Every aspect of the Syrian conflict is fraught with contradiction and ambivalence. DEBKA-Net-Weekly has marshaled its sources for shedding daylight on the most salient points of a murky situation.
Firstly, Syrian President Bashar Assad is telling his Russian and Iranian allies that his newest tactics using mobile armored strike groups (first described by debkafile on Jan. 21) for major territorial pushes are highly effective. The rebels no longer have any hope of defeating him, he believes, and indeed the Syrian army is getting ready to regain rebel-held territory in the big towns of Damascus and Aleppo. He has therefore abandoned the static war of trenches and snipers in favor of big pushes by these armored groups.
At the same time, the Syrian ruler is amenable to a diplomatic resolution of the conflict – naturally on his terms – and relying on Moscow and Tehran to pave the way for negotiations.
He is encouraged in his conviction that the opposition is on the losing side by the conduct of the new Syrian National Coalition opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib. Monday, February 4, Alkhatib appealed to the government in Damascus to enter into negotiations for relinquishing power and so save the country from the ruin wrought by two years of bloody violence
In his 45-minute conversation Saturday, Feb. 2, in Munich with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, the Syrian opposition leader petitioned Tehran to draw Assad into starting negotiations.
Are the rebels after improving their bargaining position?
This confirmed the Syrian ruler in his belief that parts of the rebel command are ready to concede defeat and throw in the towel, have realized that unless they agree to talks with their archenemy, Syria is doomed to never-ending destruction and violence, profiting no one but al Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups.
Assad, for his part, insisted on the rebels dropping their preconditions, primarily the release of 160,000 prisoners held in Assad’s jails in subhuman conditions.
Moaz Alkhatib's initiative is meanwhile under strong fire from some of the rebel leaders, who are calling it a “shameful surrender' and accuse him of 'collaborating with enemies of the revolution.”
So it is very hard to know where to fit into this emerging picture the rebel Free Syrian Army’s launch Wednesday, Feb. 6, of its Great Confrontation to “break into Damascus.”
Is this a tactical move to weaken Assad’s hand and force him to accept their preconditions for negotiations? Or is it a counter-move to spoil Alkhatib’s initiative?
According to our military sources, the rebels decided to preempt the coming offensive against their positions in Damascus suburbs about to be launched by Assad’s new mobile armored strike groups.
If the FSA hopes to influence events, its forces must reach the heart of Damascus. This would necessitate their knocking over the most competent of all Assad’s units, the 4th Syrian Armored Division, which is commanded by his brother Gen. Maher Assad and armed with the most advanced weaponry.
This is an improbable scenario. At best, they may manage to occupy more of the capital’s outlying districts for a time.
According to the latest news reaching us Thursday night, if by some chance, the rebels manage to break through to the heart of Damascus, Bashar Assad is determined to dislodge them by all the means at his disposal. Our military sources report that he has placed chemical weapons in the hands of the 4th Division in case it is decided to resort to chemical warfare for the first time in the nearly two years of the Syrian conflict.
As a second rebel drive falters, al Qaeda hits Hizballah in Lebanon
A second rebel offensive launched this week in northern Syria appears to have quickly run aground. Its objective was to cut across from Jabal al-Zawia towards the Mediterranean port city of Latakia and so split in two the Alawite region, the Assad rulers’ stronghold. However, rebel strength was sparse, too widely scattered and short of heavy weapons such as artillery to cover their advance.
First to read the real war map and act accordingly was the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusrah which, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report, has broken away from the rebel body, and spent the last ten days relocating its military bastion from northern Syria to northern Lebanon. The group, numbering several thousand jihadis, is quietly putting into practice the prediction dogging the Syrian war that it would spill over into neighboring countries.
Acting on a simple rule of thumb – Hizballah fights for Assad in Syria and so we fight Hizballah in its Lebanese lairs – Nusrah raiders are prowling Hizballah Beqaa Valley turf night after night, laying ambushes for convoys, shelling bases, and leaving no survivors when they attack isolated Hizballah roadblocks.
These al Qaeda fighters have already captured at least one Lebanese village in the Beqaa valley. They made their move in broad daylight and celebrated their victory with a parade flying al Qaeda flags.
Assad and Israel set for armed collision
Its involvement in Assad’s war has therefore landing Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy Hizballah in big trouble from three quarters: in Syria, where Hizballah is fighting its ally’s enemies and has lost a strategic asset under an Israeli assault and, worst of all, in Lebanon, where it is bearded by al Qaeda gangs in its home bases.
More clouds are gathering around Hizballah on its home ground: Two Lebanese Al Qaeda arms are preparing to join the Nusrah offensive against Hizballah and expand it to other parts of the country.
They are Fatah al Islam and Al Jam'a al Islamiya, Lebanese Salafites of the Baalbek region.
The pro-Iranian Lebanese group may be suffering, but Assad is congratulating himself on dividing the rebel camp not just politically but militarily as well, although not everything is going his way.
Tuesday, Feb. 5, for the first time in the nearly two-year war, our military sources report that a Syrian Air Force MiG-21, sent to bomb rebel-held territory and concentrations near the city of Hama, dropped its ordnance instead on Syrian army forces loyal to Assad.
The fate of the plane and pilot is not known. But the Syrian Air Force is a traditional bulwark of the Assad family and so the Syrian ruler was deeply shocked by the pilot’s defection to the opposition.
He has also still to contend with the prospect of a military clash with Israel, with or without Hizballah.
Judging from the situation reviewed at length in separate articles in this issue, both sides are set on a course of controlled collision: Israel is determined to block the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon, while Assad is equally determined to even the score for the Israeli air strike on the Jamraya military complex near Damascus on Jan. 30.
The effect of this clash on other Syrian war sectors does not appear to concern Jerusalem, Tehran or Hizballah.