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Syria situation report July 2016

July 14, 2016

I would prefer to write about gardening and cats, but beside environmental issues the imperial wars in the Middle East have caught my attention and I follow the events closely, though it is difficult to make out what really happens.

As mentioned before, traditional media are completely useless, casually scanning the headlines is usually enough to get an idea about the officially approved propaganda lines (lies).

Fortunately there are forums, dissident journalists, and local sources posting on the internet and bypassing censorship, there are also the occasional hard facts slipping through the editor controls, there is the possibility of reverse engineering the distorted and heavily processed news, there is the possibility to cross check with archived information, to apply life experience, logical thinking, and common sense.

Btw, I’m biased and partisan, sympathizing with the Rojava Kurds and with the Syrian government of Dr. Bashar al-Assad, opposed to jihadists, Islamic regimes (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait), and Western colonial powers.

Lately the situation in Syria has gotten interesting again and therefore here is another situation report:

After the partial withdraw of Russian jets the Syrian army suffered several setbacks during spring and summer, convincing many observers, that the pendulum had swung back in favor of the Islamic rebels. A “cessation of hostilities,” negotiated by Russia and the USA, was used for massive arms deliveries to the Islamists, including MANPADS (man-portable air defense system), which were previously off limits.

Several Syrian fighter jets and a Russian helicopter have since been shot down and the danger of further losses makes a close air support for ground operations increasing difficult. Russian jets fly at high altitudes and only shortly dive down onto the target, a practice which inevitably reduces the precision of the attack.

Recent aircraft losses:

June 19 – MiG-21 crashes in Hama. Pilot Ayham Khadra dies.
June 26 – Jaysh al-Islam damages helicopter.
June 27 – Jaysh al Islam claims shooting down MiG-29.
June 27 – MiG-23BN crash in Eastern Qalamoun. Pilot Nader Ramadan killed
July 1 – Su-22 shot down in East Qalamoun. Pilot Nawras Hasan ejects, is caught and executed.
July 1 – Mi-25 helicopter shot down over Qalamoun. Gen. Muhammad Badr Mahmoud, Captain Zein Nayef Khalloof, technician Col. Adnan Munir Al-Salem killed.
July 3 – Helicopter shot down over Eastern Ghouta. Brig Gen. Muhammad Ayoub, technician Ghadeer Assaf, Lt. Sohail Saqr killed.
July 4 – MiG-23 shot down over Ghouta. Pilot Shawkat Suleiman killed.
July 8 – Russian Mi-35M shot down by IS (Islamic State) at Palmya, Colonel Ryafagat Habibullin and Lieutenant Eugene Dolgin killed.
July 14 – IS claims shutdown of MiG-23 in Mount Tardah, Deir Ez-Zor Governorate. IS also claims shutdown of a helicopter.

Syria russian jet hit 2

The Islamists also increasingly resort to SVBIEDs (suicide-vehicle-born-improvised-devices), which are difficult to neutralize and can cause high casualties. The suicide bombers preferably use armored vehicles like humvees, AFVs (armored fighting vehicles), APCs (armored personal carriers), which only a perfect shot with a TOW anti-tank missile or a deep enough trench can stop, The vehicles are always packed to the roof with bomb material, resulting in massive explosions. There is seemingly no shortage of drivers willing to blow themselves up for the greater good of jihad.

One can bet, that weapons producers around the world are working on unmanned, remote controlled or even auto-piloted vehicle bombs, to adapt this powerful battle tactic for the use by “non-suicide” armies.

On the Syrian-Turkish border the Turkish militias which reside in the so called Azaz pocket tried to advance into IS (Islamic State) territory and reach the key town Dabiq. They captured a few deserted villages, only to be driven out the next day by IS. They tried a second time to be chased out again and a third time and so on. One cannot make out how serious and intense the fighting is, but Turkeys intentions clearly are to keep the supply corridor to Islamist insurgents open and as IS is not presentable anymore, Turkmen militias have to take over.

Every time the Turkish based rebels retreat from their positions, they leave a lot of weapons behind which IS can collect and add to its stocks. This is really cool, because nobody can accuse Turkey of supporting IS and yet, essential supplies are still reaching the defamed jihadists.

