Syria: Everyone Fears The Turks

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September 13, 2016: The Assads are apparently succeeding in their effort to permanently change the ethnic and religious composition of Syrian population. For decades Syria has been ruled by the minority (12 percent of the population) Alawite (Shia) Moslems. Since 2011 over half the population has been driven from their homes. There are about 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. Over 300,000 Syrians have been killed since 2011 plus nearly 100,000 foreigners (most of them fighting against the Assads). Thus the number of people living in Syria has declined about 30 percent.

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 originally comprised over 70 percent of the population. The Assads would like to all Sunni Arabs who oppose them to leave the country or be killed. As a result some 30 percent of the population has been driven from the country and few of them have been Alawite. That means Alawites are now at least 17 percent of the population and given the rate that Sunni Syrians are fleeing that will soon be 20 percent. While the Alawites have always treated the non-Sunni Arab minorities (mainly Christians and Druze) well and considered them allies, many have fled because most Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels consider it a religious duty to persecute these non-Moslems. The Syrian Kurds are technically rebels but were always mainly out to protect the Kurdish minority (ten percent of the population) in Syria. The Assads are apparently willing to let the Turks decide what will happen to the Syrian Kurds.

Syrian GDP has shrunk by over half since 2011 and over 70 percent of the population reduced to poverty. The economic damage can be seen in satellite photos which show that, compared to similar nighttime pictures from 2011, only about 20 percent of the lights are still visible at night. Many of the Syrians who fled the country (over 20 percent so far) will never return. There is little to return to unless you are Alawite or acceptable to the Alawites.

The Turks

About a thousand Turkish troops with armored vehicles and using air and artillery support from Turkey have taken control of about 850 square kilometers of Syrian territory since they crossed the border on August 24th. There was no real opposition although they claim several dozen armed rebels killed and locals say over fifty civilians have died as well. The Kurds agreed to withdraw and most ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces retreated. The Turks briefly clashed with some ISIL fighters and have suffered about eight casualties so far. The Turks plan to eventually turn this territory over to Syrian Arab rebels who the Turks have worked with before and are accompanying the Turkish troops now. The Turks has long planned to establish a “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border. This area would be along about a 98 kilometers of the border and extend far enough into Syria so that millions of Syrians now in Turkish refugee camps could be moved to camps on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey would still support the camps.

Turkish aircraft continue to bomb Kurdish positions outside the area Turkish troops hold. The Turks say they are there to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing an autonomous area similar to what exists in northern Iraq. 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). The Syrian Kurds have told the Turks that they have renounced any ties with the YPG and request that non-YPG Kurdish rebels not be bombed. The Turks said they would consider that but some non-YPG Kurds are being hit by Turkish air strikes. The Syrian Kurds do not want to fight the Turks and most YPG fighters agree with that. But Syrian Kurd leaders have told Turkey that if Turkish troops advance east of the Euphrates River the Kurds will fight back. The YPG probably will but most Kurds do not want a war with Turkey. The Syrian Kurds are trying to work out a compromise, which is especially important since the Americans have refused to help the Kurds fight the Turks. The Americans have told the Kurds they are trying to get persuade the Turks to make a formal deal with the Syrian Kurds but so far all the Turks will go along with is temporary arrangements.

Western nations have backed the Syrian Kurds since 2011 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 and often work with American Special Forces advisors. 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. However Iran is aware that the Syrian Kurds are essential to taking the ISIL capital Raqqa and the Turks have expressed a willingness to help with taking Raqqa. Despite that Iran wants Turkish troops out of Syria, apparently because the Turks are Sunni Moslems and could easily take the side of the Sunni Gulf Arabs in the ongoing struggle between these Arabs and Iran.

Russia, Iran and the Assads find comfort in all this because it leaves the Americans supporting less than a third of the rebels (mainly some Kurds plus and non-Islamic terrorist rebel groups) and gives Russia and Iran a better 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 most Syrians are Sunnis and these Sunnis are the backbone of the rebel forces.

September 12, 2016: The September 9th ceasefire takes effect and its main purpose is to give aid groups seven days to move food, medicine and other essentials to nearly a million civilians cut off from such aid by the fighting. As expected some factions did not observe the ceasefire. Although the new agreement was supposed to prohibit the Assads from attacking they did so anyway, especially from the air. Technically most of these new attacks were not violations as they took place after the new agreement was announced on the 9th and before it took effect today. But government warplanes have continued to make attacks, but fewer of them. This ceasefire is already following the same pattern as the last one.

