By Strategy Page
Israeli intelligence believes that about 20 percent of the 10,000 foreign Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria are from the West and that this percentage is increasing. Britain has responded by revoking the citizenship of 20 dual-citizenship British citizens among the 240 British Moslems known to be fighting in Syria. This caused protests from British Moslems but the government pointed out that British citizenship is a privilege not a right, especially for those legally holding passports from two countries. Israel also believes that as many as 15,000 Hezbollah men have fought in Syria in the last year, most of them serving only a few months at a time because Hezbollah taking sides in Syria is not popular with most Lebanese and many Hezbollah supporters as well. Israel admits that it has been coordinating its Syrian intel efforts with Western and (more discreetly) Arab countries. This effort shows the rebels losing ground to government forces, largely because of lack of unity among the rebels and increasing fighting between rebel groups.
For two weeks now the government has been bombing and shelling pro-rebel neighborhoods in Aleppo and Damascus, causing over several thousand casualties and killing about a thousand people. Most of the casualties have been civilians because these attacks are deliberately directed at civilians to force them to flee or reduce their support for armed rebels. Particularly deadly have been the improvised barrel bombs rolled out of helicopters. Syrian helicopters are not equipped to drop aerial bombs and for most of December have been seen dropping barrels filled with flammable liquids and explosives, rigged to explode when they hit the ground. This sort of thing is not unique to Syria and has been seen for years in Sudan where the government uses “barrel bombs” rolled out of transports and helicopters. These are not precision weapons, but if the target is a village or other residential area, they are accurate enough. The Syrian barrel bombs have been used frequently against civilian targets like markets, mosques, hospitals, schools and apartment buildings. The government is now on the offensive and the rebels appear doomed. The rebels might still turn it around, but at the moment it doesn’t look good.
The rebels have been hanging on and even regaining some lost ground in Aleppo, but around Damascus the rebels have been mostly losing. Rebels have also been losing ground in central Syria and along the Lebanese border. The Western (and some Arab) backers of the rebels are urging the moderate rebels and the less-extreme Islamic terrorist rebels to unite to eliminate the rebel groups like al Nusra and al Qaeda that are attacking rebel groups that disagree with their radical goals (a religious dictatorship in Syria and using Syria as a base for worldwide Islamic terrorism.) The Assads and the Russians continue to push the idea that Saudi Arabia is knowingly backing rebels who are also believers in international Islamic terrorism. This is true, but the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs believe that the war in Syria is a two-stage process. The first stage is removing the Assads from power, followed by a second war to put down the Islamic terrorist rebels. The West does not go along with this but the Arabs counter by pointing out how the refusal of the West to provide air support, or more active logistics support for the rebels leaves no other choice. The Arabs accept that the Islamic terrorist groups are hostile to the moderate rebels and that is never going to change. The Arabs believe that it is not practical to try and destroy the Islamic terrorist rebels before making a final push against the Assads, especially given Western reluctance to help the rebels in a big way. The Western nations point out that, as democracies, they cannot openly back Islamic terrorist rebels and that’s what air support would end up doing. Meanwhile the more extreme Islamic terrorist rebels (like ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are sending death squads after leaders and other key people in moderate rebel groups. The West seems to be coming over to the Arab assessment of the situation and agreeing to make whatever deals are necessary to get the Assads defeated. After that the Islamic terrorists can be dealt with.
Turkey is growing increasingly hostile to Islamic terrorist rebels and despite earlier suspicions that Turks were aiding Islamic terrorists headed for Syria, the Turks now appear to be much more effective in blocking Islamic terrorist activities on the border. As a result more Syrian Islamic terrorists are entering via Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq. All three of these countries are officially, and in reality, quite hostile to the Sunni radical groups. But all of these countries have segments of their populations who back Islamic terrorists and that’s enough to provide help in getting across the border.
Continued Russian support for the Assads has prevented the UN from passing resolutions condemning the continued Syrian government attacks on civilians. These attacks have been more blatant in the last month, as have Syrian efforts to prevent foreign aid from reaching the cold, hungry and often wounded civilians.
Unwilling to lose its only Arab ally in Syria, Iran has saved the Assads by hiring mercenaries and convincing Russia to join in a series of unlikely adventures that saved the pro-Iran Syrian government. Iran also undertook another clever diplomatic and media campaign to sabotage the 2012 international sanctions (against the Iranian nuclear program) that have crippled the Iranian economy and made the religious dictatorship even more unpopular inside Iran. All this is yet another example of why Iran has been the regional superpower for several thousand years and why their Arab neighbors are very, very worried. For the Arabs, Syria is but one small part of a larger struggle against Iranian ambitions.
The Russian government openly boasts (at least inside Russia) of how it backing of the Syrian government against a popular uprising was successful. Russian arranged a chemical weapons disarmament deal in Syria that crippled Western aid for the rebels and, along with thousands of Iranian supplied mercenaries, has the Syrian government on the offensive.
In Syria food has become a major weapon for both sides. Because of that the UN and other NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) are finding it more difficult to get food and other supplies into Syria and then to the people who most desperately need it. At the same time the growing success of the Assad forces has opened more routes for the Assads to freely move supplied. But less and less stuff is getting to the Syrian civilians most in need. Currently about 40 percent of the population are either refugees or in areas where food and medical care is not available on a regular basis. The UN has identified four million people as being in desperate need and over half a million of those people are completely cut off from aid, or anything from the government. The Syrian refuses to let foreign aid to civilians in areas protected by armed rebels. The medical system in the country has been largely destroyed, with over 70 percent of medical professionals fleeing Syria and about half the medical facilities (hospitals, ambulances, medicine factories, and so on) destroyed or abandoned.
