Against the background of what is happening in and around Crimea, the war in Syria has been somewhat relegated to the sidelines of world politics. In the meantime, the country has experienced some extremely important events in the last few days that have spoiled the mood of the White House even further. The Syrian army has cleared the Qalamoun region of opposing forces, which is strategically as important as the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan.
Qalamoun, with the town of Yabroud at its centre, stretches for several dozen kilometres along the main Damascus-Aleppo highway towards the Lebanese border. Over a long period of time, the 10,000 or so fighters that had gathered there under the protection of the surrounding mountains, the main backbone of which was around 5,000 fighters of the Islamic Front’s military commander and ‘spiritual leader’ Zahran Alloush, have been prevented from developing a fully-fledged offensive in the north by the government’s army, which has also actively hindered their efforts in the Greater Damascus region. Washington had placed a huge bet on Alloush in the overall Syria game, seeing him as one of the country’s future leaders. His close ties with the Saudi intelligence agency and the CIA are also well-known. According to some reports, Americans have even asked for Moscow’s help in influencing al-Assad to stop any further offensives in the region, as these could apparently «create tension in Lebanon». From this alone it was clear that Qalamoun had to be taken!
The government forces’ planned attack against the region, commonly referred to as the ‘White Mountains’, began at the start of the year. According to Israeli sources, Hezbollah units from Lebanon and two Iraq volunteer groups, Assaib Al-Haq and Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, also took part in the attack alongside forces loyal to al-Assad. As well as the harsh mountain conditions and the diversionary attacks by militants in other areas of the country, particularly in the Damascus suburb of Adra, the army’s progress was also hindered by the fact that rebels used a group of 13 nuns and three assistants they had abducted from the Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla in Maaloula as a human shield. Credit should be given to the Syrian army’s leadership abilities and their concern for the population and the feelings of religious believers. They did not move through the valley head-on and destroy the villages located there, but occupied the region’s commanding heights successively, one after the other. As they came close to Yabroud, they first secured the release of the nuns being held hostage in exchange for female prisoners. Only then did they rush at the town, which was finally liberated in just a day.
Opposition forces in Yabroud lost as many as 1,500 people. The rest were either captured, or scattered to surrounding villages. Nearly 1,500 people fled to Lebanon and are now being hunted down by Lebanese special forces. Among those killed was local al-Qaeda leader from Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Azzam al-Kuwaiti, who had ordered the abduction of the Maaloula nuns. The fate of Zahran Alloush himself is still unknown. At the present time, the troops are regrouping and are carrying out mopping up operations along the entire length of the valley. There has also been another resounding success recently. The army has managed to liberate Krak des Chevaliers – a historic Crusade-era citadel in the province of Homs and the largest in the Middle East – completely intact. It is expected that the city of Homs itself, the third largest in Syria, will also fall any day now. The number of government forces freed after these operations should theoretically be enough to secure a complete victory over the internal armed opposition very shortly, as long as this is not hindered by external intervention.
The West is becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that the balance in the Syrian conflict is not tilting towards them, but they do not want to give up their stalemate position on a regime change in Damascus.
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center on 20 March, Robert Ford, a former American ambassador to Syria and then opposition point man, admitted that all attempts to consolidate anti-Sadat forces had failed, and that Damascus had proved to be much stronger and more «tenacious» than expected. CIA Director John Brennan had already expressed a similar view. The moment for a regime change has passed. As Ford lamented, however, even if by some kind of miracle the Americans did manage to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then a «power vacuum» and complete chaos «worse than in Lebanon» would only appear in his place. Ford did not hide the fact that the Americans are completely aware of the presence of a large number of al-Qaeda fighters in the ranks of the forces they are supporting, and the threat «these elements» present to both the country’s population and to regional security. Ford did not put forward any ideas with regard to reaching an agreement with Damascus, however.
Jeffrey White, a military analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that a way out of the stalemate situation in the Syrian conflict could be found as a result of the military actions being undertaken by the government’s army. «Currently, hundreds of military actions are occurring every day across twelve of Syria’s fourteen provinces». And they are increasingly meeting with success. According to White, al-Assad’s victory will be completely secure when his forces take control of the area from Damascus to Aleppo once and for all. It is here that they are very wisely concentrating their efforts strategically, paying little attention to minor isolated failures in the remote provinces. Moreover, despite the rebels’ stubborn resistance at present, White does not rule out the possibility that their ranks could unexpectedly and quickly weaken as a consequence of the «cumulative effects» of casualties, logistical problems, and declining popular support.
There is also a growing danger that confronted with the ultimate defeat of al-Assad’s opponents, Washington may take advantage of Russia’s absorption in the Ukrainian crisis and opt for military intervention in Syria… They are expecting al-Assad to try and defeat his opponents completely before the country’s presidential elections planned for July 2014, and they intend to stop him. This is indicated, for example, by America’s unexpected statement following the victory in Yabroud on suspension of diplomatic relations with Syria, without producing any of the usual accusations regarding the violation of some convention or other. It is also indicated by the fact that the Syrian Embassy and Consulates in the US have suspended operations. Staff at the Syrian Embassy and Consulates in Michigan and Texas have been ordered to leave America.
At the same, there have been serious clashes on Syria’s borders with countries in which American advisers are present. They are trying to hijack Damascus’ victory which seemed so close. Large numbers of fighters from Turkey, predominantly al-Qaeda members, have tried to make incursions into President al-Assad’s native province of Latakia. Stubborn fighting is currently going on there, and Damascus has already protested to the UN. President al-Assad’s cousin General Hilal Assad was killed, and Turkey downed a Syrian Air Force jet over Syria. The town of Latakia was subjected to a rocket attack by rebels using the Grad system in which many people were killed and injured. Turkish air force helicopters are flying along the borders of the province, providing fire support to rebels.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has warned the Turkish parliament about Erdogan’s plans to launch a military attack against Syria, and has asked the Chief of the General Staff «not to look for adventures for Turkey». According to Kılıçdaroğlu, protecting the tomb of the Seljuq Empire’s founder Süleyman Şah, which is considered sacred in Turkey, could serve as a formal pretext for intervention. The tomb is located several kilometres from Aleppo.
Immediately after the fall of Yabroud, Israel subjected the positions of Syrian forces in the Golan Heights region to rocket and shell attacks and bombing from the air. The High Command of the Syrian Armed Forces declared it to be a direct violation of the Syrian-Israeli Agreement on Military Disengagement in the Golan Heights.
The brunt of the attack, with the participation of American forces, could come from Jordan, where there has long been a secret command centre in operation consisting of representatives from the US, Great Britain, Israel, and 11 other Arab states. This centre is preparing to open up a ‘southern front’ against Damascus in the Daraa, Quneitra and As-Suwayda provinces. Active hostilities are already under way in the province of Daraa, where rebels seized the Central Prison and were surprised to discover almost nobody there.
There is no doubt that these operations are capable of slowing down the course of Damascus’ overall offensive, but they cannot stop it completely. In fact, operations like these are already too late. They would have made more sense at the very beginning of the attack on Qalamoun. The Command of the Syrian Armed Forces immediately freed a large group there, with whose help it is able to build solid defences at the most dangerous sections of the border, since it is fully aware of the rebels’ intentions and those of their foreign patrons. And when the military fervour of al-Assad’s opponents begins to weaken because it is not prepared to go the distance, Damascus will once again return to solving its main problem – liberating the whole country.