Syria: Winners And Losers

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January 17, 2017: Rebels who fought in Aleppo, and managed to get out, attribute their defeat to a lack of unity and the loss of access to the Turkish border. The only thing that united the rebels at all was hatred of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but aside from that each of these Islamic terrorist groups thought of themselves as the one anointed by God to lead the revolution and run a religious dictatorship to replace the Assads. The pro-Assad coalition (Iran, Russia and Turkey) has taken advantage of that to make it possible for the Assads to survive the 2011 rebellion against them. That is not guaranteed because the Assads committed numerous atrocities that most of the world considers war crimes. But Russia is one of the few nations with a veto in the UN and that makes it possible to block a UN approved prosecution of the Assads. Meanwhile rebels still hold parts of western Aleppo and fighting continues.

Iran, Russia and Hezbollah agree on defeating the Syrian 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.

The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government are holding peace talks with the Syrian rebels on January 23rd in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). The U.S. was not invited when these talks were announced in December but Russia later asked that someone from the new (after January 20th) U.S. government attend. Most of the rebels were not invited either. Only the FSA rebel coalition was, because it does not support Islamic terrorism. Three rebel larger groups (Ahrar al Sham, Fatah al Sham Front and the Kurds) were not invited, nor was ISIL, the group everyone hates.

Russia reaffirmed that it is going to be a long-term presence in Syria once the rebels have been defeated and the Assads back in power. Russia will continue to use the Hmeimim airbase the port city of Latakia. Some (85 kilometers to the south the port of Tartus will host permanent Russian naval support facility that has been under construction for years.

Changing Loyalties

With the victory in Aleppo the Assad government forces (over 250,000 full and part time fighters) control nearly half the country and about 70 percent of the population. Most government forces are for local defense. The rebels have about as many fighters as the Assads but they are not as well armed, trained or united. Only the FSA (representing about a quarter of the rebel fighters) is acceptable to all the nations supporting the rebellion (Turkey, the West and the Gulf Arabs). The Kurd coalition (the SDF) has about 20 percent of the rebels but is not recognized by the Turks because it contains a lot of Kurdish separatists. The Islamic radical groups (often referred to as the Islamic Front coalition) account for a third of the rebels and are still supported by some Arab nations and used to be (and might still be) supported by Turkey. The remaining 21 percent of the rebel fighters are the Islamic radicals who are out to conquer the world but split into several factions that are at war with each other. These groups have little outside support. The worst of them is ISIL, followed by the local al Qaeda franchise (formerly al Nusra) which is still cozy with al Qaeda. It was the Islamic radicals who, more than anyone else, prevented the rebels from uniting and overthrowing the Assads by 2014 or 2015. At least half the rebel fighters are more anti-Assad rebel that devoted believer in whatever other political or religious agendas the various rebel factions have. These rebels have switched from one rebel faction to another over the last few years, depending on which coalition seemed most likely to possess a winning strategy. From the beginning the two main coalitions were non-religious (seeking a democratic government) or religious (seeking an Islamic dictatorship or a democracy that recognized Islamic law). Since the Russian intervention in late 2015 and the Turkish invasion a year later, many rebels have switched back to non-religious coalitions like the FSA or SDF. This was largely at the expense of the Islamic Front and the al Qaeda groups. ISIL always depended on a lot of foreigners but that source dried up since 2015 because ISIL was losing, everyone hated ISIL and the border security was much improved. ISIL is being destroyed but the damage ISIL did to the rebels since 2014 will likely prove fatal for any rebel victory. Russia, Turkey and Iran are taking advantage of that, at the expense of the West and the Gulf Arabs.

Turkey has killed over 1,800 ISIL fighters and over 300 Kurds since Turkish ground troops entered Syria in August. Only about ten ISIL men were taken alive as were more than ten Kurds. Turkey believes only 20 percent of the three million Syrian refugees in Turkey are willing to return to Syria (even if that means living under Assad rule). The other 80 percent are willing to remain in Turkey, especially if Turkey makes it possible to become citizens. Unlike the Arab Moslem nations the Turks are more willing to absorb other ethnic groups.

Changing Priorities

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. Meanwhile the Kurds, Iraq, the West and the Gulf Arab states want to eliminate the ISIL presence in Iraq and eastern Syria (namely Raqqa).

