Syria: Iran And Russia Count Their Winnings

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December 26, 2016: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government agreed that peace talks with the rebels could be held in Central Asia (the capital of Kazakhstan). The problem is finding a rebel coalition large enough and agreeable enough to join the talks. Although all the foreign powers are supposed to be in Syria to defeat ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), that is clearly not the case. The core of ISIL power is in the east, in Raqqa. The only ones concentrating on Raqqa are a coalition of Syrian Kurd and local Arab groups supported by Western and Arab nations. The pro-Assad coalition will turn its attention to Raqqa once the rest of the country has been brought back under Assad control. At that point the Assads seek to regain Raqqa. For the Assads it would be best for the Syrian Kurd and Arab groups advancing on Raqqa to take the city. This would be a costly (in lives) process. The Assads could then claim Raqqa as theirs and the pro-Assad coalition would back them as that coalition has always backed a peace deal with the Assads still in charge.

Thus it is no surprise that with Aleppo back in hands of the Assads the war is going in two directions. The Assad government, backed by Iran, Russia and Turkey are concentrating on clearing remaining rebels out of the northwest. That means Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces, the areas where the Assads always had the most support. Turkey is intent on getting any anti-Turk (pro-PKK) Syrian Kurds out of there as well. Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey, is the main target and is now receiving most of the Russian airstrikes. There are still lots of rebels (few of them ISIL) west of Aleppo.

While the Turks back a peace deal with the Assads they have different goals in Syria. Since late August Turkish forces have taken control of over 2,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The Turks expect to complete their ground operation in Syria by mid-2017. So far about 30 of the thousand or so Turkish troops in Syria have died in operations that have left over a thousand ISIL men dead or captured. While the official goal of the Turks is to join in the international effort to destroy ISIL they are mainly in Syria to limit the presence of Syrian Kurdish rebels bear the Turkish border. Thus the Turks believed their forces have killed about 300 Kurdish rebels in Syria, most of the, members of the Turkish PKK or the similar Syrian YPG. Currently the main Turkish effort is against the ISLI held town of al Bab, which is east of Aleppo and near the Turkish border. Turkey indicates that they might join the advance on Raqqa after al Bab is taken, but only if the Americans get the Kurds to withdraw from the force now advancing on Raqqa. ISIL is taking a beating in al Bab and are expected to lose control of the town by the end of the month.

Syrian Kurds have kept the border areas they control in northwestern Syria free of ISIL and other Islamic terrorist activity but Turkey and Iran remain largely hostile to some of the 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 that the new American government, that takes over on January 20th might be more flexible.

The Quietly Sealed Border

Since Turkish troops entered Syria in August the Turks have carried out some key tasks that get little media attention. The most obvious of these is increased border security with Syria and Iraq. Since August Turkey has built 89 new military outposts along the Syrian and Iraqi border. Most of those new outposts (and all of the 157 new ones in 2017) were along the 900 kilometers long Syrian frontier. At the same time the Turks are building a concrete wall along 91 percent of the Syrian border and that is about 40 percent done. Since August Turkish forces 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 Turkish efforts 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. Because Turkey quietly closed its border to Syrian refugees in early 2015 the latest crackdown is also hurting Syrians who could afford to pay the higher smuggler fees. Now there are more reports of Syrian civilians being killed, along with their smugglers, trying to cross illegally.

