Syria: What A Complex Mess We Have Here

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March 10, 2017: Russia and the United States are trying to prevent the offensive against ISIL from being disrupted because of growing hostility between the Turks and the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) rebels. This is all about Turkey trying to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous region in northern Syria. The Turks are the only member of the anti-ISIL coalition that wants to keep the Kurds out of the final offensive to crush ISIL in Syria. The Turks are also opposed to the growing Iranian presence in Syria and Iranian plans to make that presence (and control of the Syrian government) permanent. Israel also opposes the Iranian presence but is neutral about the Kurds and has the support of Russia and the United States for that.

Meanwhile the war continues to go badly for the rebels, who are often more eager to fight each other than the government forces. Assad (Syrian government) troops continue to destroy or chase away rebels in the suburbs of Aleppo. The Assad forces are doing the same around the capital (Damascus) and trying to maintain control of the Lebanese, Israeli and Jordanian borders. The Assads are also contributing forces for the advance on Raqqa, but that is mainly to assert the government claim on Raqqa. Meanwhile the Kurdish led SDF rebels are continuing to lead the move on Raqqa. ISIL seems to be concentrating its forces in Syria and withdrawing many of those it had in Iraq. While there is general agreement that ISIL will be eliminated (or reduced to a minor faction in Syria) by the end of 2017 the outcome of the Syrian civil war is still in doubt. While Iran and Russia have been backing a peace deal that keeps the Assads in power, the new U.S. government appears more intent on crushing ISIL as well as helping unite the rebels against the Assads. The United States has sent about a thousand additional troops into Syria since late February. The latest of these is a U.S. Marine artillery unit (six 155mm towed howitzers that can use GPS guided shells with a range of over 40 kilometers) as well as a company of U.S. Army Rangers. Most of the American reinforcements have been special operations troops and artillery units (including at least one truck mounted MLRS HIMARS rocket launcher system. These carry one, six rocket, container. The 227mm rockets are GPS guided and have a range of over 70 kilometers. The 12 ton HIMARS truck can fit into a C-130 transport as can trucks carrying additional 227mm rockets. There are also at least six American Stryker wheeled armored vehicles in Syria, mainly to provide protection for American forward observer teams near the front line calling in air and artillery strikes for SDF forces. The Strykers are also apparently being used to make it clear to the Turks where American forces are. The rangers and artillery are there to take part in the advance on Raqqa and to prevent Turkish forces from interfering with SDF efforts. SDF has been moving towards Raqqa for over a year and insists it now has sufficient ground forces to take Raqqa, but only if the Turks leave them alone.

Turkish Tribulations

Turkey and the U.S. are both NATO members but since pro-Islamic Turkish leader Recep Erdogan took power in 2003 relations with the U.S. and Israel have suffered. Since 2012 a lot more Turks have turned against Erdogan because of what they perceive as increasingly authoritarian behavior by Erdogan. The common complaint is Erdogan’s self-righteousness, arrogance and increasingly autocratic behavior. The arrogance can be attributed to Erdogan’s personal and very public disrespect for his political opponents (both domestic and foreign). Many Turks believe that Erdogan’s personal animosity extends to any Turk who disagrees with any of his policies and decisions. Such profound and ingrained disrespect has led to disregard for the law and the use of state power to silence his critics. Erdogan threatens reporters with lawsuits and criminal charges and often follows through. He threatens opposition media and uses his authority to shut down offending media outlets. Erdogans’ political party identifies and punishes public workers who oppose the Erdogan government. Public employees are vulnerable to this type of party-line intimidation and Erdogan loves to intimidate. Erdogan has won three national elections since 2002 but now charges of corruption are hurting him in the polls and the next election may be different. Erdogan’s bad habits influence his decisions on how to deal with Syria. That means the traditional regional superpower, the nation most able to settle the mess in Syria, has been sidetracked by messy domestic politics. This has led to difficult relations with Russia and the United States. On March 7th Erdogan ordered the expulsion of a major American aid group operating in Turkey and northern Syria to care for over 400,000 Syrian refugees. This effort employs over 300 people, most of them Syrians and Turks. This shutdown is supposed to persuade the Americans to allow the Turks to interfere with SDF rebels in Syria. At present such interference is not realistic because SDF units are often accompanied by American troops. Erdogan is visiting Russia today to try and persuade Russian leaders to back him in his efforts to oppose the Americans in Syria.

