Saudi Arabia’s determination to see the end of Bashar Assad knows no bounds.
Even while the Saudis negotiate secretly with Iran and Defense Minister, Crown Prince Salman, plans to visit Tehran on Aug. 30 (See separate item), Saudi Intelligence Chief Prince Bandar has sent out new directives for rearranging the battle arena for targeting the Syrian ruler’s ultimate retreat.
The Free Syrian Army was instructed to withdraw from the main city warfronts, including Damascus and Aleppo, and Islamic rebel groups, such as the Ahrar al-Sham and Sukur al-Sham, were told to abandon their battle for the northern Idlib region. They were directed to regroup in the west around the Al-Alawiyin mountain strongholds of Syria’s 2.5-million strong Alawites, the Assad clan’s preserve, hinterland and designated last refuge.
Last year, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources reported that Assad was fortifying the towns and villages of this mountain range as the last retreat for himself, family, Alawite army chiefs and top government officials. If reduced to withdrawing from the capital, he planned to continue to fight his enemies from there.
The Alawite mountain range, also called the an-Nusaryriyah Mountains, runs from northwest to south, parallel to the coastal plain. On average, they are 32 kilometers wide and just over 1,200 meters tall. Their tallest peak, Nabi Yunis, is 2,562 meters (5,125 ft) high and situated just east of the coastal town of Latakia.
The mountains slope down to 900 meters (3,000 ft) in the north and to 600 meters (2,000 ft) in the south.
The western slopes, which catch the moisture-laden winds from the Mediterranean Sea, are the most fertile and more heavily populated than the eastern slopes.
The Orontes River, a perfect strategic obstacle, flows north along the eastern fringes of the range into the Ghab Valley, a 64-kilometer, longitudinal trench. It then meanders around the northern slopes and drops into the Mediterranean.
Assad has weathered the battles for the cities
Prince Bandar took this action after concluding that the battles for Homs, Hama, Deraa, Damascus and Aleppo had made no headway to the ultimate missions of ousting Assad and breaking the back of his army.
A different strategy was needed. He therefore turned the rebel forces toward a new goal with fresh orders to capture Assad’s home ground and cut it out from under him.
The Saudi intelligence chief does not convey directives directly to the Syrian rebel chiefs. He exercises remote control over non-Saudi fighting strength by using a resource that fits in with traditional Muslim Arab practices while harnessing modern technology.
His chosen channel for transmitting his orders is Sheik Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian Sunni Muslim in exile who has become a media star specializing in blasting Shiites and Alawites on his television show and through an apparently authentic Twitter account.
"We buy weapons from the donations and savings of Wahhabi children," said one recent Twitter posting, referring to the dominant Islamic sect of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, "and not from the Americans like the Shiites of Iraq."
He does not spare Assad’s backer, the Lebanese Hizballah chief. "I ask Hassan Nasrallah how many wounded Syrians has he healed? Because I know how many he and his party have killed."
Syrian cities suddenly empty of rebels and government forces
Sheikh al-Arour has used the Syrian war to build himself up as a second Yusuf Qardawi (the popular Muslim Brotherhood television preacher of al Jazeera) with the help of Saudi funding and a private television station provided by Prince Bandar.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report the Saudi intelligence chief hands his orders down to the Syrian rebels though the popular sheikh’s sermons. He repackages those orders as religious fatwas which his followers are obliged to obey.
This chain of communications is so effective that, since Monday, Aug. 20, when Sheik al-Arour aired Bandar’s new orders, FSA and Muslim brigade fighters are pulling out of all their battlefronts – Aleppo, Idlib, Damascus and the towns and villages of Jabal al-Zawiya. They are swarming south and west like lemmings toward the Alawite Mountains.
Assad’s forces have redeployed accordingly.
A large part of the Shabiha militia of 60,000 fighters – the bulk of loyalist Assad strength – has abandoned the towns and is speeding to the defense of the al-Alawiyin Mountains.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources say that the sudden emptying-out of the cities of rebel and government forces and their concentration in the northwest and along the Mediterranean coast, leaves the cities clear for a quick takeover by American, British and French special forces with only minimal resistance.
US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed early Thursday morning, August 23, that the moment was opportune for dispatching special operations units to Syrian centers, on the pretext of securing Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stockpiles.