Kurdish female fighters 8

The Kurds, rebranded as SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and sanitized by the integration of a few Arab fighters, started a new offensive against IS from Tishrin. By doing so they crossed another red line of Erdogan who had promised to thwart any effort of the Kurds to cross the Euphrates River and expand westwards. US diplomates tried to appease Turkey with the assurance that the offensive was not meant to close the gap between the Afrin and Kobane cantons but to conquer the IS-caliphate capital Raqqa with the help of US air power and NATO special forces.

Despite the assurances and promises the Kurds unexpectedly turned west and attacked the key IS transit town of Manbij. Manbij is surely not as fortified as Raqqa, far off, and yet, IS put up stiff resistance and unleashed several waves of suicide bombers who caused heavy casualties among the Kurds.

Abu Layla, one of the most renowned and admired Kurdish commanders, died in the battle, his brother Yousif Babe Aziz was captured by IS and will be probably slowly tortured to death. IS released a video where he looks terrible.

An IS counter-offensive to break the encirclement was repelled after heavy fighting and the Kurds made slow but steady progress, taking one neighborhoods after the other.

Kurdish forces have taken control of 60 percent of the city so far, but the operation is still difficult due to continuous suicide car bombings, land mines, and booby traps. This will be a very costly victory and the Kurds will need some rest, time for healing, reorganizing, replenishing supplies. They will not be able to continue like this or even advance further against Raqqa.

Abu Layla

IS (Islamic State) thwarted Syrian ambitions to expand further from Palmyra, which was seized in a Russian-backed offensive in March. Jihadi raids on the army’s flanks drew troops deeper into the desert, requiring to man outposts and conduct clearing operations instead of concentrating forces. The government also lost important gas infrastructure around the Shaer fields and has still not managed to retake it. IS attacks continue to destabilize the isolated government enclave in Deir Ezzor.

In June an army offensive toward the Tabqa airbase and the nearby dam on the Euphrates, meant to exploit a weakening of IS at it was attacked in the north by Kurdish forces, turned into a fiasco. After seizing a long stretch of desert road, the spearheading army units suddenly folded and fled back to their initial fortified positions.

In hindsight it could be though, that the Syrian plans were based on a Kurdish attack against IS-capital Raqqa. But the Kurds, as already mentioned,  instead turned to Manbij and Raqqa was left alone, leaving enough IS fighters available to make the Tabqa offensive a costly and potentially deadly operation.

South of Aleppo, a joint offensive of Jabhat al-Nusra and aligned jihadists did slowly eat away at a bulge of rural territory that Iranian-backed Shia militias had expanded last winter. The jihadists seized Khan Touman and the high ground of Jabal Eiss, which had been intended to serve as jump-off points for offensives into Aleppo and Idlib. Government forces also retreated from positions they had recently seized in the mountains of northern Latakia, being pushed out of a pocket of useful high ground around Kinsibba.

burning tank

But, after month of disheartening failures and defeats the Syrian forces finally have made progress around the country’s two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus. The new gains are very significant, not in terms of square kilometers won, but with regard to the strategic importance of the territory recaptured. It appears that the strategists in Syria, Russia, Iran hatched a plan and systematically, focused, and unmoved by the mentioned setbacks, prepared everything necessary to successfully effectuate it.

When, after a string of probing attacks, the offensive began on June 25, Russia was already days into a campaign of massive aerial bombardments in the Aleppo region. Iran had dispatched military advisors and Shia fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah to shore up government lines in the city, while the Syrian Army command threw some of their best troops (Qawat Al-Nimr — the Tiger Forces) into the battle.

General Suheil al-Hassan tiger forces

By July 7, the pro-Syrian troops had seized new territory in the Mallah farmlands, located along the northwestern approaches to Aleppo. This allowed them to fire directly on the so-called Castello Road, named after a nearby restaurant. Simultaneously, government forces attacked from the other side of the road, pushing into the urban Bani Zeid-Layramoun area, which had been under relentless bombardment for nearly two weeks. The 4th Division, another elite unit, just captured the Mekki & Sarhabil factory and the glass factory and now controls all of the al-Khalidiyah neighborhood, thus reaching the Layramoun roundabout. Apparently the 4th Division inside the Layramoun district wants to link up with the Tiger Forces at the Mallah Farms, thereby encircling the insurgents in Bani Zeid district.

Urban warfare is exhausting and bloody, which makes the recent advances inside Aleppo city even more spectacular. It is rumored, that some army units got thermal scopes to see through walls and make out targets inside buildings. There shall also be microphones and other specialized equipment to detect tunnels.

