anti-ISIL alliance is working, in that ISIL is losing territory (nearly half of what it had in Iraq and over 20 percent in Syria). Other losses are harder to measure. Intelligence (collected from electronic monitoring, aerial surveillance and deserter and prisoner interrogation) indicate that ISIL has lost more than half its revenue sources (mostly in 2016) and personnel losses are so heavy (nearly 30,000 dead and deserted since mid-2014) that they have not got enough fighters to defend and hold all areas where they are under attack. Currently ISIL has about 20,000 armed members, most in Syria and Iraq. That’s down from peak strength (in late 2014) of over 30,000. About 15 percent of current ISIL membership is elsewhere, most of them in Libya with smaller branches in Afghanistan, Africa and Asia. New volunteers are down over 50 percent from the mid-2015 peak. ISIL has become more brutal in dealing with desertion and nearly 500 executions (mostly for desertion but also for corruption and internal disputes) have occurred since mid-2014, most of them in 2016. ISIL is still making terror attacks, usually with suicide bombers and heavily promoting them in the media. Currently there are about 20 of these attacks each week, mostly against Shia in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa against anyone. A lot of effort has gone into making attacks in the West but that has proved extremely difficult. But these terror bombings cannot erase the image of ISIL retreating everywhere.
ISIL losses have been heaviest (proportionately) among their senior leadership. That’s largely due to American efforts to find and kill these leaders using armed UAVs, commandos or whatever (classified means that will take years to be made public).
The Other War
Meanwhile there is another war going on that does not involve ISIL. That is the continuing (since July 2015) conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. This war was reignited because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. Since mid-2015 the Turkish war with the PKK has left over 5,000 PKK personnel dead (mostly in Iraq and Syria), which is about ten times the number of Turkish soldiers and police (mostly in Turkey) killed. Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. About a third of the PKK dead were from operations in 2016, nearly all in southeast Turkey near the borders with Syria and Iraq. .
June 10, 2016: Kurdish and Arab rebels cut the main road from Turkey to Raqqa after weeks of heavy fighting. This cuts Raqqa off from east access to people and goods smuggled in from Turkey. ISIL can still get stuff in from Turkey but it takes longer and costs a lot more.
June 4, 2016: Pro-government forces crossed into Raqqa province, which has been held by ISIL since late 2014. The capital of Raqqa province (Raqqa city) is the ISIL capital and is 80 kilometers from the advancing pro-government troops.
June 2, 2016: Iraqi Kurdish intelligence report they intercepted a written order from senior ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to his senior subordinates that gave detailed orders to abandon certain areas in Iraq because the locals had become too hostile to ISIL and to move heavy artillery and some other major weapons from Mosul to the Syrian border. The message also included a warning that ISIL headquarters may have to move to Libya. That has been suspected for some time but since May ISIL has suffered some major defeats in Libya and its main base there (the coastal city of Sirte) is in danger of being lost. Then again hostile forces (rebels and government) are closing in on the current ISIL capital Raqqa, in western Syria.
May 29, 2016: Russia announced that it was returning to Israel an Israeli M-48 tank, captured by Syrian troops during the 1982 Israeli war with Syria and later given to Russia by Syria. The American made M-48 is currently in a Moscow military museum. Israel won the 1982 war but in one action had to abandon some armored vehicles in order to get most of the Israeli troops out of danger. Giving the tank back to Israel is another Russian effort to maintain good relations with Israel, which could cause big problems for Russian troops in Syria.