Syria: A Country Disastrously Divided

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May 31, 2017: The battle for Raqqa is the most intense operation currently under way. There is still some fighting around Damascus (where the government is clearing out the last of the rebel held suburbs) and Aleppo (like Damascus but more intense). Most (about 80 percent) of the air support sorties in Syria are carried out by the U.S. led coalition and some 90 percent of those are by U.S. aircraft and UAVs. In the last year the coalition air sorties have more than doubled, to about 250 a day and most of them are currently in support of the Raqqa campaign. The air craft provide surveillance and EW (electronic warfare) most of the time but about ten percent involve using weapons.

There are still about 200,000 civilians in Raqqa and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is trying to prevent a mass exodus. ISIL is again using civilians as human shields but that isn’t working as well as it has in the past largely because most of the civilians in Raqqa are very hostile to ISIL and willing to pass on useful information to the advancing rebel forces. That quickly gets to the people planning airstrikes.

The Turks have refused to take part in the Raqqa battle and the Assads and their Iranian sponsors are certainly not welcome. So it’s basically up to the SDF and various local tribal militias that have been increasingly at war with ISIL since 2015. SDF has agreed to turn Raqqa over to the locals once ISIL is forced out. For the moment that’s the plan. Nobody in Syria trusts plans much.

For the moment the situation inside Raqqa is pretty grim with regular public executions of ISIL deserters. Most of the ISIL deserters don’t get caught and the word from civilians is that there appear to be fewer and fewer ISIL on the streets. Outside Raqqa advancing SDF forces report that the ISIL men they are encountering will usually fight but not very well and an airstrike or some artillery fire will usually suffice to clear the way. The advancing forces are more concerned about landmines and roadside bombs. That Americans are helping with that but few details are available, indicating that some of the techniques developed over the years for American forces are being applied and the less ISIL knows about the details the more effective these methods are. In addition a lot of the local civilians are willing to report ISIL landmines and hidden bombs, if only because if these remain it is the locals who will stumble across them.

Turkey

Turkey has achieved its initial goal of clearing ISIL from the Syrian side of the border and by the end of May has moved about a million Syrian refugees (most from Turkish refugee camps, others from Syria) in and managed to set up a local administration run by cooperative Syrian rebels (mainly the FSA). The Turkish “safe zone” has been to eventually cover an area along about a 98 kilometers of the border and extend about 25 kilometers into Syria. This will be sufficient for millions of Syrians now in Turkish refugee camps to be moved to camps on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey will continue to support the refugee camps in Syria as long as FSA and other cooperative Syrians help run them. The Syrian Kurds point out that Kurdish villages in this zone have had their populations expelled and replaced by refugees or Turks from Turkey. The new Syrian security forces are controlled by local warlords who concentrate on first looking for themselves, not displeasing the Turks and finally taking care of all the civilians in their area.

Iran

Iran is losing this war with Israel and seeking a way to do better by establishing a base in Syria. This is important inside Iran where the government has long publicized victories (usually invented) over Israel. Highly visible defeats by Israel, as are happening in Syria, does little to prop up the unpopular religious dictatorship that has been running the country since the 1980s. Another embarrassment is the success of Russian air power and ground forces (mainly special operations and artillery) to help the Assad forces win back territory. Until 2016 Iranian forces were seen as the key to Assad survival and the Assads were not shy about praising their Iranian saviors. But that changed in 2017 as the Iranian alliance with Turkey and Russia began to come apart. Iran blames this on Israel which, in this case, is partially correct. Israel knows that Iran wants to establish a pro-Iranian militia in Syria similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Assads know this would mean they would have to share power in Syria with Iran. Most Syrians don’t care for this, just as most Lebanese don’t care for the Hezbollah presence since the 1980s. No one, including Russia, Turkey and Israel, want another Hezbollah established in Syria. Iran will not back down on this and that has damaged their relationships with their allies.

