Bashar Assad has resorted to the age-old device of deep trenches or moats for defending Damascus against enemy tanks and armored vehicles coming from the south, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources reveal. Syrian engineering firms were roped in this week for the emergency project, a measure of how clearly alert the Syrian ruler and his army chiefs are to the approaching peril.
The trenches are back-up for the deployment of the last Syrian army’s reliable contingents, the Syrian Army’s 15th Brigade and Hizballah units, at the southern Syrian town of Daraa on the Jordanian border. This town’s fall would open the way for the opposition to breeze through to the capital. But, like other parts of Assad’s army, these units are weakening and shedding numbers. And until this week, neither Iran nor Hizballah was willing or able to come up with fresh troops to step into the breach between the two towns.
Assad and his military advisers figured that the advancing rebel forces were more likely to assault Damascus from the south than the north – hence the line of trenches. To strike from the north, the rebels would first need to seize control of the Homs-Damascus highway. Until they do, the capital is relatively safe from the north. To consolidate its gain, the opposition would likely try and move in on the three western towns of Homs, Latakia and Tartous, homes to Assad’s natural Alawite allies.
Second thoughts over Iran’s refusal of troops to save Assad
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, supreme commander of Iranian forces and Shiite militias in the Middle East, had this calculus in mind when he assigned priority to defending the Homs-Damascus route in preference to an immediate Aleppo offensive.
This decision was reached at a conference the Iranian general called with Syrian and Iranian army chiefs, attended also by Hizballah’s military leaders summoned from Beirut, shortly after he arrived in Damascus Sunday night, May 31. He had flown in post haste to deal with the crises closing in on the Assad regime.
While the trenches staved off the threat to the capital from the south, he found it necessary to order a special effort to stabilize government-held territory to the north.
According to our information, the Iranian general was still in Damascus at week’s end, working with Syrian and Hizballah chiefs on a strategic plan to cover the next stage of the Syrian war. He initially made it clear that it was up to their forces to hold out without outside help. Tehran is in no position to send troop reinforcements to Syria for this contingency – either from Iraq or Iran – he said. But subsequently there were signs that the Revolutionary Guards’ top leaders were having second thoughts about this.
On June 2, Gen. Soleimani remarked: Events in Syria “in the next few days” would “pleasantly surprise the world.”
(See a separate article in this issue explaining Iran’s apparent change of heart about direct help for Assad.)
ISIS launches surprise offensives for long-term gains
Assad sees his capital and regime in line for a double onslaught. The Islamic State is deliberately avoiding head-on combat with Syrian and Hizballah forces and, instead, waiting for the Syrian opposition, led by the Army of Conquest, which is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, to clear the way for the Islamists to move in.
Meanwhile, ISIS is focusing on assets that would count more weightily for its ultimate war objectives than a free-for-all snatch for the big cities and Damascus.
To this end, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that ISIS has launched three new offensives in the last few days, catching its opponents unawares:
1. Islamist fighters are attacking the northern town of Azaz, which controls access to one of the most important border crossings between Syria and Turkey and is a lifeline for rebel forces in Aleppo. The fall of Azaz would jeopardize the rebel presence in the province. It would also extend the Islamic State’s reach along the Turkish border for smuggling through supplies and foreign fighters. The severe restrictions Ankara has imposed on cross-border travel – under pressure from European government to stem the flow of volunteers to ISIS – has not prevented around 1,000 new recruits from crossing over every month.
Kurdish Hasakeh and Djebel Druze in the balance
2. Another surprise Islamist offensive Saturday, May 30, targeted the big Kurdish town of Hasakeh (pop.: 200,000) in northeastern Syria. The ruling body of the province of that name is divided between local Kurds and central government.
This was the second ISIS assault in five months on a Kurdish town, after taking Kobani and then losing it in a Kurdish counter-offensive last January.
Hasakeh is important enough to count as a strategic prize second only to Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq, which fell to ISIS in the last fortnight. Its control would give the Islamists a clear run through the border districts of northern Syria and northern Iraq. This would strengthen its grip on Mosul. It would also give them free rein on the routes to the northeastern Syrian towns of Deir ez-Zour and Abu Kemal and their oil fields. Control of the Kurdish town would further offer ISIS the key to dominating the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys as they descend to the uplands of Syria and northern Iraq, and controlling the flow of water to central Iraq. Large numbers of jihadis could hide from surveillance aircraft and spy satellites in the abundant aquatic vegetation of marsh reeds and rushes in these river valleys.
3. ISIS quietly crept up on its third objective, Djebel Druze, which is just as strategically important to the Islamists’ goals as the first two. So their capture of their first Druze village, Haqf, went unnoticed, except by the million Druze tribesmen and women who populate the mountain’s eastern slopes.
This minority stubbornly stayed neutral in the Syrian conflict – now entering its fifth year. Now, its chiefs are in a cleft stick: Assad demands a contribution of 10,000 fresh Druze fighters to revitalize his flagging army, whereas ISIS has slapped down an ultimatum: all Druze towns and villages must submit to the Islamic State, or else face forcible occupation with extensive bloodshed.
After engaging Assad’s army, Syrian rebels still face ISIS
The three new ISIS initiatives in one week attest not only to the tactical proficiency of its war planners but their exceptional ability to hare off in unexpected directions.
The fate of Lebanon is a current cause of concern. To stiffen it against another Islamist surprise, the US sent over a consignment of BGM-71C or TOW II anti-tank missiles, which landed at Beirut international airport Monday, June 1. This advanced version of the TOW, equipped with optical and thermal tracking devices, has an effective range of up to 3.75 kilometers. Washington hopes that it will arm the Lebanese infantry with a tool for deterring ISIS plans to go for Lebanon.
For now, DEBKA Weekly’s military analysts note that control of the Syrian-Turkish border to the north of Aleppo and the potential capture of Hasakeh and Djebel Druze, would afford ISIS two major military advantages:
One: The acquisition of key points critical to the group’s specific long-term objectives in Iraq and Syria, at a time that the Syrian army plus Hizballah and the Syrian rebels are sapping each other’s strength in bloody head-to-head battles in the northern, central and southern sectors.
Two: Should the rebels manage to fight their way through to Damascus – and even seize parts of the capital – ISIS is prepared to catch them in a cruel vice. At the moment of success, they will drive the Syrian opposition into making a painful choice between fighting yet another battle – this time against the Islamist State – or cutting the Islamists in as partners in future control of the regime.
Breaking News: Sources in Tehran disclosed Thursday night, June 4, that Iran is preparing to invoke its defense pact with Syria in the next few hours.