Syria: The Lesser Of Many More Evils

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October 31, 2016: What started in 2011 as another uprising against a tyrannical and inept government has evolved into something far worse. The Assad clan, like other post-World War II Arab rulers has survived by making deals with whoever was available. Thus a Shia minority (the Assads and their fellow Syrian Shia) took control of a Sunni Arab majority country half a century ago and has survived since then by making the right alliances at the right time. Thus in 2011 it looked like the end for the Assads. Not only were most Syrians willing to support the rebels, the primary foreign backer since the 1980s, Iran, was unable to do much. But there were still opportunities. The rebels soon began to fight among themselves. While most rebels were Sunni (or at least not Shia) Moslems there were ethnic (Kurd versus Arab, various other non-Arab minorities versus Arabs) and religious (non-religious or less-religious Syrians versus various intensities of Islamic radicalism). The Assads had always exploited these differences and was able to do so once more. This led to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), an Islamic terrorist group so dangerous that even other Islamic terrorist groups opposed it. Iran increased its aid, even though Iran was still under sanctions and suffering from a sharp drop in oil income. Sunni Arab governments were divided over which rebel groups to support, especially when it came to Islamic terrorist groups that also wanted to go after the West (which was providing the Arabs with protection from the Iranians.) Then there were the Syrian Kurds, which were simultaneously attacked by the Assads (for being separatist) and supported (for being considered a threat to Turkey, a country Syrians have long had bad relations with). Speaking of Turkey, in 2011 the Turks were entering their second decade of being ruled by an elected “Islamic” government. The Turks were basically anti-Kurd but willing to make deals with the Syrian Arabs. The Assads eventually got friendly with the Turks by surviving and going after ISIL, which was seen as a threat to Turkey. The Assads had long been willing to tolerate the presence of Islamic terrorists as long as these fanatics did not attack anything inside Syria. ISIL was unwilling to follow that rule and most other Sunni Islamic terrorist groups Syria had long provided sanctuary for turned on the Assads. That made the Assads more useful to Iran, Russia and even Israel. Western nations were also concerned about the ISIL threat but the Europeans countries were also concerned about the growing number of Syrian refugees headed their way. Most of these refugees go no farther than Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan but those with the means (some cash and a willingness to take big risks) headed for the West. In the midst of all this the Assads went from being the nasty threat that had to go to one of many even more threatening (to the neighbors as well as Syrians) groups. Be becoming the one of many threats the Assads gained some allies and a lot of foes who were now willing to tolerate the Assads as the lesser of many more evils.

Death From Above

Then there is the UN, which is threatening everyone with war crimes prosecutions because of the many civilian deaths. The big problem here is deliberate airstrikes on civilians. For example t he Syrian army offensive to retake Aleppo began on September 23rd and is succeeding mainly because of Russian air support, Iranian mercenaries on the ground and divisions among the rebels. Russian political and diplomatic efforts have also prevented any foreign intervention. The UN and the West call Russian and Syrian use of airpower a war crime and threaten prosecutions for the attacks on civilian targets. These threats are ignored and Russia accuses its critics of supporting Islamic terrorism. Russia is confident they (with the help of China) can block UN efforts to interfere in Syria. Russia believes any American or NATO threats to use force in Syria are just that, threats not backed up by any willingness to act.

Wrangling Raqqa

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. This is mostly about clearing ISIL out of the entire Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Iraqi cities like Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi as well as the ISIL capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Turkey has offered to get involved in the offensive against Raqqa but only if there are no Syrian Kurds involved. Then there is the issue of working with Syrian government forces to take Raqqa. The Assad government has always been willing to work with the Kurdish forces against Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels and ISIL is one group that everyone can hate. But more than half the Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels belong to groups hostile to ISIL and most of these are controlled or allied with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah rebels. Currently Jabhat Fatah forces are concentrating on preventing the government from regaining control of Aleppo but after that will want to seek control over Raqqa and eastern Syria, which has traditionally been Sunni Arab. The current Turkish government is pro-Islam and generally tolerant of Islamic terrorists who do not attack Turks. At the same time the Turks never got along well with the Assad government and Iran (which backs the Assads). The U.S. sides with the rebels seeking to take down the Assad government yet who are not hostile to the United States (like ISIL and al Qaeda connected groups). The Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Persian Gulf, are mainly opposed to Iran and the Iranian Arab allies (the Assad government and the Lebanese Hezbollah). Because of all this confusion among the rebels the Syrian government forces are on their way to regaining control of the southern and Iraqi borders by early 2017.