Although all the foreign powers are supposed to be in Syria to defeat ISIL, that is clearly not the case. The core of ISIL power is in the east, in Raqqa. The only ones concentrating on Raqqa are the SDF coalition of Syrian Kurd and local Arab groups supported by Western and Arab nations. The SDF advance has been slow but that has kept SDF casualties down. Since the advance began in November the SDF has driven ISIL out of 3,200 square kilometers of territory, 236 villages and killed over 600 ISIL fighters and captured 18. The SDF lost 42 fighters but recruited over 2,000 additional ones from the liberated populations as well as Arab tribes throughout eastern Syria. Most of this progress was made in the last month. The SDF has Western (mainly American) special operations troops assisting, mainly to call in airstrikes from the U.S. led air coalition that includes warplanes from several Western nations as well as Arab Gulf states. The SDF does not plan to take Raqqa by itself and is waiting for the Turks and the Assads (or even the Iraqis) to join the effort to clear the city of Raqqa.

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 control of 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.

January 16, 2017: Turkey announced the capture of the Islamic terrorist responsible for the New Year’s Eve attack on a Turkish nightclub that left 39 dead and over 60 wounded. Many of those killed by the lone gunman were foreign tourists. ISIL took credit for the attack. Tonight the Turks showed photos of the Central Asian man they arrested today in a raid on a neighborhood where a lot of Central Asians live. There were some security photos of the shooter that were circulated and indicated that the attacker might be Central Asian. The police raid took the suspect alive even though he resisted. The next day police announced that the suspect, Abdulkadir Masharipov, was an Uzbek native who received his terrorist training in Afghanistan and came to Turkey a year ago. Masharipov confessed to carrying out the attack.

January 15, 2017: Turkey openly rebuffed American efforts to convince Turkey that the SDF rebel coalition does not contain any Kurdish groups that support the Kurdish (PKK) insurrection inside Turkey. Short term the Americans are probably right but the Turks have to look at this long-term, and in that sense the Turks are more accurate in their assessments of Kurdish loyalties.

January 14, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL began another offensive to take the city of Deir Ezzor (also called al Zour), which has been under siege by the Islamic terrorists since 2014. 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). The city of Deir Ezzor is halfway between the ISIL capital Raqqa and ISIL controlled areas of Iraq.

January 13, 2017: The government accused Israel of firing missiles from northern Israel at the Mezzah airbase outside Damascus. The explosions were heard in the city and a large fire broke out. Israel refused to comment but local reports indicate that the target was recently delivered (by air) long range, satellite guided Iranian missiles. Several days later Russia broadcast a statement approving of the Israeli action, pointing out that these missiles are an obvious threat to Israel and are meant for no one else.

In the south, rebels outside Damascus agreed to allow government engineers to repair water pumping facilities in rebel controlled territory (the Barada Valley northwest of the city) and restore water supplies for over five million people in and around Damascus. The water supply has been unsafe since December 22nd when rebels poured enough diesel oil into the city water supply, causing reductions in the supply of drinking water. That was followed by rebels damaging some key elements of the water supply system that they controlled. The UN arranged negotiations between the rebels and the government to resolve the problem. The rebels have threatened to shut down the water supply before but did not because many rebel held areas depended on it. But now the rebels have lost most of those areas and feel that control of the municipal water supply is one of the few weapons they have left. Since late December government forces have been fighting, without much success, to drive the rebels out of the Barada Valley.

Turkey and Russia revealed that they now coordinate their respective air operations over Syria. This is to avoid any accidents and to better organize airstrikes both nations are making on certain targets. Details on this cooperation had been worked out the day before in a meeting held in Russia.

January 12, 2017: In the south (Damascus) two rebel suicide bombers managed to carry out an attack even though the police were aware of their presence in the city and were actively searching for them. The two explosions killed ten people and wounded 17 others, apparently all of them civilians.

January 8, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Abu Anas al Iraqi, the ISIL head of finance, was killed by an American armed helicopter. Al Iraqi and several subordinates died while riding in a truck some 50 kilometers outside the provincial capital. The U.S. had been seeking Al Iraqi for some time. A force of American commandos were seeking to capture al Iraqi but it came down to killing him for sure or possibly taking him alive later.

January 7, 2017: In the north (near the Turkish border, north of Aleppo) a car bomb went off in the rebel held town of Azaz, killing 50 and wounding more than 80 people, most of them civilians. ISIL was believed responsible.

January 6, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL used rockets and missiles to attack a government held airbase. The attack destroyed two aircraft and killed over 20 soldiers.

In the north (Idlib province) an airstrike killed Younis Shoueib, a senior al Qaeda advisor in Syria, and his son. The airstrike was apparently American because the United States has been search for Shoueib.

Russia announced it was reducing its military forces in Syria. By exactly how much is unclear. The Russian aircraft carrier task force off the coast departed for its home base in northern Russia. A dozen (or more) Russian warplanes are heading back to Russia. It is unclear how many (if any) Russian ground troops are leaving. The Russian air operations in Syria are expensive (in terms of spare parts and missiles and smart bombs). While it’s great for these new warplanes and their weapons to get some combat experience, Russia is still experiencing severe budget problems at home and still has to deal with their effort to seize eastern Ukraine.