Turkey has troops in Syria mainly to seal its border with Syria and keep Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists out of Turkey. Turkey is hostile to the Assad government but is mainly concerned with Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists seeking to attack inside Turkey. Back in November 2016, as Turkish and rebel forces completed surrounding al Bab (east of Aleppo) the Turks made it clear that once they had driven ISIL out of al Bab the next objective would be the nearby town of Manbij, which had been controlled by U.S. backed SDF. The Turks persuaded the SDF to back off on their plans to take al Bab and let the Turks do it. But now the Turks are trying to force the SDF out of Manbij. The cause of all this friction is Turkish hostility towards Syrian Kurds, especially the radical Kurdish YPG faction of the SDF. This goes back decades because of the continued fighting between Turks and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists).

The PKK is again at war with the Turks and have always had close ties with the YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatists). In the past the Assad government would provide sanctuary for PKK rebels in return for the YPG. Even before 2011 the Assad government agreed to stop providing any aid for the PKK. The Turks made it clear that it was either that or a few divisions of Turkish troops would enter Syria to force compliance. But the Assads got away with refusing to go after their own YPG, mainly because the YPG was willing to negotiate deals with the Assads and continued to do so after 2011 as the YPG joined the rebels but remained flexible. The Turks understand but making deals with Kurds is very unpopular in Turkey right now.

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 (like the FSA). The problem here is that the Kurdish dominated SDF rebels are leading the attack on the ISIL capital of Raqqa no one fighting ISIL wants to interfere with that.

Nevertheless Turkish politics has the final say and the Turks managed to keep the SDF from going after al Bab. While the Turks say they don’t want their troops, or their FSA rebel allies to fight the SDF (and by extension YPG Kurds) because that would cause friction with the other NATO countries, especially the Americans, there have been skirmishes between Turks and SDF as the Turks move to take control of Manbij. The Syrian Assad government prefers that the YPG take al Bab because the Kurds in general, and the more radical YPG in particular are willing to make deals. The Turks are less willing to make deals. Thus in November 2016 FSA rebels cut the main highway between al Bab and SDF 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 SDF in early August 2016. Since mid-October Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish YPG rebels trying to take al Bab have persuaded the SDF to back off and the airstrikes are largely then concentrated on ISIL targets inside al Bab rather than any YPG forces in the area. Sometimes the Turkish airstrikes on YPG forces hit non-YPG members of the SDF and a few times came close to hitting the American Special Forces advisors working with the SDF. The Americans and Turks has some tense discussions over that.

In the east SDF rebels continue to get closer to Raqqa. The SDF points out that 70 percent of SDF forces advancing on Raqqa are Arab, the rest are from various Kurd factions. At the moment 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 nearly 4,000 square kilometers of territory and killed over a thousand ISIL fighters and even captured some. The SDF suffered a few hundred casualties (less 100 dead) but recruited over 3,000 additional fighters from the liberated populations as well as Arab tribes throughout eastern Syria. Most of this progress has been made in 2017. 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 did not initially plan to take Raqqa by itself and concentrated on surrounding the city. SDF had hoped the Turks and the Assads (or even the Iraqis) to join the effort to clear the city of ISIL forces. Iraqi participation less likely because the Iraq government has been saying publicly and more frequently that they will keep the Iraqi Shia militias out of Syria.

Turkey is also having problems with Iran because senior Turkish leaders openly accuse Iran of attempting to destabilize Syria and Iraq in order to increase Iranian influence in those countries. While many people in those countries, both pro and anti-Iran, would agree, the official Iranian line is that their military efforts in Syria and Iraq are simply to help fight ISIL. Turkey is largely Sunni and has been trying to improve its relations with all Moslem majority nations in the region since 2000. That is proving difficult with the growing struggle between Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia). Turkey has tried to stay out of this conflict but that is proving impossible.