Meanwhile Iran continues to suffer embarrassing setbacks in Syria. For example, in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Iran backed Shia mercenaries (mostly from Iraq and Afghanistan) are coming as close as they can to the Tanf border crossing and the U.S. backed rebels who control it. The pro-Assad mercenaries tried to reach Tanf on the 20th but were turned away by an American airstrike and the threat of more of that is apparently all that is keeping the Iranian forces away. Iran wants to seize border crossings in order to clear a road from Damascus (the Syrian capital in the southwest) to border crossings controlled by pro-Iran forces.

There are currently two of these major crossings that have been cleared of ISIL forces. One at Tanf and another to the north (in Hasakah province). These two would make it possible for Iran to move personnel and supplies by road from Iran to Assad controlled territory and then into Hezbollah controlled southern Lebanon. That only works if pro-Iran (or at least neutral or bribable) forces control each side. The U.S. and Israel are determined to prevent this “Iran to Lebanon” highway. Technically Russia backs Iran in this endeavor but Russia also has an understanding with Israel and Turkey to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria. At the moment Russia is giving verbal backing to Iranian efforts at Tanf but is not making any moves to provide military assistance.

Russia

Russia is still providing lots of air support and material assistance (new weapons, help in maintaining existing ones) for the Assad forces but is concentrating its media coverage on the Russian efforts to pacify and rebuild Aleppo. The Russians supplied most of the air support that enabled the Assad forces to retake Aleppo, which used to be the second largest city in Syria but has been largely depopulated and destroyed by five years of fighting. Rebuilding Aleppo is a big deal for most Syrians and the Russians publicize their efforts, like the largely Moslem military police battalions they sent in to help maintain order, and the Russian explosives removal experts provided to deal with all the explosives still in the rubble or other areas as ISIL traps. What Russia can’t provide is the billions of dollars it will cost to actually rebuild much of the city. Iran is also strapped for cash and no one else wants to finance rebuilding what is now a city controlled by a government of war criminals. Russian casualties in Syria remain low. In May several more Russian soldiers were killed in Syria while working with Syrian soldiers fighting rebels and ISIL. That makes 33 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015.

May 30, 2017: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Kurdish led SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) forces advancing from the north have driven ISIL defenders back to within three kilometers of Raqqa itself. At this point the rebels can see the city. SDF forces are also advancing from the east. ISIL is preparing to defend Raqqa to the last man but they have not got many men left and many of those in Raqqa are of questionable loyalty. SDF has been offering locally recruited ISIL members amnesty and many have accepted. About half the foreign volunteers for ISIL have left the region and the number of new volunteers entering Syria has declined by some 90 percent in the last year.

The United States officially began distributing new and more powerful weapons and other military supplies to YPG (Syrian Kurdish separatist rebels) groups in Syria that belong to the SDF rebel coalition. Syrian Kurds comprise most (about 70 percent) of the 50,000 strong SDF and nearly all the Kurdish fighters belong to or are allied with the YPG. About a third of the SDF fighters are women (mostly Kurds but also some Arab and Christian), most organized by the YPG. The SDF is secular and the largest and most effective rebel force in Syria. SDF is leading the effort to take Raqqa from ISIL. The U.S. previously only distributed weapons to non-YPG factions in SDF. This was in deference to the Turks but everyone knew that most of these American weapons found their way to YPG groups in SDF and that was fine as long as none of them could be connected with PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels). The Turks said some of those American weapons were being used by PKK but the U.S. pointed out that some weapons were captured by enemy forces or otherwise lost in combat and later ended up on the black market where the PKK could get them. The Turkish security forces understand that is how it works but Turkish politicians needed to blame the Americans and YPG for supporting the PKK and eventually the Americans got tired of that and the new U.S. government told the Turks so. The Turks still complain, but now the YPG gets the American aid openly and understands what rules apply for any Kurds getting that aid.

No matter what Turkey, and most Turks, hold YPG responsible for some of the Kurdish terror attacks inside Turkey. The U.S. believes none of those attacks, especially those carried out Turkish Kurds of the PKK, are connected with the YPG. The U.S. has been providing training and other military aid to YPG Kurds for nearly five years with the understanding that they would not support attacks inside Turkey (which they had done before 2011 when they sometimes worked for the Assads as did the PKK occasionally). The U.S. has successfully provided training and weapons to Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq since the early 1990s by using the same rules and the Turks were always confident that the Iraqi Kurds were true to that agreement.