The Shia Threat

Another aspect of the Syrian fighting that gets little attention outside the region is the growing animosity between Sunnis and Shia because of the ongoing war. This is mainly about Iran allowing its Shia militias to go after Sunnis in general, not just the ones belonging to ISIL. Most of the rebels are anti-Shia, mainly because the Assads are from a Shia minority that has ruled Syria for decades and been brutal towards any Sunni opposition. This has been a problem for Iran in Lebanon, where the Iran backed Hezbollah militia continues to try and take control of the entire country for the Shia minority they represent. The Lebanese Shia are now a smaller minority because of the Syrian civil war. Lebanon is overwhelmed, economically and otherwise, by the nearly two million Syrian refugees it is hosting. That’s in a country of only five million. Since nearly all those refugees are Sunni Moslems and that radically changes the religious mix of Lebanon from 27 percent Shia, 27 percent Sunni, 27 percent Shia, 40 percent Christian (and other religions the rest) to a more volatile combination. With the refugee influx there are now nearly seven million people in Lebanon and 44 percent are Sunni, 20 percent Shia and 30 percent Christian. This puts the Hezbollah militia in a bad situation. Their better armed and train fighters have been able to dominate the other minorities since the 1980s. That was possible because of Iranian cash, weapons and advisors. But the Iranian help and better organization is no longer enough when the Sunnis are nearly half the population and out for blood because of the slaughter the Iran backed Shia Syrian government is inflicting on Syrian Sunnis. Lebanon does not want another civil war over this, but it is becoming more difficult to contain the anger. This is a problem unique to Lebanon, because the other two countries getting the rest of the refugees (Turkey and Jordan) are almost all Sunni.

There are also problems in Turkey, where the government has been dominated since 2000 by Islamic parties that depend on Turkish Sunnis (80 percent of the population) to stay in power. Turks have long seen themselves as foes of Shia Iran so the atrocities of Iran backed Shia militias in Syria are seen as another attack on Turkey. This Sunni Turkish nationalism also played a role in the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador by an off-duty Sunni policeman protesting the suffering of Syrian Sunnis in Aleppo. To further inflame Turkish popular anger Russia and Iran recently revealed that once the civil war is over and the Assads are back in charge Iran will be allowed to share with Russia the Syrian naval base at Tartus.

The Advance On Raqqa

This offensive began in November and moved towards the city from the east, north and west. Most of the non-Kurds in the attack force are local Sunni Arabs eager to get ISIL out of the area, but also hostile to the Assads. By the end of December advance was closing in on the Baath Dam which supplies electric power to Raqqa and surrounding areas. The dam also regulates the water flow to farmers along the Euphrates River and ISIL has threatened to damage or destroy the dam to punish the disloyal farmers. Thus the rebels, if they want to maintain the support of most of the Syrians in the area, have to capture the dam largely intact. That would put the advance within 22 kilometers of Raqqa and potentially weeks away from taking the city. Meanwhile a lot depends on what happens to the battle for Mosul across the border in Iraq and whether or not the Turks join the advance and the Kurds continue to.

The Syrian rebels and their Western allies (especially the United States) consider the Syrian Kurds the most effective rebel force and key to driving ISIL out of Raqqa city and the rest of eastern Syria. The Turks are, on paper, the strongest military force in the area. But all Syrians, both the Assad government and the rebels oppose the Turkish intervention. The Turks are mainly doing this because of domestic politics in Turkey. The Kurdish separatists in Turkey (the PKK) are again openly fighting the government and often use bases in Syria. While the Kurds of northern Iraq will cooperate with the Turks in controlling the PKK, some of the Syrian Kurds (the YPG) have worked closely with the PKK before and the Turks do not trust them to behave like the Iraqi Kurds. Meanwhile Turkey is willing to work with Kurdish militias not associated with the YPG.

Syria And The War On Islamic Terrorism

A recent terrorism survey (Global Terrorism Index) found that while ISIL was successful in carrying out more attacks in Western countries (from 18 deaths in 2014 versus 313 in 2015) the organization suffered major setbacks elsewhere, especially in Iraq. ISIL losses in Iraq and Syria escalated in 2016. Overall the ISIL setbacks contributed to a 10 percent worldwide decline in terrorism related deaths to 29,376. Some things have not changed. Five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria) continue to account for most of the terrorism related deaths in 2015 (72 percent), as has been the case since 2013. Four Islamic terrorist organizations (ISIL, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Taliban) account for nearly 70 percent of all terrorist deaths. Many of the lesser terror groups are also Islamic. In fact, of the top ten nations by terrorist activity (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, India, Somalia, Yemen, Philippines and Thailand) only India and the Philippines had a significant minority of terrorist deaths that were not carried out by Moslems. In those two countries the minority terrorists were leftist rebels who had not noticed the collapse of radical socialism in 1989.

