By Strategy Page
Going into its third year, Syria has become a proxy war between Iran and the Sunni Arab states (and their Western allies). Because of disunity and increased internal violence the rebels are losing. The pro-Iran Assad clan led government has the backing of Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and the other usual suspects. The West does not want the expense and bother of doing another Libya (air support and special operations troops on the ground) but that is where this is headed if the West wants to avoid an Iranian/Assad victory.
Syria was one of the many Arab Spring uprisings, but one that did not end quickly (as in Tunisia and Egypt), evolve into a brief civil war (as in Libya and Yemen) or get suppressed (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain). The Syrian protests just continued and turned into armed rebellion in late 2011. Syria is, like Iraq under Saddam, a Baath Party dictatorship. But there are two differences. Unlike Iraq, where a Sunni minority dominated a Shia majority, it's just the opposite in Syria. More importantly, Syria has little oil wealth, and the government depends on subsidies from Shia Iran to survive. Despite growing international criticism (even from the Arab League) the government refused to stop using violence and other police state tactics to suppress the pro-democracy demonstrations. In over two years of growing violence, over 130,000 people have died. The outcome is now in doubt. The growing strength of the rebels has been crippled by disputes between Islamic terrorist and more moderate groups. The Islamic terrorists want to turn Syria into a religious dictatorship while the more numerous (but less effective in combat) moderates want democracy. The stubborn Assad dictatorship, because of reinforcements from Iran (mainly in the form of several thousand Hezbollah gunmen from Lebanon) now has a chance to win, something some Western nations see as preferable to Islamic terrorists taking over. It would require a Western invasion to remove such a threat. Russia and Iran are quite pleased with the way they have played the situation, especially the deal to remove Syrian chemical weapons (which the Syrians can rebuild later). This removal will drag on for as long as it takes to defeat the rebels and as long as the removal is in progress the rebels will not get Western air support, no matter how many atrocities the Assads commit against pro-rebel civilians.
The Syrian rebels have always been divided into factions that did not get along well and during 2013 began openly fighting each other. There are several hundred separate rebel groups that belong to a few coalitions.
The largest of these coalitions is the FSA (Free Syrian Army) which is moderate, democratic, most numerous and least effective in combat. This group opposes the Iraqi Islamic terrorists (ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS). The FSA still controls, often quite tenuously, most of the 100,000 armed men opposing the Assads in Syria. Many FSA groups are Islamic conservatives, but more inclined to make deals with democrats as long as the new government is partial to Islam and Islamic law.
The moderate Islamic radicals contain some Islamic terrorist factions but are mostly Syrian Islamic conservatives that want the country run by Islamic (Sharia) law. The largest group in this coalition is the recently formed Islamic Front, which is largely Islamic radical groups opposed to the ISIL attempt to control all Islamic radical groups and goals. Within this group there are democrats and those want a religious dictatorship but what really unites this faction is hatred of ISIS and the Assads. Most of this coalition will work with FSA to defeat ISIS and the Assads, but the Islamic Front is willing to fight FSA and other moderate right now. If the Assads are overthrown, this coalition and FSA will probably have to fight each other to resolve their differences. This coalition contains about a third of the armed rebels, including over a thousand foreigners.
The Kurds are 15 percent of the population, moderate and democratic Moslems, concentrated in the northeast and want autonomy. They oppose the Assads and the ISIL. The Iraqi Islamic terrorists (ISIL) have been particularly hostile to the Kurds and have been skirmishing with them for over a year. The Syrian Kurds have help from the Iraqi Kurds who have had autonomy in northern Iraq for two decades now. Christians in the northeast have allied themselves with the Kurds, who are generally more tolerant of non-Moslems than other Moslems in the region. Not all Kurds are Moslem. The Kurds seem content to defend their own areas in the northeast from the Assads and ISIL, cooperate with the other rebels but not otherwise be involved. Has about 10,000 armed men.
