Despite having some common goals in Syria, cooperation between Russia and NATO (especially the United States) is not happening. Russia propaganda is no longer pretending there is cooperation and is concentrating on “American war crimes in Syria”. The purpose of this is to prevent the West from supporting a significant portion of the rebels. Since 2013 most rebels have joined (or allied themselves) with al Nusra (the local al Qaeda franchise) or ISIL. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. In the last few months al Nusra has tried to distance itself from ISIL and is now openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. Al Nusra forces also led the recent effort in Aleppo where rebels broke through the government siege in the eastern part of the city and now seek to regain control of the entire city.
Al Nusra recently renounced any connection with al Qaeda and declared it was simply a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, is full of devout Moslems. Al Nusra is now known as Jabhat Fatah and wants to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” (and not to be bombed). But the Americans still considers al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders have admitted publicly that the al Nusra split is temporary. Russia, Iran and the Assads find comfort in all this because it leaves the Americans with only about a third of the rebels (mainly the Kurds and non-Moslem groups) and gives Russia and Iran a chance to defeat all the rebels eventually and restore the Assads to full control of whatever is left of Syria. Russia also uses the “all Islamic terrorists are targets” attitude to justify their warplanes bombing bases of Syrian rebels that work closely with American and British commandos operating inside Syria. This puts the West in a difficult position because groups like al Nusra/ Jabhat Fatah have the support of most Syrian Sunnis, and 70 percent of Syrians are Sunnis and these Sunnis are the backbone of the rebel forces.
Russia is eager to make whatever deals it can to win the war in Syria and get out. Many American military leaders and intelligence officials are warning the U.S. government that closely cooperating with the Russians will not end well for the United States and the West because the Russian goal is keeping the Assad government in power. That is not and never will be popular in the United States, not as long as Iran’s official policy is “death to America and Israel.” But American leaders are attracted to the idea that cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria would do more to destroy ISIL than any other strategy.
Russia is trying, with some success, to get UN approval for special safe roads into Aleppo so that civilians can leave. The rebels and most aid groups oppose this because the Assad government wants pro-rebel civilians to leave the country and most civilians inside Aleppo are anti-Assad. What the UN really wants is a ceasefire that everyone will adhere to. The rebels largely back this but the Assads (and their Russian and Iranian allies) do not.
The Assads sense that the divisions between the Western and Moslem supporters of the rebels can be exploited and must be done now before the West, especially the Americans, realize what is really going on. To that end Iran, Russia and the Assads are scrambling to reinforce their forces in Aleppo and seek to crush the rebels. The rebels are doing the same. The West is obsessed with ISIL while the Assads are eager to weaken the rebels wherever they are and any way possible.
ISIL continues to defend areas in the northwest near the Turkish border, particularly the town of Manbij. The Kurds hold 90 percent of the town and are still working on the remaining ISIL fighters. The Syrian Kurds are the main force in this operation and it has taken a lot longer than they expected. Manbij is 60 kilometers southwest of the Kurdish border town of Kobane. That was where ISIL suffered a costly defeat in trying to take 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 is being carried out by a combined force of local Arab rebels and Kurds from adjacent areas (closer to Kobane). The Kurds also have 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 was enough. It’s easier to kill ISIL gunmen when they are massed for an attack and the defender has air support but ISIL is using local civilians for cover.
The Kurds are also having problems with Assad forces in the northeast and inside Aleppo. In the northeast (Hasakeh province) government and Kurdish troops have long left each other along but since early 2106 there have been an increasing number of clashes between Kurdish and Syrian government forces. Now these clashes are spreading to Aleppo where Assad forces in western Aleppo have been acting in a hostile manner towards a Kurdish controlled enclave in central Alappo. Technically the Kurds are rebels but they are often allied with government forces against common foes, like ISIL. Most of Hasakeh 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.
Arabs And Turks
Meanwhile most Arabs in the region (especially oil-rich ones in Arabia) are hostile to Iran and more tolerant of al Nusra and other rebel groups that the West considers Islamic terrorists. So the Arabs continue to help supply groups like al Nusra. So does Turkey. While everyone agrees that ISIL is a threat to everyone, most Moslems believe Islamic terrorists have a right to be violent in “defending Islam” and that groups like ISIL and most of the problems in Moslem countries are the fault of Israel and the West. Russia understands this and has for centuries. But in the West it has become fashionable to ignore this and that is becoming more of a problem in Syria.
After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Syria turned violent in 2011 Turkey tolerated Islamic terrorists travelling to Syria via Turkish territory as long as this was to fight the Syrian government (Assad) forces. The Turks and the Assads had never got along well and since AKP came to power 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 backfired and now Turkey is trying to mend relations with Israel, Russia, Egypt and the West. At the same time, Turkey still considers the Assads a greater threat than ISIL or Kurdish separatists. In the Middle East the oil may eventually run out but the disagreements worth killing and dying for are most definitely a renewable resource.
Western Air Power And Commandos
The U.S. led air coalition over Iraq and Syria has been averaging about a hundred attacks (using either a guided missile or smart bomb) a day in June and July. About a third of that is in Syria but more will be switched to Iraq when the fighting is heavy inside Mosul. The Americans have brought in more ground controller teams to operate with Syrian rebels and Iraqi armed forces to provide timely air strikes. But Syrian rebels have to keep in mind that when the Iraqi attack on ISIL held Mosul starts (before the end of 2016) there will be several weeks, at least, when most of the coalition air strikes will be dedicated to Iraq. At its peak there will probably be several hundred guided missiles and smart bombs a day used in Mosul. The American led air coalition is responsible for the lower casualties in Iraq, where the fighting has never been as widespread and intense as in Syria. Since May combat related deaths in Syria have been over a thousand each week, which is more than the monthly deaths in Iraq.