The U.S. and Turkey disagree about the YPG and that may have more with Turkish politics than anything else. After 2011 growing PKK violence inside Turkey were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK and led to a resumption of open warfare between the Turks and PKK in mid-2015. 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. So far the more radical YPG factions appear to be kept in check by the need for American aid. The U.S. has lots of Special Forces troops who speak Kurdish, understand the culture and have years of experience working with the Kurds. Thus it is difficult for the YPG radicals to violate the deal YPG has with the Americans and keep it secret.

May 25, 2017: In the north (outside Aleppo) YPG fired on a Turkish military camp near Afrin, killing one soldier and wounding several others. This was in retaliation for a Turkish attack on YPG forces in Afrin yesterday that killed three Kurds. Although YPG forces are part of the SDF coalition leading the attack on Raqqa, Turkey considers YPG active Syrian allies of the PKK. The Turks are in Syria mainly to drive Kurdish forces (YPG and otherwise) away from the Turkish border. Officially Turkey is in Syria to fight ISIL but their priority seems to be YPG.

May 23, 2017: The U.S. and Russia agreed to expand their “de-confliction” agreement regarding each other’s warplanes operating over Syria. Russia had cancelled this on April 8th to protest the American reaction to the Assads use of chemical weapons but agreed to restore in in early May. This agreement avoids accidental clashes and the U.S. observed the agreement by informing Russia shortly before the American cruise missiles were launched on April 7th. Russia did not cancel a similar agreement with Israel.

May 22, 2017: In the east, on the Iraqi border, ISIL pulled all its personnel out of the Iraqi border town of al Qaim and two other border towns the group had controlled since 2014. Qaim was special because it was the main border crossing between Iraq and Syria and increasingly hit with airstrikes and now ground forces as well. ISIL lost most other border towns already but held onto al Qaim as long as it could because it was a key link in the main road from Mosul to Raqqa. That link is apparently no longer considered essential because ISIL only holds a small (one or two percent) of Mosul and is about to lose that as well.

Russia lifted the last of the economic sanctions it had imposed on Turkey in retaliation for a Turkish F-16 shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber on the Syrian border in late November 2015. This hurt the Turkish economy, especially because of the ban on Russians visiting popular Turkish tourist resorts during the Winter months.

May 21, 2017: In the central Syria (Homs) the Assads declared they had finally regained control of the provincial capital (Homs City). The Assads lost control of this city in 2012 and have since regained control over most of Homs province as well. Much of the gains, especially in Homs city, were by agreements with the rebels to let them leave the city for another rebel held area. The alternative was continued artillery and bombing attacks, mostly against residential areas. Once the Assads had surrounded an area like Homs city they could block foreign aid (especially food and medicine) for the civilians. This tactic is an ancient one and still popular in the Middle East. But international law considers it a war crime.

May 20, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike hit a convoy of Iran backed Shia mercenaries headed for the Tanf border crossing. After the American aircraft fired on them the convoy turned around and headed west. This was the first American airstrike on Iranian forces in Syria and was carried out because the convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and near the Iraq border. The Iranian militia did not try to advance again. Iran backed Syrian Army forces have advanced to within 20 kilometers of Tanf and the U.S. wants to keep Iran backed forces away from the Iraq border to prevent Iran from established a road link from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon. An American backed Sunni tribal militia (Maghawir a Thawra or MAT) controls the Tanf crossing and an Iraqi tribal militia controls the Iraqi side. For the last two months these two tribal militias have opened the border crossing to non-military traffic. All vehicles are searched for explosives and the MAT militia admit they have American air power on call if they encounter any problems. MAT charges a fee for most cargo passing through and does not care where the cargo is going (to Assad or ISIL controlled territory). Apparently MAT will contact the Americans if they encounter vehicles that are clean but may be Iranians. Naturally vehicles carrying cargoes of weapons are not allowed.

