Friday, 23 August 2013

Some thoughts on the recent alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Let me preface this post by saying I'm am not yet prepared to pin the blame for the attacks on either side. I'm merely trying to interpret the little evidence we have on the attacks in a logical manner. I will discuss both sides motives and reasonings for the attack. That said it should be noted that everything I say, as well as anything you have/will read anywhere else, is by it's nature speculation. From the type of chemical weapon used (if any at all), to the numbers death, to the exact locations of the attacks. Nothing has been confirmed, and nothing will be confirmed until the UN team gets in there,which will hopefully be soon. Videos and photos are simply not enough to go by right now.

And it is on the topic of the videos and photos I'll begin. Many of you will have undoubtedly seen the many distressing videos and pictures posted on Youtube and Facebook, alleging to be proof of the attack. I've seen it repeated that the rebels could not fake such videos. The scale and nature of them would prove too difficult. But let me ask you this, what exactly in the videos would be too difficult to fake? The lines of bodies? The convulsions? The foaming at the mouth? Would something like that really be impossible to fake? I'm pretty sure given a week of planning, some cameras and a few dozen willing volunteers I could quite easily reproduce the scenes depicted in the videos.  It's elaborate no doubt, but far from impossible to do. That said, personally I doubt all the videos are fake but it is a possibility. Also if the videos were faked the fakers would be backing on no one coming to inspect the bodies and locations. Or if they did plan on that then they'd have to have some pretty convincing evidence to back it up. We'll see how this aspect plays out in the coming weeks.

Next is the death toll. It ranges from anywhere between 150-1300 people depending on which rebel source is reporting on it. Clearly someone is lying here. But taking a lower and more realistic figure of about 200 to be true, is such a figure unusually high for fighting in Damascus? Yes. Normally based on my daily followings of the war, the number of dead ranges from 50-100 a day in normal fighting. Mostly made up of Rebel and SAA fighters, but always with a few civilian deaths too . But that is a 'normal' day. Again could it not be possible for 200 or more to die in one day if the fighting was particularly fierce? I think so. Then again the bodies shown in the videos have no visible wounds, nor is there much blood.

Next the locations of the attack. Here is a map of them. Douma was also alleged to be attacked. Its not marked on the map but its just northeast of Irbin. Now again none of the sites have confirmed yet but lets assume they are true. Of the ones mentioned, only Jobar has seen significant fighting in recent months. The rest have only had small skirmishes if anything. Rebels claimed the SAA launch an offensive on these areas right after this supposed chemical weapon attack.  A few problems with that. First as I mentioned only Jobar has had significant fighting recently, and the SAA has had enough trouble there, only able to advance very very slowly. How did they suddenly get the manpower to launch offensives on 3 or 4 of these neighbourhoods? Second even if the offensives are true why would the SAA launch CWs right before trying to advance in them? When they know it's heavily urbanised and they'd have to advance through the contaminated areas? Well they might wear gas masks you could say, but the rebels have been claiming first responders have been dying just from skin contact with victims. I very much doubt SAA in full CW suits would go unnoticed. Or are the rebels lying on this point? Third both the SAA and the rebels have made no claims of any significant gains by the SAA since the supposed CW attacks. So it appears the CW attacks if true, had a negligible military impact.

Now people have of course been focusing on the timing of the attacks. They've said why would the army launch these attacks just after UN inspectors arrived in the country? And only a few miles from where they are staying no less. Others have countered that the inspectors are on a strict timetable and won't be able to visit the effected areas. Wells its true they are on a strict timetable, but they've already put in a request to visit the sites of the alleged CW attacks, so it is possible for them to divert their focus. Whether they'll get in or not is a matter only time will tell.

Another point that opposition supporters make is that the government are so confident  there will be no repercussions that they don't care about the inspectors being in the country. Supreme hubris surely? But it has some merit in that there has been heavy skepticism of the rebels claims and without UN inspectors actually visiting the sites, their claims will most likely never be proven. That said the above point would have more credibility if the CW attacks actually achieved anything proportional to their risks. As mention before the military gains have not materialized at all. So what was the point? To scare the population? I'm sure artillery and airstrikes have a similar effect at much less potential political cost if that was the intention.

It makes very little sense for the government to have carried out the attack. But then I'm not convinced the rebels are capable of  pulling off a such an attack either, whether by trickery or actually firing CWs. The only way to know what happened with an degree of certainty is for the UN inspectors to visit the sites. Until then we can only speculate, and anyone that tells you otherwise is quite frankly lying.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Updates for August 6th - Big Update

So as you may know there have been some developments in recent days worth discussing.

Most notably is that the rebels have begun an offensive in Lattika province aimed at striking at the Alawite heartland and possibly forcing the SAA to divert resources and men away from other areas. It's significant in that it appears to be the largest scale offensive the rebels have managed to coordinate since their advances in Daraa province in the south. Although that mainly speaks to small scope of other rebels advances previously. Now despite the fact the offensive is taking place in a surprising location considering rebel needs in other areas and the level of media fanfare about it, I don't expect it to go anywhere. Let me explain why.

