In the east the battle for the city of Raqqa is now into its seventh week with American supported SDF forces doing nearly all the fighting. At this point the SDF has taken nearly half the city but has had to slow down the advance because the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) resistance is more organized and determined, especially in the Old City. ISIL made the most effort to fortify and defend the city center, where there are more historical sites that are still intact and ISIL knows the attackers will be eager to preserve. American Special Forces confirm that SDF has the remaining ISIL forces surrounded and the Kurdish led rebels continue to advance on all sides. The U.S. Special Forces, who have operated with Kurds in Iraq for 25 years and the Syrian Kurds for over five years, also report that the ISIL fighters still in Raqqa are more frequently using civilians (or even wives and children ISIL men) as human shields. This makes it more difficult to call in air strikes when you are trying to avoid civilian casualties.
At this point most of the fighting in Syria is taking place in Raqqa and a few other hot spots (Idlib province, killing and outside Aleppo, the Lebanese border and near the Israeli border.
Losses And Holdings
Nationwide the fighting is killing about 2,000 people a month this year, about the same as it has for the last 24 months. But while in 2015 Syrian losses were 50 percent more than in neighboring Iraq each month, now they about twice what they are in Iraq. Since 2011 the fighting in Syria has killed about 340,000. Some 33 percent of the dead are civilians while 35 percent are Syrian security forces and pro-government irregulars (local militias and foreign volunteers) and 32 percent various rebel factions (many killed fighting other rebels). About half the rebel dead belonged to ISIL.
The secular rebels and al Nusra want the Assads gone and Iran has 24,000 fighters in Syria to make sure that does not happen. Some 62 percent of the Iranian forces are Shia mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Another 35 percent are Hezbollah (Lebanese Shia) and the rest are Iranian trainers and technical advisors. The Syrian armed forces have about 200,000 men on the payroll but most are not effective for offensive operations (that’s what Hezbollah and Iranian mercenaries are for) and useful mainly to provide local security. Russia has a few thousand military and contractor personnel in Syria providing the Assads with air, intel and logistical support. This plays a major role in keeping the Syrian army and air force operational, if nothing else.
Between August 2016 and March 2017 Turkish forces took control of over 2,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory along the Turkish border. The Turks declared their ground operation in Syria completed in April. About fifty of the thousand or so Turkish troops in Syria died during this operation which 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 500 Kurdish rebels in Syria, most of the, members of the Turkish PKK or the similar Syrian YPG. The Turkish “safe zone” has attracted about 230,000 Syrian refugees. This is what the Turks wanted because they already have about three million Syrian refugees in Turkey.
With the ISIL forces in Raqqa now trapped there ISIL has apparently (according to chatter, prisoner statements and so on) ordered foreign members to stay in Syria (and Iraq) because it is too difficult to get out of the area just now and rather than lose a lot of these foreign fighters to border guards and numerous other security checks between Syria and home (especially if it is in the West) ISIL advises them to stay where they are, keep fighting and see what develops. Some of the foreigners are ignoring orders, shaving their beards and seeking to get out as innocent civilians.
Currently the Assad government controls about 70 percent of the remaining Syrian population, although a lot of it is actually occupied by foreign allies (Turkey, Iran and Russia). About a quarter of the 2011 population, almost all of them anti-Assad Sunnis, have fled the country and probably will not return to an Iran dominated Syria. The Sunnis are still a majority, just a much smaller one. The rebels, (mostly the Kurd led SDF) control about a quarter of the population and ISIL controls about 20 percent of the land areas (mostly in the largely desert eastern Syria) but only about five percent of the population. The Assads control only about a third of the country, making it easier for them to protect and patrol the population they control. The Assads have the coast and the two largest cities (Damascus and Aleppo).
To The Victors Go More Reasons To Keep Fighting
With ISIL gone the only thing left to fight over is how much of Syria will a post-war Syrian government control. Turkey wants to control most of the northern border, as least the parts that border Turkey. The control is currently disputed by the Syrian Kurds, who want to control northeastern Syria (their ancestral homeland) and at least have access to the rest of the northern border, if not control of smaller border areas that were traditionally mostly Kurdish. Iran wants free access to southern Syria, especially the main roads from Iraq to southern Lebanon and areas along the Israeli border. Russia has a lease on a naval base on the Syrian coast and wants to hold onto that.
Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Turkey quietly agrees with that. Russia agrees with Turkey and Israel on this but does not say so (much) in public. Yet Turkey and Russia also back the Assads and coordinate their military operations with Iran. The Sunni Arab states are more open in opposing Iranian plans here. Despite all that Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries.
Iran already has got the Assads agreeing to a long-term lease on one of the recently recaptured airbases in central Syria. Iran would pay to rebuild the base and would be free to use it without Syrian interference. Iran is seeking a similar deal for a port on the Mediterranean coast. Iran has also been seeking 5,000 Shia mercenaries for the post-war Iranian controlled force to guard the airbase and port as well as operations on the Israeli border. 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.
July 24, 2017: In the west, on the Lebanese border, Hezbollah forces have been, for nearly a week, pushing Syrian rebel groups (mainly factions associated with al Qaeda or ISIL) out of areas they have controlled for years. Hezbollah is apparently going to clear Syrian rebels out of all Lebanese border areas. For the five years Syrian rebels have been a menacing, and often murderous presence on the border and eliminating that will win Hezbollah a lot of good will with Lebanese in general.
July 23, 2017: In the east the SDF continues its offensive against ISIL in the Raqqa. No one else is apparently able to join in the offensive. Syrian forces are southwest of Raqqa moving towards where the borders of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces meet. The Assad forces are more intent on seizing oil wells and other economic assets ISIL has been occupying for several years. The Assad forces are not close enough have any impact on the fighting in Raqqa city. Apparently Russia and Iran will insist that Raqqa be turned over to the Assad government once SDF has taken it. That will be a difficult situation since the Americans and other foreign powers backed the SDF in order to overthrow the Assad government.
In the north (Idlib province, west of Aleppo and bordering Turkey) a car bomb exploded in the provincial capital (Idlib city) killing eleven people, nine of them belonging to a rebel faction allied with al Qaeda. This came after two days of heavy fighting between Ahrar al Sham (formerly a faction of Tahir al Sham) and Tahir al Sham. Since March Tahir al Sham has been fighting to gain control over all of Idlib province and now it has pushed Ahrar al Sham and their pro-Turkish allies out of Idlib city and much of the surrounding area. Idlib province is one area that is still largely controlled by rebels but the rebels are mostly Islamic terrorist groups and that means they have a hard time determining who is in charge. Ahrar al Sham is 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 Tahir 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.
July 22, 2017: In the south (the Ghouta suburbs 15 kilometers east of Damascus) the rebels agreed to another ceasefire to allow for supplies to get in. This is one of the last rebel strongholds around Damascus and was the scene of the chemical weapons attack in 2013. The Ghouta area is controlled by over 10,000 armed rebels and still contains about 350,000 civilians. There are about six rebel groups in Ghouta most of them Islamic terror groups divided between those associated with al Qaeada and the rest supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states. These factions have spent a lot of time fighting, or feuding, with each other. This has tied down a lot of Assad forces to keep an eye on them and the rebels will cooperate in defending the area if attacked. Within a few days of the peace deal Russian military police had established about a dozen checkpoints in the Ghouta area and that was as much to reassure the people in the area that Russian and Syrian air strikes would not return but to also monitor movements of known rebels.
July 19, 2017: Turkey allowed the publication of NATO secrets, in this case the location of ten American places in northern Syria where American troops are operating from including the number of American (and in two cases French) troops in each location. As a NATO member revealing this information this is a serious violation of NATO rules. The Turks justify it by accusing the Americans of supplying weapons to the SDF rebels which end up being used inside Turkey by the PKK separatist rebels to kill Turks. The U.S. asks for proof and the Turks have been unable to provide it. At first the Turkish government denied responsibility for the leaks and blamed it on the Turkish media outlet operating independently. Since that outlet was government controlled that excuse was quietly dropped. Turkish language media openly said the leaked secrets were in retaliation for American support of the Kurdish rebels in Syria, particularly the SDA, whose largest components is the YPG (Syrian separatist Kurds).
About the same time the Turkish leaks came out it was revealed that the United States had decided in June to reduce (and revise) support it had provided since 2013 for the FSA (Free Syrian Army). In 2011 FSA was one of the first Syrian rebel groups to appear and one of the few openly secular ones. It quickly gained support from Gulf oil states who supplied cash, guns and other aid via Jordan and Turkey. But the FSA suffered from corruption (as did all rebels in Syria) and the shift towards Islamic radical rebel groups. At first this was mainly al Qaeda/al Nusra but by 2013 even more radical ISIL appeared and FSA had a harder and harder time recruiting and holding territory. By 2015 FSA was believed doomed but the groups held on, largely because of the American, Turkish and Arab support. In northern Syria FSA units have allied themselves with Turkey and is apparently one reason the U.S. is cutting support.