Aleppo apocalypse

In addition to getting new equipment the involved Syrian army units apparently have trained and learned to neutralize SVBIEDs (suicide car bombs). The SVBIEDs which Jabhat al-Nusra sent to the Mallah Farms were all blown up before reaching their intended target, documented in several spectacular YouTube video clips.

Until now there have been three failed counter offensives with heavy losses at the Mallah Farms and Ahrar al-Sham already officially stated that it will not take part in the Mallah battle to reopen Castello road because the chances of success are too dim and the operation would be suicidal.

The other main supply route for the Islamists through the northern Azaz Corridor was already seized in February. By shutting down the Castello Road, the government has thus cut the last remaining supply line into Islamist-held eastern Aleppo. “Currently nobody can get in or out of Aleppo,” a leader of an Aleppo-based insurgent group told journalists. Though the Islamists have counter-attacked furiously for more than a week both in the Mallah area and inside Aleppo city, including an attack on the world famous Citadel, they have so far been unable to dislodge the Syrian forces, which are constantly digging trenches and fortifying positions.

A siege of eastern Aleppo will have severe consequences for the remaining 200,000 inhabitants, mostly families and supporters of the Islamists. Prices in the eastern districts have already shot up, as residents and merchants begin to stockpile basic necessities.

We will soon see massive reporting about the suffering of the civilian population, appeals to let supplies in, and threats of military action (no-fly zone) to end the siege and relieve the starving population. UN officials dutifully have raised alarm about the deteriorating situation.

The Daly Star in Lebanon published a report about long lines at a bakery and starving families. The German tabloid BILD published a piece with the headline “The Aleppo Disaster, 10 reasons why the world must act NOW,” where the notorious Julian Roepcke claims, that the siege of Aleppo by foreign Shia militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah could end with the genocide of all the 200,000 Sunni inhabitants of eastern Aleppo.

One has to keep in mind, that more than one million people live in government controlled western Aleppo, but nobody seems be concerned about their plight, even as they are now treated to a barrage of indiscriminate revenge shelling by desperate Islamic rebels, resulting in heavy casualties, including women and children.

A girl stands on debris next to a damaged building at a besieged area of Homs

Around Damascus, Syrian forces have been making progress too. West of the capital, the rebel-held satellite town of Darayya,  long been under siege and suffering from a lack of food and fuel, is being squeezed by the army, which has moved slowly to peel away rebel-controlled territory from its perimeter. The Syrian army has now captured all farmland around the town and started urban warfare operations.

If Darayya falls or is forced to conclude a truce, that will mean the regime has cleared the rebels out of every area of significance in western Damascus.

A deal is also being negotiated in southern Damascus, where the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk is jointly controlled by al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. According to the pro-government Damascus daily al-Watan, the jihadi factions will be allowed to evacuate to northern Syria along with those civilians who prefer to go with them. The camp will then be handed over to the army and Palestinian militias, in order for it to be jointly administered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Syrian government.

A similar deal was negotiated half a year ago, but it was frozen after the death of the influential rebel leader Zahran Alloush on December 25 and never revived. Should the jihadi rebels evacuate the camp this time, the Syrian government will have rid themselves of the main threat to the southern suburbs of the capital.

That leaves the enclave of Islamist-held territory in the east, an area known as the Eastern Ghouta. It is one of Syria’s most heavily militarized opposition areas and has long been thought to pose a strategic threat to the capital. The enclave, which has been contained by a government siege since 2012, was for three years dominated by Zahran Alloush’s Islam Army, but his death shook things up and brought internal divisions to the surface.

In late March, battles erupted between the Islam Army and the other two main factions of the enclave, Failaq al-Sham, which espouses a nationalist-Islamic rhetoric and uses FSA (Free Syrian Army) symbols, and the Fustat Army, which is a coalition between Jabhat al-Nusra and a local Islamist gang.

The infighting split the Eastern Ghouta between the Islamist groups, weakened their defenses, and allowed the Syrian government to focus their fire on one group at a time. Since then, Syrian forces have broken off the entire southern part of the Ghouta enclave, perhaps a quarter of its territory. It is the most serious setback to the insurgency in the Damascus area in years and the rebels are still losing territory, as government troops dig into Islam Army-held territory on the enclave’s eastern boundary.

