Miles before reaching the front lines in Damascus, Syrian army tanks have been bursting into flames like fire crackers from direct hits by rebel forces using their recently acquired high-tech weapons for the first time on the Syrian battlefield..
This radical shift in the face of the fighting elicited the Assad regime’s most dire threat yet: An unnamed Syrian military commander warned Wednesday, April 3, that any further push into the capital would mean “certain death” for the rebels and their leaders. Talking to the pro-government paper al-Watan, he said “The bravery of government troops on the battlefield is keeping Damascus safe.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and military sources report that the rebel fighters’ newly-acquired antitank guided missiles-ATGM (of both Russian and American manufacture) are knocking over the T-72 tanks of the 4th Republican Guard Division and the 3rd Division, the backbone of the capital’s defenses, while their portable MANPAD air defense systems have brought practically all takeoffs and landings at Damascus International Airport to a standstill.
The port is deserted most hours of the day and night.
Rebels knock out tanks, race to preempt chemical warfare
In the last issue of DEBKA-Net-Weekly issue (No.591 of March 29), we reported that officers of the 3rd and 4th Divisions had received protective chemical warfare suits and gasmasks.
For Bashar Assad and his generals, the entry of the new ATGMs to the battlefield was the final red line. Without tanks, the two loyal divisions can hardly hope to save Damascus from the rebels, and so the most extreme measure, chemical weapons, has been prepared to stop them.
Rebel leaders aware of this train of thought upped their pressure in two ways in the past week: They have been driving hard to breach the defenses of central Damascus by seizing the city’s eastern districts; and are battering the defensive ring around the chemical weapons complex at Dumeir, 40 kilometers northeast of the capital.
It is there that Assad has put together a stock of chemical components, including the nerve gas sarin, for use as the final resort if the rebels are a step before taking Damascus.
For Assad, the ATGMs pose the ultimate threat to his army’s capacity to fight.
So far, the rebels appear to be concentrating the few dozen advanced anti-tank weapons in their possession on the battle to win Damascus. But if their source should increase supplies to several hundred ATGMs, the rebels would have the ability to disable the Syria army’s entire tank fleet across the country.
They could also keep the surviving tanks pinned down uselessly and unable to move from one warfront to another by ambushing the tank transporters as they move along the roads and setting them on fire.
The loss of its tanks would immobilize the Syrian army as well as its Iranian, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite allies.
Planned rebel Scud blitz on Damascus
The Syrian ruler is also seriously jittery over the rebels’ efforts to start using the Scud C and Scud B missiles, taken booty from army bases, against regime institutions in Damascus, such as the presidential palace and General Staff Headquarters.
According to our intelligence sources, the rebels have got hold of at least six missile launchers from which 12-16 Scud missiles could be launched continuously with a few hours space between firings.
But they appear to still have two difficulties to overcome before using the captured Scuds.
1. Lack of rebel teams trained for the continuous and precise launching of surface-to-surface missiles against defined targets. A handful of their fighters appear capable of sporadic and random launches. But that is not good enough. For effective use of the Scuds, the rebels will have to hire professional missile teams.
Our sources have picked up reports of agents of Arab intelligence services, especially Qatar, propositioning officers from the Libyan army’s Scud units with offers of a $5,000 monthly wage – payable to their families if they are killed or wounded – for service with the Syrian rebels
2. Western intelligence experts don’t believe the Syrian opposition fighters have accumulated sufficient Scud missiles for the continuous blitz they are planning.
Their renewed concentrated assault on the Al Safira military complex near Aleppo in northern Syria aims not just at seizing a major chemical weapons depot. As one of the Syrian army’s main artillery bases, it houses more than 120 surface-to-surface missiles of various types.
Can Moscow or Tehran save Damascus and avert chemical war?
Either way, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say, the rebels will soon try their hand at shooting Scud missile at government targets in Damascus. At this time, they appear to control East Goutha, which commands eastern access to the city.
Moscow and Tehran are unlikely to stand back and watch this sharp escalation in the force and efficacy of rebel weaponry and their progress toward capturing major sections of Assad’s capital.
However their options are limited.
At this stage of the fast-moving Syrian conflict, it would not be practical to ship to Damascus a large number of Russian tanks – say, 50-100 – of types resistant to the rebels’ weapons as replacements for the crippled Syrian tanks.
Can the Russian and Iranian arsenals yield up tools of war with the superior firing power needed to beat down the rebels’ ATGM and MANPADS? And if so, can they deliver them quickly enough to save Damascus before Assad brings chemical weapons into play?