ISIL is run by Iraqi Islamic terrorists and contains a lot of foreigners. ISIL wants a religious dictatorship for post-Assad Syria and eventual merging of a Sunni dominated Syria and Iraq. Merging Syria and Iraq has been a goal for many in the region for centuries. It doesn’t happen because the Sunni factions cannot agree on who gets what in the unified state. Most Syrians are opposed to the ISIL goals and see ISIL as a bunch of foreigners invading the country. But ISIL has the largest proportion of fanatics in its ranks and despite being at war with the other coalitions and the Assads is not inclined to surrender, leave Syria or negotiate. The other three coalitions are currently at war with ISIL and that conflict will have to be decided before the full weight of the rebels forces can be directed at the Assads. Has about 10,000 fighters, more than half of them foreigners.
Al Qaeda has factions in both ISIL and the moderate Islamic radical coalition and for over a year has been trying to get ISIL to play nice. But as al Qaeda discovered during the 2003-8 terrorism campaign in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic terrorists don’t always cooperate with and al Qaeda believes that is why ISIL lost big during the 2003-8 effort. But a diminished ISIL is still fighting and growing in Iraq because Sunni and Shia politicians cannot agree on who gets what. Many Iraqi Sunnis still miss the decades of Sunni Arab domination in Iraq. This minority rule ended when Americans and British troops overthrew Saddam in 2003. The Sunni minority (about 20 percent of all Iraqis) have dominated the more numerous Shia for most of the past thousand years and miss the power and money. Many Sunni men are still willing to be fanatic terrorists in order to get it all back. In Syria ISIL took the lead in recruiting foreign Islamic terrorists to come and fight the Assads. This caused a lot of friction with Syrian Islamic radicals, including the local al Qaeda franchise (al Nusra) and al Qaeda senior leaders sided with al Nusra and ordered ISIL to disband last November. ISIL ignored this and now is at war with the Assads and most of the rebels. But recent defeats in northern and eastern Syria, as well as in western Iraq, are putting ISIL on the ropes.
As ISIL fighters are driven out of their bases in northern Syria (where ISIL is strongest) hundreds of civilians and rebels from other factions are being freed from captivity. But nearly as many dead bodies of other rebels are being found in mass graves. It has long been suspected that ISIL was capturing and killing rebel fighters who did not support ISIL, and some pro-rebel civilians as well. The Assads appear to be stepping back and letting the rebel factions battle each other. After that goes on for a while, the Assads will go back on the offensive against the weakened, but more united, rebels.
In 2013 over 70,000 died in Syria, about a third of them civilians. While Iran sees their expensive efforts in Syrian paying off the anti-Hezbollah feelings in Lebanon are becoming more violent and that is also a direct threat to Iran. Saudi Arabia recently gave the largely Sunni and Christian Lebanese military $3 billion to upgrade their capabilities. Hezbollah has long feared a Lebanese army attempt to disarm them. The Saudis are willing to sacrifice much to damage Iranian interests in Syria and Lebanon. The Hezbollah militia is the main source of mercenaries to prop up the Assad government in Syria so any effort that hurts Hezbollah endangers Iranian and Assad victory in Syria.
Russia and Iran are quite pleased with the way they have played the situation, especially the deal to remove Syrian chemical weapons (which the Syrians can rebuild later). This removal will drag on for as long as it takes to defeat the rebels and as long as the removal is in progress the rebels will not get Western air support, no matter how many atrocities the Assads commit against pro-rebel civilians. The Assads continue bombing and shelling pro-rebel civilians on a large scale.
January 8, 2014: The Islamic Front has declared Aleppo to be an independent Islamic state. The Islamic Front fought both ISIL and FSA groups to widen its control over parts of the city but is nowhere near controlling all of Aleppo and is being driven out of areas it has long controlled.
In Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) police arrested the leader of a local Islamic terrorist group that was recruiting local Moslems to fight in Syria.