Most of the terrorism related deaths in the West (the developed countries) during 2015 were in Turkey and France, both of which have long had problems with Islamic terrorism. Turkey, bordering Iraq and Syria, is a relatively easy target for Islamic terrorists to reach. ISIL has, for several years, increasingly urged (via the Internet and mass media) Moslems in the West to make “lone wolf” attacks that do not involve direct contract with ISIL. About half of the serious attempts to carry out attacks in the name of ISIL were done so by individuals or small groups who had no direct contact with ISIL. Most of these attacks failed or were very small scale and generated more media attention than actual deaths and property damage.

U.S. intelligence believes ISIL has, overall, lost at least 50,000 personnel since mid-2014. Precise data on ISIL losses is hard to come by but that is less of a mystery as more ISIL territory is taken and more deserters and prisoners can be interrogated. The U.S. is also deliberately going after ISIL leaders everywhere it can with airstrikes and ground operations to grab ISIL documents (usually on laptops, smart phones, and USB drives). Compiling all the captured data gives the most accurate estimates of enemy losses. This means that since 2013 (when ISIL first appeared) the group has lost over 60,000 personnel to combat, disease, accidents and desertion. Most of the losses have been suffered in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 15,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack and ISIL recently lost the coastal city of Sirte its only major Libyan base. Defending the city cost them the loss of some 3,000 dead, captured and deserters. ISIL is expected to suffer major losses in 2017, mainly in Syria and Iraq. That could mean in a year Afghanistan would be the largest ISIL force anywhere but not very large and under constant attack by just about everyone.

December 25, 2016: Turkey moved more artillery and infantry to the Syrian border, apparently in anticipation of al Bab falling and Turkey being presented with more opportunities (like the lead in the advance on Raqqa).

December 24, 2016: The most recent casualty estimates are that 310,000 have died during the civil war that began in 2011. About 30 percent of those were civilians. Most (nearly 60 percent) of the dying took place in a few areas. About 20 percent of the deaths were in and around Aleppo, another 18 percent around Damascus, ten percent in the northwest (Hama, Latakia and Idlib provinces) and eight percent down south (Daraa and along the Israeli border). ISIL js believed to have executed over 4,500 people since mid-2014 and killed many more in combat. Russia believes that at least 2,000 of ISIL dead are Moslems from Russia and other nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Palestinian groups believe 3,400 Palestinians have been killed in Syria and over 400,000 are still stuck in the country.

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. The Assad strategy has always been to kill or drive out of the country as many anti-Assad Syrians as possible and not let them back in.

December 23, 2016: In the north a battalion of Russian military police arrived in Aleppo to help protect aid workers, vital facilities (like hospitals) and restore order. Rebels fired ten mortar shells at a neighborhood in southwestern Aleppo. At least three were killed and several wounded, all of them apparently civilians. In the south, rebels outside Damascus poured enough diesel oil into the city water supply, causing reductions in the supply of drinking water. The government had trouble halting the pollution, which three days later was continuing. The rebels have tried this sort of thing before, with limited success.

Russia lost several military personnel during the battle for Aleppo. The last three, in early December, were one military adviser and two medical personnel.

December 22, 2016: The last of some 35,000 rebel forces and civilian supporters left Aleppo. Most of those leaving were civilians who are heading for refugee camps outside the city or rebel held areas of nearby Idlib province.

December 21, 2016: In the north (40 kilometers northeast of Aleppo) 16 Turkish soldiers died and 33 were wounded as Turk-led forces clashed with ISIL fighters. The Islamic terrorists lost over a hundred dead, in large part because the Turks are better trained, armed, led and supported (by artillery and air strikes. This was the highest daily losses for the Turks since their ground forces entered Syria in late August. So far the Turks have sent in about a thousand ground troops and lost about 30 dead in four months, which puts the losses for today in perspective. The heavy fighting was seen necessary to cripple the ISIL defenses in al Bab. Once inside the city it will be possible to get a better idea of how many civilians were killed by the many Turk airstrikes.

