Recovering Idlib Province – a Game Changer for Assad in the Syrian War
Syrian President Bashar Assad is making great strides towards what could be the greatest victory of his three and-a half-year campaign against anti-regime rebels: the conquest of Aleppo.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources say it is only a matter of days before Syria’s second city falls to the regime and allied Hizballah forces fighting under Iranian command.
The rebel forces which a mere six months ago held half the city have scattered and are in retreat. Our sources report that rebels are also backing out of the rest of Idlib Province. There former stronghold in northwestern Syria and, if Aleppo falls, Assad’s army will likely take this strategically important province in its entirety.
The head of Aleppo’s Provincial Rebel Council, Abdul-Rahman Dadam, warned in a July 7 news conference in Istanbul that the Syrian Army was making advances in Idlib and around Aleppo.
Jalaluddin Khandji, Aleppo’s representative in the main opposition umbrella group, the Syrian National Coalition, called on “democratic countries and international organizations to stand with the Syrian people who have been abandoned, to battle against the terrorism of both the Assad regime and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”
Control of Idlib will open N-S highway, close rebel threat from the north
But despite these strong statements, Yasser al-Najjar, the head of the Revolutionary Command Council in Aleppo, confirmed that "rebel fighters have withdrawn from the Aleppo front after finding themselves in a hopeless position, stuck between the regime on the one side, and ISIS (IS) on the other."
This regime coup will have major ramifications for the coming direction of Syria’s bloody civil war:
1. After rooting rebel forces out of the Syrian-Lebanese and Syrian-Turkish border province of Idlib, Assad and Hizballah’s fighters will no longer face a threat from the direction of Turkey. With Homs and Hama in hand since the start of this year, their control of Aleppo will finally cut off any rebel attempt to attack Damascus from the north.
2. Aleppo’s capture will open up to the Syrian army and the Syrian economy the highway system running from the north to Deraa in the south. Sections of those highway links that circumvent Damascus were until recently in rebel hands.
3. The rebels will lose their launching pad for attacks on Latakia and Tartus, the coastal cities at the foot of the Alawite Mountains which are Assad’s political home ground.
4. The Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and the Nusra Front had hoped to carve out a corridor from northern Syria to the Mediterranean Sea. But the Syrian army’s conquest of Idlib would shut this down.
A Cairo-Damascus thaw underway
5. It would also plant an obstruction on the free passage that the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq had charted for transporting its oil from the Kirkuk oil fields to the Mediterranean via Turkey. To ensure its oil makes it to Mediterranean tankers, Irbil will have to negotiate directly with Damascus, where Tehran pulls the strings.
DEBKA Weekly's intelligence and Mid East sources report a surprising thaw in the ties between Cairo and Damascus as a result of the Assad regime’s bright military prospects.
Newly elected Egyptian President Fattah El Sisi sent secret emissaries to Assad last month with a conciliatory message. The Egyptian president is looking to gradually improve its relationship with Syria, and eventually go public on their nascent friendship. Assad has welcomed this overture and informal contacts are underway.
El Sisi is the first Arab ruler to break the Arab boycott of Assad and his regime.
It’s too soon to say how President Barack Obama in Washington and King Abdullah in Riyadh will take Sisi’s move, as they’re likely to read about it for the first time in DEBKA Weekly.