In the east the battle for the city of Raqqa is now into its tenth week with American supported SDF forces doing nearly all the fighting. At this point the SDF has taken nearly two-thirds of the city. For the last month SDF has had to slow down the advance because the fighting is now in the heavily built downtown area and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) resistance is more organized and determined, especially in the Old City. Fighting is street by street, block by block because of the many bombs and landmines ISIL has placed in the way. These explosive devices cause 80 percent of the casualties the SDF suffers in the city fighting. ISIL is prepared to make a last stand in the city center where it has built sniper positions and explosive traps (including remotely detonated bombs). This is also where there are more historical sites that are still intact and ISIL knows the attackers will be eager to preserve. SDF leaders warn that the fighting in Raqqa and surrounding areas may last until the end of 2017 because many ISIL men have nowhere to flee and will, like many have done in Iraq, turn into bandits and guerillas to try and survive in the eastern Syria. ISIL has been in the Raqqa area for over three years and established all manner of links with local smugglers and anti-Assad groups.
American Special Forces confirm that SDF has the remaining ISIL forces surrounded and these 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, Homs and outside Aleppo, the Lebanese border and near the Israeli border.)
The rapid advances against ISIL, especially towards Raqqa are mainly the result of three changes the U.S. made early in 2017. First, local American commanders were given more autonomy to act on their own (in line with objectives agreed on with the U.S. government) and not constantly refer back to political leaders in the U.S. before making many decisions or moves. Next there was a change in the highly restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) and the effectiveness of ISIL using human shields against American aircraft. Until early 2017 Russian air attacks since October 2015 have killed more than twice as many civilians as the U.S. led coalition has since August 2014 and that is largely due to a less restrictive ROE. Russia is apparently not deliberately attacking civilians like the Assad aircraft and artillery continue to do. The new American ROE left it up to the local commander or pilot to decide on how to handle human shields. As a result ISIL found the human shields didn’t work very well anymore and began using them less. The local civilians, sometimes families of ISIL fighters, forced to serve as human shields were less frequently seen, often under guard, around key ISIL locations (especially ammo or vehicle storage areas) and hardly ever in the combat zone. The third change was to put a priority on preventing ISIL fighters, especially those from the West, to escape. The new order was surround them if possible and kill them all except for those who surrender.
These changes made the most difference with the SDF, the Kurdish majority rebel group that had been slowly pushing back ISIL forces since early 2016. With the new American strategy the SDF was suddenly getting more equipment (especially armored vehicles), weapons and air support. This came as a shock to the ISIL forces they were fighting because a lot of ISIL tactics didn’t work anymore and the SDF was increasingly effective at overcoming ISIL defenses with little loss to themselves. Just as well because the SDF was the main force fighting ISIL and the only one threatening the ISIL capital in Raqqa city. Now SDF forces are about to drive ISIL out of Raqqa leaving the Assad forces (and their Russian and Iranian allies) the only opposition. Well, there are also the Turks, and Iranian mercenaries.
The rapid advances in the Syrian fighting this year have forced over 800,000 civilians from their homes so far in 2017. Many of these refugees are from Raqqa but most are from areas where the Assad forces are advancing. It is unclear how many civilians are left in Raqqa but it is believed fewer than 10,000 are still in areas controlled by ISIL. More than that are in, or returning to, parts of the city ISIL has recently lost to the SDF rebels.
Turkey Versus Everyone
In the northwest (the Turkish border, north of Aleppo) Turkish troops and YPG Kurds have been massing additional forces to deal with a situation near the town of Afrin. The Turkish troops in Syria, and their FSA allies, have been trying to force Kurdish fighters out of Afrin for over a year but have so far failed. This area has been frequently fought over since 2013. Those 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. This has led to some clashes between FSA and SDF forces. There have been clashes between the YPG (the Kurdish separatist component of SDF) 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 (that all armed Kurds must disband and disarm) 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). To further complicate matters the Russians have moved forces to the vicinity of Afrin in support of the SDF.
Assad Forces Move East
Much of central and eastern Syria is thinly populated and controlled by whoever rules the few roads. In west central Syria (Homs province) Assad forces have captured most of the province but are having problems eliminating the few remaining ISIL strongholds. East of Homs in Deir Ezzor province Assad forces have made regular progress to reach the provincial capital (also called Deir Ezzor) that is southeast of Raqqa. ISIL continues to surround 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, held by ISIL since May 2015. Palmyra was a major ISIL victory but since early 2016 Russian air and ground forces have worked with Syrian troops to methodically fight their way back to Palmyra and Deir Ezzor province in general. At that time ISIL 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 and the Russian troops arrived just in time. Syrian troops have been fighting ISIL in Deir Ezzor province ever since in preparation for an advance on the ISIL capital of Raqqa (227 kilometers to the northwest). The city of Deir Ezzor is halfway between the ISIL capital Raqqa and ISIL controlled (until recently) areas of Iraq. The Assad forces seem in no hurry to drive ISIL away from the city of Deir Ezzor. The Assads are confident that their Russian and Iranian allies will forced the SDF to turn Raqqa over to the “legitimate government of Syria” (the Assads) once ISIL has been cleared out. There is some truth to that but the SDF expects some concessions from the Assads (like recognition of an autonomous Kurd region in the northeast).
