Syria: The Rebellion Crumbles

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October 4, 2016: The Assad government is clearly defeating the 2011 rebellion. This is being done with the help of Russia, Iran and a temporary anti-ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) coalition that includes NATO, Turks, Arab Gulf states and Kurdish separatists. ISIL is likely to disappear as a major factor by early 2017 as the two major ISIL held cities (Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in eastern Syria) are about to be attacked and cleared of ISIL control. That will remove a major (over a third) of the rebel combat capability in Syria. Turkish troops entered Syria in late August to clear the ISIL and Kurdish groups from northern Syria. All this has weakened the rebels sufficiently to enable to Syrian army to advance against Aleppo and against rebels operating outside the capital (Damascus) since 2012. Turkey has offered to get involved in the offensive against Raqqa. Government forces are on their way towards regaining control of the southern and Iraqi borders by early 2017.

In the north the Syrian army and Iranian mercenaries continue to clear roads and largely abandoned residential and industrial districts on the outskirts of Aleppo while Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery bombard rebel held neighborhoods. The government forces will allow the 250,000 civilians in these four rebel held neighborhoods to safely get out of the city if they agree to leave the country or move to government controlled territory and stop supporting the rebels. This strategy has long been used in this part of the world and the Assads continue to employ what is generally considered a war crime. That’s because since 2011 nearly two-thirds of the dead have been civilians largely because of a deliberate Assad 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 since 2011. The Russians still use the same tactics and since the Russian forces arrived in mid-2015 the air attacks on rebel civilians have increased. This includes attacks on hospitals and aid facilities (including some run by the UN). Russia says these targets were actually being used by rebels, which in some cases is true. Technically if armed men are in any of these “neutral facilities” they lose their legal immunity from air or artillery attack.

Russia has refused to back off from using what the West considers barbaric and inhumane tactics in Syria. As a result the United States has suspended negotiations with Russia. These talks have been going on since late 2015 to achieve some agreement on how NATO and Russian air forces would avoid accidents over Syria and how to end the war. That has not worked as Russia is determined to see the Assad government regain control of the country no matter what. That goal is shared by Iran.

Russia has threatened to launch air strikes on American forces working with some rebel groups, including the Kurds, if the U.S. or NATO tries to interfere with Russian and Iranian support for the Assad government. Russia has also proposed to Turkey that they work together to neutralize Kurdish militias Turkey considers a threat. Many of these Kurdish groups are supported by the United States and some have American troops working with them inside Syria. This is largely for training and help with logistics but the U.S. Special Forces operators also call in air strikes. The U.S. has told Russia that if these American troops are attacked by Russian forces (aircraft or otherwise) there will be consequences. Russia apparently believes those consequences will not include the Americans attacking Russians in Syria. Attacks on the Assad forces is another matter but at the moment no one expects the Americans to do anything dramatic to slow down the Assad offensive against their enemies.

This angers the Arab oil states, particicularly Saudi Arabia, because 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 Shia (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 of these non-Moslem Syrians 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.

In Aleppo the rebels don’t hold much territory but they do control a key pumping station for the water supplied to the entire city and 1.5 million people (most of them in government controlled areas). The rebels shut down the pumping station and cut off water to nearly 2 million people, including those in rebel held areas. The rebels blamed the bombing and artillery attacks and wants that to stop and allow emergency aid, including parts and technicians, to get in and get the water moving once more. The government refused and warned civilians in rebel held neighborhoods that the army and pro-Assad militias were preparing to launch a ground assault.

The army is working with local Kurdish militias to drive rebels out of formerly Kurdish areas of northwest Aleppo. While these are Syrian Kurds who have kept the border areas they control in northwestern Syria free of ISIL and other Islamic terrorist activity Turkey is largely hostile to other Kurdish militias in Syria. That because the most active Kurdish rebels have belonged to the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists) and their military forces (the YPG). There are also some Iranian Kurds who came to Syria and joined the YPG and other Syrian Kurd rebel groups. The Turks believe (without much proof) that some of these Iranian Kurds are connected with the Iranian PAK, which is similar to the PYD in Syria and PKK in Turkey.

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 while others are not. 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. The Assads, Russians, Iranians and Turks are fine with crushing all Kurdish resistance in Syria.

