Two contenders are locked in a fateful contest to win the strategic Qalamoun Mts. on the Syrian-Lebanese border: The Syrian army and its Hizballah ally are fighting tooth and nail against the opposition Army of Conquest, which is spearheaded by Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. This battle has all of a sudden attained the proportions of a critical regional contest, which poses dire consequences for the Iran-Syrian-Hizballah alliance at large and its three prime movers, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hizballah leader Hassan Nastrallah, and their overall commander, Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Al Qods Brigades.
With so much hanging in the balance, it is no wonder that Hizballah issued confused communiqués on the battle, until Nasrallah interceded Tuesday, May 5 to say: “We have not issued a statement, and we will not issue a statement. When we launch a (Qalamoun) operation, it will be obvious to everyone.”
The operation is, however, already in full flight. Neither Nasrallah nor anyone else can predict its outcome for sure, because a radical, unforeseen shift has taken place in the balance of strength. For the first time in nearly five years of Syrian civil war, the United States has lined up with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE to give the Syrian opposition heavy weapons. Had they been supplied earlier, the war might have ended sooner and many of the hundreds of thousands of victims might have been saved.
Also, after a long silence, senior Obama administration spokesmen were finally willing to blast the Assad regime for his heinous war crimes.
Friday, May 8, three senior spokesmen confirmed as “strong and credible” the reports that the Syrian army had reverted to the use of chemical weapons. They were Robert Malik, US ambassador to the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, US Undersecretary of State Antony Nlnken and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.
They were willing to “disclose” a fact – long common knowledge in the region – that the Syrian army had retained a part of its chemical stockpile. This disclosure exposed the much-acclaimed US-Russian accord concluded by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the end of 2013, forcing Assad to surrender his chemical arsenal, as a more or less dead letter.
On the heels of the US accusation, PCWU international inspectors revealed that traces of sarin and VX nerve agents were found in Syria last December and in January.
The new Obama administration’s diplomatic offensive against Assad came as the Qalamoun showdown attained momentous proportions, after two weeks of heavy Syrian military war reverses in the north. The sharp US edge was also directed at Gen. Soleimani, who is responsible for Iran’s supply of chorine-filled barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian air force on civilians in rebel-held areas.
Washington has refocused its attention on Syrian-Iranian chemical warfare out of two broader considerations:
1. Iran’s cavalier contempt for the international accords and treaties banning chemical weapons raises tough questions about Tehran’s credibility and trustworthiness for upholding the comprehensive nuclear accord currently in negotiation with the Six Powers. Can Iran be trusted to honor any commitment to allow the “intrusive inspections” of its nuclear sites, which President Barack Obama has pledged as the underpinning of any accord?
2. President Obama has just lately adopted a plan some members of his National Security Council put forward: It is to get the Iranians moving on the nuclear deal by applying a painful prod in the form of a wedge in the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) leadership. IRGC chief Gen. Ali Jafari is being elevated as a “moderate” and the “good guy” of the regime, while Gen. Soleimani, the Al Qods chief, who orchestrates IRGC’s external subversive operations, is fingered as the “bad guy.’
Jafary is also to receive economic incentives for accepting the nuclear accord, while denouncing Soleimani, leading light of Iran’s military interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, may have the added benefit of forcing Tehran to pull in its horns in those conflicts.
Time will tell whether this tactic is effective. As matters stand in May 2015, it is hoped that undercutting Soleimani’s repute will impinge on the level of Iranian military involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. A decision by Tehran to downscale its military support for the Syrian and Hizballah armed forces may undo them in the battle of Qalamoun. This defeat will seriously undermine Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani. And so the Syrian opposition and its backers have all the more reason to push hard to win this fateful encounter.