The Syrian army is successfully expanding its most important operation since the beginning of the civil war, launched on June 9 of this year. This operation, «Northern Storm», is aimed at liberating the opposition’s main stronghold – the city of Aleppo, the country's largest city and most important economic center, located near the Turkish border – from rebel forces. It is possible that this will be the deciding battle of the entire war; it is no wonder that president Bashar al-Asad calls it «the mother of all battles». After many months of confusion and mistakes, the military and political decisions of the country's leader and the Syrian army command are astounding in their forethought and even their strategic elegance. Instead of running around the country and wasting its strength, which was a mistake it made in earlier stages, the army is occupying key points, cutting off the opposition's most important lines of communication and supply routes, and then unerringly determining the direction for the main strike. And the political leadership is just as ably ensuring the aid of allies and protection of the army's flanks. For example, after the victory at al-Qusayr, everyone expected the government forces to start the long-term purging of rebels from the vicinity of nearby Homs, the third-largest city in the country (over 800,000 residents); however, they limited themselves to surrounding the rebels and moved north toward Turkey, from which the greatest danger threatens. Risky? Yes, but completely justified. It is not difficult to see that for the army to make such a move, the left flank on the side of Lebanon was protected beforehand militarily, and the right flank on the side of Iraq was protected diplomatically. Important rearward defense points near Jordan were taken under control early this year. The moment was chosen perfectly with respect to the situation in Turkey as well; as it is in the grip of internal turmoil, it is unlikely to want to invade Syria. In essence, in Ankara the Syrian rebels «have lost both military support and diplomatic coverage from the state which is closest and friendliest to them.» (1)
To a great extent the troops owe their success to the military talent of the Deputy Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Syria, minister of defense since July 2012, colonel general Fahd Jassem al-Freij (born January 1 1950 in Hama, received a military education in Syria, included in the sanctions «black list» of the American administration), who, incidentally, is a Sunnite, which in and of itself speaks of the religious tolerance of the regime in Damascus. (2) The goal of the first stage of operation “Northern Storm» is to «liberate the federal highway connecting Aleppo with Azaz on the Syrian-Turkish border, which has been controlled by opposition fighters for over a year and has strategic significance for the logistical support of the rebels in Aleppo,» a source in army command reported to the Syrian information agency Suria al-An. On Sunday the troops attacked rebel positions along the axis which passes through the cities of Kafar-Hamra, Anadan, Hareytan and Atarib, supported by armored vehicles. Fierce battles continue in the vicinity of the Minnigh military air base near Aleppo. (3) Hezbollah divisions are not yet participating in the operation and have been placed in the strategic reserve. (4)
President Bashar al-Asad has pointed out another reason why the scales have tipped in favor of the army: a change in the attitude of the people in the province. «These people supported the rebel groups not so much due to a lack of patriotism, but because they had been deceived. They were made to believe that a revolution against the faults of the state had taken place. Now their position has changed, and many people have left these terrorist groups and returned to normal life.» (5) A final sobering example is the public execution of a 15-year-old boy by Islamists in Aleppo for a careless statement.
A radically new element in the developments in Syria which further worsens the rebels' situation is the active involvement of Baghdad in the conflict. Israeli sources, for example, note that, while experts have focused their attention on the actions of the Lebanese Hezbollah in western Syria, the entry of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki into the war on al-Asad's side is a much more significant factor. Unlike in Iran, which is under sanctions, Western funds are flowing freely into Iraq for the oil they sell, and «they are being passed on in ever growing quantities from Baghdad to Damascus». The Iraqi government has even passed a special act which stipulates that weapons and ammunition purchased on international markets, as well as petroleum, oil and lubricants for the army, are to be supplied to Syria on favorable terms. (6) In the past, relations between these two capitals have not always been rosy, since they were competing for regional leadership. However, now the Shiite government of Iraq has realized that the accession of militant Sunnites to power in Syria could significantly destabilize the situation in their own country. The new wave of terrorist attacks by the Iraqi allies of the Syrian rebels (and thus of the West, albeit indirectly) points to the same thing. In May of this year alone over a thousand Iraqis have been killed as a result of terrorist attacks.