Firepower

Since September 2015 Russian airpower has been supporting the Syrian government has is accused by rebels and aid workers (both local and foreign) of causing most of the civilian casualties of air and artillery attacks. That comes to as many as 9,000 dead rebels and civilians so far. Nearly half of the dead are civilians. Since it began in 2011 the Syrian fighting is believed to have killed at least 400,000 with at least 2,000 dead in September 2016.

October 3, 2016: In the north, outside Aleppo, government forces drove rebels from an industrial area they had held since 2012. This is high ground, overlooking the city and the first time the army fought rebels this close to the city center and forced the enemy back.

In the northwest (Idlib province) an American airstrike killed a veteran Egyptian Islamic terrorist (Ahmad Salama Mabruk) who left Egypt earlier this year and became a senior leader with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah rebels in Syria. Long active with Islamic terrorist groups Mabruk was arrested in the Caucasus in the late 1990s and ended up in an Egyptian prison. He was freed by the 2011 revolution but by 2015 was seeking another sanctuary because of the growing counter-terrorism activity in Egypt. Mabruk has worked with several other Egyptian Islamic terrorists who went on to form, and still run, al Qaeda.

October 2, 2016: The U.S. believes Russia has delivered components of a SA-23 (S-300VM) battery to its forces in Syr. SA-23 is the latest (2013) version of its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system. Each S-300VM battery had a long-range search radar to detect targets and eight launcher vehicles (each carrying four or two missiles). The target acquisition radar has a range of 700 kilometers. S-300VM missiles can hit aircraft 350 kilometers away and short range ballistic missiles up to 40 kilometers away. It has worked in tests but not been in combat yet.

October 1, 2016: The Turkish parliament extended the military operations in Syria and northern Iraq for another year. So far Turkish troops and FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels have advanced to a position 80 kilometers east of Aleppo and outside the town of Manbij. The FSA forces are based in Jordan and Turkey and have the support of Jordan, most Gulf oil states, NATO and the United States. FSA is a coalition of largely secular Syrians. Most are Moslem but do not support Islamic radicalism. Turkey is clearing a 5,000 square kilometer safe zone on the Syrian side of the border. Over a thousand Turkish troops with armored vehicles and using air and artillery support from Turkey have taken control of nearly a thousand square kilometers of Syrian territory since they crossed the border on August 24th. There was no real opposition to this and when ISIL is encountered they prove to be ineffective. The Kurds agreed to withdraw from the areas Turkey wants the FSA rebels to run as a Turkish “safe zone”. This area will be along about a 98 kilometers of the border and extend about 25 kilometers 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 and the FSA (which includes some pro-Turkish Syrian Kurd militias). Turkey is also pressing the UN to declare a “no-fly” zone over Syria, or at least the “safe zone” but Russia, Iran and China are blocking that.

Meanwhile some ISIL groups remain active along the Turkish border. Today ISIL fired three rockets across the border. These landed outside the town of Kilis. Two of the rockets went off, but hurt no one. The third rocket was a dud but when security forces were attempting to destroy this rocket the warhead went off unexpectedly killing a policeman and wounding two soldiers. Kilis is six kilometers from the Syrian border and hosts so many Syrian refugees that more than half the local population is now Syrian. Since January ISIL attacks on Kilis have left 22 dead and 80 wounded, nearly half of them Turks, the rest Syrian. The Turks have been using artillery and air strikes to destroy ISIL forces that got too close to the border, especially when these ISIL men fire rockets or mortar shells into Turkey. The Turks believe their artillery fire and air attacks had killed over 500 ISIL personnel by the end of August, when Turkey sent troops into Syria.

In central Syria (Hama province) two ISIL suicide bombers attacked government buildings in the Assad controlled provincial capital of Hama. Despite the tight security the two bombers got through but were unable to get into government buildings. They did kill three people and wounded 11 others. Northeast of Hama, in Kurdish controlled Hasaka province, ISIL set off a bomb at a wedding attended by YPG members and wounded nearly twenty people.

September 30, 2016: Turkey has been increasing security along their 900 kilometer Syrian border since early 2016 by spending nearly $700 million to build a three meter (nearly 10 feet) high concrete wall. Nearly 200 kilometers of the wall have been built so far and the rest of it will be completed by February 2017. The wall is meant to make illegal crossings more difficult and easier to detect. The wall is directed at smugglers, illegal migrants and Islamic terrorists. There is a larger military and police presence on the Turkish side and more watch towers, sensors and armed patrols. People can still get across, but they are more likely to be detected and pursued.

