Despite Grave Military Reverses, the Syrian Army and Hizballah Are Not Done Yet
Four years ago, at the outset of the Syrian popular revolt, Ehud Barak, then Israeli Defense Minister, erred twice – once in June, and again in December – when he gave the Assad regime no more than a few weeks to survive.
On Tuesday, June 30, another Israeli official, the Defense Ministry’s strategic adviser Amos Gilead, did it again. Just as confidently he told an intelligence conference in Tel Aviv: “Syria is gone. Syria is dying. The funeral will be declared in due course. This Bashar Assad, he will be remembered in the history books as the who lost Syria.”
He went on to say, “Until now he has lost 75 percent of Syria… In practice he rules over 20 percent … and his future, if I may predict it, is shrinking all the time. We may end up having him president of Alawistan.”
This thumbs-down on the Syrian ruler came just a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem out of a meeting with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to send Bashar Assad a personal message: “Our policy to support Syria, the Syrian leadership and the Syrian people remains unchanged,” Putin said very clearly.
Turkey is a-feared of ISIS and Syrian Kurdish autonomy
This message would not have surprised President Barack Obama. Last Thursday, June 26, Putin phoned the White House for a long conversation with the US president, in which he repeated the thought he conveyed to Assad and cautioned the US and its Middle East allies against military intervention in the “increasingly dangerous situation in Syria.”
This warning was prompted by reports (carried also by debkafile on June 30 – see HOT POINTS below) that Turkey and Jordan were about to use armed force to set up security buffer zones inside Syria, shielding them with no-fly zones overhead. It was also implied that the US Air Force would fly out of the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey to provide air cover for no-fly zones in the north, while Israel would provide air cover in the south.
Ankara has three pressing needs for a security zone inside Syria:
– The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is on the march, and Turkey fears it may be next in line.
– The constant stream of Syrian refugees. Turkey already hosts 3 million war refugees and has exhausted its capacity to absorb them.
– Kurdish fighters have successfully driven ISIS out of several points along the Syrian-Turkish border, creating a contiguous entity as the nucleus for a potential state next door to Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week that his country would never allow the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish state on its southern frontier “whatever the price that must be paid.”
Jordan depends on US and Israeli military back-up
Jordan’s compulsions for seeking a security zone inside Syria are different in some respects, except for the refugee issue. Smaller in size and population than Turkey, the 1.5 million refugees who have surged into the kingdom from Syria already make up one-fifth of its population. Security zones would serve both countries for refugee camps as safe havens for the millions of homeless victims of the Syrian war.
Jordan also fears that the forcible fragmentation of Syria would destabilize its northern border and further empower the Islamic State, which already poses a threat to both Turkey and Jordan.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources point out that, whereas Turkey has the military capacity to act alone if it decides to go into Syria, Jordan’s military resources and fire power are a lot slimmer. They would not serve for both striking out and defending the kingdom at the same time, without back-up from the US and Israel.
The Jordanian army’s general staff is formally in command and carries out military operations in defense of the kingdom’s frontiers with Iraq and Syria. But practical responsibility rests with the US Central Command Forward-Jordan, or CF-J. Quartered at a base north of Amman, the CF-J is the only multinational military command center in the Middle East.
Operating under a US general, it is made up of American, Jordanian, Saudi, British and UAE officers, as well as Israeli special operations and air force personnel.
US-backed southern Syrian rebels far from goals
CF-J is the real high command running the military operations against the Islamic State in the western Iraqi province of Anbar across the border from Jordan, and the battles against Syrian-Hizballah forces and pro-Iranian militias in southern Syria.
In the second half of June, this US-led command orchestrated a massive coalition effort by 10 major rebel militias to seize control of southern Syria, push out the forces loyal to the Assad regime and commandeer the main highways to Damascus.
They hoped for a repeat performance of the northern rebel group’s feats of early June, in seizing almost the entire province of Idlib and heading toward consolidating anti-Assad rule in all of northern Syria.
But by the time this was written on Thursday, July 2, this goal was still evasive. The hub town of Deraa remained in the hands of the Syrian army and Hizballah, as did the key town of Quneitra opposite the Israeli Golan. By week’s end, the rebels were still a long way from a starting point for their advance on Damascus.
ISIS picks up on weaknesses of the two Syrian duels
The Syrian conflict, no longer a straight fight between pro- and anti-Assad forces, goes forward under the dark shadow of its third participant, the Islamic State. ISIS strategists stand by and watch the two foes struggling for a foothold on the different fronts, then pounce on the slightest weakness and move in for gains
The jihadis saw this opportunity on June 30, and attempted to storm a neighborhood of the northern town of Tel Abyad, from which Kurdish forces expelled them last week.
Tel Abyad is vitally important as it controls the main Syrian-Turkish border crossings and the Syrian rebel supply lines from Turkey. If ISIS recaptured this town, Turkey would hasten its intervention in the Syrian war for an urgent attempt to force the jihadis back from its borders.