Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tabqa is Less Alamo and More Dien Bien Phu

I don't think we know how bad Assad's defeat at Tabqa air base was.

It sounds bad enough:

The [Syrian Observatory for Human Rights] said 346 Islamic State fighters were killed and more than 170 members of the security forces had died in five days of fighting over the base, one of the deadliest clashes between the two groups since the start of the war.

I thought maybe that prior reports of Syrian reinforcements, combined with relatively low casualties reported for the loss of an air base, indicated that the report was cover for a withdrawal.

But the Islamic State showed a pilot who earlier had been on state TV boasting that the base couldn't be taken.

So Assad intended to hold the base. And the death of 170 security forces indicates that a whole lot more are unaccounted for. I don't know how many held the base, but 170 plus a couple dozen survivors held by IS terrorists are enough for a combat outpost and not a major air base. And other reports said the terrorists captured a lot of Syrian equipment.

Where are the rest of the Syrian base defenders and air crews?

It seems that the Syrian public knows this is really bad despite government efforts to focus on purported successes elsewhere while not talking about Tabqa:

Although it is not clear how widespread public anger in Syria might be about the fall of the airbase, some people supportive of the army expressed anger on social media.

The Facebook page "Eagles of the Tabqa Military Airport, Men of Assad," reposted the photo showing the apparent execution of the soldiers and wrote "No comment. They sold you for cheap, God damn all traitors." ...

Some people on Twitter called for the resignation of the defense minister, with the hashtag "Minister of Death" in Arabic.

One activist who is from the same Alawite sect as President Bashar al-Assad but opposes him said people in the Alawite community in the coastal town of Tartous felt scared and angry. ...

"A lot of loyalists here are optimistic after [Foreign Minister] Walid al-Moualem's speech. They're hoping the world will come to help Assad in his fight against terrorism," he added.

Assad's backers are shaken. They are enduring tremendous casualties that raises the question of how long they can endure without victory in sight (quoting Strategypage here):

The death toll for over two years of fighting is now at least 110,000. Most of the dead are rebel fighters and pro-rebel civilians. But it is believed that 27,000 soldiers and 17,000 pro-Assad militia have also died, along with over 21,000 rebel fighters.

That was a year and 81,000 casualties ago. If the casualty pattern holds, Assad's forces have lost 76,000 troops and militia so far. That is a level to break an army. Was the Tabqa air base garrison just the canary in the coal mine?

And with the mostly Iraqi Shia foreign legion going home to fight ISIL in Iraq and with Hezbollah sending children to Syria to fight for Assad, Assad has far fewer shock troops to spearhead his shaken forces in their fight with the rebels. I think it is quite likely that the jihadi rebels are doing more damage to the non-jihadi rebels than Assad's force are, at this point.

Assad's backers now think that the West will ally with them against those that inflicted this defeat on Syria's forces. Deny Assad's backers that light at the end of the tunnel.

UPDATE: One jihadi video shows 135 captured Syrian soldiers:

A video posted online by Islamic State supporters on Thursday appeared to show members of the group making scores of Syrian army captives walk and run through the desert in their underwear.

Reuters could not confirm the contents of the video, which was posted on You Tube and social media. It showed at least 135 men, some with their hands on their heads, running barefoot through a desert landscape as armed men jeered them.

The article also says that ISIL has murdered "dozens" of captives. There may be a lot of Syrian troops fleeing the area hoping to reach safety. Or more are already dead or captured.

Also, welcome readers from ... somewhere. This has gotten a spike of hits, but I don't know who is linking to this.

UPDATE: The base apparently had 1,400 troops in the garrison. The Syrians lost 170 in the final battle. Half fled, and 200 of them were caught and murdered by ISIL, leaving 500 still trying to escape.

This leaves the fate of 530 in question. If half fled and 170 died in battle, that leaves 530 on the base either dead, wounded, or captured, doesn't it? Do the 250 that ISIL boasted they killed after the battle come from these troops?

Or maybe some troops were evacuated by air as the base fell. But there is no mention of that. Earlier I heard that the Syrians flew many planes out of the base. If some were transports or helicopters, they could have taken some out along with the crews.

Regardless of what the reality is, this is bad for Assad. I know Assad seems to be losing at least a thousand soldiers per month, but losing a base like this is bad for morale, to say the least.

UPDATE: On the rebel-on-rebel violence, Strategypage writes that the jihadis and other rebels have decided to bury the hatchet in Assad:

With this compromise (aided by a convincing ISIL threat to kill those who refuse) there is now a greater degree of unity among the 100,000 or so armed rebels in Syria. At this point over half of these men are firmly under ISIL control. The previous infighting among the rebels had greatly weakened their combat capability. The fact that there are up to a thousand different rebel groups does not help either. For much of 2014 many rebel groups, in particular the FSA suffered growing desertions and more difficulty in recruiting. Until recently more rebels were dying each week at the hands of other rebels than in fighting with government forces. The government has over 300,000 troops and militiamen and their forces are much more disciplined and united. Assad and Iranian officials increasingly speak openly of eventual victory and this is no longer a fantasy. Now the rebels have formed a new ISIL led coalition to oppose Iran and the hated Shia.

I find it too much that some here are complaining that the FSA "who we back" have cut a deal with ISIL. What are they supposed to do? Fight Assad and ISIL and other jihadis? When the concept of FSA being the side "we support" begs the question just what are we doing to help them?

If we armed the FSA and provided other support, a lot of those rebels "under ISIL control" would defect to FSA. ISIL has recruits because ISIL has weapons, a reputation for fighting Assad, and money. And fear of ISIL for not joining them, of course. If FSA has that reputation, ISIL will lose men back to FSA.