Despite the infighting in his regime, Syrian President Bashar Assad still counts on the allegiance of his key instruments of power: the General Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, the Political Security Directorate, the National Security Bureau, the ruling Baath Party security apparatus, the riot police, his own Alawite Shabiha militia and the still loyal elements of the army – the 4th, 14th, 15th and Republican Guard Divisions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report he will need every scrap of support he can muster to fight the four wars the four-month revolt against his regime has bred – even in the face of his barbaric crackdown:
Attrition of the North by slaughter
1. No holds are barred for the army to bring northern Syria's 3.5 million inhabitants to heel at Ar-Raqqah, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Idlib and dozens of small locations over an area of 20,000 kilometers. Although backed by tanks, the soldiers are reluctant to venture into city centers and brave the protesters' roadblocks, anti-tank traps and their machine guns and anti-tank rockets, which are fired from fortified positions.
Now and again, the soldiers will go in, first laying down a rolling screen of shell and machine-gun fire. But only when they spot a weak point in rebel defenses do they breach the opposition's lines and reach town centers.
The tactics are simple: Rather than confronting armed rebels in face-to-face combat, the soldiers are targeting civilian populations, indiscriminately shooting dozens of men, women and children day by day and injuring hundreds.
(On the first day of Assad's general offensive on the North, Sunday, July 31, more than 150 civilians were killed and more than 1,000 wounded.)
Assad hopes that when the population can't take any more, the civilians will make the rebels take down the roadblocks and anti-tank positions, or else forfeit popular support.
Hama onslaught fueled by toothless UN condemnation, world indifference
However, Wednesday, the Syrian army saw its chance in Hama, a died-in-the-wool anti-Assad city of half a million inhabitants, whom Bashar's father President Hafez Assad massacred into submission in 1982.
Taking advantage of the spectacle riveting world attention Wednesday, Aug. 3, of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in an iron cage on a stretcher, the Syrian ruler ordered his tank forces to beat their way into Hama city center. He armed them for the first time with ZU-23 automatic anti-aircraft artillery for battering residential buildings and streets.
The tank force made it into Orontes Square, but only at a horrendous cost in bloodshed. Bodies and limbs were later seen floating in the Orontes River as Hama's citizens, pinned down indoors, threw their dead out of windows and off rooftops into the river.
Assad found encouragement to persevere in his savageries by the toothless condemnation issued Wednesday night by the UN Security Council with no penalties attached.
2. In Damascus, Assad's forces have managed for two months to confine protest to the suburbs and their population of 3.5 million, and prevent it from leaching into the heart of the capital.
The effort has paid off: Life goes on as normal in Damascus heedless of the anti-regime uprising sweeping the rest of the country.
3. Syrian intelligence is fighting a covert war to keep smuggled fighters and weapons from reaching the protesters from four countries: Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.
By night, Syrian special operations forces creep across the borders to ambush smugglers. One such incursion into Lebanon was reported Tuesday, Aug. 2, together with the shelling of Lebanese targets by Syrian troops. Similar incidents on Syria's borders with Iraq and Jordan this week have gone unreported.
Big Saudi plans for the Euphrates Valley
4. The battle to save the Euphrates Valley of eastern Syria is the most critical of them all, in the view of Assad and his Iranian strategic advisers, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report. He can't afford to lose control of this rebellious region and its two flashpoint cities, Deir ez-Zour – Syria's oil center and its fifth largest city with a population of over a half-million; and the smaller town of Abu Kamal with less than 60,000 inhabitants, which is important as the gateway into Iraq.
Even if only partially successful in subduing opposition in the north, Damascus and the border readions, Bashar Assad might conceivably hang onto power – but not if he loses the strategic Euphrates Valley.
There, he is not merely battling an uprising but a foreign attempt to seize land.
The rebels are heavily armed and funded by Saudi Arabia, which plans to capitalize on Syria's unrest to promote its scheme to establish a separate Sunni Muslim state on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
This state would encompass the Syrian Euphrates region and the vast Al-Anbar province of central Iraq, which shares borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and whose approximately 1.5 million inhabitants are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Arab.
