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After three years of struggle, the civil war in Syria increasinlgy resembles the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, the bloody struggle that provided a preview of the larger war the came in 1939. In Spain, Fascist forces were backed by Italy and Germany, pitted against leftist forces, some backed by the Soviet Union. The anti-fascist forces were divided into Stalinist, Trotskyite and Anarchist factions, which battled each other as well as the fascists. In Syria, Shia Iran is backing the Alawite [quasi co-religionist] Assad regime, while Sunni monarchies - Saudi Arabia and Qatar - backed some opposition militias. The situation is far more complex, but this framework is a good place to start.
Syrian rebel groups were fighting each other, with more than 1,000 people killed in the first two weeks of January 2014 in clashes among armed opposition groups. The infighting appeared to be benefiting the government in Damascus. It was the worst rebel-on-rebel violence since Syria’s civil war began nearly three years earlier. Opposition fighters targeted the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Levant [ISIS/ISIL], which had been terrorizing civilians. The battles among rebels appeared to be boosting the Syrian government. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gained ground in the chaos of rebel-on-rebel fighting.
By mid-2014 the Government's military campaigns had been largely successful, whether in the Qalamoun region in shutting off the Lebanese back door to rebels, in retaking Homs, surrounding neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo. By mid-year, Assad was well on his way to retaking Aleppo, Syria's northern capital. But a large chunk of the country remained out his control, and that he was in virtual isolation. More than half of the Syria electorate did not even have the chance to vote in the June election.
A United Nations-backed report detailed the economic and societal devastation of the four-year war in Syria, where the violence of a multiparty civil conflict became further inflamed by a multinational battle against Islamic State militants. The report, released 10 March 2015y, said the war had cost the Syrian economy over $200 billion dollars and brought "drastic levels of inequality and inequity" to people across the country who struggle to find food. The result was a spike in unemployment, which shot from about 15 percent at the start of the war in 2011 to nearly 58 percent by the end of 2014. That left almost 4 million people out of work in a country where the population has also dropped from about 21 million to 17.5 million since the fighting began. The fighting killed 220,000 people, sent 3.8 million refugees into neighboring countries and forced another 6.8 million to flee their homes within Syria.
As the violence in Syria has mutated from civil unrest into civil war, it has grown ever more brutal. The public squares where people gathered in March 2011 – exactly four years ago – now serve as monuments to destruction, the remnants of a once vibrant society. The neighbourhoods where Syrians dared to demonstrate and call for their civil rights have been reduced to rubble. World heritage sites have been turned into battlefields and archaeological sites, looted. With the violence in Syria now entering its fifth year, the country has been plunged into darkness.
Civilians have always been the primary victims of violence in Syria. Women and children, men and boys, the elderly, persons with disabilities, are treated as legitimate targets by Government forces, anti-Government armed groups, extremists and terrorist organizations. Children have been indoctrinated and instrumentalised on a massive scale. The men and women who aid those wounded or in need of humanitarian assistance are systematically arrested, detained, tortured and killed. The symbol of the Red Crescent has ceased to be a shield of protection.
An alarming number of cases of sexual violence are still being committed inside Syria. Both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have stoned women to death on charges of “adultery”. Yazidi women and girls, abducted by ISIS in Iraq, are being sold and re-sold inside Syria, where they are held in sexual slavery. This terrorist group has brutally executed men accused of homosexuality by throwing them off tall buildings.
The Course of Combat
Syria may be heading toward a break-up that would see the formation of at least three new mini-states. One such mini-state would be an enclave for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in the west and northwest that would be populated by members of the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, Shiites and Christians. Another would be a Sunni-majority state in the center and south of the country and the third would be a separate entity in the northeast for Syria’s two million Kurds.
In 2012 Syria’s Orthodox Christian Church claimed that Islamist rebels were carrying out “ethnic cleansing of Christians” in Homs. The Vatican news agency, Fides, said most of the 50,000 Christians living in the city left when Islamists went door to door in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan telling Christians they would be shot if they did not leave. Militants Islamists have sometimes used the slogan, “the Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut.”
By mid-2013, as Syria continued its sectarian civil war, some argued that state-based nationalism was declining and something larger and older was taking over. The Syrian war seemed to mark the beginning of the end for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire after World War I and created the modern Middle East. Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese army general and now the director of a political think tank in Beirut, believes the likely outcome of the civil war is the breakup of Syria. He foresees Alawites, members of an offshoot sect of Shia Islam, and Christians cleaving together along Syria’s coast, and Kurds and Sunni Muslims establishing separate states of their own.