While Russia is in Syria to defeat ISIL (officially) and keep the Assads in power (semi-officially) they also want to maintain good relations with Israel. But Israel has made it clear that there can never be peace in Syria if Iran tries to establish a permanent presence there. The Iranians say they will and the Russians (so far) have said they oppose that. Iran wants to stay in Syria as part of its decades old effort to destroy Israel. Meanwhile Israel says it can live with the Assads as long as Iran is no maintaining a military presence in Syria. Many Turks agree with Israel on that point.

Most Israelis back the rebels and because of that many Syrians have come to see Israel as a friend rather than a threat. For example Israel continues to quietly provide medical care for badly hurt Syrians who show up (usually at night) on the Israeli border. Since 2011 nearly 3,000 Syrians have been treated, most of them in the last two years. Israeli border guards regularly allowed badly wounded Syrians in and sent them to Israeli hospitals for medical care. Until mid-2015 Israel would transport badly wounded Syrians to Israeli hospitals after they showed up at border crossings on the Golan Heights. After 2015 treatment was provided at the border, using a temporary hospital set up there. By 2015 over a thousand Syrians had received such treatment. In 2013 Israel set up a military field hospital on the Golan Heights to deal with the growing number of wounded Syrians. Israel lets some of these in for treatment but considers doing this long-term a security risk. So a heavily guarded field hospital right near the Syrian border is now used to treat all the injured. No Syrians will be moved to the interior because of fears that Islamic terror groups are seeking to infiltrate their people into Israel via the hospital care program.

The Iraq Effect

Intel analysts, taking all available data (refugee reports, prisoner interrogations, Internet chatter, aerial surveillance and captured documents) are pretty certain that ISIL has shifted most of its personnel into or towards Syria and the ISIL capital Raqqa. From there ISIL is trying to get a lot of their veteran operatives out of Syria. ISIL leaders are telling their followers to prepare for setbacks and a shift to clandestine operations (and lots of terror attacks) rather than administering territory. This is not great for morale since a lot of people joined ISIL by answering a call to live and work in an Islamic State. The state is disappearing and the new ISIL announcements appear to be one response to that because ISIL can either try to catch and execute all the recent ISIL recruits deserting or let them go with instructions on how to continue the battle back home. This worries Western nations who have noted lots of their Moslem citizens going to Syria to join ISIL. Rather than being killed in combat (or executed for deserting) these foreign volunteers are now encouraged to go home and continue the fight. Not all who return are full of fight and some go to work for the police (often when the alternative is prison) to catch the true believers before they can do some damage.

About 6,000 ISIL fighters appear to be in Iraq where about 2,000 are defending Mosul while the rest are in smaller concentrations along the border trying to keep roads open to Syria. A thousand or more are in still smaller groups in or near cities to plan, prepare and carry out terror attacks.

In Syria ISIL is under heavy pressure and being forced, by advancing government and rebels forces, to concentrate around Raqqa, the ISIL capital and largest city in eastern Syria. While there are few new recruits for ISIL in Iraq the situation is different in Syria. As the rebels continue losing ground in Syria many of the most fanatical rebels are joining ISIL. Many of the less fanatical rebels are quietly deserting the cause and trying to get out of Syria. Foreign recruits are not as abundant as they used to be because hostile governments control all the borders of Syria and Iraq and are, for the moment, very strict with their border control. Those tight border security not only keeps new recruits out, the bad news about ISIL and what happens to foreign recruits means fewer foreign recruits are coming. This blockade has also sharply cut (by at least half) income from smuggling out oil, antiquities or whatever. That means ISIL has less cash to buy (on the black market) essential supplies (like food, ammo, weapons) or pay key staff. Being on the defensive means there’s a lot less loot. ISIL has been trying to move key people (and their families) out of Syria and Iraq since early 2016 and that has become increasingly difficult. Even getting key people moved fr0m Mosul to Raqqa (where the final battle will be) is becoming more dangerous and difficult. Soon it will be impossible because Iraqi forces have surrounded Mosul and the few routes still available are dangerous and often not usable at all. Morale is declining as well and paranoia among the leadership (about who is still trustworthy and who is not) is causing problems. More ISIL members are accused of deserting (or preparing to) or, even worse, being disloyal (backing rival leaders or providing target information to the enemy). Thus there are more executions which hurts morale even more because a growing number of those executed are innocent. This sort of thing is common in situations like this and speeds up the disintegration of the organization, at least in Syria and Iraq. Survivors will go on to help form the next outbreak of Islamic terrorism a cycle that has been around for over a thousand years.