Anguish Over Aleppo

In Aleppo Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery continue to bombard rebel held neighborhoods. The Assads offered to allow the 300,000 civilians trapped in four rebel held neighborhoods to safely get out of the city if they agreed to leave the country or move to government controlled territory and stop supporting the rebels. So far the rebels have not agreed, in part because many want to fight on no matter what and mainly because rebels don’t trust Russia or the Assads. Treating enemy civilians this way has long been common practice in this part of the world and the Assads continue to employ methods that are now generally considered war crimes. 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 illegal to attack). 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. As a result the United States briefly suspended negotiations with Russia. These talks had 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 does not deny its air strikes since September 2015 have killed a lot of people (estimates go as high as 10,000) and that many of the victims might have been civilians. The Russians point out that their approach defeats the rebels while the more acceptable (to the rest of the world) methods merely prolong the fighting and enable Islamic terrorists, especially ISIL, to expand. Russia has said any American effort to interfere with Russian military operations in Syria would be opposed forcefully. Russia has admitted that this might escalate to nuclear war and that they are ready for that.

This renewed (in late September) “Battle for Aleppo” has cost about 3,000 casualties in October, about 20 percent of them dead. About half of the casualties have been civilians. Aid groups, which supply food and other assistance and maintain operations within the rebel controlled areas of Aleppo report that without resupply the besieged rebel areas and over 200,000 civilians will be without food by the end of October and after that severe malnutrition and starvation become major concerns.

Kurds And Complications

The Assad forces are 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 and Iran are largely hostile to other Kurdish militias in Syria. That’s 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 by Turk F-16s. 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 to fight the Turks. 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.

The Americans have also tried getting more Syrian Kurds to join rebel militias that have mixed (different religions and ethnicities) membership. That is having limited success because most rebels, given the choice, prefer to join militias composed of people they are familiar with. The situation is different in Iraq because the Kurdish separatists there were never as close to the PKK as where the Kurds in Syria and Iran. Moreover the Americans and British provided air support and special operations troops on the ground to make it possible for the Iraqi Kurds to turn northern Iraq into an autonomous Kurdish region by the mid-1990s. The Iraqi Kurds accepted that the Americans and their NATO allies (like Britain and Turkey) would not continue support if the Iraqi Kurds actively supported the PKK (which was fighting a NATO member). The Iraqi Kurds have, for over two decades, proved to the Turks that Iraqi Kurds could be trusted. None of that helps the Syrian Kurds, who feel the Turks have put them in an impossible situation. Worse, without YPG participation in taking Raqqa the others involved (Turks, Syrian government troops and the Shia mercenaries Iran has provided) will all suffer higher casualties. This does not bother the Turks enough to change their minds about the YPG. Nevertheless Raqqa is expected to fall by early 2017 no matter what. Too many people want ISIL gone.

The Turkish Invasion

The Turkish parliament has approved continued military operations in Syria and northern Iraq until October 2017. 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, the American and, most importantly, Turkey. 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 using a mixed force of several thousand FSA gunmen and over a thousand Turkish troops with armored vehicles and using air and artillery support from Turkey have taken control of nearly 2,000 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.