The Triad Of Confusion
Russia, Iran and Turkey want to keep the Assads in power and develop better relations with the each other. Evidence of this strategy can be seen in the Russian monitored “neutral zone” in southern Syria, along the Jordanian and Israeli borders. Since established on July 7th this zone is apparently working and was initially monitored by 400 Russian military police. Russia has since moved in more (now four) battalions of military police, many of them within sight of people on both sides of the Syrian border with Israel and Jordan. The problem is Iran and most Islamic terrorists, especially al Qaeda and ISIL have not agreed to observe the neutral zone. That results in some violence, mostly from ISIL. The other Islamic terror groups are willing to unofficially observe the ceasefire.
To deal with the remaining ISIL threat (and any new Iranian ones) Israel made it clear that it was not bound by the neutral zone rules either. Yet since this neutral zone was declared Iran has behaved. This has something to do with Russian refusal to act against the increasingly loud and frequent Israeli reminders that their air force will attack any Iranian attempt to set up operations near the Israeli border. This is just the beginning of a long-term struggle for who will control what in Syria. Meanwhile further west in Lebanon Iranian controlled Hezbollah is more active on the Israeli border, even if some of these moves violate the UN agreement that ended the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Once ISIL is gone as a major threat, perhaps by the end of 2017, 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. Some of these demands contradict others.
Israel is openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria and Turkey quietly agrees with that. Russia agrees more openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government. The only thing that makes Russia, Iran and Turkey allies is their desire for the Assads to stay in power and keep Syria free of Islamic terrorists and Kurdish separatists. Turkey, Iran and Russia back the Assads directly (with personnel and weapons) and coordinate their military operations to help the Assads survive. The Sunni Arab states want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even Iranian allies 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 Iran 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.
So far Iran seems to be replacing ISIL as the major disruptive force in Syria and major source of Islamic terror violence. What makes Iran particularly scary is their proven ability to mobilize effective and loyal forces wherever they establish a presence. They even have a branch of their military, the Quds Force, dedicated to that. The best example is the Hezbollah Shia Arab militia in Lebanon. Now here are similar militias in Iraq and even one largely composed of Afghans operating only in Syria (so far). Back in Afghanistan politicians are complaining about the number of Afghans hired by Iran to fight in Syria and, it is feared, eventually other parts of the world.
Since 2012 Iran has offered Afghan Shia refugees in Iran the opportunity to join an Iranian sponsored mercenary force in Syria. Iran was trying to keep the Syrian government in power against an uprising by the majority of Syrians (who are Sunni). The Shia minority has ruled Syria for over 40 years and since the 1980s done so with the financial and material support of Iran. After 2012 that support included more and more foreign Shia fighters recruited, trained (usually in only a few weeks), paid and led by Iranians. The key benefit for Afghan volunteers from Iran was that successful service (especially if killed or disabled) provided the volunteer and his family with permanent residency in Iran. Some 20,000 Afghans from Iran have volunteered so far and some 20 percent have been killed or wounded. Despite the losses, Afghans kept volunteering because the payoff was relatively large and real.
The Iranians kept their end of the bargain. But some of the Afghan volunteers did desert and provided foreign journalists and intel analysts with details of how the system worked. For one thing Iranian recruiters stressed the religious angle and the need to protect fellow Shia in Syria. The reality was that Iran needed tough and fearless fighters to deal with Sunni Islamic terrorist groups (mostly al Qaeda and ISIL) who comprised most of the opposition. These Sunni fanatics were responsible for numerous (and ongoing) attacks on Afghan Shia back in Iran. Afghanistan and Pakistan and that was sufficient motivation for most of the Afghan volunteers who come from a warrior culture. In addition to keeping their end of the deal Iran has recently (since late 2016) been providing the Afghan volunteers more public praise in the Iranian media. Most of the Afghans killed in Syria are flown home for burial in Iran and photos or video of the funerals often show up in the media. The families of the “martyrs” are praised as well and often shown receiving their residency papers and other benefits as well (access to better housing, medical care and so on). All this angers many Afghans who see it as another Iranian scheme to exploit Afghanistan. It is, but the Afghan refugees keep volunteering.
August 13, 2017: Outside Damascus rebels used explosives in a tunnel to kill at least twenty soldiers.
August 12, 2017: In the east the SDF now control half the city of Raqqa and the SDF forces advancing from the east and the west have linked up and largely surrounded ISIL held areas.