Since November al Bab has been largely surrounded by Turk-backed FSA rebels. Turkey is eager to prevent YPG Kurds from reaching al Bab and taking the town. Yet the Turks also don’t want their troops, or the FSA rebels to fight the YPG Kurds because that would cause friction with the other NATO countries, especially the Americans. The Syrian government prefers that the YPG take al Bab because the Kurds in general, and the more radical YPG in particular are willing to work with the rebels or the Assads in order to protect Kurds in Syria. In November FSA rebels cut the main highway between al Bab and YPG controlled 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. Since mid-October Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish YPG rebels trying to take al Bab have persuaded the Kurds to back off and the airstrikes are largely against ISIL targets inside al Bab rather than any YPG forces in the area. .

The Iran-backed Assad government has won back control over most of Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria. This would not have been possible without Iran recruiting an army of foreign Shia mercenaries to supplement the Assad forces. That eventually brought in Russia by mid-2015 with air support and, more importantly, help with maintaining the Syrian military’s weapons and equipment. These have long come from Russia but recent international embargos have kept Russia from helping Syria maintain what it had. By sending in an “anti-terrorism” force to help with the UN approved campaign against ISIL the Russians were able to reinforce and revive the Assad forces.

December 20, 2016: Iran issued a travel warning for its citizens to avoid trips to Turkey until anti-Iranian sentiment quiets down. This warning was triggered by the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in the Turkish capital yesterday. The killer was an off-duty policeman who shouted “remember Aleppo” before he was shot and killed by security personnel. Since Aleppo fell to Syrian government control over the last two weeks many anti-Assad Turks have demonstrated outside the Turkish and Iranian embassies and criticized Turkish cooperation with Iran, Russia and the Assad government of Syria. All three of these groups have long been seen as enemies of Turkey.

December 19, 2016: In the north, outside al Bab, an ISIL suicide car bomber attacked a check point and killed one Turkish soldier and wounded five others.

December 18, 2016: The evacuation of rebels from eastern Aleppo was temporarily halted in order to deal with al Qaeda or ISIL gunmen who have been shooting at the vehicles carrying the civilian and disarmed rebels out.

December 13, 2016: As Syrian army troops and pro-Assad militias enter Aleppo there are reports of civilians being murdered. Russia declared that the rebel resistance in nearly all of Aleppo was over and that government (pro-Assad) forces were moving in.

December 12, 2016: Over the weekend Turkish F-16s bombed at least a dozen PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) bases in northern (Kurdish) Iraq. The Turks are retaliating for a Kurdish terror bombing in Turkey on the 10th that killed 44 people. This was a twin bombing outside an Istanbul sports stadium. A PKK affiliate took credit for the attack and police have arrested 13 suspects so far. This is a continuation of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. This latest outbreak began in July 2015. Since mid-2015 this fighting has left over 8,000 people (mostly PKK) dead. The fighting has mostly been in Syria and Turkey. Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. Growing PKK violence inside Turkey were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. The Turks are unwilling to send a lot of ground troops into northern Iraq and seem content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks are now also bombing ISIL in Syria. Turkey joined the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.

December 11, 2016: In a surprise attack ISIL forces regained control of Palmyra. This succeeded largely because the Syrian army troops sent to occupy the place after it was taken in April had gotten careless and ISIL noted this and took advantage of it. ISIL forces in Palmyra have since become a regular target for airstrikes.

December 9, 2016: In central Syria (near Palmya) coalition aircraft hit the largest ISIL convoy ever encountered and destroyed over 160 oil transports (trucks and tractor trailers.) The last sources of salable oil for ISIL are in Syria and this air strike cost ISIL over $2 million. That was money ISIL needs to pay the higher smuggling fees to get oil and other valuable exports out and essential supplies (like ammo and weapons) and people in. To support the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul the U.S. led air coalition is increasing its efforts against ISIL military and economic targets in Syria, where most ISIL forces are. Keeping reinforcements from getting to Mosul will make the city easier to take.

