After long years of fighting to keep Bashar Assad in power, the Syrian army is showing cracks in the face of the fresh battle momentum displayed by opposition forces. The self-styled new rebel “Army of Conquest” Saturday, April 25, marched into the key town of Jisr al-Shughour in the northern Idlib province after first capturing the regional capital. This placed the rebels in position to threaten Assad’s second most important bastion, the western town of Latakia, as well as his grip on Homs and Hama.
The tide of war was turning sharply against the Syrian army despite the solid military backing of Iran and Hizballah. Its setbacks in the north and the south present a vivid contrast to the opposition’s victories.
Assad was forced to cut short the operation to retake Aleppo when the casualties inflicted on his forces became too heavy. He also had to discontinue the southern offensive for the capture of Daraa and the Syrian-Israeli-Jordanian border junction when Syrian and Hizballah forces ran out of munitions.
DEBKA Weekly’s military analysts take a look at the abrupt downturn in the Syrian army’s fortunes and draw the following conclusions:
US, Israel arm Nusra as ace Syrian rebel force
1. The rebels owe their successes first and foremost to the massive amounts of heavy weapons and funds injected by the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the first time since disaffected Syrians rose up against Bashar Assad in March 2011.
For the Idlib battles, rebel forces were armed as never before, with heavy weapons, including T-55, T-62, and T-72 tanks, BMP infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers, mortars, and vehicle-mounted heavy antiaircraft machine guns (12.7, 14.5, and 23 mm). Several types of antitank weapons used included RPG-7s, RPG-22s, M79s, and TOW missiles. Rebel videos showed numerous accurate TOW attacks on regime armored vehicles and positions
2. The Islamist Nusra Front has been allotted a share in this profusion of hardware and cash, despite its ties with Al Qaeda, our military sources report. Some of those weapons also come from Israel. Nusra has evolved into one of the premium fighting forces on the Syrian battlefield today and growing stronger as supplies build up.
So how come America, the Gulf nations and Israel are investing so heavily in an organization identified with Al Qaeda?
Nusra armed and groomed to fight ISIS too
They justify this by maintaining that the Nusra Front is a coalition of countless tiny militias, most of which though fervent Muslims, don’t necessarily follow Al Qaeda. Moreover, since Ayman al- Zawahiri succeeded the late Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s central command has run out of operational steam and so allegiance to the group has lost its meaning.
3. The strongest argument for backing the Nusra Front is that it is the only opposition horse in the Syrian race worth its mettle – not just against Assad, but also ISIS.
That these considerations could melt away overnight and sweep away their cleverest strategies is obvious to the Obama administration and Saudi rulers.
All the same, it was hard to damp the optimistic mood pervading Washington this week in the wake of Assad’s military misfortunes.
Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, said that a regime collapse cannot be ruled out. The regime’s schisms, its battlefield setbacks and its manpower shortages “are all signs of weakness,” he wrote. “We may be seeing the signs of the beginning of their end.”
Too soon to write Assad regime’s obituary
But in the view of DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence experts, there is still a long way to go before Bashar Assad can be consigned to history.
For one thing, Damascus is one of the most heavily fortified capitals in the Middle East – if not the whole world.
For another, the Syrian ruler still has large, fresh military resources at his disposal. They have never been thrown into battle because their sole function is the defence of Damascus.
Three more salient facts deserve consideration:
(a) Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t let Assad fall because his entire Middle East policy and ties with Iran are contingent on his propping him up.
Russian arms shipments to Syria dwindled of late because military equipment is being diverted to the pro-Russian rebels in the Ukraine. But Putin keeps a close watch on the Syrian scene and if he sees cracks in the regime, he will step up supplies to the Syrian army – even at the expense of the Ukrainian insurgents.
(b) Tehran and Moscow are governed by the same guiding principle: The Assad regime must be preserved even if the cost is prohibitive. Iran moreover will not throw Hizballah, its Lebanese proxy, to the wolves – as it would be if Assad were ousted. Hizballah has committed half of its fighting strength, some 7,000 troops, to the Assad cause and they are scattered among the difference war fronts.
Would Tehran trade Assad for Domination of Yemen?
At the same time, Iran has two options which are not available to Moscow: One is a deal with the Obama administration for Assad’s fate in exchange for the Americans letting the Yemeni rebel Houthis off the hook.
A possible hint that a potential US-Iranian understanding on these lines may be under discussion was offered last weekend by the apparent cooperation between Washington and Tehran to avert a collision between their fleets in the Gulf of Aden. (Read a separate article on this episode.)
(c) Without involving Washington, Tehran could stage a military coup to oust Assad from power while installing in his place elements of the Syrian army loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah.
Assad, whose instincts of survival are preternaturally sharp, had this eventuality in mind when he sent his defense minister Gen. Fahad Jassim Freij at the head of a large military delegation to Tehran Tuesday, April 28. After he met his Iranian colleague, Hossein Dehghan, the two ministers issued a joint statement saying they had agreed to the “strengthening of coordination and cooperation between the two armies… especially in the face of terrorism and common challenges in the region.”
The Syrian delegation was accompanied by a group of high-ranking Hizballah officers.
Assad apparently felt the need of renewed guarantees from Tehran in support of his presidency.