July 17, 2017: In Lebanon he government banned demonstrations by the 1.5 million Syrian refugees. These demonstrations were to take place on the 18th to protest government efforts to shut down illegal activities in the refugee camps.
Russia and the United States made it clear that they agreed with Israeli concerns about Iran setting up bases in Syria and Lebanon. This is another way of saying Russia and the U.S. will not try to block Israeli attacks against Iranian forces getting too close to the Israeli border or Iranian efforts to establish new facilities in Syria and Lebanon. In other words, nothing has changed and Iran has been officially reminded that they are on their own when they threaten Israel. Meanwhile Russia reminds the Syrian government that Iran intends to control a post-war Syria and attempt to turn it into a Shia majority nation (via forced conversions and expulsions of stubborn Sunnis). That would make the Assads totally dependent on and subservient to Iran, something that most Assad supporters are not in favor of. But defying Iran does not appear to be a practical option because the most effective troops the Assads have are the 20,000 or so Iranian supplied Shia mercenaries.
Kurdish intelligence officials in Iraq and Syria agree that ISIL founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is apparently still alive and probably operating out of a new ISIL headquarters south of Raqqa. The Kurds, who have decades of experience dealing with Islamic terrorist leaders like Baghdadi have one of the best informant networks in both Iraq and Syria and U.S. intel analysts consider the Kurds a very reliable source.
July 16, 2017:
In the south two mortar shells were fired at the Russian embassy compound in Damascus. One shell fell within the embassy compound and exploded causing some material damage. The other shell landed outside the compound, as did several others apparently aimed at nearby residential neighborhoods. At least seven civilians were wounded by this. These embassy attacks have 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. At this time there are still some rebels within mortar range of this part of Damascus.
July 11, 2017:
Another Russian soldier was killed in Syria. An army officer, advising Assad forces, died of wounds received from a mortar shell. Russian casualties in Syria remain low with nearly all the fatalities suffered by highly trained troops advising the Syrians or special operations personnel carrying out recon or other intel gathering missions. By the Russian official count the latest death makes 32 Russians killed in Syria since mid-2015. The actual number is believed to be 30-80 percent higher because of the growing use of Russian military contractors, who are not, for record keeping purposes, members of the Russian military. The Syrian war effort, despite the low number of Russian casualties, is not popular with most Russians who see Assad and most other Middle Eastern governments (especially former Soviet allies) as losers.
July 5, 2017: ISIL appears to have ordered its remaining forces out of Aleppo city and the surrounding province.
In southern Russia three Tu-95 heavy bombers took off from a base (Engels) on the Volga River and flew southwest until the bombers were within about 900 kilometers of central Syria and launched at least six Kh-101 cruise missiles (are similar to the U.S. Tomahawk) at rebel targets near Hama.
July 4, 2017: In the east SDF forces breached the wall surrounding the Old City area in the center of the Raqqa.
n Syria the United States, Russia and Jordan began implementing a ceasefire and "de-escalation agreement" they had worked out days earlier to keep the Assad, rebel and Iranian forces from advancing towards the Israeli border and southwestern Syria in general. This ceasefire mainly means no airstrikes in the area, especially none by U.S. or Russian aircraft which have been providing most of the air support for the rebels and the Assads. This ceasefire will be monitored from the air (manned and UAV aircraft as well as satellites) and a Russian military police battalion will man checkpoints. The Assads and some of the rebels have agreed to this but Iran has been evasive while ISIL and some other rebel groups have ignored ceasefires in general. Iran did agree to halt the advance of the troops it controls (mainly Shia mercenaries from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere). Israel expects Iran to violate this ceasefire one way or another even though the Israelis made it clear that Hezbollah forces showing up on their Syrian border was considered a major threat and would be dealt with accordingly.
July 3, 2017:
The Syrian Army declared a temporary truce along its southern border, to try and persuade rebels fighting down there to participate in the peace talks being held in Kazakhstan. None of the rebels are willing to attend and only Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Assad government show up and make deals no one pays much attention to.
July 2, 2017: In Damascus Islamic terrorists sought to carry out five suicide bombings. Three were successful, killing about twenty people but two of the bombers were intercepted and killed.
