Last-Minute Update: White House Spokesman said Thursday night: “As terrible as the situation is in Syria, he (the president) has to make decisions when it comes to policy toward Syria that are in the best interests of the United States.” Our Washington sources: This was diplomatic speak meaning that President Barack Obama has decided against intervening in Syria to save Aleppo.
The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, opens the last narrow window for the United States to aid Syrian rebels in their last stand and influence the course of the 28-month conflict.
Monday, June 10, the Syrian army launched stage one of Operation Northern Storm for retaking the northern town of Aleppo and the Idlib province abutting the town from rebel hands.
DEBKA Weekly's military sources disclose that five airborne commando units and elements of the 11th and 18th Syrian Divisions are taking part in this opening stage, with more strength added as it expands.
Hizballah has 2,000 fighters standing by as strategic reserve.
In the Aleppo offensive, the Syrian army is evidently retracing the tactics which won the battle of Al-Qusayr: Before approaching the city itself, army units are purging the city’s outlying countryside, strategic points and connecting routes. Only after securing Aleppo’s environs, will the Syrian army close in on the city.
The Syrian army and Hizballah troops are meanwhile engaged on three other fronts: the villages and farms around Hama and Homs south of Aleppo for isolating rebel pockets; and Ar-Raqqah on the northern bank of the Euphrates River in northern central Syria, 160 kilometers east of Aleppo, Ar Raqqah is the last town still held entirely by the rebels.
The Syrian army is also fighting for control of Lake Assad near Ar-Raqqah, the biggest reservoir on the Euphrates.
Idlib houses the rebels’ Western advisers and intelligence support
Russian and Iranian officers at Syrian general staff headquarters in Damascus are overseeing the Syrian army’s tactics and movements. Operation Northern Storm’s first objective is to lift the partial siege the rebels have maintained for months on the big Syrian Menagh Air Base, 6 kilometers south of Aleppo. The base is home to the Syrian Air Force’s 4th Flying Training Squadron, which is equipped with MBB 223 Flamingo trainer aircraft and Mil Mi-8 helicopters. Capturing this air base would release Syrian Air Force planes and helicopters for providing Syrian forces with a local air arm in their operation to capture Aleppo.
In the view of DEBKA Weekly’s military experts, the Syrian army’s victory in Al-Qusayr marked a turning-point in the Syrian war, whereas the capture of Aleppo would seal the rebels’ fate and hand Bashar Assad his final triumph.
Control of Aleppo would also be the key to the fall into Syrian army hands of the entire Idlib province on Syria’s eastern border with Turkey. Just as their defeat at Al-Qusayr cut off rebel supply links to Lebanon, their loss of all parts of Aleppo and Idlib would sever their access to Turkey. The rebels would thus forfeit the broadest piece of territory they have so far conquered.
For President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, the loss of Idlib to Assad’s forces would spell the end of their only foothold in a corner of Syria, where US special forces and intelligence agents working under cover have been advising Syrian rebel chiefs and monitoring Syrian army movements across the country. Operating with them are British and French special forces, and a Turkish forward base and logistical headquarters for coordinating the movements of military supplies and fighters to and from Turkey and Syria.
A limited no-fly zone over Aleppo and Idlib could hold up Assad’s advance
Shortly before the Syrian Army’s Operation Northern Storm, US, British, French and Turkish elements started clearing out their headquarters and bases and removing equipment and sensitive documents. Some of the staff were classified non-essential and sent across the border into Turkey.
It was well understood that Assad’s next operation in northern Syria aimed not just at recovering Aleppo and Idlib from rebel control, but also giving marching orders to their Western military and intelligence helpers. The Syrian ruler intended making a spectacle of the failure of the US or Turkey to strike a single blow to hold back the Syrian army’s triumphant advance.
At the same time, our military sources point out that this very Syrian army operation also presents President Obama with his best opportunity for US military intervention on a small, manageable scale, by means of a no-fly zone limited to the skies over Aleppo and Idlib.
Denied of air support, the Syrian army would face insurmountable difficulties in capturing the two areas from the rebels. Assad’s Russian and Iranian military advisers would have to advise him to put Operation Northern Storm on hold and so delay the Syrian ruler’s progress towards winning the war.
All that is needed to achieve this would be for Washington to order just 20 fighter-bombers – 10 American and 10 Turkish – to impose a limited no-fly zone over the battle arena, with the Turkish air force command and the US X-band radar station at Kurecik in eastern Turkey coordinating the operation.
There is still time to do this – although the clock is ticking fast. It took the Syrian army plus Hizballah about a month to capture Al-Qusayr, including 16 days of combat to take the city center.
The same process in Aleppo and Idlib, say our military sources, would consume 50 days, i.e. up until the end of July. That would give Obama time enough to use the last window of opportunity for making a difference in the Syrian civil war. After that, as the total death toll climbs up to 100,000, the window will slam shut.