In Syria Aleppo back in hands of the government the war is concentrating on destroying ISIL, which is now rapidly shrinking. A year ago over 2,000 foreigners a month were joining ISIL in Syria. That is down over 90 percent and falling. In both Syria and Iraq more painfully accurate attacks (usually from the air) are killing key ISIL personnel and important facilities (headquarters, ammo storage, training areas, bomb building workshops). In part this is because it is more dangerous to travel, especially across borders. That’s because the professional smugglers are generally anti-ISIL and now assist the government or their own tribe militia, to stage ambushes, usually at night, for ISIL movements. ISIL leaders are a particularly lucrative target because these men usually have more expensive electronics and weapons with them. The government and Americans also pay cash for valuable and timely tips. Another reason for more dead leaders that there are more deserters and refugees are available for questioning and the U.S. has moved in additional aerial ELINT (electronic intelligence collecting) aircraft and satellites. Improved data analysis software has increased the quantity and quality of potential targets. ISIL and al Qaeda are openly (via the Internet) complaining about the loss of so many veteran senior people. Fear is a two way street and ISIL is increasingly on the receiving end.

ISIL Survival Tactics

The U.S. believes that ISIL only has about 12,000 armed members in Syria and Iraq. That means ISIL has lost about 40 percent of the armed personnel it had a year ago. Most ISIL fighters now appear to be in Syria and while there are few new recruits for ISIL in Iraq the situation is different in Syria. As the rebels continue losing ground in Syria many of the most fanatical rebels are joining ISIL. Many of the less fanatical rebels are quietly deserting the cause and trying to get out of Syria. Foreign recruits are not getting to ISIL in Syria in significant numbers because hostile governments control all the borders of Syria and Iraq and are very strict with their border control. That means ISIL has less cash to buy (on the black market) essential supplies (like food, ammo, weapons). Being on the defensive means there’s a lot less loot. ISIL has been trying to move key people (and their families) out of Syria and Iraq since early 2016 and that has become increasingly difficult.

Al Qaeda Tries To Cope

In the northwest (Idlib province) about a thousand rebels, formerly with the local al Qaeda coalition, have deserted and formed Ahrar al Sham and allied themselves with local FSA (secular rebels) factions. This is another example of rebels getting fed up with the Islamic terrorist approach to the rebellion. Ahrar is still largely composed of Islamic radicals but they are trying to convince the Turks and the Americans that their battle is with the Syrian government, not other rebels. Al Qaeda pretends to do that but has not been convincing. In Syria the main al Qaeda presence is Jabhat Fatah al Sham, which is still the largest rebel coalition and composed mainly of Islamic terrorist groups. In January it expanded to include four new member groups and adopted a new name; Tahir al Sham. This is the second name change since July 2016 when the Al Nusra rebel coalition renounced any connection with al Qaeda, adopted a new name (Jabhat Fatah al Sham) and declared it was now simply a Syrian rebel group which, like most Syrian rebel organizations, was full of devout Moslems who really wanted to become recognized by the United States as “cooperative” (and not to be bombed). But the Americans still considered al Nusra an ally of ISIL or, at the very least, still friendly with al Qaeda. Some al Qaeda leaders have admitted publicly that the al Nusra split was temporary. Until early 2016 al Nusra was allied with ISIL but that alliance was always temporary because ISIL wanted to eventually absorb al Nusra. The two groups put that battle off to deal with the Assad government first. Even before mid-2016 al Nusra tried to distance itself from ISIL and began openly fighting ISIL in places like Aleppo. As recently as late 2016 more than half the Sunni Islamic terrorist rebels belonged to groups hostile to ISIL and most of these are controlled or allied with the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra/Jabhat Fatah rebels.