Russian officials revealed the United States told them recently that they were in Syria mainly to remove the Assads from power and destroying ISIL was a means to that end not the main reason they were. The Americans also told the Russians that the U.S. would operate in Syria as it believed necessary to accomplish its mission and that American military commanders now had a lot more freedom to do what they through best without first waiting to have their decisions scrutinized, and sometimes modified or blocked officials and advisors back home. The U.S. Department of Defense (now led by a retired marine general) can set troop levels in Iraq and Syria. Officially there are currently 5,800 (nine percent in Syria) inside Syria and Iraq but the real number may be about 40 percent higher if you count contractors and allies. The Russians and Syrians are in Syria to keep the Assads in power and destroying ISIL is part of that. Fighting with the Americans is apparently not something Russia or Iran want do in Syria.

May 18, 2017: In the east, on the Iraqi border, a coalition airstrike near the town of al Qaim killed Abu Khattab al Rawi. He was one of the ISIL officials in charge of smuggling in commercial UAVs and providing training in their use. Rawi was an Iraqi who had lots of contacts in western Iraq (Anbar province) and supplied senior ISIL leadership with regular reports on how the war was proceeding there. The airstrike that got Rawi killed three of his associates.

May 17, 2017: A small forces of Western (U.S., British, Norwegian) special operations troops has been sent to eastern Syria to block Iranian efforts to clear a path for their Iran-to-Syria road. Iraq will not block Iranian air or ground traffic and the Assads encourage it. If this route can be established it would make it much cheaper to get weapons, ammo and other military equipment from Iran to Syria and southern Lebanon (controlled by Iran-backed Hezbollah). Israel and the Sunni Arab states and Turkey oppose this Iranian plan while Russia is trying to remain neutral.

May 15, 2017: The SDF announced a five day amnesty program for ISIL fighters defending Raqqa. The amnesty was aimed at local men, often members of tribal groups led by local leaders, who joined ISIL as a way to protect their families. The amnesty deal apparently worked because after a few days it was extended to the end of May. SDF has a lot of Arab members from the same areas around Raqqa and know (or are related to) some of those who joined ISIL for practical, not ideological, reasons. SDF knows that most ISIL forces from eastern Syria did not join for ideological reasons and apparently made deals with the American led coalition and UN to at least tolerate the amnesty.

May 11, 2017: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) Abu Asim al Jazaeri, the ISIL leader in charge of training children to be fighters and suicide bombers, was killed by a coalition airstrike. Al Jazaeri was from Algeria and the second senior ISIL leader killed in the last two weeks. The earlier airstrike was in the same area and killed Mustafa Gunes, a Turk who operated out of Syria to supervise ISIL recruiting and fund raising in parts of Turkey as well as planning and supporting ISIL attacks in the West.

May 10, 2017: In the northeast (Raqqa province) Kurdish led SDF rebels have driven ISIL out of Tabqa town and the nearby dam. ISIL had held Tabqa since August 2014. Tabqa is 50 kilometers west of Raqqa city and next to the Tabqa dam. With SDF in control of Tabqa city and the nearby dam the next objective is Raqqa itself. The final fight for Tabqa took over a month and was won mostly by SDF and coalition air support (directed by special operations troops, most of them American, on the ground). SDF is now clearing mines and other explosives ISIL planted around the town and the dam in preparation for the push towards Raqqa.

In the north (east of Aleppo) fighting between ISIL and Assad forces led to the death of about 14 senior ISIL officials, including Abu Musab al Masri, the current ISIL “Minister of War”. It took a week or so to confirm the identities of all (or most) of those killed. Some were foreign ISIL members from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Details of this incident were not made public until the 24th.

May 9, 2017: The U.S. confirmed it will supply more weapons to the SDF, despite objections from Turkey. The new American government will no longer restrict the flow of weapons to the SDF and will use more American advisors and air controllers with SDF forces closing in on Raqqa. Photos showed trucks carrying modern weapons and accompanied by pickup trucks, hummers, MRAPs, 12.7mm machine-guns, TOW anti-tank missiles, assault rifles, radios, night-vision goggles and lots of ammo for SDF with more to come. The U.S. will also increase medical support it has been already providing in SDF base areas (where U.S. forces share several bases with the SDF).

May 6, 2017: Russia reinstated the “de-confliction” agreement they with the United States regarding each other’s warplanes operating over Syria.