September 29, 2016: The U.S. revealed that its aerial surveillance and airstrikes had found and killed at least 18 senior ISIL officials in September. Most (12) of these were killed in Iraq, in or near Mosul. The rest were found and killed in Syria.

September 26, 2016: Iran confirmed that it had been using its new (since 2012) Shahed 129 UAVs in Syria. This is one of the largest (over half a ton) UAVs Iran has developed and built and since 2014 has been spotted in Syria and Iraq (near Iranian border) doing surveillance. In early 2016 video on Iranian TV showed the Shahed 129 using laser guided air-to ground missiles. These attacks have not apparently been very successful otherwise Iran would have publicized them.

September 23, 2016: Russia and the Assads announced they had begun a major offensive to regain control of Aleppo. In the 24 hours before the announcement there were at least 150 airstrikes in and around Aleppo. The main objective of the ground attack is the eastern districts of the city still controlled by the rebels, but also still sheltering at least 250,000 civilians. The air attacks caused over 500 casualties, mostly of them civilians. Russia and Iran backed the Syrian government refusal to even consider another ceasefire. These attacks continue as does the advance of Assad ground forces.

September 22, 2016: In the north, just across the Turkish border in Kilis, three ISIL rockets hit the town wounding eight Syrian refugees. Within a few hours Turkish artillery and coalition airstrikes hit the area where the rockets were fired from. At least 40 ISIL men were killed and a bunker and seven buildings were destroyed.

Elsewhere in the north Mohammad Soleimani, the Iranian commander of the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Corps, was killed fighting rebel forces in Aleppo. Since 2012 Iran has had mercenary fighters in Syria. By mid-2015 over 10,000 Shia were recruited in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Pakistan to fight in Syria. This force was trained and run by the Iranian Quds Force, which specializes in this sort of thing. Mohammad Soleimani has long been involved with Quds Force operations and is known to be close friends with several senior Quds Force commanders. So far over 400 Iranians have died fighting in Syria. Iranian mercenaries have taken far higher casualties. Hezbollah (from Lebanon) has lost over a thousand dead so far and other Shia mercenaries recruited, trained, armed and led by Iranian officers and NCOs have lost over two thousand dead. Thus Iranian losses account for about one percent of the total war related deaths in Syria since the anti-Assad rebellion began in 2011.

In the southwest (Deraa province) a suicide bomber attacked a ceremony for the opening of a police station in a town (Inkhil) recently taken by FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels. Twelve people died, most of them local civilians. FSA blamed ISIL or someone connected with the Assad government. FSA is fighting bother groups, mainly in Daraa and along the Iraq border. The FSA forces here are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan and the United States. Deraa province borders Jordan and Israel (which leaves FSA alone as long as FSA does not attack Israel).

September 21, 2016: In central Syria (Hama province) the Assad forces launched another offensive to push rebels out of the province completely. A year ago rebels controlled most of the province and were making a major an effort to get into neighboring Latakia province. That rebel advance west threatened a major center of government support. Latakia province is largely Alawites and where the Assad clan comes from. The rebel 2015 offensive began in late July and was making progress. That was a major reason for the Russian intervention in August and by the end of 2015 Russian air strikes and other support enabled the Syrians to halt rebel advances everywhere and begin retaking lost territory.

September 20, 2016: The UN suspended the use of aid convoys in Syria after Russian and Syrian warplanes attacked an aid convoy outside Aleppo, leaving 21 truck drivers and UN aid workers dead. The convoy was hit with about 25 bombs when its 31 trucks had stopped in the town of Uram al Kubra so some of the aid could be unloaded. Russia said Western aircraft were responsible even though there was clear evidence that Russian made warplanes were involved and no coalition aircraft were in the area. The same airstrike that destroyed or damaged at least 20 of the aid trucks also hit a nearby Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid warehouse. There were at least 40 airstrikes within two hours in and around Aleppo and at least one of them hit the convoy and warehouse. It was clear that most of the attacks were carried out by Russian aircraft and bomb fragments were all of Russian made bombs or locally made barrel bombs used by the Syrian air force. Russia later insisted that the destroyed and damaged trucks had somehow caught fire and that the Americans and Syrian rebels were trying to blame the Russians.