The Syrian government pointed out that it said it would cooperate where it could but was not really a part of the ceasefire deal. Thus Syrian warplanes carried out several air strikes in the north (Aleppo and nearby Idlib province). The Assad government repeated that intended to regain control over all of Syria. In practice they will attempt to reconquer and hold as much as they can any way they can. Thus whenever government forces regain control of an area they encourage Sunnis to leave or convincingly pledge loyalty to the Assads.

The Americans Have Proof

The United States announced that it had proof its August 30th airstrike had killed ISIL second-in-command and official spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani. The U.S. would not say what the proof was but it may quietly provide details to Russia. ISIL admitted that Adnani was dead and vowed revenge, but did not say against who. That’s because Russia and the United States warplanes both carried out air strikes in the area (near Aleppo) where Adnani was killed and initially both claimed that it was their airstrike was responsible. The U.S. did reveal that one of its UAVs was tracking Adnani and used missiles to kill him. The United States does not like to disclose details of how its intelligence collecting and analysis systems work, and neither do the Russians. So this dispute may linger for a while unless the Russians and Americans agree. The good news is that Adnani is definitely dead and someone may have quietly collected the $5 million reward the U.S. offered in 2015. The U.S. definitely does not want to discuss those informants as keeping their identities secret is the key to the success of the program.

Israel Under Fire

In the south, about a 1,000 meters inside Israel, a mortar shell landed in an open area near an Israeli village. There were no casualties. This was in the Golan Heights and it was the fifth time this had happened since mid-August. This was apparently why Israeli aircraft attacked Syrian Army artillery hours later. When the fire from Syria is deliberate the Israelis always fire back, but if it appears to have been the result of fighting between government and rebels forces inside Syria, which is the cause of most bullets, rockets and shells crossing the border, there is a verbal protest but no artillery or air strikes in response. When it is unclear, the Israelis fire back. Otherwise the situation continues to be quiet on the Israeli front.

September 9, 2016: Russia persuaded the United States to sign a new military cooperation agreement to cover joint operations in Syria. This one supposed to deal with differences among nations carrying out counter-terrorism efforts in Syria. In theory all this foreign intervention in Syria is supposed to be mainly about ISIL but it isn’t. Russia and Iran are in Syria mainly to keep the Assad dictatorship in power. Turkey recently sent troops into Syrian mainly to prevent the Syrian Kurds from taking control of more territory and supporting powerful Kurdish separatists (the PKK) inside Turkey. The United States, other European and Arab nations are there to overthrow Assad and destroy ISIL. The problem is that while everyone agrees that ISIL has to go, most of the Syrian rebels belong to other Islamic terror groups (some affiliated with al Qaeda). Russia and Iran want to attack all Sunni Islamic terrorist groups in Syria, mainly because they are the major threat to Assad rule. The new agreement is supposed to deal with this but it really does not and neither did a February agreement. That one failed because the Syrians and Russians continued to bomb pro-American rebels. The Americans consider non-ISIL rebels to be “friendlies” whereas the Russians consider nearly all rebels (the main exception being Kurds) as “hostile” and legitimate targets. That has caused other problems. In August there were several incidents where Russian or Syrian warplanes attacked, or sought to attack rebels that were working with Western commandos. The U.S. told Russia and Syria to back off and that there would be violence and even a, for all intents and purposes, “no-fly zone” over parts of Syria. American officials insisted that this would not turn into a true no-fly zone but would result in lost Syrian or Russian warplanes if Western troops were harmed. The new agreement will, in theory, take care of that problem but is vague on some key points, like Russian responses to air attacks on Assad forces and the Russian goal of a peace deal that includes the Assads. The rebels and most of their supporters are against this but Russia has always insisted that negotiating with the Assads is essential to achieve an end to the war.

September 8, 2016: In the north (near Aleppo) an American airstrike killed Abu Omar Saraqeb, the military leader of rebel group Jabhat Fatah. Saraqeb was responsible for recent rebel gains in the eastern part of Aleppo and was planning to regain control of the entire city. Until recently Jabhat Fatah was called Al Nusra. But in July 2016 Saraqeb and other Al Nusra leaders renounced any connection with al Qaeda and declared it was now simply a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, is full of devout Moslems. Since then Al Nusra is 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. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL 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. Even before July al Nusra tried to distance itself from ISIL and began openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo.

