Hagel’s talks in Jordan and Israel to determine if Syrian rebel Golan offensive expands to Damascus
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Israel Wednesday May 14 from an inspection of the US-Jordanian underground command center manned by 273 American officers and located 10 kilometers north of the Jordanian capital, Amman, debkafile’s military sources report. He arrived from attending the GCC defense ministers’ meeting in Jeddah for talks with Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in Tel Aviv Thursday.
This US-Jordanian war room, known as Centcom Forward-Jordan, was established in August 2013 to direct potential US-Jordanian military action in Syria and counter any military threat posed by Syria or Hizballah to Jordan or Israel. This command center coordinates operations with the network of US air and naval forces in the Mid East. It is also connected to IDF and Israeli Air force headquarters.
Hagel was joined on his visit by the Head of the Jordanian Armed Forces Lt. Gen. Mashal Mohammad Al-Zaben and Jordanian Prince Faisal Al Hussein.
Hagel and party heard briefings from the US and Jordanian commanders directing the war room and monitoring the Syrian rebels' assault on Golan town of Quneitra, and their evaluations of the chances of the rebels taking the town.
It was the first visit by a high-ranking US defense persona to a US military headquarters directly involved in the Syrian war.
As Hagel talked to Jordanian military and political leaders, a joint-US-Jordanian military exercise, dubbed the 8th Annual Falcon Air Meeting, took place in and around the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in eastern Jordan. This base is considered to be the likely staging-ground for any American military intervention in Syria.
debkafile’s military sources say that Hagel’s talks in Jordan and Israel are to determine whether the rebel forces backed by the US open a new southern front against Bashar Assad.
The military aspect of the Syrian civil conflict gains ground as the political dimension recedes with the resignation of the UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, which UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon attributed to the failure of both sides to reach a political solution.
On Tuesday May 13, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, accompanied by senior IDF commanders, toured parts of the Golan border fence to observe the fighting in the Syrian sector. He said, looking toward the town of Quneitra: “From here we can see how the rebels have pushed Assad’s army into a corner.”
Ya’alon no doubt passed this evaluation on to the Defense Secretary during his visit to the war room in Jordan, as food for the decision on whether to let the Golan battles take their course – thus far an even contest with the rebels unable to finish the Syrian forces off and capture Quneitra, the key to a wide stretch of southern Syria – or arm the rebel militias for a major push. This would demand heavy American weaponry, especially a sufficiency of TOW missiles, to tip the scales of the battle. Thus far, only a small amount has been supplied.
This decision will be important in determining how the Syrian war develops, although Secretary Hagel is rarely brought into strictly operational decisions.
If he decides to provide the rebels fighting for Quneitra with enough heavy weapons to wrest the town and parts of the South from the Syrian army, they would also be armed for the option of advancing on Damascus. They could form up into two columns – one moving out of Quneitra and the other from the southern town of Deraa. This formation would directly threaten the three Syrian army bases – Al-Kiswah, Qatana and Kanaker – defending southern Damascus, that are manned by the 9th Syrian Division.
This would be a surprise development for the Syrian commanders and Iranian military advisers, led by Al Qods Brigades chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who are currently focused on the northern front up against the Turkish and Lebanese frontiers. It would catch them unprepared and lacking the strategic military reserves to defend Damascus from a new threat without exposing their other fronts.
Hagel faces another major difficulty, which is to determine which Syrian militias qualify for the receipt of heavy American weapons.
The rebel militias fighting close to Israel’s Golan border are interspersed with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) combatants. Al Qaeda’s ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) ISIS has also begun sending jihadists to the new battlefield around Quneitra. So far, the US and Jordanian officers supervising the arena from the war room near Amman have been able to keep US arms out of their hands. But what happens if those weapons are delivered in large quantities?