The rebels fighting President Bashar Assad have suddenly turned the tide of war in their favor on one front after another. In the space of a week, they embarked on a major push into Damascus, the capital, seized control of Syria’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River, and captured the Syrian Air Force’s biggest northern air base and the dozens of bomber jets housed there.
The fall of Tabqa Dam in northeast Syria’s Raqqa Province into rebel hands is a major blow for the Assad regime. It supplies Syria with most of its water and electricity. By closing parts of the dam, the rebels could if they wished shut off the Euphrates River water supply to Turkey via Iraq, and dry out large stretches of Iraq as well. The rebels are therefore in a position to hold one of Iraq’s main sources of water hostage against a decision by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to stop Iran’s daily arms corridor to the Syrian army from taking a short cut through Iraqi airspace.
This Iranian airlift is Assad’s main lifeline for military materiel and ammo to replenish his armed forces’ fast-shrinking stocks.
Tuesday, Feb. 12, the rebels, spearheaded by the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, acquired a fleet of dozens of Syrian Air Force fighter bombers when they overran the al-Jarra air base near Aleppo. Most of the planes are Czech-made L-29 light trainer craft, which Assad used to bomb rebel targets in densely built-up areas. Among them too are Sukhoi Su-22M bombers, adapted for striking ground targets, and MiG23 interceptors used for the same purpose.
The Syrian Air Force in one fell swoop lost its northern wing for attacking rebel forces in battle.
Assad’s presidential palace in Damascus was only saved from bombardment by the rebels’ lack of air crews to fly the warplanes, which they found armed and with full tanks ready to go.
Islamist rebels acquire anti-tank missiles
Where did the Syrian rebels’ sudden combat upgrade come from?
Western intelligence sources monitoring the Syrian war scene picked up four essential points:
1. They have acquired a regular supply of weapons of a quality they never had before – in particular, several hundred advanced Russian-made antitank missiles – Kornet and Fagots – which have a range of more than four kilometers and armor-piercing capabilities against armored personnel carriers and some of the Syrian tanks.
2. Most of these weapons were destined for the Islamic fighter groups associated with Jabhat al-Nusra. They handed large quantities of anti-tank missiles to the Islamic units of the rebel force along with specific missions.
3. This influx of new and powerful arms has instilled in the Islamist brigades a sense of confidence, enough to go on the offensive against quality regime targets, defended by elite units of the Syrian army.
On Feb. 12, Al-Nusra fighters led simultaneous attacks on three elite Syrian units in different parts of the country.
For the first time, they braved the Republican Guards 4th Division commanded by the president’s brother Gen. Maher Assad, to attack his positions and camps in Adra in eastern Damascus. In the northeast, they captured the Tabqa Euphrates Dam from a Syrian Air Force intelligence battalion backed by an artillery unit; and, south of Aleppo, they engaged the Syrian Army’s 80th Brigade, which is part of the 2nd Division.
In all two years of the uprising, the Syrian rebels were never before in sight of conducting combat against Syrian elite units on this scale.
Arms now coming from Serbia, Kosovo and Albania
4. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources reveal the sources of the new weapons reaching the rebels in the past two weeks as Serbia, Kosovo and Albania. They are coming through a new Middle East smuggling route.
The purchasing agents are mostly intelligence officials linked to the former Kosovo Liberation Army-KLA (today’s Army of Kosovo – KSF) and radical Islamic groups in Bosnia allied with Al Qaeda networks operating in Europe and West Africa.
Every week to ten days, ships bearing cargoes of weapons for the Syrian rebels are now setting sail from one of three Adriatic ports – Sarande, Durres and Viore.
Their course takes them straight to Lebanon to unload their cargoes without any stops on the way.
This route is very important; it means that the suppliers and shippers are deliberately avoiding routing the weapons via Turkey.
Whoever is behind it is clearly determined to keep the new arms from Turkish, Western, Qatari or Saudi hands – any supporters of the anti-Assad uprising who may seek to cut off the supply or channel the arms to rebel elements other than those designated by the senders.
When this issued closed, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources were still not clear who those senders were. But they clearly commanded an efficient organization with enough money and logistical resources to keep up regular consignments of high-quality arms to Syria.
These consignments are running from the Balkans to Syria under Russian noses and Moscow has not been slow to respond.
Moscow will keep Assad apace with the Balkan arms supplies to rebels
Wednesday, Feb. 13 Anatoly Isaikin, head of Russia’s arms export Rosoboronexport, assured the Assad regime that arms deliveries would continue, including air defense systems – though not yet the advanced Iskander missiles sought by Damascus.
We shall meet our contractual commitments to supply military hardware, Isaikin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. Elaborating on this, he said Moscow would not let Damascus have advanced MiG29-M fighters, but he did confirm their outstanding deal for Yak-130 trainer jets.
Those jets, say our military sources, are best suited for strikes against small rebel bands, like those fielded by Jabhat al-Nusra, which are armed with the new rockets from the Balkans.
Moscow appears to be anxious to re-stabilize Assad’s growing military imbalance against rebel forces, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Moscow.
The Russians suspect US intelligence of orchestrating the Balkan arms route to the Syrian Islamists, in the same way as America clandestinely stood behind the radical Islamic groups fighting in the civil wars of Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, for the purpose of rooting out Russian influence in the Balkans.
Acting on this suspicion, sources in Moscow say that Russian arms consignments to the Assad regime will be stepped up to keep pace with the expansion of weapons shipments to the Syrian rebels.