Israel released spy satellite photos taken on December 28 that showed two Russian Iskander (also known as SS-26 and 9M723K1) ballistic missile launcher vehicles in Syria (at the base Russia shares with Syria). These are probably in Syria to be “tested in combat” by firing a non-nuclear warhead at a high profile target, like the ISIL capital of Raqqa. Iskander has a 500 kilometer range and is not a traditional ballistic missile. That is, it does not fire straight up, leave the atmosphere, then come back down, following a ballistic trajectory. Instead, Iskander stays in the atmosphere and follows a rather flat trajectory. It is capable of evasive maneuvers and deploying decoys. This makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to take it down. Iskander began development near the end of the Cold War and the first successful launch took place in 1996. The 4.6 ton Iskander M has a solid fuel rocket motor and a range of up to 700 kilometers normally carries a 710 kg (1,500 pound) warhead. The missile can be stored for up to ten years. Russia developed several different types of warheads, mainly for, including cluster munitions, thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) and electro-magnetic pulse (anti-radar, and destructive to electronics in general.) There is also a nuclear warhead, which is not exported. Guidance is very accurate, using GPS, plus infrared homing for terminal guidance. The warhead will land within 10 meters (31 feet) of the aim point. Iskanders are carried in a 40 ton 8x8 truck, which also provides a launch platform. There is an optional reload truck that carries two missiles. Russia ended up only producing the Iskander-M for its own military. Entering service in 2005, Russia found there were no export customers for the innovative and expensive Iskander but free publicity from actual use in Syria might change that.

January 5, 2017: In the northwest (the coastal province of Latakia) a car bomb went off in the town of Jableh, killing ten people and wounding more than 30. Attacks like this are rare in Latakia, which is part of the Assad heartland. The bomb was believed to be remotely detonated by ISIL. There were similar attacks in early 2016 that left over 350 dead and wounded in the port city of Tartus and another in September that wounded 30.

In the east (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL launched another offensive to take the few remaining government bases.

Further east, across the border in Iraq the Iraqis launched an offensive to capture the ISIL held towns of Aanah, Rawa and Al Qaim. These are the westernmost Iraqi towns in the 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.

January 2, 2017: During 2016 American warplanes used some 26,000 smart bombs and missiles in combat and 93 percent of them in Iraq and Syria against ISIL. Both nations got hit with the same number of bombs and missiles.

December 30, 2016: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government agreed that peace talks with the Syrian 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. That may not be necessary as discussions between Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government apparently agreed to some general terms for such a deal. It would consist of a ceasefire with groups now in control of parts of Syria recognized as the temporary ruler of those areas. If the ceasefire held, there would be new elections. The Assads would not participate, but only if they were granted immunity to prosecution so the Assads could go into comfortable exile. All this assumes that ISIL control of any territory in Syria is eliminated. This is an old proposal, but it always depended on ISIL not being part of the mix. That is now a possibility. Meanwhile on the 29th a ceasefire agreement between Assad forces and some rebel groups, like the FSA and some other non-Islamic radical groups, began. It generally held but does not include most of the rebels, especially the al Qaeda and ISIL affiliated ones. A complication in all this the Iranian demand that the Shia minority remain in charge of the government. Since the Sunnis are still a majority, that does not seem likely.

December 29, 2016: In the east (outside Raqqa) and American airstrike killed Abu Jandal al Kuwaiti, one of the two most senior ISIL military commanders in Syria. Al Kuwaiti had recently been assigned to take charge of the defense of Raqqa, the ISIL capital.

December 28, 2016: In the south mortar shells were again fired at the Russian embassy in Damascus. One such shell fell within the embassy compound but was a dud (did not explode) while another shell did explode, but nearby and outside the embassy compound. This has happened several times since 2011. The Syrian government is believed to be responsible for some of these attacks, at least the ones that took place when there were no rebels reported close enough to have done so.

December 27, 2016: Russia criticized a recent American decision to loosen up their restrictions on what kinds of weapons are sent to Syrian rebel groups the U.S. still backs (mainly the ones that do not openly call for attacks on the West). This means that the Americans will send new anti-aircraft weapons (most likely Stingers.) This has been threatened, as in 2008 when the U.S. was seeking a suitable response to Russian sales of air defense systems to Syria and Iran. Missiles like the Stinger would be a serious threat to Russian aircraft (especially helicopters and ground attack aircraft) in Syria.

 

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