At UN headquarters Russia used its veto to prevent the UN from protesting the increased number of air strikes against civilians in Syria. Most Syrian aircraft are Russian and Russia still provides parts and other supplies to keep these aircraft flying.
January 7, 2014: ISIL put an audio message out on the Internet calling for its fighters to crush the rebel factions that oppose it in Syria. ISIL is suffering a morale problem because many of its members did not sign on to fight other rebels and many are accepting offers from non-ISIL Islamic terrorist groups to switch sides. Some ISIL commanders will kill any of their men who try to do that, an attitude that damages morale even more.
This was all supposed to be completed by the end of December, but today the first batch of chemical weapons, recently moved from their storage depots to the port of Latakia, were loaded on a Danish ship that is now on its way to an Italian port where the chemicals will be transferred to an American ship equipped to neutralize the deadly chemicals while far at sea. The Danish ship took nine cargo containers of chemicals, which is apparently less than five percent of the 1,300 tons that have to be destroyed.
January 6, 2014: In the eastern city of Raqqa more moderate rebels ousted ISIL forces, which had controlled Raqqa for nearly a year. Raqqa is the largest city in the east and the only provincial capital to be captured by the rebels.
The government announced that henceforth Russian, along with French, will be the main foreign languages taught in secondary schools.
January 5, 2014: In a Damascus neighborhood FSA rebels and the government agreed to a truce which would see troops pulled back, the streets of the neighborhood cleared of dead bodies (and those belong to the army returned to the army) and FSA would still control the roads going through the area. FSA has held this neighborhood for over a year. The government is offering these truces in many contested areas and promising easier access to food, especially if the pro-rebel area will fly the Syrian flag over the rebel held area.
January 3, 2014: Acting together in Aleppo, rebels from FSA and the Islamic Front coordinated attacks on ISIS. This came as a surprise to ISIS, who largely withdrew when attacked.
Outside the cities of Damascus and Homs bombs damaged natural gas pipelines, which led to a lack of heating and electricity in central and southern Syria.
January 2, 2014: In Lebanon a car bomb went off in a pro-Hezbollah neighborhood of Beirut killing five and wounding 70. This is considered a revenge attack for Hezbollah violence against Sunni leaders.
January 1, 2014: The new year began with ISIL and other rebel factions going to war with each other on a large scale.
Syrian warplanes bombed a camp just across the border in Lebanon that was used by rebels and recent refugees. Ten Syrians were wounded in this attack. The day before Lebanese troops had fired on Syrian warplanes that briefly crossed the border. No aircraft were his then, or this time. This was the first time Lebanese forces have fired on Syrian warplanes but not the first time the Syrians have bombed targets in Lebanon.
December 31, 2013: Syrian officials publically thanked Russia, Iran and China for supporting the Assad government and making eventual victory over the Sunni rebels possible.
December 3o, 2013: in western Iraq ISIL fighters attacked Fallujah and Ramadi, the two largest cities in Anbar (western Iraq) and declared Anbar an Islamic State. The army and pro-government tribesmen counterattacked and are slowly driving ISIL and its anti-government tribal allies out of the cities. The unexpected effectiveness of the counterattack has unnerved ISIL, which is now in danger of suffering a major, and very public, defeat.
December 27, 2013: In Lebanon (Beirut) a car bomb killed a prominent Sunni politician (and former finance minister) and six others. Several days of anti-Hezbollah demonstrations followed because the victim was very anti-Hezbollah.
December 25, 2013: In Lebanon police recently arrested an elderly Sunni Arab (hospitalized for age related problems) and DNA from the man linked him to earlier terrorist attacks against Iranian targets in Lebanon. The man, Majid Al Majid, is a Saudi al Qaeda leader wanted for attacks against other targets as well and for currently being a key fundraiser for Islamic terrorist groups in Lebanon.
The government has signed deals with Russian firms to have the Russians explore for oil and gas off the coast and share in the profits from anything found there. http://www.strategypage.com/qnd/syria/articles/20140109.aspx