September 19, 2016: The Syrian government declared the seven day ceasefire (that began on the 12th) a failure and two hours later Aleppo was hit with airstrikes, including one that his the UN aid convoy. The ceasefire was a partial success because, despite over 300 violations, some aid was delivered and some civilians were able to get out of combat zones. The main purpose of the ceasefire was 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 the Assad forces did so anyway, especially from the air. This ceasefire is already following the same pattern as the last one.

September 17, 2015: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) the U.S. led air coalition launched a series of airstrikes on ISIL positions. But in less than an hour the U.S. was notified by the Russians that some of the airstrikes were hitting Syrian troops and had should be stopped. The U.S. had notified the Russians earlier in the day that the airstrikes would take place and Russia did not, as the two countries had previously agreed, say there were any Russian or Syrian government troops in the area. Russia later accused the Americans of deliberately hitting Syrian forces but the U.S. pointed out that they had watched the target areas (with UAVs and satellites) for two days previously to ensure the precise location and identity of ISIL personnel to be attacked. This is standard for the Americans, whose ROE (Rules of Engagement) call for maximum effort to minimize civilian casualties. Syria later claimed that the American airstrikes had killed 62 troops and wounded over 100. Syrian forces were largely absent from Deir Ezzor province until March 2016 when Syrian troops retook Palmyra, which ISIL grabbed in May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory but since the beginning of 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and surrounding Deir Ezzor province. ISIL had, at the end of 2015, controlled most of Deir Ezzor province, including Palmyra, which is astride the main road from Deir Ezzor to Damascus (the national capital and Assad stronghold). Supporting government forces in Deir Ezzor became more difficult with the loss of Palmyra in mid-2015. Syrian troops have been fighting ISIL in Deir Ezzor province ever since in preparation for an on the ISIL capital of Raqqa (227 kilometers to the northeast).

September 15, 2016: Despite the usefulness of Turkish troops entering Syria to fight ISIL (and separatist Kurds) Iran wants Turkish troops out of Syria as soon as possible. The Iranians don’t officially admit this but inside Iran it is openly discussed that because the Turks are Sunni Moslems this “invasion” of Syria could easily be interpreted as Turks take the side of the Sunni Gulf Arabs in the ongoing struggle between these Arabs and Iran. Then there is the Kurdish angle. One thing that unites Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq is opposition to Kurdish efforts to form their own nation at the expense of the four existing countries where they live. The only support the Kurds have is from outside the region. Western nations have backed the Syrian Kurds since 2011. In Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. The Turks, Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians don’t care about that and regard armed Kurds (especially the PKK and PYD) as a threat to national unity. The Syrian Kurds thought they were safe for the moment because they were seen as essential to taking the ISIL capital Raqqa in eastern Syria. The Turks have announced that they don’t want the Kurds anywhere near Raqqa.

September 13, 2016: In southern Syria, along the Israeli border, Iran is accused of encouraging more “accidental” fire into Israel. Today, for example, three mortar shells fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights. That makes five shells in the last four days and six such incidents in the last month. Israel fired back (with artillery or air strikes) at nearby Syrian army artillery or mortar positions. The Syrian Army and their Iranian allies control most of the Syria-Israel border but there is still fighting along the border with several rebel groups. 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. Except for these incidents situation continues to be quiet on the Israeli front. Israel expects this to change because Iran openly boasts (on Iranian media and to its Shia mercenaries in Syria and Lebanon) that Iran is winning in Syria and once the Syrian Sunni rebellion is crushed Israel will be the next target. For Syrians there is a special reason for this. In 2015 oil was discovered on the Golan Heights. There appears to be several billion barrels. Israel uses about 100 million barrels a year. Syria claims the Golan Heights but Israel holds the territory because it is high ground overlooking a lot of Israeli territory. Israel does not trust Syrian occupation of the heights, which Syria has used in the part to fire on Israelis below. UN troops have been there since 1974 to monitor a ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Israel defeated Syria in 1967 and took the Golan Heights. In 1973 Israel defeated a strong effort by Syria to regain the Golan Heights. Since then the UN has watched over an uneasy peace.

 

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