By Strategy page
ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) is taking a beating in Syria and Iraq. For all of January the Iraqi branch has been trying to seize cities in Western Iraq (Anbar province) while the Syrian ISIL has been fighting the Syrian rebels (moderates and Islamic terrorists) who finally united against the ISIL and sought to destroy this Iraqi led organization, at least in Syria. So far this fighting has killed over a 1,500 people and put Iraqi Islamic terrorists on the defensive on both sides of the border. About half of the dead are ISIL and another 10-15 percent are civilians. The Syrian Army took advantage of the rebel civil war for a while and made some advances. But those advances soon stalled and the rebels pushed back. ISIL only has a few thousand fighters left in the north, around Aleppo and along the Turkish border and in the east (across the border from Anbar). Within the rebel movement ISIL is now outnumbered more than 20 to 1, although in the areas where it is strongest the odds are much lower (often four or five to one) and their fanatic fighting spirit is no longer sufficient to make up for their low numbers. ISIL has suffered heavily in the last four weeks, probably as much from desertions as from combat losses. Many ISIL fighters are dismayed at having to fight fellow rebels and have gone over to more moderate rebel groups or left Syria in disgust. At the end of January the al Qaeda branch in Iraq is on the defensive while the one in Syria is fighting for survival. The defeat of ISIL does not mean the end of al Qaeda in Syria because even more al Qaeda men are fighting against ISIL. The losers here are the Iraqi radicals who dominate the ISIL. Despite the attention paid to the war with ISIL the rebels still control most of the country, or at least dispute control with the security forces.
One thing that’s hurting ISIL in Syria and the West is their savagery. In addition to slaughtering Moslems who don’t agree with them, they have also been particularly brutal against Syrian Christians. In 2013 57 percent of the Christians killed for religious reasons worldwide died in Syria, mostly because of ISIL. Some 90 percent of the worldwide deaths were at the hands of Islamic terrorists and ISIL was the worst offender.
In the last six months the Syrian rebels have gone through some serious changes. In late 2013 there was a major reorganization within the SMC (Supreme Military Command, formerly FSA/Free Syrian Army). This was the original coalition and was largely moderate, democratic and not very effective in combat. Many of the rebel fighters noted that the Islamic terrorists groups were more successful in combat and many rebels became radicalized and joined the Islamic groups. Not all these Islamic groups were terrorist in outlook. Many of the groups within the SMC became more Islamic and last November most rebels abandoned the SMC and formed a loose coalition of Islamic (including Islamic terrorist) combat organizations. It is believed that 20-30 percent of the rebels consider themselves al Qaeda.
This left the SMC with the allegiance of only about 30,000 armed rebels. The FSA had earlier evolved into the SMC in an attempt to become more relevant. Based outside Syria the SMC does not control any fighting forces in the traditional sense. It is more a conduit for a lot of foreign aid, including some weapons. Efforts by the FSA and SMC to get all, or even most of the rebels to coordinate their efforts failed. Many active rebel groups inside Syria pledge allegiance to SMC just for the supplies. A lot of rebel groups will actually listen to the SMC military experts (who are generally professionals who know what they are talking about) but will not dependably follow-through. Most of the remaining SMC fighters are opposed to Islamic terrorists, especially the ISIL. Some of the remaining SMC affiliated 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.
By the end of 2013 the largest rebel coalition was the newly formed Islamic Front, which has about 40,000 armed men, all of whom are religious and most of whom are all for some kind of “Islamic State”. Some want democracy with that, some don’t. Everyone is following God’s Will but not everyone got the same orders from on high. There are four smaller Islamic coalitions. There’s the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (with about 5,000 fighters), Al Nusra (about 7,000), the Mujahideen Army (about 5,000) and ISIL (with about 8,000). 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. Allied with the Kurds are the Christians who are about ten percent of the population. Together have over 12,000 armed men available (mainly for self-defense).
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. There are many foreigners among the non-ISIL rebels but these are tolerated as their main goal is removing the Assad government, not making Syria part of an Iraqi empire. ISIL still 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. All the other rebels have been at war with ISIL since January 1st and that conflict will have to be decided before the full weight of the rebels forces can be directed at the Assads.
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 and al Qaeda believes that is why ISIL lost big during the 2003-8 effort in Iraq. 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) had 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 in 2013. ISIL ignored this and now is at war with the Assads and most of the rebels. Using all those foreigners gave ISIL another advantage; they were not bound to stay in one place to protect their families and neighborhoods. Many of the rebels are in it largely for self-defense and cannot easily be persuaded to go fight someplace else in Syria.
While the Assads are losing on the battlefield they are winning on the economic front. The influx of cash from Iran and Russia has enabled the government to rebuild its reserve of hard currency to about $600 million. The Assads are fighting a war of attrition. They believe the side with the best economic situation and reliable troops still in action will prevail. As long as the Iranian cash and military assistance keeps coming, the Assads have reason to be optimistic that they will eventually be the last man standing.
