Top US officials this week received a close-up view of the “grim and somber” state of play between the Syrian army and the rebels.
Secretary of State John Kerry was taken on a tour of the Turkish-Syrian border on April 23 by Free Syrian Army (FS) chief of staff, General Salim Idriss, the day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel received a bird’s eye view of Syrian rebel and army lines from the air, under the escort of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
When Kerry asked for a true account of the state of the war, the rebel general leveled with a bleak assessment: None of the rebel groups, including his own FSA and al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, posseses either the fighting manpower or the arms for standing up to the Syrian army’s constantly ascending firepower.
The US secretary listened to Gen. Idriss without a word of comment.
Any gaps noted by Bashar Asad’s Iranian and Russian advisers – whom Idriss termed “mercenaries” – are quickly filled, he said, by airlifted arms replenishments from Iran and Russia.
The Syrian rebel movement is not just fighting the Syrian army but also armed militias fielded by Hizballah and Iraqi Shiites, he said
Only this week, two Hizballah commando brigades of 1,000 fighters each joined a Syrian army raid on the Syrian-Lebanese border village of Al Qusayr. The fall of this village, he explained, will cut the rebels’ main line to its logistical rear base in Lebanon. It will no longer be possible to transfer fighters and weapons from Lebanon into the Syrian front lines or evacuate the wounded.
Assad’s forces are heavily beefed up
Another 1,500 Hizballah fighters are present inside Damascus, the capital, most assigned to guarding the sacred Shiite tomb of Zaynab bint Ali (daughter of Ali, the Rashid Caliph and first Shiite Imam, and granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter Fatima).
They are joined in Damascus by 3,000 Shiite fighters from Iraq, organized under the umbrella of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, which maintains 12 battalions in Baghdad in which serve followers from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan .
Assad’s forces were also recently buttressed by the deployment to the front lines of adherents of the “popular army” which has been modeled on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and trained by Iranian Al Qods Battalions officers.
The Hizballah Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, actually left his Beirut bunker to visit Tehran on April 13-14 and met Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials.
They encouraged him to contribute more to the safeguarding of the Assad regime, although he told them that 8,000 Hizballah fighters, representing half of his armed forces, are already in combat in Syria.
Gen. Idris told Kerry how easy it is for Hizballah fighters to pass through the Lebanese border to Syria. They cross as tourists at the Massena border post 50 kilometers east of Beirut, without arms or other military equipment, and are picked up on the Syrian side by trucks carrying a supply of weapons and combat gear and driven straight to the battlefronts.
Syrian forces drive south to the Jordanian border
The Hizballah expeditionary force to Syria has two commanders, Idris reported: The top chief is the shadowy Talal Hamia, notorious for his complicity in many Hizballah terror operations and a former member of the tight circle around the infamous Hizballah military leader Imad Mughniyeh, who was slain by Israeli agents in Damascus in February 2008.
Waif Safa, Hizballah’s head of security, top operative in its intelligence service and a Nasrallah loyalist, organizes the Lebanese end of the Syrian project.
Tuesday, a large Syrian force launched an offensive in the Daraa sector in southern Syria to push the rebel forces out of the way of and open up a broad corridor for controlling a swathe of land between Daraa and the Jordanian border.
This drive aims to thwart the plan charted by the US, Israel and Jordan, to carve out a security buffer zone in southern Syria (first revealed in a separate article in this issue.)
In the Aleppo and eastern Damascus sectors, the Syrian army has managed to stem all the rebel offensives.