The Siege

So far this year ISIL has lost about 20 percent of its territory in Syria and Iraq. As bad as that is the most damaging of this territory loss is the fact that it includes the last reliable access to the outside world. That was the Turkish border, which Turkey cleared ISIL out of since Turkish troops entered Syria in August. The Turks have not occupied a lot of territory but they have seized control of all the roads crossing the border and instated strict border controls that have temporarily put Turkish smugglers out of business, at least those not willing to work closely with the Turkish troops. Smugglers have been a tradition in the region for centuries, ever since more national states established rules regarding what could legally cross their borders (with or without paying tolls). All the nations in the region would use the smugglers, who were expert at getting things across guarded borders. Until ISIL began carrying out expensive (to the lucrative tourist trade) attacks in Turkey the Turks saw no reason to shut down the entire Syrian border. But once ISIL made the Turks an active enemy the smugglers could no longer do business with the Syrian rebels that still, technically, included ISIL. By early 2016 the Turks agreed that ISIL must be shut down whatever the cost. The closed the last useful supply line for ISIL. All the other Syrian borders (with Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq) are now controlled by governments who are extremely hostile to ISIL. This denies ISIL a way to get new recruits in and people (like families of senior ISIL members and members being sent abroad to help with recruiting, fund raising and planning overseas attacks) out. These borders are not completely sealed but they are now very expensive to cross and large shipments either way are all monitored. This hurts ISIL in terms of getting ammunition, weapons and, most importantly, equipment and supplies needed to run their Islamic State.

Since early 2014 the Turks have been more thorough each year in stopping foreigners from crossing into Syria to join ISIL. Since early 2014 Syria has arrested and deported some 3,300 foreigners seeking to get to Syria and ISIL. That’s somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the foreigners getting into Syria to join ISIL during that period. Turkey has also compiled a watch list of more than 50,000 foreigners who are not allowed into Turkey because of pro-Islamic terrorist attitudes and activities.

Since September the Turks have noted increasingly energetic efforts by ISIL to get people from Turkey into Syria. That effort has largely failed and the Turks have arrested nearly a hundred ISIL members in Turkey, including 21 identified as ISIL leaders who were trying to cross into Syria or apparently planning to do so. The Turks see a lot of this activity as part of an ISIL effort to reinforce Raqqa and perhaps even prevent the ISIL capital from being captured. But the Turks also know that once Raqqa falls there will be a lot more ISIL members trying to get across the Turkish border. The Turks are trying to turn that into an opportunity to capture or kill a lot more key ISIL personnel.

October 29, 2016: Russia resumed its airstrikes in Aleppo, thereby abandoning the October 18th ceasefire it had negotiated with the United States. Meanwhile Turkey begun working with Russia to ensure that new Russian air defense systems supplied to the Assad government would not be used against Turkish warplanes attacking targets in Syria. The Assads recently (October 22nd) threatened to use their air defense systems (mainly missile systems) against Turkish warplanes. Turkey and the Assads have never gotten along well.

October 28, 2016: In the north a rebel coalition attacked government forces blocking a road needed to supply rebel controlled areas of eastern Aleppo. The attack began with three suicide truck bombs used against government checkpoints. The government is trying to starve out the rebels because in addition to thousands of rebel fighters there are also 300,000 civilians cut off from outside supplies. The rebels managed to make some of the government forces retreat but the next day the government forces counter-attacked after being reinforced with more troops, artillery and air strikes. No supplies are getting through to the civilians yet and the fighting continues.

October 27, 2016: Turkey said it would participate on the offensive to take the ISIL capital of Raqqa. But the Turks also repeated their demand that Syrian Kurd rebels not be involved. Turkey considers most of the Syrian Kurds to be allies of the PKK (the Turkish Kurdish separatists), which the Turks are again at war with.

October 26, 2016: In the north (outside Aleppo) an Iranian officer (Qolam-Reza Samai) was killed while commanding (“advising”) Iranian mercenaries fighting for the Assad government. Samai was a retired IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) Brigadier General and the second such senior IRGC officer to die in Syria since September. Iran admits it has troops (over 3,000) in Syria. Iran insists they are all volunteers, which explains the presence of so many retired officers. Many Iranian officers and NCOs in Syria are not volunteers but realize serving in Syria provides useful combat experience and improves promotion prospects. If you are killed you are hailed as a hero and if disabled the government usually provides a civilian (often government) job. In Syria the Iranian military are needed to help government army units as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian recruited militia units. Starting in early 2016 many of the IRGC men were augmented with regular army commandos and other specialists. 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. Hezbollah has lost over 1,200 men in Syria since 2012 and has been trying to keep its combat losses low because most Lebanese back the Syrian rebels. Thus the other Shia mercenaries (especially from Afghanistan) get more of the most dangerous missions and suffer more losses. This is causing problems between Iran and Afghanistan.