July 1, 2017: In the south Assad forces on the Israeli border fired two shells into Israel where they caused no damage. Israeli troops usually find that these incidents are accidents but warn the Assad forces across the border that retaliation was always an option if there was any suspicion that an incident was deliberate. In this case Israeli artillery did fire back at the source of the weapon that fired the shell from the Syrian side. At least 18 shells, mostly from mortars, have landed in Israel this way in the last week. Israeli forces responded several times (with artillery and airstrikes).
June 30, 2017:
Despite UN chemical weapons investigators confirming (in a recently completed study) Syrian use of nerve gas against civilians on April 4th, Russia continues to deny that Syria had any chemical weapons and these accusations are lies designed to embarrass Russia (which proposed the 2013 deal that was to eliminate all the Assad chemical weapons.) Russia again insisted someone else provided the nerve gas and made the attack that killed 90 civilians.
In Lebanon the army raided refugee camps near the Syrian border and arrested 350 Syrian refugees suspected of supporting Syrian rebels, Islamic terrorists or gangsters operating out of these camps. During the raids there was some resistance, including five suicide bombers (who only managed to kill one civilian in addition to themselves). Seven soldiers were wounded by refugees during the raids, three of them by one of the suicide bombers.
June 29, 2017: In the east SDF fighters seized control of two villages on the Euphrates River and in doing so cut off the last escape route from Raqqa. Up until now ISIL could move their people between the city and other ISIL bases in the desert or towns in nearby Deir Ezzor province. Being surrounded forces ISIL to either try to fight their way out of Raqqa or stay and fight to the death. There are about 100,000 people in Raqqa at this point, most of them civilians.
Syrian rebel groups announced that ISIL founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead but would not provide details. As recently as June 16th Russia still claimed that it had used an airstrike to kill Baghdadi on May 28th.
June 28, 2017:
In the south a mortar shell fired from Syria landed in Israel (Golan Heights) near a village. There were no injuries or damage and Israeli artillery fired on the Syrian army position from which the mortar fire came.
Further west, on the Lebanese border with Israel, Hezbollah erected Hezbollah and Iranian flags along the border along with signs that said “We are coming.”
June 27, 2017: In the northwest (the Turkish border, north of Aleppo) cross border firing between Turkish troops and YPG Kurds in Syria resumed. The Turks said it was defensive because they had noticed YPG assembling men near the border and fired on the area with artillery to prevent a YPG attack on Turkey. YPG had never crossed the border and attacked Turkey in the past and were massing forces to deal with a situation in Syria near the town of Azaz. The Turkish troops in Syria, and their FSA allies, have been trying to force Kurdish fighters out of Azaz and the nearby town of Afrin but have so far failed. Azaz has been frequently fought over since 2013. The battles involved al Nusra and ISIL forces as well as the Syrian Army and FSA (secular) and U.S. supported SDF rebels. Now the Turks are involved and have become a major supporters of the FSA rebels in the area. There have been clashes between the YPG and FSA rebels in the past, even though both groups have long been supported by the Americans. These hostilities were basically the outgrowth of personal disputes between leaders of some YPG and FSA groups. The U.S. sees the Turkish attitude here of being more about domestic Turkish politics (where an unpopular pro-Islamic government is trying to create an external threat to distract Turks from the dislike for their own government). As a result of the recent incidents the Americans announced they would not require Syrian Kurds, especially the YPG, to return American weapons once ISIL was defeated. The U.S. had earlier said it would get the weapons, as a gesture to the Turks. But now the Americans see Turkish hostility towards the Syrian Kurds as having nothing to do with reality and actually hurting the campaign against ISIL (which Turkey wants destroyed) and the Assads (which the Turks are less hostile towards).
June 26, 2017:
In the south several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in Israel (Golan Heights) and several hours later Israel fired back at where the mortar fire came from. This was the third day in a row this has happened. Sometimes it is small unguided rockets that land on the Israeli side of the border. So far there have been no injuries and little damage from all this stray fire from Syria.
There was also some stray fire from Syria landing near a UN peacekeeper outpost in the Golan Heights. This rarely happens as there is nothing to be gained by Syrian Army or rebels firing on the UN positions. Israelis came over to help with the investigation and concluded that this really was accidental fire, aided by a brush fire in a nearby minefield that set off one or two mines. That could be misinterpreted as mortar fire. But the Israeli radars in the area detect mortar shells and noted none were detected coming at the UN post, despite the explosions.