The tide of battle in Aleppo turned in favor of the Syrian army loyal to Bashar Assad Wednesday, August 8. As the rebels ran out of ammunition and food, district after district of the eight captured was regained by Syrian troops.
Desperate appeals for quick ammo supplies rose from the embattled rebel ranks, “or else they’ll slaughter us,” they said.
Their hopes sank further as they saw the Western intelligence officers who had been encouraging and advising them on tactics and targeting melting out of the city and realized the battle for Aleppo was lost.
This downturn in their fortunes was manifest in the interviews appearing in the American press later that day. Rebel spokesmen, once supremely confident of Assad’s imminent comedown, were now singing a different tune, as one Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander put it to the Washington Post:
"America, once regarded by the Syrian opposition as a natural friend in its struggle for greater freedoms against a regime long at odds with the West, increasingly is being viewed with suspicion and resentment for its failure to offer little more than verbal encouragement to the revolutionaries. America will pay a price for this, America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don't trust them at all.”
It is dawning on Syrian rebel chiefs that covert operations, like the bomb attack which liquidated half of Assad’s inner circle and the defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab to Jordan through a safe route which Assad, for his own reasons, had ordered kept open, may hurt the regime but won’t win the war.
Assad follows Iranian military advice
Assad, in contrast, is drawing on military advice from the Iranian advisers he has ensconced at the Defense Ministry building in Damascus and is steadily gaining ground against the high-visibility disinformation tactics and shocking imagery disseminated day by day by the rebels’ Western and Arab helpers.
However impressive and high-powered, defections and high-profile liquidations have little effect on the battlefield.
Both sides declared that the battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city of two and a half million and its commercial hub, would determine the fate of the war.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that, from its outset on July 17, the Syrian ruler has pursued the following strategy:
1. He brought to Aleppo a very large concentration of 20,000 troops, supported by the air force and tanks;
2. He ordered all other units to keep national highways open – the north-to-south M1 from Idlib via Aleppo, Homs and Hama to Damascus and on to the Jordanian frontier (as DEBKA-Net-Weekly 551, reported on August 3: The Battle for Aleppo-Damascus M1 Highway is Decisive); and the M4, that crosses the country from Palmyra in the east to Latakia in the west. Assad instructed the army to keep those two intersecting highways open to Syrian military traffic at all costs.
3. He pulled all his military strength out of outlying areas and focused it entirely in the main battle arenas, excepting only the capital, Damascus.
The rebels missed their big chance for safe havens
Large swathes of Syria were thus abandoned by Syrian forces in numbers capable of suppressing insurrection in Syrian Kurdistan (See the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue: A Pro-US Kurdish State Rises in Northern Syria – Between Irbil and Aleppo), along the Euphrates River bank in the east, in the predominantly Druze region in the southeast, in restive Horan in the south and on the divided Golan Heights.
This should have presented the rebels with their big chance to seize control of large expanses of Syria and corner Assad, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military experts – but only if they really did command the numbers, organization and popular support they claimed.
One of two moves could have brought victory near their grasp:
– Either by re-igniting the uprising and opening a second and third front in the areas which Assad’s troops deserted in order to defend Aleppo and the two national highways, or –
– Creating safe havens in the virtually demilitarized regions under the protection of the rebels’ Western and Arab sponsors. This solution was discussed extensively in Washington, London, Ankara, Riyadh and Doha, throughout the 17 months of the conflict.
From the second half of July, those areas were clear of Syrian ground forces capable of standing in their way.
Clinton faces hard questions from Turkey and rebel chiefs
Our military experts estimate that supplying the rebels with just 200-300 surface-to-air missiles would have enabled them to defend these buffer zones from Syrian air strikes. But the rebels, just as they ran out of ammo in Aleppo, have been dogged throughout the conflict by a shortage of weapons.
If the Syrian ruler can cement his recovery of Aleppo, he will have saved his sinking Alawite warship and put it back on an even keel.
On Saturday, August 11, when she visits Ankara, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face a divided Turkish leadership, with Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Dovatoglu hurling mutual recriminations over Turkey's biggest diplomatic, strategic and intelligence debacle in 25 years.
She too will be asked to explain how their anti-Assad policy and aid to the Syrian rebellion resulted in Turkey being marooned behind frontiers 800 kilometers long, peopled entirely by Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish separatists.
Just weeks ago, this outcome would have been unimaginable.
Clinton will also be challenged by Free Syrian Army leaders to explain how they came to be robbed of victory against Assad and his army. They are already blaming the Obama administration for their prospective defeat.