The Syrian Problem Outside Syria
The UN, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are unable to do much about unruly refugee camps and leave that problem up to the host country. There are nearly five million registered (with the UN) Syrian refugees outside Syria (and six million inside Syria). Most are in Turkey (56 percent), Lebanon (22 percent) and Jordan (14 percent) with the other eight percent in Iraq, other Arab countries and Europe. There are up to a million unregistered refugees, concentrated in the countries that have the most registered ones. Each host nation deals with the refugees differently. Turkey has the most effective internal security and thus less problems with lawlessness in the refugee camps. Turkey is also considering offering citizenship to refugees, something generally unheard of in Arab countries. Lebanon has the most problems with lawlessness in the refugee camps and wants them gone as soon as possible. Citizenship is not an option. Jordan is in the middle hear, able to keep order in the camps and open to accepting some of the Syrians as permanent residents.
A common problem in all three countries is the problems with lawlessness inside the camps. It’s not just the petty criminals, but other types of major misbehavior. The Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are increasingly out of control because of this. Aid groups operate under the protection of local security forces, but as is often the case the locals are unable or unwilling to supply sufficient police or troops to keep the peace in these instant cities created by the aid organizations.
Aid groups are also beginning to confront the harmful side effects of their good works. The worst side effect is how rebels and gangsters sustain themselves by stealing food and other aid supplies, as well as robbing the NGO workers themselves. Usually the main complaint is the increasing attacks on aid workers. In the worst cases aid workers are assaulted or robbed and that eventually escalates to some getting killed. This is a trend that has been on the march upward for several decades. Islamic radicals have been particularly active in terrorizing and killing the foreigners who are there to help them. Aid workers are usually caught between different factions within the refugee camps. All factions see the aid groups as a source of income and supplies.
In the case of Syria there are also problems with Sunni Islamic radicals keen on chasing out all non-Moslem foreigners. The refugee camps for Syrians are particularly vexed by criminal gangs that prey on everyone, especially the women. The rebel groups recruit teenage boys to fight or, in the case of Islamic radical groups, to be suicide bombers (called “birds of paradise”). Younger boys are often sexually exploited (a common problem throughout the region).
August 8, 2016: Russia admitted that the July 17 incident, where an unidentified UAV crossed into Israel briefly, was actually a Russian UAV accidently straying into Israeli airspace. Israeli radar had been watching this UAV before it entered Israeli air space and once it crossed the border two Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were fired, unsuccessfully, at the UAV. Then an F-16 got close enough to fire an air-to-air missile, which also missed. At this point the UAV was headed back for Syria. Until now it was unclear if this was a Russian or Iranian made UAV and Hezbollah was suspected as the UAV operator. Israeli intelligence eventually identified the UAV as Russian and that led to discussions with Russia and the admission that it was indeed Russian.
Russia and Turkey announced that they had resumed their cooperation in counter-terrorism matters. While Russia and Turkey both back different sides in Syria (Russia backs the Assads while Turkey does not) both agree that ISIL is a common foe.
August 7, 2016: In the east, at the town of Tanf on the Iraqi border, FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels defeated an early morning ISIL attempt to regain control of the border crossing that connects western Anbar province with largely ISIL-held eastern Syria. ISIL used a suicide car bomber (and one on foot with an explosive vest) supported by over a dozen gunmen. The bombers were unable to get close enough to the FSA men before detonating. The FSA return fire they drove off the ISIL gunmen. The FSA forces here are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan and the United States. Holding Tanf is, for all practical purposes, part of the preparations for liberating Mosul.
August 6, 2016: In the north (Aleppo) rebels broke the government siege of eastern Aleppo. The route is still subject to government artillery and air attack, but movement is possible, especially at night. The government already controls western Aleppo but that area is vulnerable to a siege by rebels.
August 3, 2016: In Lebanon Hezbollah leaders are telling their followers (about a third of the population) that the fighting in Syria (which involves thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters) is likely to go on for a while and will probably result in the partition of Syria. Hezbollah forces support the Assad government in Syria.
August 1, 2016: In Syria a Russian Mi-8 transport helicopter was shot down by Islamic terrorists near Aleppo killing the five Russian military personnel aboard. Russia was later told that to get the bodies of the dead Russians back they had to release some Islamic terrorists held Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
July 31, 2016: In the north thousands of rebel fighters began a major effort to break the government siege of rebel held eastern Aleppo.
July 28, 2016: Syrian rebel group Al Nusra formally announced its break with al Qaeda and now calls itself. Jabhat Fatah.
July 27, 2016: In the northeast (Hasakeh province) an ISIL suicide truck bomb got into the Kurdish territory and sought to attack Kurdish forces near the Turkish border. Instead the bomb killed over fifty civilians, most of them refugees. The truck had got into Kurdish territory by posing as refugees. As a result of this attack (an act of revenge by ISIL which is regularly defeated by the Kurds in combat) the Kurds increased their security, especially their treatment of refugee vehicles. These must now go to a separate area to be checked before they are allowed in. The Kurds believe the Assads cooperate with ISIL to help make attacks like this possible.