This leaves the FSA groups of the Southern Front, which until now obeyed to the negotiated ceasefire and kept quiet, especially since their Jordanian and CIA handlers suggested, that they should rather fight IS than the government troops. The offensives of the Southern Front coalition against IS pockets were half hearted and easily repelled, making it clear that the southern FSA groups have no offensive capabilities and are glad and content to just hold their territory.

This reluctance to fight and die has drawn the ire of Saudi-supported Islamists, resulting in a Fatwa by more than 50 influential radical clerics, which states that it is “haram” (forbidden) to fight under a rebel faction in Deraa that doesn’t open a front against the Syrian government.

The Southern Front groups reacted to this criticism by announcing a new offensive against Assad, but the published statement is vague without any details and timetable.

ATGM Syria

When Russian President Vladimir Putin talked to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan after Erdogans charm offensive and declared desire to improve relations, he for sure raised the issue of Turkey’s substantial logistic, material, and personal support for Syrian insurgent groups.

Subsequently talk of a detente have been rife in the region for weeks, with media outlets in Lebanon and pro-AKP supporters in Istanbul detailing back-channel dialogues between senior intelligence officials in Turkey and Syria.

Turkey also officially signaled, that they want some sort of reconciliation with Syria, when prime minister Binali Yıldırım said: “I am sure that we will return ties with Syria to normal.” Yet the prime minister never referred to the present Syrian government or to Dr. Bashar al-Assad and just expressed Turkish intention to eventually re-establish ties. ”We hope things will get better and we will formalize our ties with the Syrian people’s government. But we don’t think Bashar al-Assad has the capacity to represent the Syrian people.”

To set things straight, MP Yasin Aktay, a senior member of Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party), rushed to tell Al Jazeera that Turkey would never establish ties with the “illegitimate Assad government“.

It is indeed very unlikely that Turkey will abandon the Rebels, some of which are nothing else than Turkish militias. But Turkish agencies will most likely tread more carefully, reduce the involvement of Turkish “volunteers,” advisers, trainers, officers in the Ankara MOM, entangle themselves from Al-Qaeda, even crack down on IS regardless of the dire consequences which a fallout with Al-Quaeda and IS may produce.

terror attacks in Turkey 2016

If one considers, that Turkeys massive involvement in Syria actually amounts to an undeclared war and an invasion, that Turkey not long ago closely cooperated with IS, threatened to officially invade Syria with the full force of its 600,000 man strong military, and tried to establish a “safe zone” along the border, this is nevertheless an essential shift in Turkish politics which will substantially diminish the pressure on Syrian forces.

Every little bit helps, and this is even more than a little bit.

Putin Erdogan 1

As we all know, predictions are difficult and seldom come true, but at the moment the most likely outcome seems to be:

Dr. Bashar al-Assad will steps down and pass the post to a close confidant, the rest of the political leadership will stay and state institutions will be kept intact.

Most rebels will lay down their arms because the foreign backers, not interested anymore to invest into a lost cause, decided to reduce or cut the weapons supply stream. Some groups will be absorbed by the main Islamist organizations (similar to what happened to the Thuwar al-Sham Battalions), the FSA will cease to exist.

The war will morph into a counter-insurgency operation, where Syria with the help of Iran and Russia will chase the remnants of IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and related Islamists. 

Syrian towns will remain a hellscape of smoldering ruins for years to come and most refugees will never return home. Iran, Iraq, Russia, China, India will help and invest while the West will stand by idle, hoping that the inflicted death and damage will be enough to deter other nations from seeking independence and resisting Western pressures to sell out and roll over.

Syria destruction piano

Update:

In a surprising offensive the Syrian army in Latakia regained Shilif, Toubal, and Kinsiba. In the western countryside of Homs rebels evacuated Qizhil and Umm Qasab. In northwest Homs the army captured Khirbet and Alsawda. The army made further gains in Aleppo, reaching the Castello Road and the Laramoun roundabout.

A huge explosion destroyed the governments Safira bomb factory in Aleppo.

The Southern Front announced the Battle of “Hiya Lilah” and  targeted pro-regime positions in Daraa Province. Until now there are no confirmed territorial gains.

US air support for the SDF in Manbij and other air operations against IS are temporarily suspended because after the failed coup attempt in Turkey the Incirlik airbase is closed.

2 comments

  1. thank you for your informative and concise reporting.



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