March 3, 2017: War related deaths in Syria were apparently about 2,000 in February. A lot of the fighting is low-intensity stuff because the country, especially areas not controlled by the government, have turned into chaos where even getting aid trucks in is often impossible.

March 2, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Assad forces recaptured Palmyra, with a lot of help from Iran and Russia.

February 26, 2017: In the northwest (Idlib) an American UAV used a missile to kill Abu al Khayr al Masri, the al Qaeda second-in-command and senior al Qaeda leader in Syria. He had been sought by the United States since 1998 because he was one of the original group of Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood Islamic terrorists who fled to Afghanistan to seek sanctuary and came to form much of the senior leadership of al Qaeda. After 2001 al Masri spent about a decade hiding out in Iran (usually under house arrest). The current head of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, is another of this Egyptian group and he succeeded founder Osama bin Laden (a Saudi Arabian) in 2011.

February 25, 2017: In the central Syria (Homs) a Jabhat Fatah Al Sham suicide bombing in the government held city of Homs left over 60 dead and many more wounded. One of the dead was a senior Syrian intelligence officer.

February 24, 2017: In the north (east of Aleppo) ISIL used two suicide truck bombs near the town of al Bab, The two bombs killed over 60 people (most of them civilians) including at least six pro-Turk rebels. A few hours later two Turkish soldiers died nearby when something exploded while they were clearing landmines.

Iraqi warplanes, for the first time, his ISIL targets inside Syria. The airstrikes were in Boukamal and Husseibah, two Syrian towns on the Iraqi border that have long been controlled by ISIL. Iraq made these attacks because ISIL continues to carry out terror bombings against civilians in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq (especially Shia religious shrines and Shia neighborhoods).

The U.S. is leading an effort to have the UN impose new sanctions on Syria for continuing to use chemical weapons. Russia said it would use its veto in the UN to prevent that.

February 23, 2017: In the north (east of Aleppo) the key town of al Bab was captured by a Turkish led force. The came after two months of fighting the ISIL forces that had held the town since 2013 were driven out. Some ISIL forces are now holding out in villages near al Bab.

February 22, 2017: Lebanese media reported that Israeli warplanes attacked Hezbollah efforts to move weapons from Damascus to Lebanon. Syrian army targets were hit as well.

February 20, 2017: In the south near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Israel (Golan Heights) intersect ISIL forces advanced towards the Israeli border seizing several villages and a town from FSA rebels. These FSA forces are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan, the United States and, very discreetly, Israel. ISIL has been battling FSA along the Jordanian and Israeli borders for over a year.

February 19, 2017: Russia announced that it would ensure that Iranian forces in Syria (including Hezbollah) leave Syria once the civil war there was over. Israel was happy with that, Iran was not.

February 16, 2017: In central Syria (near Homs) four Russian troops died and two were wounded by a roadside bomb. Russia has managed to keep its casualties very low in Syria but as the Assad government it supports reclaims more territory from the rebels Russian troops are going to be at greater risk.

February 14, 2017: In the northwest (Idlib) two days of fighting between rival Islamic terrorist groups left over 70 dead and many more wounded. Most of the casualties were members of Jabhat Fatah al Sham. The smaller, more radical Jund al Aqsa was more like ISIL but not as brutal. The latest round of fighting began yesterday when Jund sent a suicide bomber to attack Jabhat headquarters in an effort to kill the senior leadership. That failed but nine people died and Jabhat decided to hit back hard. Jabhat Fatah al Sham is ten times the size of Jund.

In the south a rocket fired from Syria landed in an uninhabited area of Israel (Golan Heights). There was no return fire. 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.

February 13, 2017: A second battalion of Russian police arrived to help protect bases used by Russian forces and other vital facilities (like hospitals). This battalion recruited police (most of them Moslem) in the Caucasus, mainly Ingushetia. The first Russian police battalion arrived in December 2016 and was assigned to Aleppo. Russian media played up the fact that so many Moslems were in the second battalion and that this was an example of Russian Moslems helping Middle Eastern Moslems. There hasn’t been much of that since the Cold War (1947-91).

 

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