In a written statement marking Syrian Armed Forces Wednesday, August 1, President Bashar Assad praised his soldiers “for confronting armed terrorist gangs” and warned them, "The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle."
They all knew he was talking about the battle for Aleppo and Highway M1, the main north-south road link from Aleppo to the Jordanian border through Damascus, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Assad ordered his new Chief of General Staff, Gen. Ali Abdullah Ayoub, who is in command of the Aleppo arena, to defend M1 down to the last soldier and bullet.
This is because the rebels have succeeded in turning the Aleppo battlefield into a contest for Jabal al-Zawiya and Idlib in northern Syria and for the strategic highway – on the advice of British Special Forces officers advising them in the field.
In any case, neither of the two sides – the Syrian army’s 18th and 11th Syrian Divisions and elements of the 14th Syrian Division – or the two rebel brigades – The Banner of Islam, under the command of Col. Abel Jabbar al Okaidi, in West Aleppo, and the Aleppo Heroes Brigade, fighting in the eastern part of the city under the command of Malek al-Kurdi – has been able to tip the scales of victory in the battle for Syria’s largest city.
The rebels abandoned their safe haven goal in Aleppo
The British officers’ advice to the rebels was important because they had grasped that the rebels could not overcome the preponderant strength stacked against them and recommended that they switch course and go for more realistic war gains.
When Syrian troops and rebels joined battle in Aleppo Friday, July 27 both sides had high hopes. Assad believed he could wipe the floor with the enemy in short order and retake the city as quickly as he recovered Damascus from rebel hands a week earlier.
The rebels, for their part, trusted that by holding onto eight neighborhoods in the east and west which they partly controlled, they would lay the foundations for transforming Aleppo into the Syrian Benghazi. It would become a safe haven for Free Syrian Army-FSA command centers and a sanctuary for opposition parties to establish a provisional government as an alternative to the Assad regime.
However, not only were rebel forces outnumbered and outgunned by massive government forces, but they were unable to obtain from their Western and Arab backers a guarantee of air cover to protect their safe haven from Syrian air force attack.
So their British military advisers advised another course.
The battle arena switches to the strategic highway
Assad had pulled most of his troops out of Jabal al-Zawiya and Idlib, which they had captured from rebel control at the end of May, and threw them into the battle for Aleppo. It was the rebels’ big chance to recapture those two locations and, instead of continuing south from there to Aleppo, they were advised to head southwest to try and take Maarat al-Numan.
Control of this town of 100,000 inhabitants which straddles the Aleppo-Damascus highway would bring the rebels into position for isolating nearly one-fifth of the government’s fighting strength.
Achieving this would give the insurgents their greatest victory in the 17-month civil war and the government its biggest defeat.
Our military sources report that, near the closing of this issue, several small units of rebels had managed to reach hilltops commanding Highway M1 and shut down traffic by heavy mortar fire.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Assad began pulling his army out of Aleppo to fight for control of the M1.
Last minute breaking news: Fighters mustered from four Syrian army divisions were able late Thursday, Aug. 2, to chase the rebels from the positions from which they were threatening to stop traffic on the M1 highway.
Assad also sent columns of hundreds of tanks and APCs to advance on central Aleppo with orders for the indiscriminate pummeling of all residential areas harboring rebels. They rolled in after Gen. Mustapha al-Sheikh, a recent defector to the Free Syrian Army, took command of rebel forces in Aleppo. He arrived accompanied by a strong, fortified command group bearing sophisticated US-made communications gear.
The looming battle and bloodbath hanging over central Aleppo finally persuaded Kofi Annan to throw in the sponge as UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria. He no longer wants to be responsible.