In the central Syria (Homs province) the Assad forces took advantage of their air power (mostly Russian) and the fact that most of Homs is thinly populated desert to raid an isolated ISIL position. The raid involved air strikes quickly followed by Syrian troops landing by helicopter. At least 31 died (25 Islamic terrorists and six soldiers). Many more ISIL men were captured (often because they were wounded). This raid was apparently for the purpose of taking prisoners and capture documents. It also boosts morale among the Assad forces and further demoralizes the rebels in general and ISIL in particular.
Over the last month Hezbollah forces fighting on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanon border killed or chased away several hundred Syrian al Qaeda rebels and destroyed the camps and fortifications these Syrian rebels had used since 2012. In the end many of the remaining al Qaeda gunmen agreed to voluntarily leave with their families. This was part of an effort to force nearly 10,000 Islamic terrorists (both ISIL and al Qaeda) from illegal camps they and their families have established on the Lebanese side of the border. So far about 80 percent of these illegals have been forced or persuaded to leave Lebanon.
August 11, 2017: In the south, on the Jordan border, an ISIL suicide bomber attacked a camp used by Jaish al Islam, a rival rebel group backed by Saudi Arabia. This attacked killed 23 rebels and wounded more than 30 and was part of an effort to gain control of the Nasib border crossing.
August 10, 2017: In the south Syrian army and Iranian mercenaries (Hezbollah) forces seized control of 30 kilometers of the Jordan border. This gives the Assads control of the entire Jordan border of Sweida province (one of the four that border Jordan). Sweida province was not included in the ceasefire zone the U.S. and Russia agreed on in early July.
August 9, 2017: In eastern Syria an Iranian Quds force advisor, captured near the Iraqi border two days ago, was beheaded by ISIL and video of the event put on the Internet. Iran vowed revenge.
August 5, 2017: In the central Syria (Homs province) the army captured Al Sukhna, the last large town controlled by ISIL in the province. This came after a two week battle in the town itself. The fighting has been slow as Al Sukhna is only 50 kilometers southeast of Palmyra which ISIL lost in March.
August 3, 2017: In Turkey the government has replaced the senior leadership of the army, navy and air force. Since mid-2016 the government has fired or forced to retire more than half the generals and admirals. The government feared that many of these officers would not follow orders. That is still a risk because the Turkish leaders want their armed forces to prepare for an attack on the Syrian SDF forces. That would include the hundreds of American troops who advise and operate with the SDF. This could cause fighting with the United States, a fellow NATO member. The SDF is considering an alliance with the Assads should it come to war with the Turks. Stranger things have happened in this part of the world because if there is one thing the Syrian Kurds and Syrian Arabs can agree on is that Turks in Syria are definitely not welcome. Several centuries of Turkish rule led to that attitude.
Meanwhile the U.S. is openly criticizing the Turkish attitude and denying Turkish accusations that the Americans are aiding the SDF even though everyone (at least the current Turk government) knows SDF contains a large contingent of Kurdish separatists who want to attack Turkey.
August 2, 2017: In the south four mortar shells were fired at the Russian embassy compound in Damascus. Two shells fell within the embassy compound and exploded causing some material damage. The other two shells landed outside the compound. No one was injured. These embassy attacks have happened regularly, sometimes monthly, since 2011. At this time there are still some rebels within mortar range of this part of Damascus and that apparently accounts for the continued attacks.
July 30, 2017: In Kurdish controlled areas of northern Syria the Kurds announced January elections for local governments. The Turks oppose this sort of thing.
July 26, 2017: Satellite photos show Russia has replaced a dozen of the older warplanes at its Hmeymin airbase, Most of the 20 or so aircraft there are now Su-34, Su-35 and Su-30SM, which are built to mainly deliver smart bombs and guided missiles. For over a year Russia was using older warplanes that could only deliver unguided bombs because Russia had quickly exhausted its supply of smart bombs by early 2016. The more modern warplanes are also more effective at air-to-air combat. Hmeymin is outside the port city of Latakia and defended by Russia’s most modern air defense system (the S-400). Russia recently signed a 49 year lease with the Assads for the use of Hmeymin airbase. The lease can be extended for 25 years at a time after the initial 49 years. Russia is also upgrading its military port facilities in the Syrian port of Tartus to that of a permanent naval base.
July 25, 2017: In the northeast (Hasakah province) Turkish forces discovered another tunnel built under the border by smugglers. This has become common since the Turks increased security along the Syrian border. The Turks blame the Kurds for the tunnels but in Hasakah the smugglers have to make deals with the Kurds who control most of the province. Naturally the Kurds use the tunnel to move people or equipment (like weapons) they cannot get past Turkish border security. The tunnels tend to be deep (6-10 meters) and long (300 0r more meters) and thus expensive to build and maintain. But like such tunnels everywhere the tunnel owners have to take that into account when putting up the cash to build and maintain a tunnel and charge customers accordingly. Tunnel owners try to make friends (local gangs or officials who can be bribed) on both sides but at this time Turkish politics is in turmoil and it is difficult to know who you can trust. At the moment the Turks have a real concern about PKK using the tunnels to move people and explosives needed for terror attacks inside Turkey.