Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Where is the Main Jihadi Front?

Don't panic about Iraq. It is not lost. Restoring the situation is doable. And the job may be easier if ISIL sees the Syria front as their main front.

Jihadists who overran northern Iraq have moved their captured war material into Syria:

Jihadists fighting in Syria's war put to use for the first time on Sunday American-made Humvees that they seized during a lightning offensive in Iraq this month, a monitor said.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, used the armoured vehicles to capture the villages of Eksar and Maalal in Aleppo province, which borders Turkey, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Which compels me to ask again if the ISIL (ISIS) threat to Baghdad ever really existed. Was this Iraq front operation that first took Mosul intended as a raid to establish a rear area for the main jihadi fight in Syria? There aren't that many jihadis and Baathists fighting in Iraq while there are a reported 120,000 rebels fighting Assad in Syria.

The rebellion in Syria has faced reverses in the west where Assad has concentrated his forces:

Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah on Sunday launched an assault to oust rebels from the foothills of the Qalamun mountains north of the capital, state television said. ...

Regime forces took parts of the strategic Qalamun region near the border with Lebanon in April, but some 2,000 rebel fighters withdrew to the hills from where they have launched guerrilla attacks.

I'd noted at the time that simply depriving the rebels of control of the region didn't end the fight if the rebels went guerrilla. So the area is not secured by Assad's forces.

And the rebels there would benefit from pressure elsewhere that could draw off Syrian troops from Qalamun.

As ISIL reinforces their Syria front, Iraqi Shias in the Shia foreign legion that Iran sent to Syria are returning to Iraq:

Iraqi Shias who have fought alongside Bashar al-Assad's troops in Syria are returning home to defend their country from Sunni militants, The Telegraph has learned.

So pressure in Iraq is having an effect on the Syria front.

As Syrian forces advance into areas like Qalamun to deny rebels control, the Syrians must stay to hold the ground. That stretches the Syrian troops, who are not numerous and who are already shaken by years of fighting with no rotations home.

This two-edged sword for Syria's battered ground forces is taking place in the Golan region, too, which had been controlled by rebels:

The Syrian army recently regained control of most of the Israeli border and that was apparently done with the help of Hezbollah. This may explain the increased mortar, rocket and gun fire from the Syrian side. Most of that fire has been unintentional but recently it has been noted that some of it appears to be deliberate attempts to kill Israelis. The Syrian government is also very mad at Israel for several air attacks on recently imported Russian missiles. Meanwhile Israeli intelligence has concluded that only about 20 percent of the 120,000 rebels fighting the Assad government are secular. The rest are, to one degree or another, “Islamic” and that means all of them want Israel destroyed.

Taking territory there means that they must hold the ground but must face Israel directly.

The far fewer Syrian troops compared to those in Iraq if the Iraqis can whip them into shape is certainly a reason for ISIL to think of Syria as the main front.

If the rebels in Iraq--jihadi and Baathists combined--are even 20% of the estimated 120,000 in Syria, I'll be shocked. I've heard 12,000 in the north of Iraq. But some returned to Syria. Although they'll have local recruits, of course, to fill their ranks. I didn't think there were that many jihadis in Anbar where local protests have kept the Iraqi army from going in hard to fight the jihadis. So there are far fewer rebels in Iraq than in Syria. Again, this is a reason for the rebels to see Syria as the main front.

It is certainly disturbing tha only 20% of rebels are deemed secular by Israel. But perhaps we should arm them to increase their power and appeal before there are none.

Yet I wonder about definitions. I've read a minority of rebels in Syria are al Qaeda types, including foreign jihadis. That's the important faction to oppose. Given that almost all the Syrian rebels are Moslem, wouldn't being "Islamic" to one degree or another be expected?

Back on the Iraq front, as I've noted, the Kurds of Iraq are so far not really engaged in the new fight. As some of the best "Iraqi" troops, the Iraqi government needs them to enter the battle against ISIL and the reborn Baathis resistance.

If Syria is the main front for ISIS, that makes our job easier. And it makes the Iraqi Baathist decision to again side with the jihadis seem like a mistake:

For 10 years, members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party -- including many of the dead dictator's top generals -- have hidden in the shadows of Iraq, persecuted by government in Baghdad and plotting, praying and preparing for the chance to reclaim their country.

Now they are back, paired in a bloodthirsty alliance with the brutal jihadis of the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria/Levant. These vicious Islamic radicals fighting alongside top officials from Hussein's dictatorship, are working to seize control of the battle-scarred nation. For now, their objectives converge.

In the end, Iraq's Sunni Arab Baathists want to control Iraq while their jihadi allies want a caliphate somewhere. And Syria rather than Iraq seems to look like more fertile ground for them right now. Those interests don't seem to converge enough for the Baathists to ride back into power.