The five-year Syrian civil war, faces its most critical moment. Saturday, Feb. 6, a combined force of Syrian army and Hizballah troops and an Iraqi Shiite militia under Iranian officers, were led by Russian air and Spetsnaz (special forces) officers into pressing forward to encircle 35,000 rebels trapped in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. As they tightened the siege, 400,000 Syrian civilians were also trapped and forced to bear heavy Russian air bombardment and savage artillery fire from the ground forces closing in on the city.
Rebel supply routes were cut off Thursday and Friday when Syrian and Hizballah forces captured the Azaz Corridor connecting Aleppo and all of the northern province of Idlib to the Turkish border.
Tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the beleaguered town are massing at Bab al-Salama, the last Turkish border crossing to be closed against them. This is the largest Syrian refugee exodus since the start of the civil war.
The rebels under siege are painfully short of weaponry for fighting off the massive, combined offensive, debkafile’s military sources report. Their only remaining recourse is to surrender or be ground into submission as the conquering force knocks over their positions and takes over street after street.
Once the combined forces fighting with Bashar Assad’s army take Aleppo and northern Syria, the opposition will have suffered its heaviest defeat since the war began. The rebels groups’ capacity to continue fighting the regime will be gravely diminished.
Their desperate plight – and the fresh surge of Syrian refugees in unmanageable numbers – cut short the conference in Geneva for a settlement of the Syrian conflict, before it got underway – and prompted reactions from sponsors of rebel groups.
In Riyadh, Brig, Gen. Ahmed Asiri, adviser to Saudi Defense Minister Muhammed Bin Salman, announced Friday that Saudi Arabia is ready “to participate in any ground operations that the international coalition launches against ISIS.” This offer was taken as a veiled response to the SOS from the rebel stronghold in Aleppo.
In Washington, State Department circles, in a briefing to US media, said the time had come to establish a no-fly security zone in northern Syria. They said: “Once a zone were established we do not believe Russia would challenge the stronger US and NATO forces, particularly if they were operating mainly from Turkey.”
The next day, Friday, Moscow came back with a sharp response: Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said: “Russian air defense systems enable early detection of threats to Russian aircraft flying combat missions over Syria and provide adequate measures to ensure flight safety.”
This was a reminder of the sophisticated air defense S-400 and S-300 missile systems Russia installed at its Syrian air base after the Turkish air force downed a Russian warplane in November.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem put it more crudely: “Any foreign troops entering Syria would return home in wooden coffins.”
He advised armed opposition groups fighting the government offensive in the area to lay down their weapons because, he said, “government advances signal that the five-year-old Syria war is nearing its end.”
Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia to implement a ceasefire in Syria, saying its bombing campaign was killing women and children in large numbers and "has to stop." He told reporters on his return from a trip to Europe: "Russia has indicated to me very directly they are prepared to do a ceasefire,” adding "The Iranians confirmed in London just a day and a half ago they will support a ceasefire now."
debkafile’s military sources have seen no sign of any ceasefire or even a slowdown in the Russian-led Syrian-Iranian Aleppo offensive.