While the UN has tried to get both sides to allow food and medical aid to move freely, both the Assads and the rebels see starvation and general deprivation as effective weapons against the other side’s civilian supporters (who are more than 50 times more numerous than the armed fighters). Neither side will admit to supporting this strategy, but both practice it. The war has killed over 120,000 so far, wounded more than three times as many and chased nearly half the population from their homes. The fighting has destroyed or shut down over half the manufacturing activity in the country and done heavy damage to the economy in general. Most of these refugees are still in Syria, doubled up with neighbors or family or living in bombed out areas the fighting has passed by. The Assads have been more successful at this strategy, in part because they have support from only about a third of the 23 million Syrians and largely because they are the government and had control (initially) of far more resources than the rebels. While many government assets have been destroyed or captured, the government still has more money, a functioning bureaucracy and access to additional cash and supplies via Russia and Iran. Assad takes care of his civilian supporters better and denies aid to rebel populations whenever possible. The UN is seeking even more money for aid and international diplomatic help in getting the Assads to let food and medicine reach civilians that are dying from privation. At least 250,000 civilians are stuck in areas that are under siege and often unreachable by relief agencies. This is largely the result of a deliberate Assad strategy of cutting pro-rebel populations off from supplies. The goal is to make continued rule by the Assads preferable to supporting the rebels. For many civilians this is becoming a matter of life or death. In other words, you either submit to the Assads or starve to death or die from cold or disease. Some 2.5 million Syrians are now refugees outside Syria. This Assad strategy has already caused many civilians to switch sides or, in effect, become neutral. The Assads are using food, or simply access to foreign aid groups (like the Red Cross) as a weapon and getting away with it. The UN does not want to make a lot of noise over this because the Assads are always willing to allow a little access or permit more UN and NGO people into the country if the UN reciprocates (as in not being critical of the Assads.)
Earlier this year Syria agreed to identify what chemical weapons it had and where they all were, as well as allow the UN to destroy these weapons. The problem was actually carrying out the deed. Destroying the chemical weapons inside Syria is not possible because of the ongoing civil war. So over the last few months’ arrangement were made to destroy the dangerous chemicals outside Syria. All the other less lethal components have already been destroyed. The nasty business of destroying the chemicals will be done aboard an American military transport that has had two chemical weapons destruction systems installed. But first the UN will organize armed convoys to get the chemicals from some twenty storage sites inside Syria to a port on the Syrian coast. There a joint Danish-Norwegian task force of transports and warships will take on the chemicals and deliver them to somewhere else in the Mediterranean where they will be transferred to the American transport, which will then go to some little travelled patch of the Mediterranean and begin destroying the chemical weapons. All this is supposed to be completed in the next few months.
Twice in the last two weeks Syria has attempted to buy food on the international market and proposed to pay for it via an Iranian bank. Despite the fact that the interim agreement between Iran and the rest of the world to negotiate about removing Iranian sanctions explicitly states that nearly all the sanctions continue until a final deal is agreed to, Iran is trying to stretch the terms of the interim deal. One example of this is the Syrian food ploy. The Assad government in Syria, which is also under a lot of international sanctions, has been trying to order new food supplies by using Iran as the guarantor of payment. The Syrians did not list one of the foreign Iranian bank accounts that are to be unfrozen by the interim agreement but instead stated that to an Iranian bank would take care of payment. This is still forbidden by the sanctions, but the Iranians were always bold and possessed of lots of initiative.
December 21, 2013: In eastern Lebanon Hezbollah ambushed a group of Syrian al Nusra Islamic terrorist rebels near the Syrian border. At least 32 of the Syrians were killed along with one Hezbollah gunman.
The government accused rebels of attacking two bases where chemical weapons are stored. This may or may not have actually happened and may have just been some skirmishing in the vicinity of one of the two dozen or so military bases where chemical weapons are stored.
December 20, 2013: Russia persists in trying to organize peace talks between the Assad government and the rebels. Pressure from the West has gotten the moderate rebels to agree to talk, but the Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Nusra and al Qaeda) will not talk, so this is an empty victory for Russia and their hopes for peace talks (that could end the fighting and keep the Assads in power) have again been thwarted.
December 19, 2013: Turkish F-16s were sent up to confront two Syrian warplanes that were headed for the Turkish border, but turned away before entering Turkey.
December 18, 2013: Russia has completed delivering special trucks for transporting chemical weapons from storage depots to the port of Latakia where the deadly chemicals will be loaded on Danish and Norwegian ships that will take them to an Italian port where the chemicals will be transferred to an American ship equipped to neutralize the deadly chemicals while far at sea.
December 12, 2013: UN chemical weapons inspectors have concluded that not only were chemical weapons used in a well-publicized August 21st attack that killed over 1,400, but also used for other times between March and August, in smaller scale attacks.
December 9, 2013: The U.S. has suspended all aid to the rebels after Islamic radical rebels took control over SMC (Supreme Military Council) warehouses in northern Syria where recently arrived U.S. aid was stored. The SMC is the main moderate rebel group that handles Western supplies for the rebels and is based in Turkey. The takeover occurred during the weekend and the SMC insists it was not what it appears to be and that the Islamic radicals now occupying the warehouses are actually allies who are helping guard the warehouses from more radical Islamic rebel groups. http://www.strategypage.com/qnd/syria/articles/20131225.aspx