October 18, 2016: Russia agreed to halt its air strikes in Aleppo to allow civilians, especially the sick and wounded, to leave. The ceasefire made it easier for emergency food and medical supplies to get into trapped communities in rebel held neighborhoods. The ceasefire also helped the United States reach out to rebel groups thought to be anti-ISIL and confirm that so the Turks and Russians would stop bombing them.

In the east, on the Iraqi side of the border, Iraqi and Arab airstrikes largely destroyed a convoy of 30 vehicles carrying foreign ISIL members and some wives and children to Raqqa. Later aerial photos showed the remains of over two dozen vehicles and it appeared that a hundred or more people were killed. This is not the first such attack and it adds to the ISIL morale problems in Mosul and other parts of occupied Iraq.

October 17, 2016: Near Aleppo a Russian Su-35 fighter-bomber came close (less than 500 meters) to an American E-3 AWACS aircraft. This was too close for safety and the U.S. and Russia agreed to discuss improving their procedures for avoiding aerial collisions over Syria. Both sides accused the other of causing the near collision.

October 16, 2016: In the north FSA rebels completed an operation that drove ISIL from areas near the Turkish border that were used to fire rockets and mortar shells as the nearby Turkish towns of Kilis and Karkamış. One of the areas FSA drove ISIL out of was the town of Dabiq which, in the ISIL mythology, is where the decisive battle with the non-Moslem world was to take place. Losing Dabiq has symbolic significance for ISIL as well as Turkey, which said that taking Dabiq from ISIL meant it was possible to start looking for suitable locations for new refugee camps. In the past refugees in northern Syria were usually trying to get into Turkey. But now Turkey will build and run refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border and will eventually move existing camps in Turkey back to Syria.

October 13, 2016: In the north, an ISIL suicide car bomber attacked an FSA checkpoint 33 kilometers northwest of Aleppo, neat the Turkish border. Most (14) of the twenty people killed were FSA personnel.

October 11, 2016: In the north Turkey carried out 26 airstrikes on Kurdish PYD rebels trying to take the town of al Bab (northeast of Aleppo), which ISIL has held since 2013. The Turks claimed the airstrikes killed as many as 200 PYD rebels but the PYD says no more than twenty people died and many of them were civilians. Turkey is also sending troops to occupy Manbij, which is 43 kilometers northwest of al Bab and 60 kilometers southwest of the Kurdish border town of Kobane. Manbij was captured (from ISIL) by the Syrian Kurds in early August.

October 10, 2016: Saudi Arabia told Egypt that shipments of free oil would be halted. This was because on October 8th Egypt refused to vote against a Russian peace proposal in the UN that was favored by Iran and the Iran backed Syrian government. All other Arab states opposed this Russian move, in large part because the Gulf Arabs and Iran are at war with each other. Not a shooting war, not yet, and the Saudis expect Moslem states they support financially to reciprocate by backing Saudi diplomacy and, in effect, recognize Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world. Egypt long held that position because of its long history of regional leadership, even before Islam appeared in the 7th century. Egypt is broke and still dealing with Islamic terrorist violence. The Saudis are rich and have far fewer problems internally with Islamic terrorism. But for many Egyptians it is humiliating to follow the lead of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile one thing that the Egyptians and Saudis do agree on is better relationships with Israel. Along those lines Saudi Arabia has quietly stopped blocking access to Israeli news sites for its citizens.

October 7, 2016: The Russian parliament approved the permanent presence of the Russian air force contingent in Syria. Russia currently has over fifty fighters, bombers, helicopters, transports and electronic warfare aircraft in Syria plus an S-400 anti-aircraft/anti-missile missile battery. Recent additions include several more Su-24 and Su-34 light bombers as well as an S-300 anti-aircraft missile battery. With the new Russian law the Hmeimim airbase those Russian aircraft operate from in Syria, near the port city of Latakia (85 kilometers north of Tartus) has become a long-term foreign base for Russia. Before 2011 Russia was building a small, but technically permanent naval support facility in Tartus. By 2012 the several hundred Russians who there working on the project were largely gone from Syria and the Tartus project suspended until the war was over. That changed in mid-2015 when Russia intervened with several thousand air force, special operations and support troops.

 

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