May 5, 2017: Russia delivered (by ship) another 21 M30 122mm howitzers to Syria. These were widely used during World War II and production continued until 1955. They are still used by over 20 countries because they are cheap, reliable, easy to operate and rugged. Syria received hundreds of M30s from Russia during the Cold War and still had over a hundred in service when the rebellion began in 2011.

May 4, 2017: Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to establish four de-escalation zones in Syria and maintain them for at least six months. The largest zone contains all of Idlib province and portions of adjacent Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces. The other three zones are in northern Homs province, the Ghouta suburbs 15 kilometers east of Damascus and an area along the Jordan border. The final map for these zones will be agreed to by June 4th. Russia, Turkey and Iran will supply troops to police these zones and supervise the zones to ensure movement of foreign aid and civilians. The problem is that most rebels do not agree with this arrangement, nor does the United States.

May 3, 2017: The pro-Assad coalition of Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government began two days of peace talks with each other about how to settle the Syrian mess. This took place in the Central Asian city of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan). This time some rebel factions were there as well but the rebels soon left because they described the Astana talks had nothing to do with peace but everything to do with how to defeat the rebels. The rebels refused to attend the last round of talks in March and were enticed back with assurances that things would be different during the May talks. That was not true. The rebels see the decision by Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Assad government to establish “de-escalation” zones in rebel held areas as a ploy to make it easier to defeat the rebel forces there. By the terms of this the zones would be “no-fly” zones for all aircraft except those from Russia, Turkey and Syria. The Assads and their supporters (Russia, Iran and Turkey) would establish checkpoints around the zones to control ground access. This would, in theory, allow emergency aid to get in (or be blocked) and eliminate air attacks on civilians. But the rebels point out that in previous ceasefire agreements the Russians and Assads ignored the terms and attacked rebels and civilians claiming they were reacting to rebel violence. In the case of the four de-escalation zones that’s exactly what happened.

Meanwhile Israeli and Russian officials are increasingly open about how the two nations coordinate military operations in Syria and cooperate in other areas as well.

May 1, 2017: Casualties in Syria for April were about 2,800 dead, about 35 percent of them civilians. ISIL and similar Islamic terror groups represented 29 percent of the dead while 16 percent were SDF and 18 percent Assad forces. Exactly how many have died since 2011 in Syria is a mystery because it is impossible for outsiders to get reliable data from many parts of the country. For that reason the UN stopped making estimates in 2014. Since then there have been estimates from pro-rebel and pro-government sources that vary quite a lot. It does appear that over 300,000 (at least) have died so far. About 30 percent of the dead have been civilians, most of them victims of deliberate government attacks meant to force pro-rebel civilians out of the country. Less than two percent of the civilian dead are the result of air attacks by the American led coalition. That’s because of the highly restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) and the blatant use of human shields by ISIL. Russian air attacks since October 2015 have killed more than twice as many civilians as the U.S. led coalition has since August 2014 but that is because of a less restrictive ROE. Russia is apparently not deliberately attacking civilians like the government aircraft and artillery continue to do.

Since 2014 the American led coalition has carried out 22,000 airstrikes in Syria (41 percent) and Iraq (59 percent). Only .24 percent of those airstrikes resulted in evidence that there were civilian deaths. Most of the civilian deaths continue to be caused by the Syrian government and ISIL.

April 29, 2017: In the northeast (Hasakah province) the ISIL forces were driven from the Iraq side of the border. This part of Hasakah province is still largely ISIL controlled but the Assad forces are seeking to clear a road from Damascus (the Syrian capital in the southwest) to Baaj and make it possible for Iran to move personnel and supplies by road from Iran to Assad controlled territory and then into Hezbollah controlled southern Lebanon.

One of four new A-50 AWACs aircraft has shown up in Syria. This new version entered service in 2011 but foreign ELINT (electronic intelligence) operations have not yet had a good opportunity to see how effective the new A-50 is. To do that you have to get your ELINT aircraft close to an A-50 in a combat zone. Israel believes the A-50 was brought in to deal with a possible air battle between Russian and American warplanes and also to keep track of the F-35 stealth fighters Israel has received this year and are already flying close to the Syrian border and, possibly, across the border as well.

 

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