Now there are over three million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and crime and corruption in the refugee camps grows despite the obvious suffering of so many of those in the camps. Cell phones and the Internet make it easier to document and expose the theft. No wonder the UN is having a hard time raising the $6.5 billion is says is needed to keep the camps going. The UN, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are also in big trouble because of unruly refugee camps. It’s not just the thieves, but other types of criminals as well. The Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are increasingly out of control because of this. Aid groups operate under the protection of local security forces, but as is often the case the locals are unable or unwilling to supply sufficient police or troops to keep the peace inside these instant cities created by the aid organizations. While the Turks can mobilize sufficient additional forces to keep the camps peaceful this is not the case in Lebanon and especially Jordan because both nations have long had too much unrest and not enough money for a lot of police. In Syria there are problems with Sunni Islamic radicals keen on chasing out all non-Moslem foreigners. The refugee camps for Syrians are particularly vexed by criminal gangs that prey on everyone, especially the women. The rebel groups recruit teenage boys to fight or, in the case of Islamic radical groups, to be suicide bombers (called “birds of paradise”). Younger boys are often sexually exploited, which is a common problem throughout the region.
Millions of civilians are trapped inside of Syria, many of them unable to get supplies or even leave because of government or rebel combat activity. There are growing reports of starvation deaths, and there have been several hundred hunger related deaths so far this year. Many of the victims died from disease because they were weakened by shortages of food and fuel.
January 27, 2014: It appears that there has been another Israeli air strike near the Syrian naval base at Latakia, The last one (October 2013) destroyed a shipment of Russian SA-125 missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Today’s attack was said to be against some S-300 missile components recently received from Russia. For over a year now Russia and Syria have admitted that shipments of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems (similar to the U.S. Patriot) have arrived in Syria. Israel was skeptical and was watching all this very carefully. Israel is determined to prevent the S-300s from becoming operational if they do arrive. The S-300s are a threat to Israeli aircraft and Israel will continue its air raids in Syria to stop any new weapons from getting to Lebanon and Hezbollah and to halt activation of the S-300 anywhere in Syria or Lebanon. Israel indicated that if the S-300 did show up in Syria (or Lebanon) they would probably attack it right away, before these systems could become operational.
The U.S. and Gulf Arab oil states are still sending weapons to the rebels. The American stuff is only for “moderate” groups while the Arabs will arm just about anyone fighting the Assads. The weapons come in openly via Jordan and more covertly via Turkey. Iran and Russia are sending weapons to the Assads, largely by air and sea.
January 25, 2014: Peace talks are underway in Switzerland. The rebels never wanted any part of this, as they see the talks as a ploy by the Assads and their allies to slow the rebels down. The main obstacle to real talks is the rebels’ insistence that Assad has to go while the Syrian government refuses to even discuss removing the Assads. Some of the rebel factions (the SNC, or Syrian National Council) are represented at the talks and to even get that the UN had to rescind an invitation for Iran to attend. The only thing anyone expects out of these talks is some agreements to let aid get to civilians inside Syria and to get women and children out of places under siege (by rebels or government forces). Such a deal was made to let 500 women and children out of rebel held Homs. But about half of those eligible to leave refused to do so unless they could take adult (especially elderly) male members of their families.
January 24, 2014: Four rockets fired from Syria landed in Lebanon. There was no damage. The culprit is usually the rebels, trying to hit Hezbollah targets.
January 20, 2014: The interim nuclear program/sanctions deal with Iran goes into effect. This means some of the sanctions will be relaxed. Thus it is now legal for European tankers to transport Iranian oil to the few countries that are allowed to buy it and over $4 billion in Iranian cash overseas will be unfrozen and available to use supporting the Assads. The UN also announced that the invitation to Iran to attend the Syria peace talks was being withdrawn because Iran refused to consider talk of a transitional government in Syria nor the removal of Basher Assad as ruler of Syria.
January 19, 2014: After 23 years, Israel is going to stop distributing gas masks to its citizens. The gas mask program in 1991, after Saddam Hussein fired some SCUD ballistic missiles at Israel. Iraq had used chemical weapons a lot during in the previous decade, while fighting a war with Iran. Syria was also building up its chemical weapons stockpile and its arsenal of SCUD missiles, although they were considered less likely to attack. But because Saddam remained in power after his 1991 defeat Israel continued issuing the gas masks. But now even Israel is convinced that the Syrian chemical weapons stocks are being removed and destroyed. If the Syrian government survives the three year rebellion that is still going on, those chemical stocks can easily be rebuilt. But that takes time and Israel will be watching. So in the meantime, the chemical weapons threat is considered greatly diminished. There is still a threat from Iran, but that is considered remote. Israel will keep stockpiling gas masks, but for distribution to disaster relief personnel. Just in case.
January 18, 2014: A photographer defected from the Assad government and brought with him 55,000 digital photos showing the murder of 11,000 rebel prisoners. The savagery shown in these pictures has got some UN officials talking of war crimes charges against the Assad government.
The SNC finally agreed to attend the UN sponsored peace talks that are to begin on the 24th.
January 17, 2014: A rocket fired from Syria landed in Lebanon killed seven people. The culprit is usually the rebels, trying to hit Hezbollah targets. http://www.strategypage.com/qnd/syria/articles/20140128.aspx