Deir al-Zour would be its capital.
A huge coup for Riyadh
If Syria can be ejected, the Euphrates Valley would be lopped off and attached to Al-Anbar to form a new Sunni state of three million people spanning Syrian-Iraqi borderlands.
Seasoned observers of the Syrian scene in Damascus, Tehran and Washington believe that this objective explains Saudi actions since the Syrian uprising erupted four months ago. In the past month, Riyadh's intelligence agencies have been pumping out large consignments of arms and hundreds of millions of dollars to stiffen the resistance to Assad and buy the loyalty of local tribes and their chiefs.
Those observers reckon that if the Sunni entity does indeed rise, it would be placed under the military and intelligence umbrella of neighboring Jordan.
The Hashemite Kingdom, during the eight-year US military presence in Iraq, gained plenty of experience in cross-border interaction. Now, instead of the Americans, Jordan could easily learn to work with the Saudis – especially since the Jordanian army and clandestine services recently came under Saudi command when Amman joined the Persian Gulf States organization, the GCC.
Riyadh sees untold strategic benefits in a new pro-Saudi Sunni state straddling Syria and Iraq, such as extra leverage against Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and Bashar Assad's Alawite regime, which is close to the Shiites. The Saudis would have a forward base for keeping in check the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria; and the new entity would stand in the way of Hizballah's access to Iraq for covert operations.
Washington is not thrilled
The Obama administration is not thrilled by the Saudi plan for biting off chunks of Iraq and Syria, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report. One of the several reasons that the US is so cagy about military intervention in the Syrian conflict is that it would tend to hasten the rise of the Saudi protectorate rather than delaying it.
Monday, August 1, shortly before leaving Baghdad, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, denied "any indication whatsoever that we would get involved directly (in Syria) with respect to this. I think politically and diplomatically, we want to bring as much pressure as we possibly can to effect the change that so many countries are calling for."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military experts believe that the Saudi plan for a Sunni state is too far advanced for the Americans, Iranians and Syrians to stop.
From 2003, the US army never achieved military control of Al Anbar, Iraq's largest province. From 2003-2006, the US military controlled its own bases in the province while al Qaeda had free rein in most of the territory. In late 2006, the American command came up with a new strategy for fighting al Qaeda and struck a deal with paramount tribal chief Sheikh Abu Risha for establishing the "Awakening Councils," later succeeded by the Iraqi Al Ikhwan police force.
US forces then undertook to withdraw from Al Anbar towns, release Sunni detainees and hand over control to the local Sunni tribes of Al Anbar, against their commitment to continue to fight Al Qaida to the finish.
Assad embarks on scorched earth policy to keep the Euphrates Valley
This strategy has cost the US budget billions of dollars in the last five years but it did bring them victory in that phase of the war on al Qaeda in Iraq.
Neither the Syrian President nor Tehran is rich enough to buy the tribes of Al Anbar. The Sunni chiefs would in any cause refuse to truck with Alawite and Shiite elements. So Assad's only recourse for nixing the Saudi plan for a new Sunni state on Syria's eastern borders is the total, uncompromising subjugation of Deir el-Zour and Abu Kamal.
His determination was evident Monday night, August 1, when the 7th Division of the Syrian army attacking the outskirts of Abu Kamal blew up every building and facility in its path and set it on fire.
Assad's scorched earth policy had gone into action.
Two days later, on August 3, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources disclose, the Syrian army beefed up the two brigades deployed at Deir el-Zour with a complete armored division of 6-8,000 men. Aside from fragmentary reports of clashes, information about the military actions in this town is hard to come by since its communications links were cut off.
The Syrian army, backed by Iranian advisers, is clearly going to extreme lengths to hang onto this stretch of the Euphrates Valley. It would not be the first time in its long history that this region has changed hands: Haran, a province of Mesopotamia, flourished there in the late 4th millennium BCE – until 323 BCE when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.