US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented Monday, July 30 on his way to the Middle East that the Syrian army’s shattering assault on Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, “will ultimately be another nail in Assad’s coffin.” This was a measure of the frustration generated by the failure for now of the Western-backed Arab bid to establish a safe haven in the Aleppo region. It was thwarted by the ruthless drive of Syria army’s 18th and 11th Divisions and parts of the 14th with massive air and artillery support to destroy rebel forces.
When Panetta declared, “It’s not a question of whether he’s coming to an end, it’s when,” pro-Assad forces were again rooting out and liquidating rebel forces in Aleppo as they did in Damascus ten days earlier.
Western military experts expect Assad’s forces to take longer to subdue Aleppo than Damascus, because his officers are directed to refrain from knocking over the architectural and historic gems of Syria’s most beautiful and affluent city, as they did elsewhere. They were also told to keep civilian casualties down to a minimum.
All the same, at least 200,000 Aleppo citizens (almost one-tenth of its 2.2 million inhabitants) were estimated by the UN to have fled the city by Sunday night as their homes were reduced to rubble by heavy artillery fire. Others were pinned down in the encircled southern and western districts where food and fuel is running low. Monday morning, the Syrian army overran part of rebel-held Salaheddin. But the fighting continues in parts of Aleppo and surrounding villages accompanied by the soldiers' relentless pursuit of fleeing rebels.
The swelling stream of refugees from Syria to neighboring countries – mostly through Turkey – has reached as far as Egypt, which reports the arrival of 50,000 homeless Syrians in the last few days.
Monday morning, Saudi and Qatari intelligence officers, based in Free Syrian Army headquarters at Apaydin in the southwest Turkish Hatay region, were forced to admit that Bashar Assad’s army had smashed their plan for a safe haven in the Aleppo area. Territory was to have been seized by rebels and converted into the base of the forward FSA command and the seat of a transitional government, in the same way as the Benghazi rebel headquarters was established in 2011 six months before Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow.
The FSA’s Saudi and Qatari backers said they had received from Washington a qualified undertaking to share in the defense of a safe haven if one could be established and to diversify its aid to the rebels.
Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked: “More and more territory is being taken. It will eventually result in a safe haven inside Syria.”
Sources in Washington then reported the Obama administration to be weighing options for more direct involvement in the Syrian civil war if the rebels were able to wrest enough territory for a safe haven.
So certain were the Saudis that their Aleppo scheme would succeed that Saturday, July 28, they convened a meeting of Arab UN delegations in Cairo to formulate the text of a motion for the UN Security Council to recognize the safe havens rising in Syria and calling on UN members to support them.
That step has proved premature in the light of anti-Assad forces inability to hold out against the government’s military onslaught – an inability partly attributed by debkafile’s military sources to chaotic relations within the insurrectionist movement.
The battle for Aleppo is being fought mainly by a splinter rebel group which rejects the authority of the FSA command in Turkey and refuses to obey its orders. It is led by Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, who claims to represent the FSA. However, most of his fighters do not belong to the main rebel force but to a radical Islamic militia calling itself “Banner of Islam.” Many of them are al Qaeda jihadis arriving in Syria from Iraq and Libya.