Last minute: Bashar Assad ultimatum: Hundreds of Sunni militiamen who surged across the Lebanese border Thursday, March 14, in support of Islamist rebels were told to withdraw forthwith or else the Syrian Air Force would bomb them and their Lebanese bases.
This would be the first Syria air strike inside Lebanon.
If it were just up to Sheikh Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the talks between representatives of the Assad regime and the disparate Syrian opposition groups would have started as scheduled on March 5 in Moscow. By now, they would have been in their second week.
But at the very last minute, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report, Qatar notified the Syrian sheikh that if he goes to Moscow for the talks, its assistance to the rebels would be cut off forthwith – especially the monetary deposits in Zagreb to pay for the new weapons supplies shipped in from the Balkans.
Like all aspects of the Syrian conflict, Qatar’s convoluted motives for torpedoing the Moscow negotiating track are obscure.
On the one hand, with every passing day, Iran's involvement in the war deepens, as does its influence in Damascus. Qatar ought therefore to have been most keen on keeping the Syrian rebels well armed, while at the same time bringing the war to an end with all possible speed.
It may be speculated that Washington was pushing Qatar from behind, but only if it turned out that President Barack Obama had decided to withdraw his endorsement from Russian President Vladmir Putin’s peace initiative out of reluctance to let him collect the kudos for ending the Syrian conflict.
However, there is nothing to support that theory. Indeed, Washington and Moscow still share a strong interest in a quick end to the conflict – so much so, that President Obama was willing to give diplomatic ground to Moscow to achieve this, and accept a back seat for himself and his new Secretary of State John Kerry.
Diplomacy stalled by Assad army’s Euphrates defeat
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, the Moscow initiative was not stalled by diplomatic maneuvers so much as by Bashar Assad himself, in the light of the Syria army’s shock rout in the battle for the western bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Syria.
Holding on to that region and its key towns of Deir al-Azor and Abu Kemal was important enough for the Syrian ruler to throw into that campaign the Syrian army’s only reservist division, the Seventeenth.
The Euphrates region is the site of water and ground transport between Syria and Iraq. Against the 17th Division, al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, Jabhat al-Nusra fielded its ace combatants. By early this week, large sections of Deir al-Azor and Abu Kemal had fallen into their hands and the remnants of the Syrian army division were in retreat toward the west.
This Islamist victory created a new geo-strategic situation in the region, handing al Qaeda and its affiliates an unbroken 1,000-kilometer long continuum linking the northern outskirts of the Iraqi town of Ramadi to the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
This strip also incorporates the Syrian sector of the divided Golan, a part of the Syrian border with Israel which is very close to falling under rebel control.
The fall of Abu Kamal opened the gateway for al Qaeda to push into Iraq’s central and western regions, including Anbar Province which abuts on Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The jihadists have therefore gained control of Iraq’s main highways to those frontiers and confronted Riyadh and Amman overnight with a new eastern front against al Qaeda.
Alarm was palpable in the private conversations of Saudi and Jordanian military chiefs this week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report. They realized to their dismay that no physical barriers remained, nor could they muster trained military contingents capable of blocking a Syrian or Iraqi al Qaeda advance on their capital cities.
Al Qaeda brings strict Sharia law to eastern Syria – faces resistance
A senior Western officer familiar with the military situation in the border areas between the four countries – Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – described the new stakeouts taking shape: Shiite forces have seized control of the areas and roads leading from central Iraq to Syria, whereas the Sunni Al-Qaeda rules a very large expanse of more than 120,000 square kilometers that sits athwart the traffic links connecting those four countries.
While Shiite forces backing Assad are digging themselves into strongholds in central and western Syria, Al-Qaeda at the head of the Syrian rebellion is tightining its grip on eastern Syria and western Iraq.
The latter’s Jubhat al-Nusra lost no time in trying to establish Islamist institutions and strict al Qaeda laws and norms in this part of Syria, stirring up local ire.
Thursday, March 15, the residents of al-Mayadeen went out on the streets to raise their voices in protest when a “Sharia Committee for the Eastern Regions” assumed the authority of local government overnight and handed out religious dictates.
A remnant of Syrian troops is still dug in at Qunaitra, the only Syrian Golan town, which is situated near the ceasefire line with Israel – although they seem to be fighting a losing battle. The rebels are attacking their positions and attempting to cut their supply lines.
Hundreds of rebels were also fighting Wednesday in a key area between Damascus and the Golan. As they surrounded the Khan Sheih barracks of elite Republican Guards and the Fourth Mechanized Division commanded by Gen. Maher Assad, the president’s brother, they took a pounding from multiple rocket launchers deployed on surrounding hills.