September 5, 2016: On the Mediterranean coast ISIL set off two bombs outside government controlled Tartus wounding at least 30. For Tartus this was the second incident of civil war-related violence experienced since 2011. The first one occurred in May and killed over 150 people. The Assads were shocked that ISIL could pull this off so deep in government controlled territory. Most of the damage was done by suicide bombers in vehicles, suggesting that the ISIL man somehow got through the tight security that the government employs to keep the coastal area safe. Since May security has increased and the latest attack apparently used smaller timer controlled bombs placed as near as possible to government facilities. These bombs caused much less damage. The Assads are trying to find out how these new attacks were carried out.

Elsewhere, in the government controlled cities of Homs (central Syria) and outside Damascus plus Kurdish controlled Hasaka in the north another four ISIL bomb attacks left nearly fifty dead and even more wounded. These attacks were near checkpoints, indicating they suicide bombers did not reach their intended target.

September 3, 2016: In the north (Hama province) an Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) general (Dariush Dorosti) was killed during a battle with Sunni rebels. Iran admits it has troops (over 3,000) in Syria. Iran insists they are all volunteers, which explains the presence of army troops, who are rarely sent overseas. Until recently nearly all were from the IRGC and most of them officers and career NCOs from combat units who were sent to Syria for a few months to get some combat experience by working with government, Hezbollah and militia units. But during 2016 many of the IRGC men were replaced or augmented with regular army commandos. Most of the Iranian deaths (over 300 so far) in Syria are mentioned in Iranian media those losses have been increasing in 2016, running at 30-40 a month. There are even more monthly losses for the thousands of foreign mercenaries Iran has recruited for the Assads. All of these are Shia, most from Lebanon but nearly as many from other countries (especially Iraq and Afghanistan). Iran has funded, armed and trained even more local militiamen in Syria, whose main duty is to defend government held territory.

September 1, 2016: While Islamic terrorist related deaths in neighboring Iraq are going down that is not happening in Syria where the combat related deaths are expected to be higher in 2016 than the 55,000 in 2015. That was a 38 percent decline from the 76,000 in 2014. In 2015 there were over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000 in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria were just playing defense in 2015 and even ISIL was less active in attacking compared to 2014. But that changed in 2016, especially after August 2015 when Russian forces arrived. A year later Turkish troops entered Syria in large numbers and everyone would like to eliminate the ISIL presence in Syria and Iraq by the end of 2016. That might be possible, but 2017 seems more likely.

August 30, 2016: In the north (near Aleppo) an airstrike killed ISIL second-in-command and official spokesman Abu Mohammad al Adnani.

August 26, 2016: Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans agreed that Turkish ground troops would enter northwestern Syria to destroy or drive ISIL forces away from the border area. The Americans would also drop support to Kurdish forces operating west of the Euphrates River. The Kurds reluctantly agreed with the U.S. decision and pulled back from Manbij, a town they recently captured from ISIL. The Kurds in the northwest corner of Syria were more difficult to persuade. Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans all had to agree because together they controlled most of the airpower and pro-government foreign ground forces in the area. The Turks had made areas west of the Euphrates too hostile for the Kurds to deal with, especially with the withdrawal of American air support and Kurds becoming targets for Turkish, Russian and Syrian warplanes. Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing an autonomous area similar to what exists in northern Iraq. The Assads, Iran and the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) agree on this. Up until now the Syrian Kurds ignored Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River. The Turks (and the Assads) object to this because it would enable the Kurds to complete their plan to control the entire Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds had declared autonomy in late 2013 and published maps showing their claims stretching from their traditional Kurdish majority areas of northeast Syria east of the Euphrates as well as everything to the east. The claimed areas west of the river did not extend more than a hundred kilometers into Syria but claiming the entire Syrian border was not acceptable to Turkey or most Syrians. By late 2015 the Syrian Kurds were fighting ISIL west of the river and dealing with occasional air attacks by the Turks. Now that has all changed and by early September Turkish troops controlled most of the Syrian side of the border west of the Euphrates.

 

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