The advance into the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) heartland in eastern Syria is on hold because the Kurdish forces are concentrating on another offensive in the north. There the effort is to clear ISIL forces from the Turkish border and the town of Manbij has run into problems. Manbij is 60 kilometers southwest of the Kurdish border town of Kobane, where ISIL suffered a costly defeat in trying the place in 2014. The Turkish border areas is important to ISIL because it gives them access to smuggling routes that bring in people and supplies and allow people and revenue producing goods out. Since 2014 there has been increasing efforts to block ISIL from access to Turkey and the Manbij sector is one of the few key border areas ISIL still has access to. The Manbij operation was carried out by a combined force of local Arab rebels and Kurds from adjacent areas (closer to Kobane). The Kurds also had U.S. Special Forces troops with them to advise and provide air support. The offensive began in late May and it was believed it would take about a month. But in late June ISIL managed to gather enough forces to halt the advance. This sets up ISIL for the kind of pounding they got when they tried to take Kobane from the Kurds. The air support made the difference at Kobane and ISIL lost thousands of fighters and had to retreat. ISIL thinks they now have tactics that can minimize the impact of air attacks but that has only helped a little. It’s easier to kill ISIL gunmen when they are massed for an attack and the defender has air support. Taking Manbij may require a few weeks more but once ISIL has been driven from the Turkish border area around Manbij most of the Kurdish-Arab forces will be shifted to the Raqqa operation.
Capturing Raqqa is being done in cooperation with the Syrian military. ISIL drove Assad forces from Raqqa by September 2014. But now with Russian and Iran backed Assad forces are moving towards Raqqa city from the west. The advance was halted in June because the U.S. backed Kurdish and Arab rebels halted there advance from the north. When the Kurds reinforce and resume their Raqqa attack force the joint advance will resume near the end of July or sometime in August. The Kurds have been raiding into Raqqa province since late 2015 and often hit targets on the outskirts of Raqqa city. The 2016 offensive involves over 10,000 government and rebel fighters accompanied by artillery and supported by coalition (mainly American) air power for the Kurds and Russian for the Syrian government forces.
The Big Picture
Sealing (as much as possible) the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian borders weakens ISIL but Raqqa province is the ISIL heartland and 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.
Meanwhile al Nusra is taking advantage of all the attention ISIL is getting to launch attacks against Assad forces in areas where the Assads are vulnerable. This is mainly in the northwest, around Aleppo and near 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 since late 2015 (after the arrival of Russian forces).
Americans Accused of Switching Sides
The Americans have admitted communication and cooperation with the Russians but insist that these daily communications are only to prevent inadvertent clashes (especially from the air) between the two forces advancing on Raqqa city. 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.
The cooperation required to take Raqqa does not mean that Russia, Iran and NATO are allies in the fight against ISIL. But a growing number of people in the Middle East think so. Even NATO allies accuse the Americans of becoming decidedly pro-Iranian since 2008. This is particularly disturbing to the Persian Gulf Arabs, who have long depended on the United States for protection from growing Iranian aggression. Even many American diplomats complain of a shift towards the Iranian and Russian view of the Syrian situation. Since 2015 Russia has been pushing the idea that the only realistic way to end the Syrian civil war and destroy ISIL is to include the Assads in the effort. Russia and Iran also point out that the Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, is where al Qaeda and ISIL came from. The Saudis have always promoted the brand of militant Islam al Qaeda and ISIL build on. The fact that al Qaeda and ISIL now want the Saudi monarchy destroyed is not relevant because eventually most Sunni Islamic terrorist groups eventually conclude that all Moslem governments are unworthy and must be destroyed. The Iranians don’t deny they support Islamic terrorism (Hezbollah being a prime example) but that they don’t create Islamic terrorists that mutate into uncontrollable monsters that attack everyone.
This interpretation of the situation is anathema to the Saudis who consider it just another example of evil Iranian cleverness. But in Syria many of the rebels are willing to work with the hated Shia (including the Assads) in order to destroy a common enemy. After that the civil war can continue as before. Russia points out that ISIL is simply a more extreme version of al Qaeda and once ISIL is gone al Qaeda (in the form of the largely Syrian al Nusra) will still be a powerful force in Syria. The Russians propose partitioning Syria, including an Assad controlled portion in western Syria. Russia insists this is the most realistic way to end the slaughter. Of course most of the attacks on civilians in Syria have been carried out by the Assad forces. As far back as 2012 it was noted that the attacks on civilians by government artillery, air power and death squads were increasing. The death squads were going into neighborhoods and killing or arresting military age men and killing families found to be harboring rebels or weapons. Despite that most other countries are reluctant to openly intervene in Syria without UN approval and this was long blocked by Russia and China. Some NATO countries talked about just going in, but without Turkish support (and military bases), this would be extremely difficult to do. The Turks are still reluctant to send in ground troops and only recently agreed to fully participate in providing air support against ISIL. 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). This has worked because now over 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 Assads have been responsible for nearly 80 percent of the civilian deaths. Most of the rebel civilians are Sunni Arabs, who comprise over 70 percent of the population. The Assads would like to all Sunni Arabs who oppose them to leave the country or be killed. Russia and Iran are fine with this as both nations have used similar strategies in the past. As the ancient Romans used to put it; “create a desert and call it peace.” But this is the 21st century and most of the world no longer accepts those solutions. But none of those who oppose the Assad approach are willing to send in ground forces.