Ben Caspit wrote February 11, 2014 that "... Israel Defense Forces top brass believe that the struggle in Syria could last as long as a decade. Wording this cautiously, a very high-ranking Israeli defense official told me: “We’re facing a decade of struggle in the Syrian environs.” Either way, Israel believes that the Syria we had come to know over the past few decades is gone. ... a senior IDF official commented... “the concentration of all the global jihad madmen in Damascus and the Golan Heights is also a disconcerting development. So as far as we’re concerned, the alternatives are bad either way. And there’s also the possibility that these alternatives would coexist, which means that the current situation could last for many more years. Assad will keep his grip in Damascus and the Alawite strongholds, while jihadist forces will grow stronger and take control of all the other areas."
At the beginning of 2015 Assad’s forces were menacing the rebels in districts they held in the northern Syrian town of Aleppo and threatening an encirclement that would have severed insurgent supply lines to Turkey. With the encirclement just a handful of miles from being completed, Assad boasted that 2015 would see his victory over the rebels in a civil war that has cost at least 200,000 lives.
But in March, rebel units disrupted an effort by Syrian government forces to surround them and captured a strategic crossroads and a commanding hill controlling a key route into Aleppo. Later in the month insurgents, with al-Qaida’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the lead, captured Idlib, the second biggest town to fall into rebel hands in the brutal four-year-long civil war.
By April 2015 Iran increasingly focused its military efforts in the Mideast on Iraq and the loser appeared to be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His forces had been losing ground to the country’s fractious rebels, who despite being engulfed by infighting, have managed to seize territory in the war-torn country’s north and south.
Assad’s forces appeared over-stretched in Idlib. Noticeably absent in the defense of the city in the country’s northwest were Iranian-coordinated foreign Shiite militiamen and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, who the Assad regime had relied on for past gains as well as to organize local fighters from Assad’s minority Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Many Shia militiamen from Iraq who had been fighting alongside Assad’s forces started to return in the autumn of 2014 to neighboring Iraq to assist in the pushback against the Sunni militants of the so-called Islamic State.
Arguing that recent battlefield gains by the insurgents are shaping “a new political reality” in Syria, rebel leaders argue that only the backing of Iran and Russia is prolonging the conflict. “The current coordination between the rebel factions can contribute to the acceleration of the liberation process of Syria from the Assad regime,” says Khaled Khoja, the president of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition (SNC). With jihadists from the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra excluded, and rebels scoring recent major military gains, the opposition has little reason for negotiating. And with President al-Assad’s leverage reduced because of government setbacks, the regime has little interest in engaging in serious talks.
By mid-May 2015, battlefield gains by insurgents in northern Syria, in an alliance dominated by al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and hardline Islamist militias presented the Obama administration with a dilemma — whether to support the new insurgent momentum against President Bashar al-Assad or to have nothing to do with it. While the victories in April and May over forces loyal to Assad in Idlib province west of Aleppo may mark a turning point in the fortunes of the rebels in the long-running, bloody civil war that had left more than 200,000 dead, US officials were alarmed at the composition of the alliance known as Jaish al-Fata, or the Army of Conquest, announced on 28 March 2015.
A coalition of Sunni states responded to counter Iran, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey putting aside differences to back Jaish al-Fatah, the Army of Conquest. With the help of a more centralized approach and an influx of weapons, Jaish al-Fatah made inroads against the regime, notably in Syria’s Idlib province. The anti-Assad forces hadn’t yet turned the tide of the war itself, but they had been able to make notable gains on some of the margins where pro-Assad forces were in some ways limited by the lack of deployment by some of these irregular supporting elements.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the militants' victory in Palmyra in mid-May 2015 meant they held sway over more than half of Syria. Much of the Syrian territory held by the IS group is uninhabited dessert in the center of the country, with Syria’s main cities – including the capital, Damascus – located on its western flank along the border with Lebanon and on the coast. However, the militant group controllrf most of Syria's oil and gas fields, and is using the income to fund its expansion. It now also had a springboard from which to make further territorial gains.
The Syrian regime retained control of about a quarter of the territory of the country and about half the population, with half the territory held by the extremist Islamic State, and the rest by myriad opposition rebels and Kurdish groups.
By mid-2015 the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad controlled, at best, 20 percent of the country. Assad really only needed the coastline and the capital, Damascus. To the east is desert.
On September 27, 2015 France said it had launched its first airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, on targets it identified after two weeks of surveillance flights. French President Francois Hollande told reporters at the United Nations that six jet fighters hit an Islamic State training camp near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. France had only taken part in airstrikes against the jihadists in neighboring Iraq. Paris had carried out 215 of the nearly 4,500 strikes there.
The fighting to the north of the Syrian city of Aleppo in late September 2015 illustrated how complex and tangled the Syrian civil war had become, featuring a dizzying array of rebel factions. Some are approved of by the West while others are favored by Turkey and the Gulf countries, and two rival jihadist organizations – not to mention the Kurds and Syrian government forces. While coalition airstrikes targetted Islamic State extremists, regime warplanes had pounded villages controlled by rebel factions and, according to insurgent commanders, chiefly those that are important for rebel supply lines into Aleppo.
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