Lattika province is overwhelming Pro-Government/Pro-Assad. It's religious background is mostly Alawite with only a handful of Sunni villages here and there. It is the home province of Assad and so the rebels will find little local support here. Especially since the make up of the armed groups taking part in this offensive are largely Islamist Sunnis such as fighters from the Al-Nusra front.

The fighting is taking place in the Jabal Al-Akrad mountains with most of it currently centered around the town of Salma. Map here. Salma was the furthest point rebels had been  able to advance in the province until this offensive and even then,owing to the points mentioned in the previous paragraph, they had to expel most of the inhabitants to hold it. The only advantage the rebels have is the mountainous terrain which suits their style of battle and the fact that they have a few locals on their side who know the area.

The rebels are attempting to push west towards Al-Haffa and South towards Assads home town of Qardaha.

An indication that my points are true is that since the offensive started 2 days ago the rebels have captured about 6 villages but already 2 of them were re-captured by the SAA. And as more troops come into the region I really cannot see this offensive lasting very long. At best I can see them maybe getting as far as the edges of Al-Haffa about 10km to the south west of Salma before stalling and possibly being pushed back.

A better move for the rebels would have been to push north of Salma and capture the road linking Idlib to Lattika, closing one of the few supply routes to the struggling Idlib province. By then again perhaps I'm not giving the rebels enough credit and this is their real intention, with this current push west serving as a distraction. We shall soon see.

The other development to talk about is of course the seizure of Mennagh airbase north of Aleppo by rebels. Again this is something that has been trumpeted in the media as a major development and even  "a turning point" in the battle for Aleppo. The fact of the matter is that the base had been under siege for over a year. The majority of that time it was not operational and had a garrison of less than 300 men and less than 20 tanks/APV/IFV's.

By the end of the siege there were less than 100 men and no more than 4 or 5 tanks. (3 of which apparently managed to escape south with some of the remaining garrison, this would make sense as the rebels only captured about 15 soldiers). It had been totally cut off and well behind enemy lines for most this time. As a result its military and strategic importance is very small. The only advantage this brings to the rebels is that it frees up the considerable resources and men they have spent trying to take the base for the last year. These forces may now threaten the SAA strongholds of Nubbol and Zahara further south.

Last thing I want to talk about quickly is the situation in Homs. After taking the Khalidiya district in Homs city it appears the SAA is taking its time preparing the assault for the final rebel held districts and as such things are relatively quiet now. With that said, true to classic soviet military doctrine, when you start hearing reports that  sustained heavy shelling is occurring in those districts, then know the ground assault will commence within the week.

Also to note about Homs, it is one of the few remaining territories where more moderate rebels are totally in control of operations and are on the frontlines instead of hardline Islamist groups. The offensive in Latika, the seizure of Mannagh and the battles in the northeast against the Kurds for example, were/are spearheaded by Islamists. A sign of changing fortunes perhaps.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Updates for July 31st

Two video updates today. One detailing frontlines on the Damascus front, the other on the latest developments on the kurdish front. Videos here and here.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Update for July 30th

I'm having issues with the software I use to record my videos so despite trying for 2 hours I haven't been able to get Camstudio working. It was working fine of course for the last 2 vids so I don't know why it suddenly gave up. If anyone has any suggestions for a better, free screen recorder please let me know. In any case today there's been little developments so it was only going to be a video detailing frontlines in Damascus. The only thing that is worth mentioning in regards to Syria is that the YPG has now issued a general call to arms for all Kurds fit and able to carry a weapon. So things are heating up a little there. Hopefully I'll have a new video up tomorrow, stay tuned.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Today's video update here.

Brief summary of what I discuss in it.

1. SAA takes the Al-Khaldiyeh district of Homs.

2. Kurds and Islamist rebels clashes south east of Aleppo in the town of Tal Hasal.

Update for July 28th

Today I'm going to try something a little different. I've decided to make a video and post it on youtube to detail todays updates. So here it is. Let me know if you prefer this style over doing blog posts or if you want a bit of both. Thanks.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Updates for July 27th

Yesterday I reported the SAA were at the gates of the Khalid ibn Walid Mosque in central Homs. Today the SAA have taken the Mosque. Mainstream media has reported on it as confirmed and here is a picture of the Hezbollah media channel Al- Manaar inside the mosque. The mosque was taken quicker than I expected. It appears that the rebels retreated instead putting up what would be a pointless stand, potentially destroying the mosque. Overall its reported that the SAA has taken about 50-60% of the Khalidiya district in Homs and I'd estimate that the total rebel held areas of the city stand at about 30% what they were before the offensive started. (Just to be clear that means that the rebels now hold 30% of the original 20% or so of the whole city). This is day 27th of the offensive and I expect it to last at least 1 more week if not longer.

The only other piece of info for today is an odd little incident reported by SANA the state news agency, that apparently the SAA engaged with rebels aboard yachts on Al-Rastan lake. Link here,  its at the bottom. Map of lake here. While the rebels hold the town itself, it may be that the SAA still occupies the army bases either side of the road just north of the town. This would not be unusual as the rebels often bypass army bases until they have gathered sufficient numbers to attempt to besiege them.