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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Extremists On The Offensive In Syria

Links: A. Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham Advance In Syria
           B. Islamic State Advances On Deir al Zour

Lately I've had to come to grips with the fact that I was wrong regarding certain events in Syria.  Last month I repeatedly raised expectations that forces loyal to de facto Syrian President Bashir al-Assad would have had the opportunity to refit and reorganize.  I opined that Russian military aid would have allowed the Syrian Armed Forces to reconstitute its armor brigades and possibly rebuild the Syrian Air Force.  The Allied air campaign should have occupied the Islamic State (ISIL) and the various other armed groups enough to allow the regular Syrian Army an opportunity to regain the strategic initiative, I hypothesized.  It appears that I was mistaken.  Even though in late November the international media printed a number of stories indicating a slow down in ISIL military advances, the reality is that the extremist groups were on the move just about everywhere. 

For some reason, the press and media continue to separate the groups who make up the Islamic extremist element in Syria.  Wasn't there a recognition in October that Al-Nusra, ISIL, Ahrar al Sham (and whoever else wants to throw their hat into the ring) are loyal to Al-Qaeda?  And yet we continue to see Al-Nusra being given the mantle of "Al-Qaeda's representative in Syria", as if we are referring to a Lodge meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Unless I see some usefulness in doing so, I will not refer to separate Islamic extremist factions in Syria.  I have a good idea why the U.S. media (eager to do the bidding of this administration) continues to perpetrate the falsehood that their is some significant difference between these groups. Qatar (and possibly the UAE as well), who has a couple jets involved in the "anti-ISIS" air campaign, has been suspected of supporting some of these other groups in the past.  Qatar wants to be seen as only bombing ISIL targets, because ISIL's message of an enlarged Caliphate is dangerous to the existing Gulf royal families.  Qatar wants to continue its "clandestine" support for these other groups, though, so they will only participate in ther bombing of ISIL targets.  If someone has evidence that Qatar and the UAE contingents in the air campaign have indeed participated in action against non-ISIL targets, please let me know.  Actually, I'm not even sure of the United States is bombing non-ISIL targets (although you would think that "Al-Qaeda's representative in Syria" would be in line for some sort of attention).

What a mess.  We can be certain of one thing: the regular Syrian forces have been taking a beating in the northwestern province of Idlib and eastern province of Deir al Zour.  Interestingly enough, the extremists have been making effective use of American-made TOW anti-tank missiles in action against Syrian armor.  Will I be the first to consider just how the TOW anti-tank missiles ended up the hands of the extremists?  Were they originally the property of the Free Syrian Army that is being supported and armed by the United States?  Assad can only be ringing his hands in despair as the U.S.-led air campaign seems to be having no impact on the Islamic extremists offensives against the few remaining government positions outside of Damascus.  I'm one of those folks who likes to look at a big map and envision the various military elements and positions accordingly.  I have spent a decent amount of time focusing on the regular Syrian Army, and I think I'm beginning to get a grasp on the three main groups that constitute the Islamic extremist forces.  But I'm totally in the dark regarding the army that the United States government was planning on training in place of U.S. ground forces.  Last summer we were told that the United States military would be training and equipping the "Free Syrian Army" (sometimes called the "New Syrian Army").  If my memory serves me correctly, this military force was led by a group of former regime officers who were both secular and opposed to Assad.  Money was allotted for the training and equipping of this army, and I recall the Pentagon supposing that it would take somewhere around four months to stand-up the Free Syrian Army.  In October, my understanding of the situation was shaken like an Etch-a-Sketch.  The Pentagon released a statement declaring that the Free Syrian Army would be a force utilized for defensive operations only.  Then a few days later, I recall news reports indicating that elements of the free Syrian Army had been involved in a battle with ISIS, and came away the worse for it.  Was this a "defensive only" engagement? 

If I could get the answers to a few simple questions, my understanding of the conflict would be increased measurably.  What is the state of the Free Syrian Army?  Does it exist, is it active, and will the Pentagon confirm its previous statement that the Free Syrian Army has definite rules of engagement that limit is capabilities to defensive action only?  Is it true that the Qatari government requested rules of engagement for its contribution to the air campaign, which would exempt Qatari jets from bombing any targets other than ISIL?  If so, does the UAE, Kuwait or Bahrain have the same prohibition sewn into their agreement to be part of the Allied air coalition?  I can't help but feel a bit lost on the Syrian front.  The last time I spent much time on this part of the map, the Kurds were besieged by ISIL in Kobane; has this situation in Kobane changed?  Its true I have been keeping a closer eye on developments in Iraq, as the growing Iranian involvement has me reconsidering my prediction that Baghdad would eventually fall to ISIL.  The Iranians have the capacity to defeat ISIL hands-down.  At the same time, the Iranian government might decide to climb back into its hole and pull back its resources.  When it comes to efforts to obtain weapons-grade Uranium, the Iranians are easy to predict.  But when it comes to the deployment of its military, Iran can vacillate with the best of them.   

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