Furthermore, by order of al-Maliki a group of 20,000 military troops have been deployed at the border with Syria to cut off all supply routes for the Syrian opposition from Iraq. DEBKAfile reports that on June 9 the first large clashes of Iraqi government forces and Syrian rebels took place at two border crossing points. The Iraqis suffered losses, but the rebels were pushed back. Israeli sources assert that as part of this union special forces are currently preparing for raids deep in Syrian territory for fighting the rebels. (7) At the meeting of the Council of Ministers of Iraq which took place on the same day in the city of Erbil in the northern part of the country, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the region has been seized by a storm of extremism due to the activities of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, urging everyone to resist this. (8)
Tel Aviv is also experiencing growing difficulties in connection with its involvement in the Syrian conflict. In military circles of Israel there are complaints against their own commanders, unheard of since the unsuccessful Second Lebanese War in 2006. This can be seen on several sites and blogs. Special forces and military intelligence are displeased, in particular, with the de-facto alliance with the «bearded fundamentalists» in Syria, from whom they «can expect a knife in the back» at any moment when they are dozens of kilometers away from their own bases, as well as the exaggeration of the successes of the opposition and the understatement of the victories of government forces (9). They believe that false assessments of the situation in the theater of operations «could lead to erroneous decisions». For example, the site DEBKAfile, which is close to Israeli military intelligence, has openly criticized the speech of Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon in the Knesset, when on June 3 he asserted that al-Asad holds only 40% of the country's territory, and the rebels control a significant part of Damascus. In reality, Israeli intelligence possesses information that the opposition has been almost completely defeated in the capital; there remain only isolated pockets of resistance. The picture is similar on the other fronts as well, where the army, «thanks to Russian and Iranian supplies», is putting pressure on the rebels everywhere. Furthermore, people in these circles admit that Israeli interference in the Syrian conflict, including the bombings of ammunition stores, only raises the fighting spirit of the Syrian army and weakens the opposition by facilitating the loss of its authority in the eyes of the population. (10)
Not only the West, but the current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is also troubled by the defeats of the opposition in Syria. In June he recorded a video message in which he urged his supporters worldwide to increase support to the jihad forces in this country, as well as to unite all groups with a similar orientation there into a single movement. The main priority for al-Qaeda in al-Zawahiri's message is currently not Afghanistan or Iraq, but Syria. (11) The American consulting center Flashpoint Global Partners has stated that the majority of foreign fighters who had been killed in Syria from July 2012 through May 2013 were connected with al-Qaeda. The center's report emphasized, for example, that during that period at least 280 foreign fighters from the U.S., Chechnya, Kosovo, Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia were killed. (12) The last was a Belgian who was killed a few days ago.
The well-known expert on the Middle East Michael Young believes that, considering the advantages president al-Asad has achieved in the civil war, the opposition's demands that he not be allowed to participate in the Geneva conference are «not realistic», and its leaders' refusal to participate in it themselves is «a mistake», since in this case the blame for the failure of the peace process will fall on them. For the Syrian opposition this could prove «fatal». Not long ago, very few believed that Bashar al-Asad would remain in power. «We may have been wrong,» laments Young. Unfortunately, signs that this realization has come to the leading Western politicians are so far not apparent.
In particular, this can be seen in the military maneuvers of the U.S. and its allies and the landing of 4,500 troops in Jordan at the height of «Northern Storm». By imitating preparations for an invasion of Syria from the south, they are trying to stop the advance of the Syrian army. However, the Syrians already have enough forces to bear an attack from that direction without abandoning their advance toward Aleppo. As official sources in the White House have reported to AP, U.S. president Barack Obama will also make a decision on supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels this week. Obama most likely will approve the decision, «as in recent days the situation of the opposition has become quite lamentable». According to AP, Secretary of State John Kerry has postponed his tour of the Middle East for several days, since he must participate in meetings of the National Security Council, where the issue of arms supplies is being discussed. (14) However, an attempt to change the objective development of events by pumping money and weapons to the losing opposition is unlikely to save them, and can only cause innumerable new calamities for the Syrian people.
If «progressive» Europe and the U.S. do not want to defend the Middle East from an al-Qaedan medieval period, they should at least not hinder it from defending itself.