The conquest of the northern Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib by pro-Assad loyalist forces Sunday, March 11, was, on the face of it, not much different from the subjugation of other restive towns, such as Rasstan near Damascus or Homs and Hama.
Five columns of shabiha militiamen drove into Idlib, after the town of 300,000 was subjected to five days of relentless artillery shelling by an outer ring formed by the Syrian 14th Infantry Division.
The rebels, described by the Western and Arab press as elements of the Free Syrian Army, were thin on the ground. It took the regime’s forces just a few hours to assert control of Idlib and drive out the FSA’s Bakr al-Siddiq, Deir al-Azouheir and Ma’awamiya battalions – each no more than a few small companies of 120-150 men, who fled to Turkey.
All the same, Idlib was different because it was the last important stronghold still holding out against Assad’s bloody juggernaut.
And so, as the popular uprising against his rule reached its first anniversary, Thursday, March 15, Bashar Assad was able to assure his clan, his loyal generals and his security chiefs of success in stamping out the armed revolt to his regime; not even a small armed force remains in control of a city, town or village and able to fight him.
Sporadic guerrilla operations and demonstrations are to be expected here and there. But the towns, big and small, have been beaten into submission and the FSA (estimated to have numbered 40,000-50,000 officers and men) left a broken reed.
The main props of the Assad regime remained steadfast
The ruling elite retained the loyalty of the main body of the army and branches of the administration. Notwithstanding opposition claims to the contrary, military defections and desertions were marginal in scope and never encompassed a major unit or important general. Since most of Syria’s top officers belong to the Assad clan or its minority Alawite sect, they know that if the regime falls, they too, unlike in Egypt, are goners.
There were no deserters among the hundreds of Syrian diplomats serving in embassies world wide – in contrast to Libya, where most of Muammar Qaddafi’s envoys joined the opposition days into the revolt against his rule.
And the middle and merchant classes of Damascus and Aleppo – even though many belonged to the persecuted Sunni community – opted for sitting on the fence and waiting out the uprising’s outcome. The Druze and Christian minorities also stayed out of the conflict.
So long as these backbones of Syrian society and its two main cities shun the anti-regime movement, the inherently divided opposition has little hope of raising enough strength or support for toppling Assad.
Assad will now restructure the Syrian army
The pockets of resistance in the street, remaining after the armed resistance was crushed, do not bother the Syrian ruler too much now that he is rid of most of the armed rebels, most having fled to Turkey or Lebanon. After slaughtering an estimated 11,000 of his countrymen in every home and neighborhood of protest, Assad feels he can dispose of these pockets at his leisure.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources (who closely adhered to the realities of the Assad crackdown in the past year) report that Assad now has two immediate objectives:
1. Making sure that no group or individual in the country is ever again able to raise an armed force against his rule;
2. Reorganizing his loyal shabiha, a militia of an estimated 35,000 Alawites who have pledged loyalty to Assad and are his regime’s key prop.
He will also restructure the Syrian Army and rebuild its chain of command to prevent the recurrence of the situation throughout the uprising in which most of the units – excepting only the 4th Mechanized Division and Republic Guard – stayed out of the operations for suppressing the uprising and defending the regime.
The Syrian ruler will hand out promotions and perks to the officers who kept faith with his regime through thick and thin and their families.
Russia: Prime helper and prime beneficiary of Assad’s success
Russia like Iran is strongly at the receiving end of the Syrian dictator’s success.
Our Moscow sources report that the newly-elected President Vladimir Putin is claiming as his personal victory the policy of holding the line against American and Western intervention in the Syrian uprising and their attempts to make Assad’s overthrow part of the Arab Spring against autocratic rulers. It was his idea to threaten to deploy Russian troops to Syria to stand in for local units transferred from their regular duties to suppressing dissidence.
Tuesday, March 13, government sources in Moscow admitted for the first time that Russian military advisors were attached to the Syrian Army.
Moscow also fed the Syrian ruler intelligence from areas within his own country as well as from Israel and neighboring Arab countries, while also updating him on American and European military movements in the Middle East, especially in Turkey. Russia also equipped pro-government militias security units engaged in crushing the revolt with arms, topping up fast-depleting ammo stores.
Not all the top men in the Kremlin subscribed to Putin’s policy, including outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev. The new president won out against the critics of his pro-Assad line on Syria by bringing Mikhail Fradkov, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, over to his side.
Moscow knew exactly what Assad needed after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Fradkov paid a visit to Damascus and talked to the Syrian ruler. While the visit was billed as a Russian bid to persuade him to accept political reforms, it actually focused on the ways and means in which Russia could help the Syrian ruler quickly stamp out the armed revolt against his rule.
Lavrov lords it over the Arab League foreign ministers
Assad’s victory has therefore vindicated Putin and awarded Russia a political and military achievement on a scale that has eluded Moscow for many years. Putin proved he could win over an Arab country to Russian influence, shut doors to the Obama administration’s interference and wind up calling the shots in Damascus.
The Russian Foreign Minister arrived in Caro Saturday, March 10, ready collect kudos, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Middle East sources report.
It was strange to see Lavrov sitting in a place of honor at the 22-member Arab League foreign ministers’ meeting Saturday, March, 10. Stranger still, they let him talk the Arab ministers down and dictate Russia’s five-point plan for the Arab world to follow for resolving the Syrian crisis.
It called for a complete cease-fire, monitoring procedures, no foreign interference, humanitarian aid supplies and “firm support” for international envoy Kofi Annan’s mission to promote dialogue between the government and opposition.
Russia will be there for Iran at nuclear talks too
Aware of the true situation in Syria the Arab foreign ministers bowed to the Russian plan although it was clearly tilted in Assad’s favor.
And when the Qatari prime minister and foreign minister Sheikh Hamad Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani tried later to undo some of the damage by demanding military intervention to stop the bloodletting in Syria after he had despaired of a Libyan-style Western-Arab operation, he was publicly rebuked from New York by Lavrov.
Arriving there to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Russian foreign minister said: “I was amazed …that while I was in the air my colleague, with whom we agreed on these principles, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, called publicly for dispatching Arab or international forces to Syria. It absolutely contradicts what we agreed on and announced publicly.”
Lavrov’s tone strikingly demonstrated Moscow’s utter confidence in its ability to dictate the course of events in the Arab world in contrast to Washington’s withdrawal from the scene.
Russia’s gain from the Syrian episode is deeply significant for its other winner, Iran, ahead of the nuclear negotiations due to take place next month in Istanbul. Whereas the Iranians will face six powers (five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany) across the negotiating table, one of the six is Russia, which would even up the score for Iran.
For more about the strategic partnership forged by Moscow and Tehran to save Syria’s Assad and Iran’s gains from his success, read the next item in this issue.