The Iranian Threat
While Russia is willing to work with the Americans in Syria the Iranians are not. Same goes for Iraq or anywhere else. Iran has its own plans. Iran has expanded its mercenary force of Afghan, Iraqi and other Shia volunteers it has recruited, trained, armed and paid for. 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. But in most of Assad controlled territory (about 20 percent of Syria) the forces are Syrian (military, police or local militia). But in anticipation of a major effort to take Raqqa from ISIL Iran has ordered hundreds of advisors and trainers to move from Iraq (where they were assisting Iranian supported militias in western Iraq) to Syria. Apparently Iran expects ISIL to be gone from western Iraq soon and from Mosul by the end of the year. ISIL is expected to concentrate in eastern Syria for a last stand and Iran wants to get some credit for that finale.
The Saudi efforts to portray Syria as one of several (Yemen, Lebanon, Afghanistan) areas where Iran is quietly getting away with murder have not worked. Iran and its Arab neighbors accept the fact that Iran has, for thousands of years, been more successful at Information War as well as physical combat. What terrifies the Arabs is that Iran is winning the worldwide effort to sell their version of reality; that Arabs are murderous thugs and Iran is the calming influence the Middle East needs. Arab fears that Iran is serious about taking over (one way or another) all of the Arabian Peninsula are largely dismissed by the rest of the world even though Iran media often mentions it, especially the part about Iran replacing the Saudi monarchy as the guardians the most holy shrines of Islam in Mecca and Medina. Perception is reality in the Persian Gulf and the Arab rulers (and Sunni Arab majority) are terrified. At the same time Iran is right about one thing; the Sunni Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, continue to support many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups. This does not include ISIL or al Qaeda, two of the most outspoken foes of the Saudi monarchy. Many of the Islamic terror groups the Saudis support or encourage are currently murdering Shia Moslems for being heretics. Most of Iran is Shia so you see how this sort of thing adds to the animosities and gives it all a blood feud vibe.
Iranian military advisors are very active and visible in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. At the same time Iran has a bit of a crisis in Lebanon where over a million Syrians refugees live. Nearly all these Syrians are Sunni and that changes the demographics of Lebanon where, before 2011, about a quarter of the population was Sunni. Since all those Syrian refugees appeared the number of Sunnis has doubled and suddenly Sunnis are 40 percent of the population. The growing number of suicide bombing and other terrorist attacks in Lebanon are being committed by Sunni Islamic terrorists, many of them from refugee camps in Lebanon. This is Iran’s problem because Iran created and supports the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which exists to protect the Shia Lebanese. With the arrival of all those Syrian refugees the Shia are now outnumbered by Sunni and Hezbollah is expected to do something about it. But expelling the Syrian refugees is not an easy option and if it is attempted Hezbollah would be involved, and so would Iran.
July 2, 2016: Turkey announced that it had identified the three Islamic terrorists who had used explosive vests and gunfire to kill 44 people and wound over 200 on June 28th with an attack on the busiest airport (outside Istanbul) in Turkey. The attackers were killed but Turkish intelligence was able to quickly identify them as known Islamic radicals from Russia and Central Asia. The three were known to be with ISIL in Raqqa and that’s where the Istanbul attack was apparently planned and where the three attackers travelled from, with the help of ISIL members and supporters already in Turkey. Turkey has been intercepting a growing number of ISIL efforts to get trained terrorists into Turkey. The immediate response was to arrest dozens of known or suspected ISIL supporters and seek confirmation of the ISIL connection. ISIL has not taken credit for the attack, but they often do that in an effort to create the illusion that the Islamic terrorism threat is larger than it actually is. As a result of this attack Turkey is more inclined to send in ground troops to deal with ISIL in Syria. Turkish artillery and air strikes have killed hundreds of ISIL men this year, in retaliation for mortar and machine-gun attacks by ISIL forces near the Turkish border as well as suicide bombings. Turkey had long tolerated Islamic terrorists travelling to Syria via Turkish territory as long as this was to fight the Assad forces. The Turks and the Assads have never got along well and since a pro-Islam president was elected in 2000 Turkey has been trying to support efforts by Moslems to “defend Islam” against heretics (like the Shia Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese), Israel and the West. But this has backfired and now Turkey is trying to mend relations with Israel, Russia and the West. At the same time, Turkey still considers the Assads a greater threat than ISIL or Kurdish separatists.
In Lebanon Hezbollah reported that they had found and attacked an ISIL base near the Syrian border and killed a known ISIL leader (for ISIL forces in western 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.
July 1, 2016: In the south, outside Damascus, a Syrian Air Force aircraft went down, apparently due to equipment failure and the pilot parachuted to safety near Jayrud, a town defended by rebels that has had a truce with the government forces since 2014. But that truce allows other rebels to move through the area and it was some Islamic terrorist rebels who got to the pilot first and soon executed him and put pictures up on the Internet. This was bad news for Jayrud because town leaders had already told the government that they could get the pilot back unharmed. In retaliation the government shelled Jayrud for the first time in two years, killing at least 40 people, mostly civilians.