In Lebanon Hezbollah announced that it had not complied with Russian demands that there be no retaliation against Israel for recent Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah weapons warehouses and convoys in Syria. These rumors are believed by many Lebanese and Hezbollah members because Iran has openly called for Hezbollah to not get involved in another war with Israel, at least not until the rebellion against the Iran-backed Syrian government was crushed. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah agree on defeating the rebels but Iran and Hezbollah are unclear on exactly what else Russia wants. That’s because Russia and Israel are openly on very good terms while Iran and Hezbollah call for Israel to be destroyed (and have done so for decades). Russia has no official explanation for this seeming contradiction. Russia and Israel have always had good relations, even though Russia often backs Moslem nations that want Israel gone. In the current situation Israel and Russia are constantly negotiating deals that keep Israelis safe (especially Israeli pilots carrying out airstrikes against Hezbollah or anyone else posing an immediate threat to Israel). Russia has installed a modern air defense system (based on their S-300 missiles and a few jet fighters) in parts of Syria and Israel must exercise caution when attacking targets in Syria from the air. For that reason many of the recent airstrikes are launched by Israeli aircraft over Lebanon. The Israeli aircraft launch long range guided missiles at targets in Syria and generally report few if any details. Israeli defense officials did recently admit that it is government policy to prevent Hezbollah and Islamic terrorists in general from getting advanced weapons. Currently this includes chemical weapons, which Israel believes Hezbollah had received from Syria or Iran and was trying to smuggle into Lebanon. Recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria apparently interfered with that. Israel also admitted that it wants Iranian forces out of Syria and the Assad government replaced by someone not dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

December 7, 2016: The Assads report that an Israeli missile struck an airbase outside Damascus and another hit a target in Damascus. Several Hezbollah men were apparently killed and a cellphone video of the airport explosion circulated widely. That video indicated the blast was a secondary explosion, as in a missile setting off ammunition or missiles stored in a warehouse. In August Arab media reported that Israeli warplanes destroyed four trucks north of Damascus carrying weapons for Hezbollah. Israel rarely acknowledges air strikes like this but in April the Israeli government did reveal that it had carried out dozens of air raids in Syria and Lebanon to destroy Hezbollah weapons. In Lebanon Israeli aircraft also use smart bombs and missiles to attack Hezbollah weapons storage facilities that are found to contain new (usually Iranian or Russian) missiles. In February Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at a Syrian army base south of Damascus. This created more explosions as ammunition and explosives exploded as well. That was the first such attack in 2016 and there were several in 2015. Israeli warplanes have made dozens of attacks in Syria since 2013, several of them to destroy Russian weapons being moved to Lebanon (by Hezbollah) and all to prevent more violence against Israel.

In the east, near the Iraqi border Iraqi warplanes bombed ISIL targets in the town of al Qaim. The air force reported about fifty ISIL fighters and some civilians used as human shields were killed. Then ISIL released a video of that said was the aftermath of the attack and claimed at least 120 civilians were killed. There was no way to confirm ISIL claims but Sunni politicians in parliament demanded an investigation and encouraged foreign media to cover the story. This is pretty much a standard ISIL media manipulation operation.

December 5, 2016: In Aleppo Russian and Syrian aircraft and artillery continue to provide support for Syrian Army (and militia forces) plus Kurdish fighters advancing into eastern parts of the city long held by rebels. The Kurds are actually operating independently of the government forces but coordinate to avoid firing on each other (especially with artillery or from the air). This offensive has been going on for two weeks and was declared a victory now that the rebels have lost over 40 percent of the territory they long held in Aleppo. Over 20,000 civilians have fled the advance, most of them heading for nearby areas held by the Kurds, most of the rest going to government controlled areas.

December 4, 2016: In the east an American UAV used missiles to kill three senior ISIL leaders traveling in a vehicle near Raqqa. The three were believed involved in planning the 2015 attack in Paris that left 130 dead.

December 3, 2016: Russian military engineers, specialists in removing landmines and booby-traps, have arrived in Syria and will handle clearing explosive devices left behind by rebels recently driven out of northern Aleppo by Syrian and Russian troops.

November 30, 2016: Arab media reported that Israeli warplanes destroyed several trucks on the road between Damascus and Lebanon. The trucks were probably carrying weapons for Hezbollah from Russia, Iran or Syria.

 

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