Regime Change in Damascus? Only If Tehran Wills it
The storming of the National Transitional Council headquarters in Benghazi by pro-Qaddafi loyalists on Jan. 21 was an ironic comment on the current state of the Arab Spring in Syria. Those loyalists went on to attack Benghazi, cradle of the Libyan revolution, and recover control of Bani Walid, one of the last strongholds of their late master, Muammar Qaddafi, from the interim government.
This did not discourage the optimistic talk heard in some Arab and Western capitals about a "Syrian Benghazi" finally rising in the twin Syrian towns of Zabadani and Madaya, that would eventually bring down the brutal Assad regime in Damascus, just as the Benghazi rebels did for Qaddafi's 42-year old autocracy.
This rosy estimate was fed by an assortment of highly colored rebel feats.
Since Jan. 14, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report, the small town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border, 20 miles west of Damascus, has been the scene of pitched battles between diverse opposition groups of unknown provenance and the Syrian army. On Jan. 18, the fighting spread to nearby Madava. Throughout this struggle, elements of the Free Syrian Army-FSA operating out of Lebanon and along the border with Syria – mostly dealing in smuggling across arms paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar – have been working hard to recruit volunteers to tip the scales of battle in the rebels' favor – without much success. The Syrian Army has also failed to breach the two towns and end the seesaw contest.
Generating false hopes
Finally, it was reported that Hizballah for the first time in the 10-month revolt sent special forces into Syria. They were described as shelling rebel forces with 270mm Katyusha rockets to prevent Zabadani falling into anti-Assad forces' hands. In Madava, the Lebanese Shiites were said to have rescued a group of Iranian military advisers stranded in a Syrian army base under rebel siege.
This week, Arab and Western media called the Zabadani battle the first rebel important victory, claiming they had liberated the town.
Tariq Alhomayed, editor in chief of the influential Saudi A-Sharq al-Awsat, wrote Monday, January 23: "Today the Syrian revolutionaries are pursuing a strategy that seems smart and effective so far, namely the search for a Syrian Benghazi or, as a source close to what is happening on the ground in Syria told me, … 'multiple Benghazis, not just one.' These could be Homs, Zabadani, and others, which the rebels consider to be liberated cities."
The Washington Post cited some of the Arab League monitors as reporting after a visit Saturday that local people could not hide their joy that Zabadani has, at least for now, become what they are hailing as a "liberated city," the first since the armed rebel force began taking shape.
Zabadani was never liberated
There is only one problem with these glad tidings: They never happened. Neither Zabadani nor Homs have become "Syrian Benghazis" or liberated cities. Hizballah forces never shelled the combat areas; nor did they fight in Madava to rescue Iranian military advisers.
What really happened was that on Jan. 18, local Zabadani town leaders, fearing their town was in for a heavy military bombardment, struck a deal with the Syrian army: They won a ceasefire conditional on their expelling all armed rebels and their weapons from the town and pushing them back across the border into Lebanon; the dismantling of all barricades and military posts; and the disappearance of armed men who had been roaming their streets.
For those concessions, the Syrian army agreed to halt its attacks on Zabadani and pull back several hundred meters from its outskirts.
For now, "the Syrian Benghazi" lives under Syrian military siege, which at short notice could turn into a tank offensive with only minimal resistance.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that like Zabadani, most of Syria's flashpoint cities – Homs, Hama, Idlib – are in the same situation – besieged, not liberated.
Some of the rosy opposition propaganda making the rounds has begun trickling into Western intelligence evaluations – in Washington too. It is infecting accounts whose factual accuracy is relied upon as the bedrock for policy decisions on Syria.
The SFA has not dented Assad's grip on Damascus
President Barack Obama is being informed that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has emerged as the most important armed opposition element in Syria. His briefings say the FSA is actively engaged in combat in six of Syria's 14 governorates, inflicting increasing losses on regime personnel and equipment and capable of challenging regime forces locally. The rebel force is said to have contributed to forcing the regime to abandon some areas, including locations close to the capital.
These assessments embody several false accounts including the one claiming that last week, Douma, a city abutting Damascus with around 100,000 inhabitants, was conquered for several hours by FSA forces, thereby beginning to loosen the Assad regime's grip on the Syrian capital. Syrian rebels were described as capturing parts of Douma Saturday, January 21, then withdrawing to their hideouts.
In actual fact, the FSA has no hideouts around Damascus; nor did the rebels seize Douma. As we write this, Assad and his forces are in full control of Damascus.
Therefore, Western intelligence assessments claiming the Free Syrian Army, while not yet a direct threat to the regime, is increasingly influencing the course of the struggle as the engine of processes that will eventually topple the regime, are premature at best and made of whole cloth at worst.
If Bashar Assad were to be unseated tomorrow, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources say, it would not be thanks to an overnight rebel victory – which is highly unlikely at this stage – but because his still solid power bases were moving away:
Assad's support base is still solid
1. It would take a decision by the top Syrian army command to oust him as president – should the generals opt to do so for the sake of repairing the gaping rifts in Syrian society and rebuilding the shattered country. For now, there is no sign that this decision is afoot in the high military or intelligence commands.
The generals might conceivably change their minds if the army managed to vanquish the rebels completely – only to come up against Assad's failure to reduce the level of the civilian resistance to his rule.
2. Or a decision by Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, in concert with the pro-Iranian Syrian elements in Syria's military and intelligence, that Assad's time was up and a new president must be found.
3. Or if Moscow and Tehran should join forces to strong-arm the political and military elite backing the Syrian president to boot him out and get a replacement. For now, both powers are nurturing his regime with massive military and economic aid; Tehran helps Syria bust out of the US embargo to sell its oil, while Moscow has just announced the sale to the Syria Air Force 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 Mitten combat trainer planes worth $550 million. Iran is footing the bill.
Assad is increasingly dependent on Russian and Iranian cooperative support. But if this partnership turned against him and the two powers decided he was more trouble than he was worth, he would soon be on his way out.
Iranian-Russian support keeps Assad in power
Our sources find Iranian-Russian military intercession in Syria expanding in reverse proportion to the shrinking Arab-Western influence on the course of events in the embattled country.
The Arab League's peace proposals are flatly rejected by Damascus; the only initiative the bloc has somehow kept afloat, the monitoring mission, is falling apart since Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States pulled out.
Turkey, a key player in the earlier stages of the uprising against Assad, is deeply immersed in back-door diplomatic moves for the resumption of nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will certainly not jeopardize his favorite role as international broker by putting his hand in the Syrian mess.